One of the more interesting classes I took in college was Literary Theory. It was not part of my curriculum but I had heard a lot about the teacher, Dr. Edna Zapanta-Manlapaz, and I decided wasn’t about to graduate without taking one or two of her classes. So I asked her permission if I could sit in her class (I found out about it two or three weeks into the semester so it was too late to officially enroll). She was gracious though and granted me permission to be in her class, as long as I complied with the work like any other regular student. I thought that was as good a deal as any so I took it.
There were two lectures from that class that I still draw lessons from up to this day.
In the first one, the teacher came into class and handed out sheets of paper containing a short poem of around 10 lines. She gave us a few minutes to read the poem, then asked someone to read it aloud, then asked us what it meant. The discussion that ensued went this way and that, as it was quite a vague poem. When one student tried to justify his answer with a certain line, the teacher would use another line to counter that argument. When another used a certain word as a symbol or metaphor, the teacher would use another word to show that didn’t quite make sense. The discussion became heated and polarized and soon there were two or three factions in class espousing one idea over another.
When it seemed that the issue was unresolvable, the teacher gave away the secret.
The “poem” was not an actual poem. She had taken the first two lines from one poem, the next two from another, and so on and so forth. What we were reading was actually a mash-up of several poems. It wasn’t any wonder then, why we couldn’t agree on the meaning.
And then she introduced us to the concept of “gestalt” and explained it as the natural inclination of our minds to create or infer meaning from seemingly unrelated pieces of data. It’s like when we are faced with pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, we assume that they will somehow come together and form a coherent picture. In fact, some try very hard to force the pieces together because it just needs to mean something, somehow. It cannot be utterly meaningless.
That is very much how it is with many people in life. When bad things happen, like when one loses a job, then “God must be telling me something” or “when God closes a door, he opens a window.” When a loved one dies in a freak accident, then it’s “God has a plan” or “God must have needed another angel” or “this is punishment for me playing that awful prank on my classmate many years ago.” When good things happen, like a sudden upturn in business or a promotion, then it’s “all things work together for those who love God” or “I must have done something good in my past life.”
Events and circumstances are rarely seen as they are but are always interpreted against the backdrop of what one thinks life’s meaning should be. In our part of the world, that usually means how one fits into the Divine plan, or to one’s place in the karmic wheel. Stella, my editor-in-chief, believes herself as the spoiled brat of the universe and touts that as the reason why her flights often arrive ahead of schedule, or how she can get through Manila traffic in record time.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are the New Atheists who claim that there is no God or universal force, that everything happens by chance and that any meaning we derive from life comes from whatever meaning we ourselves put into it. That sounds all well and good at first, but if you think about it, it can also paint a pretty bleak picture because, well, what’s the point of it all then?
While I definitely do not subscribe to the idea that we are chess pieces moved to and fro by some divine hand who has a mysterious plan for us, I also find it disheartening to think that all the energy we expend on living and loving really has no ultimate point at all as humanity hurtles towards oblivion and obliteration.
Perhaps there is something that started this all, that nudges us along in our day-to-day living, that provides us with inspiration to create beauty, to celebrate with friends, or to find joy and peace amidst despair and turmoil. It is not a strict schoolteacher watching your every mistake and looking to give you an F (or sending you to hell). It is instead a loving parent or a wise old friend, gracious and understanding of your shortcomings, always encouraging you to pick up the pieces and move on and move forward.
Or perhaps this is just me trying to force pieces of the puzzle together. Perhaps there is no puzzle after all. Who knows?
(I mentioned two lectures, but only had space for one today. Perhaps I will tackle the other lecture next week. Who knows?)
Originally published in Sunstar Davao.