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Thursday, January 3, 2013
FOR 40 years, I started each new year with a fervent prayer: Dear God, don’t let this year be the year you take my father away.
He had been sickly since I was a child, and I was afraid he’d die before I could grow up. I had seen too many times he was rushed to the hospital, brought back home, rushed back to the hospital, brought home again.
He had asthma, emphysema, heart disease and who knows what else lurked inside his body or what complications those conditions could lead to.
As the eldest son, I dealt with anxieties about losing a father for many years, and at no time did I face them more squarely than during New Year’s Eve, when I contemplated the possibilities of the 12 months spread out before me.
As it turned out, my father’s life lasted longer than I had feared. He lived till 80, long enough to see every one of his nine children finish school, settle down and produce his numerous grandchildren.
He died in May 2012. My overpowering emotion at his funeral was not grief but gratitude. I was grateful to God for letting him live till a ripe old age, and grateful to my father for giving his family a good life and good health, despite his own struggles and health issues.
Last New Year’s Eve, for the first time in 40 years, I surprised myself when, out of habit, I asked God again to extend my father’s life. I finally struck that one prayer off my list, and replaced it with a new prayer: Dear God, give my father, wherever he is, his eternal reward.
Meanwhile, 2013 is also the year I turn 53. When I was a small boy, 53 was the age of wrinkled, white-haired and gaunt grandparents. It was so far down the road I was sure I’d die before reaching that age.
When I turned 20, I thanked God I even reached adulthood. When I turned 30, I started imagining myself reaching 60, which means I was already halfway through with my lifetime.
When I turned 40, even if some people say that’s when life really begins, I began thinking about what legacy I’d leave behind. And when I turned 50, all the aches and pains in my body drove home the point that I was nearing old age.
At this point, heart attack, cancer, and stroke can strike any time, as they have in people of my age, even younger, often without warning. The thought that it could be touch and go anytime got me into thinking about my loved ones who would be orphaned by my departure.
Suddenly, dieting, exercise, lab tests, herbal medicine, multivitamins, organic food, maintenance pills, wellness center and derma clinic visits became the regular topics of conversation with friends and co-workers.
Last New Year’s Eve, as I recited my list of requests to God, I added a new prayer: Please don’t let this be the year you take my life away.
After a pause, I changed my prayer to: Not my will, but Yours, be done.
Instantly, all the worries and toxic thoughts tormenting my mind melted away. It was a brave prayer to say, and I am not sure how and why I said it. What if God replied, “Well, actually, I was planning not to take you yet, but since you said it’s up to me, I will get you now!” (In short, be careful what you pray for.)
Seriously, if in the next 12 months some sudden, life-altering thing happens -- a terrible accident, an incurable disease, a reversal of fortune -- I will not blame God for it, even if I know nothing in this world occurs without Him knowing it or allowing it.
Instead, I will only ask Him to give me the strength to face it, the faith to survive it, and the wisdom to see that everything that happens has a reason. I know many of you will dismiss that as juvenile fantasy or irrational fatalism, but I and I alone will decide what I think is true.
I was once a worshipper of Reason -- everything that happens has a rational explanation, and I will not believe anything that is not logical and observable.
But I have come to realize that Reason alone will not save me, and that it is not a worthy replacement for Faith.
Reason can explain, for example, the birth of a human being, but it cannot account for the inexplicable profundity of the emotions that accompany of the arrival of a baby in this world -- the joy, the sense of gratitude, the hope, the love, the potential of this new person to change the world. The source of all these cannot just be one organ called the brain.
I believe that every person’s life story is a sub-plot in the unfolding Story of the Universe, just like every atom reflects the cosmos in the symmetry of its design and the precision of its operation (don’t the planets revolving around the sun look like protons and electrons moving around an atom’s nucleus?).
The story of my life may be small compared to the big picture, but without it, the universe is not complete and the grand plan will not be fulfilled.
People are afraid to die because they don’t want to end their existence, their attachment to all the sources of their happiness and pleasure -- food, sex, relationships, fame, art, wealth, power.
There is also the fear that after they die, the void they leave behind will quickly be filled, life will go on as usual for their loved ones, and all trace of their memory will fade. It would be as if they never occupied this planet.
Whatever they say about life’s brevity adding to its value, it still blows people’s minds that all the things they work hard for -- their bodies, their career, their advocacy -- will all end one day.
The only way to make sense of it is to believe in an afterlife. There was this guy who had a near-death experience and when he came back to consciousness, he wanted to die again because, he said, the joy and love he experienced on the other side is beyond imagination.
Neurologists, psychologists and other so-called experts shrug such stories off as delusions of a brain that’s facing extinction, but I would rather place my bet on the wisdom and erudition of countless theologians, philosophers, poets and saints who themselves believed in an afterlife.
If I, or you, die this year (there is no guarantee that we won’t, is there?), let’s not resent the shortness of life. When we think of those six- and seven-year-olds who died violently in Connecticut, or those hundreds of thousands of little children who die each year from earthquakes, floods, accidents, disease outbreaks, hunger and war, we have no right to complain that we only had 60, 50, 40, 30 or even 20 years of life.
When your time is up, there is no power on earth, no amount of money, no connection, no magic, no church, can make you stay longer.
The smart thing to do is surrender yourself and embrace your fate. Don’t leave this world kicking and screaming and being dragged away.
Whether you wake up to an afterlife or not, at least you died with your dignity intact.
Published in the Sun.Star Pampanga newspaper on January 04, 2013.