The death of a dictator

President Suharto is dead.

He was the former dictator of Indonesia who ushered in 32 years of tyrranic rule. Even in his death, he is vilified as one of the world’s most brutal leaders because hundreds of thousands of his political enemies were slain during his graft-ridden reign.

The news reminds me of The Autumn of the Patriarch (Gabriel Garcia Marquez), a well-told story of a dictator who lived a very, very long life. The dictator had killed numerous people—even those very near him—the army being at his disposal. He was filthy rich and powerful. But I could tell that he was never happy. Was Suharto ever like him? It must get very lonely at the top.

Maybe I’m just ignorant, but I don’t know of any dictator whose memory is honored with the same kindness as that given to, say, Princess Diana or Mother Teresa. The dictators I know—Marcos, Hitler, Pol Pot (of the Khmer Rouge)—are almost always remembered with hate, pain, and blame. Worse, people choose not to remember them at all.

Which makes me wonder why they decided to be dictators in the first place. Sure, they got to build their own statues. They had their faces printed on paper bills. They had more than enough. But they should have realized that history is cruel—and will always be—to those who oppress, kill, and steal.

If absolute power corrupts absolutely, why desire it in the first place?

At the crossroads

Sooner or later I will have to decide. I haven’t made up my mind yet. I’m in a clutter, and it’s hard to think. I’m too overwhelmed—choked, if you will—by the tide of circumstances that I can’t breathe enough wisdom into my brain. And so the choices remain unchosen on my table, like fluorescing buttons emitting a different glow—and each just as beautiful as the others. But which one do I press?

Clearly I don’t have the answer right now. I wish I could say I know what I’m going to do with my life. There are a thousand possibilities for me, and each decision I make opens new doors but closes a whole lot more. This is one of them.

I’m talking about which laboratory I’m going to be applying to. Where I study, undergraduate students need to affiliate with a particular lab. It’s where we’re supposed to spend a year’s worth of scientific work for our thesis—and perhaps, discover finally if we’re really cut out to be scientists that will, as a friend puts it, rock the world.

Each lab has its own specialty—there’s one that works with mice, another that works with bacteria, or with plants, or with snails. If I choose one, I lose the chance of being in all the others. And if I choose, will I get chosen?

It’s not a light decision—I wish it were. But in the midst of being drowned in deep thought, I’m thankful that I have God to help me. I don’t talk about God as some distant celestial being who simply observes the world without taking any part in its operations. No, the God I’m talking about is the God of the Bible. He cares for me. He knows me personally. He is the God I talk to, who hears my prayers, who knows my desires, who knows all my sins. He is the God whose Son, Jesus Christ, died on my behalf. And He is the God who knows what is best for me (Romans 8:28).

I need God to search my heart. I may be harboring wrong motives, pride, contempt, and ungodly ambitions. So I take heart in what the Psalmist wrote so beautifully:

Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!
Psalm 139:23,24

Knowing God more should be my focus in deciding. David wrote:

One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple.
Psalm 27:4

This was reinforced by what CS Lewis, one of the writers I love the most, wrote in his essay, Learning in War-time:

But if we thought that for some souls, and at some times, the life of learning, humbly offered to God, was, in its small way, one of the appointed approaches to the Divine reality and the Divine beauty which we hope to enjoy hereafter, we can think so still.

Sooner or later I will have to make the decision. I pray that the Lord enable me to make the right one.

The truth will set you free

Now I know how it feels to hide something from your parents. You don’t really call it lying—you’re simply postponing the announcement until, well, a suitable time. But the longer you wait, the harder it gets. It’s as if the sense of need to tell the plain and simple truth fades away with time.

For instance, my friend didn’t tell his parents he shifted courses. He had a sudden change of heart after his second year in UP. He wanted to do something different with his life. He feared his family might get disappointed with him the moment they knew. My advice was, “Tell them. I’m sure they’ll understand.” But he didn’t—until after two years. I’m glad everything went well for him.

My dilemma was far less problematic—it was trivial, in a sense. I lost my camera, and I was waiting for the right time to tell my parents about it. Initially I asked my brother to call them up. In the middle of his law school updates, he could say something like, “Oh, by the way, Lance lost his camera the other day.” That would make them mad, of course. What did they do to raise a stupid boy who always loses everything—his phone, his common sense, and now his camera? But that would dissipate some of their anger when I’d call them myself two days after. Then life would be SO much easier.

That was my illusion. But my brother never budged. “You owe it to them. You tell them yourself. Hala!” Manong said, grinning.

I waited for another week, then a few days more. Then today, it occurred to me that my waiting would never end. I prayed that the Lord give me wisdom and truth in telling them about it—it was my fault that I lost the camera. No question about that.

And guess what? Today I did. “Tatay?”

“Yes?”

“I have good news and bad news for you. Which do you wanna hear first?” My father was laughing at the other line. He liked the good news first, so I told him.

“And now the bad news—I lost my camera.”

“O, camera lang naman pala, eh. Bakit mo nawala?” I told him.

Eh di bili ka na lang ng bago. ‘Yung mas malaki na.”

The lesson: don’t lose your camera. Hahaha. But seriously, it’s this: tell the truth at the appropriate time, but don’t wait too long, don’t waver, lest you forget.

Now that’s a load off my shoulder. And life feels so much better.

Let me get back to my books

Despite what you’d call a hectic schedule—16 academic units and another 16 units of extracurricular activities—I’ve started on my reading again.

Twelve Ordinary Men is a Biblical survey of the lives of Jesus’ 12 disciples. John MacArthur, a respected and published Christian author, delves into the lives of the apostles, and argues that the outstanding characteristic of these men is not that they were smart, rich, or powerful, but that they were ordinary. MacArthur goes on to say that if God chose to use extraordinarily ordinary men, clearly, He can choose to use us for His purpose.

The Weight of Glory is a collection of short works of CS Lewis, also author of Christian classics like Mere Christianity and the Chronicles of Narnia series. I’m still reading the book—during study breaks or during laboratory waiting time. The Weight of Glory was preached by Lewis on June 1941 at Oxford University Church, and appears as one of the essays in this collection.

Here are a few outstanding lines:

"Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of the holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased."

I sometimes wish I could sound like CS Lewis—even look like him when I grow old. Now let me get back to my books.

Hapi bertday, Kuya Lito!

Ask me about humility, about self-effacing, God-glorifying service, and I can easily lead you to great examples in the Bible. But I will also have to tell you something about Kuya Lito Sto. Domingo, our youth pastor in High Rock, whose example has been an encouragement for me to live for God’s glory—and for nothing else but that. It’s his birthday today—some 37 years of life well-lived on earth, you may think, but he’s quick to say that it’s 37 years of God’s underserved, infinite mercy and grace.

Goodbye

I remember the time when Tatay asked me what I wanted for my birthday. I said, almost without thinking, “A digital camera.”

I needed a moment to process what I had just said, and for a while, I truly wondered if I wanted to have one. I figured I might turn out to be a good photographer. I had seen a handful of photographs, even edited some for school projects, so I said why don’t I give it a try?

I waited for my father’s expression. It was mysterious, like it has always been—the kind that made me think if he heard me right or if he was thinking about something else.

But one day, while we were walking around the mall, he said yes. I was thrilled with the idea that I kept toying with visions of Lance, The Photographer, in my head.

It took me a while to make up my mind on which model to buy, but I ended up with a Kodak C340—something I chose because I fell in love with it the moment I tried it. It was a thing of beauty. Image quality was up to 5 megapixels (which, during that time, was one of the highest), the scene settings seemed to work, and the LCD screen looked neat.

I took my camera with me during the great moments of my life—idle times in the laboratory, prayer meetings, org activities, and school breaks. Even during the onset of drudgery, I used it to photograph my daily life—boring, yes, but it’s my life anyway.

My Kodak made me see things at a different perspective—and I say that literally and figuratively. In a sense, my impulse was to look at objects, landscapes, and people at different angles. The constant question playing in my head was, “Would they look good in a photo?” In another sense, my camera made me read between the lines. The object being photographed ceased to be a mere subject—suddenly it had character, it had a message to preach, it had a feeling to show the moment I took a shot of it.

I can say that my camera introduced me to photography. I learned something about good photos and bad photos. I somehow knew what focal length, exposure time, shutter speed, composition, and color balance meant—terms I wouldn’t have minded if I didn’t have the gadget.

But I also learned that photography is a huge, colorful world, somewhere I’d like to find myself in as well. It’s a way of life—a form of thinking.

It shouldn’t be a wonder then that I feel so stupid, so mindless, and so weak for having lost it. Yes, my Kodak is lost. I took it with me to class on Monday. When I went home, it was nowhere to be found. I did have my moments of sighing. I did blame myself for what happened. But what more could I do?

But I praise God anyway. For about two years, I had the chance to immerse myself, albeit shortly, in the art of photography—to take snapshots of His awesome creation whose real beauty can never be captured by even the best cameras in the world.

The Lord has given, the Lord has taken away.

But, as I remember my camera, I call to mind the first moment I held it in my hand and took this first shot—and boy, it felt good:

New camera

2008

I don’t believe in New Year’s Resolutions. It’s for people who are too lazy to change during, say, April or September. But people fuss over it anyhow, as if some waft of air in New Year’s Eve will help them finally limit their rice consumption to a cup or to go to class on time so they don’t miss the quizzes.

But I believe in making resolutions. It’s a beautiful expression of a desire to change for the better, not because the calendar warrants it, but because the person finds in him the need to.

To do what one has accomplished to do, he must realize, at the very onset, that he is unable. Yes, this is the irony—realize you are unable, and then you become able–because the strength ultimately comes from God. It is God who effects the change in us. Man can only do so much. By realizing his need, a person must come to the One who is able, ask for His grace, and, if He so wills it, He will provide the means for some form of change.

We shouldn’t wait for another year to change our bad habits or to do something glorifying to God. If we must change, then it must be now.

It’s a great year ahead of us. May we find ourselves in the center of God’s will.