[Delivered on May 9, 2013 at the University of the Cordilleras 67th Commencement Exercises at the UC Gymnasium]
I am honored by the perspective that you have given me today.
Before me, rows of successful graduates eager and hopeful. You deserve where you find yourself today. You are located by your efforts. These rituals mark the culmination of your initial sacrifices. By the measures established by your proud university and our educational system, you shall be endowed with and forever carry the credentials of your academic degree. As much as an achievement, your degrees signal capability, skill and professional understanding.
But we are shaped by our efforts as much as by our chosen environment. Your success has also been the function of many other efforts. We owe a debt of gratitude to many and it is not entirely inappropriate for us to recognize them now.
Your university is a cut above many others. The University of the Cordilleras believes that rearing young people through education develops moral character and promotes civic efficiency. The perseverance and dedication to excellency by its faculty and staff has earned it some of its latest distinctions: No. 1 criminology school in the country 32 times with 100% board passing rate – and I heard 9 out of the 10 were from the University of the Cordilleras. I told your University president you have a problem because it’s only 9 out of 10; a College of Teacher Education graduate was part of the top 10 LET Board Exams passers; and your sepaktakraw team brought home the national title. Many more achievements to come. I would think that your university deserves from the members of the graduating class of 2013 a round of applause again. Let’s give your university a round of applause.
Then of course, there are those who stood by you through the challenges of your most difficult moments. Their words and acts of encouragement when there was nothing else provided you with inspiration. The reminders of humility as you started to achieve kept you humane. Their example as well may have evolved your consciences, inspired you to discover the patience that is incumbent in strength of character and, many times perhaps, the nobility of being also there for others.
I speak of course of your parents and loved ones. They are not perfect, and it is exactly what you needed. Without them, you would not have been the person who you are today. It is difficult to even think about how they felt as they journeyed with you: it is a cycle in a lifetime that soon enough you too will experience. They did not give up on you or their lives even through the most trying times. They are your heroes and heroines. You owe it to a future generation to be what they are. You owe them a debt of gratitude. And for now, you can give them a little bit of what they deserve.
I ask the members of the graduating class of 2013 to please stand up, face your parents and loved ones and give them the standing ovation that they so richly deserve. Stand up, give a standing ovation. Thank you. Dun sa walang parents sa akin na lang. Symbolically only, don’t ask for support.
There are many challenges before you, and this is a cliched understatement that needs to be said. What few however realize is that the decisions that you make to meet these challenges are made for you as much as you make them. The less you realize how these decisions are made for you, the less critical you become and the worse off we end up as a community and as a society.
Perhaps the better way to restate this is to say that there are ways through which you make sense of what may be happening: to you personally and to your environment. One of these ways is by weaving the facts you experience and become conscious of into narratives. We make sense of the events in our lives, through the stories we create to be able to understand them more fully. We put them in context, through a series of progression for us to remember as well as to enable us to situate ourselves and then of course, survive. We assume that our lives can be coherent and that we live a purpose even if for the moment we cannot discern it. We assume, as a matter of human faith, that our lives can have meaning. The peaks and valleys that we go through leads to denouement many times over defining the many phases of our lives. To this extent although we may have one physical existence framed by our mortality, we know that we can live through many lifetimes.
But our stories – our narratives – are not entirely only our own. Many of our stories are metaphors: patterned after the dominant metanarratives of the societies and the cultures we inhabit. In a sense we borrow each other’s stories because we are part of a community, a society, a culture. Our cultures embed generations of similar narratives patterned after each other. It helps us to understand our lifeways, to make sense of what happens to us. Cultures thus define us in a very powerful way.
Sometimes we give labels to our cultures and sometimes, we call these our identities. It is how we differentiate our lives – these identities, and more importantly how we make sense of our existence, from others. More than a label, it is a summary of who we are: a metaphor of our belongingness to a community and our exclusion from other communities.
The dominant metaphor of the Bangsamoro, for instance, is that of struggle against the oppression caused by a misunderstanding of history. The dominant metaphor of the Ibaloi, the Kankanaey, the Ifugao, the Kalinga and many of our ethnolinguistic groups in our beloved Cordilleras is the assertion of our lifeways against the backdrop of the creation of minorities where there should have been none. The dominant metaphor of woman is the aspiration for equality regardless of gender. The dominant metaphor of youth – as an identity – is that of a fresh perspective and creative approaches against worn out but dominant traditions.
Law, like many institutions, participates in the reification of these metanarratives. It embeds values – it is part of our contemporary cultures. Law thus, as again many of our institutions, derive most of its power in the way it constitutes us. It constitutes us by suggesting how we should think, how we should make sense, what stories to borrow and what stories to pattern. It participates in the ordering of society in this powerful way. Being so, it performs an important function.
Identities are important. They help to situate us. They assist us make sense of our existence in conjunction with others. It assists us evaluate the things we still need to do to accomplish the goals we have set for ourselves as individuals and as individuals who are part of a society. More importantly, it inculcates in us the necessity of some level of collectivity and group cohesion without which we cease to be human.
But it too can retard: especially when we encrust our ways of thinking on only one standpoint. We are in an unceasingly dangerous situation of becoming too dogmatic in our thinking. The identities we use might provide us with too much comfort that we cease to become critical about what they can also do to us as human beings.
There are two truths which I need you to understand.
First, our cultures and thus, our identities, are dynamic. They should be because they are a product of human interaction. Thus, our understandings of who we are and what our identities are for evolve through generations and with contemporary phenomenon that may never have been encountered in the past – the Internet, blogs, Facebook, Twitter. These did not exist in the past. Subversive understandings do evolve and they do have their purposes.
Second, various cultures intermingle constantly. We all have multiple identities corresponding to various roles as well as the various cultures that we inhabit. We can be student, yet Cordilleran, perhaps Ibaloi, perhaps lawyer, Filipino and also part of our respective clans. We can be gendered, male or female or otherwise, or consider ourselves politically as conservative, moderates, revolutionaries, reformers or even perhaps just the fence sitters waiting for things to evolve.
Sometimes, it is essential that we focus on some of our identities and rehearse the language of its politics. Gayatri Spivak, a very well known sociologist, referred to this as strategic essentialism. To assert more rights and correct history, we identify ourselves as indigenous peoples. To gain gender justice, we identify ourselves dominantly as male or female or various shades of belongingness to nuances of feminist or even the newer masculinist philosophies. To ensure that we can perform our professional roles, we dominantly live the life of lawyer, judge, justice or some other profession.
But this should be understood as only strategic. We must understand that our identities are dynamic and that we reside in multiple cultures and overlapping identities. We are in a multivocal, multilocal, multidimensional world.
A philosopher once remarked that we can be judged by the kinds of questions that we dare to ask in our lifetimes.
To those who want to conform they simply do not ask any question. They just do what they are told to do, think the way they are expected to think. They live comfortable but uneventful lives. They may become rich beyond their wildest imagination but I suppose at some point in their lives they will look for more understanding of what their purpose really is. They will find that their lives – the lives they have lived will have lacked in its nobility.
There are those who will attempt to be critical and thus ask some questions. But upon further analysis, many of them actually ask questions for which the answer will come easy and are obvious. In a way they are not too different from the first group because their questions are simply there to inform them. They may make more sense of what they should do, what they do, and why they do what they do. But their lives will be as stale, lacking in more purpose; with imaginations, but lacking in nobility.
Then there are the select few who choose to ask the difficult questions. These questions are difficult because they tend to be dangerous. The questions go into the very foundation of what their cultures, communities and societies believe in. They also tend to often undermine what they have been taught to believe in various ways through the various institutions that impact on their lives – education, law, society, religion. The questions are variations of the imponderables: what are we, how do we know what we know, are we sure, what are our lives for, what is my true role, how do I discover it, why am I told to do what I am supposed to do. These are just some of the questions that should color your lives.
Notice that these questions, at various stages of your lives especially at times when you are most materially secure can cause you a lot of discomfort. But this discomfort is what ultimately will allow you to discover your humanity, even perhaps, the nobility that will color your existence. Life, as you will know it, is challenge, it is discomfort; but it is also about patience, courage, discovery and service.
I share with you a poem by a great warrior. His name is Tecumseh.
So live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart.
Trouble no one about their religion; respect others in their view,
and demand that they respect yours.
Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life.
Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people.
Prepare a noble death song for the day when you go over the great divide.
Always give a word or a sign of salute when meeting or passing a friend,
even a stranger, when in a lonely place.
Show respect to all people and grovel to none.
When you arise in the morning give thanks for the food and for the joy of living.
If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies only in yourself.
Abuse no one and no thing,
for abuse turns the wise ones to fools
and robs the spirit of its vision.
When it comes your time to die,
be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death,
so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time
to live their lives over again in a different way.
Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.
Do not be afraid to do the work; to find the discipline to survive and to excel; to go through these challenges, these discomforts. Do not cheat or lie: most especially be true to yourself. Do not fail to build character. Do not fail to ensure that yours will be a life lived with integrity. Refuse to be dogmatic in any way. Reexamine your identity, enrich your culture, ask questions and live through the answers.
Go forth, rebuild your world. Give us hope.
Serve the people.