Sunday, August 17, 2008



I write from the city that takes its common pride from a rather “weird” popular motto: “Keep Austin weird.” Come to think of it, there is nothing weird about the drive for individuation that the motto seems to stand for. There is nothing weird about not following the bandwagon and trying to keep its identity distinct and separate from other “run-of-the-mill” cities that America seems to become more and more of. There is nothing weird about a city that, among others, bases its main identity on the presence of a university that is the 2nd biggest university in the US in terms of student population (University of Texas, with about 60,000 students). There is nothing weird about a city defining its character by a passionate dedication to music, the arts, and culture.

A Trip Down the Fabled 6th Street

Austin is weird for many reasons. It seems to be a very educated city, given the presence of 60,000 university students. But it is weird also owing to the very same students making it possible for several blocks off 6th street coming to life at night, what with all its live musicians giving free rein to creativity and popular culture in all its bars and night clubs that sit right next to each other on 6th Street. It is weird on account of the fact that its capitol building towers 15 feet higher than the capitol building of Washington, DC. It is weird in the sense that it is very much an American city but where it wouldn’t be uncommon to hear individuals code shifting in the same breath between English to Spanish, with absolute ease. It is weird on account of the fact, that, whilst remaining to be a relatively livable city, it is home to a number of big commercial successes that America is replete with. Michael Dell started his own business enterprise that now is a household name all over the world. Austin, too, is home to Matthew McConnaughey, Sandra Bullock, and Kevin Costner, among others.

Wells and Domestics?

A quick look-see the first evening I was in Austin over at 6th Street gave me a feel for the local thrills of Austin by night. A brief stop at a local watering hole revealed a group of African Americans providing entertainment to patrons, seated, standing, or lolling about while nursing a bottle or a mug of either a beer that comes from a “well” – that is, tap beer, or what they call “domestics” or locally manufactured beer brands. They were singing the signature southern “blues” with that special rhythm that is at one and the same time, jazzy and emotionally fuzzy – at least to me.

Individuation and Self-Differentiation

“Keep Austin weird,” for me, is a lesson on individuation. It appears to me a telling lesson on the need for individuals – and communities and cities, for that matter – to define themselves, not in terms of comparing themselves with others, not in terms of what others are, or are not, but in terms of what they want to become.

The city, for me, offers a good illustration of what it means to have a solid self-identity in a world that seems to be dead bent on making everyone follow the bandwagon dictated by the forces of globalization, postmodernity, and the uniformity and mediocrity that both seem to engender, ultimately.

It stands at least for me, as a model of a city and people who would rather assert themselves in terms of their own vision, rather than defining themselves on the basis of how they are similar to, or different from, other cities.

Self-Differentiation at the Bottom of Many Issues

Back home, I see a different picture. The political circus that provides a never-ending telenovela-like story to a people already telenovela crazed, is almost something that would make anyone want to laugh or cry – or both at once – at the mere sight of the pathetic system that makes for the best reason why there is so much dysfunctionality – and massive poverty – in Philippine society. With politicians whose best vision rises no higher than the pathetic level of a politics of pillage and plunder, personage and patronage, with everyone trying to outdo one another, not exactly for altruistic motives, where individualism is understood as trying mutually to destroy each other, healthy self-differentiation goes out the window of political opportunism.

With a more than just lively opposition, waiting to pounce on the next opportunity to lunge for the throat of their political enemies, precious little energy is left to do what they love to mouth all the time – public service – never mind if most of that same public service is really self-serving on the long and short haul.

The same principle is pretty much at work everywhere – yes, including religious communities and church congregations. What we all love to call as “pastoral ministry” or “mission work” is oftentimes tainted with a whole lot of personal issues unacknowledged, unaccepted (that is, denied), and therefore, unprocessed. How else does one explain the all too common tendency to undo what the previous one did, or to simply ignore the achievements of the administration that one replaces? How else does one explain the build and destroy syndrome, that seems to be the hallmark of parishes and catholic schools everywhere in the country, where things that an earlier administration has put up are summarily destroyed by succeeding administrations?

Self-differentiation – or the patent lack of it – seems to be at the bottom of so many of our problems as a people and nation. Far too many of us are caught up in the burning desire to define who we are in terms of what others are, or are not, or in terms of what others have, or have not, achieved. It is self-definition at the cost of healthy individuation or healthy self-differentiation.

Classical Christian spirituality calls this pride – a certain inability to define, let alone accept, one’s own God given uniqueness and personal dignity. Where pride reigns, where lack of proper self-definition is the rule of the day, a lot of mutual self-destruction won’t be far behind.

Austin teaches me a lesson or two to bring home to the place I call home, by choice, by decision – for better or for worse. Keep Austin weird. Keep oneself healthily self-differentiated, without falling into the trap of either joining the bandwagon, or trying mightily and futilely, to use a phrase popularized by Kahlil Gibran, “to build a wall by trying to destroy a fence on the other side.”

Y’all take care now … and keep Austin weird!

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