Saturday, April 10, 2010

Is the Filipino self-image in perpetual search of poise?

Just when we thought Filipino bashing is a thing of the past an Italian-American comedian recently rouses us from stupor by his unkind remarks on Manny Pacquiao and our ‘supposed’ sex tours as the only things going for this country and for the race that produced Rizal. Of course, he apologizes the day after, mainly because of an avalanche of animated (at best) or irate (at worst) responses from Pinoys all over the world. Quite possibly the comedian just wanted a little attention for himself, which he clearly achieved from an unspecified number of members of the aggrieved party (us), but my sense is that he also expresses a view by certain foreigners of Filipinos and the Philippines which they can’t quite put into words in polite conversations. I remember an American friend, one of a few, who made bold to ask me: “Father, why are things in your country such a mess most of the time?” I suddenly had a barrage of images in my head showing why he had such a dim view of us: typhoons, the Ondoy flooding, the El NiƱo drought, the endless political scams, file videos of Smokey Mountain, high corruption indexes, negative confrontational politics, the Maguindanao massacre, polluted air, seas, rivers and garbage everywhere… I said: “For some of it, nature is to blame. For most of it, we are to blame. But, give us the credit, at least we’re searching for a way out.” Until when the search ends I don’t have any idea. Nor most Pinoys, I gather.

Sadly, the dim view I speak of is what many of us Filipinos ourselves adhere to but would, nonetheless, not tolerate foreigners publicly airing such an outrage. Now, I’m not saying that many Pinoys actually believe that only Manny Pacquiao and our ‘supposed’ sex tours define who we are. I’m saying, however, that many of us have very low image of ourselves such that when sensational champion athletes, like the Pacman, or artists, like Charice, do us proud with their gifts, or when our villains put us to shame with sex tours, high corruption and other abominations, we treat them with habitually screaming headlines to the effect that we drown out attention to other things that express the better side of who we are. And why we hardly see how, by and large, foreigners only take their cue from us, frankly, escapes me.

But do we believe in our better side? Is there such a thing? we ask. To my mind, the better side of who we are is also real and beyond reasonable (or unreasonable) doubt. I know you would say you would grant that we as a people are capable of so many good things despite our so many not-so-good circumstances… Pardon me, but I’m not speaking in the abstract. This is very well manifest in doctors or nurses we meet who prefer to stay in the country despite their low pay and less-than-ideal working conditions; teachers who teach children in far-flung barangays despite the untold sacrifices it takes (I habitually witness three teachers who once a week literally claw their way through slippery rocks and jungle paths to reach children they teach); government workers who stay honest despite the culture of corruption breathing on them; political candidates who advocate non-popular but correct (that is, even from the moral perspective) viewpoints and standpoints despite survey results; voters who reject even the very idea of getting money for their votes despite having to forego sometimes generous amounts of money; journalists who tell the truth behind the facts despite their own biases or political leanings; students who live up to the idealism of their youth despite gaining in age and experiencing a corrupt system; politicians who avoid gutter politics and choose instead to address the real problems of their constituents and of the nation despite losing opportunities to put down rivals; poor farmers and fishermen who work hard, not allowing their family’s future to fall into the hands of fate or unscrupulous politicians, despite the latter’s heavy influence in their own families, neighborhoods and the society at large.

Behind these words are real people. These real people should be our sources of insight into who we really are.

We do not owe our dignity to our athletes, artists, politicians, economists or to our economic-socio-political systems and conditions, however much good or evil we discern in them. Nor do we owe it to foreigners, comedians or non-comedians, journalists or plain ordinary folks with or without objective outlooks. Neither do we owe it to our own race and nation, whatever native praiseworthy or unworthy traits we might have. We owe our dignity only to God; and the dignity he has gifted us with surpasses all our weaknesses. It is a dignity that deserved the life of his very own Son when we lost it and when only God could buy it back through God’s own self-gift. And buy it back he did; in a larger sense (as saints and theologians remind us), God raised our dignity higher that it was. Now we are not just images and likenesses; we are sons and daughters in the Son. In a War Memorial I once visited with friends I saw in one section the words written in bold letters: “Freedom is not free.” The same thing can be said of the restoration and exaltation of our dignity. We were not bought back without a struggle nor simply by the blood of our heroes then and now. We were bought back by the blood of the only Son.

The real question is: How have we Filipinos been treating our real dignity? To put it differently: Do we allow the questions put to us by the priest on Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday to direct our real, daily on-going self-evaluations? Or have they just become components of a tired and empty ritual act? Consider these: “Do you reject sin, so as to live in the freedom of God’s children?” “Do you reject the glamour of evil, and refuse to be mastered by sin?” “Do you reject Satan, father of sin and prince of darkness?” “Do you believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth?…Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord?…Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting?” After rejecting Satan and all evil, we are asked to believe. That is, we must also ‘be’ and ‘live’ who we are.

In other words, how we truly deal with Easter’s questions in our daily grind determines whether or not we will finally achieve poise in our search for the self-image that finally matches our dignity.