Bashed But Not Beaten

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This week, I chanced upon the call of a bashful girl in her mid-twenties, calling to complain about work problems. In the interest of anonymity, let’s call her Bash.

Bash called Crisis Line seeking help to overcome her paranoia, developed in over two months worth of daily scolding from her boss. I asked her to describe her boss and how she is like. At this point, I’ll spare you the edgy choice of words she used to describe a powerful woman whose temper swung delicately between almost-tame and totally monstrous. As she described her boss, one name came to mind – Miranda Priestley (from the film The Devil Wears Prada). So from here on, let’s call her boss Miranda. Then I realized that Bash is calling from work, which explains her almost inaudible voice so Miranda would not hear her desperate call for sanity.

To paint a devilish picture of Bash’s typical work day, it might be crucial to mention that Bash wakes up between 4 to 5 A.M. and travels daily from Pampanga to get to work before 8am. She braves the daily hellish commute in an effort to save money from renting closer to work but without her family. Depending on the traffic, she gets to work barely in time and begins catching up on her daily grind to the best of her bashful ability.

Enter Miranda. The day becomes a lot more heated and tension becomes palpable in an otherwise gentle atmosphere. One by one, employees are called into Miranda’s office for reports and updates. While they may hear the occasional raising of Miranda’s voice, Bash recounts how nothing matches the treatment she receives. As soon as Bash enters the room, an insult automatically greets her. “What stupidity do you bring with you today?” Of course this is spoken in the Filipino vernacular, which to her makes it more painful and heartfelt. Bash’s only consolation is getting several minutes of break time with some supportive office friends who encourage her. Yet by day’s end, she leaves work feeling tired and thinking of a couple tasks that she needs to catch up on the following morning. During her commute home around dinner time, she says she feels exhausted and demoralized to come to work the following day.

I asked how she would evaluate her own work in the office, in an effort to gauge the level of commitment she has with her work. She promised me that she honestly tries her best and even thinks of extra things she could do for credit but to no avail. She says her efforts go unnoticed and almost feels as if the whole thing is something personal. Bash has tried reasoning and explaining her side but she noticed this would only aggravate things. So she opts to keep quiet and lower her voice when speaking. Unknowingly, she now carries this soft volume and tone of voice even outside work, as pointed out by her family and friends. Her friends assure her that her quality of work is not the problem. So they too are puzzled why Bash receives this kind of bold treatment from Miranda.

I then asked Bash what her plans are. She tells me she loves the company and her office mates but can no longer stand her boss. This has led her to the decision of resigning instead. I asked if she has other employment options in mind but Bash can’t think of any yet. She goes online and looks at job postings but cannot commit to interview schedules because of her current workload and hours, not to mention her lengthy & exhausting daily commutes. I asked if she has some savings, and fortunately she has some saved up.

I then focused on her decision to resign from her work. I asked her to envision herself after she’s left the company. She saw herself temporarily in between jobs but actively looking, relying on her savings to get by in the meantime. I suggested narrowing down her search to offices nearer her home as this is also a crucial factor that she can address to cut down on her commute time. But overall, she imagines feeling lighter and better about herself. At this point, her voice improved. It sounded stronger and dare I say—more hopeful. When I pointed this out to her, she said she felt empowered. She was reminded that she had an option and she can be happy. And I told her that’s how you know what your heart wants. You just have to be bold enough to get in touch and listen.

We ended the call in a more positive tone. She thanked me for helping her. I pointed out that I did nothing other than listen and ask her the right questions. But all in all it was she who made herself feel better. She said this made her feel even more empowered.

After the call ended, I realized that this can happen to the best of us. Whether at work, in school, or at home, there are moments when we feel too tired and helpless to even think of ways out of our problems. In these testing moments, be bold enough to admit that you need help. Find someone you can talk to and never hold it all in. You may not have all the answers but you have the power to get them. When situations no longer serve us, look inwards and be honest to yourself. Happiness is a state of mind that we afford ourselves. Be bold enough to find it and decide to pursue it.

Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam.

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Helping the Helper

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I have always been fond of interacting with people. Like a true extrovert, I take pleasure in knowing that I am able to connect with others and immerse myself in their thoughts and perspectives. I find meaning and comfort believing that we all have our own journey from which to learn and help one another get by. Now that I work and make my way through the world, the last thing I want is to work myself toward routine and isolation by limiting myself in the confines of my office. There has to be more to life than earning for a living. So as a small step towards personal and spiritual growth, I decided to devote some of my downtime and build experience through structured learning. I signed up for counseling classes and started training as a phone counselor to use and hone my skills in dealing with people, and to learn how I can be of service in the lives and journeys of others.

Months later, I began training and rendering hours on duty for certification as a crisis line counselor. I took pride in being among those considered in the helping profession as first responders. Like trained paramedics, EMTs, or firemen responding to various emergency situations, I’ve had the privilege (and self-inflicted burden) of responding to a smorgasbord of scenarios that require immediate attention or even intervention, if needed. Most cases I have encountered involve psychological and/or emotional breakdown from callers protected by the anonymity of a telephone call, seeking advice and counseling on their life problems. While I think no amount of schooling or training could ever prepare someone to take on the immense responsibility of helping lives, my weekly hours rendering crisis line duty seemed like the most important and meaningful work I have ever done so far. Selfishly, I’d like to think it’s done a lot more for me than it has for our callers. But years worth of records and call logs proved me wrong. In such a brief tenure, I myself have experienced somewhat intense encounters with depressed and suicidal callers. And with every call, I find myself gaining more insight into people’s lives and a deeper appreciation for the things that truly matter.

Take the case of “Ramon”, whose name I purposely changed for anonymity. A few weeks back, I recall speaking with Ramon, a man in his thirties diagnosed with depressive tendencies and prescribed with a number of mood-enhancing medications, which according to him sometimes work and sometimes don’t. Whenever Ramon would have one of his depressive episodes, he would lose his drive to even get up and go to work. With his performance and career at risk, he would also lose sleep and spend hours awake at night feeling desperate and helpless, leaving him without energy in the morning and in an even worse state. This destructive pattern has started to strain his relationship with his wife and mother, who both seem to have given up on finding ways to help him. They have simply learned to ignore and avoid him whenever he would whine and ask for advice.

I learned that Ramon’s family has developed what we call “caregivers fatigue”, a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion resulting from giving prolonged and repetitive care to a patient or loved one, who cannot seem to get the necessary help he needs. Ramon would often envision a self-inflicted mental image of how his family might be better off without him. And this leads him further into a downward spiral. After commending Ramon for his courage and openness, I suggested to have his wife or mother call us in crisis line, since a special kind of counseling is often offered to the family of those afflicted with psychological disorders. A few minutes later, I answered the call of Ramon’s mother, who heeded her son’s request. From there, I learned that his mother was 74 years old, suffering from her own physical ailments due to her old age. In a rather exasperated tone, she recounted how Ramon would sometimes call her at 2 a.m. to rant and confide. She said she no longer had the patience and didn’t know what else she could do at this point but feel guilty. I was moved as it was a sentiment that felt all too familiar.

Like anyone who knows what it’s like to take care of an aging and ailing parent or loved one, there have been times when I too have lost my patience when dealing with my diabetic and hypertensive father. There’s simply no way around it when tempers take hold of communication in the home front. Some time and space become the necessary evils of self-preservation. And that’s okay. While guilt is an understandable outcome, we, the families and caregivers, cannot give what we do not have. But for every time spent in retreat, the same amount of time listening and understanding needs to be paid back. A common misconception among families and caregivers is that the responsibility of solving the problem lies with them. But sometimes the best way we can help is simply to give them the time of day to talk, rant, or even whine. Just listen, do not solve. And as I gave these reminders to Ramon’s mother, it felt like I was being reminded myself. I have often felt guilty for not being emotionally available for family problems when times get a bit tough. Between caring for an ailing father and sharing in household responsibilities, sometimes I get burned out and take a step back. And through Ramon and his mother, I was reminded that it is necessary. So when the time comes that I’m in the right state of mind, I can willingly give back. Anything beneath willingness to listen and be present would be substandard treatment toward a loved one.

By the time we ended the call, a mutual air of hope was palpable. She thanked me for the time and advice I offered while I too felt thankful for the chance to learn from their story. And it felt every bit like a meaningful and humbling experience. I was reminded that we all need a little help from time to time. And through my counseling sessions, I have learned that no one is in the position to help anyone else without being helped himself.

Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam.

Why The World Needs Superman

This title is a response to Lois Lane’s Pulitzer prize winning article entitled “Why The World Doesn’t Need Superman” in the movie Superman Returns. After having read philosophers like Ricoeur, Descartes, and Levinas, I attempt a philosophical rebuttal to her journalistic writing by relating Superman to the perennial question – What does it mean to be human? Sociologist and journalist Randy David once wrote, “For ideas to have any enduring meaning, they must come alive in our personal lives. We have to relate them to our own experiences. In this way, all truths become ultimately personal.” And for this reason I too opted to search for answers using my childhood fascination for the man of steel.

Superman was always my hero growing up. I have seen his movies and regardless of who portrays my hero, he remains unchanged in all depictions by wearing the same costume and sporting the same colors. As a fanatic, I got hooked on shows such as Smallville as this concretized for me how the hero conducted himself outside his iconic blue suit and red cape. The series portrayed Superman as his alter ego, Clark Kent, and focused on his everyday struggles. This angle led me to question the need for an entirely different identity to be a hero. After all, Clark Kent has the same abilities as Superman. So what sets Clark apart from the quintessential hero? His glasses? His hairstyle? Or maybe the different demeanor he assumes after putting on his suit and cape, flying around to save Metropolis from their day to day evils? I don’t know. But for some reason, not even Lois Lane herself could tell that these seemingly foil characters are one and the same person. After all, whether recognized as Superman or Clark Kent, he still had one goal – to save mankind.

On this note, I found it fascinating how one’s recognition of another may depend entirely on a specific place or circumstance. Even someone as familiar as a professor, for example, would be difficult to recognize anywhere outside the classroom. In such instances we ask, “What are you doing here?” This question shows a reluctance to believe that the person in front of you actually has another side to him than those defined by the walls of a classroom. This has to do with the functions that presuppose any place or setting. Be it a professor acting outside his functions within a school, or a mild-mannered reporter who occasionally becomes a savior to another, there is a certain pluralism involved in recognition. Ricoeur would say that these are means of relations or ways to be seen and encountered by others. Maybe this was why Clark was never found out as Superman – because they are two entirely different personas. So for any person with multiple roles in society, this raises questions like, “Who am I really?” How do we choose which is which between a well-composed professor in school or his fun-loving self in the real world? How can we tell apart a journalist covering a story from a hero in the front line? We are all so much more than one person. The possibilities are really endless as we can all take on so many roles and functions. And it is precisely because of this possibility to become someone totally different can one begin to aspire and say, “I want to become someone greater.”

Still, inevitable truth kicks down our fantasies tearing us away from such dreams. Reality comes in imposing what is possible and otherwise. You begin to hear that realistic voice nag, “You can’t do everything. No one can save everyone. No one is invincible to the pains of the world. You’re no hero. No one can fly.” Incidentally this is reminiscent of how growth can make Peter Pan lose his happy thoughts and forget how to fly. It slaps a person with endless uncertainties like, “With all my limitations, how then can I be a hero? How can I help others?” This is where we must meditate on faith, hope, and love. Just because we have limitations doesn’t mean we cannot transcend the evils that come our way. Recall the saying, “All it takes for evil to succeed is for a good man to do nothing.” We all have limitations one way or another. But we must not dwell on only these or they can overcome and paralyze us with debilitating fear and self-doubt. Once we give up hope, then we give in to evil.

Everyone knows that even Superman has a weakness, namely the infamous kryptonite. But this has never stopped him from saving anyone in need. Because aside from kryptonite, the man of steel has a far more beautiful flaw: his love and hope for the human race. Growing up, Clark realized he is not an ordinary human and feared that part of himself he did not understand. But he found strength to overcome these fears through the love of human parents who reminded him that his greatest gift was not his superhuman abilities but his kind and loving heart. It was because of this compassion for the human race that Superman was the best of both worlds. Such a reminder can do well to point us back to our own inclination towards good. Perhaps that is why every superhero story would have family to remind us of lines like, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Because everyone, even a hero, needs constant reminder that power itself is not evil. Like how a gun can both be good or bad depending on how it is used. But the presence of power can always pose the greatest temptation because though mankind’s will is infinite, its limitations can lead them to make mistakes. That is why power in the wrong hands can cause great corruption. And this is something we all struggle and relate with. Just like Superman, this is what makes us human.

Hence, existing and co-existing naturally espouses hoping. This is how we transcend our limitations and evils despite the tension between being who-we-are verus who-we-can-be, what-we-have versus what-we-can-achieve. Precisely here lies the reason for my fascination with Superman and his story. He is a tangible reminder of the nature of the human person and what it means to exist with different roles and responsibilities in a social order. Because with all the chaos, tragedies, and rapid advancements that mark any generation, the human person needs constant reminding of its immediate nature towards good. How we can love, hope, and change. This is why the world needs Superman.

Positively Doubtful

In today’s world where knowledge and information equate to power and possibility, very little remain undiscovered. We all make it our business to stay connected and informed. But with all the sources of information, is it okay to take everything we learn at face value? In matters of interest, namely politics, entertainment, or current events, numerous sources offer different angles to stay relevant. Naturally, any logical mind would be critical and discerning between fact and opinion. Many a netizen have learned the hard way to be more wary of modified truths and customized facts when it comes to modern media. Nowadays, credibility has become the new commodity, and cynicism the new form of protection at the first instance of information. False until proven true.

This conditioned form of thinking brings me back to simpler days when my parents kept reminding me not to believe in strangers. Life was just a lot safer that way. So these days, I find it natural to have grown more cynical than my parents whenever they read off something from the gospel according to Google. Let my response be, “Mom that’s a hoax, don’t believe that,” or “Dad that’s a gimmick, it’s not true.” And with this kind of learned skepticism in our virtual age where information is readily available, it’s a wonder any of us still believe in anything.

Unfortunately, there seemed to be a double standard when it came to religion. In theology classes back when I was in school, dogmatic complexities that escaped our understanding were described as “mysteries” to which the proper course of action was to take it all on faith. There are things that simply cannot be explained within the bounds of logic. And so there are those like myself who simply said “Amen” without fully understanding. Call this blind obedience if you will, but I am sure there are many others who experienced this growing up. So because of a lack of understanding, I failed to appreciate and internalize the Church’s teachings, eventually lost interest, and clung to my doubts instead.

Highly doubtful, I have always been able to relate more with the likes of Jesus’ infamous apostle known as “Doubting Thomas”. After Jesus was said to have resurrected from His death, Thomas questioned the news at first instance and wanted the risen Christ before him as proof. I have always resented the negative reaction towards Thomas’ skepticism. I would imagine that both then and now, news of someone miraculously rising from the dead would at least merit a meager amount of reluctance and disbelief. I mean honestly.

Which brings me to another story about doubt that is found in the gospel of Mark, wherein Jesus was reluctantly asked by a man to heal his possessed son. The man pleaded, “If you can, take pity on us and help us.” The mistaken but natural use of the words “if you can” screamed of none other than doubt. Yet in both accounts, Jesus revealed His miracle and saving grace to them. These to me are not acts of defiance on the part of Thomas and the reluctant man but instead show a deeper desire to understand. Because of Thomas’ doubt, he looked for Christ. Despite the reluctant man’s doubt, he approached Christ for healing. So through their doubt, both of them found truth and redemption. Now between these two doubtful men versus the many followers who simply believed in blind obedience but did not fully understand, who do you think developed a more genuine and profound faith?

Saint Augustine of Hippo once said, “I believe in order to understand; and I understand the better to believe.” It is far easier to have faith and believe when everything makes sense. But what happens when things don’t add up? Must we simply take it on faith with a spoonful of sugar to mask our distaste? Or perhaps we could have more faith in the honesty of our doubts. Based on these two stories in the Bible, it turns out that there need not be any double standard as doubt and faith are not necessarily binary opposites when it comes to religion. Much like the healthy approach to politics and journalism, doubt too can be a powerful tool towards truth and understanding. I have learned to search for answers amidst my doubt. Because of this, I honor my doubts in constant faith and prayer that they will lead me to seeing the way, the truth, and the life that is Jesus Christ in this modern and ever-changing world. I am still a work in progress but I’m positive that I’ll get there in His time, no doubt.

Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam.

Homeward Pilot

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Allow me to begin my pilot post by washing my hands of any self-righteous presumption. I do not write to preach, nor am I in any capacity to imply a sense of moral ascendancy. I am a regular Filipino, born and raised in a Catholic family, nurtured by a Jesuit institution, yet regularly experiencing spiritual dryness in my vicious daily routines. I do not claim nor pretend to have a deeper spirituality than the average Juan by mere virtue of my religious upbringing. I do however have a tendency to reflect and be optimistic. And I like writing. So here I write my hopeful thoughts.

I’ve had my fair share of serious misgivings in only twenty-something years of existence. I have done a lot of things I’m not proud of, which I’d rather keep hidden underneath the heaps of skeletons in my closet. But of these misjudgments, I dare not wash hands. I take full responsibility for all my many faults and find ways to translate each of them into a learning experience. So on account of all my mistakes, I’ve definitely learned a thing or two hundred.

Allow me to write about one of my biggest learnings about my faith so far. Despite my religious propensities, I have become increasingly delinquent in hearing mass and have washed my hands of observing other faithful obligations. Admittedly, what started out as a number of convenient misses from tradition grew into a new tradition of religious apathy as an exercise of my own freedom. As I evolved and entered a more independent stage in my life, my newfound passive tradition also evolved into a conscious stand. I no longer saw any logic behind hearing mass every week. It was just that – a tradition. It seemed merely something my parents forced me to do since I was a child. But a quarter-and-then-some years later in to my life, I can say that I’m now anything but a child. And I’m not one to be forced into doing something illogical.

It is also my observation that my religion has become outdated. In previous years, the Church kept releasing statements from a very conservative standpoint. While I saw nothing wrong with being conservative, I found it hard to keep with a faith that discriminated against a number of groups like gay people, divorced couples, and single mothers, and all the while promoting to follow Jesus Christ, someone who reached out to the same social minorities of His time. One by one I started to notice the faults of my faith. From then on, I saw a gaping disjunct between Christ and the Church, between His teachings and the Church’s obsolete stand. A huge part of my faith no longer catered to the present time. I knew this is not what Jesus would have represented. But these solitary reaffirmations made me realize that I still believed in God, in Jesus and what He represented by seeing such lapses. So I felt guilty for letting a long-standing relationship with Him decline due to my religious aversion brought about by errors of men. Why punish Him for the mistakes of people?

I cannot help but compare this kind of love-hate relationship with the one I share with my family. Since becoming more financially independent, I have honestly enjoyed affording myself more time apart from home. Though I have a very close-knit family, ours is the kind of bond that naturally comes with in-your-face type opinions about one another. Whether we liked it or not, one’s business is the family’s business. And despite having qualms about our crazy family dynamics, I still always feel the need to come home. I may not love all the ways by which we do things in our family, but I do love what my family represents. All actions, no matter how painfully misplaced, stem from one thing that never gets outdated – our love for one another.

It is because of this that I have similarly decided to renew a paused relationship with my faith. I may not agree with the Church’s lacking effort to remain updated with modern social settings, but I am reaffirmed of what and Who it represents. Perhaps this is also why I need to start hearing mass again regularly – to wash away doubts and be reminded of a bigger picture. To keep sight of the message and not the medium. And through these pilot words, I wash my hands of my spiritual indifference and return home.

Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam.

Positive refreshments in small doses of writing.