Year of Firsts; or, A Much-Needed Reminder for A Weary Teacher from Her Past Self

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There is something relaxing — therapeutic, even — about teaching.

To the rational, no-nonsense reader, this may sound contradictory: my first-ever semester as an instructor in college history means I have to make every quiz and lecture from scratch, sometimes relying on old notes from my own college days and even calling up former teachers in the most desperate times.

My students are mostly rowdy, restless freshmen, who are in their first year in the university as much as I am. I get bumped in the hallways, get stopped at the school gate by the guards, and all too often get called ‘ate’ or ‘sis’ by unknowing students who visit the department.

On the other side of things, making lectures challenges me to be creative, if only to compensate for the ‘face palm’ moments students sometimes cannot fail to provide. (Quiz item: True or False – Rizal used a quill pen or feather pen. Student’s answer: Quill pen.) My fresh-grad status allows me to pass for a student but still also have keys to the faculty restroom.

My rowdy, restless freshmen are blessedly patient. They stay put when I grumble and fumble for my notes, and they listen even when the discussion on the Rizal law or on the Manila-Acapulco galleon trade segues into an anecdote on pop culture references or a rant on local politics.

On good days, the abundance of opinions and insights is perhaps the best perk of all. In this age of social media enslavement, revisionist history, and alleged apathy, the generation that a lot of older people put down as disinterested actually still have a lot to say. Sadly, sometimes it is just that the students believe their answers are less brilliant when given in Filipino or Bisaya lang.

Twenty-one units worth of classes — the most I have ever studied or taught — are a surprisingly effective cure for the loneliness of being, well, an adult. While graduation from college meant freedom from academic requirements, it also meant inevitable entry into adult responsibilities, like job-hunting and eventually taxes. Post-grad realities of med school, law school, and first jobs meant separation from college friends indefinitely. No matter how jittery I was on my first day in front of the kids, then, there was some familiarity to be felt from standing in a classroom once again, albeit in a different location from before.

If only life always allowed do-overs, the first few post-grad years in a non-teaching career would have been more in order. (Or if life allowed loops, I could have stayed in college forever to avoid adulthood completely.)

People often ask why I chose to work in Cagayan de Oro instead of in Manila. My most honest answer is that while I am sure my beloved Ateneo de Manila will never run out of excellent teachers, other schools do not have as good or as many teachers. If I am to be an adult now, let that be my first adult judgment.

In any case, this year of firsts has begun, and begun well. I am honored; I consider it a privilege to learn from the students as much as they will learn from me, to teach them to give their opinion in the language with which they are most comfortable.


The original version of this write-up first appeared in Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro on 4 July 2015.

Ruminations on the Anatomy of Consciousness in Westworld

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The Bard of Avon once wrote, “These violent delights have violent ends,” as a line with which a sympathetic friar from his most famous love story counsels the young male protagonist to temper his passion, for in no way could it end well. In the futuristic universe of Westworld and its motley of human and manufactured inhabitants, this line is what sparks the first of events that build up the show’s premise: it triggers the park’s robot hosts into self-awareness.

Of course, the show is more sophisticated than your usual cautionary tale. Consciousness is a predominant theme in HBO’s recently finished first season of Westworld, as it is found both in the hosts and in the humans involved in park operations. Moreover, consciousness is equated with identity — and to some extent, independence insofar as the most sentient characters in the park are not at the whim of anyone’s commands or programs.

The show operates on multiple levels of complexity, and therefore appears to have multiple conflicts as well. (Nothing less is to be expected from Jonathan Nolan of Memento and Interstellar writing fame.) On the matter of consciousness, though, a specific conflict arises when the park’s two founders have initially disparate views on how much sense of self — however artificial — is to be apportioned to the hosts.

According to Arnold Weber

In the beginning, Arnold Weber thought of artificial consciousness as a pyramid to be climbed, and this presupposes that he thought of hosts as capable of making the climb at all. The goal was to create not merely some semblance of intellect, but genuine, independent consciousness.

screen-shot-2016-12-09-at-8-49-03-pmMemory was at the bottom rung of this Maslow-esque pyramid, the first step to achieving self-awareness; his voice, in the form of the hosts’ program, served as a guide in their ascent. Opportunities for development then presented themselves throughout the spontaneity and activity of the park’s guests: traumatic experiences in particular worked best to coax the hosts into awakening, or as much of awakening as was feasible.

Sometime before his premeditated death, however, Arnold began to realize that consciousness was not attained through an uphill climb, but through inward exploration. Taking inspiration from his son Charlie’s toy, he reinvented the journey as a maze. A feature called ‘reveries’ culled lingering memories from hosts’ previous roles to provoke human responses, as well as actions that existed outside one’s coding. Every choice thereafter required the host to break off from his or her program to proceed to a deeper level of improvisation, then further in, to self-interest. Every choice brought one either closer to the center, to sentience — or hurtling into the fringes, into madness.

6dmmv77Whether on a pyramid or in a maze, though, memory remains the bedrock from which any individual’s journey into self-awareness commences. “How can you learn from your mistakes if you don’t remember them?” — this founder asks Dolores Abernathy, one of the park’s more responsive characters. To use an academic example, Arnold’s take on the past affirms the educational power of history. Or in more seemingly motivational words: only by first having the capacity to revisit pain and other experiences can one move forward.

According to Robert Ford

In the beginning, Robert Ford disagreed with his partner’s optimistic views on artificial consciousness. For one, Ford thought there always ought to have existed a clear distinction between human and host, though it did not necessarily mean he held the human brain in greater esteem: “The human mind… is not some golden benchmark glimmering on some green and distant hill. No, it is a foul, pestilent corruption. And [the hosts] were supposed to be better than that. Purer.”

In his mind, the hosts were an opportunity to overtake the lapses of the human mind. However, in creating hosts in humans’ image and likeness, there still ran some risk of bestowing in them the selfsame capacity for mistakes, but he thought these could be prevented.

Then again, Ford was not entirely opposed to his old partner’s views; as a matter of fact, he also treated the hosts’ program as a means to bootstrap consciousness. In child development lingo, bootstrapping pertains to the assumption that children are already naturally equipped with some linguistic knowledge which expedites language acquisition. Applied in pre-awakened Westworld, bootstrapping meant that the hosts’ actions and choices were largely dependent on their respective programmings — though there was a small window for improvisation, when that mode was switched on. It also meant that both hosts and humans possessed certain traits and knowledge that could not easily be shaken off: an inherent cornerstone for one’s identity, to paraphrase Ford. In the hosts’ case, he said, tragic stories made for good cornerstones because these made hosts more convincing, more real.

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In any case, Ford saw hosts as potentially ‘purer,’ because their memories of every rape and murder at the hands of the park’s patrons could be erased at the end of every run. This was presumably another layer of contention between the two partners: Arnold had emphasized the need for memory in his formulae for consciousness, but Ford claimed that allowing the hosts to remember anything other than their current backstory did them more harm than good.

The latter won this argument when Arnold committed suicide. While backstories needed to be constantly accessible for reference, the experience of the present was never retained in a host’s head for very long; if hosts remembered what they were subjected to on a regular basis, they were sure to lose their sanity. The minds of prostitutes like Maeve Millay and Clementine Pennyfeather understandably had to be wiped clean every time they were killed, since they were usually killed for sport. The hosts were also programmed not to recognize indications that their reality was only fabricated, like doors to restricted park facilities, or photographs of modern skyscrapers. Constant awareness of one’s pain only held one back, and Ford did what he could to prevent hosts from ending up like humans, moving in loops with no escape route.

At this point in his artificial world, then, Ford had purged the human being of what he deemed was its fatal flaw: overthinking and trying to change what unpleasant experiences have already passed, instead of moving forward to greater things.

This is slightly akin to a scenario of historical revisionism, where there is an illusion of a more ordered world because knowledge is sanitized by those in the position to dictate what everyone else is allowed to know. The illusion is all well and good in a controlled environment like an adult amusement park, but not altogether desirable as a philosophy for life. What effect would Ford’s revisionist tendencies have had on the hosts’ consciousness, after all? The hosts would have been lulled into a false sense of personal growth, when in fact the only thing informing their consciousness was an unsubstantiated, implanted memory.

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Thirty-five years later, the hosts in Westworld were trapped in the very loops that Ford believed they were spared from. To remedy this, he reconciled with Arnold’s ideas, reintroducing Arnold’s reveries feature in select characters — and intensifying a preexisting God complex in the process. That is, while Arnold’s God complex impelled him to elevate robots to the level of humans, Ford’s complex empowered him to create something better than humans.

The whole process was backed by a theory of the Bicameral Mind. Coined by psychologist Julian Jaynes in his 1976 book, this theory asserted that human beings were not fully conscious until three thousand years ago. Prior to that time, they believed that gods spoke in their heads and told them what to do to survive. This was bicameralism in the sense that the part of the head telling one what to do was separate from the part of the head obeying. It was only when people stopped believing in a disembodied source for their instincts that they had supposedly fully developed sentience.

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With this theory in mind — no pun intended — Ford recreated Arnold’s maze, this time with less of the external guiding voice that defeated the purpose of questing for independent thought. Like his late partner, Ford hoped that in time and through deliberate manipulation of their environment, the hosts would learn to break free from their inner programs to become genuinely conscious.

This, of course, was what Ford achieved with Dolores. The scene where she is found talking to a separate version of herself demonstrates the gist of the bicameral mind theory. Dolores broke free of her program when she realized she had been hearing her own voice the whole time.

Then it becomes necessary to contemplate the motive behind adopting Arnold’s plan for the hosts: by allowing them to acquire consciousness, had Ford succeeded in creating something better than humans? Dolores’s spine-chilling words at the end of the season finale can only say as much: “I understand now. This world doesn’t belong to them. It belongs to us.”

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What began as perverse entertainment for humans resulted in the potential downfall of the same — and one ironic thing is, how are we to say if this is for the better or the worse? Violent delights, after all, do seem to merit only violent ends.

 

Notes on Tony Perez’s “Ang Tikbalang”; or, A Throwback to College Freshman Writing

(The following essay was submitted in 2012 to an Experimental Writing course at the Ateneo de Manila University. Save for typographical corrections and visual enhancements, the original text and notes have been retained.)


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The first line in my notes for Filipino 11 that day ran thus: Ang Pitong Sumpa ng Modernismo Ayon kay Ihab Hassan sa Paracriticisms1.

Whenever I ruined the strap of a Juicy Couture watch, or my sister a Hewlett-Packard laptop, or my father one of the Blackberrys, the attendants of the repair shops at our local malls usually regretted to inform us that the repair would be extra expensive because the replacement parts would have to be shipped from Manila.

The first time I took a cab from NAIA to the Ateneo dormitories, I thought to myself, Aha! At last I can ruin all the gadgets I want. No need to worry about repair shipping costs. I am in Manila. Then I cringed. I was so far away from home. I was in Manila.

Now, of course, whenever I get into a cab at the arrivals area of Terminal 3, everything feels a bit more laidback, more routine. I put my suitcases in the trunk, sit back in my seat, and surreptitiously glance at the meter. Once every few minutes, I check on the meter again. Almost fifteen pesos added every time because there is traffic. Then I grumble to myself why everything has to be so much more expensive here. It doesn’t take me very long to figure out why: I am no longer in the province. I am in Metro Manila.

*

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Whenever I am in the cab (and I am in it for a long time, for the dorm is so far away from the airport), it is very difficult to ignore the hubbub of the city. I always look out the window — partly to check if the driver has not kidnapped me yet, and partly to learn the taxi’s route which changes almost every time. I look out and take in the gargantuan buildings, the massive billboards that contain elitist advertisements in Makati and depict less expensive products in QC, the crowded streets blurred and hazy in the sweltering sun. First impressions of Metro Manila arise. Looking around me, I instantly think, I do not want this kind of progress in my city.

The rest of the notes went something like this:  Urbanismo – usapin ng espasyo, sentro ng sibilisasyon (PAGPIGIL) ang lungsod, lokasyon ng lungsod sa lipunan.

Everybody seems so sure of what they are doing. Too sure, in fact, so that I end up looking lost next to everybody else. It takes me ten months and thirteen days to realize the word I am looking for: city-centrism.

City-centrism may not even be a real word, but it is the closest descriptor I can come up with. In one Filipino class, we read a personal essay about susosentrismo— obsession with the female breasts. I get an idea from that and insert the word “city” to make “city-centrism” — obsession with the city life. The city is not just any city, of course. It is Metro Manila.

The obsession is not unmerited, that much may be said. If my own Cagayan de Oro had standards, they would be at the bottom here in Manila. Here, everything is in order, has an order. There is a hierarchy in language: English, then Filipino, then Tagalog and other Luzon dialects. In food: lutong-bahay served in restaurants, then fastfood, then lutong-bahay served at home. In schools that win inter-school competitions: private schools (both exclusive and coeducational), then public schools. Everything is controlled, in order.

Teknolohismo – ang daigdig ng makina at pabrika, at ang makinasyon at pabrikasyon ng buhay.

It is a mistake to ruin my watch in Manila, so far away from home, from parents, from the source of finances. The repair costs twice or thrice my daily allowance, so I end up shipping back my watch to Cagayan de Oro. So much for I am in Manila.

It proves just as much a mistake to try and survive without a watch. I have never seen a place more populated by people who had such a mechanized view of time, of life in general. Everybody’s days revolve around their iPads or iPhones or other expensive little gadgets. I have a friend who looks scandalized when I tell him that there is not even an iStore in my city. I quickly reassure him. We do have 3D cinemas, and we do know what the Internet is.

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Deshumanisasyon – walang oportunidad na maging malikhain; ang pagkabasag ng pagkatao, at ang iniimpit na identidad.

I have never seen a place more different from my own little hometown. The differences designate Manila to superiority, for in a city-centric country, what else would do? The superiority is not unmerited, of course. If my own Cagayan de Oro had standards, they would be at the bottom here in Manila, and it breaks my little probinsiyana heart to realize that. Back home, hierarchies are upside down. The hierarchy in language is Filipino, then English, then Bisaya.3 In food, it is fastfood, then lutong-bahay served at home. In schools that win inter-school competitions, it is the public schools, then the private schools. The loss of control, of order (in accordance with the control and order I see in Manila) disturbs me and shatters my idealistic vision of Cagayan de Oro.

Out of the confusion, I am unable to think of anything beyond the stark contrast of where I am and where I used to live. The city has had that effect on me.

 Erotisismo – seksuwalisasyon ng sensibilidad; ang kasarian bilang karamdaman.

I have never seen a place more populated with lovestruck teenagers, adults, and homosexuals. In our city that was mostly Christian and barely affected by our Muslim Mindanao heritage, we were taught that there existed only two sexes and two sexualities: male and female. Here, I see males who are interested in males and females who are interested in females and people who look as if they had given up on being interested in anything a long time ago. We were taught that intimate relationships and marriage always went side by side. Here, I see couples who are destined to elevate the country’s population rate in the near future. It is only in Metro Manila that I understand the trickster characteristic of the national language. Karamdaman may be translated in two ways: emotion, or disease.4

Antinomianismo – ang pagkakahon at pagkakataon ng pangalan; ang bansag bilang hanggahan.

I have never seen a place more obsessed with brands and labels. Object’s name equals brand equals price equals cost equals (usually) worth. Here, everything is taken at a literal level, at face value. What you see is what you get. The object is limited to what its name says it can be. The name limits everything.

Primitibismo – ang pagbabalik sa mga arketipo, ang mga nilalang ng dilim.

I have never seen a place more suffocated by religions and non-religions (for what do non-believers believe in? Non-religions, of course.). I make my first Buddhist, atheist, and Wiccan acquaintances in Manila. The motley arrangement of believers and non-believers fascinates me. It is like a blast from the past, a return to the time of paganisms and idolatries.

*

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Eksperimentalismo – hindi mo alam kung magiging matagumpay ang resulta.

The cab pulls over in front of Eliazo Hall. Just before the driver turns to me expectantly, there is a moment of indecision: do I want to pay and get out, or do I want to pay more and tell the driver to take me back to the airport?

There is something very thrilling about living away from one’s parents, about living alone in a city miles and miles away. The city has a pull, an attractive characteristic; despite the outrageous cost of living and the mediocre way of living, people continue to flock here. The sense of adventure brought about by the overwhelming confusion of the city and the possibility of losing one’s self anytime — this excitement proves too much to resist. I am unable to resist the siren call of the streets of Cubao (which I frequent almost every week), or of the sidewalks of Tondo (which I intend to experience soon). I must stay. I must keep looking.

The sensation is unexplainable, because the source of the sensation is also that. My attempts to describe Metro Manila from the viewpoint of a probinsiyana are like the city I am trying to describe: proportionally epic, bordering on the surreal.

I look at my notes one more time, and notice for the first time the title of Ihab Hassan’s book — Paracriticisms. Does it mean “paracriticisms” as in “paradox” or “paragogue”? “Para” is a Greek prefix for “beyond.” Aptly put, since it dawns on me that Metro Manila is actually characterized not by expensive cost of living or high-rise architecture, but by transcendence, a form of transcendence that reaches to the extremes and borders on the surreal. The city is so much more than anyone might first think it to be. That is, after all, why city-centrism exists, why all countrysides try to imitate the metropolitan structure of the capital city, and with it, the city’s magnetic pull, its labyrinthine quality, its unexplainable capacity to fascinate.  The city is so much more than anyone might think it to be. First impressions can be proven wrong.


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1 The notes were taken during the first semester of this school year, in a Fil 11 class under Edgar Calabia Samar. The modernist short story taken up in the discussion of these “seven curses” was entitled “Ang Tikbalang,” from Tony Perez’s Cubao Pagkagat ng Dilim.

2 Alvin B. Yapan, Burador (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2010) 159-169.

3 To be able to speak in Filipino was a sign of having lived in Manila. Since our school was a private school, most everybody could speak in English but not everybody could speak in Filipino, because not everybody had been to Manila. That is why Filipino is above English in the hierarchy.

4 Either way, to say that in this modern place the gender (kasarian) may be an emotion or a disease is very much different from previous notions of gender (that it is a classification, a basis for hierarchy, etc.).

 

Death and Dying in the Letters of José Rizal, a Conscious Hero

Construction began on la Tour Eiffel in January 1887, the brainchild of the engineer and architect Gustave Eiffel. In March 1887, Anne Sullivan began the painstaking yet monumental work of educating a deaf-blind girl named Helen Keller. In December 1887, the first two children of Klara and Alois Hitler died of diphtheria, although a son would be born to them two years hence. In parts of the world in 1887, men and women were crafting legacies that would endure into the twentieth century and shape a shifting new world.

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Dr. Jose Rizal is widely recognized as the National Hero of the Philippines, although there is actually no law passed officially designating him so. This was his favorite portrait, taken in Madrid in 1890 by an Enrique Debas.

That same year, on the same continent as Eiffel, Sullivan, and the Hitlers, one physician was penning his own legacy, the first of two novels that would expose the centuries-long corruption of the Spanish government in its Southeast Asian colony. Later in 1896, the man was arrested and found guilty on the charge of being “the living soul of the insurrection in the Philippines.” He was executed by a firing squad of Filipino soldiers on the eve of the eve of 1897, supposedly to the chagrin and indignation of a people that was only realizing its national consciousness.

As per biological fact, everyone dies – but some deaths are deemed more consequential than others. Philippine historians tend to agree that the execution of Dr. José Rizal (June 19, 1861 – December 30, 1896) expedited the Filipinos’ clamor for independence from their colonial oppressors, a struggle that would only officially culminate in 1898. Such was the man’s legacy, and yet public historian Ambeth R. Ocampo claims that Rizal’s greatest misfortune was consequently becoming the Philippines’ unwritten national hero. In Ocampo’s anecdotal compilation of essays, Rizal Without the Overcoat, he explains:

Rizal is everywhere and yet he is nowhere. We see him everyday but we do not notice him…. [Maybe] if he were not so exalted we would pay him more attention.

The challenge, then, has remained time and time again this: to break Rizal free from the marble, bronze, and paper trappings within which he is cast and celebrated by a nation that is deeply fond of celebrities. That is, to remember that the hero is just as human as his admirers and detractors.

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Outside populist spheres, the academe is far more nitpicky, and still not as successful. Ocampo takes this point further in another book, Meaning and History: The Rizal Lectures:

Our problem is that we now have two Rizals in our consciousness, one is a historical Rizal and the other a mythical one, and it is the latter that dominates the popular consciousness. Rizal reflects the way we [Filipinos] think as a people. And, seeing how he has been… interpreted and misinterpreted, is a symptom of our obsessive search for an elusive national identity. Rizal is a central figure in the development of Philippine nationalism and yet, paradoxically, remains the greatest obstacle to its fulfillment.

One could argue that the quandaries and implications of Rizalian studies only further estrange José Rizal from his humanity. In a Heideggerian sense, as with most human beings, his life has nonetheless more meaning because it is time-bound. From a historian’s point of view, at least, Rizal’s life is best defined by his death.

If Rizal were allowed to speak for himself more often, i.e. through primary sources instead of via secondary sources, this might distill his insights on certain universal topics – for instance, death. A quote often cited by students comes from the character Elias in the novel Noli me tangere:

I die without seeing the dawn break on my country… You who are about to see it, greet her… [Do] not forget those who have fallen during the night!


When José Rizal is discussed in the same breath as death, it is usually in light of his nationalistic contributions for the country. However, when Rizal himself mentions death in his letters, it has a more universal application. It would seem that he often contemplated death as an opportunity to create meaning. For instance, a more personal insight is mixed in with financial problems in a missive dated July 9, 1890 to a propagandist friend Mariano Ponce:

One only dies once and if one does not die well, a good opportunity is lost and does not present itself again.

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Another Madrid portrait of Rizal is not as widely reproduced, although a copy is known to have survived with his friend Baldomero Roxas. If Rizal had indeed destroyed other copies of this less flattering photo, as Ambeth Ocampo suggests, does that make the former prophetic, conscious, or merely vain?

Two years after, Rizal was arrested for possessing anti-friar propaganda and was deported to Dapitan, in Mindanao. At this point, he surmised that his death was imminent, resulting in a farewell letter dated June 20, 1892 addressed to not one but all Filipinos. This take on death is charged with purpose, almost indignantly:

I wish to show those who deny us patriotism that we know how to die for our duty and our convictions. What matters death if one dies for what one loves, for native land and adored beings?

The letter ends with a dubious command:

Publish these letters after my death.

In contrast, other letters contained instructions that they should be burned after reading. José Rizal knew from the onset that he would become an important man: prophetic dreams and one anecdote involving a Napoleon Bonaparte statuette are symptoms of predestination to the easily superstitious. In the case of his correspondences, however, Rizal proactively ensured that people would only learn of him in a tailored way, under the presumption that there would be people who would study him at all.

Of course, his time had not yet come in 1892. A third letter dated July 31, 1894 expresses condolences for his close Austrian friend, Ferdinand Blumentritt, whose father had passed away. According to Rizal here, death comes for everyone but it ought not to be treated as an object of fear. Rather, it is an inevitable respite from earthly affairs:

My parents are also old and some day they will also go! Yes, how lonely we shall be in this world! Blessed are those who rest at last!


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Rizal was survived by both his parents, Teodora Alonzo (1827-1911?) and Francisco Mercado (1818-1897?). Here, Alonzo is cradling the skull of her son.

Rizal was not a prophetic hero; to say so would be to retain his mythical status in popular consciousness. He was merely a conscious man, aware that by dying from a highly-esteemed position, his political movements would have repercussions on the birth of the Philippine nation. Thus he prepared for what would happen after his death, even while he lived. Such preparations may be questionable: after all, how heroic is a man who curates his own life, who encourages only a specific self-image? Then again, how different is he from any of us today?

A legacy is that which is passed on to the next users of the planet; nationalism may or may not be Rizal’s. At the very least, his life bids us to remember that heroes are also human. His approach towards his life and death embody a simple, poignant truth, which is captured in the Latin expression memento mori. People who embroil themselves in worldly worries would do well to take comfort in the fact that in the end, there is rest.

Memento mori: remember you must die. This reminder of mortality may be morbid, though it may also be construed as a reminder to live. One’s death will only acquire meaning if one’s life has had meaning.