Thoughts for the young
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What does one tell the joyful and enthused young people, happy at the achievement of finishing college, on their graduation day? Full of hope but also anxiety for your future, in our country that even as it shows signs of significant progress in very important areas, is still struggling to move out of a social, political and economic bog that has held it down at lower levels of social development compared to our neighbors that once looked up to us? What can I tell you that will not sound too idealistic and optimistic, nor too gloomy and depressing? What do I say that will have meaning to you?
We can remind them what one of their icons said in a commencement address. Bill Gates said, “Life is not fair.” I agree. It does not mete out potentials equally. But it also makes up for that in challenges and opportunities if one were more realistic in one’s perspectives and in one’s expectations. And certainly, if one took the right frame of mind in facing these challenges, Life does have a way of surprising us.
We remind them that Life throws at us all many important questions. These include, “What do you want to make of your life? What do you want to be good at? What do you wish to achieve? Do you want to be rich, famous and powerful?” In a world where economic materialism reigns supreme the answer seems like a “no-brainer.” Most of us would want it all. We reason, “First, I go for material success. Once I am rich, I will be popular and powerful and then I can make socially significant contributions.” Sounds logical and certainly appealing, doesn’t it?
A question follows fast, “How do we make that kind of money?”
Most will immediately answer, “Pursuing my chosen profession in the most ethical way possible, of course.”
Question: “What do you mean ‘ethical?’”
The answer: “The right way, the good way, the way that hurts no one.”
Question: “How do you define right and good? How do you know you are not hurting anyone?”
Frustrated answer: “Bakit ba kayo makulit? Ang dami nyo namang tanong.”
You remind them that prosperity, popularity and power were the very temptations the devil offered Christ in the 40 days and nights of his fasting in the desert. The fact is, the questions need to be asked but the answers no longer come easily. They never did and never will come easily. We have to struggle individually for the answers.
It is said we live in a fast changing, often turbulent world. We also live in a world where three frames of mind confluence and clash: the so “traditional,” “modern” and “post-modern” mindsets. The Traditional sees the world as largely a conflict between the forces of good and evil. These are, in fact, the major concerns of contending theologies and political philosophies. The Modern is said to rely on reason in processing the facts revealed using the methods of science. It accepts the ultimate superiority of “the world as a machine” view of Descartes and Newton that guide both corporate and government bureaucracies in achieving the most cherished ends of our race -- material wealth generation and making life easier and more comfortable.
The Post-Modern has largely rejected both the Traditional and the Modern frames of mind because it has been disappointed by the unfulfilled promises of our major institutions -- the church, government and business and industry, and in many cases even schools and the family. This last frame of mind tends to rely almost solely on personal experience, and on shared experiences with trusted friends and colleagues, working mainly with the latest facts, as the sole determinant of what is right, good or appropriate.
Often, the underlying determinant of all three qualifiers is that it is “practical,” that is, it serves my personal, often selfish, purposes. The operating rules for many include rules like, “As long as no one will get hurt, I will do what I like.” It is reflective of the “I-me-mine-for-me-here-and-now” mentality. Carried to the extreme, it is the philosophy that says, “Get away with what you can.” I believe that for those in our society who can afford, it means “Get away with what our lawyers say we can get away with.” I often think we have far too many lawyers and not enough scientists, engineers and technologists.
Sadly, this means for many a sense that we owe no one anything for whatever good happens to and for us. Many of us like to think that all our gains, our winning, our successes are mainly the result of our effort. This absence of genuine gratitude to others who have contributed to our successes is hidden by what we proclaim in public. Consider the constant reference to “the Lord” in their public speeches by people whose lives we know are far from exemplary. You know who I mean.
How do we steer our way in this perilous sea of the current life? I think we start by being clear with what we want to make of ourselves. It is necessary that we think deeply and clearly of where we wish to be in the future before we make the first steps after we march from this place. For the first few steps we take often determine the full trajectory of lives. What you do for the first few years of live will have great effects on the last few years of it.
At the University of the Philippines Elementary School in Diliman; and again in the UP High, some of our teachers made us think on a few questions: “When you pass away, what do you want to be remembered for?” Another was, “What do you not want people to say of you when you pass away?” Clearly, our teachers wanted us to plan our lives with the end, the goal, in mind. That being clear, we establish a “north star” of sorts that will guide us as we make the challenging journey of Life.
My guiding principles were in part provided by two artifacts related to the UP -- the Oblation and UP’s motto, “Honor and Excellence.” What does the Oblation stand for? Why is it UP’s symbol? Why does Honor precede Excellence in the motto? For me, the Oblation is offering oneself to the service of humankind, because it is in service where we find the meaning of why we live. It is in service where we leave a legacy, where we are remembered well by those who follow.
Good service can only be rendered if we do our work well and guided by honor, which is to do the right thing, to do one’s duty, regardless of personal costs. How do you ensure that you do what is good and doing it well?
It starts with accepting a value found in all great religions -- that of helping your fellow human being and loving and respecting God’s creation. I am not sure but I seem to have come across material in my early readings on religion that the original line that was translated by the Greeks from the Aramaic that now reads, “For what you do to the least of your brethren you do to me” originally read, “For what you do to the least of my creations you do to me.”
Notice that the word is not even “creatures” -- animate, but “creation” -- including the creations we class as inanimate. The Almighty was speaking of the whole universe of which man is a part, albeit a dominating, often domineering part. I like this line better. It is so Hindu and Buddhist at the same time. Our Maker wants us to love the Maker’s creations and care for them, all of them, including the least. The pursuit of material wealth endangers us individually and collectively with regards the Heaven we all say we seek. The Bible says something about it being easier for camels to enter Heaven because they are not laden with concerns for selfish accumulations of worldly goods.
All the great religious books of the world state in different ways that everyone who does good and serves his fellow humans, regardless of how small or little that good is, will be justly rewarded. He or she who serves, who makes him -- or herself last, will be first in Heaven. And somewhere in the Gospels, Jesus is supposed to have said, “For the kingdom of Heaven is before you but you see it not.”
I am not a religious man but I believe that there is a God that put me, you, here for the purpose. I think I discerned that purpose early in my life -- to serve those who need the help I can give. God also gave me, gave us, capabilities that, if used properly, may allow us to help create Heaven on Earth.
I think God gave me, gave all of us, a “three-pound universe” inside our heads, the brain, that most wonderful gift. The brain and the rest of our body, working in fine unison in ways we are only beginning to understand, allows us to know the world directly and indirectly.
At the same time God gave us hearts to feel, and spirits and souls that transcends our bodies to feel the kindred spirits and souls of each and every individual we meet. The Maker made me kin to you, made me your kind, so that in our kinship we may extend kindness to each other, and in extending kindness and love, we do indeed make Earth a more heavenly place. All these gifts allow us to discern what we are supposed to do if only we take time to sense these.
Our actions may be better directed if we use God’s gifts to continually test our assumptions and operating principles against reality, with the help of others. What is significant and passes the test of reality we keep, the rest we take out. I think we are meant to grow and change as the universe changes. Growth never stops.
Who do you check your assumptions out with? Go out and ask, share, request others to react to you and your thoughts. The answers will not come easy. We go from teacher to teacher, mentor to mentor, expert to expert, from book to book, from magazine to magazine, from film to film and whatever materials we need to go through. But learning is always, always easiest when done with others, either in capturing, processing or sharing data, information and even wisdom. In this adventure of knowledge building and gaining wisdom certain traits help.
One is to be rooted in the reality, the context of the challenges, the issues, the problems faced. Two, is to have a good sense of where we ought to go, the end condition we want to work towards and why. Three, care for the people we are working with and for, even love them. Fourth, be very curious. Nothing in this world should be alien to your attention and questioning. But fifth, be humble to know and accept our limitations which we should always disclose up front.
Sixth, have confidence to dare and do. We know we will make mistakes and fail. We know that we will not always succeed. But it is better to know what we can and cannot do than live life always asking what we might have been able to do. Seventh, develop a good sense of humor which is ability to laugh at ourselves and not take ourselves seriously even if we do take our work seriously. Eighth, we hold ourselves responsible and accountable for whatever are the results of our work. Ninth, we have to be professional -- which is simply means we deliver on our promises, sometimes at no small cost to us. Tenth, at the end of the day, we give ourselves time to rest and think upon what we had done and what we would do next.
Most of us do find when we serve others as best we can with no unrealistic expectations other than to help and make life better for people, the things we said we wanted -- enough material resources, enough good reputation and enough influence that help us dare keep on serving.
I end by quoting two poets and the old Greeks. T. S. Eliot said that “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of the exploring will be to get back to where we started, and know it for the first time.” I think that that place where we start is no other than ourselves. The end of all of the exploring is that we will know ourselves well.
Robert Frost said, “Before I build a wall I will first ask who I was walling out and who I was walling in.” Walls may insulate you. But they also isolate you. Think about that. He also said, “Earth is the right place for love. I don’t know where else it is likely to go better.” That needs no explanation. And last, “I took the road less taken, and that has made all the difference.” I will our youth to consider “the road less taken.” They will have the joy of creating a stronger nation and a richer country, one you can proudly turn over to your children and grandchildren.
My last quote is a modification from the ancient Greeks. And here I refer to anyone over 50, the elders. The old Greeks had a saying that went, “A nation becomes great because old people keep on planting trees under which shade they will never sit and the fruits of which they will never eat.”
We, the elders, must keep on striving to plant the right seeds, in the minds and hearts of our youth. We owe them nothing less.
Mario Antonio G. Lopez wrote this piece for the column To Take a Stand in BusinessWorld.