The cheapest coffin

(Published on rappler.com on June 15, 2021)

As I walked about three paces behind the funeral parlor staff, my eyes roamed around the somber display room. The staff was showing me different models of coffins.  I never knew there could be so many designs for coffins. Some were gilded while some had shiny black coating. Some were adorned with intricate carvings. All had soft, silky pleated paddings inside, probably to make the “journey” to the other side as comfortable as possible. Then, finally, he asked me, “Alin ang gusto mo?” (Which one would you like?). I took a deep breath: “Yung pinakamura”. (The cheapest.)

That was mid-morning of January 17, 1997—when I spoke those two cruel words. “The cheapest.” My father died before dawn in our small home where he battled prostate cancer for about seven years. He was 67.

 When my father died, I and my three siblings were adults with jobs. But we were struggling financially. We already had our own families to support, and lack of money was a perennial issue. I did not want to incur additional debts, so I chose the coffin and funeral service that was within our means. After a few days of vigil, my father was buried in an overcrowded public cemetery where the “sepultoreros” had a hard time putting the coffin inside the tomb because of the narrow, uneven path.

 “The cheapest.” Those two words still haunt me sometimes, but I know that my father had long forgiven me.

My father was a tall, dark and handsome Bicolano who eventually settled in Bataan after marrying my mother. He was a long-time security guard at PLDT, a major telephone company in the Philippines.  Employees and colleagues called him “Sarge”, the clipped form of “Sergeant”, a rank which he was not really entitled to. It was just a term of respect and endearment.  With his meager pay, he raised the four of us. My mother helped too by opening a small carinderia.

With calm and reticent nature, my father seldom raised his voice and never had violent outbursts of emotions. He was a kind, sensible and intelligent man.

He was a voracious reader. Every day, he would buy an issue of the English newspaper Manila Bulletin and read about national issues. And every payday, he would buy an edition of Reader’s Digest and read up on international events. Yes, he was earning a pittance but he religiously set aside money for these two publications.  When I was still a child, I often wished he would bring home dolls and toys. But I was always disappointed. Instead, he would always come home with Manila Bulletin and Reader’s Digest tucked under his arm.  In fact, I grew up surrounded by stacks and stacks of these reading materials.

We usually brought meals to my father while he was on duty. A few times, I caught PLDT employees asking him about grammar. Yes, degree holders asking a security guard about English grammar. During his days off, my father would read on a bench outside our carinderia. A neighbor would sometimes join him for a chat. As I eavesdropped, I would hear my father talk about global issues that I never heard from teachers at school. He was a profound thinker— and therein lies his flaw. He was a thinker, not a doer.

Meanwhile, the piles of Manila Bulletin and Reader’s Digest were getting higher by the day. Bereft of luxuries, I grudgingly turned to them. They became my toys. We had no TV nor radio. They became my source of information and entertainment. My young, immature self was still unaware of the rich inheritance I was receiving: the gift of language.

As I grew older, I realized and understood my father’s decision not to buy toys, but to buy newspapers and magazines instead.  He was indeed a smart man. He knew where to invest the little spare money he had. I will be forever grateful to my father for introducing the English language to me —its beauty, chaos and complexity. It became my stepping stone to a better quality of life.

That cheap coffin was not a fitting resting place for the mortal body of the man to whom we owe so much. But that choice was the best for everyone at that time.  Anyway, a few years ago— we were able to purchase a piece of decent memorial lot and his remains have been moved there.

Somewhere up there in heaven, there is a tall, dark and handsome security guard sitting on a bench, reading the latest news.

Leoncio Naval Sasota. That’s his name. You can call him “Sarge”.

Natural phenomena and our interpretation of the Bible

Volcanic eruptions. Massive earthquakes. Severe storms and floods. Widespread diseases. Are these things happening because they are written in the Bible?

No.

These phenomena have been happening for hundreds of thousands of years—even millions of years. Geologists, archeologists and scientists have confirmed this. On the other hand, Jesus Christ was born between 6 BC and 4 BC—quite recent in the context of world history. The New Testament was written within the period of 100 years after Jesus’ death. And the Old Testament was written from about 1200 BC to 165 BC. The writers of the Bible (and other Holy Books) used these extreme phenomena to teach moral values. They knew these events have been happening for so long, and they chose to incorporate them into their teaching. And there is nothing wrong with that.

In a Sumerian epic written four thousand years ago, there was a great flood that killed almost all humans, except the hero Atrahasis who was saved because the god Enki appeared in his dream. Enki told him to build a big boat and bring on pairs of each animal. And you all know what happened next, right? Because the story is so familiar to us. Yes, Noah and his ark! Only the names are different, depending on who is telling the story.

We have to re-evaluate how we interpret the Bible.

Why Animism Makes Sense

Animism was practiced thousands of years ago before recorded history.  Modern people tend to dismiss it as a primitive, ignorant if not a demonic religion. Animism is the attribution of divineness and consciousness to natural phenomenon, natural things and even inanimate objects. It is not a religion in itself but just one of the many ways to express faith. In animism, people revere parts of nature, especially ones with striking features—like a majestic-looking mountain, a rushing waterfall or a solid piece of rock.

Before going any further, let us first look into the modern theory of unity, or the inseparability of creator and creation. God, the creator, cannot be separated from all his creations. Every single thing in this cosmos is a part of God.

There is a parallelism with humans. When humans create something, they ingrain a part of themselves into whatever they create. A painter blends a part of himself to every masterpiece in the canvas. A composer shares an element of himself in every song he composes.  A novelist weaves an aspect of himself in every story he writes. An engineer rivets a part of himself in every structure he builds.  Every painting, every song, every story, every house —whatever mundane creation it is— has the essence of the person who created it. And as a modern society, we have norms for respecting these creators and their creations.

Now, if we can acknowledge that a piece of art contains a part of the artist — it should be easier to acknowledge that things in our surroundings contain a part of God. Imagine how an all-powerful, omniscient, omnipresent God can leave his essence into every single thing he created. There is divine presence in every person- a dominant belief.  But there is also divine presence in every mountain, in every tree, in every animal, in every bolt of lightning.

Psychologists agree that belief in transcendence is innate in humans.  Ancient humans, despite lack of formal religious training and resources, knew that there is a transcendent entity behind every single thing that they see. That invisible entity could be a god or a spirit.   They just knew it. Thus, when ancient people worshipped a century-old tree, they were not worshipping that tree in itself—but the God who created it. When they lay prostrate in front of a volcano, they were not praying to the volcano itself —but to the God who created the volcano. When they trembled every time a thunder roared, they did not fear the thunder itself, but the god who created the thunder. Ancient animists were aware that these things possess a godly essence and thus, showed both fear and respect for them.

And how is kneeling before a tree so radically different from the contemporary way of kneeling before a cross? How is lighting a bonfire at the foot of a mountain so incompatible with lighting a candle in front of the icon of Buddha or St. Joseph?

Yes, there were extremes in the practice of animism, such as human sacrifice. But aren’t  modern religious groups also plagued by  extremism and violence?

And so, if we try to think objectively about it—animism is not that ignorant, and not that far off from what modern religious practitioners are doing. It makes sense. Creator and creation are fused together. They are inseparable.  When a visible, tangible creation is treated with reverence— the invisible, divine Creator is revered and held sacred as well.

Your Bright Ideas Are Useless

Don’t flatter yourself. Your ideas are not unique. There are thousands of people out there  who have the same bright  ideas as you do.

 You have this idea about a start-up business. You get excited thinking about it, unaware that there are thousands of other people who have the same start-up idea in their heads. 

You believe you have what it takes to be a  John Grisham. You have this idea about a novel, a crime-suspense thriller  that could possibly be a best-seller.  You already know how your protagonist will look,  and how to make your villain the most hateful character there is.  Guess what? There are hundreds of potential writers out there who are plotting the same story in their mind.

You are a chef-wanna be and you are now concocting this special dish in your head.You could almost taste it: the meat, the spices, the texture.  Guess what. Hundreds of other cooks and chefs have the same dish in their mind. 

You’ve got a flair for fashion, and you’ve been imagining this fabulous  gown. You have the details in your head: the material, the cut, the embellishments. But again, there are a lot of  creative people out there who are imagining a similar design.

So many people are thinking of the same or similar concept at this very moment. Thousands of humans are toying with a synonymous grand idea: an app, a screenplay, an architectural design and so many others.  

Yes, ideas are common. 

It is execution that is rare. To really do the things in your head—- that is the challenge. 

It is easy to think and dream. You can do that anytime, anywhere without risks.   But execution is much  harder. It requires the courage to talk to people and face rejection. It needs provision of resources and time.   Execution also demands disciplined  habits that need to be repeated every day, regardless of your mood. 

The one who actually opened a store is more likely to become a successful entrepreneur. The one who actually cooked the dish—-after a series of trial-and-error—  and have it sampled by customers is more likely to succeed as a chef. The person who completed  the novel—- struggling to write two hundred words a night—-  and  actually sent it to publishers, is more likely to be read by the public.The one who actually sewed the gown and displayed it on her social media account will likely be stepping up on a runway after a fashion show. 

It is not the one who thinks that succeeds. It is the one who acts. 

Snippets:Of plane crashes and culture,friends

  1. Is there a correlation between plane crashes and culture? A knee-jerk answer would be NONE, but it turns out—-there is.

The culture, or at least the upbringing, of the co-pilot will have a critical role in times of emergency. If the co-pilot was raised in a culture that puts so much emphasis on respect for age, position and authority —-he is unlikely to speak up even when he thinks the captain is making a mistake. If ever, he will just slightly hint that something is wrong; and that hint could be missed by the captain. In most plane crashes, it was the captain, not the co-pilot, who was flying the plane. Though the direct causes of plane crashes may be mechanical failure or bad weather, the decisions made by the captain in the face of these things spell the difference between life and death. So, the next time you fly, pray that the co-pilot is assertive enough to speak up, and that the captain is humble enough to listen.(Malcolm Gladwell wrote extensively on this.)

2. When your opposite-gender friends are having a problem with their marriage or romantic relationships, don’t comfort them. Keep your distance. You see, they are in a vulnerable situation and are susceptible to falling out of love with their partner. And they may fall in love with you. When you comfort them, you appear as the exact opposite of their partners. You are the sweet, caring female. Or you are the dependable, listening male. Even if you try to defend their partners, that would have the reverse effect. The more they will see the flaws of their wives or husbands—- and instead, they will see your positive traits. This will lead to unfair comparisons, and so on, until things get more complicated. If their relationship is beyond repair, the final blow should not come from you.

3. As of this writing, the Philippines remains a divorce-free country. Yes, it is the only remaining country in the world where divorce is not allowed. Couples in irreparable, problematic marriages just split up, and live separately. Eventually, they choose other partners and co-habitate, which is illegal. Many adults and their children are in limbo because of this set up. Those with money avail of the costly annulment option, but at least, they can re-marry. One valid concern why government and religious authorities don’t want to approve divorce is the chaotic social repercussions that may result from strings of divorces and multiple marriages. I think one good compromise is a law that will allow “ one-time divorce and maximum of two marriages”. You can get divorced only once and get married only twice in your whole life. You have to make it right the second time.

Jan.1 Snippets

  1. I can keep my new year’s resolutions for just a week. So I just stopped making them.
  2. I will definitely get rid of procrastination—-starting tomorrow, or maybe the day after that. Who knows.
  3. Dated planners are almost always a waste of space and paper. Go for undated ones.
  4. If you have internet connection since March 2020 ( that time when the world started lockdowns), and you’re still stupid—-that’s already your fault!
  5. Being an introvert proved to be very useful during this pandemic.
  6. Stop saying that humans are the best creations of God. We’re just equal with others. Some animals even seem better than us in terms of intelligence and empathy.
  7. Don’t be afraid to stay single your whole life!
  8. Avoid gossipers. They will drain your energy and attract negative vibes.
  9. Many of us did not go crazy during this pandemic because of music. I thank The Beatles, Guns’ N Roses, Eagles, CCR, Matchbox 20. My discovery of Collective Soul was definitely sanity-saving.
  10. Don’t talk much about yourself. Stay mysterious and unpredictable.
  11. Sugar is addictive and harmful. It should be considered as a regulated substance.
  12. In case you haven’t, you should see a photograph of Ernest Hemingway in his late teens or early twenties.What a sight to behold!

Dreams as the genesis of organized religion

One theory about organized religion is that it started from dreams.

Imagine ancient humans, tens of thousands of years ago. As these hunters and gatherers lay their tired bodies inside a cave, they fall into sleep. Then, they start dreaming. They see absurd visions while deep in slumber. Sometimes, they dream of wild beasts chasing them. Sometimes, they dream of strange lands. And then, sometimes, they dream of loved ones and friends who have already passed away.

They would see visions of dead people: talking to them, eating with them, hunting with them. Then, they would wake up—-wondering about  what they saw. They would ask questions:  Why did I see my mother who died a long time ago? Why did I see my friend who was  devoured by lions two sunsets ago? Where are they? What do these visions mean?

These dreams ignited beliefs in the transcendent—-that something exists beyond the material and physical world. That there is something else out there, something— or  rather someone—- who we cannot see nor touch, but can see us and everything around us. These people  may not have the linguistic sophistication to verbalize such ideas, but their minds —-though untutored —-  tried to process  such visions. These dreams sparked philosophical  thoughts about life, existence, death. They sought answers to their questions.  How could someone who has passed away be able to show himself to me? How could someone whom we buried or burned to ashes be able to appear in our mind? Something from a man must continue to exist even if he dies—-they mused. And in the absence of explanations from learned people (like modern psychologists and psychiatrists), ancient humans eventually attributed special capabilities to these dead people appearing in their dreams. 

They started believing  that deceased ancestors may have supernatural powers that enabled them to come back and appear in the mind of the living.  They also  became convinced that the dead have the power to  hear supplications and grant wishes.  And so, “ancestor worship” was born. Ancient humans started revering and worshipping  the dead. They began constructing elaborate burial sites, and making offerings such as flowers and animal bones.  Burial sites were transformed into sacred places of worship.  

And as the centuries and millennia went on, human societies evolved. And part of our evolution is the development and organization of the different religious institutions that we now have.

Of collective ignorance and enlightenment

There was a gap of 2000 years between the time when the possible existence of “atoms” was broached and the time when it was proven. Around 450 BC, Greek philosopher Democritus claimed that  matter can be broken down into very small elements that cannot be seen by the naked eyes. However, he had no way to prove his claim. His idea was either mocked or ignored, and it was eventually forgotten. Fortunately, as centuries went by, stubbornly curious   scientists were born. Around the 1800s, John Dalton —aided by the right technology, was able to prove that matter can really be broken down in extremely small fragments that are invisible to the unaided eyes. These fragments came to be known as “atoms”. 

Imagine that. Two thousand years, and that excludes the era before Democritus first mentioned the idea. During all those years and centuries, humans were unaware and unbelieving  of atoms. After all, how can a chunk of granite be made up of invisible specks? But those millennia of ignorance finally came to an end.

For a very long time, people also believed that the earth was the center of the solar system, and that the sun and other cosmic bodies orbited around it. This belief was strongly  espoused by the Church, based on their interpretation of the Holy Bible. It was also supported by early scientists who had limited observation tools at that time. In a book published in 1532, the scientist Copernicus opposed this widely held belief and claimed that the sun, not the earth, is the center of the solar system. In 1616, the Church declared this view as heretical. Years later, another scientist,  Galileo, supported  the Copernican view. However, with the threat of being burned alive, Galileo recanted his statement. Three hundred fifty  years later,  in 1992 , the Vatican, with Pope John Paul II at the helm, issued an  apology to Galileo— and officially  accepted the heliocentric  view that the sun is the center of the solar system and that the planets, including the earth, revolved around it. 

History is replete with examples of our collective ignorance and eventual enlightenment. We were wrong. We violently resisted opposing views. Then, we realized our mistake, and then accepted —-grudgingly at first —- the correct, verified  view. 

There are still many unresolved questions regarding life, existence, this world and what lies beyond its boundaries.

One persistent question is this. Is there intelligent life in other planets, in other solar systems, in other galaxies? 

Any  claim that extraterrestrials do exist has been met with widespread scorn, and the reaction is understandable. The idea is just silly,  shocking or heretic to most of us. Many are quick to quote the Bible and other sacred  books.  But then, remember the conflict between the Church, Copernicus and Galileo. We know who eventually was proven right.

On the other hand, many will deny the existence of such sentient, rational extra-terrestrials  because there is no scientific  evidence for it. But remember, for two thousand years —- there was no evidence for atoms either. And there was no evidence, too, that the earth moved around the sun.

While the sensible thing to do  is   to make decisions based on the evidence at hand, we should be discreetly open to  possibilities. Instead of outright rejection, we can keep an open mind about these things. Maybe, we are in that “gap”. Maybe, we have not yet invented the technology that would enable us to see that far. Or the person who has the tenacity to dig into that  truth has not  been born yet.

My mind is going wild trying to imagine what truths will be revealed in the next two thousand years!

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