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A Delicate Balance Between Ship And Port, Beauty And Suffering

Some could say that I grew up on the sea. While I’m no Herman Melville, I frequently traveled on cruise ships as a part of my mother’s work, and thus I was raised in a slightly kitschy worldview, despite my knowledge that life did indeed exist outside of what I like to call “cruise ship mentality.” On a cruise, one can live his or her life perfectly well without ever leaving the Lido deck or the promenade or journeying off the ship at the nearest port. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with this mentality-it is perhaps an easier and more agreeable view of the world. There is, however, a dichotomy in the nature of this cruise ship mentality and the “port mentality” of going out and experiencing the sometimes gritty and harsh reality of the world.

This past week, I was able to visit an extensive slum community on Manila Bay near the shipyards. The community itself was visibly suffering: no running water or electricity, trash strewn about, people piled on top of one another in run-down homes, and everything else that one would expect from a modern urban slum. Next to the neighborhood, however, there was a large cruise ship docked in the port. This visual representation of the dichotomy of my past and my present reality was startling to me, and I have been grappling with it ever since. This harsh gradient of reality is only a microcosm for the wealth and standard of living gap in the city of Manila and throughout the world in general. How can we hold these two realities-as each one is real in its own way-in equilibrium with one another? How can we accept the suffering and pain of the world in tandem with the beauty and wonder that make us happy? The direct symbolism of a past filled with comfort and peaceful ignorance was staring in the face of harsh and unsettling reality and all of its inherent suffering and struggle.

The short answer to these questions is that I don’t know if there actually are answers. The question of how to hold these two extremities in life is one undertaken by philosophers, theologians, filmmakers, artists, and your everyday Boston College student over the centuries. What is important to acknowledge, however, is that in our lives, we are frequently given the choice to make our world small or extremely vast, and each mindset comes with its own set of blessings and challenges. By living your life on a metaphorical cruise ship, you could miss the painful realities and encounters that are difficult to accept, but that are a natural part of life and have their own lessons to teach. But by living life in the metaphorical ports, you have the tendency to become what some may call “ruined for life,” wherein your blissful ignorance is broken and the continual pull of wanting to immerse yourself and push of wanting to run away from it all is at play. But perhaps by discovering which mentality you hold true to yourself, the sooner you could come to answer of how to hold them together as parts of the same whole.

It’s a step beyond simply acknowledging the kitsch or the reality of life, especially since these two cumbersome, difficult, and conflicting mentalities are so present in everyday life. The choice is: Which one do you adopt as your own? Is it possible to hold the two in a delicate balance? Seeing a cruise ship docked next to a slum community is a visual representation of these conflicting natures in life, but the challenge is to find the symbolic meaning of these dichotomies in concrete terms in your own life. Once we experience how to hold the two in a delicate balance, the challenge then becomes whether we sink or swim.

March 13, 2014