Friday, April 28, 2006

Charlie Brown, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and zoe

Sometime in the middle 1970’s, I came across the books entitled “The Gospel According to Peanuts” and “More Gospel According To Peanuts.” I don’t remember now who the author was, but the book’s thesis was that the Charles Schultz’s cartoon strip “Peanuts” was essentially Christian in worldview. Wow, Charlie Brown, Lucy, Snoopy, Linus, etc as theologians! I had a great time reading those books, first because I identified a lot with Charlie Brown, and second I got introduced to the thoughts of theologians and philosophers like Karl Barth and Soren Kierkaagard which the book often referred to. (I remember reading about Kierkaagard’s views at that same time from Francis Schaeffer’s book “The God Who Is There.”)

I don’t have those books anymore with me. Best that I could remember, I lent the books to a college friend named Al (he eventually went to and graduated from Raffles University in Singapore and has been working there as a journalist since the 1980’s). I don’t remember him ever returning those books. Hmm, maybe I’d better e-mail him about returning those books …

Anyway, one particular Peanuts cartoon strip from those books showed Charlie Brown walking sadly on the windblown baseball grounds as the school year ended. Charlie Brown was thinking, “I hate it when schooldays are over. There’s a dreariness in the air that depresses me.” That was when Lucy (as usual) gets into the scene and jolts Charlie Brown back into reality.

In the 1990’s, when I was editing the yearbooks of Rizal High School, I wrote a short piece based on that particular Peanuts cartoon strip, beginning it with Charlie Brown’s thoughts. I used the piece in special sections of the yearbooks, and it captured for a lot of our students their mixed emotions as they approached graduation day. The piece goes like this:

I hate it when schooldays are over. There’s a dreariness in the air that depresses me. Even the rooms that once were filled with laughter are now empty and bare, the fine dust gathering on the wooden chairs, the windows shutting out the light from the dying sun.

Outside the once green grass now turns to deep brown in the parched ground, the trees bare of any leaves, their twisted black branches reaching upwards toward the sky in vain supplication for a little rain. The wind blows and creates swirling clouds of dust that sweep the school grounds and the empty hallways that once echoed the sounds of hurrying feet and young, excited voices.

School days are over, summer is here.

We’ve said our final goodbyes to our dear friends a thousand times, not really wanting each goodbye to be the last and final sad farewell. We cling to our friends, we hold hands tightly as we walk around the school one final time; we visit the rooms that were once our safe and secure refuge from the harshness of life.

We go through the paces of graduation practices, and laugh at the silly mistakes we make. But deep inside us, we feel a cold hand clutching our hearts, knowing that each day brings us closer to the moment when separation from our dear friends becomes inevitable, a moment steeped in profound sadness and absolute finality.

We close our eyes and hope that time can stand still; we will hold this day like a precious diamond in our hands, hold it up and reflect upon its exquisite beauty. If only time can stand still, we will forever be happy, together …


Elizabeth Kubler-Ross became famous with her study on death and dying, with the stages that a person who knows he or she is terminally ill (or undergoing deep personal sorrow) oftentimes goes through – anger, denial, bargaining and acceptance. Kubler-Ross discovered that a dying person oftentimes focuses not on his or her academic achievements, career highlights, professional pinnacles, but on snatches of childhood memories, stories of friendships from long ago, and on events that may have seemed insignificant at the time but which impending death and reflection have now given a new perspective. A dying person oftentimes thinks about places that hold special memories (the house in the province, the old high school), childhood friends, falling in love for the first time …

(Talking about love, I first fell in love when I was a Grade 4 student. I can still remember her long black hair, her languid eyes, her beautiful name ... Elaine Rose. Or was it simply Rose? Or only Elaine? Or was Rose my Grade 6 classmate, Elaine my Grade 5 seatmate? Sadly, I don’t remember now ... Ah, young love!)

“All eternity frozen in a single moment of youth …”

Theologians tell us that “zoe” is the Greek word for “eternal life” or “eternity.” One pastor, teaching on eternal life, was innocently asked by a grade school student, “Pastor, do you mean to say that I will forever be a Grade 5 student?” The pastor then explained that “zoe” does not refer only to an endless period of time but also to the distinct quality of life for that endless period of time.

When I was a first year student in high school, I had a classmate named Felino who was a math genius. One time, as we were on the top level of the grandstand, gazing at the Marikina River flowing lazily behind the school, Felino said that when his time to die came, he wanted to be cremated and his ashes scattered all over the river. That he said, was his idea of eternal life.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Reflections on graduation time

Recent weeks have seen a flurry of graduation activities (or “commencement exercises” to be more formal about it) all over the Philippines, from pre-school up to the university level. A news story on television told of a near-riot in the Philippine International Convention Center when over a hundred parents of graduating students from the City College of Manila were denied entry into the hall by security personnel wanting to avoid a possible repeat of the Ultra stampede. One mother came all the way from the Middle East and she was completely in tears at having traveled thousand of miles just to see her child go up the stage and receive her diploma, only to be denied entry at the PICC gates.

Well, that incident only goes to show how Filipinos greatly value education. It also goes to show how sentimental Filipinos are.

From 1989 up to 1996, I edited the yearbook of the Rizal High School in Pasig. Some of you might know that this school is credited in the Guinness Book of World Records as being the largest high school in the world with nearly 26,000 students as of last count. In the yearbooks I edited, I used repeatedly (in the covers, inside front cover, or in some special sections; in full or in excerpts) a piece I wrote about saying goodbye during graduation time. It’s a very sentimental piece and it captures for a lot of high school graduates some of the thoughts that race through their hearts and minds. The piece goes like this:

“Dead Stars” was written by Paz Marquez Benitez in 1928 and it remains to this day, probably one of the most touching short stories ever written in the history of Philippine Literature in English.

In this story, Alfredo, the main character, fell in love with Julia who was visiting her relatives during that summer vacation. But Alfredo never had the chance to tell what he really felt for Julia because he was then engaged to be married to Esperanza, and Julia soon found this out.

Alfredo and Julia had a fleeting moment together as they said goodbye on a beach; the murmuring of the waves and the reddish glow of the sky bathed by the slowly sinking sun, the only witnesses to their unspoken love for each other.

Alfredo eventually married Esperanza, but their marriage was marked not only by the absence of children but also of deep love or simple affection. Through the years, however, Alfredo nurtured in his heart his love for Julia, fanning the fire of his affection with fond remembrance of every little word, every touch, every shared experience …

Years later, Alfredo, a lawyer, had the opportunity to travel to a province in the south where his beloved Julia lived.

With silent fear and hopeful expectations, in the stillness of the night, Alfredo walked along the cobbled streets of that sleepy town, the gas lamps glowing from the windows of houses along the streets, throwing eerie shadows as little children played under an early moon.

He found the house he was looking for, and he found his beloved Julia.

As they talked near the window of that humble nipa house, Alfredo searched Julia’s eyes for a flicker of an emotion, an ember of affection they once shared on a beach that murmured with the crashing of the waves, the sky that glowed with varied hues of red with the slowly sinking sun …

Alfredo left the house, and walked silently, slowly towards the boat docked in the pier.

In the stillness of the night, as little children now lay fast asleep in their homes, the gas lamps now tucked away in safe places, and the streets now deserted except for the eerie shadows of swaying trees, the wind now blowing with a coldness that enveloped the body and touched the soul, and the stars that seemed so far away, suspended in space, in eloquent silence ... Alfredo realized that all through the years, since that day on the beach, he had been seeing the light from dead stars.

We have spent four memorable years here in our beloved school, and the days leading to our graduation day have seen a thousand questions tumbling in our hearts and minds.

Where do we go from here?

For some, the future beckons brightly as they are blessed not only with talent and intelligence but also with open doors and countless opportunities.

For some the future looks dark and dreary, as innocent adolescent pursuits give way to serious concerns for jobs and financial security, with a college education merely a mirage in the dry desert sand of our crushed hopes and ruined dreams.

And still for some of us, there is simply no future to speak about.

Still other questions haunt us as we rush from one graduation practice to another, from one class party to another …

Will our friends in high school remember us through the passing of the years, through the changes in our lives, and through the distance of separation made more poignant when no letters come and birthdays are forgotten?

Will our friends still be there for us when problems come and solutions seem so elusive?

Will our friends remain true to us even as they meet other people and encounter new experiences, or will the friendship we thought would never end, prove finally to be weak and temporal?

Will the joys and pains, heartbreaks and happiness we all shared be simply swept aside, never to be remembered, never to be allowed even a little space in our memories?

Will the hopes and ambitions, the secret dreams we have dared to share only with our truest friends, be simply forgotten or revealed to others in careless, thoughtless ways?

Will our names be remembered?
Will our friendships last?
Will our friends still be our friends?

Life oftentimes has a cruel way of frustrating our dreams, of crushing our ambitions, of ending our friendships …

But our friends have made a promise always to remember …

Life indeed must move on, to bigger things, to better places … and we grow up, physically, emotionally and intellectually, and we will no longer be the kind of persons we were in our high school days …

The saddest truth in the whole universe is that time changes everything.

But our friends have made a promise always to remember …

But as we lie awake at night, the caressing wind carries to our consciousness the melodies of songs that brought wonder and meaning to our lives, songs that signified every turning point in our destinies, songs that we once shared and sang together as friends …

Slowly, the half-forgotten lyrics become clearer and they bring us back to our high school days …

Indeed, we have promised always to t remember. We can always remember. We must always remember …

I’m looking now at one of the yearbooks I edited more than ten years ago. Looking at the black and white pictures I shot (and which my students and I would spend weekends printing in our school’s makeshift darkroom) brings back a lot of good memories. I have kept in touch with some of these high school students through the years. From time to time, news comes to me in various ways about what happened to this girl, to that guy …

What brings, however, a lot of sadness to me have been the stories of some of these high school students, some in their late 20’s and others in the early 30’s, whose marriages have failed. Several years ago, I accidentally met a former student who was getting married that day in a civil wedding to be solemnized by a judge. Parents on both sides were there, the bride and the groom were both college graduates and gainfully employed, and everything seemed to say the marriage was going to be successful. Two years after her wedding, she called me up and asked for help in annulling her marriage.

The graduation piece I shared with you above emphasizes the value of our human relationships (maybe the more appropriate word is "overemphasizes"). Dr. Larry Crabb in his book, “The Marriage Builder” (copyright 1982 by Zondervan Corporation; published in the Philippines by Evangelical Touch Outreach Ministries Inc.) says however that ultimate security and fulfillment can never be found in human relationships. Dr. Crabb says,

“We all have deep personal needs for security and significance that cannot be met outside a relationship. Many people deal with their needs wrongly by:

1. Ignoring their existence and looking for satisfaction of personal needs with physical pleasures;

2. Settling for counterfeit personal satisfaction through achievement, recognition, affluence and the like which can never provide real security or significance;

3. Turning to their marriage partners for security and significance. The result is a manipulative relationship designed to use each other for personal satisfaction. Because no marital partner is fully adequate to meet another’s personal needs, such an exploitative relationship will invariably experience conflict.

From where or from whom does ultimate security or fulfillment come from? Please surf over to my weblog for the answer.

You can also click here for the answer.

Happy graduation!