Designers of Development Options

Issue No. 2020-01

Our Best Future is in Innovatively Engaging with our Past

Ben S. Malayang III, Ph.D.

Commencement Exercises, Father Saturnino Urios University, Butuan City, March 28, 2020

"The future is never about forgetting the past, but is about sprouting new and wonderful possibilities from out of the past"

These are not good times. We have a scourge to fight. It’s war out there. But it is in times like these that we muster our faith, to see God’s goodness that despite difficulties, we have the world in front of us. You are graduating. And even if deprived of the opportunity to march on stage in front of loved ones and adoring friends, you have gained a victory. By God’s grace, let us celebrate this day!

I thank the University for this invitation to address you before you march out of this great institution of learning to begin finding your way, and place, in the world. The future is before you, and it is for you to now engage the world to shape what would be your future, and the future of many others that you shall help to shape.
Let me go straight to the point: our best future is on innovatively engaging with our past.
Let me suggest three things that you might want to think about:

First, our tomorrow springs from our past. While to most, a tomorrow is a “yet to come”, it is in fact shaped by the past. It is like a river cascading down to the sea. Its power and strength come from many small springs that gave it life. There is no dissociation between its humble beginnings as small trickling springs, and it’s becoming a mighty rush of water emptying into the sea.
We all see the future as some unseen and an uncertain tomorrow. And so, because we can’t be sure of what it would be, we face it with dread and anxiety. But what if we try seeing it from where it starts as many spring wells from its past? Would we not be able to better see where it could lead, and what it could become? Go around Agusan Marsh. With all the water you see there, you could very easily imagine what big and mighty river they would make when they’ll finally empty into the ocean.  The key is fully understanding our past so that we could better understand the possibilities of our future.  I trust that this University had fully equipped you to learn (and keep learning) from the roughs and tumbles of our glorious past so that you could better shape a sturdier future for yourself, your family, your community, and our people.

Second, while our future springs from our past, we do not stick to the past.  We learn from the past. We hold on to the beautiful and brutal truths of our past, but we do not keep living in the past. We innovate with what we had in the past in order to shape a far better future for ourselves and for our world.  A river does not remain a small spring of trickling water. It winds through high mountains and low valleys, acquiring more water, and overcoming obstacles, and on the way gaining strength and power as it finally engages the sea.  We shape our future by engaging with our past, innovating from the lessons of the past, and putting together a far better tomorrow than what we had yesterday.  Our best future is deeply rooted on our honest engagement of our past, and, like a beautiful bonsai, nurturing the past into fine contours of branching possibilities. Take away its roots, no bonsai of whatever exceptional beauty, would survive. It would wither and die.

And finally, the third: let’s bring forward into our future the beauty and lessons of our past so that we shape our future with the power and strength of our past.  Our past is full of beautiful and wonderful achievements of our people. Achievements of freedom and faith. But, as well, failures and tragic mistakes and travails like of corruption and indignities.  We need to confront them both, however uncomfortable and inconvenient, sad, and despicable.  We need to honestly celebrate our strengths and victories, while as much condemn our frailties and misdeeds. This is integrity. For after all, it is with both the fine and smooth grains of lime, and the rough and jagged stones, that, when mixed right, with no dishonesty, would we give us our hard concrete.

Our honest engagement with our past – the good, the bad, and the ugly – forms the solid bedrock for our future.  Many of what we did before has been good. We placed high respect for our elders, not just as social obligation, but because we know that they are walking repositories of great knowledge and wisdom about how our world works, and how it would keep us alive and well. We had no big libraries, or fast computers, but we had our parents, grandparents, and the elders of our faith and community who were walking treasure chests of wisdom of how we might survive our world. They read Nature from out of its rhythms and rhymes, from the color of leaves, the moisture in the soil, the passing and direction of the breeze. They knew the limits of our world and respected them. They had spiritually enriching dances, songs, prayers, beautiful textiles, and colors from tree barks, all echoing a life balance with God’s Creation.  But the push for a false future – that of changing everything from the past, and of modifying, altering, and replacing what we had before, with what we now want to satisfy our present avarice and greed – had plundered the earth and our people of their God-given wealth of clean air, clean water, lush forests, safe foods, and of lands and seas teeming with life, and, worse, their soul.

I submit to you all today that we need a future that keeps to the decency of our past, keeps to the sustainability of our traditional ways, keeps to the faith of our forebears, and keeps to the moral imperatives of our traditional and indigenous peoples to hold themselves accountable for the ways they live, to everyone and everything around them, to all living things, and to God. Let us have a future that seeks to deploy technologies, human creativity, and innovations for the purpose of empowering people and enhancing Nature, but never overwhelming, subduing, and desecrating them. 

In my view, the issue about our future is not so much about engaging what comes ahead, but about engaging with what came before.  We build our future by creative innovations of what we had in the past, with the morals, ethics, and virtues of our past, and making a glorious, decent, and beautiful tomorrow for all of us.  The future is never about forgetting the past but is about sprouting new and wonderful possibilities from out of the past.  I trust that this great institution had made you so much appreciate and value our past, had you so engaged with knowing and understanding our past, that you now want to make of them the rocks and gemstones with which to build a firm, solid, and glittering future ahead of you.  You might ask: with modern society needing so much, and wanting so much, would a future anchored on the past not seem to be only foolish trifling and romanticizing of our old and fading ways, that are naïve to the realities of our industrial, commercial, and high technology way of life today? Is it even possible?  That, my friends, would be your challenge: To dare harness your creative minds, and your faith, to make a difference to yourselves and to our people, by shaping for us a future that is solidly anchored on a bedrock of integrity to our past.

I pray that this commitment to dare make a difference would be what the diploma you are about to receive, would be saying – and proclaiming – to all of us in the world.  Congratulations and God bless!