I am a relatively serious person. I openly admit that there are elements of the ridiculous about me (a fact to which anyone who has lived with me can attest). I frequently talk to inanimate objects, leave paper snowflakes around the house until June, throw everything on the floor before cleaning to de-stress/procrastinate, and spend far too much time giggling while watching cute animal videos online. Despite these whimsical quirks however, my overall outlook in life is rather intent. Yes, a murky uncertainly continues to veil my near future plans and prevent me from stating confidently where I will be at this time next year or the year after that or the year after that. Nonetheless, I have pretty concrete notions as to where I want to be twenty and forty years down the line. The elusive, ambiguous details of my future mode de vie do not deter me from expending copious amounts of energy contemplating issues of social reform, structural change and what role my abilities will allow me to play in working towards these ends. Having been fortunate enough to identify some aspects of my vocation this early in life, I often feel compelled to focus on how I can best prepare myself for the work I hope to do in the future.
If this opening introspection conveys nothing else, I feel it articulates two of my largest personal flaws: my propensity to take things- including myself- too seriously and my inability to stop revelling in the future long enough to appreciate the here and now.
Perhaps, you’re like me, and you’ve often wondered if it really is possible to take your own life “too seriously”. After all, what else IS worth obsessing over? If you don’t constructively contemplate and criticize your own life, no one is going to do it for you or instruct you on how to figure out what fulfills you and tempers your insatiable human thirst for belonging. As a student of social change, I’ve come to accept certain realities. The world goes on. Life happens. Things change without the pushing and prodding of any one individual. According to some, our personal reflections and motivations are all that we have helping us seize onto meaning and substance in the world. I don’t know about that- I’m not quite ready to latch onto the existentialist bandwagon and completely disregard the importance of human agency or intrinsic purpose. But, I’ll yield that it’s tough to figure out how much is too much energy to expend on figuring out your place in the “big picture” as opposed to living in the “big picture”.
There I go, again. Philosophizing instead of making a point.
Filipinos have a popular saying that has caught my attention: “Bahala na!”. Roughly translated, it means “Leave it to God” -a sort of Tagalog “Que sera, sera!”. This attitude seems to be rather dominant in Filipino culture. Their ability to let things go at a certain point- to work as hard as they can and then leave the rest to God and the universe to resolve- continually astounds me. For example, when waiting for something to happen, perhaps for a meeting to begin or to locate and purchase some cached merchandise , it will always be “a while” before it’s possible. It’s not that there aren’t capable people waiting and willing to help you. It’s just that the process is complicated, multi-step and often out of their hands. Rather than get upset and frustrated over this inability to control every step of the process in question, most people here seem to accept that there are just some things that can’t be rushed or changed. On a larger scale, there seem to consistently be natural disasters in this country that wreak utter havoc on the population and infrastructure with raging winds and rapid flooding. Despite the fact that such disasters, like Typhoon Pedring that swept across Luzon a couple weeks ago, cause chaos and claim a heart-wrenching death toll, the acceptance and perseverance with which people here seem to process and recover from these devastating events is mind-boggling.
Having mostly grown up a member of fast-paced, American consumer culture I sometimes have trouble coping with this nonchalant, dispassionate attitude. Though I have certainly mellowed out over time, even my years of living in India and time abroad in Ghana haven’t completely converted me to this type of blissful passivity and acceptance. While I can see how embracing this attitude to the extreme could prove detrimental and counter-productive, I admire the ability to accept situations and limitations for what they are and to essentially focus on hoping for the best.
Thus, one of my challenges for myself while living and traveling here in the Philippines is to further incorporate this “bahala na” attitude into my mentality. Ultimately, at such a young age and transient point in my life, how much can I really control anyways? I’ve often heard the prayer “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” Though I’m not Christian, this prayer and the Bahala na attitute speak to me and encourage me to stop taking my life direction so seriously and instead focus on being aware of how fortunate I am to be where I am now. How many first year college graduates can say that they have a comfortable lifestyle, opportunities to travel and are getting paid to continue their education? How many residents of the Philippines can say that? Though I’m continuously nervous about my life once this temporary security disappears next spring, stressing out about my next steps and how they’ll help me reach my long term goals is just not something I can or should strive to explicitly control. I need to focus on making the most of being here and now.
I think I’ve been approaching my time in Manila so far all wrong. This year’s not about figuring out the big things in life: what I want to do, where I want to go, how I want to get there, etc. It’s about figuring out how to accept myself for what I am now and giving myself the freedom to develop without succumbing to unruly, internal pressures to try and solve everything now. Perhaps my most quirky, ridiculous personal character trait of all is that, in reality, I already have such strong faith that everything will always work out for the best. This Filipino collective notion that thing will alway be in the hands of God and work out how they should is one I’ve been working to embrace for years but just have had trouble doing surrounded by a culture and environment focused vehemently on success as defined by a bootstraps mentality and meritocracy. I talk so much about valuing human experience and non-mainstream knowledge, but have so much trouble doing so for myself. Having this opportunity to slow down and do so now is perhaps more valuable in preparing me for my future than any serious introspection or analysis might be. So instead of focusing on what I need to do to succeed in the future or philosophizing about the best way to give meaning to my life, I just want to take some time to live it and laugh at the absurdities that surround me and fill me head. After all, everything’s worked out splendidly so far. So to the future, for now, I say bahala na!
Originally published October 12, 2011