Courageous Reflection

“Habit rules the unreflecting herd.” 
― William Wordsworth

I’ve observed an interesting and disturbing reality:

Show people a photoshopped photo and they are thrilled and excited with you. Show them a mirror, encourage them to reflect, and they’ll hate you. 

People fall in love with the manufactured and covered up truth, and try to find love the same way: manufactured brilliance and buried secrets.

I’ve seen beautiful people get uglier and uglier even as they try in vain to delay, to stop, to reveres the process with regimens, routines, achievements, annual reports, shoots, diets, workouts, coverings, toys, experiences, massages, and embraces, failing to realize that temporary appearance of the body is sustained by the state of our soul. 

Oscar Wilde, captures this so well in his famous story The Picture of Dorian Gray. If you haven’t read it, read it.

Yet available to us, accessible to us daily, is to live a life of reflection, a life that bravely looks at the clearest mirror possible, not merely for the purpose of grading how impressive one is, but to look upon the truth – this is who I truly am: this is the state of my soul.

Use today to start on a lifetime of reflection. Make it a habit. Just as food on the table reminds me to reflect on God, seeing a mirror reminds me to check the reflection of my soul. 

Here are a few questions to help you reflect today – and hopefully everyday hence.

1. What do I truly value? What are most important to me? Who are most important to me?
– One way to reflect on this is to think about the people and things you would never trade away.

2. Does my life’s reflection show a person who is truly pursuing the values I claim?
– For example, I always said God was most valuable to me but I always found a rationalization every time I found something I wanted to do that was contrary to His will. My life’s reflection revealed that I was not living according to what I claimed.

3. Whatever you answered in question 1, ask yourself, with the way I’m living, the choices I’m making, the path I’m going, will these values thrive or suffer?
– If, after honest reflection, you find that they’ll thrive, you know you’re on the right track.
– If, after honest reflection, you don’t know, or are afraid that they’ll suffer, I encourage you to make the necessary changes. Remove what you have to remove, add what you have to add, embrace the surgery of your heart today. It is better to admit shortcoming, face shame, get help, and find healing today, than to lose what’s most valuable to you.

Truth is a shield for the things we value. It is many times heavy to bear but it remains a shield. Excuses are massages to our ego. They are easy to accept. They feel good to accept. But as sure as the sun rises, excuses will rob us of that which we value.

4. What actions do I need to take to protect and cultivate that which I value? How can I live a life that makes what I value thrive more and not suffer more?
– I suggest looking for a role model. The word “peg” seems to be so famous now. We have a peg for everything but we rarely have a peg for our soul. It’s not surprising, we like glamorous pegs. There is nothing glamorous about peeling off the pretenses, facing our sins, facing our regrets, facing our shortcomings, and facing scary future. But it is essential.
– If you’re too afraid, take this journey with someone else. I once told a friend that the mirror of the soul is another soul. Find someone you trust, someone who can speak truth, not fluff, into your life. Find someone who can tell you the ugly truth. Find someone brave enough, honest enough, tell you, you have a booger hanging out of your nose, even as everyone tells you you’re handsome. Find someone who loves you enough to tell you you’re a fool with the hope that you might find wisdom, and ultimately freedom.

That’s why the reflective life needs courage. The reflective life is a courageous life.

Sadly, the world is full of cowards.

The Poetry of Getting Investment Grade on Holy Week

Many will find loss and the loss of things valued, cheered on by the value systems of shallow minds and selfish hearts.

One thing I learned, God doesn’t have to condemn me, when I choose to walk away from Him, I condemn myself.

It’s 5:00am as I write this. Tried a new sleep aid and obviously it didn’t work. None of them seem to work anymore. This last one looked promising, tasted the best so far, but, as my 4am barrage on Twitter proves, has been a disappointment.

It’s a good time to be up anyway.

It’s Holy Week! It’s that time of the year in Christendom for my heart to be exclusive to God for a week.

Oh, you’re right. Thank you for correcting me. Holy Week break starts Wednesday afternoon. So I only need to clock in 4 1/2 days of exclusivity, and because God is love, I only need to inject some form of devotion each day and He’ll fall answer MY prayers, remove MY pain, MY suffering. He’ll make MY dreams come true.

It doesn’t matter that my heart is proud, that I’m rationalizing lust, have accepted my unforgiveness as ok because he’s at fault, that I have less and less self-control, that the fruit of the Spirit is less and less evident in my life, God is love, I’ve skipped my beer and beef, what’s His beef with me?

In case you didn’t get it, I’m being sarcastic.

Well, actually, to be honest, I’m not.

I’m guilty of approaching my relationship with God that way.

“Here God. I love You so so so so much. You’re so great. I worship You. Here’s my minimum passable performance. Here’s my religious duty. Thank You for being so loving, for accepting me as I am – even as I keep the best of me for myself and offer the rest to the world.”

It sounds like a lady who prepares dinner for her husband, listens to how his day went, thanks Him for the flowers he brought home, for always being reliable, talks to him about her dreams and plans, smiles across him as he eats, does the dishes, makes passionate love to him, then texts her other lover while her husband sleeps the words, “I love you.”

In other words, “I did all of these things for him, but my heart is yours.”

I would never settle for a relationship with someone whose heart is not mine – no matter what obligation she fulfils.

I hope you won’t either. I hope you can see that there’s something wrong here.

But we are full of double standards. We are willing to rationalize what we want to rationalize, and usually, we are willing to rationalize what benefits us and doesn’t hurt us. We’re ok with being surrounded by cheaters as long as they don’t cheat me, with drunks as long as they don’t smash my car, with robbers as long as they don’t steal from me.

We’re ok with anyone as long as they’re nice.

Nice has become the ultimate standard for goodness, as the theologian Peter Kreeft expresses. Nice is popular because nice is comfortable.

Who cares about truth? Who cares about real beauty? Who cares about family? Who cares about convictions?

What is important is that we’re nice, that we don’t rock anyone’s boat, that no one is hurt by our actions, that we help others live as validated, as secure, and as comfortable as possible.

The problem here is this: Selfishness, shallow thinking, validated excuses always always always will hurt someone. It will hurt you, maybe not right away, but it will. It will hurt your kids and their kids. A lot of the pain you’re suffering now is because of someone else’s life. 

To think that one week of devotion, can undo the effects of a lifetime of selfishness as long as I’m nice is absurd – even if millions of people believe it.

We have double standards.

A standard is a level of quality. The higher the standard the higher the quality.

One of the curses society suffers with today is the relativism of standards. Standards are so relative today that it’s hard to know what standard to trust. When standards are eroded, trust will be eroded. That’s why we need 3rd parties now to tell us objectively, what the standards are. That’s why we need ratings agencies.

Which leads me to the upgrading of the Philippines to investment grade.

While I’m just as happy as the next Filipino to be “investment grade”, it is better than less, I’m not jumping for joy nor allowing sentiments of having found a panacea. Here are my reasons why:

1. Ratings agencies are the same ones who labeled bad US debt as good investments. This led to massive investments buoyed by the assurance that the standards of these 3rd party agencies had reduced their risk. The result was a financial crisis.

When confronted with their bad judgement on investments, the ratings agencies responded by saying that they offer “advice” and “opinion”. It is up to the investors to do what they want with the information.

2. Objectively, the Philippines has grown. Our country has grown a lot. But we are haunted by a ticking time bomb, a time bomb that has not been defused just because its clock ticks silently. That bomb is inequality as seen by a terrible Gini Coefficient. Any student of history knows that large gaps between the rich and the poor leads to social conflict.

To put it simply, if you and your friend made $1,000,000 and you got a dollar and he made the rest, how would you respond?

Think about it.

I’m not saying we should be communist. No, no no. I am saying inequality IS a problem and it is a cancer that grows as our wealth does.

3. Even as an outside institution gives us the thumbs up, our inner structure has major cracks. We are a consumption driven society. So as the economy expands, most of our citizens are actually getting poorer with more dependence on debt, lower savings (even no savings), and shallow financial knowledge. While literacy, the ability to read and write, is generally ok, wisdom, discernment, the ability to self-govern, to act justly, to choose the best among the fun is lacking. 

When a person invests more on entertainment and comfort than growth there is a problem. We understand this. When a nation does the same we can expect a disaster.

What’s the connection between Holy Week and ratings agencies? One word: Standards.

The standard we believe, the standard we accept, the opinions, the advice, we embrace, will dictate our decisions, and the outcome of our life will reveal us for who we truly are, for better or worse.

To me, this is the poetry of getting investment grade on Holy Week: it is the celebration of external achievements even as a deeper look reveals internal fault lines. 

Almost zero savings, high consumption, terrible inequality, high literacy, low wisdom, religious yet dishonest. Shifting sand.

It is not about what people on the outside think we are. It is who we truly are inside, at our core that determines our course.

Remember that.

It’s the same with our soul. Better no one agree with you, better no one give you the thumbs up, but be sure to your very core that your heart, the one thing God specifically said He wants, is humbly offered to Him. 

In the same way, this seal of trust is great, but better if it leads to truly better lives for ALL Filipinos.

Maybe that’s what woke me up so early. Maybe like a concerned stakeholder who can’t sleep with all the issues affecting my brothers and sisters, the purpose was greater than the sleep. But as I read through the articles, as I scrolled through the Holy Week festivities, as I read the reports of the faithful, I couldn’t erase the picture of an unfaithful wife.

In general, we, including me, have reconciled our religion with our dishonesty. We’ve found a way to make our selfishness valid. We’ve made greed good. We’ve made shallow cool. We’ve found a way to make our pride applaudable. We’ve found a way to launder our cash. We’ve found a way to celebrate our sins. We’ve found a way to make things work by simply inventing our own religion, which is a system of beliefs. We have picked and chosen our favorite quotes, phrases, practices, and ideas from all sorts of sources, including unreliable ones, and have proclaimed: 

“This is nice. I believe it.”

In this case I agree with the atheists, “We do not follow a God who made man, but a man-made god.”

And we’ll take whatever article we agree with to celebrate and forget that what we have hit is a “milestone” not the promised land.

Many will find loss and the loss of things valued, cheered on by the value systems of shallow minds and selfish hearts. Even as the ratings agencies admitted themselves, be careful what you do with the standards, the opinions, and the advice you’re given.

This is true  for our soul.

One thing I learned, God doesn’t have to condemn me, when I choose to walk away from Him, I condemn myself. One loses nothing from sharing truth, from embracing it, no matter how painful. One loses everything when holding on to lies. There is no joy in telling someone  “I told you so.” Only pain in seeing another train wreck that could have been prevented.

Let us take today to recalibrate our hearts – not based on the ratings of the world – the ratings that tell us selfish living is good – but back to life laying, life giving love, to inner peace over outer validation, to purpose over temporary pleasure.

I believe in a beautiful Philippines, I wouldn’t be so vocal nor active in social work if I didn’t. But I do believe that beauty, transformative, life-giving beauty, is not made up of sentiment but of the lives of those given to a purpose greater than themselves.

The Ship Has Sailed, Now Past

The ship has sailed, now past
The shore from whence it launched
Not even a faded view exists
Now just water, waves, and mists

The ship has sailed, now past
The point of no return
I set my sights to lands ahead
To discover new poems, to unlearn

The ship has sailed, now past
Yesterday’s tales of wonder
With each day, memory forsakes
Heartbreaks, mistakes, keepsakes

The ship has sailed, now past
Its berth could not have last
Too large for a dock to agree
A vessel at home at sea

The ship has sailed, now past
The names left behind
Once friends, now strangers
No surprise among changers

The ship has sailed, now past
Unfettered, unhindered, free
The caravel’s captain’s hopes
No longer bound by ropes