Dateline Manila: Books that inspired me PDF Print E-mail
Friday, 19 September 2014 14:09

BY Sammy Santos


It’s back to school for me since I enrolled at the Pamantasan ng Lunsod ng Maynila-Masters in Government Management (PLM-MGM) course two months ago with classes being held at the Senate premises every Saturday.

I enjoy the liberal format of the course where self-learning is encouraged as well as the free-wheeling discussions of the various issues on public administration.

In our recent Organizational Behavior class, we were made to revisit a number of the inspirational books that I read during my school days and we were asked to do a book report. I had immense fun doing the exercise and felt like writing my weekly columns. Let me share with you then my book report.

Because history, humanities and literature were my favorite subjects in my student days, it was perhaps inevitable that inspirational books, such as Hope for the Flowers (Paulus, 1972); Jonathan Livingstone Seagull (Bach, 1970); Man’s Search for Meaning (Frankl, 1946); The Prince (Machiavelli, 1532), and The Little Prince (Saint-Exupéry, 1943), were part of my personal mini-library at home.

Having taken up Mass Communication in college, reading books had been a part of my early life. To this day, subjects about the uniqueness of human behavior continue to interest me.

As a high school student at that awkward age of 13, I found profound inspiration in Trina Paulus’s allegorical novel, Hope for the Flowers, as it reflected the “idealism of the counterculture” of the 1970s.  Beautifully written as a children’s tale, Hope for the Flowers is actually a fable about man’s search for the meaning of life. It is a story of two “caterpillars who can talk” that embarked on a search for meaning by attempting to climb a caterpillar only to find a more meaningful destiny in discovering each other’s metamorphosis to the life of a butterfly.

As a teenager when I first read the book, Hope for the Flowers taught me that “you do not have to join and win the senseless rat race to find happiness; you only have to find yourself and your significant one.”

I was also 13 when I read Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, a book written by Richard Bach, which tells of an individual’s search for self-perfection against the backdrop of conventional conformity as seen through the eyes of a seagull.

The seagull, Jonathan Livingstone himself, was fed up by a bird’s daily struggle for food and the routine requirements of insignificant existence. He developed a passion for flight and pushed himself to the limit, learning everything he could about flying until finally his unwillingness to conform results in problems such as his expulsion from his flock.

An outcast, Livingstone continued to improve himself, becoming increasingly pleased with his abilities as he led a peaceful and happy life. In the process, he met like-minded seagulls, which confirmed the fact that there was more to life than meaningless materialism and conformity.

To my young mind then, I believed Jonathan Livingstone Seagull gave me the courage to be myself, the fearless resolve to be different and the boldness to walk the extra mile to push myself to the limit. I realized that it pays to endlessly pursue self-improvement and that excellence has its own rewards.

I came across the books Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl and The Prince by Nicolo Machiavelli much later in life—during my college days as both books were required readings in my Philosophy class.

I must confess Frankl’s book caught very little of my interest and found the subject matter too complicated at that time when I was making new and pretty female acquaintances in campus. At that time, I was under the impression that life was about winning the attention, recognition, and admiration of the opposite sex.

But my perspective changed much later when, as a journalist and a student of history, I came to know of the Holocaust, of that disturbing period during World War II when Hitler tried to exterminate six millions Jews from the face of the earth.

While revisiting Man’s Search for Meaning as an adult this time, I came to appreciate Victor Frankl’s autobiographical approach to finding the meaning of life in the midst of extreme difficulties and the use of man’s instincts to survive.

Written as a psychiatrist that he was, Frankl’s book attempted to provide the reader with perspective and techniques to use to find the significance of one’s existence. He discussed many specific examples from his imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp, along with his professional knowledge to offer a method for discovering personal fulfilment.

I read Nicollo Macchavialli’s The Prince again because as a young journalist covering politics, I often came across politicians calling one another “Machiavellian,” which, I learned later that the attribution of such to an individual meant being unscrupulous.

That tickled my imagination: “Who the hell is Nicollo Machiavelli and what made him unscrupulous?”

In a nutshell, Machiavelli’s The Prince was apparently intended as a practical guide to Italian rulers in the 15th century on how to establish and maintain a strong government. Said to be dedicated to Lorenzo de’ Medeci, the ruler of Florence at that time, The Prince espouses Machiavelli’s moral principles that must yield entirely to the dictates of pure expediency and the need of getting things done whatever the costs. It was from these discussions that the oft-repeated question was raised: “Does the means justify the end?”

In politics, the question was: “As a leader, would you rather be loved or feared?” Since I am not much of a leader, I would not venture an answer. But as a lover, perhaps my answer to that question is obvious.

But of all these inspirational books mentioned, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince remains my absolute favorite as it had the most impact on my life, both as a youngster and as an adult.

I have read this book countless times, mostly when I feel tired, disillusioned, depressed, or simply overwhelmed by “matters of consequences.” Without fail, I find solace in this little book, which I consider poetry in narrative form, because it eloquently tackles the philosophical juxtaposition of the man and the child, the criticism on the strangeness of the adulthood, the mystical characteristics of human courage, as well as the tortured nature of relationships.

From memory, whenever I attempted to sound poetic and profound (especially when trying to impress a new girlfriend), I would find myself reciting the famous quotes: “One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye.” Or the more sentimental: “It is the time you have lost for your rose that makes your rose so important.”

As a teenager, I sought refuge in The Little Prince’s assertion that “the child is the father of the man,” or that the young knew better than the adult in my almost daily quarrels with my late father, a successful mechanic who resented my preference for books over his tools. My father wanted me to trace his footsteps under the pain of failure in life and once told me, angrily: “You will not succeed in life if you continue to defy me.”

From the book, I learned to categorize the strange people described therein as the foolish, narrow-minded inhabitants of the six asteroids visited by The Little Prince.

Today, whenever I meet a power-hungry and power-tripping politician who exudes the impression that the universe revolved around him, I am reminded of the “king with no subjects” whom the prince met in the first asteroid he visited.

Pathetic people with utter lack of modesty who love talking about themselves all the time remind me of the “conceited man who believed himself the most admirable person on his otherwise uninhabited planet;” while the alcoholic who frequents the neighborhood bar reminds me of “the drunkard who drank to forget the shame of being a drunkard.”

Cold-blooded traders who are so busy amassing wealth that they have little quality time to spend with their families and friends and are often miserable in their private lives remind me of the “businessman who endlessly counted the stars and absurdly claimed to own them all.”

I categorize the “lamplighter, who mindlessly extinguished and relighted a lamp every single minute,” as that bored, unmotivated, and jaded bureaucrat we find in obscure corners of our government offices. These people just try to “blend with the woodworks” so that their superiors will not notice them to give them significant assignment. The less the work given to them, the better for them as long as they fill their pockets during paydays, they would say.

The geographer who chose to ignore The Little Prince’s worried story of the Rose he left behind reminds me of those who have grown cynical about love and who live lonely but “safe” lives. These people wear masks and go through life pretending to be happy but are, in fact, terrified to open up themselves and their inner feelings to other people under the pain of being rejected.  They live sad and helpless lives.

The story of The Little Prince’s relations with the Fox and the Rose inspired me no end on pursuing the meaning of love. The strong emotion that came with the anticipation in The Littler Prince’s encounter with the Fox provided me an answer to what was then an erstwhile unexplainable feeling of love, passion, and to a certain extent, lust.

The overbearing demeanor of the Rose that made The Little Prince uncomfortable tells us how we sometimes become irrationally possessive and demanding when under the spell of this thing called love.

The Little Prince’s eventual departure from Planet Earth, courtesy of his friend the Snake, underscores the poignant feelings that come with the death of a loved one, of separation, and of moving on.

Like most of the books mentioned in this reaction paper, my appreciation of The Little Prince has not changed since I first savored it as a teenager. This book never fails to remind me that “the child is the father of the man.”

In the study of Organizational Behavior, these books—and I am terribly grateful that I was required to revisit them all—present in eloquent and poetic examples the need to comprehend and accept the complex differences of individuals and their relations with others.

The study will teach as that “no man is an island and no man stands alone.”

These days, whenever I am confronted by difficulties in life on account of misunderstandings and disagreements among men and women who fail to find consensus, I turn to the Serenity Prayer written by Carsten Niebuhr (1892-1971), a German mathematician, cartographer, and explorer.

The prayer goes:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;

courage to change the things I can;

and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;

Enjoying one moment at a time;

Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;

Taking, as He did, this sinful world

as it is, not as I would have it;

Trusting that He will make all things right

if I surrender to His Will;

That I may be reasonably happy in this life

and supremely happy with Him

forever in the next.