Friday, January 28, 2005

Finding Courage

When the Famicom (a.k.a. Family Computer) or NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) first came out in the 1980s, one of the most popular games released by Nintendo was The Legend of Zelda. It was revolutionary for its time, and one of the concepts I liked about it was the idea of the triforce. The triforce was comprised of three triangles (I'd say pyramid but the graphics was still 2D at the time), each one representing a virtue: power, courage, and wisdom. The bad guy had the triforce of power. The hero, Link, had the triforce of courage. Later in the series, he'd eventually get the triforce of wisdom, and eventually, the triforce of power as well. Now some people might tell me it's just a game. That may be true. Yet the triforce hearkens to my soul. Why did Link start out with the triforce of courage and not wisdom? Is it really possible that through courage, one can seize power from the big, bad overlord?

Many of us have our own perceptions of what it is to possess courage. For some people, it might mean conquering your fears. For others, it could be doing stuff you don't want to do. Or laying your life down for others. Or sacrificing your life. Or standing up for what you believe in. No matter what your concept of courage is, it's always something positive. But so is the concept of wisdom. And sometimes, power as well. There are also a dozen other virtues out there. Yet why does courage stand out before the rest, or at least why is it so important?

Let's first look at power. I don't think power is really a virtue. It's neutral. Depending on who you ask, power has a different meaning. But most of them don't mind having power. Some might shun it, thinking that it can corrupt them, or believing that they are unworthy of it. Well, I honestly don't think it can corrupt people, at least to the extent that most people think. Power (whether it's wealth, authority, or even freedom) simply magnifies who you are: if you are a good person, you can use power to do good. If you're a selfish person, then giving you more power will only make your selfishness more evident. Perhaps the only difference between a powerless person and a powerful person is that the latter has more options in life. Sometimes, our inner greed isn't apparent simply because we either didn't have the option to do so before, or there were drastic consequences if we had acted in such a manner. As for those believing that they are unworthy of power, well, it depends on the person. If you underestimate yourself too much, then you'll never reach your full potential. If you rate your skills too poorly, you'll never amount to much, because you'll never stretch yourself to your limits and you'll never grow. You can also rate yourself too high if shunning power is really your way of showing false humility. There are drastic consequences when you overestimate yourself. One of the more common stories I hear from people who go to the gym is that on their first day, they lift more weights than they should because they thought that they could do more. What results is that they strain their muscles too much and are in pain for several days. For me, personal assessment is akin to the laws of supply and demand: one seeks equilibrium. Too much demand and prices rise. Too little demand and prices fall. In a certain way, it's easier to help the person who overestimates himself. It costs him his pride, but all he has to do is tone down his expectations of himself until he reaches the point where he operates at optimum efficiency. The person who underestimates himself, on the other hand, will perhaps have the more difficult time. On one hand, he should take pride in the fact that he could do more. But there's something he has to have in order to take that first step in doing more than what he's used to. What I'm talking about is courage. It takes courage for a person to accept more power, it takes courage for a man to go beyond what he thinks he's capable of. Don't get me wrong, it also takes courage for a person to swallow his pride and take on less responsibility than he thinks he's capable of. But one can't deny that it also takes courage to keep on taking steps to obtain power, whatever that may be for you.

Next there's wisdom. Some people call it knowledge, or intelligence, or insight. For me, wisdom is simply knowing what to do. Whatever it maybe, unlike power, you can never have too much of it. In the case of the person who is offered power, wisdom might take the form of knowing whether you're being given too much power, just enough, or too little. Yet as useful as that may be, it's useless if you don't act on it. Even until college, when the teacher asked a question that I knew the answer to, I won't always raise my hand. I hesitate because I think of the possibility of being wrong, hence embarrassing myself in class if I made a mistake. What's the difference between the times I raised my hand and when I didn’t? You guessed it, courage. Not that I always get it correct. Sometimes, I do embarrass myself in front of the class. But you know what, by the very fact that I attempted to answer the question and mentioned what I thought the correct answer was, I got corrected. And that's when I gain more wisdom. Because what I thought was right was actually wrong and it was brought to my attention. For me, wisdom and courage often went together. I mean it takes courage to search for wisdom. For example, if you did something that you were unsure of was wrong or right, one would be tempted not to look for the right answer. At least in uncertainty, you had a 50/50 chance of possessing the moral high ground, and you had the ultimate scapegoat, which is saying "I didn't know". But searching for the right answer, ah, that's more difficult. Because not only do you expend your energy searching for the right answer, you must also accept the possibility of being wrong. And when you do realize you are wrong, what do you do next? Most of the steps in acquiring wisdom involves courage. And similarly, wisdom is reduced to plain knowledge if you don't act on it. Yet on the other hand, without wisdom, even your most courageous acts will seem like folly to most people. A person who runs into a burning building without a plan (or know who to save and how to get out) is foolish since it's almost identical to suicide. The person had good intentions, no doubt, but the people watching him burn wouldn’t know that. But if the person had an escape plan and managed to rescue a few people, then he'd be a hero, even if it costs him his life. Here, we see wisdom and courage in tandem.

There are also other virtues like temperance, fortitude, and justice. Well, one can't enact temperance without courage. The same goes for justice. Fortitude simply entails not only possessing courage but maintaining it as well. In Buddhism, there's also realizing your true self, eternity, happiness, and purity. It takes a combination of wisdom and courage to actualize all of these. So to me, it seems like courage revolves around the virtues. Yet knowing all this is like possessing wisdom: we know what we should do. But the question is, what do we do about it? In a way, it's like smoking. No one believes that smoking is good for your health. Yet a significant number of the population does it. And they're actually killing themselves (and those around them) slowly. To me, that's possessing wisdom without courage. And in certain ways, it’s worse than being ignorant and doing something wrong because you didn't know any better. That's probably one of the reasons why Jesus in the Bible was so aggressive about missionary work and preaching: if you told people about the Good News, then the reason they're not saved isn't your burden; but if they haven't heard it, then part of the blame is upon you, the people who have heard the Good News and didn't share it. Which is why I must ask, how does one find courage?

Well, I can assure you no one is born 100% courageous. I say that because everyone fears something, everyone has a weakness or two. Yet there's something in these people that enabled them to overcome this limitation. Name me a profession which you think requires courage: military officer, teachers, missionaries, actors/actresses. Sounds like a bunch of brave people, right? Well, I don't think all military officers were born brave. But I can bet you all of them have a certain need, which is why they joined the army. Maybe it's a desire to support their families at home, or to protect their homeland, or to just earn money. These reasons are what drives them to conquer their fears and go beyond what they think they can do. The same goes for teachers. Do you think teachers aren't shy? I knew a teacher who talks to a wall as a way to practice and calm herself before a class. Is she afraid and tense? Yes. What drives her to go on teaching? I don't know. Maybe she thinks its her calling. Or maybe she realizes the good she can do with her work, and continues nonetheless despite her inner doubts. And missionaries? For all its perks, missionaries also endure a lot of hardship, whether its entering unknown territory, moving when you've just grown attached to a place, or simply being in danger from those opposed against your belief. And I don't think they honestly get financially compensated enough for those kinds of predicaments. Yet they go on, because their cause is something they believe in, something they feel they must do. Believe it or not, actors and actresses get star struck as well. I just saw Jennifer Love Hewitt a few days ago at Conan O’Brien’s talk show and she narrated at how frantic she was when she met Catherine Zeta Jones. Actors do get frightened. And I'm sure that on their first live performance, they were tense as well. Yet they manage to get over it. There's something that drives them to do so.

I think my main point is that even if you're a regular Joe, you're also capable of displaying courage. It doesn't take a unique and special person to be a courageous person. One merely needs to dig deep down within himself/herself and realize one's motivations in life. Sometimes, that's enough. If you're a parent, you probably won't walk on a tightrope, but if your child was on the other end, you'd probably risk your life to save the life of your child. If you have a dream, that dream might be worth sacrificing your time and effort and enable you to go out of your comfort zone. If you belong to a team, responsibility and duty for the team might give you the courage to do what you must do rather than what you think you want. What's the secret of the triforce? It's uniting courage and wisdom to obtain power. Realizing your innermost desires, your motivations in life, takes wisdom. Acting on those dreams takes courage. And when you synthesize both, you acquire power. Power to realize more of you self, and power to do more than you previously could.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Do As You Please

I think each and every one of us has tried doing what we want, even if it comes at the cost of other people. We do as we please, as if we're answerable to no one. And more often than not, there's someone that stops us or scolds us, whether it's our parents, our teachers, our employers, or our peers. The most common excuse I've heard is "it's my life, let me do what I want". I can't deny that we have free will and that we could possibly do what we want. But as for whether we own our lives, that's where I beg to differ.

For the most part, I think most of us underestimates our worth. I don't think we own our lives entirely to ourselves simply for the fact that what we do not only affects us but affects other people as well. As much as we want our lives to be as private as masturbation, it really isn't. We're born with relationships and our words and actions reflect on the people we have relationships with. If you don't believe me, just look at your name. Your whole name. What does it say? Mine is Charles Tan. I'm sure that already tells you a lot about me. And who my family is. I mean my last name already associates me with my parents and relatives. Or perhaps even other people you know that have the same last name as me even if I'm not related to them. How I speak and what I do not only gives you an impression of myself but of those other people as well. We can't help it: we human beings make associations and generalizations. They're not always true or factual but we make them nonetheless. If, for example, I lied to you, then one of the impressions you could make is that all Chinese are liars, or at least those with the family name of Tan. And you in turn will share these impressions with other people you meet, either consciously or unconsciously. I've caused a chain reaction simply by existing. Like most things, our ability to do this swings both ways. It could be used for people's benefit, or to people's detriment. Which is why that to a certain extent, I think it's everybody's duty to be responsible.

Maybe you don't care about your family. There are other relationships you're involved with. I, for example, am associated with a lot of people and organizations: my school, the university I studied in, my religion, my nationality, my occupation, and my friends. The good things you do reflects on them. The bad things that you do reflects on them as well, whether we intend it or not. We once had a speaker at my alma matter during the impeachment of former president Joseph Estrada. The speaker was an alumni from UP and he talked at how proud he was when Marcos was elected into office. And then felt shame at the events of Martial Law. And didn't Ateneo also take pride at its high-school dropout when he became president of the Philippines? Of course now that former president Joseph Estrada was being impeached, the speaker felt that things were even between the two universities. See, even if you occupy a powerful position, you're still accountable to a lot of people, whether it's your countrymen, your alma matter, or your family name. You just can't say "I'll do it because I feel like it", at least not with the "important" decisions. And I highlight "important" because some of the things we deem unimportant are actually important and vice versa. For example, deciding what food you'll eat or not eat might not seem like an important decision. But perhaps you're a hero to a number of people and you know how people feel about heroes, they're admired and often mimicked. If you drink alcohol and smoke, chances are, other people will drink alcohol and smoke as well.

I was just reading John Maxwell's The 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork and one of the things he pointed out was how one bad apple can ruin the whole bunch. And it's happened in real life. I mean I attribute the not-so-good reputation of Christianity to a few rotten apples. I mean let's face it, not all Christians are good Christians. Yet what turns off a number of people aren't the good Christians but rather the bad ones, perhaps those who are hypocrites, or the ones that take advantage of other people. And I've seen this also happen to organizations ("I don't like to join that group because I don't like this person") and even countries ("Arabs attacked our nation so all Arabs should suffer"). We know it's not right (both on those who are actually performing the wrong deeds and those making the false conclusions) yet it's pervasive in most cultures. So what's the solution?

Obviously, one way is to think things thoroughly and not make shallow generalizations. One can do this by understanding the other side and where they're coming from. Or actually taking the time to investigate things and not be dissuaded by the actions of a few. It's easy to say but difficult to implement, is it not? Well, there's also another way. It's to be good examples yourselves. I mean if people don't see wrong behavior, they can't make wrong generalizations. Perhaps that's even more difficult to implement. Yet that's something we should all strive for. Caution and discretion is something we should exercise in everything we do, not just when the spotlight is on us. Because honestly, there are times when we don't know that the spotlight is on us. There'll always be someone watching, listening. Those who live consistent lives make the best role models.

When I get the urge to simply do what I want, I ask myself whether what I'm doing is aligned with my beliefs, my standards, and how it affects other people. That doesn't mean I can't have a good time. Contrary to popular belief, having a good time isn't always doing the wrong things. Have you given a gift to someone? Or helped out a friend? Did you feel good? Now was that a bad thing? And of course, if you don't think it's wrong, it's okay to do it. I mean some people condemn drinking. For me, what's apprehensive is either obsessive drinking or drinking too much. Moderate drinking (which is actually less than what most people would consider "moderate") is fine. But just because I said that does not give us an excuse to do whatever we want. I espouse the belief of doing what you think is right, or at the very least, something you aren't ashamed of letting other people know you're doing. And of course, along those lines is not being a hypocrite.

One cannot simply live as if we don't owe anything to the world. It's often stated that along with freedom comes responsibility or duty. Hey, even if we kill ourselves, we don't absolve ourselves from the rest of the world. Somebody has to pay for the funeral, and somebody will mourn losing you. If you think your life is meaningless, think again. Your actions have an effect on someone else, whether directly or indirectly. We exist not merely for our own sakes, but for other people as well.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Christianity is Difficult

What amazes me is that many people, including both Christians and non-Christians, have this belief that Christianity is an easy religion. Or better yet, that the Christian God is so benevolent that nothing bad can happen to those who worship Him. I'm really sorry to dispel your illusions, but Christianity is anything but easy. In fact, being a Christian will give you extraordinary burdens and might even land you in trouble depending on the situation.

First off, those expecting rewards and riches from being a Christian should forget all that. If you look closely at the New Testament, you'll see that Jesus died on the cross, suffering for our sins. And along the way, a lot of good people suffered as well, be it the Apostles, Jesus's disciples, and sincere believers. If you're a Catholic, a lot of martyrs and saints died a horrible death and lived problematic lives. Now I'm not saying all this to scare you. I'm just setting expectations, and showing how Christianity never promised paradise on Earth if that's what you're expecting. And don't be disheartened by all the gloom and doom surrounding the protagonists of the Church. They might have suffered a lot but it was in the service of a cause they believed in. Just look at your modern day heroes, and not just the Christian ones. Every hero had to endure suffering at one point or another in order to achieve their goal. War heroes sacrificed their life for the glory of their country, artists starve and get criticized before creating their masterpieces, and even successful entrepreneurs have their fair share of failed businesses. The point? They all felt that the cost was well worth it. And in the end, they found their sense of worth and purpose. I always believed that everything came at a price. In the case of Christianity, part of the price you pay will be suffering. We can't take that away, although some Christians do suffer less than others. No one can guarantee that you won't suffer for your belief, but I can guarantee you that you don't have genuine belief in something if you're not willing to suffer for it.

Another common complaint I hear is "why does God allow this to happen?" or "why do good people suffer?". First and foremost, I'd like to point out that the value system of Christianity is a meritocracy: people get what they deserve, or that life should be fair. Understand that Christians are striving for that because that's not the reality. That might be the case in heaven but obviously, that's not the case here on Earth. Why does God allow it to happen? Well, what most believers will tell you is that God has a purpose for us and only He knows where it'll take us. And in certain ways, that's true. I mean I don't know what tomorrow might bring. An unfortunate event today might shape my life so that it'll be a boon in the future. Let's say you get into an accident today, rendering you temporarily paralyzed. And then tomorrow there's a war and the army conscripts all able-bodied people to go to war. The previous day, my accident might seem like the worst thing that could have happened. But in light of recent events, it might appear like a blessing in disguise since I don't have to go to war. My other take on it is that well, unfortunate events do happen to everyone and not just to Christians. In fact, the true test of a Christian is when he faces adversity. I mean let's face it, it's easy to be good and kind when the situation is in your favor: if you're rich, it's easier to give; if you're in a good mood, it's easier to smile; when you have time, it's easier to be there for others. But when the situation is reversed, it's similarly more difficult. And in the end, if you look at things, the only reason the human race has evolved is because it continues to strive, to become better than it already is. The only reason that can occur is when we face adversity. As for the question "why do good people suffer", well, why not? Suffering makes us human. It enables us to empathize with other suffering people as well. Honestly, would you go back to the archaic belief that sick people are possessed by evil spirits? Life is far from black and white and not as distinguishable as that. As long as you're living, you will suffer. Your moral outlook on life won't change that. And for all this negative talk about what God allows and what he doesn't allow, have you ever stopped to ask "how has God blessed me today?" or "does God reward good people?" Sure, even evil people are blessed and rewarded. I can't deny that. But good people tend to be happier about it (not that evil people aren't happy when they're blessed and rewarded) because they usually attribute it to an external source, whether it be God, their friends, or some other agency. Good people don't think their achievement is the result of their own effort alone. They recognize that it was possible through the aid of others, and how fortunate they really are to have those kind of people around.

When we were children, some of us were criticized by our parents for our grades. If we got a 99 out of a 100, they'd give us a sermon for not getting that one question right. If you were in that situation, don't you wish that they'd praise you for getting the 99 other questions correct rather than focus on your one mistake? In a certain way, that's how we see God when disaster falls upon us. We don't stop and thank him for the fact that we're still alive and that we have friends, family, and whatever wealth (no matter how small or big that sum is) we have. Rather, some of us criticize God for this and that. Honestly, when you look at the bigger picture, we have a lot more to be thankful for more than to be angry about. And the cynics out there might tell me God has no right to be 99 out of a 100 because he's supposed to perfect. Well, to me, God is perfect in the fact that he gives us imperfect conditions. Because people are imperfect, and I honestly doubt it if we'd appreciate perfect conditions. I mean if you suddenly had the perfect friend or boyfriend/girlfriend, at some point, you'll be jealous of him/her or be annoyed at him/her; because they can do no wrong, while your mistakes just keep on piling up. As human beings, we have imperfect needs, and the only way we grow is usually through imperfect experiences. Or think of it as God as your guardian angel (and He actually is). The dilemma of the guardian angel is that the only time you only realize he's around (or rather, he's not around) is when disaster strikes you. Does one really get to appreciate the rest of the time he's guarding you? And hey, I personally wouldn't blame God if he faltered for just a moment just to make us realize that He's there. But I don't think God is that petty.

Being a Christian is difficult, huh? Well, anything worthwhile is usually difficult. In fact, the only time people grow, mature, and learn is when we encounter something difficult. If Christianity was easy, everyone would sign on and we'd all be living in paradise. But that's not the case. The call to be a Christian is difficult. And many of us are reluctant to heed that call precisely because of that fact. But in my perspective, life will be difficult either way. You'll still encounter problems (although not necessarily the same problems a Christian will face) and have to wake up every morning to the same planet. Perhaps what differentiates a Christian from a non-Christian is their genuine belief. More than their actions, a Christian's belief is what separates him or her from non-Christians. Because if you have a genuine faith, you'll know that there's meaning in your life, no matter what the results of your actions will be. If you don't have that kind of belief, the best you can come up with is the statement of "we'll never know". And in a certain sense, even for Christians, that is true. There's a lot of things at this point in time that we'll never know. But I'd rather go on living with a belief in something, rather than live a life without one. As one of my philosophy teachers would say, even if in the end, Christianity is one big hoax, at the very least, I'll be a better person for my belief.