Saturday, June 23, 2018

Message to students: Five Things Worth Fighting For

When I think of scholarship, I am reminded of Jose Rizal - a medical doctor - and the very powerful observation he made when he was teaching in Dapitan: Knowledge without courage is useless.

  At that stage in his life he has already studied in Manila, Madrid and Heidelberg, but he must have realised that knowing is not enough. We must be wiling and ready to act on the implications of whatever it is that we learn. And informed by our knowledge, we must learn to fight. Fighting does not necessarily entail an enemy, or committing an act of violence. Fighting can be an act of defence, and a means to protect. I find fighting a useful metaphor to think about our lives. Building on fighting as metaphor, let me give you five things that I think are worth fighting for.

 The first thing that’s worth fighting for is your time. We always think of ourselves as too busy, only to realise that the next chapter of our lives will make us even busier. Feeling busy, however, is not about how much time you have, it’s about how you manage your time; in my experience the happiest people are those who are able to manage their time.

How much time do you spend brushing your teeth? 2 minutes? 5 minutes? Actually people spend 35 days of their life brushing their teeth, 3 1/2 years eating, 30 hours of their life crying, 10 months watching porn. These are just averages, of course, but they illustrate how much time we spend on mundane things.

How much time do you spend on Facebook? Studies show that Filipinos spend 4 hours in social media every day, which is the same time per day required to master a language in half a year; it is also the same amount of time required to read 40 novels a year. When we realise how much we can do in a day, we will be able not just to accomplish more, but live more fully.

Excellence is the best strategy for time management. Be very good at the things you do so you can do them quickly. If you’re used to reading books and academic journals, a reading assignment is easy. If you excel in writing, you can write a reflection paper in an hour.

Another strategy is being creative in the way you life. Caught in traffic? Instead of reading random stuff on Twitter, why don't you listen to a podcast, read a book? Fight for your time, and you will be a better scholar.

 Secondly, you must fight for your dreams. Life is too short for you to compromise on your dreams. If your dream is to get into medical school or law school, are you doing your very best to achieve it? If your dream is to be a scientist, a concert pianist, an editor of a magazine, are you are practicing the skills you need to move closer to your goal? Fight for your dreams, everyday. It’s not gonna be easy. But there best things in life never are. You need to fight for them - sometimes to a point of sacrifice.

Even so, don’t privilege your dream profession at the expense of your other dreams in life. Life is was never meant to be a dichotomy. It can be a multiple choice question where “all of the above” can also be a valid answer. When I was young I wanted to be a doctor because I wanted to help people. But at the same, I also want to be a social scientist because I find the world fascinating. I also want to travel and climb mountains because I find the world beautiful. I also want to be a writer because I find beauty in words. Today, I am trying to do all of the above, and I will fight for it.  

Don’t let your career be your life. If you have other talents, pursue them! So no sacrifice who you are and what your passions are in the name of your chosen carrier. Draft that Youngblood essay! Write that song! Practice that piano piece! Play that sport! Run that marathon!

Again, don’t let your career be your life, and at the same time, don’t look at your life itself as a career. Our society’s metaphor for our careers is a ladder or a mountain we must climb, and we tend to apply this metaphor to our life itself: high school, then college, then med school, internship, residency, fellowship. But is it a ladder? Personally, I do not see life a climb from the bottom to the summit. I see life as a ridge, each stage can be beautiful, regardless of where it leads to. Yes, it can lead to something higher and better, but where are you right now can already a source of fulfilment. Keep dreaming, but don’t forget the here and the now.

What is your GWA? I’m sure it’s worth celebrating - or feeling relieved about - but let me also ask you: Are you happy now? Are you enjoying school, or did you enjoy it? Make sure you do so, and make sure you will if will continue your schooling. What’s the best course? One that you will find enjoyable. One that will not only prepare you for the future, but one that you will enjoy in the present. Wherever you are - in college, in an internship program, a graduate course, don’t think of it as just a means to a career - but as an end in itself. Many terminally-ill people your age have gone through college knowing that they may not live to graduate, let alone use their diplomas, but they enrolled, finding joy in every day in class. I will say it again: Don’t settle for anything less than a life lived with passion and excellence.

Third, fight for the people you love. In the name of scholarship, for the sake of an exam, we take our family and friends, classmates and mentors, for granted, but they will not always be around. Fight for your time with them. Our pursuit of our dreams can test our relationships, but relationships can also help us be better dreamers, giving us inspiration and encouragement. In med school, at first I wanted to go home every weekend, then twice a month, then once a month… but I made it a conscious effort to go back to twice a month. Relationships are always more important than grades.

Fighting for people means valuing our time with them. In med school one of my mentors was Dr. Quasi Romualdez, a former health secretary. He had so many great stories, profound insights, funny jokes, inspiring experiences; he used to tell us that the jeepney drivers of his time would let PGH interns ride jeepneys for free because they knew that they are serving the people. Then, suddenly and unexpectedly, he was gone. Looking back, I feel that I should have written down his stories, interviewed him, and simply spent more time with the great man.

My sister now lives in the US and my father made a calculation that if they see each other twice a year, assuming that he lives until the age of 80, they will be seeing each other for only 50 times in this lifetime. Have you ever considered the possibility that you can actually count the number of times you will see the people that matter to you? The reality of course is that life is finite and all we can do is to count our blessings.

Fight for your friends, your blockmates, your orgmates, and of course, your profs. Treasure them, because they will not always be around. Someday, you will look at your friends and wish you can go back to the carefree times with them. Fight for your time with them so you will have no regrets when they’re gone.

Fourth, fight for the truth. Sometimes, the truth hurts; breaking the diagnosis can be painful for the patient, and in a different way it was painful for Copernicus and Galileo to reveal a different worldview, just as it was painful for Rizal to diagnose the social cancer of our country, Fighting for the truth can come at a price. In my column I get trolled and threatened when I express what I feel is the right thing to say, and it can be very painful.

But truth is always worth fighting for because it always wins. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but ultimately truth wins, and we must always be on its side. And of course, we must fight for truth not just because it always wins, but because it is the right thing to do.   In this age of fake news, how do know what the truth is? Equip yourselves with the means to know the truth, to critically appraise knowledge. A good scholar not only fights for the truth but knows how to defend it with facts, logic, reason. And when we finds ourselves on the wrong side, we should have the humility to accept it.

Finally, fight for those who do not have the means to fight for themselves. The nobility of knowledge lies in ability in improving people’s lives, and that’s what makes us relevant, whatever our chosen careers may be.

Let me end with a story shared my friend, an ophthalmologist, about his patient, a four-year old boy. The boy was diagnosed with retinoblastoma and needed to have his eyes removed. The boy was old enough to know that he was about to lose his vision, and told that my friend that he wanted to see his father, an OFW, one last time.

The surgery had already been arranged, but realising the significance of that final visual memory, my friend, at the time a resident, made arrangements for the surgery to be rescheduled, even if it would be inconvenient for all of surgical team. When the surgery finally pushed through, the kid then already-blind, was very thankful: “Salamat doc. Ipinaglaban mo na makita ko sya muli. Hindi ko na kakalimutan ang itsura ng tatay ko, and at hindi din kita kakalimutan.”

Not all our battles can be won, but even without victory over death and disease, we can give comfort, we can give hope.

And so, as I congratulate everyone here for upholding excellence and doing your best, I beseech you: fight for the voiceless and the powerless, fight for their time, fight for the people they love, fight for the truth that matters to them, and fight for their chance to pursue their own dreams. There are fights we cannot win, but we must keep fighting. There is victory in fighting for the truth. There is victory in helping others. There is victory in bringing the best out of ourselves.

But first and foremost, there is victory in a life well lived. Keep fighting for it, and I have no doubt that you will be good scholars - and even better persons.