Going back to the wellsprings

With the unexpected death of a former president in his sleep combined with the demise of acquaintances who have succumbed to the pandemic, my mind has recently been occupied with intimations of mortality. This prompted me to pause for a while in my own life’s journey and do some reflections.

First of all, at this point, what have I become?

One of my favorite poets is T.S. Eliot and I have put into memory these lines from his poems in Four Quartets: “We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

The words sound profound enough to impress people in intellectual conversations but it is only now that I am beginning to understand what they mean to me personally.

For this is what I am now: an exploring, growing, changing traditionalist on a meaningful search for values, which I personally feel that our present society has lost.

This is why the direction of my exploration is not towards the future, but into the past, the distant past long before we were all born, our starting point. In the words again of Eliot: “At the source of the longest river.”

The goal of this exploring is to know the beginnings of our culture as a people through new eyes and new understanding and hopefully reclaim the original essence of our indigenous heart and soul. I am interested in the relationship between past and present. Are there insights I can glean from the past that might throw illumination upon the present-day Filipino?

I eagerly look to exploring an old world marked with courtesy, civility and kinship. With delight, I look to uncovering customs of yore that may seem defunct to many young people today, but that which is unknown to them permeate our society in a myriad subtle ways, cutting deep into the very core of the Filipino way of life.

The animation series Trese has sparked interest in our myths, legends, folklore and superstitious beliefs. This is interesting because it can shed light on our present fears and anxieties.

When I lecture on creative conceptualization, I always encourage creative novices to explore native myths, fables, beliefs as their anchoring concepts for an ad, or a painting or a literary work because these are closer to the primeval heart of the Filipino.

Someone said, with the death of the former president, an era is over. Meaning, the era of the boomer generation who are indeed about to make their final exit. It is therefore time to ask: What is our legacy? What kind of society are we leaving our children?

The answer is shameful and embarrassing. We leave a society where government positions are hereditary, given to members of the family in a political rigodon. Where cursing and being discourteous are now normal even on broadcast media, and the law of the gun is mightier than the rights of citizens supposedly protected by the Constitution. We put mediocre celebrities in elective positions to govern us and make laws. Popularity is all it takes to get elected. And corruption is just shrugged off and not penalized.

I believe this is not what and who we are. There are values that we are losing that we need to retrieve before it’s too late.

I thought this pandemic was going to be our road-to-Damascus moment. That we would make a better comeback, more spiritual, more kind-hearted, more compassionate and caring. But it looks like the hatred, antipathy and the demonization will keep going on. This combative environment stems not only from incivility and intolerance but also from “contempt,” which is a noxious brew of anger and disgust. And not just contempt for other people’s ideas and beliefs, but also for other people or in the words of a philosopher “the unsullied conviction of the worthlessness of another.”

The day has come for the next generation to ask the question: How did it come to this? Why did you allow our society to descend to this level?

As part of this generation who have caused and allowed this thing to happen, I confess to being guilty and for this I truly apologize. But I cannot speak for the rest of my generation.

This is why I am now trying to reflect on my own beginnings and look at them through new and unrelenting eyes. How does the arc of my character development look like, using the lingo of scriptwriters?

Most importantly, what genuine values that are part of the Filipino cultural DNA can I bequeath to my own children and succeeding generations so they will be able to get on the road back to civility, mutual respect, hiya, delicadeza, utang na loob and all the set of values that have defined and guided our culture and society?

This is why my effort as an explorer of the distant past is now focused on trying to excite our young generation to get interested in going back to the source of the river so they can come back refreshed and energized, imbued with a sense of pride in our identity.

If we go through folk stories, allegories, myths and fables, we can glean original values that explain why we act the way we act today. The idea is to draw from the wellsprings, and with fresh perspective find the higher meaning that these words or stories contain.

When more and more young Filipinos look back and see and appreciate fully the wellsprings (sibol) of our peculiar cultural mindset, I pray they will gain a more informed understanding of our culture at the present moment and be able to discern and separate what is fake and false from what is intrinsic and true.

Whether we like it or not, the past lives inside the present. While I agree that our origins are not our destinies and that our daily journey into the future is not fixed by moral arcs or “genetic instruction,” there are unchanging values that our children can use to guide them to meet the vast demands of the ever-living now and the uncharted future.

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