August 05, 2008

On living well

Something Like Life
Aug. 1, 2008

PEOPLE who knew of Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon professor who recently died at the age of 47 after a bout with pancreatic cancer, are once more discussing his celebrated “Last Lecture,” which has been posted on YouTube since last October. v Since he passed just last week, the hits have even increased as people continue to sing paeans to his words of wisdom, coming from a man who had a debilitating disease and yet did not act like it. In one instance, he even showed how “well” he was by doing push-ups.

Death has been much around me since I was a toddler, but even more so now that I’m an adult. Older relatives, friends and famous people, those whom I looked up to as a young child, are one by one leaving me. People my age are telling me the same thing.

Their time may be up. But they leave us is in the hope that by their own examples, in the way they have lived with their own lives, we have learned something valuable enough to apply to our existence. And perhaps we, too, would be able to impart whatever knowledge or values we have learned or gained through our own personal experiences to the next generation.

Though I still sometimes refuse to recognize it, I am old. And so are my peers and the friends I usually hang around with. While 40 may still be considered the new 20 or 30, chronologically, we are aged. At this stage, we are supposed to have already accomplished much, and that what we have already led “meaningful” lives. We already matter, in the sense that we have experienced so much in these 40 years, that even if we keel over tomorrow, people can say that we have led full lives. Hopefully, our children can look up and say that we have meant a lot to them, and have learned a lot from us, as well.

But how does one do it? How do we, like Randy Pausch, make the most out of our lives, whether or not we are going to be on this good earth for a much longer time than him? (I sometimes wonder, though: Were the same words to come out of someone else’s mouth, someone who isn’t dying, would they have as much impact?)

In trying to live well, the first thing you should ask yourself is: “Am I happy?” You can’t answer that the way some people are wont to respond these days: “Yes, I am, but I could be happier.” It has to be an absolute yes-or-no answer. No ifs, no buts.

If your answer is no, then you have to get down to the bottom why that so. You don’t have enough money, you’re taking care of a sick person in the family, you don’t have a rich husband to cater to your every whim, your boss is an ass, etc. List it down.

Sometimes some of these reasons for your unhappiness are superficial, such as your boss is short of a Mussolini. Why is that? Is it because some of your colleagues have to be prodded time and again to hand in the full details of their projects? Or he treats you that way because you give some flimsy excuse for being absent from work? If you believe the problem is really just him, then move to another job. It’s as simple as that.

You don’t have enough money? What do you want to buy? A new 42-inch LCD TV? Or go abroad to do some shopping? The only one who can say with certainty that they don’t have enough money are the poor who have to hock everything to put food on their table—that is, if they have anything material and with value to pawn off.

Sure, you can blame other people for your misery, but in the end, you are the one responsible for your own happiness.

Like I had an older brother, Mon, who had long passed. When we were younger, he was really the typical problem child. He fell off the swing and broke his arm, he was always with his barkada, then he got into drugs, didn’t finish college, didn’t stay long at any job, etc. In one of the arguments he had with my parents, I remember him blaming them for not taking him camping! Even at a young age, I was stunned at the ridiculousness of that claim because, really, who takes their kids camping in the Philippines? I mean, obviously, there was some underlying reason he was behaving the way he did, but out of spite, he simply blamed our parents. He didn’t want to face his own inner demons, and so lashed out at everyone else. It was only much later in life, a couple of years before he passed away, that he changed his ways and became a productive member of society. But sayang, the amount of time and years he wasted blaming everyone for his situation in life.

Part of living well is taking the cards that are dealt you and making the most out of your hand. When I’m riding a cab, I usually chat with the drivers and ask them about their lives, and see how they are coping with the tough economic times. While it is easy for them to blame the government, and many of them do, they know how to deal with the problems that fall on them, like higher fuel prices, or higher food prices, etc. They reorient their priorities, like buying food before cell-phone load, lining up their cars in a mall for passengers instead of aimlessly driving around, etc., and still try to get home to their families to eat together. They know complaining won’t get them anywhere; they just have to make things work. To most of them, as long as they can earn an honest day’s wage, feed their family and sleep at night, they are basically happy. (Of course, our government can improve everyone’s situation by reducing corruption, so it can do away with the E-VAT. Ahem. Sorry, that Sona just really killed.)

At times, the solution to our unhappiness is just a matter of reworking our position and learning to deal with the choices that are offered to us.

Some people, for example, complain about how their jobs are killing them, and yet there are many more Filipinos who have had to go into debt and leave their families behind just so they can go abroad and earn a decent wage. So please, don’t talk to me about how unhappy you are at work.

Perhaps, in my case, it is much easier to “live well.” I don’t have children to nurture and work my ass off for so I can enroll them in the best schools. I don’t need to buy the next new Prada bag in the market, ahem. My needs are much simpler. I only need to eat three meals a day, have a steady roof over my head and get enough exercise to keep my blood pressure and blood sugar down. So I’m not killing myself at work like I used to, and I am perhaps now saner than my other editor friends.

At work, I am basically my own boss. I work when I want to, and stop when I need to. As long as I get paid adequately for the work I do and see my name in print, I am happy. Everything else that comes my way is pretty much a bonus.

For some other people, their needs are greater and they will have to deal with so many more extenuating circumstances or people before they are able to pursue what they want in life. But I remember this quote from a book I read a long time ago (I forgot the title): “Argue for your limitations and, sure enough, they are yours.”

That pretty much sums up what I’ve been trying to say. Do what you must to make yourself happy. Go for that dream you’ve been wanting to pursue. Life is too short to blame others for the situation you are in. There is no one responsible for yourself but you.

(My column, Something Like Life, is published every Friday in the Life section of the BusinessMirror.)

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