Heaven and Hell (Part 1)

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The idea of an afterlife, or a  life after this one that we have, is usually inculcated in us from childhood. For many raised in the Christian traditions, the afterlife consists of heaven and hell. For Roman Catholics, there is the addition of the intermediate state, purgatory, where those who die with minor sins are punished (or purified) accordingly before entering heaven, and limbo, which is sort of a neither heaven-or-hell state for those “innocent” souls that die before they have had a chance to be baptized — for example, babies who die during childbirth, and so on.

Growing up as a Protestant Christian, I only had to contend with heaven and hell but I learned about these from an early age as I had been exposed to Bible stories since before I had learned to read. My first real brush with this “reality” though was sometime when I was around 7. I was at home playing with the dogs in the early evening when my father arrived tooting the horn of our Volkswagen Beetle. He hurried into the house and told me to wash up and change quickly because I was coming with him.

When I asked him where we were going and why, he answered, “To the hospital — ama (grandmother) is about to go to heaven,” he said. Having never seen a dead person up close before, I think I was a little excited but also afraid. So I washed my hands from the stink of dogs and rushed out of my dirty clothes into something more decent and got into the car.

We arrived a little too late. My dad led me to the room where ama was and there were some relatives around her still form. My mom was beside the bed clutching ama’s arms and sobbing. A short while later, some orderlies came to cart the body away. I followed them out of the room and saw them cart the body down an inclined walkway into a room far beyond. My sister said, “That’s the morgue,” and when I asked what that was, she said, “That’s where they put the dead bodies.”

I was a bit detached from all of the emotions of the death and burial as I was not particularly close to ama. She had already been bedridden for as long (or as short) as I could remember, and my interactions with her were limited to greeting her or just hanging out in her room and playing with my toys in the extra bed that was there.

After that came references to the afterlife, of how she was already with angkong (grandfather) and a couple of my uncles, whom I never met as they had passed away before I was born. I only knew of them because there were large framed photos of them hanging in our study at home. But anyway, the important thing was they were in heaven now because they were Christians and believed in the saving power of Jesus Christ — which, in our belief system, was the only thing that could keep you from burning in hell, in everlasting torment.

So while I was growing up, my first notion of heaven was of this grand reunion of relatives, most of whom I have never met. And if ever any of my present relatives pass away, it was all right as we would all meet again someday. All that was fine for a short while, but then I asked my dad, “What else are we going to do in heaven?”

In my mind, I thought that meeting and greeting long lost and never known relatives have a certain limit and that to do that for all eternity would probably be very boring.

My dad just answered with, “Oh, you know, God has prepared a lot of things for us to do in heaven. We won’t just sit around doing nothing. There is much work and great work to be done.”

If  we had that conversation today, I would probably have pressed him for a clearer answer, but at that time, he said it with a finality that my seven or eight year-old self accepted and understood that no further answers were forthcoming.


Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Email me at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.


Writer’s Block

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I suffer from a disease called Writer’s Block. It is evidently strong on Wednesday evenings and Thursday mornings (my weekly column is due every Thursday). It is a recurring ailment one suffers when one thinks he has nothing to write about. Many people have shared to me that they also have this disease and they ask me what I have done to cure it.

“Oh but I haven’t cured it,” I say. “I still have it.”

“You? Impossible,” they say. “You write week after week. How could you possibly have Writer’s Block?”

There is this mistaken notion that writers can just sit down and magically produce words without much hardship or effort. While a few lucky people may have that gift (inasmuch as there are truly gifted artists), most writers don’t. They still suffer the age-old question when faced with a blank sheet of paper or a blank screen.

What the hell do I write about?

Well, I could write about hell, I suppose, but I’ve already done that a few times. So why not write about heaven? Hmmm, that’s an interesting thought, but it’s out of topic for this article so maybe I’ll jot down a few ideas for that and write about it next week.

There is no cure for Writer’s Block. There is no wonder pill I can swallow that suddenly enables me to type one letter after another. The reader reads one word after another, one sentence after the other, and one long continuous paragraph. What he or she does not know is how many minutes (or hours) it took for that paragraph to take shape, or how many times it was rewritten to sound just right.

Sometimes, I type a sentence, stop midstream, then start all over again. Or I finish typing the sentence, then re-read, then decide to delete it. And then after thinking it over a bit, decide to bring it back (thank Bill Gates for Ctrl-Z — which is the shortcut for the Undo button — for those who don’t know). Then after the sentence’s resurrection, I might find the second part poorly constructed so I would delete that part and rewrite it.

The reader sees none of that. He only sees an illusion of a continuous stream of words, but not the jumbled, messy and tortured process it took to produce it.

There is no cure for Writer’s Block, but one can earn a temporary reprieve from it. It is is most ironic though that the reprieve is granted when one does what Writer’s Block is blocking — and that is to write.

Don’t think.


The more you think, the less you write. The more you think, the more your thoughts become jumbled and the more confused you become on what to write about.

So every week, I earn my temporary sanity from Writer’s Block just by writing. I pick out an idea and just begin. It may start with a few words at first. Then I can go and cook an early breakfast. Then I come back to type a few more words while eating. Then I get a refill for my tea or coffee, then type again, and pretty soon, I find that I have typed enough words for a decent article.

When I reach that point, I hear angels sing the hallelujah chorus, and I know it’s time to send the article to my editor.

See you again, next week, Writer’s Block.


Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Email me at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.


Saving Sally

Photo from the Saving Sally Facebook Page

For the first time in my life, I looked forward to this year’s Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF). Gone were the usual slapstick comedies, the bland predictable dramas, the sorry excuses for horror, and the endless sequels to these which is probably more horrifying than anything. Instead, the MMFF promised a slew of creative storytelling and clever scriptwriting.

And of course, there is Saving Sally, produced and directed by Avid Liongoren.

My first and only encounter with Avid Liongoren was way back in 2006 at the first Graphika Manila convention — a gathering of graphic design artists, students, teachers and enthusiasts. It was my first year of teaching at the School of Design and Arts of De La Salle College of St. Benilde and faculty members got free tickets so I signed up to go.

Avid was one of the speakers there, and he delivered a very engaging talk about his experiences in the industry — how he had to shoot a car commercial without an actual car, and he instead used a realistic toy model and used some “graphics design” magic (as he called it) to produce the video. He showed us the clip and it was pretty impressive. You wouldn’t know it was a toy car if you didn’t know the back story.

What impressed me most about Avid though, was that he was a passionate storyteller. He weaved in and out of his narrative with just the right blend of humor and seriousness. He connected well with the audience and he could have spoken for hours and no one would have minded much.

After that, I searched for Avid online and found that he blogged at Multiply.com (which was one of the many blogs killed by the coming of Facebook). I first read about this project called Saving Sally there, and I wondered when the film would come to reality.

So fast forward ten years into the future, and there we have it, Saving Sally, on the big screen, which I watched with my wife, my daughter and my sister-in-law a couple of days ago — and it did not disappoint.

Although it promised to be a “very typical love story,” the telling was not at all typical. There was a delightful blend of animation and reality. The real and surreal were paired together in a very matter-of-fact everyday manner, like the monsters walking around Metro Manila or Sally’s weird house on a cliff in the middle of the city.

Humor was subtle, and often hidden in the background, in names of places like Sandara Park, or menu items like Kinilaw na Kanin or Ginatang Gata. It was a delight discovering them, like finding Larry Alcala’s face in old Sunday magazines.

In Letters To A Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke advises an aspiring writer not to write about love — not because it is difficult to write about it, but because so much has already been written about it that it would be difficult to come up with something original. In Rilke’s words, “Don’t write love poems; avoid those forms that are too facile and ordinary: they are the hardest to work with, and it takes a great, fully ripened power to create something individual where good, even glorious, traditions exist in abundance.

Saving Sally does not tell us anything new about love, but it never pretended to in the first place. The delight one finds in this movie is not in the story’s originality but in the way the story was told. William Shakespeare wrote, “Things won are done. Joy’s soul lies in the doing.” And in this story, joy’s soul was in the telling from a master storyteller himself.

I waited a long time for this movie, and it was worth every minute.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Email me at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.


The Atheist’s Christmas

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I first joined a church choir when I was 14, and it would be many years before I left. Christmas was a very busy time for us because aside from all the usual activities that accompany the season, we would be heavily rehearsing for the Christmas concert of our church (traditionally called a cantata).

At first, these cantatas were sung in the usual way — in choir formation, with solos and duets here and there. As the years went by, the presentations became more elaborate. We would have mini-skits to illustrate the song, complete with costumes and props. The highlight of my choral career came when I was in my early 20’s. We had a full-blown musicale drama where I wrote major parts of the script and played the part of an angel acting as sort of a conscience for the lead character.

That was such a huge event for us that we decided to move the venue out of our 300-person capacity church into a school auditorium that could seat a thousand. And instead of having just one playdate on December 25, we had to arrange for 2 playdates, both of which were jam-packed.

But no matter how simple or elaborate the presentation was, Christmas musicales, concerts or cantatas have just one theme — and that is to focus on the birth of Jesus Christ, who would one day be crucified and thus save the world. So the songs would be all about this, as well as evoking feelings of love, generosity, and kindness.

This was all before I discovered that many Christmas traditions were rooted in pagan ones (like Christmas trees, gift-giving, and so on which I wrote about a couple of years ago in XMas). Even the date itself was borrowed from the annual winter solstice celebrations of pagan religions, in the hopes that the Christian version would be popularly embraced as well, and to the credit of whichever pope or bishop thought of this, indeed it was.

A few years ago, a Christian friend of mine found it amusing and ironic that a group of my friends mostly composed of agnostics and atheists gathered together for a Christmas party. But I thought there was nothing ironic about it. Whether Christians like it or not, Christmas today has become so much more than about the celebration of a person. It has become a celebration of humanity — when friends and families come together in happy reunions, when OFW’s fly home to see their wives, husbands and children after missing them for so long, when we experience the joy of giving and receiving gifts from friends and loved ones.

One of my employees belongs to a religious sect that has a reputation for not celebrating Christmas (even though the name of Jesus Christ is proudly headlined in the name of their sect). So I asked him about this and said, “Why don’t you celebrate Christmas?”

And he said, “Oh but we do. We just don’t believe in having parties or celebrating it on December 25 because everyone knows that’s not really when Jesus was born. We actually believe in celebrating Christmas every day of our lives.”

Indeed, what would the world be like if every human being celebrated Christmas this way? What would the world be like if we practiced love, generosity and kindness every day of our lives?

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Email me at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.


Letting Go of Your Child

Photo Credit: Duncan Rawlinson – Duncan.co – @thelastminute Flickr via Compfight cc

When I look at my own children, I wonder what they will be 10 or 20 years from now — what path they will take, what mistakes they will make, and what achievements they will accomplish. As a parent, I wish the best for them, of course, and I try to assist and support them along the way. Sometimes though, I it is also important that I allow them to fail, to learn the consequences of their actions.

What is tough about parenting is learning to walk the fine line between shaping and influencing your children to be their best, and being a control freak, forcing them to live a life of your own choosing instead of theirs.

A parent can sometimes be their own child’s worst enemy, as illustrated in this short anecdote by Anthony de Mello:

A man met a woman at a supermarket. The woman was pushing a grocery cart with two little boys sitting inside it. The man said, “Oh what cute little kids you have. How old are they?”

The woman replied, “The doctor is three, and the lawyer is two.”

I remember when I was in my senior year of high school, how some of my classmates and friends were sad or angry because their parents were forcing them to apply to colleges they did not want, and wanted them to select majors they had little interest in. Some were forced into medicine, others into accounting or business, and so on. I was fortunate that my own father let me decide for myself what I wanted, and supported me all the way, even if I later on changed gears and shifted majors.

Having experienced that kind of unconditional love and support from my father, and actually my entire family, I want to extend the same to my children.

My youngest daughter was once asked what she wanted to be when she grew up. I thought to myself that she could be all sorts of things — she was a gifted pianist, a pretty good artist and she excelled in her academics. But instead of saying any of these, she replied, “I just want to be happy.”

When I thought about it, I guess there is not much else one can really wish for one’s kids other than for them to be outrageously happy.

Let me close by quoting a few verses from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, about letting your children be themselves:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.


Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Email me at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

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