I’ll be 65 in a couple of months. I’m amazed at the time and experience that have sifted through my fingers in just the last forty years, from those late teen years when self-consciousness began and I began to be aware of identity, desire and self-fulfillment.
Thinking about those days I feel I was someone else back then. Some of the issues that concerned me then still remain but so many others that felt staggering then now hardly elicit a burp on my “meaning and interest” scale!
Back then, for instance, questions about God and Christianity were foremost. I struggled between what I was raised to believe and what rationally and pragmatically I was experiencing. At San Agustín in Iloilo, my main strategy was simply not to be gobbled up by the overwhelming Roman Catholicism of the people around me. The very ethos of being Filipino and living in Philippine society intimately intertwined with Spanish Catholicism.
Today those questions feel remote, irrelevant non sequitur. When someone from that era, like a classmate from Santo Tomás, comment on Catholic beliefs as unquestionable aspects of personal identity where he’s coming from feels to me like an island in a dream, some place where I once lived but only in a dream.
I continue to have passionate interest in religions and religious experience because they are such powerful elements in the human psyche, in our efforts to make sense of our experience of anxiety, loss, hope, pleasure, relief, comfort and joy. I continue to think of religions as the Pre-Socratic philosophers of the Greek world used to do, wondering and theorizing in systems that today we call philosophy and science. These two are not separate for me even when each has accumulated its own baggage of tradition and technology.
When I think back over time, using the residuals of experience to chart my development as a person, I see someone who’s caught up in interminable hair-splitting internal arguments about self, the world, meaning, experience, being, being human, and the facts and fancies of history, geography, science, literature, art and music that ultimately don’t seem to be of that much value after all is said and done.
I like to think that we choose freely. This is so Western, this belief in our so-called “free will.” Experience suggests that what happens to us are simply manifestations of forces set spinning before we were born. They are modified by our individual experiences but remain constant for our whole lives. New elements arise periodically as we spin from one phase of life to another but we more often are passive receptacles of events than choosers of actions.
Historians and students of society and religion have often thought of Western Society as a combination of two cultural strands: Jewish and Greek. This is probably simplistic but the assertion rings true. From the Jews and the Near East Europe evolved the belief in an anthropomorphic one god, an ethical system and concepts of justice and historicity; from the Greek they inherited a complementary attitude of wonder, investigation and what evolved into science and humanism.
It’s a potent mix that is now roiling in a global sea. The outcome of East and West blending more intimately than they’ve ever done portends modification that I bet no one today knows much about. We can spout opinions, expert or amateur, but the future is not just the past repeating itself. New elements do arise that will shape how we see things.
The British Museum, then the Library of Congress, are to me epitomes of collective information that even as I write are being modified now that we are transitioning to “cloud” libraries, information becoming increasingly digitized and new content arising in digitized form. The computer may never replace the human mind as science fiction titillates us to imagine but already it’s in our reality that the Internet has extended the mind’s scope irrevocably with this latest, still ongoing revolution in technology and psychology.
As individuals we now have a larger “world” from which to choose what elements to highlight and cultivate but despite having a larger library from to learn and borrow may give only the illusion of growth and change. We’re all still struggling to find safety, some of us more enlightened, in my view, defining happiness itself and seeking it where it lies, even as 65 years from now they may find our beliefs and stratagems naïve and irrelevant.