Friday, December 28, 2007

A different kind of giving

All these Saturdays of December, I have been advocating the Christian act of giving. But there are certain acts of giving that I do not support. Remember that familiar saying: Give a man fish and he will eat fish for the day; teach a man to fish and he will eat fish the rest of his life.

I noticed that a lot of meaningless, sometimes downright degrading, giving is done particularly during the Christmas season. One example is giving alms, in cash or in kind. Do you notice that around December, there are more children in the street than at any time of the year, including "mothers" carrying babies? These "mothers" are still children themselves. I asked one and she said she is only 10 years old. Whose child is she carrying? So she gets a lot of sympathetic alms (Php1 to 5 per motorist). The Ifugaos used to occupy all Metro Manila street corners, I wonder where they are now. For as long as there are people who give alms, there will always be beggars or parents who make they children beg to support their family.

Another example is the kris kringle. Ask anybody who participates in such office favorite activity why they do it? Nobody even knows where this forced gift-giving originated from. Maybe if you do it once in five years, it gets exciting. But when you do it yearly, the novelty and the meaning of gift-giving is lost in you. You hear nothing but complaints from people who participate in this futile exercise. In the long run, it becomes expensive, especially when your "baby" is one of the bosses. The one advantage is that participants are given the liberty to shop for gifts during office hours after all it is an "officially" sanctioned activity especially when the boss is into it.

Another futile gift-giving tradition is the exchange gift. Okay, the rule is to bring a gift worth Php100 or Php200 or whatever. So I normally buy a useful gift that is more than the stated amount, say Php150 or even Php200 for a Php100 exchange gift. What do I get? A box of brownies (Php60), a ceramic cat figurine (Php50) or a hastily wrapped something, anything. Or some simply put money in an envelope saying that they have no time to shop for a decent gift. Huh?

It gives me a lot of pleasure giving gifts on Christmas or on occasions or any old time of the day whenever I happen to see something that I think my family or friend could use. My house, they say, is a virtual library cum warehouse. I usually give books as gift and they are always appreciated because when I buy a book I know exactly to whom I would give it.

When I give I don't normally wait for something in return. This Christmas, my mother and the street sweepers in our baranggay are all too happy to eat the many cakes, cookies and other eatables that I receive as gifts. Except for chocolates, I am not glad about receiving food gifts that easily spoil. I consider as insincere gifts those that are bought without the gift recipient in mind. I have accumulated balikbayan boxes of candles when candle as gift was in vogue. Votive candles, tall, fat, scented, different colors, different shapes, different containers, all candles. Tell me, how many candles can one person use in a lifetime? I normally keep gifts until I could use them or they rot or I had to give them away because they are occupying precious real estate. The candles have to go as soon as I get them.

Some buy gifts according to their budget or disposable income. That's fine, but there is no dogma or rule or chapters in the Scripture that requires one to give gifts. The three Kings did bring important gifts for Jesus. The shepherds gave their gifts of faith and joy.

One vicious gift is to give everything a child wants or needs in excessive quantity. This gift will go back to you in the form of a spoiled brat—one gift you never want to endure.

It's the New Year. It is the time to rethink our giving habits. There are many people in need of our gifts of love and all forms of assistance. Let's give to them in a meaningful, helpful, joyful way. Let us give to make us and the recipients of our gifts become better persons.


Thursday, December 20, 2007

Christmas is about Jesus and his birth

One poignant Christmas story is "A Charlie Brown Christmas" by the brilliant Charles M. Schulz. Some memorable lines in this Emmy-winning Christmas special:

"Christmas time is here, happiness and cheer, fun for all that children call their favorite time of year. Snowflakes in the air, carols everywhere, olden times and ancient rhymes of love and dreams to share."

"Charlie Brown: I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I'm not happy. I don't feel the way I'm supposed to feel. I just don't understand Christmas, I guess. I might be getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I'm still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed."

"Linus: Charlie Brown, you're the only person I know who can take a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem."

"Lucy: Don't worry. I know how you feel about all this Christmas business, getting depressed and all that. It happens to me every year. I never get what I really want. I always get a lot of stupid toys or a bicycle or clothes or something like that."

"Linus: Christmas is not only getting commercial, it's getting too dangerous."

"Lucy: Let's face it. We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It's run by a big eastern syndicate, you know."

Now, put all those lines parallel to the top story of The Sunday Times last December 16 headlined "Black, bitter Christmas for 6M poor Pinoy kids." Reading on you realize that these kids come from families who started out poor and yet had 6, 7, 8 or even more children that their parents could not afford even to feed a single decent meal a day.

Is Christmas to blame? Or the crass commercialism of Christmas? Or irresponsible parenthood?

One staunch advocate of population control is the Lopez Group patriarch, Oscar M. Lopez. His take on this issue is: "Arresting our population growth is an imperative in getting our country's economy to move faster. Today, the country's average per capita income and labor productivity are at about the same levels as it was in early 1980's because of our rapid population growth. We doubled our population from 36.8 million in 1970 to 75.6 million in 2000, and if we don't do anything now, our population will exceed 100 million in less than 10 years time. Where are we going to put all these additional millions? We are all going to be on top of one another and on top of trees, assuming there will still be trees at that time. It is our responsibility as Filipinos to confront this problem squarely.

" I feel like we are in a small leaky wooden boat, a batel if you wish, that is overloaded with passengers and buffeted by big waves in a turbulent sea and, therefore, in danger of sinking at any moment.

"The Lopez Group, in collaboration with the USAID Prism will strengthen their reproductive health and family planning program by gaining the support of their CEOs and senior officials through education and information campaigns on the benefits of investing in the FP program. They will install a program that is employee-centered and will have activities that include profiling of employees according to their FP needs, customizing a FP program design and implementation plan, the evaluation of clinic facilities and service provider capability to provide FP services; and the setting-up of a peer motivators program. Additionally, there will be capability-building activities, regular evaluation to determine the progress of the program and to make it a sustainable component of the human resource and corporate social responsibility agenda.

"We have learned from our Asian neighbors that their sharp reductions in poverty were a result of sustained economic growth, attributable to good economic policies coupled with a strong population policy. The appeal to our political and church leaders must be reinforced until our country has a workable and consistent population policy. We need the cooperation of all groups in society to successfully confront this very serious problem."

And back to Christmas, Linus reminds us to fear not, "for behold, I bring you tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign to you."

Christmas is about being responsible citizens, parents and individuals. Being a parent is gift, a privilege, and a responsibility.

Christmas is not about any one of us. Christmas is about Jesus and his birth. There is no connect between everything that we are doing to ourselves and Christmas. Let us not blame Christmas for our woes.;

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Christmas is giving, serving and loving

Dale Evans, aka singer, actress and songwriter Frances Octavia Smith, aptly said, "Every time we give, every time we love, it's Christmas." Coincidentally I found the book, "The Power of Serving Others," by Gary Morsch and Dean Nelson.

From their experience as relief worker and physician, the authors concluded that:

1. Everyone has something to give.

2. Most people are willing to give when they see the need and have the opportunity.

3. Everyone can do something for someone right now.

University scientists who study the brain are discovering that serving other is as much as a part of our genetic code as self-interest is. As a medical doctor, I have seen this firsthand. Kristen Monroe, a professor of political psychology at the University of California-Irvine, says that people act with altruism, a devotion to the welfare of others, when they see their common humanity. When we see others as human beings, their needs become real to us, and we respond.

Then Vice President Al Gore, said, "Volunteerism is good for the soul, and it's good for the country." While the scientific evidence shows we are wired toward altruism, there is still a choice involved. The beauty of the choice is that, when we choose to serve others, something wonderful happens.

How do we turn on the magic of giving, serving? The authors suggest that we simply "get in the boat." It is not about waiting for a disaster to hit. It's what you can do for the widow next door or the single parent on your street. It involves an awareness and lifestyle shift that occurs when you simply look at what is within your reach and start where you are. Another way is to "get over yourself." Serving others is not about how much I know, how many degrees I've earned, or what my credentials are. It is about attitude and availability to do whatever is needed—with love. "Look in your hand" is yet another way of serving—looking at others as people who could use a hand. It's about looking at our hands and realizing that they already contain what others need. Mother Theresa's own words: "We can do no great things, only small things with great love. "Think small" when serving others. Sometimes people don't consider serving another person because the problems of the world seem too big. What's one act of service going to change? Every thing! We don't live each day in macro systems. We live in micro systems. Frame by frame. Moment by moment.

Another way of serving is simply "be there." The authors quote Anne Lamott's Travelling Mercies,

When all is said and done, all you can do is to show up for someone in crisis, which seems so inadequate. But then when you do, it can radically change every thing. Your there-ness, your stepping into a line of vision, can be life giving, because often every one else is in hiding. So you come to keep them company when it feels like the whole world is falling apart, and your being there says that just for this moment, this one tiny piece of the world is OK, or at least better.

It is not always possible, or even necessary, to cross major cultural or physical barriers to serve others. Sometimes the people are right next to us and need something very small. Sometimes all they need is for us to be present with them—simply be there.

Finally, serve others by "loving anyway" and "pulling out the arrow."

By pulling out the arrow, by serving others, by loving others, we provide apiece of life's puzzle that every one is searching for. We help someone and discover there is power in doing so—power to live as we were meant to live. Loving enemies, or loving and acting despite the circumstances, involves a decision our part. But everything is too difficult if we only think about doing it. Things become simpler when we decide to try something, and then actually try it. We can start where we are.

There. You don't need to wipe clean your savings to give, to love, to serve and to celebrate Christmas. Simply give and love and celebrate!

Please join me in praying for my friends Marivic Vergel-Roldan, Dante Vinluan and Diana Ladaw-Sales who will undergo kidney transplant that they too will have many more merry Christmases with their respective family.


Thursday, December 6, 2007

It's that magical time of the year

Bart Simpson observed that "Christmas is the one time of year when people of all religions come together to worship Jesus Christ."

This is especially apparent in a global culture like Singapore where citizens and tourists of different ethnicity are busy preparing to celebrate Christmas their own way. Orchard Road, in particular, is all dressed up in dazzling dancing lights to welcome this distinctive season. As Norman Vincent Peale puts it, "Christmas waves a magic wand over this world and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful."

As usual shopping favorites such as Ikea, Giant, Vivo, Daiso, Sim Lim, Funan, This Fashion and others are teeming with shoppers and they are really buying!

One unique shopping experience is 24-hour Mustafa Centre. It is huge—150,000 square feet of shopping area in four levels of a six-story building along Syed Alwi Road. My traveling companions, Susan Valencia-Samaco, Berna Ronduen and Zeny Rivera, and I spent six hours in two evenings there and, yet, we had not seen all supposed 75,000 different products on display. People traffic rivals that of Orchard Road—they serve 15,000 shoppers at peak times—it was difficult to walk around without bumping into another shopper, mostly Hindi, or knocking some goodies off the shelves.

They sell every imaginable product and service one needs for the house, office, for a lazy or busy day, for the garden, backyard, farm, for casual or formal occasion, for all seasons of the year, etc. These are sourced from different parts of the world. I had to look at several rows of eight-foot tall shelves just to look for Pearl Drops toothpaste.

There are check out counters all over, not just at the exit points. They take precautions against theft by sealing shopping bags really tight, you couldn't even insert a toothpick inside. As one Singaporean concludes, they don't trust their own. And I am sure there are CCTV cameras all over because there are very few visible store workers though they claim to have 1, 270 employees. I wanted to buy a beautiful cashmere muffler that has no price tag. I walked the entire 3rd floor, but the only one store worker I saw dismissed me like, "I don't know, that's not my department." The cashiers shrugged me off and told me to find help somewhere.

They also offer travel, hotel, remittance and foreign exchange services with their shop and stay business model. The Centre houses a hotel with 130 furnished rooms. They continuously monitor their customer needs and try to cater to them. I was told that the owner of Mustafa started by peddling ready made garments from a "kariton" and now is the 8th wealthiest Singaporean. Mustafa makes SGD302 million (aboutPhP10 billion) annual volume.

Talking of volume, Mustafa is relatively quiet despite the number of people around. There is no blaring music or announcements; you can still chat in whispers. Surprisingly, prices of most goods are much lower than our local shops offer.

Having experienced Mustafa, I remember the last time I checked out some malls here in Metro Manila. They are very noisy with their ear-piercing music broadcasts and usual noisy chatter of Filipino shoppers. What I like about shopping here, though, are beautifully displayed products, tasteful interior designs of stores, wide lanes and alleyways and the nice-smelling shoppers.

Nonetheless, Singapore is a shopping paradise. Singaporeans are generally respectful and helpful to tourists. And you have that feeling that nobody is taking advantage of your being not from there and not speaking their language. At Sim Lim and Funan, for example, you could get a variety of original electronic items at very low prices and guaranteed quality. At Pek Kyo Market along Owen Road, they offer some of the same goods sold in Mustafa, but of smaller volume and lower prices.

Well, as we go on this Christmas shopping frenzy, let us all remember what Roy L. Smith once said, "He who has not Christmas in his heart will never find it under a tree."