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Jesuit Magis and that Stuff Called Writing

I am not a journalist. But I consider myself a writer simply because I write. Anybody who loves to write can be a writer, but not necessarily a journalist. That said, I think every writer has his or her own style of writing. There are those who write poetry. Others are novelists or satirists. There are playwrights and screenwriters. I am not in any of the categories of writers mentioned above. In fact, I am still learning how to write. Writing is an endless struggle for me. It’s never easy. However, writing can be a cathartic experience and I learn something new with each piece I write.

As far as I can remember, I hated writing. I felt that I just was not good at it. As a result, I dreaded it whenever Fr. Matthew Quinn, SJ, our first year high school English teacher, would ask us to write a paragraph or two as part of our assignment. I knew that I would not do well.

For two years, I carried this attitude. It was in third year high school when my pessimistic outlook on writing changed to a more positive note. It took an O’B to help me change my attitude when he invited me to join the staff of the Blue and Gold, the Ateneo de Naga high school paper. O’B is the moniker of Fr. James O’Brien, SJ. He literally forced me to write. As a perceptive teacher, he must have seen something in me that I never was aware of. That’s how it all began for me.

I learned from O’B how to be observant and write about the things that I see and experience. Through the years this has metamorphosed into my writing about people I greatly respect and my proclivity to empathize with them no matter what their circumstances are. I am naturally drawn to write about their experiences and, in the process, learn from them. Sometimes I feel emotional when I write. Sometimes I feel at a loss. Sometimes I feel pain. Sometimes I am upset. But most of the time I feel grateful for the experience.

I am also influenced by Carlos Bulosan, the Filipino migrant worker who became a prolific writer in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s. In offering the social context of his writings, Bulosan wrote, “The question is – What impelled me to write? The answer is – My grand dream of equality among men and freedom to all. To give a literate voice to the voiceless one hundred thousand Filipinos in the US, Hawaii and Alaska…”

In all his writings, Bulosan assumes the social obligation of a writer. When viewed against his experience in the United States, this means writing not just about the evils of racism or the pain of cultural alienation, but the reality of corruption in society. Because of Bulosan’s exposure to racism, many of his short stories reflect the interplay between the powerful and the powerless, and how corruption results from this tension – something that has characterized Philippine society for decades.

Bulosan was not just a literary writer. He was a social commentator and political essayist who wrote with a social conscience. In explaining the social context and political motivation of his writings, Bulosan wrote on January 17, 1955: “The writer who sides with and gives his voice to democracy and progress is a real writer, because he writes to protect man and restore his dignity. He writes so that this will be a world of mutual cooperation, mutual protection, mutual love; so that darkness, ignorance, brutality, exploitation of man by another, and deceit will be purged from the face of the earth.”

When I find myself in a situation where I’m confused about a particular topic, unsure of my information, or even afraid that I may antagonize the wielders of power, I draw strength and inspiration from the spirit of the ‘Magis’ that I’ve learned from my long association with the Jesuits.

Magis is a Latin word that means “more” or “to a greater degree.” It is related to another Latin phrase, “Ad majorem Dei gloriam” meaning “For the greater glory of God” – the motto of the Jesuits.

Magis has been commonly used in Jesuit circles to mean doing more for Christ, doing more for others, always doing the greater good and not just what is good.

Having been educated and interacted with the Jesuits for the most part of my life, I’ve learned that in all aspects of life, including writing, one should always strive for the greater good.

When writing about politically controversial topics, I always have to make a choice between writing about them or not. What is the greater good? Should I remain silent or express my views? Should I keep my emotions to myself or should I express them? What is the better thing to do?

The better thing to do for me is to write about things that call out falsehoods and tell the truth. Simply put, to write about anything that makes sense.

If it makes sense to write about what I feel, I write about it because feelings have a way of teaching me to be more reflective and sensitive to certain significant human experiences, like the birth of my grandchildren or the death of my loved ones.

If it makes sense to write about politics and hot-button social issues, such as human rights violations or questioning society’s core values, I write about them and let my position be known because to be silent especially when the people’s human rights are violated is a cowardly act that encourages the bad to lord over the good.

If it makes sense to write about uncontroversial topics, like the love of a pet dog, the art of teaching, the importance of friendship, or the benefits of travelling, I write about them because they can teach something of value that can make one’s life enlightened.

By writing regularly about a hodgepodge of topics, I’ve come to understand, appreciate and apply the meaning of the Jesuit magis in the context of a writer’s life. Magis shatters the illusion that life is in a state of stasis, caught between indifference and inaction. Magis teaches that when a writer is faced between indifference and inaction, the greater good is to write responsibly only after going through the process of discernment, with no qualm of conscience and without counting the cost.

Because of my writings, I’ve discovered that the meaning of life is not a mystery to be solved, but a matter of living in a certain way, keeping in mind that in our life’s journey, the greater good is what really matters even when it comes to that stuff called writing.

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