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.
#dbthoughts 

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.

Responses, Opinions, and Our Character

Another tragedy has hit our beloved Philippines. One of us, a young lady, has taken her own life, and the reason that has been reported is that she could not afford to pay her tuition and had to take a leave of absence.

Now before I continue, I will admit up front that I am not completely informed on this event, and all I know comes from links and reports. I say this because I want to make it clear that I am not writing about my “analysis” of the circumstances of this tragic death.

I am writing about our responses.

How one responds to tragedy, to pain, to criticism, to correction, to offence, to discomfort, to lack, to persecution, to threats, reveals more about the responder than it does about the circumstances. Circumstances are what they are, how we face these circumstances, how we act and respond is what will decide whether we move forward or backward.

Now the mind of the mob is always “someone needs to pay”. So we must identify that “someone”, and, by making him pay, the problem is solved.

Or does it?

History will tell us having a scapegoat never solved anything. Logic will tell us the same thing. If someone ate your cookie and you punched him in the face, it doesn’t give you your cookie back. Yes, it may prevent a future theft, but it doesn’t bring what you originally lost back to you, and you sever the chance of building anything meaningful with the person you punched.

You’ll say, “He severed it.” Just like a 6 year old saying, “He started it.”

And that is why our society is the way it is. We have placed our personal entitlements, real and imagined, over others. We, who want the benefits and freedom of adults, process circumstances like 6 year olds.

Yes, there is a place for punishment – but that is for the proven guilty. And punishment alone doesn’t make life better. You cannot weed a garden without planting and watering flowers and trees and expect something beautiful. What you’ll have is a desert. With the removing we must be including.

What I am about to share next is my personal opinion, an opinion that is under-informed on this topic so take it with a grain of salt.

Also, don’t put much weight on the words of those not willing to scrutinize their own soul nor act on proclaimed convictions. So until you have ascertained that I do consciously reflect, that I apply high standards to my own life, and act on my convictions, don’t believe everything I write.

This applies to all the different opinions and messages thrown at us every day. The source of the opinion matters. There are wrong opinions and right opinions, and it is important that people learn how to discern between both. Don’t be so quick to take something as truth because its initial taste was pleasing to your sensibilities.

Listen to the critic who studies his own motives, to the citizen who is a neighbour with principle, to the radical who serves others. The opinions of those who will not pay the cost of seeing their convictions made real are shallow – no matter how loud they are.

Anyway, here is my opinion.

We should wait before blaming UP or the officers for this suicide. It is inaccurate and reductionalist to crucify without the full story. Society is always looking to crucify a “criminal” for a “system” we ourselves perpetuate with our own apathy and pride.

When someone else is guilty that means we’re not guilty right?

No.

Just because someone is guilty, doesn’t mean we don’t bear any responsibility.

If there is anything true about the story of The Good Samaritan it is this: we are all always responsible. I wrote more about my thoughts on responsibility in the article Whose Fault Is It?

When a tragedy hits, must we bicker amongst ourselves on who should be sacrificed to atone for our collective responsibility?

I believe there is a better response, and I’ll try to be as practical as possible. Instead of spewing all sorts of opinions and blame, use suffering to build character by coming together and persevering together in the direction of our collective dream.

In short, instead of collectively finding someone to blame. Let us collectively take on the responsibility of showing love, of giving comfort, of repairing brokenness, of educating others, of preventing future incidents.

Now, given how fragmented our country is, it is currently unrealistic to expect some national coming together, so in your own circles, particularly your own families, come together and ask this question:

How should we respond?

Parents, group your families, discuss and pray. Take this is a call to get to know your kids, to show more concern for understanding them, to learn to listen. Pray as a family for those affected and that God will show you how to live in harmony.

Children, honor your parents, listen to them. Ask them about the challenges they have faced and how they overcame. Fill your soul with stories of those who faced severe adversity yet did not give up. Care for your siblings, spend more time with them. If you’re older show a good example. If you’re younger show respect.

Teachers, it’s time to go back to true education. To educate someone means to bring out the best in them. It is not merely a downloading of information so that someone will pass a test. It is a deliberate effort to identify the best traits of a person and use your expertise to cultivate these traits.

Politicians, obviously should lead, but you’re not just a politician. You’re a public SERVANT. If you succeed in the popularity contest but didn’t succeed as a servant – you’re a failure – and you who have been given much will be judged with a higher requirement.

Churches, it’s time to promote true Christianity, which is Christlikeness that loves and lays life down because we overflow with the life He has given us and the love He fills us with. It is not a sanitised theology that believes God is here to make my life problem-free and as comfortable and respectable as possible.

We can go on with examples but the point is, whoever we are, wherever we are, whatever group we belong to, the ability to respond and make a positive difference in the lives of others is within us, and the first step is admit, “I AM RESPONSIBLE. I HAVE TO DO SOMETHING.”

Then follow this up with deliberate prayer and reflection asking God, “Father, show me how You want me serve.” I use the word deliberate to indicate discipline and action, NOT a mindless habit.

Then go out and lay your life down.

Now imagine what that would look like: lives laid down to form a bridge instead of a mob erected into a wall.

Again, I want to be clear that these are humble opinions, and are in no way comprehensive solutions to our society’s ills. I do hope that this drop will ripple in your minds, because I do believe some of you, if not many of you, will be blessed with creative ways to make our country more beautiful for our beautiful people, and all that’s needed is for you to respond.