Starting A Fire

PHOTO breaking glass ceiling
This is not easy for me to write, because I personally know at least two friends whose parents were either brutally killed or tortured under the last dictatorship. The father of one of my bestest friends was shot by the military and his body was dragged down a mountain in Mindanao. I’ve witnessed first-hand how the lives of the family left behind can be turned upside down by such a horrible crime and its irreversible physical, emotional and psychological effect on their personality and well-being. Believe me, this narrative has affected me so much more than you can imagine.

But I’m also trying to understand why certain sectors of our society are okay with living under a dictatorship.

Those who were oppressed by the last dictatorship was just one sector out of many. I can personally attest that the whole nation did not suffer. My mother’s family, a poor family from Tuguegarao, did not suffer under the military regime. The cost of living was low and life was as regimented as they preferred under this regime.

My mother’s family was the type of poor that wanted to enjoy a simple life by expending the least amount of effort participating in society. They have no grand ambitions of changing the world, much more changing themselves. They are content to react to their environment, which is why they prefer a relatively stable environment with some semblance of peace and order. They are content to let an external force dictate how they should live.

How was such passivity formed? The poor in my family had a reactive mindset because they didn’t have the advantages of wealth and higher education like other people. They had no real control over their lives. For example, even if we wanted to move to a better neighborhood, we couldn’t do so. We didn’t have the money to pay a higher rent. We also had no control over the food we ate. We didn’t have a backyard where we could grow our own food. Nobody was entrepreneurial in the family. So my mother’s family liked to see order in the little things. In the affordable price of bigas per kilo. In the public schools where their kids went to school virtually for free. In the nightly curfews that disciplined their own kids without them exerting any more effort after a hard day’s work at the patahian (at least they only needed to worry about the petty crime during the day). They also liked to feel national pride, in seeing their head of state eloquently discuss political issues with foreigners on TV. In seeing athletes win international games and feeling those triumphs vicariously.

The poor in my family didn’t want to grow their own produce, or build their own school to send their kids to, or be the head of state debating with the foreigners on TV. They thought it was too hard. They were content to stay in the sidelines and react to their environment. They felt a quiet joy in staying passive.

I’ve never believed it was laziness. I’m talking about intelligent and articulate relatives who know more about current events than I. It’s just that they chose not to choose. It’s actually a great way to live. It made so much sense. I mean, would you want to live in a different house everyday? Every day, your life is a chemical equation needing to be balanced and you are constantly figuring out where you can fit.(I guess most of us with a sense of adventure would, but remember, we are just one sector out of many).

By having order and structure around them, those with a reactive mindset at least have a choice to start going above their poverty if they wished. It’s akin to being more productive at work because your desk is clean and organized, for example. Unfortunately, while members of my family became aware of that choice, they didn’t use it to their advantage. They just wanted to keep doing the same thing every day. They continued to be poor.

My family is just one example. I can imagine there are thousands of other such families out there. This sector of our society is a sleeping giant. Imagine if everybody suddenly woke up and realized they could be so much more than they imagine. They could grow not just their own produce, but own a whole marketplace so they could get rich. They could build their own school themselves, or even become the very head of state that they so admire on TV.

Unfortunately, however, it will have to take a fire to wake them up.

I’ll attempt to illustrate what this means. Some years ago, we were living in an old condominium. The condo units were very close to each other; the next front door was less than five feet away.

One night, we saw flames coming out of our neighbor’s balcony, which was beside ours. We knocked on their front door and offered to help extinguish the flames, which were coming from a washing machine that had somehow short-circuited because the neighbor had neglected to turn it off. To be clear, it wasn’t an unconditional magnanimous offer based on some deep moral value. If we didn’t help them, we too were fucked!

The flames were extinguished in no time. Our neighbor and her sister (and us by extension) were finally safe. But something else about the house deeply bothered us.

There was filth everywhere. Imagine one of those troubled houses in an episode of Hoarders. That was how dirty our neighbor’s house was. In all the years they were there, our poor neighbors never bothered to clean up and look after themselves.

In the end, they never got the chance to clean up anything. The landlord got so furious that he evicted them that very same day for being a hazard to the other tenants in the building.

Every person in this story was reactive. Even the landlord. Nothing proactive was ever happening. A small fire was what was needed to shake things up.

I think if we were to be really honest with ourselves, most of us are just like them, or started out like them, merely reacting to life. We are heavily reliant on an external force like a church or a job to put some structure in our lives. Only my writer and artist friends or people who think deeply every day seem to have that special capacity to invent their own structure and method of controlling their lives without having to use any leverage from a wealthy family or network.

The poor in my family don’t have these skills of discernment. Even those that got an activist education in a state school still chose to remain passive. To change one’s thinking is the most difficult task of all. I myself couldn’t discern things for myself properly until a fire shook me up as an adolescent.

The fire was metaphorical. It was from inside the heart. I was sent away to live with my father’s family to get a better education, and had to be separated from my mother. That fire started me on a journey of creative expression in order to put some structure in a life that I had absolutely no control of as a young girl.

I think a similar kind of fire needs to happen in our society. We invented airplanes and do amazing figure skating on ice, surely we can do this as well! Social influencers in the religious community have this potential. They can offer the structure and support that poor people need in order to take control of their own lives. I can see that some of these influencers are doing that already by helping their poor laymen get rich, both materially and spiritually, with livelihood opportunities governed by a strong moral compass. Local governments, in their ideal form, are also a great source of empowerment for Filipinos. Their community programs can teach critical thinking to Filipinos so that they can start questioning everything around them – and then acting on providing answers to those questions themselves. Schools of course, always have the potential to wake people up, but most schools don’t offer that leverage and instead promote herd mentality and whatever is most convenient for the business interests of those who run them.

This is what I gently tell members of my family, or a friend who’s poor and lacking in discernment: if you don’t have a fire in your heart, or never did suffer any actual fires that turned your life around, it’s okay. Jolting yourself wide awake is the hardest thing to do without an alarm with a plastic hand slapping you again and again. But there are workarounds and tricks you can apply to discipline yourself. If I wanted to take control of my health, for instance, I’d roll out a mat in my room every morning after waking up. It’s a start. Even if I don’t get any yoga done on the mat, at least the mat was unfolded. It’s there. Then you’ll start worrying about the mat getting dusty. Just let your personality quirks and need for control kick in. After a while, you’ll be forcing yourself to use the goddamn mat just because it’s there. A good habit will slowly be formed.

Starting a fire in the mind is like laying down that mat. If you see everyone else doing it, you will follow, especially if following and obeying has been your lot your whole life. You walk up the path that others are walking on until you get to a fork in the mountain pass. Now, you’ll be forced to decide which direction to take. Whether it’s a community program teaching you a new skill, a church that exposes you to entrepreneurial-minded people, or an old yoga mat, it’s your life. The dictator of your own life should be none other than yourself. If you keep doing this often enough (for 10,000 hours according to some research), you will actually get better and better at running your own life.

Meanwhile, what do I, a minority member of a reactive majority, need to do? Eventhough life is short and time is always in short supply, I still want to take part in life’s battles. But I choose battles I can win precisely because my time is in short supply.

The battle I can win one person at a time, as a working class person, is to give moral support to the poor in my family. To just get them walking on this different path of self-empowerment. That they can control their lives not only in small ways, but in big ways. To challenge their thinking, but never in a confrontational way. To be always kind and respectful of their views and to never belittle their modest ambitions. To help whenever I can financially, but never overextend my charity to the the point that I’m constantly guilt-tripping those I help.

The battle that churches, local governments, wealthy political and business families, media, multinational companies, and generally those with a huge network of support and clout, can fight is not just to wake up poor, reactive people but provide them with actual financial or livelihood support to inspire them to wake up and change their lives into a beautiful journey worth actually waking up to every day.

Yes, the bigger you are in society, the bigger your responsibility. Now I understand why Dante’s bottom rung of inferno is populated by the bottoms of these people.

I’ve assessed my own network and my own capacities. I know I’m powerful in some ways, but not as powerful and influential as some of my friends who own businesses, have political networks or are generally part of the elite that runs the country. I have no problem helping one person at a time from within my immediate circle. With my music and writing, I hope to make the journey both an inspiring and pleasant one for me and for those I help. This is both a civic duty and a personal pleasure.

But to more ambitious friends who are part of huge networks and of government, I understand it’s a more complicated path because of the sheer volume of the work and the people involved. Even if you’re dealing with just one sector, that one sector is comprised of thousands of individuals, each with their personalities and quirks. How do you strike a harmonious balance with all these people? It’s a huge challenge, but I’m confident that the fire in your hearts will help you forge on despite all the difficulties you may face. I wish you all the best and may you carry out your mandate with kindness, compassion and most importantly, a proactive, progressive approach to empowering your sector.

To those who have the power but don’t use it to build a useful fire to wake people up, all I can say is that you’re lucky to have 100 years living like kings and queens on this earth. The rest of eternity you’ll have to spend wailing in agony as your bottom gets fried to a crisp again and again.

This time, you will be the reactive majority. You will have no control of anyone or anything. This fire will wake you up for sure, but by then it will be too late.

 

 

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