August 1, 2016

Year One: Wittgenstein on Lessons on Anxiety and Kindness

I’ve barely realized or remembered it, but about a year ago I woke up in the middle of the night panting. Only that I couldn’t move my body; up above my right ear there was a sensation of a voice – much like the sensation of presence you get when you share that cramped elevator space with a stranger – that pretty much blabbered nonsense. No, it couldn’t have been nonsense in the first place, they weren’t even words. Drowned sounds of voices, like the morning rush hour, no distinct sense but a distinct awareness of presence. Lasting for God knows how long, I remembered Kill Bill: move your big toe, you can snap out of it. I wasn’t able to. I knew I wouldn’t die, but I also knew it wouldn’t end quickly. The ordeal lasted the entire night, and I woke up tired and swimming on the outline of my body’s sweat.

 

It turned out it would be that one panic attack that, so to speak, pushed me over the edge. I’ve always dreamed of snagging that MA really young. At 24 during that time with a couple of published papers and international conferences under my belt, it wasn’t exactly a sin to dare to expect too much from myself. That’s the wonderfully destructive and terrible experience of anxiety and depression: it is not so much a spiralling out of control as it is a spiralling into perceived control. You think you’ve got all the cards on your hand, all the bases covered, and then comes the wind to blow your cards away. No self-confidence can ever prepare you for the tempest of your own mind telling you, despite the evidence of the contrary, that you got this. Misplaced hubris? Probably. In any case, there was no other way to save myself than to stop.

 

In those trying and humbling times Wittgenstein was a silent spectator to what would eventually become a year off of going crazy over a few sentences of philosophical nuggets. It was a fortuitous meeting, an unlikely pair, if you will – his thought provided me the ultimate roadblock that until now I couldn’t get past, and yet strangely, his perplexing and illuminating insights would end up shedding light on a year that has passed. And what a woozy one has it been.

 

Ending up in government work, of all places, it was a challenge to keep my condition from creeping too much into work, let alone letting people know it was oftentimes difficult to pretend things can be managed, especially when you have other people depending on you, and most especially if the people around you are “personalities,” very much common in government. There were numerous times – probably more than I can count – where it ended up worse than what I left in MA. Things like those force you to question the very choices you make, whether the process of choosing itself was probably the disordered one.

 

But one year on, it has still been possible to survive. As John Berryman would say, damaged, but functioning. In a sense, the past year has been a year of participating in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, through the most vivid and embodied way possible: through anxiety and depression.

 

 

It helps to realize that the very manner of speaking can have a profound impact on a person, especially someone who is suffering from psychological disorders. Most employers and supervisors, probably because they think they’re in charge, conveniently forget to be kind, and then proceed to throw gestures, words, and worse of all, silence, across the room. Someone suffering from a disorder can be caught in a bind: if you tell, you risk the judgment that you’re merely using your condition as an excuse for your oversensitivity, and eventually look weak and privileged. On the other hand, if you don’t react, the reflexive effect can be way worse. The most crippling of all is when you’re forced or pressured to take it all in, especially in a culture that celebrates “toughing it up.” It is cliché to say that everyone is going through something – but in some way it is true, and it is certainly untrue that all that counts is the will to “head down, power through.” In many instances, speech can hurt and psychologically maim. It is the worst because the wounds are invisible. And people are none the wiser to miss out on the numerous times they’ve caused sleepless nights, especially supervisors and bosses.

 

Kindness is not a personality trait; it is a skill. And like all skills, the only way to be good at it is to cultivate it and practice it often. A skilful person is not one who can perfectly do something without stumble: a truly skilful person is one that is resourceful and flexible enough to adjust to the circumstances he or she is in, in order to achieve her goal. The Filipino word grammatically linked to skill or galing is telling: mautak. More than being witty, it reveals a deeper meaning: being mindful. There seems to be an affinity between mindfulness and skilfulness, and the most profound mode of contact with absolutely anyone is speech. What do all of these syllogisms lead to? – That speech is a space for mindfulness, and that it is a skill that can be cultivated.

 

Speech is the locus of the possibility for kindness. There are absolutely innumerable ways to be kind, but these ways seem to focus too much on the materiality of that kindness. People in government are all too familiar of this: offering “bonuses” and favors, like a trip abroad, extra money, and “free” leaves. What people often forget is that the things you say are absolutely the first point of contact with another person that has the possibility of kindness. “Speech” is not just the words you say, it also includes the gestures, the subtle twitches in your facial expression, the intonation and tone of your voice, even the volume and diction. People with anxiety have this ironic gift of being too sensitive, and one of the biggest problems anxious people have is that they tend to generalize or overreach on the tones and gestures, and they immediately jump to conclusions. It may probably be one of the most debilitating conditions of the disorder.

 

Granted it is something that people living with these disorders should work through themselves, but it doesn’t help if the environment is resistant to people helping themselves in the first place. Call it stigma, culture, what have you, the implications are the same: sick people cannot do it alone. Kindness is not a private language (sorry for this bastard, Wittgenstein) – it is a shared activity. It can only be cultivated when people do it in a certain way for a period of time such that it becomes unquestionable. And that’s the reason why speech is almost always left out of that consideration: speech is treated as superfluous, arbitrary, unimportant even, because what matters are results. And this is a disturbing state of affairs, if you ask me: to treat words as mere words, neglecting their weight and the modalities of kindness and cruelty that can spring from their use and abuse. It points to a disturbing fact: that we do not value things we don’t see.

 

But no, speech is the first contact and therefore the first possibility of kindness. The expression “your words touched me” is more meaningful than we take it to be. It begins when we are humble enough to acknowledge that the things that move us most are the things we do not see, and it begins to take flight when we are humble enough to help each other out, starting with the choice to be more kind in the things we say to other people. There is always a choice to be kind, and it always starts with the words we want to let go to another person. It is words that make it possible to share kindness in the first place, and it is through words that one can build a culture of kindness, even in something as small as an office.

 

 

Kindness can also be cultivated in the stories we tell ourselves. In the year I’ve spent processing my own muddles, I was fortunate enough to have a therapist who guided me through that slow and tedious process of working through your own disorder. Most of the time we think of therapists as experts of the mind, being able to see connections and links we otherwise could have missed. But after a year, while they are good at pointing out connections, what sets therapists apart from others is their capacity to be kind. And this is made apparent when they are willing to listen. A listening and accommodating ear is what it takes for you to tell your story to someone you can trust, to someone who won’t judge you in a manner that is unkind and unjust. And the strange – I daresay mystical – thing in all of this is that through the therapist’s kind gesture of silence in the act of listening, you get to be kind to yourself by telling your own story. Thinking about yourself is different from hearing yourself, much more different from letting someone hear your story. It does a strange thing: you get to see modalities of living otherwise, outside your purview of action. Telling your own story helps you see that there are other ways of telling your story, and this is a humbling experience. Who tells that “other” story? – Why of course yourself, through the help of the therapist’s questions, and sometimes, a listening friend, and for me, most of the time, God.

 

It is that mystical moment when you are othered to yourself, when the only thing capable of explaining yourself sits outside yourself. And when you open yourself up to others – another story, another person, another life? – that life takes a mold of something reminiscent of kindness. And then you begin to reimagine different stories, different lives.

 

What this gives you is the incomparable gift of perspective, and at the end of the day, it is what determines kindness: the ability to shift perspectives. It begins in speech, and is always recreated in the innumerable perspectives we can lay out in front of us.

 

 

And amid all of these lessons I’ve only begun to digest in the past few months, I’ve realized that it was my acquaintance with Wittgenstein, his musings on language and meaning, on rule-following and agreements in judgments, on the untenability of private language, even the duck-rabbit figure, that has actually helped me through. Pretty strange, for a philosopher known to leave stones unturned for us to discover ourselves. I guess that’s the key of Wittgenstein’s Investigations: that the reader him or herself is forced to participate in his games. For me, it was the unfortunate game of psychological disability. And for me, it was fortunately therapeutic, and it couldn’t have happened without others.

 

And so begins another year of learning to be kind: it will be one tough battle to show everyone – especially myself – that kindness is always a choice, and the only way to cultivate a culture of kindness is to choose to be kind. Year two has begun. For better or for worse, I still haven’t figured Wittgenstein out.

May 26, 2015

Philosophy and Phenomenology: Counter-Narratives for a Catholic Academic Identity

Current trends in academic research have placed an emphasis on the supposed universality of the scientific mindset, which have elicited a defensive reaction from the humanities. On the one hand, there are those who want to show how humanities-related questions are foundational – and so fundamental – and that this ability to articulate what is foundational makes humanities superior to the natural sciences. On the other hand, there are also those who say that the humanities are not “advanced enough” and hence are unable to keep up with how STEM-related research have been generating newer and more radical questions. There is another level that adds to this already difficult issue: the supposed identity of an academic institution – in our case, our Catholic identity, and how having a robust (and unique) Catholic identity can be one of the most powerful counter-narratives in a highly secularized academic setting. The third element is important because it somehow tries to synthesize two seemingly incommensurable perspectives: how can a Catholic academic institution remain faithful to its own identity steeped in humanities, while at the same time opening up to new and challenging ways of thinking and doing, represented by the sciences? These two concerns are inseparable, especially in light of the Second Vatican Council – if “catholic” indeed means universal, then it must also be able to engage with the wider environment. The institution’s catholicity is then judged according to the manner by which it conducts this internal debate, which undoubtedly has external consequences. The discourse of “catholic institution” is not just a matter of paying lip service to the religion it subscribes to, nor is it just about being the best kind of Catholic institution in Catholic-dominated Philippines; talking about it has ethical implications, well outside the confines of the school and well outside its image. In other words, the discourse on being a Catholic institution has implications that can challenge our commonly held assumptions and ideas on being a Catholic and an academic institution at the same time, and it matters that we talk about them in a principled manner, doing away with the usually-rabid rhetorical strategies of self-professed secularists, and avowed defenders of the faith.

The debates are, of course, too complicated and complex to be laid out here. But let me suggest a particular way by which we can give a particular shape to this debate, and a possible novel contribution the university can be proud of, which I think can also help enrich its identity: the university’s rich philosophical tradition, indebted to phenomenology.

Last March 27-29, King’s University College in Western University in London, Ontario hosted an international academic conference entitled “Breached Horizons: the Work of Jean-Luc Marion.” Professor Marion was present to provide the keynote address, along with other well-known philosophers who have had profound contributions in the field of phenomenology, such as Jeffrey Kosky, Kevin Hart, Christina Gschwandtner, Ugo Perone, and Ryan Coyne. I was honored to have participated in the conference, delivering a paper presentation on Thomas Aquinas and Marion’s appropriation of Thomistic thought. The atmosphere of collegiality and professionalism provided for a healthy working environment during the duration of the conference, and it helped that Marion himself was there to provide his thoughts on the individual papers. The other philosophers also gave their respective presentations, which was also well received. Central to the conference theme was the work of Professor Marion on phenomenological reduction, and how his distinctive phenomenology – what he and his commentators have called a phenomenology of saturated phenomenon – has profound implications beyond the field of phenomenology. Paper topics ranged from specific themes on the philosophy of religion, political philosophy, aesthetics, philosophy of literature, and the history of ideas, among others.

As with most conferences, profound exchanges also occur outside the paper presentations – in the questions raised in the refreshments section, in between breaks, where scholars have nothing better to do than to ask about other people’s research, and sometimes, heated debates over cheese and wine. Being an international conference, the event also served as a space where different people of different cultural backgrounds interacted with each other. It is in these exchanges that I become convinced that the manner Ateneo conducts its philosophical training to its students is a powerful, influential, cutting-edge, and most importantly coherent way of addressing the issues I have articulated earlier. Let me limit my reflection to two points.

First, Ateneo’s phenomenological tradition, through the efforts of various persons, has helped define a distinctive phenomenology. Through the works of Roque Ferriols, S.J., Ramon Reyes, Manuel Dy, and a host of other philosophers, Ateneo has been able to articulate a distinctive style of phenomenology. Taking seriously Husserl’s dictum of zur sache Selbst, the university became a pioneer of articulating “the things themselves” from the point of departure of the Filipino language. Because of this, the university eventually helped pioneer teaching philosophy in the vernacular, which continues to this day not only in the university, but in others as well. The effects of this development have been felt beyond the classroom: the publication of articles and books on this distinctive kind of phenomenology are a testament to the still-growing pool of literature.

And second, the cultural and socio-political particularities of the Philippine experience provide a novel way of articulating the phenomenological project. One distinctive development of this phenomenological approach is the rootedness its questions to socio-political concerns. Scholars such as Agustin Rodriguez, Zosimo Lee, and Julius Mendoza, among others, have helped apply the insights of phenomenology into the most difficult socio-political questions local to the country. The Philippine experience, however, offers more than just the disclosure of new phenomena; the very act of applying a phenomenological method to analyze diverse kinds of phenomena is itself a novel contribution. The Philippine experience is steeped in a rich and complex history of oppression and colonization. Because of this, Western categories sometimes fail to capture phenomena that only show themselves when the proper questions and the proper method are raised and applied, respectively. Despite the universal scope of phenomena, Western scholars have been accused of being too limited in what they consider to be “legitimate” phenomena. The Philippine experience, and the subsequent applicability of the phenomenological method, testifies precisely to the possibilities of phenomenology still unexplored in the West. One poignant example is the debate surrounding the supposed “theological turn” of French phenomenology – specifically that of Marion’s – where thinkers like Dominique Janicaud accuse Marion of importing theological insights into a supposedly “value-free” phenomenology. In the Philippine context, analysis of religious phenomena encounter less conceptual hurdles precisely because of the different processes of secularization in the country, as opposed to countries such as France. Because of this, thinkers like Eduardo Calasanz and Mark Joseph Calano are able to apply the phenomenological method more easily, thereby yielding profound insights that are usually glossed over. It is not surprising, then, that Calano’s paper on everyday religiosity was warmly received in Germany when he presented it, because it provided novel insights that escaped the frameworks of Western scholars.

By focusing on (1) the locality and the organic nature of phenomenology as it is practiced in the Ateneo, and (2) the embeddedness of that practice in different socio-political and cultural structures, one stands to create a distinctive discourse that the institution can be proud of. In other words, Ateneo is doing something right. If the conference is any indication, then Ateneo is not only doing something right; it is doing something groundbreaking. Not only does it have a clear understanding of the phenomenological project, it also extends it, more than – in my opinion – Western scholars are willing to do. The Ateneo stands to profit not only because of the radical originality of this approach, but also because it has immense potential to contribute to the discourse of what it means to have a Catholic identity. How does this give new shape to the discourse of what it means to be a Catholic institution? – By enriching this particular tradition, the institution can provide a new dimension to what it means to be a Catholic one: to “go to the peripheries,” so to speak, in pursuit of questions others would rather circumvent, or worse, ignore. This new sense of catholicity can be best seen in the burgeoning discourse on interdisciplinarity: perhaps going to the peripheries consists in breaking past disciplinary boundaries to articulate questions that can only be addressed with other disciplines. Perhaps being a Catholic does not only mean being universal in scope, but more importantly, that this universality can only be achieved in collaboration with others.

There are, of course, challenges. Despite the immense potential for knowledge production that will undoubtedly help Ateneo in establishing itself as a premier institution, funding continues to be a contentious issue. It is not so much an issue of finding the money as it is about channeling the money to fund research projects. There is also an issue regarding the lack of incentive for young researchers to conduct research. It is not so much about the lack of researchers as it is a lack of empowerment on the part of the institution. The issues are too complicated to be discussed adequately here, but it bears to be known that fostering a Catholic identity cannot but encounter hurdles. It is a matter of addressing them honestly that matters, and only by doing so can one more deeply foster the Catholic identity of the institution. It is not an accident that one of the hallmarks of phenomenology is an honest assessment of one’s embodiment and temporality, for only by looking at where one is coming from can one describe phenomena in their saturated manifestations.

It is not that Ateneo is behind cutting-edge research, because clearly it is cutting-edge. It has a grasp of local concerns and values, and the possibilities of studying these and contributing to the larger academic community are huge. Rather, the Ateneo is behind in creating structures that allow cutting-edge research to flourish. It may be a matter of money, but at the end of the day, it is never only about money. It is a matter of investing in the social capital of courage, both from the institution, and to the researchers. If there is mutual trust between the institution and its researchers to keep asking courageous questions, and in turn helping foster a community courageous enough to stand up for each other, then perhaps Ateneo can find its academic identity as Catholic much easier to reconcile with its commitment to the advancement of knowledge.

During the closing ceremonies of the conference, the convener expressed his thanks to professor Marion and to everyone for their participation, emphasizing that it was a long time coming, and that it was the hard work of everyone involved. The conference also coincided with the 60th anniversary of King’s, which also saw the inauguration of the Center for Advanced Research in Catholic Thought. It is my fervent hope that a similar time will also come for Ateneo. It only takes hard work and a little bit of courage.

April 4, 2015

Commemorating Good Friday in a Secular Landscape

Three points of reflection:

1. I feel a sense of uncanniness commemorating Good Friday in a place that does not treat it as much as where I come from. Cleveland – or should I say (most) of the US – is a highly secularized society, and because of that, social arrangements are profoundly different. Before I would scratch my head every time people wrote about the difference of the experience of space and time in secularized societies. Temporality and spatiality are profoundly different back in the Philippines, which become pronounced coming up to the holidays. Holy Week, being the most important dates for a Catholic, are days of reflection and prayer, of penance and forgiveness, and finally, of joy and hope. And because of that, everything stops; everything gets reordered, distended and intended, stretched to their limits and condensed to their densest possible singularity, according to the passion, death, and Resurrection of Jesus. Here, however, today feels just like any other day. Much like how we regard Muslim holidays – a greeting of goodwill, and nothing more. Only now have I realized how profoundly different commemorating Jesus’ death is when you only have a few people to commemorate it with, which really underscores the intimate link between community and the very experience of space and time.

2. It gets me thinking about how we, Catholic Filipinos, take so much of the slowing down of time and the extension of space for granted. Our givenness in the Catholic faith allows us to experience things differently, and I daresay much more profoundly. The Stations of the Cross is a perennial example. While most of us – me included – will want to finish off the stations immediately, the invitation however is to slow down. And what better way to learn that slowing down than by learning how to walk slow, and not only walking slowly, but with the community. The walking is an act of praying. Incidentally, I met someone in an academic conference last week. She was a woman minister for the Church of England, and we talked a lot about religion. As we talked, it gradually dawned on me that much of the distinctiveness of the “Filipino-style” of practicing the Catholic faith comes from the very visceral, embodied, and even carnal depictions of the movement of faith. The excessive manifestation of the faith is not a relic of an non-Christian way of doing things; it is what makes the Filipino faith distinct. In other words, the Filipino faith offers nothing less than a profound change in the spatial and temporal arrangements of one’s living. The practice of everyday life, as a sociologist puts it, is changed because of faith. And the marvelous thing with Filipino religiosity is that this faith is acted out, performed most vividly in the process of practices involving the body, to the point of excess.

3. This unique and distinct style of Filipino faith, in my view, offers a deeper look into the very physical and traumatic nature of Christ’s suffering. The Gospels until Easter morning are populated by narratives involving touch, or at least intensely physical experiences. The first narrative coming up to Friday was the scene in the garden where Jesus prays to the point of painful sweating. This was followed by His arrest, where Peter cuts off one man’s ear, only to have Jesus heal the man’s wound by touching him on the side of his head. Of course we are familiar with the oft-repeated passion narratives, which are inundated with assaults to the senses. And coming up to Easter, we see the resurrected Jesus telling Mary to not touch him. We also see the disciples in the road to Emmaus, who witness a stranger touch the bread, raise them up, and whose eyes were opened and whose “hearts were burning” at the sight of the risen Christ. What do these narratives tell us? Perhaps this: that we are invited to slow down and feel those intensely physical invitations, for it is only in slowing down and in prayer that we are able to savor the salvific power of Christ. This is why narratives of touch are almost always narratives of conversion. I have said earlier that the distinctively Filipino style of practicing the faith has been very physical. There is another dimension to this physicality: its shared nature, how undergoing a similar or an analogous experience provides a deeper level of understanding. Perhaps the call is not just to emulate Christ for the sake of emulating Him in the most physical manner possible; perhaps the call is to unlock one’s doors and go out into the streets and share the burden and joy of being a Christian, embodied in the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Perhaps physicality can be rendered in this way: as an extension of oneself to the other, just like Christ did. Compassion, lest we remind ourselves, comes from the Latin patir, which means “to suffer with.”

That might be the deeper lesson in Filipino Christian practices, over and beyond the usual interpretations of being instances of folk Christianity, or worse, inauthentic renderings of faith. Faith, at least in our experience, is never divorced from community, and community means to go through something together, even to suffer together. But one must be reminded that everything does not end in suffering, but in joy. Which is why the paradigm for Christian practice is the liturgy. And perhaps that is a good starting point for rediscovering our faith: simply by going to mass and letting God take hold of you, for it is in His holding that everything will change, and it is in that holding that I am also held together by others in worshipping Christ.

A blessed Good Friday.

January 27, 2015

The Art of Mourning: Or, an Autoethnography on the Manila Massacre

The other day I had the unfortunate experience of seeing a dead person sprawled on the street. He was gunned down while riding a motorcycle. The bullet holes were clearly visible on his left side, and blood flowed from these wounds. Understandably – and given that things like this rarely happen in our part of the neighbourhood – people flocked around. It was inevitable for me to pass by the dead person, because the cafe that I was headed to was on the other end of the street, and it was simply impossible for me to go around the other street because it was too far away. So I had to pass by the dead person. Naturally, I was one to ask around to know what exactly happened. And of course, different stories abounded. The official story was that the person was a policeman, and someone riding another motorcycle caught up to him and shot him. Different people filled in different gaps in the story. Some people who were able to identify the wife – the woman who was sobbing on the side – speculated that it might be because of the wife, that someone was jealous. Some even made the lewd remark that “because the wife is fair-skinned and therefore she was the object of envy.” Still, others stuck to the more “neutral” explanations: drug deal gone wrong, police butting heads with a syndicate, and assassination, among others. I was not spared of this tendency, and also thought of different scenarios myself. One thing was certain: it was planned, and it was so well planned that it made sure that there was little to no chance of any witness coming forward.

Something analogous happens when we approach particular events in history whose gravity demands our attention, and yet provides little or no way of verifying the details. This year will be the 70th anniversary of the Manila Massacre, or, if you want to be more “politically correct,” the Battle of the Liberation of Manila. It lasted from the 3rd of February up until the 3rd of March of 1945. More than a hundred thousand unarmed civilians were killed in and around the city of Manila, with the highest concentration of deaths occurring within the walled city. It is from this massacre that we get stories of babies getting thrown up in the air to have them land on the waiting bayonets below, or the stories of women getting shot in their private parts after being raped repeatedly by Japanese soldiers, or the stories of men forcibly being made to fit in a small comfort room to wait for the Japanese soldier to lob a grenade into the comfort room. The Japanese weren’t the only perpetrators in this massacre; the Americans were also complicit in their indiscriminate artillery barrage, and the shells that fell on the city that day reduced Manila into the second most-damaged urban center in the whole war, after Warsaw. Not only that, Filipino collaborators – the Makapili – were also complicit in the identification of “safehouses” where Japanese soldiers would perform their orgies.

A particular difficulty that arises for researchers such as me is the utter lack of resources on the massacre, most obviously because those that were able to write have died, either directly because of the massacre itself, and for those that survived, because old age had caught up to them. Luckily, some have survived the horrors of that war and made it in archives. Most of the resources are archival materials, and to a certain extent, these are “raw data” that, in the hands of an untrained researcher attempting to go into historical studies, can become dangerous weapons. I say “dangerous weapons” because it is all too easy to interpret these particular events with specific agenda in mind, and without proper hermeneutic lenses, one risks the danger of misrepresenting what happened. I am convinced that I am not the best person to go into these archives precisely because I have not been trained in the methods of historical studies. I do not have, so to speak, eyes that are keen enough to point out nuances.

But what really did happen? We will never know, apart from the archival accounts that are present now through the efforts of Memorare Manila, the organization – composed of survivors, and relatives of victims, among others – that takes upon itself the responsibility of keeping the story alive through various means. we know what happened macroscopically, but we are left in the dark with the details and the specifics of the event. And we are left to fill in the gaps of that story, much like the people who filled in the gaps in the story of the murdered policeman. When something of unimaginable proportion and scope happens, we are usually stripped of the categories that have always given us the comfort of meaning and sense, and we are left to fashion for ourselves a story that provides us with sense.

But most of the time stories and events that escape comprehension are just that: they escape comprehension. Think of the years that it took before it was generally accepted in Europe that the Holocaust did happen, that people were too afraid or too traumatized to talk about things such as the Holocaust. Perhaps these instances of “filling in the gaps” are reflections of the myths that we live by: our insecurities in relation to our experiences of foreignness, our projections of what we desire to have really happened, and so on.

But perhaps it is not that bad; perhaps it is our normal response, to want to search for meaning in an otherwise meaningless hole in our historical narrative. Perhaps we naturally fill in the gaps, not because of some insecurity, but because the story matters. It matters not because we want a complete sketch of our heritage, nor does it matter because we want the perpetrators to be accountable (although it is desirable that they become accountable); no, what I think is that it matters because I am also part of that story, because I am, no matter how time separates me from the event, also implicated in the story. It is also my story.

What story is this? I am only beginning to realize that I am, after all, implicated in the story: the story of the fallenness of humanity, etched on the bullet holes that pockmark the walls of Intramuros, a story of how Filipinos have been usually forgotten, how our story isn’t articulated, because other accounts have more currency. Think, for example, of the rather comical “Battle of Manila” during the Spanish-American war, where Filipinos were forbidden to go in the walled city, because the Spanish and the American forces were waging a mock battle. This event should reflect how Filipinos have always been treated in terms of articulating their own histories: always from the outside, never really involved.

I have always shied away from the tones that chime to the rhythm of nationalism, and events such as the Manila Massacre should give us pause: more than wholesale subscription to a story of an imagined community, we should also give space for the parts in this narrative that we would rather leave in the dark. We should be able to ask the difficult questions about our identities, questions that dismantle our long-held assumptions on what it “means” to be Filipino: about our perceived forgetfulness with history, of our happy-go-lucky (“bahala na“) attitudes to events such as this. I think this uncritical turn to cultural essentialism is the most violent thing we can do to the already violated story of our shared experience. It is a shared experience – the Manila Massacre – not because we are Filipino, but because we are human persons who have the capacity to share the burden of history.

What, then, should the story look like? I think that we can start by telling the story of mourning, how the Manila Massacre should call us to reconsider our assumptions on our identities, and identify events in our shared experience that call us to mourn. We have always prided ourselves with the Philippines being the “pearl of the Orient” even before the Spaniards came, or that we have always found our happy disposition and hospitality as reasons to be proud of. The Manila Massacre – or more specifically, the memory of it – should remind us that there are things in our shared experience that we have yet to understand as being a constitutive part of us. And the silence of these events should encourage us to give voice to this hole, precisely because it matters, and it matters because it is also my story. Perhaps we have been focusing too much on the nostalgia of the past that we forget the faces we have buried simply by telling a story that does not include them.

Which is why I think the interpretation of history cannot be held solely as the responsibility of historians; more than anything, the starting point of any historical inquiry is to locate oneself in the midst of the story one is about to tell. And one has the right to tell the story, simply because I recognize that I also share in the suffering of the strangers that will forever stay as they are: strangers. Any hope of disclosing what really happened belongs to the historians, ours is a more modest form of hope: to be able to tell a story, both of fallenness and of resolve. For there is one thing that separates melancholia from mourning: accepting that things can never be the same again, and precisely because things can never be the same again, something new can rise up. There is then but one reason for refusing to back down from telling the story of the Manila Massacre: the resolve to be part of the story.

If one loses this resolve to be part of the story, then surely we are doomed as a nation. It is not a matter of inclusivity, as it is a matter of being included. It is not me that includes, but rather me that asks for inclusion. But in telling the story, I introduce myself, I am included, and in my retelling of the story, I am able to shape the story. This of course can be an occasion for revisionism. That is not the point. It is therefore important to emphasize the mourning aspect of any attempt to research on events such as the Manila Massacre: only in mourning can we get the sense of otherness that will never give us the satisfaction of finality and complete sense, and that this sense of otherness tempers and reins in the stories we have to tell. Much like someone who pays her respect to the graves that he passes by even if these graves are unknown to her, we too should have the same sense of respect.

Perhaps only then can we begin to talk about forgiveness, not only to those that have committed these unspeakable atrocities, but also to ourselves, for our communal failures to have resolve, and to our failures to remember those who have been buried.

August 12, 2014

Dagitab: a Rilkean Exposition (and an attempt at a review)

“Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’/ hierarchies?” Thus opens Rilke’s well-known Duino Elegies, a product of years of intense bouts of depression and elation. It is said that Rilke immediately wrote these lines upon hearing a female voice “calling out to him” as he was walking along the coastline by the Duino Castle, overlooking the Adriatic Sea. It then seems fortuitous, none the more destinal, that a participating filmmaker from this year’s Cinemalaya could have also heard the same voice that passed through Rilke’e ears, or that he could have heard Rilke himself.

 

Giancarlo Abrahan’s Dagitab (Sparks) manages to respond to Rilke’s near-helpless cry with a direction worthy of placing itself among the angels’ hierarchies. The film portrays the story of a middle-aged couple – a poet and a researcher, both in the academe – who find themselves in their own attempts to break through the daily grind of their less-than-interesting cohabitation glimpses of solitude, at once enduring and transitory. I say “portray” rather than “tell” because I think this to be the crowning achievement of the film: it manages to show the intricacies and complexities of this seemingly-fruitless search for solitude without the didactic tendencies one usually finds in films of this type. This is not to say that this didactic tendency – embodied in monologues and soliloquies by the protagonists – is essentially bad; we find them to be also effective, as with Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, or it could stage the occasional breaking of the fourth wall, as with Nichols’ Wit. But Dagitab manages to push the story into deeper and more complex nuances we usually take for granted in our real-life relationships by showing these without just relying on dialogue. It occasionally treks into voice-overs, as with the magnificent shot of Issey (Eula Valdez) and Gab (Martin del Rosario) lying beside each other on the shore at night, with the residues of the waves repeatedly creeping beneath their skins, with the voice of Gab narrating the first few sentences of his short story “Intersections” at the background. We are, however, treated with a lot of shots where characters, maintaining their proximity with each other, don’t say anything, letting the silence speak through their clearly tense postures and glances. A lot of credit is due to how the shots were framed, maximizing the dramatic potential of bodily gestures with the camera work. We also see a lot of inspiration from Kieślowski’s camera magic, letting the colors push the story further. A telling example would be how the colors of the traffic lights were given literary significance in Gab’s “Intersections,” and how these colors occasionally pop up as the story progresses, suggesting not just the dominant emotions that these characters were going through, but also the direction of the narrative itself, as with Kieślowski’s Trois Couleurs trilogy.

 

With that being said, the story itself deserves a praise of its own. Portraying academics and researchers in film creates a potential for hifalutin discourse, not to mention pretentious plots that reek of bourgeois sentimentality and unfounded and/or imagined messianism. Dagitab manages to avoid these pitfalls by emphasizing on the dynamics of the relationships between the different characters of the film, but it was, admittedly, treading on thin ice the whole film. The second scene where Jimmy (Nonie Buencamino) talks to his guide about his research made my heart skip a beat, as I thought it was so near to falling into that hole. Granted that the concerns and issues were admittedly middle-class, it did not pretend to not be so in the first place anyway; the very setting of the film – UP Diliman, a hotbed for radical thinking – suggests that socio-political issues and personal lives were always in constant tension behind the scenes. The film, however, managed to avoid being swallowed by the rhetoric of these issues, while maintaining a critical distance with it: Jimmy’s research was precisely about a myth surrounding a woman to whom rebels hold a high regard to, and that this was beginning to creep into his daily life. The film’s most challenging parts, I believe, were the shots that did suggest some sort of literary allusion. While there were some scenes that did suggest something – we have at least two scenes where the characters were swatting flies and/or mosquitoes – it is undeniably difficult, if not impossible, to see through the meaning of these shots without background knowledge and appreciation of literature and the humanities. Thus, I would concur that this film was not for everyone, and that it was a thinking person’s film. Nonetheless, for the thinking person, a visual and literary treat awaits.

 

This brings me to my most awaited part of this short write-up; its arguably dominant Rilkean resonances. It is no accident that Rilke figures in so much in the narrative: images regularly employed by the poet figure in the narrative, such as flowers (a lot of his poems), a cat (“Panther”), the “void” (“das Offene” in a lot of his poems, most prominently in “The Eighth Elegy”); the book that Issey gives to Gab as a gift is a copy of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. But the most glaring Rilkean influence has to be the main theme of the film: solitude. A case can be made that the film is all about this almost futile search for solitude, the necessary movement to interiority that most of the time frustrates, but from time to time makes the frustration worthwhile. This solitude is never about isolating oneself from the world and brooding on one’s suffering – Rilke, for instance, tells us that “the necessary thing is after all but this; solitude, great inner solitude. Going into oneself for hours meeting no one – this one must be able to attain.” What ceaselessly amazes me in this film is how this search for solitude is portrayed against the backdrop of a relationship; or more properly speaking, how this search for solitude is done only in the context of a relationship. Jimmy’s obsessive research estranges him from his wife, and Issey’s frustrations lead up to her own space for solitude, with the unlikeliest of companions.

 

To be sure, Dagitab was not the first film that has wonderfully executed portraying this search for solitude, as I have suggested above, but I think it stands out precisely because of its indebtedness to Rilke and Rilke’s own ideas on solitude. Towards the end of the Eighth Elegy Rilke says: “Who has twisted us around like this, so that/ no matter what we do, we are in the posture/ of someone going away? Just as, upon/ the farthest hill, which shows him his whole valley/ one last time, he turns, stops, lingers –,/ so we live here, forever taking leave.” It is not that difficult to talk about solitude, much less the necessity of having that internal space. What Rilke offers is a vision of solitude that is, at the heart of it, transitory. True solitude, we are led to see, involves the acceptance that the profound joy and trembling that one attains in that spark of freedom that one finds in one’s interiority is, at the end of the day, fleeting, like the fireflies that populate the final scene of the film. But it is in solitude that one sees one’s life in transition: from the annoyance of flies to the beauty of fireflies, from red to green in the intersection and the only thing asked of you is to go, Jimmy’s loss of his glasses, thus, paradoxically, making everything clear (I sense an allusion to the Pauline letters to the Corinthians, already alluded to by Bergman’s first film in the Faith Trilogy), from man-made and man-started sources of light – sparks – that end up in smoke (at least three or four times, smoke enters an important frame), to the giving over to a light that does not come from oneself – fireflies.

 

Thus, a question is afforded to the viewer: what constitutes greater love, a life of companionship and “trying to tie loose ends,” or, in the words of Rilke, affording your partner, beyond control and calculation, a space “to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” It is easy to think of love and loving as a kind of spark – thus the double-edged meaning of the film’s title – but there is a more enduring spark: one that does not pretend that it won’t fade, and that it is fine. What counts is, in the words of our poet, that “two people protect each others’ solitudes,” and at the end of the day, come home to something new.

This interplay between solitude and its temporary nature is brought to its sublime heights in Dagitab, a film that at the end of the day, challenges its viewers, in their own fragmented lives and stories, again in the words of Rilke: “you must change your life.” As Gab tells us, there is only one way, and that is to go ahead.

 

It seems fitting, then, to end with words from our poet, which is always already the final word:

 

We need, in love, to practice only this

letting each other go. For holding on

comes easily; we do not need to learn it.

April 20, 2014

The Need to Beg: Or, Being the Prodigal Son

(This is quite a longish read so I beg for your indulgence – anyway, it is Easter! This is a product of four days of silence, and my Christian faith enjoins me to share the joy of the resurrection, no matter how longish and tedious it can be at times. Or most of the time.)

I have always felt some sort of unease whenever I would ask for something. Not that I felt I was unworthy of receiving, but more so with the feeling of not needing to ask because I could do it on my own. I’ve always savoured my lonesome, because it gave me a deep sense of security: there was only one thing to take care of: myself. In short, I thought I didn’t need anyone, and whatever comes to pass will come to pass, and what won’t, will not.

There was also a sense of expectation that I did not want whenever I asked for something, because I knew that once I “place my bet,” so to speak, in something I, for instance, asked for, that expectation was bound to fail. Asking for something meant asking for the best; no room for error, perfectly anchored on the fulfilment of that expectation.

And it was also the case for faith: I felt that I didn’t need to ask for anything from God because – and I thought I was being “open” – whatever comes will come, and I have but one response: receive it as pure gift.

Too often we speak of receiving in contrast to giving. There is always an opposition between the humility of receiving and the humility of giving. Too often we forget that both giving and receiving are done from the position of power: I can control what to give, I can control what to receive (or reject it!). What we too often, forget, however, is that there is a power otherwise than this. In the first chapter of the Gospel according to John, we are told that those who accepted Jesus “He gave the power to be children of God” (Jn 1:12).

What does it mean, to have the power to be a child of God? Was it being “radically open” to everything? I’m sensing a little bit of violence every time we speak of radical openness. It’s as if we’re challenging the one giving all that he or she has: come on and give me your best shot! I don’t think a child is like that. So this power isn’t to be “radically open.” In fact, once you dwell on it, it becomes some sort of a narrow-mindedness: I can take it, wait and see (and look! I can accept it as pure gift!).

 

Is being a child of God, then, radical giving, like the Well of Life that Jesus offers the Samaritan woman (Jn 4:1-26)? To be sure, such a kind of giving is a model for us to follow, as Jesus Himself reminds us in the washing of His disciples’ feet (Jn 13:15). But can we really give that much, to empty ourselves, “taking the for of a slave, […], being obedient to the point of death” (Phil 2:7-8) There is a more disturbing sense of violence here: I am being godly when I give without account. I forget that I am created, and therefore a child of God! To think that one is God constitutes the greatest sin of all: pride. It can take on many forms: vanity, control, hubris, and dare I say it, deluded forms of “service.” There is an underlying presupposition here: I am the center of everything, and everyone is looking at me when I give. Thus, the sin that even the Muslims consider the highest form of blasphemy: forgetting that I am not God. In short, idolatry: to fashion for myself a god, which is none other than a reflection of oneself. Surely, this isn’t what a child is! So being a child of God certainly isn’t this, and only God can give without account.

It seems as if the first case is closer to what we want, despite its deficiencies. So let us delve on that. Imagine a child playing in an open field. Someone at the distance will say, while observing the child: look! The child is “letting be,” allowing himself to run around. Surely she must be radically open to everything that unfolds. What assures us, however, that it is the case? Perhaps the child has been running around not because she was having fun and being free, but because he’s lost and needs somebody?

We are a needy bunch; especially I, who, two and a half months in the breakup, still find myself needing affection and belonging. Too often, however, we moralize being needy as a sign of weakness, as a mark of our finitude that should be fought against. As a result, we fashion an ideal “strong person x,” a self-sustaining and self-regulating being that can chart out her way on his own. Friends have been telling me, hey, be strong, be happy, find for yourself your reason to move on. “Be strong” – the narcissistic slogan of our age of feel-good, quick-fix solutions to problems too deep for a single person to plumb.

Let us go back to the child: he’s lost, and all he wants is to have someone. She needs someone. So he shouts: please, I’m here, lead me back. Now, our present culture tells us, leave that kid alone, he needs to learn how to live in the “real world.” Being lonely is actually now a positive thing, a classroom of life, so to speak, for us to begin to learn how to “live.”

I find it deeply problematic. First, it is as if we never experienced that neediness. Second, (and remember, we are looking at the kid from afar), why aren’t we responding? Too often we’re eaten up by a culture of desensitized emotions: oh, look at that poor thing, what a pity – and then we “move on.” As if the “politically correct” response was to feel pity, post about it in Facebook, the afterwards look for other things to give our so-called compassion.

The point here is not to be like the prodigal father who runs to his lost son when he sees him from afar (only God can run that far!), but to be where the son was upon deciding to return home. He realized he needed someone.

The retreat taught me but one thing, but something that has always escaped my comprehension: the need to beg.

The son, technically, did not “beg” to be reinstated in his own household. But he did have an expectation of how to be reinstated: as one of his father’s hired servants. In short, there was an expectation. Now, what is the connection with begging? – Because every moment of begging also includes within it the need to fulfill an expectation, either to be responded to, or at the very least, to be compensated for. This hidden assumption is confirmed in the speech of the elder brother: “All these years I have served you and not once did I disobey your orders” (Lk 15:29). In other words, I did not beg for anything.

Now we see where the lack of begging leads us: a sense of entitlement. Under every gesture of goodwill is the hidden desire to fulfill a need, an expectation, though, uttered in silence, retains the full force of a resentful curse.

How about the younger son? – Even in the first part of the narrative, we already see him “begging,” but in a sort of calculated way, the kind of begging we employ in our everyday lives: “give me the share of the property” (Lk 15:11). We’re human, and the first step in recognizing one’s humanity is to recognize the need to fulfill desires and expectations, not to bury it with empty platitudes of “generosity” or “selflessness,” but to see it as an integral part of my being human.

I, for one, know that I have to constantly fulfill a desire for intimacy. Perhaps, because it was lacking when I was a child. I also feel the need to understand everything. I am, for lack of good terms, a touchy and a cerebral “thing.”

It took a four-day retreat for me to recognize that I shouldn’t deny them, because these are parts of who I was, who I am now, and who I might probably be in the future. And when we do find ourselves wrapped in self-deprecating guilt (which is another form of pride, not recognizing my humanity by treating sins as if they were outside of me), we find ourselves begging to be set free from those that make us who we are.

So we beg to God to have a “clear conscience,” to have “peace,” and so on. But those contain our own projections and expectations, too. No wonder Feuerbach spoke of religion as projections of our hubris. He was sort of correct.

Sort of. What he failed to see was that God responds. And He responds in the highest order: a suffering son, for whom “everything is made new” (Rev 21:5).

It is God, in the person of Jesus, that breaks open our expectations to reveal, as Pope Francis would say, a “sinner, yet infinitely loved by God.” It is the face of a suffering servant who sunders our reflections to pave the way where “the wind blows where it wills” (Jn 3:8). In short, grace is never in short supply. And the very first “step,” it seems, is to beg.

Begging is true humility: recognizing one’s incompleteness and at the same time recognizing that fullness is as exterior as the face of your loved one. Begging accepts your role as a created being; In short, to beg is to be a child of God.

But how does it become a power? It is a power because it holds fast to Truth, and the truth of the matter is, I am not God. And this is the greatest power, to come up to your Father, ask for everything, and instead gives so much more, even in spite of your failures.

I’ve spent the retreat in prayer, begging for the grace to relax. I’ve noticed that I have been too uptight about everything. Gradually I found myself crying all the time, having the best sleep I’ve had in years, being able to stay put for four hours just to keep watch in the Thursday vigil, even to the point of losing myself reciting the Jesus prayer, with a “voice” intervening my repetition, and being profoundly afraid and disturbed after that, as if I was given the grace of being spoken to by God Himself (I swear it was real.).

I came to the retreat expecting to be “reborn,” like Nicodemus who misinterpreted the Greek word anōthen when jesus actually spoke of “being born from above” (Jn 3:3). I am ending the retreat not as a changed person ready to be used up again: for the first time, I’ve realized that I am a child of God, of being born in His name, which simply means: I am loved beyond measure. Imagine the excessive nature of God’s response: asking for peace and relaxation, He has called me to remember my filiation: that I belong in His dwelling place.

Just like the son who is given back his life and more so too are we called to depend on God, and God will – paradoxically – never fulfill our desires; because it is God who will, as Sister Lucia Vetruse would say, “snap you from your greatest joy and show you His Will.”

One can imagine the son having so much “fun” being back in his father’s house. Did he learn? Like us, most probably, only for a while. The stubbornness of sin will never leave us, so long as we are human. But at the obverse is Christ Jesus, whose love for us can be separated “neither [by] death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature” (Rom 8:38-39).

To be Catholic is to tell a story of captivity, redemption, and salvation. Or, we can say, to learn the terrible and humbling power of being a child of God. To be Catholic is to see Jesus by the shore, cooking fish, and like Peter, jump into the water, towards the Lord (Jn 21:7), who has risen, now and forever, who will be with us until the end of time, and beyond, to the world to-come.

One, then, should imagine Peter hungry, risking drowning, just to be filled. The question for us, and for me, is whether I was jumping for the fish, or for Christ, who has cooked the fish.

I should hope and pray that I’m jumping because it was Christ that cooked the fish, not primarily because of the fish. Two and a half months in the break up, I now find myself at the edge of a clearing in the forest: there are many paths, and one needs time to discover where to step next.

One should, without a doubt, beg for the grace of patience, for it is in waiting that one is magnified, day by day, like Mary (Lk 1:47), by joy – a joy that knows no end, even death on the cross.

Maligayang Pasko ng Muling Pagkabuhay!

 

Holy Saturday
19 April 2014

February 19, 2014

What One Finds in Arayat

Mountains, in Biblical imagery, constitute one of the few places where sacrality happens, where God meets His creation in a face-to-face encounter. One can remember Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac, or Moses’ encounter with a burning bush, or even Jesus’ transfiguration in front of His apostles. An encounter with the incomprehensible happens on the site of the mountain: Michel de Certeau speaks of the white ecstasy – the intensity of things seen – of the vision of God. He says:

Here is what the final bedazzlement would be: an absorption of objects and subjects in the act of seeing. No violence, only the unfolding of presence. Neither fold nor hole. Nothing hidden and thus nothing visible. A light without limits, without difference; neuter, in a sense, and continuous. It is only possible to speak of it in relation to our cherished activities, which are utterly annihilated there. There is no more reading where signs are no longer removed from and deprived of what they indicate. There is no more interpretation if no secret sustains and summons it. There are no more words if no absence founds the waiting that they articulate. Our works are gently engulfed in this silent ecstasy. Without disaster and without noise, simply having become futile, our world—the immense apparatus born of our obscurities—ends.

Surely an encounter that must remain a secret. A secret without a body – precisely because it doesn’t need one. The mountain obscures its sacred ground with the beauty of creation. One is engulfed in the immensity of incomprehensibility, you are nothing in the midst of the sacred. No wonder Biblical authors would speak of the mountain as a site of glory: it is no one’s experience but yours in the face of God.

The mountain is the dwelling place of God. It is a place of purity. When one climbs a mountain, it is of paramount concern to “leave no trace behind,” to leave the place as it is. One enters into a strange place of height: the mountain is not mine, and I will also lose myself when I step on it, to challenge myself with it. In the transfiguration of Jesus, Matthew uses the Greek phrase, to describe the event, prosopon to heteron, which traditionally has been translated as “His face changed.” But one can also translate it as “His face was other-ed.” And this is the greatest risk one can take with oneself to the mountain: the possibility of being changed. In the face of the mysterium tremendum, one cannot but change. One must be prepared to be “other-ed.” Because it is the place of God; I am the visitor, the foreigner, the invader, entering a home that is not mine, that will never be mine.

But one must go down. One must struggle to go back to the flatland. I must go down because I am not God. I am not pure, nor am I the ecstasy of sight. For the Muslims, the greatest sin was to forget that one was not God. And it is the greatest sin to stay in the mountain. It is the dwelling place of God, “the playground of the gods.” Biblical narratives speak of the impossibility of seeing God, so much so that one dies at the sight of the Divine. It must remain a secret enclosed in clouds. One must go down because one is human.

St. Irenaeus of Lyons tells us that “the glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is to see God.” To climb a mountain is to see God, but what does it mean to be fully alive? It is not to reach the summit, but to go down to the struggle of existence, to the faces where God’s trace is inscribed. One brings down the trace of the mountain – God – when one goes down. Human faces become saturated with the glory of a secret when one comes down from the summit.

The mountain is a place of purity, human faces are not. One always leaves traces, like the streaks of tears that come after painful memories. Mountains teach us something: we do not belong there. It is therefore profound that we only belong to the mountain when we die there. We will never belong there so long as we are alive, because one is impure. We leave no trace in the mountain, but we always leave traces to people.

And I think that is the reason why we have to depart from the purity of the mountain. We belong to our traces – our memories – with other people. But at the same time it underscores the importance of climbing one: when one returns from the summit, one is “other-ed.” One is saturated by a sight no one else has seen, so saturated that one sees it in everything, even the imperfection of the creases on one’s face.

It is difficult to climb a mountain, but it is far more difficult to love people, to forgive people, to move on. Assuredly, it is difficult to be human. But in climbing a mountain one is granted a perspective so secret that not even Biblical authors who talked about mountains have spoken about it, to see something that one cannot share to anyone: the patience of waiting. For waiting is the solitude of being human. But waiting also connotes a sense of hope, of turning towards a light not yet perceived, just like climbing a mountain. To wait is to hold on to a trace of an impossible memory, something not-yet-there. To wait is to respond to a promise, however tiny that may be, like the stories of people who have seen the summit, like a word from a loved one.

When you climb a mountain, you learn to trust on a promise, whether it be the summit, the word of a loved one, the comfort of presence, or the promise of salvation, even if it is obscured by the clouds.

To climb a mountain is also to learn to live with the traces you leave with people, because one cannot live in the mountain, because it is too pure to leave something on, because it is not yours. To climb a mountain is to learn what is not yours, and to respect that fact and to live with it. This is the only way, in the most real sense, to move on and begin anew, or, to be more precise, as if all things were new again, even the past.

“Behold, I make all things new.”

– Rev 21:5

December 29, 2013

Kieślowski’s Dekalog, sześć: a Study

βλέπομεν γὰρ ἄρτι δι’ ἐσόπτρου ἐν αἰνίγματι, τότε δὲ πρόσωπον πρὸς πρόσωπον.

ἄρτι γινώσκω ἐκ μέρους, τότε δὲ ἐπιγνώσομαι καθὼς καὶ ἐπεγνώσθην.

– ΠΡΟΣ ΚΟΡΙΝΘΙΟΥΣ Α΄ 13:12

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.

– 1 Corinthians 13:12 (NASB)

For the longest time I have preferred the English Standard Version as my go-to Bible translation, mostly because of the word usage and the general syntactic structure that seemed to “make sense” to me. But in this particular passage (which stands as one of my most favorite passages in all of writing), the New American Bible delivers, with the subtle usage of punctuation. Instead of “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known,” we get in the NASB “now I know in part, but then I will know fully, as I also have been fully known.” The shift from the semicolon to the comma reminds me of the preference of Professor Ashford in Mike Nichols’ film Wit, where the comma signifies not a full stop, nor a separate thought apart from the first clause, but a transition – a mirror – between before and after, life and death. In the passage we see how “knowing” is not entirely separate from “knowing in part” and “knowing fully” because knowing is in itself made possible because “I also have been fully known.” The quick separation between partial and full knowing happens in an instant, like a face in the metro that evokes a happy memory. It is not some long intellectual process, but a happening, an eventThis is further confirmed in the Greek, where ἐπιστήμη (epistemé) is no where to be found. Rather, we are told of knowing as a kind of γνωστικός (gnōstikos), a special (i.e., secret) kind of knowledge that is already “known” (γνωστός), suggesting an event or an encounter. This event is not some result of a skill (as is suggested by epistemé, not to be confused with the almost-similar meaning in the Greek word τέχνη) but rather is unexpected – as the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas likes to say, “of God who comes to mind.”

I think this subtle preference can be the key in understanding Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Dekalog, sześć. The film became some sort of an enigma to me when I first watched it. I then consulted some websites that offered interpretations of the film, and I came across The Film Sufi’s brilliant interpretation, which kind of set me to have my own reading of the film. Let me lay out some sort of structure to this post: first, I will discuss the cinematic techniques that Kieślowski employs that provides us a window into the psyche of the characters involved, along with the extant themes of the film; the second part will talk about these themes in detail (though not in the degree that other blogs have done, who in my opinion are brilliant, such as Senses of Cinema, and of course The Film Sufi); finally, we will look into its intimate connection with our short exegesis we have done above.

Kieślowski is quite known for employing colors to convey thoughts. One is reminded of the scene in Dekalog, trzy, where Ewa crashes Janusz’s car unto a Christmas tree in the climactic scene of the episode:

Image

The colors do not only signal the dominant emotions in the scene – one of tension, anger, and resentment – but also signals the beginning of the high-point of the narrative: Ewa confesses in the station that she would have killed herself if Janusz left her in the middle of the night. In the penultimate scene we see Ewa flashing her headlights as goodbye to Janusz (it is interesting to note that Ew drives a red car, and Janusz a white one). In the final confrontation with the wife, we see again Kieślowski’s employment of light and color to signal a shift in the narrative:

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The light that emanates from somewhere (the window, but in this scene it is suggested that one can only imply that it was the window – the frame is brilliant for suggesting that the light is there, while not showing the source of the light), reminding me of Caravaggio’s The Calling of Mathew. That is to say, Janusz “turns to the light” in confessing to his wife and telling her that he won’t be “going out again in the evenings” (notice that he never promises; he just tells he won’t), thus keeping the Sabbath Day – in this case, Christmas gains an all-new and deeper meaning – holy.

So we are to treat colors not only as an evocation of emotions, but also cinematic cues that signal a shift in the narrative. We also see this in sześć, during Magda’s confrontation to a bruised Tomek’s confession of his love to Magda outside 376:

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The framing here is excellent: the window behind them is surrounded with red, with the light emanating from that very small space. Notice, also, that Tomek faces Magda when he says he loves her, and Magda looks on, away from Tomek’s face. The next scene shows Tomek partially illuminated by the light that emanates from the window. Notice that he wears blue (it is Tomek who wears the colorful clothes for much of the film, except for the date scene before the “events” in Magda’s apartment, where Tomek wears black and white) – this will be very important later on:

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The partial illumination obscures the bruise on Tomek’s right eye, suggesting a kind of naïveté that is either childish (you do not know better) or childlike (I just know). The partial illumination should also tell us the conflict within Tomek as he professes that he wants “nothing” from Magda (this, again, will be important later on). The next scene has Tomek running around outside the apartment in happiness as per Magda’s acceptance of his invitation to have a date (where the ominous God-figure makes his first appearance – a person in white overalls carrying a white bag and a brown bag). It is interesting to note that in this scene only the uninjured face of Tomek is shown, suggesting the childlike/childish duality we have mentioned earlier.

Again, we have said that colors signal not just emotions but events. This scene prefigures their date, which climaxes in Magda’s attempt to get him in bed and Tomek’s subsequent suicide attempt (or was it?). We have mentioned that Tomek, for the first time in the film, wears contrasting colors: black and white. What does this tell us? – that perhaps, Tomek is running up to a crisis – krinein in Greek means decision – as to whether he truly loves Magda or not. The face-to-face encounter may be too much for Tomek to bear, and the moment of choice comes up to him. Magda, on the other hand, coerces Tomek to sensualities, going as far as to attempt to have him in bed, which results in Tomek’s very premature ejaculation. We learn that Magda is trying to “teach him a lesson” that there is nothing more to love than ejaculation (but is it just that?), and she succeeds, albeit to disastrous results.

Another technique that Kieślowski employs is the use of close-up shots that focus on the eyes. More than just an emphasis on emotiveness and sincerity, these shots are also meant to tell us that character development is not done or does not happen with oneself alone – it is always with another person, to whom the character beholds his or her eyes to. In short, Kieślowski wants to show us the relational aspect of being human, and in terms of character development, the roundness of characters can only be possible with other characters in the narrative (even the Dostoevsky’s underground man was at some point relational). It is thus not an accident that Kieślowski focuses on the only aspect of the human face that has sharply contrasting colors – the eyes (white, and non-white, and in the most common cases, black and white). What, then, does this tell us? – that it is in the face, particularly the eyes, that we can see Kieślowski’s characters grow, in the moment of decision, of either this or that, of krinein.

What is particularly brilliant in the film is how Kieślowski juxtaposes eyes but separates them through mirrors and glass. Tomek’s use of the telescope is obvious; the first encounters with Tomek and Magda happen in the post office, separated by a window, and of course Tomek’s and Magda’s rooms can be perused because of the presence of windows. Despite this separation, however, there is always an opening and a “way” of being intimate: the telescope erases distance, the window in the post office has a hole where Tomek can see Magda face-to-face:

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(Notice in this scene that after this shot, we get to see Magda, but not through the opening – this will change in the final scene where it is Magda that sees through the hole. More on this later.)

Now, on to the more “juicy” part. All these cinematic techniques are meant to tell a story of human frailty, especially in the realm of love. Though some commentators have pointed out that Tomek’s love was pure, I stand by Spirituality and Practice‘s interpretation that Tomek’s innocence is shattered when they finally have each other face-to-face. This explains, in my opinion, the use of contrasting colors during the date scene – the most painful shattering of an idol is when you choose one over another. Tomek’s idealization of Magda (yes I think it was an idealization, because there was never really any “real” encounter between them) happens when it is Tomek that assumes the receiving end of Magda’s conception of love. This also tells us another thing: that love entails a decision that cannot be content with distance – notice Tomek’s godmother, who tells Tomek at the first part of the film that women also want “tenderness.” The interesting thing about the telescope is that it provides an illusion of intimacy and closeness; what we fail to realize is that inside the telescope there are numerous mirrors, and the more mirrors there are, the closer we can get. Paradoxical, isn’t it? Tomek was seduced to a naive kind of love. Surely he was right when he told Magda that he wanted nothing; what he failed to realize was that love itself also had a physical dimension, and it is this that one must choose to assume.

Likewise, Magda did not attend to the spiritual dimension of love, and resisted any kind of idealization of it. It was she who told Tomek that “there is nothing more to love than sex.” But after Tomek’s suicide attempt, we see a role reversal: it is Tomek that experiences the intensity of sensuousness in his suicide attempt (represented, again, by red), and it is Magda that now uses a telescope (a pair of binoculars) to watch over Tomek’s arrival.

So in the end, both Tomek and Magda are cases of human frailty – one too attached to sensuousness, and one too innocent to dwell in the world.

The final scene presents somewhat of an ambiguous end to the narrative. Magda visits the post office and finds Tomek working, to her joy. She approaches him and Tomek tells her “I’m not peeping you anymore.” First, it is clear that the roles have reversed. We now have Magda looking at Tomek through the hole in the glass:

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But the role reversal does not stop there. It is not as simple as Magda becoming Tomek and Tomek becoming Magda; notice the lighting in this shot – Magda’s face is partially illuminated. We also see Tomek’s partially illuminated face:

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What is interesting here is that the other scene where Tomek’s face was partially illuminated (we have pointed out above) had the illumination reversed. The scene before concealed the bruise that Tomek incurred at the hands of Magda’s angry lover. Now, we see, with the illumination, that the wound has healed.

What does all this have to do with role reversal? – They didn’t simply “switch sides,” but rather, they were transformed – conversio. This is the real reversal in the film.

For Magda, her face is illuminated halfway to tell us of the moment of choice that Magda had undergone. Remember the scene where her lover comes over, to which she replies “I am not here.” That was the moment of decision, whereafter she confesses through the phone (presumably it was Tomek on the other side, but I think it was his godmother) that he was right, that love really did exist.

For Tomek, the moment of choice reached its climax when he ejaculated (shades of Michel de Certeau’s “white ecstasy”), to which he left the apartment without his coat – a black coat. We have said earlier that Tomek lost his innocence in that event, so it would have been logical to have a white shirt left over. But I think this is where Kieślowski’s genius comes in: the black coat signified the loss of his black-and-white ideal of love and sex. So yes, he learns from Magda, but in the hard way. The suicide attempt was not guilt-driven, in my opinion. It was, above all, a baptism (notice the bowl that he uses to catch the blood).

So what does this have to do with the oft-repeated quote from the Corinthians? – I bring you to the final scene, where Magda passes by the post office and sees Tomek, through a glass:

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After which she goes in and looks at Tomek face-to-face through the hole. I think this sums up the film: how one learns to love not by calculating and by pre-empting any kind of definition of love (as both of the characters did), but by an event that is not of their doing, the forgotten “third term” in any relationship: God. It is this “third term” that sunders any corruption and adulteration of love (both of Tomek and Magda) and restores communion through conversion and encounter. The final line is telling: “I am not peeping you anymore.” While others have interpreted this as Tomek falling out of love, I think it just reaffirms the love that, perhaps for the first time, they now share: one does not need telescopes and distance to love; it is already in front of you, and the choice is there. Both of their half-illuminated faces tell us that both of them have chosen to love not just despite of but because of their respective frailties.

December 27, 2013

Bioshock: Infinite – an Attempt at a Philosophical Interpretation; or, a Grad Student Playing a Video Game

Gloria enim Dei vivens homo, vita autem hominis est visio Dei.

St. Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses

My mind has yet to comprehend the extent of the narrative that Bioshock: Infinite has presented. It remains for me one of the most engaging and thought-provoking narratives in the game world (I have not yet played the Mass Effect franchise so I cannot determine with finality that Bioshock presents the most thought-provoking narrative). I say “one of the most” because in my opinion, Snake Eater and Knights of the Old Republic remain the best narrative-driven games I have ever played. Infinite, however, fares well, and I have immensely enjoyed the game itself. The ending was quite unexpected, to say the least, and I have been wracking my head, trying to understand the more-than-fifteen-minutes of nonstop revelations in the final sequence of the game.

(Since this is about the final scene of Infinite, and since this is an interpretation of the whole game based on the ending, it is obvious enough that this post contains spoilers. Play it first and enjoy!)

(I have seen as per the comments in sites offering interpretations on how the DLC “changes the whole equation.” As a disclaimer, I have not yet played the DLCs so this interpretation is strictly within the bounds of the original narrative.)

To have some sort of “skeletal structure” in this post, allow me to outline what I want to accomplish here. The first part will present my own interpretation of the ending, drawing some of the insights from other people in the internet. The second part will try to synthesize the aforementioned interpretation philosophically, i.e., using specific philosophical lenses in order to flesh out some highly interesting themes that run throughout the game and not just the ending.

I will begin with the final scene before the screen goes black (pre-credits, as the post-credits scene shows Booker in his apartment on the 8th of October 1893 [which will be significant later on]). Those that have played the game and who have tried to understand the ending know the story: that Booker Dewitt was actually Zach Comstock in an alternate universe where he chose to be baptized after the massacre at Wounded Knee. Lutece (I will refer to “them” as Lutece only because they’re not actually twins; Robert Lutece is an alternate-universe version of Rosalind in her frequent time-jumping), feeling remorse for the events that led to the creation of Columbia and the murder of Lady Comstock (and of course her/themselves) and the ensuing chaos with the Vox Populi, decides to craft a sort of master plan that will eventually “end” the timeline where Comstock rose to power by killing him “in his birth.” The period between Lutece’s decision to “kill off” Comstock right up to the very end of the game constitutes the whole “linear” narrative of the game. The final scene shows Elizabeth (who is revealed to be Anne Dewitt, Booker’s daughter whom he sold off to “pay off his debts”) smothering Booker/Comstock upon finally realizing that “he was both,” thus effectively ending the timeline where Comstock rose to power.

But did it really stop there?

Notice, that at the absolute final scene, the Elizabeths – time-space permutations of herself – started to disappear upon Booker’s death. This suggests that the timelines have been closed off because Comstock ceased to exist at the moment where he was “created” or reborn. But notice how the screen cuts to black before the final Elizabeth disappears. Now this for me is the real cliffhanger of the game – we are left to wonder if the timelines where Elizabeth is actually Elizabeth (that is to say, how we know her in Columbia) are closed off forever.

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Now this is where things get interesting. Before Booker gets smothered, the Elizabeths tell him: “You chose to walk away, but in other oceans you didn’t. You took the baptism and you were born again as a different man.” This is very telling: there was only one timeline where Booker chose to walk away. All the other timelines had him take on his “new life” as Comstock. Why is this interesting? – Well, it might be conjectural, but one is left to wonder if the final Elizabeth who does not disappear indeed stays there because that will be the only permutation of Elizabeth that Booker will meet and see through to the very end. Notice the dress (the “first” Elizabeth that Booker meets in the tower) – she disappears, except for the Elizabeth who wears Lady Comstock’s dress. This tells us one thing: that Elizabeth couldn’t have gone to that point without Booker choosing to reject the baptism. Notice, also, that Elizabeth changes her dress after she kills Daisy Fitzroy. Before she kills Fitzroy, remember that Elizabeth opens a Tear in order to “revive” Chen Lin. And they never go back to the original narrative (hence Elizabeth’s warning “are you sure?”). What does this have to do with the ending? – That the Elizabeth that wears lady Comstock’s dress couldn’t have lived to the very end without her opening the tear during Chen Lin’s revival, which naturally needed the intervention of the Booker that chose to reject the baptism.

This is where I think things get metaphysically “wonkers.” What do these events tell us? – that no one could have stopped Comstock, because the final scene tells us that things are in perpetual cycle – Elizabeth stays, because Booker in an alternate universe chose to reject baptism, which led him to Columbia to rescue Elizabeth, which led to that point where Comstock is “killed.” But that doesn’t really “kill” Comstock – remember Elizabeth’s matter-of-fact statement in the lighthouse, that killing someone doesn’t really “kill the timeline” but rather is just one of the infinite number of narratives possible. Yes, Elizabeth might have pointed she sees through all the Tears, which might imply that she knows that killing Comstock will end the whole cycle. But we are forgetting one thing: Rosalind/Robert Lutece.

Lest we forget, they were the brains behind the whole elaborate scheme. It is highly implausible that they couldn’t have seen the extent of Elizabeth’s powers. They would have anticipated it. I think this is not mere conjecture. In fact, we get a “clue” in the very first scene of the game, where Rosalind tells Robert that she “doesn’t believe in the entire thought experiment.” Throughout the game we see Rosalind losing out to bets with Robert, suggesting a linear kind of narrative and a success to the experiment (the scheme with Booker kills himself in the final scene). But in the end Rosalind was correct: she would have disturbed the time-space fabric enough to have made the whole scenario unstoppable, including the extent of Elizabeth’s powers. She anticipated Elizabeth realizing her powers, and for Rosalind, this wouldn’t have stopped anything (in the end Robert was just a distraction to the narrative, which makes it all the more mysterious, in my opinion), even her and Booker’s attempt to kill off Comstock before everything unfolded.

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This brings us (finally – my mind was beginning to ache) to the second part of this post. The unstoppability of the whole system – the warping of time-space – reflects what Columbia represented: a hypercapitalistic society. A friend pointed out that the fact that Columbia was “high above the clouds” represented capitalist society’s attempt to break free from the material conditions that determined the social class. Even the “highest abstractions” – represented by the clouds – aren’t enough to remove oneself from the material conditions of existence. It masks them, like the clouds that obscure vision. Marx himself talks about the shortening of turnover time (the time it takes for capital to become gains, in perpetua) as the driving force of the capitalist mode of production. This is represented by Lutece’s “tinkering” with the time-space fabric – the very attempt to become efficient produces its own contradiction: it becomes more and more uncontrollable. This, we learn, becomes the driving force of American exceptionalism – the post-credits scene has the date 8th of October 1893: in that same year, the world trade fair in Chicago was held. It was curiously named “the world’s Columbian Exposition.” The fair has had a profound impact in the globalization of the market – the flashpoint in Marx’s description of Capitalism, also mentioned in the Communist Manifesto:

Modern industry has established the world market, for which the discovery of America paved the way. This market has given an immense development to commerce, to navigation, to communication by land. This development has, in its turn, reacted on the extension of industry; and in proportion as industry, commerce, navigation, railways extended, in the same proportion the bourgeoisie developed, increased its capital, and pushed into the background every class handed down from the Middle Ages.

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This brings us to the other interesting point in Infinite: the religious angle. A lot of people, understandably, have been offended by the caricature of religious fundamentalism in the game. I think that the portrayal of religion in the game revealed a deeper, more disturbing consequence of the unstoppable machine of capitalism: even “religious purity” is subsumed under the system. We need only to be reminded by Marx, again in the Manifesto, of the ruling class’ “simplification of class antagonisms.” We see this in Columbia itself, where Comstock disenfranchises the poor and the non-white, portraying them as “other.” But in the end, even Fitzroy is eaten by the system by playing into the class antagonism by the ruling class. And isn’t this the “hallmark” of fundamentalism? – the simplification of class antagonism. Liberalism has reacted to it by negating any antagonism (and I think a connection can be made with Rapture in the earlier Bioshock games), but does nothing to address it. “Religion” in this sense also functions as a literary device to represent this simplification of antagonisms. Worse, religion becomes the “opium” (read: vigors) by which this antagonism is enforced through the language of the pious.

It is furthermore interesting that the date in the post-credits scene – October 8 – also tells us that the events where Booker might have finally broken free from the grip of the system comes after the conclusion of the Parliament of the World’s Religions (which was also part of the Columbian Trade Fair) on the 30th of September. Scholars have pegged this event as the “birth” of interreligious dialogue, but also the beginning of the globalization of religion, i.e., the subsumption into the cultural logic of capitalism – how “Eastern” religion becomes a construction of the West, and in turn the “East” re-constructing itself vis-a-vis the Western construct. It is of no surprise that the Boxer Rebellion figures in the game: this also represents the fetishization of the East.

What can we learn from this whole exercise? – that human agency – represented by Lutece – can only go so far to attempt to stop the machination of capitalism. This doesn’t mean that nothing can be done; notice in the game that everything is structured according to human agency – time-space is multiplied infinitely according to human choices. Perhaps Infinite tells us that the answer lies not in the centrality of human agency. This jives in well with Marx’s conviction that human essence must not be conceived in terms of abstract sensuousness, but with social relations, as we see in the Theses on Feuerbach. If we look at The German Ideology, we in fact see a focus on the production of the conditions that will allow for revolution to take place. What does this tell us? – that human persons are still agents of change, and indeed they can change society – “to change the world” as with the Eleventh Thesis – but only after abandoning the idea that human flourishing in itself is the finality of action. We then understand Elizabeth’s and Booker’s exchange nearing the end (which is referenced in the beginning before the first scene begins) in a more profound manner: E: “are you afraid of God?” B: “I’m afraid of you.” That is to say, one should be afraid of putting human agency at the center of everything, because it leads to nothing but ruin.

What is it, then? – Here we begin the discourse on the relation between man/woman and nature, pointed out by Marx in the Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts. Even Irenaeus foresaw this: the glory of God is the living man, and the life of man is the vision of God. It is through vision that man becomes “aright,” but God precedes the vision. It is not merely about man that man becomes him/herself – it is for something other than him/her. It is in this that God is “fully alive” – when man is finally reconciled with him/herself in, with, and for others. Forgiveness (the high point of religious ecstasy in Infinite), then, is not about “having life anew,” but it is about possibilizing the irruptions of the divine, which man and his or her agency can never control.

It is with this thought that we finally end this long and arduous exercise.

November 13, 2013

Exile: or, to Yolanda

But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. […]. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.

– Isaiah 9:1-2

Growing up in a family that was technically not a family – that is to say, a broken one – I thought that it would be easy to “live alone,” so to speak. Father was regularly going around the country for business, so even then, I was nurtured to be a “grown-up:” to be used to your parents not being at home, and to be used to living alone. So when the family broke up, I had that itching stoicism within me that told me that I can take this all in.

And I guess it was quite reinforced when I studied in Manila. No doubt, I came from Manila and I grew up in the “gates of hell,” but I spent my so-called “formative years” in Iloilo, of whom I have every bit of affection to. So I wasn’t that much of a stranger to a change in context; I was able to assimilate quite well with a particular culture (I learned Bisaya in the two and a half months I stayed in Cagayan de Oro). Going back to Manila, then, was like revisiting my grandmother’s house: still there, but not quite. But the atmosphere was more or less the same. You only had yourself to look out for. You could say that the second amendment was built on that, on the idea of “I can handle this with my own hands.” – And “handle this myself” I did: I always got puzzled looks from my friends when i insisted that I eat out alone, or go somewhere alone. It was not that difficult to do it; it was just the way life was for me at that time.

So my transits between my provinces (Iloilo and Cagayan de Oro) and the city were literally transits: my visits were like whiffs of coffee when you scurry past the dining table during breakfast time. You can taste it – being home – but you always feel left out, as if it was you who was not part of that picture. You always gravitate towards the blinding light streaks that undulate across your windshield as you travel down the road – it was like that, just passing by.

2008 was quite a shock not only because it was my first year in college: Frank happened. For the first time, I felt helpless. Some of my friends were no where to be found. The floodwaters rushed up like a spring; nobody was quite prepared for it. Everyone near the river was reduced to sitting ducks on their rooftops. As images of death and destruction filled my newsfeed (Facebook was still not that “advanced” back then), I felt – and I swear it was the first time that I felt it – numb. Not because the “excremental assault” of these images were too much for me; it was that simple but disturbing feeling of being away from where you’re supposed to be: a spectator of my own possibilities for suffering. My feet trembled at the sight of people holding on to branches; it gnawed on me that I might have been that person. It could have been me. But I felt numb: I am supposed to be there, but I am not.

I remember that sinking feeling during the relief operations: only a few of us were there (less than five?). I helped SLB pack some goods in rice sacks, so that they will be shipped off to Iloilo first thing the next day. As I placed the goods in those sacks, the absurdity of it dawned on me: what if I was the one who was at the receiving end of this economy of relief?

Then Ondoy happened. 2009 was quite memorable because everyone just had a hand to help; one time there was actually more volunteers than there were goods. The need was indeed enormous; millions of people were affected, and being the imperial capital of the Philippines, goods were coming in like flies on a corpse. Everything stood still, just so people can help out. The shock was overwhelming; the stench of death permeated the air (especially in Provident – oh how I couldn’t forget that smell!), the images of people smashing against the bridge, leaving nothing but floating bodies being swept away, as if the storm hadn’t paused for its dead. It was clear; it was a tragedy to not respond – the only human thing to do is respond, even in a psycho-social way. Support groups were always around, people consoled each other. It was like family.

Sendong came. I nearly lost an aunt – she was struck by a piece of the roof as the river burst its banks and sent out a horrendous wall of water to the city. I was attending a conference when my mother – now in New Zealand – called me and told me to call my relatives because they have not yet been contacted. I feared for the worst; I knew that they lived in a low-lying area, and it will be a miracle to see them come out of it standing. By the grace of God, they did, with my aunt sustaining a deep cut on her leg, but nothing worse than that. Certainly it was better than those who actually died.

I was days away from leaving for Iloilo when it happened. It situated me within that uneasy space between my hometown (safe and sound from the storm) and a town that I have learned to also call my home (Cagayan de Oro). I told to myself: not this again. Once again, I was in exile: where was home, I hadn’t had an idea. I was at a loss, and once again, that numbness persisted: the feeling of watching those that you love and hold dear to you suffer immeasurably, and resigning to the simple fact that you cannot do anything.

Habagat also happened, and I was in Indonesia. I was always at the wrong place at the wrong time. I was also supposed to be affected by it. I do not understand, honestly, why this happens: to be forced to become a spectator of disasters.

And now Yolanda comes in and slices the Philippines in half. The death toll could exceed Ondoy, Pepeng, Sendong, and Pablo combined. There is no measure for the suffering that it has caused. And now I am stuck here in Manila, thinking: why am I here?

I think one can only go through so much, accumulated in memories for the past four years. Being away from home is never an easy thing, but nobody can prepare you for this: to be away from your home, and to see your home stripped bare, down to its foundations.

And I think those from the province understand quite well: no one can ever understand somebody who has seen before his or her very eyes her “family” being taken away from him or her, like a child being taken away for his first injection: the screams and the tears that fill your senses, because for the first time, you are in the hands of somebody or something alien to you. Looking back, perhaps that was the reason why I felt so numb: I was afraid that I would have no control over what was happening right before my very eyes.

And city-dwellers can never quite understand, I think, because it is not their homes that are torn apart by the silent beauty of our planet. It was heartbreaking to see people generally not care, going about their workaday lives, as if there was no disaster. It was heartbreaking, most especially, to see people who gave their all during times when it directly affected them, but turn a blind eye on their suffering brothers and sisters that were practically no where near the vicinity of their consciousness.

(That is why I always cry whenever people from the city show their concern and actually extend help; it is beyond comprehension for me to see them, without any direct link to those that suffer, extend so much of their selves just to help out. Most, however, are not of the same disposition to help, not even an inkling of concern you can extract from them.)

And I think I reached that breaking point where it was already impossible to become numb. Tears streamed down my face as I listened to the indifference of the priest during Sunday mass; it became difficult to control my feelings against those who claim some kind of ascendancy in their “interpretations” of what happened; it became overbearing to hear superfluous complaints, from the stain on their shirts to the fatigue that comes from studying.

This is not to say that these efforts are worthless, or that everything should stop. I get it that people really have to move on, and that is a fact of life. But there are also people who might be keeping something from everyone a sense of “not exactly being here;” the guilt of not being at home, of being in exile.

I guess that is included in the package, so to speak. The decision to be away from home comes at a price: sometimes a friend, or at times your house. And to continue to watch your own friends turn a blind eye on the suffering people of your home sometimes is too much to bear. The only way to continue from now on is to bear the burden to extend a helping hand, because it is not an easy thing. If one comes to relief operations with the hope of “feeling good,” you are only kidding yourself. To know – approximately – how it feels to be away from home and to lose a home also means to know approximately that it is important to help out those that have lost so much.

A while ago I attended a talk by a Rabbi on the 75th anniversary of the indignation of the Philippines against Kristallnacht. Towards the end a member of the audience – a Jew – stood up and looked at us, students and young professionals, and told us squarely: the only thing that can get you through is family, no matter how far away they are.

Looking back the past four years, I asked myself: but what happens if you don’t have this “family” to get by with, and every time you say “this is home,” it is taken away from you?

To be far away is a burden, but I guess at the end of the day, it also becomes some kind of a responsibility, not only to tell of your home and of your loved ones, but more importantly to begin the long trek home. After all, the tipping point of any exile is also the point where you finally decide: it is time to go home.

Even if it is yet to be found. Or more properly, it is also where other people have lost theirs.

So perhaps I was right when I was taught to look out for myself, but perhaps I was also wrong. Either way, I am left a sojourn. Things have to move on. I guess that is the best lesson we can get from one’s exile: to just move on.