Defying Gravity at 40

I am writing this while listening to “Defying Gravity” from my favorite Broadway musical, “Wicked.”  This song is my anthem in turning 40 this year and the soundtrack of my life for 2010. So allow me to use the song lyrics as an accompaniment while I take stock and share some important insights I gained this year.

“Something has changed within me. Something is not the same. I’m through with playing by the rules of someone else’s game. Too late for second-guessing. Too late to go back to sleep. It’s time to trust my instincts. Close my eyes and leap!” 

I started working in government at age 20 at the Justice Department in Manila. I was fresh out of college and it was my first “real” job because apparently writing a lifestyle column for one of the local newspapers isn’t considered a promising career worthy of an Economics degree. Or that was the impression I got at that time (which just goes to show that I didn’t know anything then). My uncle, who was the Justice Secretary, urged me to take up law. But after my exposure to the world of “fix-cals” (that’s why they are called “prosecutors” now to avoid that embarrassing nickname) and realizing that what is legal is not always necessarily just, I took up Master of Arts in Philippine Studies with a double major in Philippine Bureaucracy and Philippine External Relations in U.P. Diliman instead and wrote a paper entitled “The Culture of Cliques and Patronage among State Prosecutors in the Department of Justice”.  It shocked my U.P. professors because they had the illusion that things already changed for the better under Cory Aquino.

Going back to Davao City Hall

Going back to Davao City Hall

That should have been my cue to leave government.  Having a deeply religious and morally upright woman for President does not necessarily lead to good governance. That is why I never refer to EDSA I as a “revolution” and why I don’t expect much from Cory’s son now. But working in government has its perks in this country that puts more value on whom you know rather than what you know so I got hooked. I rationalized by telling myself and others that I work in government to make a difference and contribute to nation-building. That mantra took me to the Philippine Senate and to Davao City Hall then all the way to the Office of the President in Malacañang Palace and back to Davao City Hall.

George Stephanopolous, US President Bill Clinton’s senior adviser who resigned after being disillusioned, once described politics as about “playing the game for the sake of getting good things done.”  As a young woman in Philippine politics I didn’t have a choice but to play by the rules of the “old boys’ club” and pretend not to see how power corrupts even people with the best of intentions. Cory had to play or be kicked out (why do you think we had all those coup d’etats?). Joseph Estrada did not play by their rules and we all know what happened to him. As for me, I noticed that I was getting good things done less and less and was being forced to play more and more. So I quit. I thought if I had to pretend that much at work, I’d have a better career in showbiz. Which reminds me of what I told President Estrada during his early days in Malacañang when he asked me what my career plans were under his administration: “Actually, politics is just my stepping stone towards a showbiz career.”

“I’m through accepting limits ‘cause someone says they’re so. Some things I cannot change. But till I try I’ll never know. Too long I’ve been afraid of losing love I guess I’ve lost. Well, if that’s love it comes at much too high a cost!”

I learned that you do not really have friends in politics, only tactical alliances. They pretend to like you because they can use you in furthering their agenda. You are an investment and a means to an end. There are also old friends you think you knew but once exposed to power they turn into someone else entirely and will not have qualms stabbing you in the back to make them look good.

I used to get all sorts of mysterious illnesses while still in government. Now I know it’s all those toxic b.s. surrounding me, weakening my immune system. Since I left my government job, I haven’t been sick. Not even a headache or a cold. Quitting your job can be good for your health. It’s better to leave a job and respect yourself (which leads to better health) than to endure for the sake of economics.  For what I am getting paid, it’s not worth losing my soul (come to think of it, how much is the current market price for one person’s soul these days?).

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying all those who continue to stay in government have sold their souls. I am only saying that with the actual government culture now, it would take all your strength and resolve to keep yourself motivated and your spirits up. And the higher you go up in the hierarchy and the closer you are to the powers-that-be, the more draining it gets. It has a way of sucking the life out of you.

Braving the freezing waters of Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia in winter as part of my "defying gravity" tour at 40

Braving the freezing waters of Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia in winter as part of my “defying gravity” tour at 40

“It’s time to try defying gravity. I think I’ll try defying gravity. Kiss me goodbye I am defying gravity. And you won’t bring me down!”

I thought quitting government after 20 years, give or take a year or two, would be disorienting.  After all, what do I write next to the space that says “occupation” and what do I say when people ask where I am connected (translation: what office will they have a “connect”)? But it turned out to be liberating and transforming that I wish I had done it much sooner in life.

Anatole France said: “All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.” And so I am back to what I love doing – writing a lifestyle column, my first “non-real” job when I was 18 and still in college.

When people ask me where I am connected now I reply, “Mindanao Times.” They ask me again: “No, aside from writing your column, which government office are you at now?” Talk about being typecast in the role of a government worker.

Like Karl Marx, I believe work should be an expression of yourself, a means to realize your full humanity. Writing my column doesn’t pay as much as my government job, but this is what I really wanted to do when I grow up. I want to write. Maybe now that I have gained enough experience, seen more of the world, and lived through so many journeys, I can tell more interesting stories and share more meaningful insights. Perhaps now there would be more “life” in this “lifestyle” column because there is no stressful “real job” that competes for my time and energy.  Now there is only my real life. Ah, my beautiful, relaxed, free and happy life!

Which brings me to my  most important lesson of the year — it’s never too late to be what you might have been.