What’s the Most Important Thing in Life?

If you only have a month to live, how would you spend that one month?

One Saturday, this question suddenly popped into my mind while I was on my way to a christening of a one-year-old boy. Later on I googled this question and found a lot of people tried to answer the question online. The bottom line is that almost all of them said that would spend the last one month with people close to them, especially with their family. None of them said that they will spend more time in their work. One said he would like to travel but with the company of his family and close friends.

On that Saturday, I was attending the christening of my grandson, after which we would go for a family lunch, and thence I had to proceed to moderate a strategic planning meeting of a foundation, and then have visitors at the house. I was also trying to write articles on that day. I had so many appointments and things-to-do, but I realized as I was walking towards the church that when the chips are down, one thing stands out as more important than all the rest: the family and loved ones.

There was an angle to this insight that was striking. I had “known” before about how important people are. I had spoken about it often in my talks. But I never saw it from this angle. Our final choice in devoting the rest of our earthly life to a small group of people speaks volumes about our philosophy of life and the meaning of our lives.

When Steve Jobs decided to seclude himself with his family when he was told he had a very short time to live, the reaction of people I know was one of approval, sympathy and agreement. They would do the same thing if they were in the same situation.

The good news is that giving importance to positive relationships has been empirically found to be the most important ingredient towards the attainment to some of the most important goals in human life: happiness, health and long life.

In 1938, Harvard University launched a ground-breaking research that is still ongoing till today, 80 years later. Called the Harvard Study of Adult Development, they studied 724 people, some of whom were sophomores from Harvard and others from the poorer areas of Boston. The research tracked their health, marriage, career, relationships, income and other personal factors with interviews every other year. Three books have been written on this study by its first Director, Dr. George Vaillant. He made the following conclusion: “Warmth of relationships throughout life has the greatest positive impact on ‘life satisfaction’ . . . Happiness is love. Full stop.”

The current director of the study, Dr. Robert Waldinger, after reviewing the tens of thousands of pages of data, expanded the conclusion: “People who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community, are happier, they’re physically healthier, and they live longer than people who are less well connected.”

Dr. David Myers, an internationally famous author of textbooks on psychology and the author of the book The Pursuit of Happiness, wrote down what he considered as the “Ten Commandments Of Happiness.” The first one was that materials success does not necessarily make people happy. The second was that close relationships with people around you contributes a lot to happiness.

Next time that we find yourself so busy that you hardly have time for anything else, pause for twenty seconds and ask yourself what are the most important things in life. Then from deep in your heart, act accordingly.

Competence: A Crucial Quality of a Young Adult

 

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People get stressed when they are faced with a problem that is quite beyond their competency to solve, but which they are expected to solve. They know that they have to solve it, but they are unsure on how to go about it. As unsolved problems mount, the greater is the stress and unhappiness of the person.

Stress levels rise proportionately to the magnitude of the gap between expected competence and actual competence. A graduate of a good university is expected to perform well in a job that they applied for, while an employee who did not even finish college will not be expected to meet such standards. Farmers can live a happy life even if they did not go to school. No one expects them to know more than farming. But if even in farming, they don’t seem to do the job well, then they will feel the pressure of their wives and the criticism of their neighbors. Stress and distress begin.

There are two kinds of competency: technical competency and personal competency. It is the second one that is more important.

Technical competency means that an electrical engineer knows the job of an electrical engineer and possesses the requisite knowledge of the profession. An accountant knows how to complete financial statements and do all the ledgers, accrual basis, bank reconciliation and other things an accountant should know. When one is an accountant and has inadequate knowledge and skills about accounting, the person will feel stressed because he or she knows that the expectation is valid, but he or she is unable to deliver that which he implicitly promised to deliver.

Young people therefore must realize at a young age what it means to be professionally competent and to have the initiative to attain this regardless of the educational standard of the school they find themselves in. With Youtube, Khan Academy, Wikipedia, and a host of free resources in the internet, anyone can learn practically anything on a sufficiently high level.

But it is the second competency that is truly important — personal competency. This covers a host of qualities that are truly valuable in a person: self-confidence, self-esteem, initiative, curiosity, willingness to learn, stick-to-it-iveness, resourcefulness, perseverance, result-orientedness, emotional intelligence, leadership, unselfishness, trustworthiness, volunteerism and similar qualities. If it is overlaid with cheerfulness, optimism, and compassion, then you have someone who is destined for success in any field that they get into. A person who has these qualities can learn almost any skill or technical competency.

Personal competency is a quality that is nurtured from early childhood. When children are not put down (“idiot,” “dumb,” “useless”), frequently criticized or humiliated, then they do not develop low self-esteem, a factor that drags personal competency down to a very low level even if they are actually intelligent. On the other hand, when they feel accepted as they are, receive sincere praises when deserving, and feel that they are loved, then they are developing a personality foundation that will be solid and stable, and which can sustain them even during times of trial, adversity and setback. They will grow up not fearing failure or making mistakes. They are willing to take measured risks. They are ready to apologize when it is due. The world to them will not be a hellish or oppressive place, and life will be a positive adventure and a happy experience.

It is unfortunate that many schools do not teach this second kind of competency as systematically as they teach mathematics and grammar. Unfortunate too is the fact that many parents are the primary demolisher of such personal competency.

These then are what parents and schools should look at: the development of technical competency and personal competency, and to remember that the second one is more important than the first.

Never Lie to Children

Children, starting from the moment that they begin to understand words, have no concept about lying or untruthfulness. Whatever is told to them is taken as fact. The parents or elders are the absolute authorities about understanding the world. When this authoritativeness is not destroyed by lying, then parents will have no problem about making their children follow what they are told. But the moment the children discover that their parents lie to them, then this image of credibility is shattered. The parents’ authority is eroded. Every time that the parents say anything to the children, the kids will wonder whether it is true or not. In effect, respect for one’s parents is lost, and the consequences can be tragic, both to the family and to the child. During times that the parents truthfully and wisely tell their child not to do something, the child may no longer believe them and thus may fall into disastrous circumstances.

Some parents think that it is not possible to be always truthful to their children. So in seminars that I conduct, I ask people to give me examples where they find it difficult to be truthful to their children.

For example, when six or seven-year-old kids ask where they came from or how they were born, many parents would give them fantastic but untruthful explanations. One mother told her child, “Anak, hulog ka ng langit” (You fell from heaven or the sky.) How would a child take this? That he or she actually fell from the sky and caught by the mother? Why can’t parents say the simple biological facts about reproduction even if the child does not understand half of it? They find it difficult to explain truthfully because many parents think that it is taboo to talk about these things. But children will not be scandalized by any such truth. They would not think that there is anything wrong with facts. It’s the adults’ minds that have this problem.

How about stories about Santa Claus?

My strong suggestion is that parents should not lie to children about Santa Claus. One teacher told me about her experience. When she was a child, her father told her that if she wrote a letter to Santa Claus before Christmas, Santa would bring what she asked for on Christmas Eve. She believed this unquestioningly. Then one Christmas Eve, she wanted to see Santa Claus so she hid herself in the living room and waited for Santa to bring the gift. Indeed, the gifts arrived, but who brought them? It was her father.

The next day, she deliberately told a big lie to her father expecting that it would be discovered. When the father found about the lie, he scolded her and asked her why she lied to him. Then she looked at his father and said angrily, “Why did you lie to me about Santa Claus?” The reason why she was so angry was because, a few days before, she was told by her classmate that Santa Claus did not exist and that it was her parents who brought the gifts. But since her father told her that Santa Claus really brought the gifts, she quarreled with her classmate and defended her father. It was a costly lie by the father, and the daughter never forgot about it.

How about children who were adopted? Should parents tell them about it?

It is very difficult to hide from a child the fact that he or she was adopted. Many people usually know about it — uncles, aunties, neighbors and family friends — and they cannot be prevented from talking about it. So my view is that the parents should tell the child at some point, but on one condition: that the child should feel that he or she is loved by their adoptive parents before saying it. If the child feels loved, then the child would not mind very much if he or she adopted. If such children don’t feel loved, then telling them will be like a double rejection: that the reason why they are not loved is because they are adopted, and that they were also rejected by their biological parents. In addition, they would feel that they were deceived by their adoptive parents.

Parents usually find it difficult to tell the truth because they did not learn how to make truthful but assertive communication. Suppose a child is asking money from the mother to buy something unimportant, and the mother does not think that they should buy it. Some parents will just say, “I don’t have money” hoping that it will quickly end the discussion. But when the child discovers that the mother actually has money, then the child will feel deceived. Instead of lying, let the mother discuss about priorities in expenses and why it is not advisable to spend money on things unimportant. When the child has a high level of trust towards the parent, the child will accept it. The child may feel disappointed, but will not be resentful. It is alright for children to be disappointed, but it is dangerous when they begin to resent the parents.

When someone calls by phone looking for a parent, and the parent does not want to talk with that person, the parent may whisper: “Tell her that I am not around.” When children witness this, then they may think that deception is acceptable, and later will do such lying towards their parents and other people. In such cases, trust at home will gradually disintegrate. Instead of lying, tell the child, “I will just call later”; or answer the phone and assertively turn down what is being requested; or if there had been hurt feelings on a previous day, the parent may tell the child, “Please tell her that, sorry, I am not yet ready to talk; perhaps later.”

Never lie to children, under any circumstance. The consequences are not worth the convenience gained from lying. On the other hand, there is so much advantage when children retain high trust on the parents.

One World Government

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After the end of World War II, Albert Einstein said: “In my opinion the only salvation for civilization and the human race lies in the creation of a world government, with security of nations founded upon law. As long as sovereign states continue to have separate armaments and armament secrets, new world wars will be inevitable.”

This idea of one world government is not a new one. It has been espoused by many thinkers such as Immanuel Kant, Victor Hugo, Ulysses Grant, H. G. Wells, etc. It is the solution to wars. The world will be governed by basic international laws, but nations do not give up their autonomy. The basic idea is that there will only be one global police force or army under the world government. There will perhaps be a global currency. Nations can continue to function as autonomous states; they can impose their own taxes, set their own internal laws such as on divorce, immigration laws, education, etc., so long as these do not contravene international laws. It is similar to the government of the United States, where the states are free to exercise their own legislative and executive powers as well as have their own judiciary system, but at the same time there are federal legislative bodies, executive officers and the Supreme Court that deal with federal matters.

The United Nations is an early experiment towards a global rule of law. It has its inevitable imperfections because the powers who formed the backbone of the UN were not willing to make the UN a democratic institution. They retained their veto power in the Security Council. It will take generations, or perhaps centuries, before the next step towards a world government will be taken. It took a world war before the UN became a reality. We hope that it will not require another global war before a world government is formed.

US President Harry Truman said: “We must make the United Nations continue to work, and to be a going concern, to see that difficulties between nations may be settled just as we settle difficulties between States here in the United States. When Kansas and Colorado fall out over the waters in the Arkansas River, they don’t go to war over it; they go to the Supreme Court of the United States, and the matter is settled in a just and honorable way. There is not a difficulty in the whole world that cannot be settled in exactly the same way in a world court.”

Some people may think that the idea of a world government is too idealistic but not very practical. But it looks too idealistic for those who desire military control over their subjects, or are insecure with their neighbors. The truth is that this idealistic view is actually the most practical measure to ensure world peace in the long run. There will be no more wars because no nation is allowed to maintain armed forces except for the police. Poverty and hunger can be wiped out by rechanneling the funds formerly used to sustain millions of soldiers doing almost nothing or spent in the development and maintenance of huge stockpile of weaponry from guns to warships to nuclear bombs.

Education must bring about the acceleration of the popularization of this idea of a world brotherhood and sisterhood, one world government, and the widespread recognition of a single human family. When this idea has taken in the psyche of young future leaders, then perhaps we don’t have to wait for a thousand years to achieve lasting peace.

The Kite, the Sailboat and the Salmon

In the journey of life, there will always be opposition, adversities and obstacles. These can be from people, from circumstances or from events. If we are to live a successful, fulfilled, meaningful and happy life, we must know how to face these obstructions in our journey.

How do we stay strong and remain advancing forward despite powerful opposing forces? We can learn awesome lessons from three things: the kite, the sailboat and the salmon.

1. The kite – There are really two lessons here. First, despite the strong wind, the kite stays quite steady in the sky because it is connected by the string to the ground. Once the string snaps, then it will be thrown off by the winds, and will crash somewhere in an unknown place. The string must be sturdy, otherwise a strong wind will cause it to snap. In the same manner in our life, we need to be grounded or linked to a meaningful purpose, a philosophy or a principle. It can be a family, a life goal, a life mission, a wholesome philosophy, or a spiritual life. Despite the opposing wind, we stay on course because the link to that philosophy or goal is strong and clear.

A person with a strong moral fiber will not easily be carried away by temptation, by pleasure or by gainful advantage to do an unethical or unjust act.

The second lesson is that the stronger the wind, the higher the kite flies. Try flying a kite on a weak wind, and the kite falls to the ground. Hence opposition and adversities can strengthen us and make us capable to rising higher in our life, provided the string is strong and tough. Annie Besant, one of the greatest English reformers of the 19th century, wrote that if she were to live her life again, she would forego her pleasures and joys, but not her difficulties and adversities because these were the factors that built her strength of character.

2. The sailboat – the second lesson comes from sailboat, which moves only when the wind blows and pushes its sail. If the wind is going towards south, but the sailboat wants to go to the north, can the sailboat reach such an opposite destination?

Yes, it is possible. And there is something we can learn from sailboat in facing life’s opposing forces.

The travel opposite of the wind direction, the sailboat must face the wind in a diagonal northeast direction. When the wind blows from the front, the wind pushes the boat to the side. But because the boat with its rudder is at a diagonal angle, the sideward push actually pushes the boat forward to the northeast even if the wind blow south. After traveling northeast for some distance, the sailboat changes its angle and then faces northwest, moving forward again in that direction. The sailboat then advances against the wind in a zigzag manner.

(Illustration courtesy of rebrn. com/re/eli-if-ships-with-sails-are-heading-the-opposite-direction-as-th-1092918/)

So when we are facing opposing forces that seem stronger than us, we don’t face it frontally but diagonally. We resist but we continue to move forward even if at a slower pace. It’s low-key progress. It’s analogous to judo, where one makes use of the opposing force to one’s advantage.

Suppose a powerful and moneyed political opponent is oppressing you in order to silence you. To fight him frontally may mean being crushed and annihilated. Then do not do so. Stay firm and work in a non-threatening but right direction. Strengthen the work on the flanks that will eventually support your central work when the time is ripe to do so.

3. The salmon — this is a most powerful and sublime lesson from nature.

Salmons are born in high altitudes up to about 2,000 meters high from sea level (more than the height of Mt. Wilson in California). Then they swim towards the ocean and stay there for one to four years. When the time comes for them to lay eggs, they swim back to where they came from, which means that they have to swim upstream against raging waterfalls that may be five feet high or more. It seems impossible because the torrent of the falls is so strong that the salmons are pushed downwards no matter how powerfully they swim. But they never give up. So what do they do?

They leap up the falls and go to the next level. They don’t fight against the falling water. They jump above it.

(Photo courtesy of Earthjustice. org)

This is an example that teaches us that we need make leaps whenever we face apparently insurmountable odds. It is transcending the situation. This is what happens when we discover an insight or attain enlightenment. We transcend the ordinary level of struggle. An enmity can be dissolved by transcending hatred. Then one ceases to have an enemy. In Zen meditation, one transcends rational thinking. It is a leap of intuition.

Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Aurobindo of India and Benigno Aquino of the Philippines are examples political oppositionists and activists who were imprisoned by the reigning government. From the standpoint of their political struggle, they were defeated and quashed. But they leapt beyond the political arena and rose to a higher level of struggle. Like the salmon, they no longer attempted to swim against the water falls. They jumped above and beyond, and attained a high goal than the political struggle. Mandela became an icon of peace, earning him a Nobel Prize; Aurobindo became one of the great spiritual teachers of India who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Aquino lost his life and became a national hero of the Philippines, not just a President or a another powerful politician. It was his wife and son who became Presidents after he died.

The Power of Habits

Our destiny in our life is controlled by our habits in a very major way. Unless we master our own habits, they will control our lives.

Let us take health as an example. People get healthy or sick by the health habits that they have developed. The moment health breaks down, then practically everything stops. One may resign from work, no longer be able to travel, and dreams and ambitions can no longer be pursued. If they smoke, eat a lot of meat, drink liquor, sleep late, don’t exercise, etc., all of which are habits, what will they expect after the age of 40? I know of people who are already taking heart maintenance medicine at 40 years old, or has high sugar level, kidney problem, etc. All these are largely preventable. How? By forming the right health habits early in life.

Let us take happiness as another example. Some people have grown up developing the habit of being angry when there are problems. A few people don’t have that habit. What is the effect? Those prone to anger will have problems in their family life, work relationship and their state of happiness or unhappiness. Some are in prison right now for acts they did during moments of rage. They know that they want to be happy. Yet they cannot help but be overcome by the habit of anger. The older we are, the more difficult to change our habits.

But the good news is that habits can be changed. How can we do so?

We must be clear first about the kind of life that we would like to live. Do we wish to be loving towards our family and other people? Is this really important to us? Then make a decision that we will practice daily habits of being kind or using positive words when we interact with members of our family or co-workers. In this example of one’s goal, here are suggested steps:

1. Decide on behaviors that you will do every day, such as smiling, saying thank you, saying neutral or positive words at least 95% of the time.

2. Create a powerful leverage so that you will be motivated to develop this habit. For example, (a) tell your wife or husband about your decision, and ask him or her to give you feedback if you are not being kind and positive. Ask them to remind you. (b) Visualize yourself constantly being positive, smiling and cheerful. It may feel awkward at the beginning. But remember that you are battling a negative habit that had been formed for 10, 20 or 30 years. (c) List down the advantages if you are successful in becoming a cheerful and positive person. Then make another list of consequences if you continue to be prone to anger, resentment or being critical. This will encourage you to persevere even if there is difficulty.

3. Give it at least three weeks of constant practice. Do it every day. When the behavior is repeated for three straight weeks, you will notice a change. You no longer need to exert effort in order to be positive and cheerful. The habit has taken over and your spontaneous behavior has changed. But it must be sustained consciously even after it has become a habit.

4. Then choose another set of habits that you would like to develop in yourself, such as exercising everyday, stopping smoking, reading books regularly, etc. Do such habit development program one at a time. Make sure you succeed each time. Then you will gain confidence and your personality will become obedient to your decisions.

Remember that our body, emotions and ordinary mind are like automatons. They follow the grooves of habit — how you think, feel and act. They behave unthinkingly out of habit. They determine in a significant manner the destiny of our life. We have higher levels of consciousness beyond habits, but many people have not sufficiently developed the powers of these higher levels, and hence are more subject to the control of habits.
Take charge of your habits. You take charge of your life.

Attaining Peace

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John was stressed. When he came home one night, he felt upset and unhappy. The children were playing and noisy, and he got irritated and shouted at them. The dinner food was not to his taste, so he snapped at his wife with critical words. The wife left the dining table and went to her room, not finishing her dinner. The next day, when John went to the office, he did not respond to greetings and got impatient with his office mate. Then late in the morning, his boss reprimanded him. He automatically shouted back. He was fired that day. He felt so angry that when he drove back home in his car, he drove so fast that he rammed his car to a vehicle in front which was slower and blocking him.
The state of harmony in John’s family, workplace and community, was being disturbed by the agitated state of John’s mind, emotions and stress. Had he been more cheerful, none of the unpleasant things around him might have happened.

There are two kinds of peace: inner peace and social peace. The first one is more important than the second one because it is inner conflict that causes outer conflict. When individuals have inner peace and harmony, then he will inevitably contribute to social peace, whether it is in his family, his company, in the community or in the world. He will not tend to commit acts of aggression, injustice, oppression or violence.

When we look at the various dimensions of social peace, we will find the same pattern. When people have fear and insecurity towards another group of people, there is a tendency to be hostile towards the other group. This hostility leads to words and actions that will only worsen the mutual hostility, such as creation of restrictive policies or barriers to trade. Untoward incidents may arise that may eventually lead to violence, conflicts and wars.

This was what happened between Pakistan and India, Israel and the Arab countries, Mexico and the United States. In Ireland, the dislike and insecurity was between Catholics and Protestants, both Christians, which led to violence and bombings between them.

How can these be prevented in the future? Through education. When children are taught to understand other groups without prejudice, whether between nations or religions, then they tend to feel more harmonious towards other groups. I have lived with families who belong to various nationalities and religions, and I find that people are more or less the same — kind, hospitable and friendly. But when they have been taught biases against other groups, then they unconsciously develop hostility.

Schools should be encouraged to teach the histories, cultures and religions of other people with an open mind. We must teach young people to become world citizens and not just citizens of a particular country. Due to ease of travel and communication, the earth has become a small place of 7 billion people, sharing the same resources, the same air and oceans and the same dangers. We must learn how to live as one family regardless of our culture and religion. But because of insecurity and mutual hostilities, countries spend so much money on weapons and defense systems instead of channeling those funds to fight hunger and poverty.

The top five countries in military budget (US, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and India) spend a total of more than one trillion US dollars per year on weapons and defense systems. The United Nations estimated that it will only need US$116 billion a year, or just about ten percent of what these five countries spend for defense, to eradicate hunger in the world and even remove global poverty.

But such military buildup will continue so long as people distrust and dislike each other. We must build a world where people will no longer think in terms of national boundaries and self-interests. The example of Costa Rica is worthwhile to emulate. It has no armed forces and hence no military expenditures according to its constitutional provision in 1949. It has never been at war with any other country since then and has been one of the most stable and progressive nations in Latin America despite the fact that it is neighbor to countries that have suffered from political turbulence, high crime rate and social violence in the past half century, namely, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

We need to think of ourselves as brothers and sisters living on one earth — the only habitable globe that we know.