HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated June 16, 2013 – 12:00am
The first time I came across the book A Question of Heroes by Nick Joaquin some 30 years ago, I was surprised to learn that many among our national heroes were men who, despite their achievements and great deeds, had feet of clay. They had flaws, some of which were serious; they had their failings and imperfections. Some of them were drunks, opportunists and slackers, but they somehow rose to the occasion and were great when they had to be.
It was fascinating and somewhat liberating to know that these people who were stellar figures in our history were not perfect, ideal characters who had nothing but love for and devotion to the country. They were also driven by self-interest, which sometimes served them, but also hounded them. But even as I read about their shenanigans, I could empathize with these heroes. I liked them precisely because they were human, just like the rest of us.
This reminded me that everyone is given the chance to be a hero.
One of my heroes is Nelson Mandela. He was born in a society that despised the race he was born into. As a young man, he raged against apartheid and was put behind bars where he stayed for 27 years, the longest-held political detainee in human history. When he has finally released in 1990, he negotiated peace and reconciliation with the white South African government. He was elected president in 1994, the first black president of South Africa. A lesser man would have gotten back at the white supremacists of South Africa who made his life and that of the black majority a living hell, but he did not surrender to the basic instincts of hate and revenge. Instead, he showed forgiveness, patience, compassion as he unwaveringly pursued his vision of a multi-racial South African society living in peace and harmony. Mandela was an exceptional human being and his journey was most extraordinary.
Did he have failings and weaknesses? Yes. He was at times arrogant and even quite vain. He liked wearing expensive clothes. Surely, he had other faults. Earlier in his life he believed in armed struggle. I don’t know if that is a fault given his situation then, but fortunately, time and circumstance made him see the wisdom of the peaceful and compassionate path.
Joseph Campbell writes that everyone goes through what he calls a “hero’s journey.” I am amazed at how true this is. He says that every person starts out in some sort of Paradise, and then is thrown out of it. He then goes through the jungle, meeting teachers and mentors along the way, learning things and returning to his origins to teach what he has learned. This pretty much comprises the highlights of a hero’s journey. In essence, this is what great life stories are about. To live heroically requires some struggle.
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Think of Frodo of Lord of the Rings, and Luke Skywalker of Star Wars. Both were living in some sort of Eden, Frodo in the Shire and Luke in a distant, quiet planet far, far away. Both heard the call to adventure, and responded to it hesitantly. But in no time, they were on their way to a “quest,” as if they were being pulled by it. They went through dark, dangerous forests, and suffered through hardships. Along the way, they met mentors and allies who shared with them the ways of the wise. They went through training, acquired new skills, and eventually transformed into better, more adept persons than they originally were. In the process, they faced their demons and enemies and triumphed over them, to return to their societies with wisdom and stature.
Think of your own life and I’m sure you will be able to pinpoint that moment when you felt your great disappointment or fear. It was the time when you were thrown out of Eden. It was your loss of innocence and your introduction to life outside your comfort zone. Welcome to reality.
I felt I was kicked out of Paradise when my dad died. I was in grade school. Things changed suddenly. We had to move from our nice, big house with a swimming pool, into a small, cramped apartment. It was definitely a step down.
But it was also an adventure, like entering into a dark forest not unlike the quest of finding oneself and discovering one’s own talents and strengths in a new situation. The journey from being a kid to a young man is always a special learning of sorts. I learned a lot from great teachers, books, my mom, conversations with uncles and aunts, kuyas and ates, and from life itself. I had to deal with my fears and disappointments, mustering love and courage, and imbibe everything I had to learn to become a man. All this on top of the basic knowledge that I had to master in school.
Rizal also had his own experience of being thrown out of Eden as he felt the shame his family went through when they had a tussle with church authorities. He went on a literal journey to Europe where he learned about reforms, freedom, art, history, medicine, and developed his personal truths. When he returned to the homeland, he planted his seeds of knowledge, his aspirations and his vision for the country. Although he was executed for his beliefs, he went through his journey and succeeded.
If you analyze their lives, Jesus and the Buddha went through the same stages: the call, the journey, the testing, the discovery of their own strengths (overcoming temptations), the enlightenment or clarity they experienced (Buddha under the Bodhi tree, Jesus in the desert), and their decision to “pay it forward.”
Everyone is called to take the hero’s journey as Campbell suggests, but not everyone automatically succeeds at it. Surely, everyone is called to life. It goes with being born. What we do with that life makes all the difference. There are many callings that we will hear. One will be the calling to walk the same path and follow the map that our parents used when they took their journey. Some will only hear society’s call to conform. Some will hear a call so new and scary that they may flinch when they look down its path.
So how do you know which call to heed in your own hero’s journey? Campbell suggests that we follow the one that leads us to our own bliss.
“We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us,” Campbell says. “Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors for you where there were only walls.”
This is something I have experienced to be true many times in my life.
To me, being a hero is not just about listening to one’s higher sense of purpose, adventure and meaning but to have the audacity to actually plunge into the unknown dark path in pursuit of it. Many may hear the call but opt for a safer, tried and tested path. Or there may be no path to see, or a template to follow. So you must carve your own way.
The path becomes clearer at the time and pace that you are coming unto your own person. You just have to trust it.
As I write this, it is June 12 and we our celebrating our own day of independence. I look at the challenges that are staring us in the face as a nation. Challenges are callings. Which ones must we respond to?
Surely, as a nation, we were thrown out of Eden a long time ago. We have lost a big part of our innocence and wasted precious time wandering aimlessly in the forest. It is time to listen to the wise among us in order to find our way out of the maze we are in. It’s time to gain new wisdom and skills and slay the dragons that stand in our way.
Using the metaphor of the ocean, we must avoid the false allure of the mermaid’s siren song that will surely lead us astray, as has happened again and again in the past. The greater heroes among us must speak louder and set the course for the national journey with their own visions that coincide with the greater interest of everyone. And like we did in EDSA, let us all show up again, but this time, we must learn the lessons and acquire the skills and character we need to pull off more miracles.