Channelling Pacquiao #2: What I Learned From "The Week of Manny Pacquiao"

A strange thing happened on the way to writing this, my first blog post after What We Can Learn From He Empathy, Humility, and Grace of Manny Pacquiao.  I got nervous.  I became uncertain and unsure of myself, and hesitant to write.

What?  Me? Nervous and hesitant to write?  What’s up with that?   I’ve always been very relaxed and comfortable with my blog, casually tossing into it whatever came into my mind at any particular moment, not worried much about whether anyone read it  or what they might think about it. My blog was mine, no one elses –I even called it my “online attic” in an attempt to explain how I was using it as a  storage place for random thoughts, pictures, memories, ideas.  It was enough if a few people read it now and then because the real reason it existed was not about today — it was about keeping it for years and years as an online scrapbook and journal  as I journey through life so that at some point in the (hopefully distant)  future,  when I’m gone, my kids and their kids would discover it just like I discovered things in my grandmother’s attic when she died –letters and pictures and books and “stuff”  that helped me grasp for the first time who she was and what sort of life she had lived before I had known her, what she had cared about, dreamed about, and lived for.   That was really my blogsite in a nutshell…..a digital attic in which to toss things that seemed to me to be in one way or another worth saving.

Then came “the article”, — about Pacquiao’s grace, humility, and empathy — written last Sunday morning (exactly a week ago as I write this) and now–after 102,000 visitors visited my blog during the week (causing traffic to my site to be up 33,322% according to Google Analytics) and  left 672 comments, many of them so heartfelt they moved me to tears–the earth has shifted beneath me  and I’m trying to regain my footing.  Suddenly it’s not my little attic anymore —  there are people paying attention and–more than that–people looking for me to communicate something meaningful and real and in some way inspirational, like ‘the article’ did.  With the opportunity to reach so many people comes a larger responsibility to use the blog in some meaningful way, not just as a dusty attic for relics of my life, but as something that can touch people in a real way and provide real food for thought.

As I began to assimilate these thoughts, I stalled a bit during the week, convincing myself that just keeping up with the thousands of “thank you’s” I needed to write was enough, and that I could put off writing anything substantive until Sunday, my quiet day. I was sure I could pull it together then and write something solid.  But as Sunday approached, I found myself getting less sure of myself, less sure of what I would say.

A Blessing Arrives

Well, Sunday morning finally arrived just a few minutes ago, and I got up, and opened my computer, uncharacteristically tense and unsure of myself.  I wasn’t sure exactly what I was going to write. There are dozens of ideas for articles but none seem quite right, quite substantial enough under the circumstances.  Before I started to attempt to write, however, I checked the comments because there were new ones, and the first new comment I saw was the last one written, posted only minutes before I sat down and opened my computer:

Filipina says:

Mr. Sellers,
American though you are, I lovingly welcome you into the heart of the global Filipino family…thanks for the deeply touching article! Y0u have actually been quite “filipinized” in terms of your sensitivity. Great heart you are, indeed!

If ever there was a kind and generous thought that landed in the right place at the right time — this was it.  Could this be just random chance?  Or some kind of  divine intervention or inspiration?   That of 672 comments, this one would be the last one submitted before I set out to write again, and that it would come from someone who calls herself simply “Filipina”, and that it would say precisely what I needed to hear in order to break out of the gridlock I was feeling?

Filipina’s comment addressed the problem exactly, and in a certain fashion solved it for me.  I’m not Filipino, and as much as I love the Philippines and try to be different from the “typical foreigner”,  I am still a foreigner and because of that there has always been a wall between me and the country and people I love so much — a wall that I have never been able to fully tear down.  I tried to tear it down by making a movie that captured much of what I felt and believed — Goodbye America — and I hoped for a “wow, you understand us” response but that didn’t quite happen. Today the film seems to be remembered fondly by many people, and I am extremely grateful for that, but at the time it came out it didn’t get a ton of love, certainly nothing like the tsunami of good wishes I’ve experienced in the past week, and there was some hostility in certain circles about the movie, and the notion of whether an American, any American, should be attempting to explain Filipino values or could even understand them.

Has something changed since 1996 — me? The world?

The more I think about it — perhaps I’ve changed.  I’m older now. Perhaps I  “get it” about Filipinos now better than I did in 1996.  After all since that time, almost fifteen years now, I have lived every day with someone who embodies the Filipino character in a way that is for me every bit as beautiful and profound as Manny Pacquiao.  Of course I’m talking about Rena, my wife and soulmate. She has been away from the Philippines now since 1999, and we live in southern California where we live a life that I could only describe as stressful, financially challenging, and filled with uncertainties.  A lot of that has to do with my somewhat selfish insistence on pursuing a career as a filmmaker–something I’ve been able to do well enough to get to make “the next movie”, but not well enough to achieve any financial stability for the family I love. I have made mistakes; I have been selfish; I have been imperfect in many, many ways.   Yet Rena never doubts me, never suggests “let’s do something easier”.  Instead she supports and uplifts me, and nurtures and holds together the family,  in the process empowers me to keep pursuing my dream in spite of sacrifices that the pursuit of that dream requires of her, and of our children and both our families.

I see her essential ‘Filipino-ness’ every day as, in spite of our own struggles,  she finds a way to empower and uplift her family back in the Philippines. As hard as our life here seems to be to us, it is nothing compared to the challenges faced by her aging mother and father; her eleven siblings; and 69 nieces and nephews in the Philippines.  Hers is a strong family and a humble one.  When she was growing up her father was a fisherman; their house, in the seaside barrio of Guinob-an on the Leyte Gulf in Eastern Samar had no roads in, no roads out, no electricity, no running water.  Now, through a combination of financial help from Rena and her sister Lisa who also lives in the US, and on the strong backs of her father and brothers and friends and neighbors, the tiny family home has been rebuilt block by block over a period of years until now there is a “Llevado compound” and the house that stands on it is sturdy enough to withstand any typhoon, and large enough to contain all the love that four generations living within its walls can generate.  Through it all, Rena remains in touch daily with her family.  She is on the phone with them every day at the end of our day — for an hour or more, talking to her mom, her dad, sisters, nieces, nephews.  She has acquaintances here, maybe even some friends — but it is her family that her world revolves around, and she never loses touch with them.  I watch this — I’m paying attention.  I get it.

So maybe it is because of Rena that I have somehow evolved to where I could write something that would resonate with Filipinos.  And maybe I do have the ability to write more in the future that will continue to help shed light on on what it is that is so special, and so admirable, and so misunderstood,  about the Filipino character.  But I needed that invitation and while it was implicit in all of the hundreds of comments, it took Filipina saying: “I lovingly welcome you into the heart of the global Filipino family” to get me past my hesitations.   Reading those words right now gives me chills, and brings tears to my eyes.   I am humbled beyond words because to be honest, until now, as much as I’ve admired and loved the Philippines and Filipinos, I’ve always been conscious of that “foreigner” status and the “otherness” that went with it, and the boundaries it created, and was hesitant to cross those boundaries.

The New Reality For Me

So, now — perhaps that’s changed, at least a little.   Filipina said it in a few words; thousands of others have said it in different ways, and it’s time for me to get over it and be done with my hesitation and and not be shy or humble or worried about backlash and instead just take the seat that’s being offered me at the table and add my voice to the conversation that’s going on — the conversation about Manny Pacquiao and what he means to the Philippines; the conversation about what it means to be a Filipino and how Filipinos have it within themselves somehow to help make the country become the beautiful pearl that we all believe it somehow has the potential to be, but has always been held back from achieving by systems and structures and personalities who fall short.

I do feel that through your words of encouragement and acceptance you have given me a seat at the table and a role to play in this conversation and I thank you for it.  When I began writing this, 672 comments had been placed at the end of the article on the blogsite. Now I just checked and there are 682.   Taken collectively, these comments themselves are more moving and profound than anything I wrote in the article, and they create a kind of symphony of Filipino voices from which, if I were to try and extract a single unifying thought, comes the idea: To Manny: We are Filipino; we are proud; but we need encouragement and you are providing it; we need inspiration and you embody it; we can do great things but we need to be shown by example and you are doing that.  And to Michael:  We hunger for and appreciate words that help bring all this into focus and help us feel even more deeply what we already feel, and see more clearly what we already see, and understand perhaps better than we did before all that is good and true and unique (and sometimes forgotten in our disappointments) about our culture, our country, and ourselves.

That’s what I get from the voices and hearts that have responded to Manny Pacquiao, and to my impromptu article which was no more than an addendum to the masterwork of Manny’s actions before, during, and after the fight last Saturday. I am coming to understand that while we celebrate Manny Pacquiao, what makes the celebration and attendant discussion so meaningful is that it is not about the greatness of Manny Pacquiao as a boxer or even as an individual human being — it is about the Philippines and what Manny means to the Philippines, and what Manny shows us about what the Philippines can become.  I have come to believe that Manny Pacquiao is a transcendent Filipino Everyman who embodies the hopes and aspirations of Filipinos and inspires them to believe in themselves and beyond that,  to believe that maybe, just maybe, one day–possibly even in this lifetime but maybe in our children’s–the Philippines can emerge from the storm clouds that have enveloped it for so many hundreds of years and become  a renewed true Philippines that embodies the real heart and character and spirit of the country.   Manny may or may not be able to make that happen as a political leader, only time will tell, but as a unifying symbol of all that is good and right and true about the Philippines he already is the bright light that shines upon the Philippines and, from there, to the rest of the world.

A Profound Feeling of Identity

As I am coming to understand it, Manny Pacquiao has, through his actions and character, produced a profound feeling not only of pride among Filipinos, but a sense of identity, a sense that this is who the Filipino really is.  It is an elusive identity, and has been for centuries.  Filipinos themselves have often lamented the hard-to-define nature of the national character, even questioned whether there truly is one.  Well, now no one can doubt it – there is a character that not only is Filipino, but is only Filipino , is uniquely Filipino — watch Manny, pay attention, and you will understand what it is.

Going forward I will continue to try and be a responsible participant in the discussion about Manny Pacquiao and what he means, and in the larger discussion about the Philippines, its aspirations and heartbreaks; its potential and its realities.  My blog will continue to be here as the “online attic” it always was and I hope you’ll bear with me when I use it casually that way, but it will also be a place where I can try and reach out to the “global Filipino family” and in some fashion try to return the massive favor that has been granted to me by the flood of good wishes and kind thoughts that have been sent my way this past week, and by the gift of having a good and true Filipino as my life mate on my journey thorugh this life.

I’ll try not to be intimidated by my “foreign-ness” and the fear that I am treading on ground that is “off limits” to non-Filipinos when  I attempt to say things from the heart on topics that are intimately Filipino. I will take to heart the invitation and blessing that came in precise, direct words from “Filipina”, and which came indirectly from the comments of so many more, inviting me to join the “global Filipino family”.    Thank you for inviting me into that family, and into the conversation.   I will try to add something to what is being said, but I will also listen because listening is the beginning of knowing.

One last thought — a thought that has been hiding within me ever since this whole crazy journey began a week ago.  The article from last week is going to be a tough act to follow.  Today’s writing, future writings–they all may fall short of expectations. As Rena says, half jokingly but half seriously too when this or that thing doesn’t come off quite as well as hoped:  “Sorry, Tao lang ako” … “Sorry, I’m just a human being”.   I’m feeling very, very acutely that I’m just a human being and may fall short of expectations that have been created because somehow,  last Sunday, writing “under the influence” of Manny’s performance and character I gave birth to an article that somehow jumped out from the thousands of articles that were being written that day about Pacquiao and Margarito and caught the imagination of  Filipinos.  I can’t do that all the time. I’ve been writing in one form or another for my whole adult life–songs, movies, articles–and nothing magical like this ever happened until now.   That may be the only time I ever write something that rises to that level of resonance, and the truth is that if I sit here trying to top that, I will be consumed by writer’s block and  never write anything because I’ll always feel intimidated by it.  So I ask you please, do not expect me to be able to repeat “the article” any time soon.  As Manny says, “my job is to train hard for the fight and try to make people happy”.  That’s all I can do — train hard, try hard, and hope that what comes out of me , even though it falls far short of what miraculously came out of me last week, in some fashion ends up being something that, as Manny says —  “makes people happy”.

And so may I close by saying in what is most probably funny-sounding “broken Tagalog” (the only kind I can speak or write), maraming salamat sa pag-imbita na sa iyong pamilya. Sana ay ako ay mabuting anak, kapatid, at matuto mula sa karunungan ng aming ama at ina.


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A final housekeeping note.  For now and going forward I will try, every Sunday morning, to take a few hours to write something from the heart and post it here and on FaceBook and Twitter.  I am going to treat it as a column and call it “Channelling Pacquiao”.   That doesn’t mean I will only write on Sundays — I will also try to  write and post other things through the week but they may or may not relate to the topic that have brought us all together — they may just be more of my old fashioned random “drop it into my blog” approach to blogging. But on Sundays I will try and honor the opportunity that has been given me to sit at the table and use “Channelling Pac quiao” as a forum in which to add my voice to the conversation about Pacquiao,  the Philippines, Filipinos, and the future.

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