Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Coping with the crisis

LATELY the headlines are as much telling as they are alarming. Otherwise reliable companies report huge losses. Or that they are closing. Millions are losing jobs worldwide. Locally the country’s supposed economic resiliency, often touted by the government as something we can count on, are getting painful reality checks. OFWs are losing their jobs by the thousands; so are local workers in affected companies, for now foreign-owned ones. Hunger and criminality are on the rise. Fuel, food and fare rates continually do a see-saw. Hence, the pervading sense of gloom.

The twin products of the global economic crunch, very palpable even where we stand, are fear and a certain desperation. It’s not too hard to sense that the degree of their seriousness could be greater in families, cultures and societies habituated to more materially prosperous conditions. I find it instructive to go back to 1929 America through the eyes of the movie The Day the Bubble Burst which zeroes in on the stock market crash that led to the era of economic depression in the U.S. Then, as now, fortunes and jobs were lost, and with them, hope. Recently the tragedy of a California family, flashed globally in the headlines and promptly forgotten by the public in the cacophony of other competing news items, continue to haunt me to this day. A father who lost his job, savings and financial resources due to the economic crisis caused the deaths of all his family members and his own (he shot himself). It appears that when all hope is gone, so is sanity.

On the other hand, although we encounter cases of this sort in the Philippines, in the average Filipino psyche the father’s deed, with or without the wife’s and his children’s consent, is almost unthinkable.

I remember talking last Sunday to a group of churchgoers during my homily in a poor barangay chapel of our parish. “Naabat ba kamo hit’ krisis? (Do you feel the economic crisis?)” I asked them. They smiled and said, “(Siempre, Padre) Of course, Father.” It struck me that they could just smile at the mere mention of the crisis. Then it hit me: They have been going through economic crisis all their lives (it’s also called ‘rural poverty’). “When have we been out of a crisis, anyway?” someone asked me facetiously. “The only difference these days is that it’s now being shared by more and more people in the world.”

I say the attitude of our rural poor in that chapel has educated me on what living faith does. Material deprivation (as many of our rural folks are characterized by) does not necessarily mean an impoverished spirit. When faith is misdirected, say, when it is put in material prosperity alone or mainly, any economic crisis could understandably challenge and even ruin some people’s grip on life. “When money is everything,” our bishop, Bishop Bai Varquez, once remarked, “the moment it is lost also means everything is lost.” But when faith is rightly placed in God, the economic and whatever crisis we go through just become a test and a means of purifying that faith.

The figure who, I believe, needs to be recognized on a global scale during this time of global crisis is Job. No, I don’t mean ‘work’, that scarce commodity of these times. I mean the biblical character who lost not only all his material wealth and properties but also his family to an unexpected tragedy. But there is no parallel to his indomitable faith as is obvious in his words: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb; naked shall I return. The Lord gave; the Lord has taken away. Blessed be his name” (Job 1:21).

To that we can only say, “How true, how wise Job’s words are.” Our nakedness on the day we were born is a loud testimony not only to our dependence on God’s love and generosity for everything we now have and are but also to real freedom. Yes, the freedom that comes from attachment to God first and foremost, and detachment from his gifts, material things included. It is truly the Lord, says the wisdom of faith, who gives and takes everything away. Without him not only is everything already lost; there is really nothing to gain.

But with him every crisis does not have to end in tragedy but in courage over fear, compassion over self-absorption. This is what I see in people living in faith. And, since Job is a type of Jesus, we must find in Jesus the perfection of the right response to each and every crisis. In the way he eased the sufferings of others we must see our real program in the face of the crisis. Our program is not to simply meet our needs and remedy our sufferings but likewise those of others. In the way Jesus accepted his own sufferings and death to lead us to the victory of his resurrection, we must rediscover self-sacrifice and selflessness as among the essential keys to personal, communal, national and global recovery. This crisis, after all, as US President Barack Obama observed, “was prompted by the greed and irresponsibility of some.” It must be met by the generosity and self-sacrifice of all.

As St. Pio Pietrelcina puts it: “The most beautiful act of faith is one made in darkness, in sacrifice, with extreme effort.” That must also mean the one that the few who are rich can do for the many who are poor. That, further, must also mean the act of faith that does justice and humble, loving service especially to those who suffer the most in this and in every human crisis.

Therein lies the way to peace (personal, national and global).

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