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Crucifixion (musée du cabinet des médailles, BNF)

REWARD AND PUNISHMENT Maybe I’m too Catholic, but sometimes there is salvation in suffering. Crucifixion (musée du cabinet des médailles, BNF) (Photo credit: dalbera)


I’m not sure I’m done saying Happy New Year to all my friends, but it’s almost February. I have exactly 338 days left to make a difference in 2013 and I’m afraid the year will pass swiftly by and before I know it another year is over and a new one begins, full of promises that will never be kept, of resolutions that will just as soon as they are made become forgotten.

On surface level, it’s easy to be deluded that we are in a better place. Time has brought us thus far, in which we can communicate instantly without talking, in which we can reach our destinations without walking or running or making strides, in which we can write without staining our fingers with ink, in which we eat what we need not cook, just add water.

But are we in a better place, really? Are we faster, more effective, more efficient, more productive? Sometimes, I’d like to think we are aiming higher now, but then I realize we stumble too often on the first few steps to get to any respectable altitude. Just when we have all the tools to allow us to roam more freely, without neglecting our responsibilities, we find ourselves more and more tied to our desks. Just when we can simply Google the right spelling or the right connotation, just when the necessity of going to the library and going through piles of books or newspapers in verifying our facts has been eliminated, we are confronted with unbelievable grammatical, stylistic, and substantial errors in our daily writing and our daily reading, that is if we even have time to read or write.

Maybe our predecessors were right all along, making sure we didn’t get what we desired until we earned it, whether it is the right to express ourselves, the right to object or to say “no” or even to just participate in adult discussion, or the right to pursue rest or recreation. Back then, even our telephone conversations and our TV time were regulated, never on a school night or at least not until we were done with our homework. If we failed to do as we were told, as children inevitably did, punishment was harsh, cruel, and, as we see it today, abusive, whether it was having us kneel on beans before the altar or hitting us with a belt or the handle of a broom on our backsides.

“…the height of a man’s success is gauged by his self-mastery; the depth of his failure by his self-abandonment…” Leonardo da Vinci

In some schools, particularly in some Catholic high schools, every transgression was meted out with severe penalties, either physical or emotional, such as public humiliation or deprivation of such rights as going on recess and going out of the campus for lunch. Teachers would make us squat for an interminable length of time in front of our classmates and berate our appearance, our performance, our conduct without respect for our feelings.

We were raised by barbarians, if we were to look at it now, where children can report their parents to watchdogs like Bantay Bata if they felt their rights were being trampled on. But back in the day, authority was associated with emotional distance. So, on the few occasions that we bridged the gap, such as when we discovered that our terrible, terrifying, exacting, unfeeling literature teacher secretly enjoyed our interpretation of certain classics, it was as exhilarating as the highest grade on our school reports.

There was wisdom in the way the older generations treated their young in the hope of preparing them for “the harsh world out there,” where survival and success required strength of character, unwavering determination, and, at the very least, manners and likeability or polished behavior. But I doubt if I or her parents could have the strength to scold my six-year-old niece every time she gave in to the tendency to slouch or to raise her on a regimen of guilt and fear to make sure that she mastered her numbers and letters, that she never lied, that she never talked to strangers, that she dreamed big enough to assure herself of a great future. It’s not just the way we do it now.

My only hope is that she, and the rest of her generation, will soon learn that you do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, not for fear of punishment, not for want of reward. And that the right thing means doing the best you can under any circumstances, especially where there is no teacher or parent or superior or God to push you on and herd you back when you stray.


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