07 April 2009

A Call to Heroism

Here is the commencement address I delivered last year (16 May 2008) at the auditorium of the Far Eastern University:

My dear graduates, I address you as heroes, because that is what you are about to be. In this talk, which I have entitled “A Call to Heroism,” I shall sketch for you why and how you are going to be heroes.

You graduate at a crucial time in the history of our country. Never before have so many been called to do so much to save this land of ours. True, we have gone through three invasions by foreign nations, an armed revolution that was the first in Asia against a European imperialist power, a war against another imperialist power, a world war, martial law, and two people power revolutions, but what we are facing today is a challenge unparalleled in our history.

We face today a battle within. We fought the Spanish, the Americans, the Japanese, and Marcos’s military, but we fought them with our bodies. We fought various environmental and economic forces, but we fought them with our minds. We survived with our bodies and we survived with our minds, but today, the fight is on another front. We live in a country that is losing its soul.

You are called upon to be heroes in this new war against evil. You can be heroes in many ways, but I shall talk of only two general ways, based on where you will be one or two years from now.

One or two years from now, you will be either in another country or still in the Philippines. Let me take first what you are called to do if you go to another country.

If you live and work overseas, you can save the country in two ways. First, you can save it by sending money back to your relatives here. That money will add to the money circulating in the country. With the money that you send back here, goods will be bought and people will be employed to produce or to sell those goods.

But more important than the money is something else that you will send back here. You will send to your relatives here the values that you will learn in your stay abroad.

Let me give just two random examples. If you live in the United States, you will learn that a person’s vote is very, very important. Americans think very hard before they cast their votes. They have a very long process of choosing their candidates. They hold debates. They listen to what their candidates say on television. They do not sell their votes. They make sure that their votes are counted. They hold the people they vote for accountable for their actions in office. If you can impart to your relatives back home that respect for the electoral process, you will save this country from electoral fraud, from election violence, from overspending candidates that have to get back what they spent, from candidates that use government money – our money – to get them elected. With the values that you will learn while you are in the United States and that you can impart to the loved ones you leave here, you can help fight the evil that now surrounds our electoral process.

If you live in the Middle East, you will learn how much we should love God. They call God Allah, but that is just the Arabic word for God. There is only one God, who has many names, as many names as there are languages. Five times a day, no matter how busy they are, no matter what they are doing, the people in the Middle East stop to pray and to thank God for everything good that is happening to them. How many times a day do we Christians in the Philippines thank God for what we have? The evil that we have to fight is not just out there, with the corrupt politicians or government officials, but it is in here, inside us, where God is waiting for us to remember to be thankful. If you share with your relatives back here the kind of prayerful attitude that you will see in the Middle East, you will save your relatives and the rest of us from the evil that is godlessness.

Those are just two examples of how you can save our country if you live outside the country. What will you be called to do if you will live and work inside the Philippines?

Everything. That is the answer – everything. My generation, the older generation, has made a mess of the country. We are responsible for the loss of our forests, the fall of our economy from being the best in Asia to the worst, the deterioration of basic education from being a model for other countries to being so bad that even our public school teachers cannot pass the tests they give to their students, the destruction of our political institutions. Worst of all, we are responsible for the loss of the personal and societal values that made Jose Rizal, Andres Bonifacio, Ninoy Aquino, and our own founder Nicanor Reyes Sr. give up their lives for our country. These values are patriotism, integrity, honesty, courage, and if you want to relate it to this great institution from which you now graduate, fortitude, excellence, and uprightness. Those values are gone, or are almost gone, because we, your elders, have failed you. You are called upon to save not just us, not just your own families, but the entire country, by being heroes with exactly those same values.

What can you do to become a hero, to remain a hero? There is one answer. It is not the only answer, but it is the best answer. You must dream. You must dream. You must never, ever let go of the dreams that you now have, as you sit there savoring the moment of graduation. Remember this moment. Remember your dreams. Do not stop dreaming. Do not stop doing something to make those dreams come true. Do not ever, ever lose hope that your dreams will come true. You need to retain the values that you lived while you were here in FEU. You need to remember the knowledge and the wisdom that you learned while you were here in FEU. You need to live your life driven not just by the purpose that you, your family, your country, and your God have set for you, but by the purpose set by your dreams. A dream-driven life is what your life should be.

Let me talk a little bit about purposeful dreaming.

Throughout history, we human beings have tried very hard to define who we are, to tell us what we are, so that we will know what to do with ourselves.

The very first definition we could think of, at least in the Western tradition, was that of the Greek philosopher Aristotle. Aristotle said that we are animals that think, we are rational animals.

This led to a dead end with René Descartes, the French thinker who said the famous words, I think, therefore I am. We were reduced to just being thinkers. Karl Marx came by and disproved this just as famously. According to Marx, we think according to what the people with the money or the guns want us to think.

Another definition that is very old, this time from the Middle East, was that of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus preached that we are animals that love.

As the evangelist Matthew recorded in Chapter 25 of his gospel, Jesus taught his disciples that, at the end of the world, it is not those that think that will be saved, nor those with money or guns, but those that showed their love for the rest of us, by feeding us when we were hungry, by giving us something to drink when we were thirsty, by taking us into their homes when we were homeless, even if they did not know us, by giving us clothes when we were naked, by caring for us when we were sick, by visiting us when we were imprisoned. Human beings,s aid Jesus, are animals that love.

Another definition that is not so old, again from Europe, is that of the French philosopher Henri Bergson. Bergson said that we are animals that laugh.

Today, I want to focus on a definition that is just as valid as those of Aristotle, Jesus, and Bergson.

This definition says that we are animals that dream.

Note that there are two elements in this definition. First, we are animals. We still need to eat, to drink, to propagate, to keep ourselves warm, to have a roof over our heads, to belong to groups, to have power. We still share the same needs as other animals on this planet.

But unlike all the other animals on this planet, we can dream. Dreaming is what distinguishes us from the beasts.

Martin Luther King had a dream that, as he put it, “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” We could follow that dream. We could dream of a country where we are all equal in ways other than race, where those of us that are poor will not be too different from those of us that are rich, where little rich boys and rich girls will be able to join hands with little poor boys and poor girls as sisters and brothers.

John F. Kennedy had a dream of all Americans thinking of what they could do for America, rather than what America could do for them. We could follow that dream. We could also dream of all of us asking what we can do for the Philippines, rather than what the Philippines can do for us.

John Lennon of the Beatles had a dream of the whole world, as he sang it, “all the people living life in peace.” His lyrics still ring true today. He sang, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us and the world will live as one.”

The founder of our university, Nicanor Reyes Sr., had a dream. He dreamt of a university where students would learn accounting so well that they could be equal to other accountants in the United States and in the world. He dreamt of a university where Filipinos and Asians would learn how to become professionals, would live their college years in the middle of marvelous works of art, of buildings that had great architecture, of paintings done by great artists. He did not live long enough to find out that Pablo Antonio, the architect of the first FEU buildings, would be declared a National Artist. He did not live long enough to find out that the FEU campus of the 21st century would be full of the works of other National Artists – Fernando Amorsolo’s paintings, Vicente Manansala’s sculpture, Botong Francisco’s murals. He did not live long enough to applaud the achievements of FEU students and teachers that later became National Artists, such as Francisca Aquino, F. Sionil Jose, Alejandro Roces.

The dream of Martin Luther King has been fulfilled in America, with an African American running for president. He may not make it to the White House, but his quest for his dream and the dream of all African Americans has excited not just his fellow African Americans, but many other Americans of different colors. King’s dream has been fulfilled, that people, in his words, “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

The dream of John F. Kennedy has been fulfilled in America, with thousands of Americans giving up their lives in what they think is a glorious mission to liberate other countries from what they think is the scourge of terrorism. It doesn’t really matter if they are right or wrong; the point is that they are willing to die for their country. Today, with recession threatening to bring down their country, Americans are doing what they can for their country, instead of waiting for their country to do something for them.

The dream of John Lennon that there will be no countries has been partly fulfilled, with his music and that of those that followed his lead now transcending the boundaries of countries and truly forming a world with the same tastes and sensibilities. One world, with one music.

The dream of Nicanor Reyes Sr. that FEU will be the best non-sectarian private university in the country has been fulfilled. We are, indeed, now the best, if we consider the scope of our offerings, our reputation among accrediting and assessment organizations, the performance of our graduates not just in licensure examinations but in their careers, and soon, the way you graduates today will bring honor to our school.

Today, you graduates and even you parents and friends stand closer to the fulfilment of your dreams. There will be hard times ahead, as there were hard times for King, Kennedy, Lennon, and Reyes. All of them were murdered because other people did not share their dreams. You do not have to die for your dreams, but if your dreams are going to be worth it, you should be willing to die for them. Because there is no point living if you can no longer dream. We are animals that dream. If we stop dreaming, we revert back to the status of mere animals.

Follow your dream, whatever it is. Do not be discouraged, no matter how impossible it seems to attain your dream. It is the dreaming that makes you human. More important for our country, it is your dreaming that will save our country. Because what we need right now is not technical expertise nor even money nor natural resources nor human resources. What our country needs right now are heroes.

But I have to redefine heroism in the context of our philosophical discussion of what makes human beings human. A human being is an animal that dreams. A hero is a human being that dreams not only for herself or for himself, but for others. Heroes are those that fulfill not just their own dreams, but the dreams of everyone around them. Heroes are those that will follow their dreams and the dreams of everyone else, that will make their own dreams and the dreams of their family, friends, fellow Filipinos, fellow human beings come true.

In the end, that is what makes heroes. Heroes are people that follow their dreams. Heroes are people that make other people’s dreams come true. Heroes are dreamers, doers, leaders. Heroes are you, graduates of a great institution, a great Filipino institution, a great Filipino institution built because of a dream of a great Filipino, our Founder. Be true FEU alumni. Be true to your education. Be true to yourself. Be true to your country.

We need you, graduates, alumni, heroes. I take my hat off to you. I salute you. Congratulations!

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