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The Sum Of Our Choices

Studies suggest that an average person makes 35,000 choices per day. And you will be surprised by this – “Assuming that most people  spend around seven hours per day sleeping and thus blissfully choice-free, [they make] roughly 2,000 decisions per hour or one decision every two seconds (Krockow, 2018).” You are about to complete one decision right now – and that is to continue reading. Thanks for that and I hope you decide to read on until the end.

 We are in constant decision-making mode. In a span of one minute, adults make more decisions than breaths. But it is not my intention though to dig deeper into the scientific details of this decision-making process  – like what behavioral scientists claim that 90% – 95% of our decisions are made subconsciously.

I just wish to point out what I consider as the ultimate consequences of the choices we made in the past and continue to make everyday.

You want to know? Read on.

The results of the collective decisions we made and continue to make are the following – what we have become and the kind of life that we live.

The person you are now – physically, emotionally, mentally, socially, spiritually (that is if you, like me, believe that God exists), whatever you have accomplished, and where you currently stand in the socio-economic stratum are the consequences of the all the choices you made in life. You and your life are the products of your choices.

To explain further, I could cite several studies  (the way I did in the first paragraph of this essay) and mention the contributions made by famous philosophers on the subject. But I decided not to go that route but instead share what characters in some movies said about making choices and how they shape us as a person and affect the quality of our life.

Before we revisit those quotes from movies, just allow me to drop what Albert Camus, a philosopher, said about the topic we are exploring – “Life is the sum of all our choices.”

I don’t believe in  the doctrine of predestination upheld by the followers of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. It just doesn’t make sense to me why God would give us free will if after all He already preordained everything. What I subscribe to, even if I am a Christian, is what the Buddhists and Hindus believe that our destiny as humans is determined  by our actions, thoughts, and words. We therefore shape our own future through the decisions we make. The quality of our choices will  establish our value as a person and determine the kind of life we live. 

As Dr. Emmet Brown said in the movie “Back to the Future” – “We all have to make decisions that affect the course of our lives.” We have to do what we ought to. Subscribing to the doctrine of predestination would make us live passively waiting how the future that the God we believe designed for us would pan out.

Fatalism is fatal. To think that events in your life are fixed in advance and that you are powerless to change them is a death sentence. Tomorrow is yet to happen and you could control how the events would play out if you choose to. Your life is an empty script. You and you alone hold the pen. It is a travesty if you  allow others to write the story of your life.

The next hours (or days, or weeks, or months, or years) are yet to happen. You can plan ahead. You can control the events of tomorrow. But only if you want. Gandalf of the “Lord of the Rings” fame comes to mind. He said, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

If you are not happy where you are you might want to consider what Chuck Noland in “Cast Away” told himself – ”I would rather take my chance out there on the ocean than to stay here and die on this s_ _ _hole island, spending the rest of my life talking… to a goddamn volleyball.

That exactly was my situation the year before I decided to cross the seas to become an expat teacher here in South Korea. My version of a s_ _ _ hole was that principal’s office which was like a lonely desolate island. I went there when I escaped from another s_ _ _ hole of place a year prior.

I chose not stay on those places for the simple reason that I did not have peace of mind, where I know I wouldn’t grow personally and professionally. So I did what I had to do.

What about you? How long have you been stranded in your own s_ _ _ hole island talking to your “Wilson”? When do you intend to make a move?

My loved ones and friends considered my going to South Korea in 2012 as ill-advised. I was being paid handsomely by the Pakistani owners of that Philippine school where I was. I had other sources of income as well. It was seemingly unwise (for them) for me to still want to work overseas at that time. That was for them but for me I don’t take risks (not even calculated ones) when it comes to my career. Teaching overseas was part of my career pathing.

I knew the path I was taking. I believed in what Santosh Patel said in the movie “Life of Pi” – “How can he find his own way if he does not learn to choose a path?” I chose the path that I felt would bring me closer to the realization of my dreams. I was  earning quite satisfactorily (as far as Philippine standards are concerned) at that time but I was still so far away from my dream of financial independence.

But it was not all about money. During those times, I was facing a personal crisis and I felt I had to do something. I had to do one life-altering decision. That decision was propelled by both personal and professional motives. I was like Jake Sully, the main character in “Avatar,” saying – “Sometimes your whole life boils down to one insane move.”  

Like Jake Sully you need to tame a toruk – yourself. I needed to tame a toruk – myself. We all need to be a Toruk Makto. Let the toruk we tamed bring us to the realization of our goals and dreams.

The “Land of the Morning Calm” was the perfect place for me to tame and rein my own toruk.

 There are times when we have to make difficult decisions. And I could tell you that leaving my family and my comfort zone to face the uncertainties that going to (and working in) a foreign land brings was one of the hardest choices I had to make. And “the hardest choices require the strongest will” says the toughest nemesis of the Avengers (Yes! It’s Thanos.) Don’t be afraid to make hard decisions if you need to. Just make sure they are neither illegal nor immoral.

 Before I end, allow me to give one more line from a movie – “Life is a choice. You can choose to be a victim or anything else you’d like to be.” That’s from Socrates, not the philosopher but one of the characters in the movie “Peaceful Warrior.”

 It is my sincere hope that when your hair turns gray you would not repeat the lines delivered by Mike Banning (“London Has Fallen”) – “I am made of bourbon and poor choices.”

Let me end with an argument presented (not by a movie character this time but  by  Jean-Paul Sartre, a French philosopher), “Predetermined nature, facticity or essence do not control who or what we are; moreover, one is radically free to choose one’s destiny and it is one’s moral responsibility to do so.”

———-

Krockow, E.M. (2018). How many decisions do we make each day?. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.sychologytoday.com

Sartre, J. P. (1956). Being and nothingness. (H. Barnes, Trans.). NewYork: Washington Square Press.

When I Left That School (5)

(Last of 5 parts)

“How many times shall I forgive my brother? Up to seven times?

That, in a nutshell, was what Peter asked the Lord Jesus Christ  in Matthew 18:21.

And how many times shall I be forgiven also by people I have offended?

As the school year (and my nine-year stay with the Catholic institution) drew to a close, I attended my last Basic Ecclesial Community (BEC) activity. BECs in the congregation schools are intended to make the faithful live in communion with God and with one another. Such activities are like mini-retreats.  They are designed to make the participants examine their conscience and reflect on their relationships with the Almighty and their fellowmen.

The central theme of that particular BEC activity was forgiveness.

Chance  would have it that I and the Sister President shared the same table. She was already there when I came. I wanted to think that the organizers of that particular BEC set us up.

Courtesy dictated that I should acknowledge her presence.

“Good morning, Sister.”

Then I added the standard greetings of the congregation.

“Praised be Jesus and Mary.”

“Hello sir. Praised be Jesus and Mary.”

I could see how my friends and colleagues on that table were smiling at the pleasant exchange between me and the Sister President. I wasn’t sure if those smiles were expressions of amusement or happiness seeing that I and the religious matriarch were at the same table and talking. They knew everything that had transpired between me and the Sister President. They knew that I supported the formal complaint lodged against her, a complaint that reached the office of the Education Ministry of the congregation.

I didn’t use any camouflage in expressing my dissent against her during those times. I don’t operate that way. I don’t like stabbing my opponents on the back. I want them to see when I draw my sword or dagger to give them a chance to prepare for my assault. I openly talked to the teaching and non-teaching personnel she had offended in one way or another. I encouraged them to complain. She had loyalists in our ranks and I was almost certain that through them she came to know about what I was doing. She summoned me one time to her office and asked me to explain. We had an unpleasant exchange then.

Then the head of the congregation’s Education Ministry came to listen to the first-hand accounts of the people complaining against the Sister President. That was a week after I read Dr. Bien’s handouts. I told her everything I needed to say – how ill-tempered she was and how her grumpy ways led me to wonder if indeed she was a senior representative of a religious order. After hearing my litany, she asked me point blank.

“What do you want us to do with her?”

I wasn’t able to respond immediately.

I was not really surprised by the straightforwardness of the question but by the response I wanted to give. I thought I hated her and her ways so much that I wanted her removed from her office.

There seemed to be an eternity between the question and the answer I gave. I knew I was not the only one the head of the congregation’s Education Ministry had talked privately with about the Sister President. I wondered what they had said when asked the same question?

Before I responded I recalled how she took time to accompany me to the office of the congregation’s lawyer when I needed an attorney for my defense in a case filed against me by two students who felt offended when I just tried to carry out my concurrent function as prefect of discipline dutifully. The case was eventually dismissed for lack of merit. Nonetheless; at the moment when I was faced by that question I realized that it was difficult to just dismiss the fact that the Sister President could have decided to simply endorse me to the lawyer by calling him. But she had opted to accompany me personally. I recalled her reason.

“Sir, I wanted to make sure that everything would go well. I noticed how troubled you have become after learning about the case.”

That happened before we had that encounter in the hallway. I was hurt by that so much so that all I could see from then on was everything bad about her. I chose not to consider the good things she was doing for the institution. She may not be as good as her predecessor, she may be ill-tempered, but she was very much a capable administrator. It was when she took over as Sister President that the department I was leading had more students.

“Is that question difficult to answer?”

I apologized to the sister talking to me for taking too long to respond. Then I said what I had to say.

“She has been trying her best to lead the school sister. Just please tell her to improve a bit on her interpersonal skills and avoid hurting people with her words.”

Then came that BEC that day.

“Congratulations sir on your new job! You deserve it.”

That was the Sister President. Apparently, somebody had whispered to her that I had already been hired by another school. I told only a few of my friends about it. They may have told their friends too until the information reached the President’s office.

“Thank you sister” I replied.

I heard a lot of stuff about forgiveness that day. More importantly, I experienced it.

As a culminating activity, the BEC coordinator that day gave each of us ¼ sheets of short bond papers then instructed us to write there the name of the persons who hurt us and what they did.

I guess I need not say whose name I wrote on that paper and what she did. It’s obvious. The final instruction given was to fold the paper and approach the table where there was a candle burning. We would set the paper on fire, throw it into the urn beside the candle then watch it burn.

“Sir, let’s do this together,” said the Sister.

I obliged.

“It’s my pleasure sister.”

The Sister President and I approached the table where the candle was. The aromatic scent wafting from the candle wrapped us as together we made the pieces of paper we’re holding kiss the candle’s lighted wick. We watched silently as the flame consumed the paper in the urn. It turned from white to black… then gray. It turned to dust the way I would long after I breath my last.

“Sister, sorry for all my shortcomings.”

I said sorry for I know I offended her in many ways. I said sorry for I know that I did not do well as a Catholic educator. The Sister President smiled and laid a hand on my shoulder and let it stay there as we walked back to our seats.

I left the institution I served for nine years without any emotional baggage. That was the more important decision I made… more important than my moving to another job. That way I found it easier to turn the pages to the next chapter of my life.

Fast forward…

One morning, seven years after I left that congregation school, I was at the Incheon International Airport waiting for the bus going to the university where I’m currently working.

Yes, eventually I was hired as an ESL teacher by a university here in South Korea. What happened?  I worked only for one year as the College Dean in the tertiary institution where I transferred after leaving that congregation school. Thereafter, I became a Principal in a basic education school, also for a year only.

Those two schools were so unlike the Catholic institution where I worked. The systems and the values were totally different.

The people I supervised as College Dean (and concurrently as Dean of the Education Department) after I left that Catholic institution were great but my fellow college officials… two of them… OMG! Not all educators are educated. Not all educators practice professionalism.  The people I supervised as Principal of a basic education institution after I left the city college were great too except… again… for another two.

The pay may be higher and I had lesser work, especially when I became  a Principal, but I missed the professionalism, the strong sense of direction, the personal and professional development, and the academic ambiance that I got accustomed to for nine years. That resulted to job burnout and identity crisis. I must admit – I regretted  leaving the congregation school. I didn’t tell my wife about it because I know what she would tell me. I did not tell my mother that I failed to find a better school. 

I knew I wouldn’t be staying there long. So, I went back to the drawing board. I revisited my career paths.

Two months before completing my first year as a school principal, when from a website I read that there was an opening at a university in South Korea, I sent them my curriculum vitae.  I have had enough of supervising somebody else’s school. I wanted just to teach. I felt it was time to rekindle my dream of teaching abroad. One of the officials of that South Korean university visited the Philippines and interviewed the applicants there. I was invited. 

Then came the answer to a prayer – after just two weeks after the interview, I received an email from that South Korean university informing me  of their decision to hire me. That was just what the doctor ordered. The job burnout and the subsequent identity crisis took a lot from me. It led to some personal problems as well. To be given a chance to teach in another country was the fresh start that I needed.

Here in South Korea, I had the career reboot I wanted and a  wonderful bonus – I rediscovered my passion for writing. It also gave me the chance to pursue more seriously my interest in personal growth and development.  As to whether I would be able to save enough money to finally start a school of my own, remains to be seen.

Going back to Incheon airport…

While enjoying a cup of hot caramel macchiato at the airport, I tried to look back at my long career as an educator – both as a teacher and school administrator. That morning I just came back from the Philippine where I spent my winter break.  At that moment, my heart was drowned with gratitude at the thought that I am so blessed to be given the opportunity to become an ESL teacher here in South Korea. Then suddenly I recalled that incident that morning when the Sister President rudely responded to my greetings. Had she not done that, would I consider resigning? Would I be here in South Korea?

As I was thinking about all those things, something hard to believe happened. A familiar face entered the coffee shop. It was the Sister President. Indeed, ours is just a small  world. I could have easily decided to just pretend I didn’t see her but  I just found myself standing from my seat and allowed that our paths cross again.

“Good morning, sister!” I warmly greeted her the way I did on that fateful morning many years ago when we had that unfortunate encounter. She did not respond grouchily the way she did then instead she called out my name so loudly and excitedly that she drew the attention of the other people in that coffee shop.

I gently put her hand on my forehead. After that she embraced me.

She was both surprised  and delighted to see me there.

While her companion went to the counter to order, we stood there excitedly chatting, just like two old friends who have not seen each other for a very long time.

Before they left for they had a bus to catch, we both took pictures of that special moment we had together. We both made sure that that special moment would be  preserved for posterity.

When I Left That School (4)

“Is your decision final?”

That again was my wife making a last-ditch effort to sway me from making that decision. She asked me that question when she  saw me sifting through a box of documents I brought home that night. She noticed that I was already slowly bringing home my personal belongings from my office.

Then again I gave my wife what became my classic response – “Trust me. I know what I am doing.”

While going through the files in that box,  I came across the printed materials of a  lecture delivered by a certain Dr. Bien. I recalled how prolific he was as a speaker. I started reading the materials he discussed during that seminar. I began to wonder why those materials did not affect me when I heard them delivered and expounded by Dr. Bien personally in the same way that they did when I read them. Perhaps I was not focusing on his talk that time.

Reading those old lecture notes made me finally see something that was kept from my view in the many years I had been teaching in that institution – the enormity of the role of a Catholic educator. It was not as simple as I thought. It is a difficult responsibility, something transcendental. It is not the subject areas that are being taught, it is the Gospel. It is not fusing the Gospel into a subject but the other way around.

I began to question what I had done in all those years I spent in that Catholic school. Those lecture notes made me feel uncertain as to whether or not I deserve to be a Catholic educator. The materials I read made me realize that only those who possess the fruits of the Holy Spirit can be efficient in carrying out the functions of a true Catholic educator. Honestly, I didn’t think I bore the fruits of the Spirit. I did and said things that made me unworthy to be a teacher and administrator in that institution.

I was eaten up by the hatred that I had fermented towards the Sister President. My deeds and words, and my ways of thinking about and doing things make me unworthy to be a torchbearer in Christian education. I couldn’t be “the blind leading the blind.” Pretense and hypocrisy tore my soul apart. Suddenly, my decision to leave just became final. I had to leave not because I don’t have faith in that religious as head of the institution but because I am weak. I am sinful.

Two months before the end of the school year I filed my resignation. There was no more turning back.

A week after filing that resignation letter, I received e-mails informing me that the universities in the Middle East decided not to hire me because I was not yet TESOL-certified. Those rejections came two weeks before I completed my TESOL training.

It was not meant to be. I did not inform my wife about it because she was already so disheartened when I resigned from my job. Telling her that my first two applications abroad ended up in failure would make her even more worried.

Then a few days before my resignation from the Catholic institution officially became effective, I received a call from the city college where I applied as College Dean. I was home at that time watching TV with my wife. After hearing the first sentence from the one who called, I was already sure of what he would say next. I asked him to give me a second. I told my wife to turn the TV off while I turn on the speakerphone. I wanted her to hear something special.

“Please continue sir.” I said.

“The President would like you to know that we have decided to hire you. Can you come here tomorrow?”

My wife smiled. She tried unsuccessfully to prevent tears to roll from the edges of her eyes. The opportunity that knocked on the door I built was not a chance to work overseas as ESL teacher (yet) but to continue as a school administrator.

NEXT: How many times shall I forgive my brother? Up to seven times?

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