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Tuesday, October 6, 2009
“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” – Theodore Roosevelt
For the past week, as I packed emergency goods for drop-off at a flood relief center in our area, I have been racking my brain for the best way—that is, the most long-term way—for me to respond to the latest natural disaster to hit the Philippines.
The two public responses I was most glad for came from architects: Jun Palafox’s statement that the flood that swallowed up many areas of Metro Manila is “man-made” and Dan Lichauco’s reminder for personal accountability.
“We should remember,” Lichauco said in a newspaper article, “that all of us are contributors to this disaster. From the plastic bags we throw into the sewers, to the trash in the streets, to the indiscriminate abuse of unsustainable resources and our reliance on a government that is not working, we all play a part in this disaster.
In the same way that the great earthquake and fire of San Francisco in 1906 changed the standards of that city’s urban planning, Manila will have to reevaluate and revisit its standards, too.”
We have to use this disaster as an opportunity to evaluate and change the necessary building design and urban designs in the country.”
Use this disaster as an opportunity to evaluate and change.
I am not an architect, an engineer or an urban planner, but five years ago, after a personal disaster struck and my life, much to my bewilderment and horror, went under, that was what I found myself doing: I found myself using that disaster as a golden opportunity to evaluate my life and to change the things in it that needed changing.
I found myself promising to never let something like that happen to me again, ever. More accurately, I promised myself that, if I absolutely could not keep horrible things from my life—though that was definitely Plan A--I would, at least, see them coming. Still a very good Plan B.
I would face my worst storms, prepared, better equipped in the manner of one who expects them. Never again would they take me by surprise.
I would be a more involved participant in both the joys and the sorrows of my life.
I daresay I’ve not done such a bad job. There are still storms, of course—now very few and far between. But I find that I can now detect them when they are only still low pressure areas in my life and I can sort of visualize its pathway and assess the possible damage should I be foolish enough to stand in its way. So I’ve learned to calmly sidestep them and I watch in awe as these storms, which could have easily swept me high off the ground again and violently toss me every which way like they used to, blow past me, leaving me—thankfully—unscathed.
Unfortunately, I see others—many of them people I care very deeply for—routinely get swept up in and badly battered by their own super typhoons. I throw them a rope--give or lend them my “savior” books and “savior” DVDs, write them rah-rah letters, offer them rah-rah speeches, give them a journal, forward my shrink’s phone number (“Please, please, see Tita Rose”, I beg them), sit quietly and listen as they once again go over the details of their latest heartbreaking trauma.
I always wished, though, that I could do more for them. Like slice open their skull and rewire their brain.
Because you have to act to steer your life towards a healthier, less disaster-prone direction. But in order for you to act differently, your mind has to think differently from how it used to. It’s our thinking that directs our actions. And you can’t change your thinking unless you first know exactly what you think.
This is what writing has done and continues to do for me—it lets me know what I think. It lets me know what my biases are, what my current fears are—all the things that could be keeping me from making the choices necessary for real change to occur in my life—so that I may pick them apart and find the deeper thoughts that fuel or strengthen these fears and biases.
This is why I urge people to write. Writing has been the tool that has most helped me understand my nature—and thus, my life—a bit more. And understanding this nature has helped me embrace it—the most natural tendencies and inclinations that I used to judge, deny or stifle because they made me feel like such a freak--so that I now work with it, not against it. This has been the key to my lesser-storm and lesser-damage scenario. But more importantly, this has been the key to my peace, the peace that allows me to do the things I’ve always wanted to do without too much fuss and anxiety. As my friend Cecilia so wonderfully put it, “Your highest potential is found in your most miserable traits.”
Learn, I urge the people I love. Endeavor to know who you are and use that knowledge to pull yourself from your dark pit of despair and propel you forward. Please learn. And I want them to, not only for their own sake, but for mine, too. Because it hurts to watch the people you love and good people with good intentions flounder and go under again. I never expected to be so affected by it (I used to think nothing could hurt me other than my pain) but I am.
Write about your troubles and your desires and your dreams, I tell anyone who staggers to me from the rubble of some great personal devastation or to one I see is headed in that direction. I know you don’t see the point now—or the coming danger that all this writing and introspection and reflection are supposed to help you guard against or, at least, ride out—but, believe me, it will serve you well.
Write. And along with that, read. Travel. Discover and try new things. Volunteer your time, your effort, your talents, your material resources. Get your blood circulating with physical exercise. Question things. Keep questioning things until you find the answers that satisfy you, until you find the answers that, to paraphrase Anita Roddick, don't insult your soul.
Why this focus on the inner life when addressing the recent typhoon-wrought devastation? Because I do believe that, to take some liberty with one religious song, all the disasters around us are mere reflections of what’s within. If our physical world doesn’t make sense to us, if to us it seems terrifying and out of control, it is because we do not understand it and feel disconnected from it—in the same manner that our lives spin out of control when we no longer understand it and feel connected to it.
Mother Nature—our natural physical world that we have continued to indiscriminately raze and over which we build humongous malls, among many such abuses—is much like our own individual natures: we have to find a way to work with it, not against it. Because to do the latter, as we've been shown over and over and over, is to ask for it; it is to ask the heavens to crash down on us and the earth to swallow us.
The first step towards working with this awesome, powerful force is to take the time and effort to understand it, to see how it works.
And understanding only comes with deliberate intention and the willingness and foresight to stop all our feverish activity in order to take stock, to “reevaluate and revisit” what we know, what we think we know and how we conduct ourselves.
As long as we are alive, we are part of this world. And so how we live—whether it be thoughtfully and responsibly or mindlessly and carelessly--affects this world, for better or for worse. Whatever we do in our own lives, whatever choices we make, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant we may find them, matter in the big scheme of things.
And as long we acknowledge that we are part of the problems that wrack our world, we can begin to embrace the idea that we are also part of the solution.
The question that we should throw ourselves, then, is: "What particular part do I play?"
I write. And I introduce people to the tool of writing so that, hopefully, it empowers them to handle their own storms and to figure out what they were meant to do while on this fragile planet in a way that ensures that this planet continues to be the home of many generations that will come after us.
This is what I do. This is what I have. This is where I am right now.
This is what came to me as I contemplated Teddy Roosevelt’s words while packing relief goods for the victims of the latest man-made disaster to hit us.
And so this is what I offer to the massive effort of steering this country, this world, in a new, better—and, dare I say it, exciting--direction.
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