Grappling the Rapplers?

‘The question then is: Will they let their names be dragged into a pit of shame by illegally operating or by cheating the Filipino public? Will they directly sell their integrity to foreign influence? Is it worth the risk after their years of “bar none” services?’

Advertisements

IT’S FRIDAY and the company where I was working was on dress down. I chose to wear a pair of jeans and a black shirt. But as I was riding the northbound MRT-3 train, I looked around and wondered if there were other passengers wearing the same colour of shirt as I do. There were few of them and I sensed that they were also curious. Yes, curious if my wearing black is a form of support on the Black Friday Protest for Freedom action organised by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP). The NUJP earlier severely criticized the Securites and Exchange Commission’s (SEC) decision revoking the registration of the leading news website Rappler. 

In their website, it’s indicated that Rappler comes from the root words “rap” (to discuss) and “ripple” (to make waves). Without a doubt, they are making waves these days not of stories of various personalities they cover, or of news reports about other entities, but the legality of their existence. When the SEC and Rappler issue broke, I sulked. I couldn’t believe that such incident can happen to one of the media organisations I look up to. Some of the most respected, prominent, and award-winning journalists and writers I know work for or are connected with Rappler. Maria Ressa. Marites Vitug. Chay Hofileña. Glenda Gloria. Patricia Evangelista. 

The question then is: Will they let their names be dragged into a pit of shame by illegally operating or by cheating the Filipino public? Will they directly sell their integrity to foreign influence? Is it worth the risk after their years of “bar none” services? 

While the SEC decision was not final and executory, with the political climate the Philippines has, the possibility for the case to reach the halls of the Supreme Court is not startling. But online forums and the comments section have been filled with opinions. For them, Rappler has reached its final destination.

“Maria Ressa is wearing a victim’s cloak” a netizen commented. “In need of attention just like the previous president.” Some of my Facebook friends also despised Rappler for their alleged violation. Suddenly, constitutional experts rose on the occasion. They are doomed, one added. But did they first read the 21-page decision of the SEC before expressing their thoughts online? Did they examine the facts before judging those who side and believe in Rappler as ‘Yellowtards’ and fools?

I’ve seen it before and I am seeing it again. In our attempt to simplify things, we resort to one-liners, labels, and generalizations. These do not accomplish anything but create more divisions. 

In his book Blink, renowned journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell wrote: “We have, as human beings, a storytelling problem. We’re a bit too quick to come up with explanations for things we don’t really have an explanation for.”

When Rappler published my opinion piece about the subpar MRT-3 train services, some of the commenters were quick to assume that I was a paid writer whose objective was to discredit the actions of the government in addressing the transport system issue. They even judged me as just another Rappler writer who doesn’t see the good in the current administration, its achievements. Without conducting a simple Google search or patiently reading the whole piece, they came up with their own conclusions. These are classic examples of false and uninformed accusations online. 

Because the truth is I care about my country. We write because we believe that something can be done, that there’s still hope, and that those in power didn’t fully shut their ears to listen to another point of view, to fresh perspectives. For a democracy to work, there should be checks and balances and the media play a valuable role in guarding and being the platform for people to practice their right to speech and expression. Yes, they put their lives, their principles on the line. 

With everything’s that’s going on, it’s easy to be swayed by the popular, the majority opinion. Some choose to stay silent because of fear and inconvenience. If indeed Rappler intentionally committed grave contraventions against the provisions of the constitution and that they should be held liable, let the courts decide about it. If they published malicious articles beyond the ethical standards of journalism, which are meant to degrade or disparage a public official and put him or her in bad light, file cases. Let’s recognise the proper forums backed by existing laws and give emphasis on due process. 

Opposing opinions can coexist without us losing our humanity in the process with respect. It can be done without grappling the pens and the mouths of our fellowmen who cry for truth, freedom and justice whether we agree with them or not. Because in the end, while we are busy figuring out how others are different from us with all their ideals and perspectives, we forget to listen, to read, to research, and ultimately, to convince ourselves that in times like this, it’s best to pause and pray for our country with a black shirt on or whatever colour we believe we represent. 

World leader in porn watching

‘We read news reports like this without blinking an eye. But do we ever ask ourselves where our values have gone?’

WE WERE high school freshmen then. The day before summer vacation was to start, my seat mate Sam handed me a small, thin package. “It’s for you, Ben,” he said. “Open it when you get home.” Wrapped in intermediate paper and placed inside a red plastic bag, it was evidently a video compact disc.

An animated film, like “Toy Story,” maybe? I asked him.

“Just watch it when nobody’s around,” he said. But why? I wondered to myself.

Nonplussed, I ran to the lone room on the second floor as soon as I got home. I took the VCD out of my bag, removed its wrap, and noted that it had some scratches and had no title or picture on either side. I inserted it in the player and saw that it was working. I was all by myself and was thrilled at the prospect of seeing Buzz Lightyear in action.

But it was not “Toy Story” or any other film of the same genre. I saw foreigners. Man. Woman. Naked. Loud sound. Moaning. Sex act…

I turned off the VCD player as quickly as I could, guilt overwhelming my consciousness. What did I just see? I asked myself. I couldn’t move for a few minutes. While blankly staring at the ceiling, I placed my right hand over my heart. It was beating rapidly, as if I were in a marathon. I thought of my parents, my brothers, my sisters.

In our household, as in most other Filipino households, talk about sex, sexuality, and pornography is taboo. It seems to be embedded in our culture to not mention or discuss these topics in the open. They are deemed dirty and dark, unfit for discussion. But isn’t there a disconnect between what we think we believe and what we do?

Go to any commercial area these days in Metro Manila and you will see a different kind of commodity being sold. Yes, you will see fish, pork, or beef presented in a fashion to attract customers in the wet market, but you will also see pornographic DVDs arranged by category on wooden tables stationed in front of fast-food outlets and restaurants: Asian, American, Latin.

In some instances, the trade in such DVDs occurs just a few meters away from a police station. It’s as if this trade is an accepted part of reality, and police authorities have no business hindering this dark business from prospering. But more than what we witness in the real world, there are porn sites galore in the internet, not to mention the occasional pair of naked breasts popping up out of nowhere.

According to Pornhub’s 2017 data, the Philippines leads the world in time spent watching porn, at 13 minutes and 28 seconds on the average. And yes, the Philippines has been acing this category for a number of years now.

We read news reports like this without blinking an eye. But do we ever ask ourselves where our values have gone?

David Segal wrote in “Does Porn Hurt Children?” (New York Times, March 2014): “‘One of our recommendations is that children should be taught about relationships and sex at a young age,’ Professor Horvath continued. ‘If we start teaching kids about equality and respect when they are 5 or 6 years old, by the time they encounter porn in their teens, they will be able to pick out and see the lack of respect and emotion that porn gives us. They’ll be better equipped to deal with what they are being presented with.’”

This recommendation is of a piece with what’s written in Proverbs 22:6 (King James version): “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”

About a year ago, then Health Secretary Paulyn Ubial announced a plan of action to block pornographic websites in the country as part of efforts to prevent the spread of HIV-AIDS, especially among the youth. This move could have reduced the risk to Filipino adults and children posed by unsafe sexual activities resulting from exposure to porn. But it did not push through.

Humans are not designed to lust after porn models or actors online or in porn DVDs; we are designed to fall in love with one individual with respect and sincerity under God’s guidance. Our body structure and emotions support this. While scientific evidence on the gruesome effects of porn continue to be studied, the safest step to take by young people is to shy away from it to prevent possible addiction to it. If Filipinos take pride in calling ourselves a Christian nation, let’s live by its standards. We should not patronize porn and treat it as part of our lives. Let us make a stand.

Up to this day, I wonder what my seat mate Sam’s intentions were that afternoon when he handed me the porn VCD. If I would be given a chance to talk to him again, I’d tell him how I momentarily froze in shock at what I was seeing. I’d ask him why. But with all the questions, one thing is certain: It’s not supposed to be like this. Because we are not born this way.

(This piece has been published in Young Blood, Opinion, Philippine Daily Inquirer on the 14th of January, 2018.)

Finding Ica and the search for online delicadeza

‘Can I tell these to him or her in person?’

AS THE missing posters of 17-year-old Ica Policarpio with the hashtag #FindIca went viral on social media sites, speculations ruled the public’s consciousness. Sympathy poured for Ica’s family, which has been magnified and deemed serious with the participation of some celebrities in search of a teenager they do not know personally. But with it were excruciating judgments.

She surely eloped with her boyfriend, one declared. Worse, another one added, she’s been kidnapped, raped, killed and then dumped in a creek or river somewhere just like the others. 

When I read these pronouncements, I sulked. I linked my hands at the back of my head with disgust and my appetite to finish reading Miguel Syjuco’s book titled Ilustrado during the holidays has been halted. I went into a familiar state nowadays of those who consume social media for entertainment, news, and expression. It’s the state of puzzlement with the current condition of human behavior, motivations, and values tainted by indifference, insensitivity and lack of natural affection that we witness online. And then, questions arose out of nowhere. 

How did some of us become this harsh online? When did some of us start fashioning careless, lethargic comments to our fellowmen without having full knowledge of the context, the background, and the facts of the trending topic? Why didn’t we consider the subject herself, of her possible reaction after the smoke vanished and the stream of emotions died down? Why did we forget the cinch fact that Ica is a minor and must be given special care and treatment? 

Days after interviews with some of the members of her family have been conducted and the online world still starving with answers, a netizen’s tweet helped find her. 

It’s the 23rd of December. A selfie captured her sitting behind a group of girls while reading a book just outside a coffee shop in a mall. She was all by herself and was later found crying at a carinderia in San Pablo City. Evidently, she’s lost and was going through a “deep emotional distress”.

It was a sweet, mirthful news which ended her more than 60-kilometer journey from Muntinlupa City to Laguna province. Her father immediately asked for understanding and appealed for privacy. But it wasn’t a fairy tale that saw its conclusion with a simple “happily ever after.” No, not when your sympathizers at one point have been fed with fake news and lies in the past. 

Reactions surfaced on my feed. Triumph. Empathy. Tears. Smileys. Doubt. Demands. Closure. 

From a beloved figure, some people described Ica as “papansin,” “bratinella,” and “spoiled brat” among others. Her name has been ridiculed and dragged to the pit of shame online. We deserve an explanation, one of my Facebook friends posted with a hint that Ica probably had taken on a dare called ‘Game of 72’ which involves challenging a friend to go missing for 72 hours without providing any information or update to the family and make certain they panic. 

Have you ever wondered about it? 

As we welcomed the new year based on Gregorian calendar, an opinion poll conducted by Gallup International ranked the Philippines as the third-happiest country in the world. This reaffirmed our optimism and belief that there are still millions of reasons to cheer for. But this is being overshadowed by those moments when we find ourselves actively bullying and ridiculing an individual online. 

Yes, there are hardships all around us. Yes, we face multisectoral challenges that can never be solved by the strongman in Malacañang alone. Yes, our patience is on the brink of exploding brought by the inefficient services we experience everyday of our lives. Yes, we’re tired. But these do not give us the license to be rude to a stranger online. These do not warrant us to be unfair, to be blinded to reason and justice. 

The comments section and our “What’s on your mind” space became our modern day diaries: personal yet at times destructive. We saw avenues for our frustrations, rants, and uninformed opinions to exist. We freely share, post, and treat them as mere constellation of “words” which do not have the capacity to kill someone. But no, we unknowingly commit an unspeakable heinous crime every time we forget that behind each name or photo or poster is a person who just like us has dreams, aspirations, and identity; that similarly, that person has vulnerabilities and is facing battles deep within him or her. 

In every interaction, online or not, politeness, respect and delicadeza are valuable. Before we post or comment, we should first pause and ask ourselves: Can I tell these to him or her in person?

Ica made us realize how limited our grasp is of the reality, of our understanding of the mental health in our country, and how some of us lose ourselves believing that we are entitled for a clamant, elaborate, and intricate explanation on what really had transpired on a trending topic even if the party we cared for asked for space and privacy.

In the future, God willing, when she’s ready and the pain no longer rests in her heart and soul, Ica may go back and choose to have a glimpse at the news reports, the articles, and the posts with hashtag #FindIca on her disappearance. And on that day, at that moment, I would like to tell her that even if I’m a stranger to her, I would like her to remember that she’s not alone. ‘Every teenager is both a hero and a failure,’ Syjuco said in Ilustrado. ‘When we become adults we have to choose where in the middle we’ll be.’ No matter what, she should never give up. Instead, she should be a hero to herself and those around her. I’m glad she found her way back home. Every time, she should remind herself that with God’s help and mercy, she can. 

Waiting for and praying to Santa

‘In a chaotic time rife with hypocrisy, deceit, and insincerity, there is no better currency to give to another soul, more importantly to the youth and our children, than the truth about spirituality and faith.’

WHEN I was little, there was one night my childhood friends and I have always waited for. Each year, on Christmas eve, we would hang a sock outside our windows before we go to sleep. I thought that if I’ll pray hard enough to Santa Claus, I would wake up on Christmas morning with my wishes and my dreams granted. And if I was good enough and if the hanging sock won’t be enough to contain all the candies and chocolates and toys that he’ll give out of his good heart, he would replace it with a magical bag with remarkable presents. It never happened. Worse, I thought that he was unfair.

After learning that one of my friends had received way better and more special gifts, such as Playstation and bicycle, than I did, I doubted his love and compassion. Shouldn’t he be considerate to everyone?

And then on the third year of patiently waiting to finally see him, to talk to him, and wondering why he made those decisions in the past, I discovered he doesn’t exist.

Covered in bedding, I stayed up until 3 AM. I stared outside the window in the lone room at the second floor of our house with my eyes partially open. It’s the 25th of December. And little by little my mother, who I thought was soundly sleeping next to me, moved closer to the window and slowly put something in the sock. In a cold Christmas morning, I have met my Santa. No, we did not talk and she did not notice me looking at her. I went to sleep and she embraced me.

This truth came to me as a surprise. But don’t we give Santa Claus, a portly, blithesome, white-bearded imaginary character – sometimes with spectacles – clothed with scarlet coat, too much credit?

Some of us tell our children that they should behave themselves if they want Santa to reward them with gifts on Christmas. While this motivates them to be more cautious and responsible about their actions, we lie to them. We make them believe on something that isn’t true, to a fictional man, who they thought has the capacity to know everything they did all year round to judge whether they are worthy or not. Why do we do this?

As a Catholic nation, we have been exposed to a culture copious with questionable teachings and traditions. From the true date of the birth of Jesus Christ to the manner by which we request saints to pray for our sins and transgressions, we’re deemed clueless. In a Catholic prayer titled Hail Mary, it said: “Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”

Again, “pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.” Doesn’t it mean that we ask Mary, the mother of the flesh of Jesus Christ, to pray for us? Isn’t there a disconnect between asking a dead person do something for the living? Can the saints help to alleviate our sins and intercede for us? Should we call on other names for us to be forgiven from the unrighteous acts we had committed?

Shielding kids from some truths they can’t process is one thing. But when it comes to matters of the spirit, of faith, and of God, it’s a deprivation of a valuable fact if we’re not going to teach them to directly offer their prayers and thanksgiving to the almighty Father in heaven and not to anybody else. In Philippians 4:6-7 (New International Version), it says: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Santa Claus with his sleigh lead by eight reindeers does not have the capacity to know what we’re doing but God does for His eyes are everywhere. In Proverbs 15:3 (NIV), it says: “The eyes of the Lord are everywhere, keeping watch on the wicked and the good.”

If we’re to take God’s place for a moment, won’t we get jealous? Because instead of praising Him, the world, in vicious normalcy, replaced Him in the children’s young minds and hearts with an invented figure, a different name. Deuteronomy 5:7-9 (NIV) says: “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me…”

Neither Paul nor Mary let another human being pray to them. The angels Gabriel and Michael also followed such principle in the Bible. How then can Santa hear our children’s prayers? Aren’t we observing centuries-old traditions for enjoyment, entertainment, and convenience even if we have no idea on their historical and factual background?

In a chaotic time rife with hypocrisy, deceit, and insincerity, there is no better currency to give to another soul, more importantly to the youth and our children, than the truth about spirituality and faith. Gone are the days of being prisoners of the past. If we, the adults, the parents, and the grown-ups are not going to start this revolution deep within us and not stop ourselves from just following the flow without raising questions, who would?

And the recognition of that truth and path is going to be so much more significant to me than what any Santa can present whether he came down from a chimney or not on a cold December morning.

‘Smaller and Smaller Circles’: Circling back, looking closer

‘But years later, can’t we see the almost similar plot and subplots reverberating in our time?’

AFTER RECEIVING a confirmation email from the cinema manager of a posh mall in the metro that they will be showing the much-awaited film adaptation of F.H. Batacan’s novel Smaller and Smaller Circles for two consecutive weeks, I rushed to check my schedule to buy a ticket on its nationwide release the next day. 

I arrived at the cinema early, and got my ticket for the 6:20 pm showing. With no smartphone to utilize the free WI-FI while waiting, I decided to have a look at the latest book titles at the bookstore adjacent to the cinema. I saw Murakamis, Ishiguros, Gladwells, Leavs, Kaurs on the shelves while I was languidly gliding along the rows and rows of books. Then, I was greeted by Smaller.

It has been over a month now since I last finished reading the book the second time. Yes, that was not our first encounter.

In my attempt to start a conversation with Pat – who would turn out to be my senior high school best friend – while we’re waiting for our next class one crisp afternoon, I asked for the theme of the intriguing book she was holding. I was then sitting on the aisle seat behind her, on the second row. While our other classmates were busy throwing crumpled papers in the air, or talking about their treasured online computer game, or reviewing our lessons for the exam the coming week, I was hooked on the book’s front cover showing a face of a strange man in black background. Published in 2002 by the University of the Philippines Press, it’s the UP Jubilee Student Edition of Batacan’s novella.

“It’s about a serial killer in the slums of Payatas” she said. “The poor victims are pre-teen boys. Do you want to have a look?” Thrilled, I responded, “Sure, thanks!”

I flipped through the pages, glimpsed at the texts written on the back cover, and started reading the book.

Pile of trash. Small, pale, unmoving hand. Mangled corpse. Genitals removed. Peeled face. Mutilated beyond recognition.

It was as if I was taken to a familiar place in cinematic details that I couldn’t move. I froze for a moment. My classmates vanished. The noise transformed into silence. The walls of the classroom have been silently destroyed by the maggots coming out of the boy’s body. And just like that, my heart and my mind were in unison.

Equipped with a two-volume dictionary at home, I intently read each sentence. The author used words I’ve never encountered before. It was a struggle. It was new to me. It was gripping.

Transfixed, I still remember how I intensely tried to hide my emotions. I wanted to cry. Again and again, I reminded myself that it’s fiction, that there’s no way it’s happening; there’s no chance.

But years later, can’t we see the almost similar plot and subplots reverberating in our time?

A pattern on the killings involving teenage boys which was allegedly done to sabotage the current administration’s war on drugs surfaced on the news. Some government officials, who because of the pressure to deliver and exhibit results to their bosses and to the public, purportedly plant evidence and falsely declare innocent, powerless individuals as the murderer, the perpetrator, the killer by conducting brutal tortures and wreak death threats. Some priests and authorities of the Catholic Church, who tell themselves that they carry the truth and that they serve as the guardians of the moral fiber of the society up to this day, ostensibly conceal their unrighteous acts, abuse minors and the weak, and improperly use their influence and power for their advantage.

With all these lurking on our plate, when are we going to wake up?

Frustrated that not so many people showed up in the opening day of the movie adaptation of Smaller, I searched for the Instagram account of award-winning director Brillante Mendoza for consolation. On that same day, he posted: “Film is an art and you cannot expect everyone to appreciate art. You just have to accept that this is the audience that you have. We cannot do anything about it.”

Literature and the arts bring us to places we’ve never been before. They show us perspectives that can shed light to some of the subtle, the hidden, and the unspoken ideas around us; that we may pause to look closer and circle back to the abhorrent fragments of our past to keep them from happening again.

We still have a long way to go but I hope that we’ll someday give time and investment to our quality locally produced films no matter how long or short or wherever the line is.

(This piece has been published on Rappler.com. Opinion, IMHO on the 11th of December, 2017.)

The buried giant embodied in our trains

‘Another point to consider is the psychological impact of witnessing a suicide attempt or a gory accident. What if there are children on the scene? What if they become traumatized? There is also the concern that such suicide attempts or accidents would happen too often that they become considered as part of the normal… We’ve gone through a lot to be deprived of quality services from the government. We have all felt defeated at one point.’

IT WAS a blistering hot afternoon when my northbound Metro Rail Transit (MRT3) train stopped at the Santolan station longer than usual. It’s around 2:40 pm. I was on my way to work. The crowd was not that thick.

After 6 minutes, an announcement was made. I did not understand the message because of the static noise coming out of the speaker. Anxious, I closed the book I was reading. It was a holiday because of the ASEAN Summit 2017.

The train doors remained open. I looked outside to know what’s going on. Not again, I said. A few seconds later, the train’s door closed but I still wondered what had happened.

Accident

Later that day, I heard two of my colleagues talk about news on MRT3. After hearing the details, to my horror, I realized that the delay of the train operations earlier that day was not because of another glitch or a technical problem, but because of a serious accident at the MRT3 Ayala station.

Around 2:30 pm. Woman. 24. Fainted. Fell on the railway tracks. Severed right arm. Cut near her armpit.

I was shocked. I couldn’t utter a word.

At that moment, I remembered another appalling MRT3 incident that occurred in March this year. I was also on my way to work and about to get into the entrance to buy a ticket when I observed that the train was not moving. It was stuck. The entrance had been blocked. Lines of passengers were nowhere to be found. Confusion and chaos were evident.

Out of curiosity, I asked one of the passengers who was forced to get off the train earlier that afternoon, “Sir, what happened?” He responded, “A man jumped onto the rails.”

Why do such incidents keep on happening?

In a 2013 ABS-CBN report, Pinky Webb wrote: “MRT general manager Al Vitangcol said they initially planned to put up screen doors only in 3 MRT stations, namely Taft Avenue, Shaw Boulevard, and North Avenue, by the end of the year…However, because of the recent incident, they will eventually construct the platform screen doors in all 13 stations of the MRT.”

Four years later, not a single station has been installed with a protective barrier.

How many lives have to be lost for the MRT management and the government to seriously act on this? How many more limbs or arms should be injured for those in power to act on commuters’ safety?

Another point to consider is the psychological impact of witnessing a suicide attempt or a gory accident. What if there are children on the scene? What if they become traumatized? There is also the concern that such suicide attempts or accidents would happen too often that they become considered as part of the normal.

We’ve gone through a lot to be deprived of quality services from the government. We have all felt defeated at one point.

The buried giant

I understand that there’s no shortcut in getting funds for platform screen doors or other security and safety upgrades for our trains. But, isn’t it just a matter of prioritization, political will, and accountability?

It has been said that the transport system of a country is a reliable barometer of its advancement, growth, and prosperity. We should aim to be a model of efficient and safe transport systems and services like our other neighbors in Southeast Asia.

But while waiting for that time to come, I hope that we don’t forget our frustrations and challenge those in power to make a difference for the future of our country and for the prevention of suicide attempts and accidents involving our trains.

As what Kazuo Ishiguro write in The Buried Giant, which I was holding inside the train at the Santolan station: “For in this community the past was rarely discussed. I do not mean that it was taboo. I mean that it had somehow faded into a mist as dense as that which hung over the marshes. It simply did not occur to these villagers to think about the past – even the recent one.”

Let’s all recognize and courageously face our society’s buried giants one mist at a time.

(This piece has been published on Rappler.com, IMHO, Opinion, on the 16th of November, 2017.)

Spirited Away

“It was always an emotional ride from the entrance of the cemetery to his grave close to the center. Spirited away, I succumbed to flashes of memory: his laughter while watching a Dolphy show, his chicken tinola, his low, manly voice, our weekend afternoon sessions of counting the number of white, curly hairs I could pluck from his head, which was directly proportional to the number of pesos I would earn to buy my favorite orange drink and biscuits.”

WEEKS AFTER my father passed away when I was in grade school, I raised a question to our catechist, Ms. Y: “Where does a spirit go after a person dies?” My classmates and I were then sitting on the steps in front of a Catholic church in the financial capital. Ms. Y responded: “Ben, he’s in heaven with God. He’s watching over you. Pray to him every time.” Still baffled, I followed up with more questions: “But will he be bothered if he sees me getting low scores or failing grades, or unable to submit projects on time because of his absence? Does that mean that the dead still think about us, the living? Do they still have problems in heaven, a supposed worry-free paradise?”

At a loss for answers, she moved on with her discussion. But I did not.

In this Catholic nation, it’s instilled in the majority that we should observe Undas, a holiday where families visit cemeteries to lay flowers and light candles on the graves of their loved ones, to honor them.

I still vividly remember how every year after my father’s death, I took on the task of repainting his grave a week before the holiday at the Manila South Cemetery. With a small towel covering my nose to avoid inhaling the vapors from the white paint, I gleefully sang to my father some Fernando Poe Jr. songs, to bond with him, to reminisce on the old days, to feel his presence. FPJ, known as “the King of Philippine Cinema,” was his favorite actor.

After painstakingly removing the wild grass that had grown around his grave, I talked to him, whispered my dreams that I hoped he’d help me realize, and asked him to guard and guide us, especially my mom who had to take on the gargantuan role of being father and mother of the family after he left.

It was always an emotional ride from the entrance of the cemetery to his grave close to the center. Spirited away, I succumbed to flashes of memory: his laughter while watching a Dolphy show, his chicken tinola, his low, manly voice, our weekend afternoon sessions of counting the number of white, curly hairs I could pluck from his head, which was directly proportional to the number of pesos I would earn to buy my favorite orange drink and biscuits.

Years later, I questioned everything.

As a once devoted and proud Catholic, I became more inquisitive about things of the spirit, religion, faith, and the Bible when I entered college. After rereading Jose Rizal’s novels, “El Filibusterismo” and “Noli Me Tangere,” confusion plagued my mind. Rizal is our national hero but I wondered why most of us don’t heed his words. We even have “Rizal” as a required subject in tertiary education, to delve deeper and study his life and works, to learn from him, to inculcate in us the virtues of an exemplar of Filipino brilliance and excellence. But do we understand him? Have we realized the principal reason he was banished, with all his might and courage, from the face of the earth, which we commemorate every Dec. 30? Are we blind to historical facts?

On page 72 of the “Noli,” Rizal wrote: “But now, let’s see how the idea of Purgatory, which is absent from both the Old and the New Testaments, became Catholic doctrine. Neither Moses nor Jesus Christ make the slightest mention of Purgatory…” Yes, purgatory is never mentioned in the Bible. A quick search in your electronic Bible can prove this to you. The question then is: Where did the doctrine of purgatory come from?

What about the scrapping of the doctrine of limbo by then Pope Benedict XVI when he authorized the Catholic Church’s International Theological Commission on April 22, 2007, to publish a 41-page document titled “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die without Being Baptized”? In an article written in Rome for Telegraph.co.uk, Nick Pisa reported: “Babies who die before being baptized will no longer be trapped in Limbo following a decision by the Pope to abolish the concept from Roman Catholic teaching.”

Why do we have to light some candles, thick and thin, big and small, during Undas? Why do some Catholics steal and disrespectfully recycle the very candles of their fellow Catholics that are believed to illuminate the path for their deceased? Why are we made to believe that our departed loved ones are guarding and guiding us from heaven? Isn’t it true that the dead know nothing, as what’s written in Ecclesiastes 9:5 (New International Version), “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even their name is forgotten”?

For hundreds of years people have been made to believe in doctrines that have no basis in the Bible. Worse, these are just invented teachings that go against the principles of truth and justice. But to no surprise, when I brought this up to the other members of my Catholic family, they were caught uninformed. Because of fear for our souls to be condemned, we grew up following our leaders without testing or asking them, and, like a sail in a vast ocean with no map, GPS tracker, or a virtuoso captain to follow, we’re clueless on why we practice or celebrate centuries-old traditions.

While it is true that we’re a democracy and that our Constitution protects our freedom to choose and practice a religion, it is time to rethink our stand and course. We’re living in a world where access to information is encouraged—something nonexistent when the greatest Filipino who ever lived challenged those in authority in his time using his proverbial pen as his sword. Yes, there’s fake news. Yes, deception is rampant. Yes, it’s an uphill battle to get to the bottom of things. But today, more than ever, we have a duty to get to the truth, for veracity to shine, not just for other people but for our own sake—for our souls.

The choice is in our hands.

And with God’s grace and mercy, someday I hope to talk to my father again. No, not in this world, not next to his grave, or while sitting in front of another Ms. Y, but with the almighty Father in heaven, in his paradise.

(This piece has been published in Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Op-Ed section – Young Blood – on the 31st of October, 2017.)