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.