Lessons From Dad

Photo Credit: Kalexanderson via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Kalexanderson via Compfight cc

It’s my dad’s 87th birthday as I write this. I spent the last few days scanning old photographs in preparation for a slideshow I was making for the celebration. Seeing those photos reminded me of the many lessons I learned from him while growing up.

Even when I was a young kid, my dad allowed me to walk to my friends’ houses that were near our house — around 2 or 3 blocks away — but always with the condition that I tell him what time I would be home, and that I would call him at the office when I do. One time, I promised to be home by 2pm, but I was late by 30 minutes. Unfortunately, my dad was home at that time and he had a stern look on his face as I came through the door.

“What time did you say you’ll be home?” he said.

“Two o’clock,” I replied.

“And what time is it?” he said.

“Two-thirty,” I said.

“Look, you better learn to be mindful of time. When you tell me that you’ll be home by 2:00, come hell or high water, you better be home by 2:00,” he said. He continued lecturing me about the importance of time but the point had been made. Thanks to that, I learned at a very early age to be on time — a habit that I carry to this day.

Another lesson I learned from him was diplomacy. I would sometimes say things that made him mad, but when I explained what I meant, he would calm down and say to me, “Don’t say it that way because I can easily misunderstand. The way you said it sounded so arrogant, that’s why I reacted that way. Remember, it’s not what you say, but how you say it.”

It is a lesson I am still learning to this day as it is not an easy one. But a corollary lesson to it is also learning to listen to people — and not to react emotionally but trying to understand the underlying thought and feelings behind the words they say.

The next lesson was about writing and editing. It wasn’t a lesson he taught directly, but he provided the environment and opportunity for me to practice what I learned in school. On Saturdays and during summer vacation, he would bring me to the office and let me type his many business letters while he dictated them to me.

My typing skills vastly improved because of this. I also edited his sentences on the fly when he made minor errors in subject/verb agreement or using the wrong pronoun. Of course, a lot of credit goes to my school teachers for teaching well, but my dad provided a way for me to apply those lessons in a very real and practical sense. I thought my little edits and corrections went largely unnoticed until one morning, he showed a letter I had typed to the entire family. He read to them a certain sentence that I had rephrased and praised me for that correction, saying that it sounded better and that I did well in correcting it. That encouraged me to go on honing my skills in grammar and writing.

Perhaps the best lesson I received from my dad was learning to be independent. He gave me an allowance and taught me how to account for it. I learned the terms “debit” and “credit” before I was 10. He made me answer the office phone, or call his business contacts to set appointments — teaching me how to communicate in a professional manner — and this was before my voice changed. He would let me try things on my own — riding a jeepney, biking, driving, and later on going to college in Manila, living independently, and so on. He was not afraid to let me make mistakes but he was always there afterwards to help me process the lessons gleaned from them.

When I think of my dad, I remember a story by Anthony de Mello:

To a disciple who was always at his prayers, the Master said, “When will you stop leaning on God and stand on your own two feet?”

The disciple was astonished. “But you are the one who taught us to look on God as Father!”

The master replied, “When will you learn that a father isn’t someone you can lean on but someone who rids you of your tendency to lean?”

Happy Birthday, Dad, and thanks for all the lessons.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

You may email the author at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

 

The Year I Taught History Class

Photo Credit: Free Grunge Textures - www.freestock.ca via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Free Grunge Textures – www.freestock.ca via Compfight cc

Schooldays are right around the corner, and that reminds me of a time around 16 years ago. It was the same time of the year. I was a full-time high school English teacher hanging around the principal’s office when she suddenly said to me, “Hey, I haven’t found a history teacher yet and school is about to begin. Why don’t you teach world history?”

I said, “What? Do you know how little I care about history? It’s my second-least favorite subject.” (The least favorite being Filipino — in case you were wondering).

She insisted, “Come on. Help me out here. I don’t want to think about this anymore. I’ll give you an advance copy of the textbook so you can read up on it. I know you can handle it.”

When she was like this, it was very hard to argue with her. So I resigned myself to my fate and switched to bargaining. “All right, but I get to teach it my way.”

“What do you mean?” she said.

I said, “Well, what I hate most about history teachers is that they let students memorize a lot of trivial stuff — dates, names, places — instead of focusing on the importance or significance of the events. So I won’t be having any of that if I teach history. I plan on giving open-book exams.”

See, whatever subject I handled, my goal was always to teach students how to think critically rather than just memorize and spit out information that could easily have been looked up. There is that probably apocryphal story of Einstein who, when asked what his phone number was, went to the phonebook to look it up. His reason being that he didn’t want to waste his brain power memorizing things he could easily look up.

Anyway, my principal was a very broad-minded person (she was also the best boss I’ve ever had). She gave me free rein to go ahead with whatever I had planned.

So school started. I met my class and explained to them how I would be handling the class. They were generally happy when they learned about the open-books/open-notes tests, except for the intelligent few who knew that having an open-book test means you can’t find the answer in the book. So instead of asking them for names and dates of the first world war, I would ask them instead why Germany invaded Russia. Instead of asking who led this or that revolution, I would ask them what they would have done if they were that person.

Very quickly, my students learned that even though I allowed them to open their books, if they only opened their books during the test, they would fail. In fact, I warned them about it before the test saying they should study as if it were a closed-book exam — because if they would only study and read during the exam, they wouldn’t have time to finish the entire test. The books/notes should only be used as reminders and references but they should already have a good idea of the material beforehand.

I tried getting their interest in various ways, which was quite challenging because history has always been boring for me. I remember letting them watch the film, Schindler’s List (which had won 7 Academy Awards in 1993), to expose them to the horrors the Jews had to face in the second world war. In hindsight, it was probably too much for 14-year olds to handle, especially when the girls turned to me in shock (the boys were probably enjoying it) during a brief bed scene.

So the year passed pretty quickly and I was glad to have taken the challenge to do something I never thought I would do. My students probably learned a few things (hopefully) but I learned a lot of things as well. Teaching is, after all, the best way to learn anything.

But please, don’t ask me to teach Filipino.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

You may email the author at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

A Failure to Communicate

Photo Credit: Feggy Art via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Feggy Art via Compfight cc

My wife does not like drinking cold water. She likes her water slightly hot. When we eat out, she would usually ask the waiter or waitress for “warm water.” Sometimes they would get it right but there would be some instances when she would be served lukewarm or tepid water (at room temperature), or very hot water.

I pointed out that some waiters, especially those less proficient in English, probably equated warm with lukewarm and some of them equated warm with hot. So I thought the simplest solution then is to communicate in a way they would understand best. Instead of asking for “warm” water. Ask them for water that’s a bit hot (“medyo mainit” or “mainit-init”).

Then we would just laugh about it.

A lot of disappointments and quarrels in life come from a simple failure to communicate. We insist on doing and saying things our way without considering the other person’s point of view, without thinking of how that person could possibly understand or misunderstand what we say. This is further compounded when the offended party does not try to clarify the situation, but rather stops communicating, and instead moans and complains to his friends about this arrogant fool who has so insulted him — which leads to his friends telling their friends, and so on, until word reaches the other party and then a full-scale war breaks out — a war which would have been easily prevented had one side simply reached out to the other and tried to really listen and understand the other’s point of view.

When I started writing this column a little over a year ago, I was aware that I would be ruffling a lot of religious feathers with my some of my irreverent thoughts. I had been writing long enough to know how people can easily bring their own biases into what they read, or take things out of context, or simply not understand and come to an incorrect conclusion. But such is the curse of writing. If every writer waited until every sentence was perfect, and every word the exact one to use, no writing would ever happen.

Anyway, feathers were indeed ruffled and I heard bits and pieces from here and there, but I was glad when someone approached me and said, “Hey, we would like to hear and understand your side. We can set a time and place for you to just talk and we would just listen and ask clarificatory questions, if any.”

The meeting happened and I was able to make my position clearer (at least I hope so) and I was able to understand what some of them thought of that as well. The result was a clearing of the air and a better sense of respect from both sides.

I do not place much stock in astrology but it seems that my being a Libra always comes out in situations like this. I can go from one extreme to the other, but somewhere along the way, something in me tries to find a sense of balance. When I was a believer, I went beyond being a conservative believer to being a dancing charismatic, and then I began questioning that until I turned my back on belief. Then I went from being a quiet agnostic to openly quoting and supporting “militant” atheists, and now I am beginning to question that as well.

Amid the many texts I have read, I am convinced of one thing — each side accuses the other of not really understanding, of taking things out of context, of creating straw men and fallacious arguments. It takes a lot of time and effort to wade through the various material and try to digest firsthand what is really being said by one side, then the other, and then try to make sense of it.

This column is not about convincing you to believe as I do. It never was. Rather this has been a way for me to organize and verbalize my attempt to search for and synthesize the truth, and I am allowing you to glimpse into my mind and see some of the stuff going on. You are more than welcome to contribute and comment. Hopefully, I’ve given something interesting for you to think about — something worth the few minutes you’ve given to get this far.

Otherwise, what we have is a failure to communicate. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get a glass of warm water.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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

 

The Flower of Truth

Photo Credit: blende74.de via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: blende74.de via Compfight cc

What is the value of truth? Of all the stories I have read, nothing matches this old folk tale that I have taken the liberty to retell in my own fashion. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do:

In ancient times, a prince announced that he was going to choose a bride and called all interested maidens to present themselves to him at the palace.

Among the many noble ladies and princesses gathered in the hall that day, there stood the old palace gardener’s daughter who had held a secret love for the prince ever since they played together in the garden as children. Her white dress still had some dirt stains that she tried in vain to remove. Her bare feet stood in stark contrast with the glittering shoes of the other ladies. Murmurs, whispers and mocking eyes followed the girl wherever she walked.

But then the prince appeared in the doorway and all eyes turned towards him.

He gave the gathered crowd a brief smile, then said, “I am giving each maiden a single flower seed which you have to plant and nurture until it grows into full bloom. In six months time, I want to see you back here with your plants. The one I will choose for my bride will be the one with the most beautiful flower.”

And with that, he left the servants to give one seed each to the maidens.

The gardener’s daughter quickly went home and planted the seed in one of her father’s old pots. She mustered all she had learned about proper gardening and the bedridden old man even gave her a few tips and reminders on what to do.

She waited a few days for a sign that the plant was growing. How she longed for the first leaf to pop out of the soil prepared with care and love. But the days stretched into weeks and still nothing grew. Unwilling to accept defeat, she asked for other insights from the other palace gardeners. She thought of ways to make the plant grow until she got frequent headaches every day just from thinking.

The weeks stretched into a month, then two, then three, four, five, and six.

Nothing grew from the little pot.

The girl, now desolate and in despair, thought of just staying home, but finally resolved to go to the palace with her flowerless pot, if only to see her heart’s true love one more time.

In the palace, she sat in a corner with her head down. Tears trickled from her eyes as she saw all the other ladies in their fine-woven, colored silk dresses. They held ornate and intricate vases that spouted beautiful flowers. It was an astonishing sight to behold, flowers of all shapes, sizes, colors and scents were packed in that small room, all awaiting the prince’s judgement and decision as to which was the loveliest.

A servant entered the room and began moving among the ladies, who barely noticed him. He briefly took note of what each held in her hand until his eyes rested on the gardener’s daughter sitting in the corner with an empty pot beside her.

He quickly moved to her and tapped her shoulder. “Come with me,” he said.

The girl saw the servant’s serious mien and  thought that he was going to throw her out. How dare she come here with her empty pot, dirty clothes and tear-stricken face, without anything to show for her effort. How dare she mar the prince’s big day as she stood out like an ugly blot among all these fine women.

She wiped her tears with the back of her hand as she scrambled to her feet. The servant clutched her arm and led her towards the center of the room. Suddenly, another servant rushed in and announced the arrival of the prince.

The room fell into a hushed silence as he appeared. He glanced briefly around the room and his eyes met those of the servant holding the gardener’s daughter. He gave the prince a slight nod.

The prince smiled, then pointed towards the servant and the gardener’s daughter. “Behold my bride,” he announced to the stunned crowd.

There was a brief moment of silence, but it was quickly broken by the angry voices of the other ladies.

“But she has nothing in her pot,” they exclaimed.

The prince raised his hand to command silence and restore order. Then he explained.

“Six months ago, I gave each of you a seed and told you to come back with the best and most beautiful flower. I see today that you all have such wondrous, wild and exotic flowers perhaps never before seen in the kingdom. But this lady here has shown me a flower that none of you can match — the flower of truth. All the seeds I gave you before had been boiled and rendered sterile. Surely, nothing, not even a weed, could have grown from them.”

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Did you like the story? Send me a note at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

 

Irreligious

Photo Credit: giveawayboy via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: giveawayboy via Compfight cc

There are people who are absolutely convinced that religion does no good, is harmful to people and the best thing to happen would be to eradicate all traces of it from the face of the earth. These are people like Richard Dawkins (author of The God Delusion) and Christopher Hitchens (author of God Is Not Great — How Religion Poisons Everything), and many others in the New Atheist movement. My circle of friends includes a handful who think this way as well.

But not me.

While I myself am currently irreligious, and constantly criticize religion, and read and listen to the aforementioned authors, I cannot deny that my own upbringing in such an environment was beneficial, the greatest of which was meeting a girl in the church choir whom I eventually married.

I do not believe that religion does no good because it has done some good in my own life, as well as in the lives of many of my friends and relatives. I know many people who turned from a life of decadence and crime because of religion. Whatever the personal motivation was (fear of hell, guilt, shame, etc.), the end result was a life lived for the good rather than for destructive ends, and I would take that to be a good thing, all things considered.

So, you may ask, why do I spurn religion?

Before I answer that question, let me tell a story.

There was once a monastery where the head monk saw a stray dog on the road and decided to keep it as a pet. The dog was allowed to roam freely around the place, but it became a big distraction during the monks’ prayer times as it was quite playful and would move around them, licking their faces, climbing on their backs, and so forth.

The head monk then decided to tie the dog up to a post during prayer time. A few years passed and the dog passed away. The monks were so used to having a dog now that they got another one, and continued the practice of tying it to the post during prayer time.

A few years later, the head monk passed away, and a new head monk was chosen. He continued the practice of always having a dog, and having him tied up during prayer time.

A few centuries later, the monastery now attracted tourists because it featured a “prayer dog” in full ceremonial garb who was always present and tied-up during the monks’ prayer time. The monastery even had several volumes of written works extolling the spiritual virtues and benefits of having a dog tied up during prayer. Visitors were invited to put a few coins in a collection box near the dog — for good health and good fortune.

In a similar fashion, religion was originally a way for people to seek truth and meaning in life. In a very short while, however, it was no longer that. It became a vehicle to maintain and propagate beliefs. In the worst cases, it became a tool used to manipulate and exploit people. Most religious institutions do not really help people seek the truth. Instead, they claim to have already found it and their task now is to indoctrinate those who enter their doors to follow their teachings, their scriptures, their methods, their ways.

I remember sitting through a sermon many years ago where the pastor challenged the congregation to “seek the truth.” That woke me up. I was pumped, for around 2 seconds, because he repeated the phrase with an addendum, “Seek the truth, but don’t stray too far from the Bible,” and that totally deflated me. This was not an honest challenge. It was a rigged game. You cannot tell a person to seek anything and then put a leash around his neck.

It was not long after that when I turned my back on religion, but I realize this path is not for everyone. Many people are happy where they are, singing their hallelujahs or bowed on their prayer mats. My task is not to make everyone irreligious like me for then I would be guilty of the same indoctrination I so abhor. I simply aim to clarify and share the things I discovered along the way. If you happen to be on the same path as I am and find my stories helpful, I’m glad to have been of help. If not, well, it was nice meeting you anyway.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Are you religious or irreligious? Share your story with me at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

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