The need for new stories

By Jim Paredes

To poison a nation, poison its stories. A demoralized nation tells demoralized stories to itself. Because of the story-tellers who are not fully conscious of the importance of their gifts, and who are irresponsible in the application of their art: they could unwittingly help along the psychic destruction of their people. — Ben Okri

That’s a quote from a tiny book called Birds of Heaven given to me by a reader in New York.

This makes me shudder as I ponder all the negativity I encounter each day in the newspapers, television, radio, and from people I talk to. Too many stories abound about defeat and pessimism in the Philippines, about corruption and the hopelessness of our politics, about how we are morally flawed in character. There’s just too much pettiness, frivolity, vapidity, cynicism, and too little of anything of value to pick up.

It hasn’t always been like this. There was a time when we could trust the media, and we felt safe in our cities and our neighborhoods.

There was a time when stories about ourselves were illuminating and truthful and they nourished our sense of well-being, who we were, and what we could be when we were at our best. We still see traces of these occasionally but they are too few and far between.

Think of EDSA. That was a time when we felt very good about ourselves as a people. Lately, there have been stories about Manny Pacquiao and other Filipino sportsmen who have brought home glory for us to savor. But sadly, we’ve gotten so used to our diet of low self-esteem, that even when such triumphs happen, we tend to think that they are mere exceptions to an otherwise depressing rule.

As I find myself deluged by all this negativity and the accompanying vexation, I question whether the situation is truly as it is reported. Are we really condemned to hell at worst or to mediocrity at best? Are we in a spiral of self destruction? Some of us will cite many good, ample reasons to believe so. But even if a lot of our countrymen seem to be so defeatist, we don’t have to follow them. We have a choice to take another route, the higher road. We always have a choice.

I always go back to what Anais said: “We do not see the world as it is. We see it as we are.” So much of what we read about, listen to and observe about our world does not reflect how things necessarily are, but how they are seen by others who have become jaded and stuck in a negative mindset, and who see nothing but hopelessness.

I remember a conference I attended many years ago in Amsterdam on the link between entertainment and education, where a speaker gave a presentation about how tales of heroes, myths, fairy tales and folk stories actually create or help shape the identities of nations or groups of people. During the Q&A, I asked what it meant if a people were fixated on heroes who had been martyred. I had in mind Ninoy, Rizal, Macliing Dulag and other martyred Filipinos. The speaker’s response gave me goose bumps.

She said that ideally, a people should also have heroes who have grown old and lived a full life. Otherwise, according to her, there would be something sorely missing in a society or culture. She said that some heroes must actually live long enough among their people in fulfillment of the “promised land” that they had fought for, and not just represent some visualized utopian future.

One example of such a hero is Nelson Mandela, who continues to be an icon in South Africa and the world. He is a gift to humanity for the story he has lived and continues to live. In contrast, there are societies that are forced by circumstances to almost exclusively hold up suicide bombers as their present-day heroes to emulate. The promise of their deaths is fulfilled in the hereafter or in some faraway future that may never happen.

Ben Okri put it very well when he wrote, “Unhappy lands prefer utopian stories.”

Here’s another quote from Okri:

Nation and peoples are largely the stories they feed themselves. If they tell themselves stories that are lies, they will suffer the future consequences of those lies. If they tell themselves stories that face their own truths, they will free their histories for future flowerings.

Let’s look at ourselves and at the stories that fascinate us. What can we say about a nation that is obsessed with adolescent love stories, Korean telenovelas, tele-fantasies, chismis and game shows? According to screenwriter and director Joey Reyes, the revival of the ’70s soap Flor de Luna is a sad example of the state of affairs of the media in the Philippines. He laments that the three greatest no-nos in the media today are innovation, identity and growth.

A running argument I have with some media bigwigs is why they continue to feed their audiences with mediocrity, or worse, stuff they won’t even allow their own kids to watch. Perhaps to justify their actions, shut me up and end the argument, I have been told brazenly that it all boils down to their assessment that, “Tanga ang Pilipino.”

But isn’t this the same audience that responds positively to excellent world-class shows and movies like Lord of the Rings? I have begun to seriously wonder if our society, mired as it is in mediocrity, would be able to spot a Shakespeare, a Rizal or a Gandhi if they were reincarnated in our milieu.

As we approach the 21st anniversary of the EDSA revolution, my thoughts turn to heroes, and what kind of examples we need at this time. We have proven time and again that we are ready to march, and at times even die for our country. We praise those who have died for democracy, freedom, justice, truth and all the good things we want to have in our lives. But maybe what we need at this time are living heroes who are ready to stay the course long enough to overcome the vicissitudes that plague our national life, and to march with the rest of the country as we redirect the nation to a better future.

I truly believe that there is no reason why we cannot be those heroes — men and women who are willing to live big, imaginative and creative lives for our country and our people. The people behind Gawad Kalinga, for example, are telling new, compelling stories of redemption in the many communities that they transform almost daily. There are many others in different fields, to be sure, who expand the borders of what is wonderfully possible.

We need to dream our own dreams and boldly live our own stories that rise above the mediocre narratives that the media prefer to purvey. And as we actualize the new realities that we know we are capable of, these newer, more nurturing realities will claim their own place in our society and the mediocre stories, which have been our toxic staple for too long, will wither and die.

Jim Paredes is a Filipino musician, producer, educator, writer, television personality, workshop facilitator, as well as an activist.

This piece was published on February 25, 2007 at The Philippine Star, under Mr. Paredes’ column, Humming in my Universe. It is republished here with permission from Mr. Paredes. It also appeared as an entry on his blog, Writing on Air.



Photo credit: Some rights reserved by wili_hybrid

Guest Writer

  • bad news is good business. good business is more money. more money keeps news media alive and happy. that is why i fully support government-subsidized news media, but with no control or pressure from the state. Their “chancellors” or their directors are funded by they have complete independence from the state. The UK’s BBC and America’s PBS and NPR follow this model (actually, they were instituted to be FULLY funded by the state, although PBS and NPR might have a portion come from other sources, but BBC remains fully funded by people’s taxes), and they are among the most respected *and profitable* news media outlets in the world. And they always have good news, and their bad news are never aggrandized. OF course there has to be institutional maturity for this to happen (our state-controlled media at this point is lorded over by someone who admitted to hijacking Facebook fans, jeez!). But it would be nice to see this happen, or the move toward it, in our lifetime.

    • Anonymous

      Now, you know that the BBC, PBS and NPR are not all about Cinderella-and-they-live-happily-ever-after good news especially Pilipinas-style. HIV/AIDS appears on BBC and the other two. Genocide and Darfur — written about, too. What happens when incompetent presidents and greedy oligarchs get into positions of power — those get discussed, too. Pictures of emaciated children, there are there, for sure.

      What you also said is true — the BBC, PBS and NPR are not pro-administration banner-wavers. Maybe Pilipinas (just like Burma, Bangladesh, Egypt and Brazil) just is not mature enough for a PBS- or a BBC-type media outfit.

  • bad news is good business. good business is more money. more money keeps news media alive and happy. that is why i fully support government-subsidized news media, but with no control or pressure from the state. Their “chancellors” or their directors are funded by they have complete independence from the state. The UK’s BBC and America’s PBS and NPR follow this model (actually, they were instituted to be FULLY funded by the state, although PBS and NPR might have a portion come from other sources, but BBC remains fully funded by people’s taxes), and they are among the most respected *and profitable* news media outlets in the world. And they always have good news, and their bad news are never aggrandized. OF course there has to be institutional maturity for this to happen (our state-controlled media at this point is lorded over by someone who admitted to hijacking Facebook fans, jeez!). But it would be nice to see this happen, or the move toward it, in our lifetime.

    • Anonymous

      Now, you know that the BBC, PBS and NPR are not all about Cinderella-and-they-live-happily-ever-after good news especially Pilipinas-style. HIV/AIDS appears on BBC and the other two. Genocide and Darfur — written about, too. What happens when incompetent presidents and greedy oligarchs get into positions of power — those get discussed, too. Pictures of emaciated children, there are there, for sure.

  • Bert

    I am agreeing with the author, except for one thing, and that is categorizing Shakespeare and Pacquiao as heroes. Surely they are exceptional people, and there are lots of exceptional people in the world, but they’re not considered heroes by their countrymen. Why should anyone take credit for the individual accomplishment of another? Well, maybe Freddie Roach the trainer, :).

  • Bert

    I am agreeing with the author, except for one thing, and that is categorizing Shakespeare and Pacquiao as heroes. Surely they are exceptional people, and there are lots of exceptional people in the world, but they’re not considered heroes by their countrymen. Why should anyone take credit for the individual accomplishment of another? Well, maybe Freddie Roach the trainer, :).

  • Negativity can only be sustainably countered by positive outcomes. However, positive outcomes should NEVER be confused with positive messages. There is a big difference between the two. Positive outcomes involve delivery of REAL results, while, in contrast, all that positive messages deliver is MERE delusion. 😀

    • GabbyD

      positive messages is delusion? u must be the life of the party over the holidays…

      • Your confusing party banter with blog commenting, GabbyD. Those are two different things. 😀

        • GabbyD

          … and you are confusing positive messages for delusion.

          • Dude, I was born unconfused. Read my comment again. My assertion is that delusion is an outcome of positive messages.

    • Anonymous

      All-positive messages work. That’s how it is done Grade 6 and younger, right? To protect the immature and malleable minds, the teacher only sends out positive messages to the students, and the students eventually leave school anyway, so all-positive messages work when the messages are tailored to the audience.Do you suppose the author included some unintended backhanded proposal? After all, you’d think that of the Pinoys-in-Pinas who are over the age of 40, some have what it takes to make sense of tough gritty news.

  • Negativity can only be sustainably countered by positive outcomes. However, positive outcomes should NEVER be confused with positive messages. There is a big difference between the two. Positive outcomes involve delivery of REAL results, while, in contrast, all that positive messages deliver is MERE delusion. 😀

    • GabbyD

      positive messages is delusion? u must be the life of the party over the holidays…

      • Your confusing party banter with blog commenting, GabbyD. Those are two different things. 😀

        • GabbyD

          … and you are confusing positive messages for delusion.

        • GabbyD

          … and you are confusing positive messages for delusion.

        • GabbyD

          … and you are confusing positive messages for delusion.

          • Dude, I was born unconfused. Read my comment again. My assertion is that delusion is an outcome of positive messages.

          • Dude, I was born unconfused. Read my comment again. My assertion is that delusion is an outcome of positive messages.

    • Anonymous

      All-positive messages work. That’s how it is done Grade 6 and younger, right? The teacher only sends out positive messages to the students, and the students eventually leave school anyway, so all-positive messages work when the messages are tailored to the audience.Do you suppose the proposal was a backhanded compliment… the author is some slick writer, for sure.

  • Aileen Apolo-de Jesus

    I blogged about this back in 2007 because I wondered why the news always covered bad things and none of the good stuff. A few weeks later PDI started a column about Good News in the Philippines. Sadly though it’s gone again and our local news has just been focusing more on either local crimes, showbiz and government wrongdoing. I rarely see any business news unlike in other countries. Oh well.

    • cocoy

      Aileen we will try to focus on Good News in the Philippines.

      • GabbyD

        i think thats a great idea.

  • Aileen Apolo-de Jesus

    I blogged about this back in 2007 because I wondered why the news always covered bad things and none of the good stuff. A few weeks later PDI started a column about Good News in the Philippines. Sadly though it’s gone again and our local news has just been focusing more on either local crimes, showbiz and government wrongdoing. I rarely see any business news unlike in other countries. Oh well.

    • cocoy

      Aileen we will try to focus on Good News in the Philippines.

      • GabbyD

        i think thats a great idea.