Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Challenge to Yolanda survivors one year after: the courage to hope

IN Catholic teaching courage or fortitude and hope are two virtues in different categories. [To the uninitiated let me put it this way: Virtue is any act or disposition to the good. In a sense we show or attain goodness in no other way than by practicing virtues.] Courage is a moral (i.e., acquired through human effort in view of a good life) cardinal (plays a crucial or pivotal role) virtue which enables the human person to deal with difficulties, trials and sacrifices as he pursues the good. On the other hand, hope is a theological (i.e. infused or gifted by God into the human person) virtue and is further so-called because it disposes him or her to a direct relationship with God, One and Triune (the Blessed Trinity, that is).
In particular, hope enables anyone to desire as his or her happiness the Kingdom of heaven or eternal life, something we pray for on behalf of the deceased victims of Yolanda. As for the living victims of the super typhoon, hope enables them to not give in to discouragement in the face of continuing deprivations and tremendous suffering they go through even to this day, and to see in whatever consolation or experience of happiness life affords them the bridge to the Kingdom and eternal bliss.
In a word, I have just opened up what might be to some a ho-hum subject. Isn’t that one of the supreme ironies of life? What some consider ho-hum may actually be sine-qua-non (or something we can’t live without). For, what reasonable human being can make do without the virtues and be, at the same time, still reasonable and human?
Of course, even for the living victims of Yolanda the kingdom of God and eternal life, which is one and the same, forms hope’s ultimate goal, however un-reflected or unsaid. Realistically, though, they still have to face the daily tasks of surviving. Which means that for the here and now, hope’s objective is more immediate and mundane: a decent life, a fuller recovery in the sense of being more responsive to human dignity.
I submit that we, victims of Yolanda, must have the courage to hope for the following things. (It goes without saying that both prayer and action are indispensable components of this program.)
One, the grace to continually desire, plead and pledge to work for integral recovery: physical, psychological, spiritual, economic, political, social and cultural. We do not recover when we continue to live in tents or sub-human shelters. Nor do we recover when are being made pawns of political rivalries and infightings. Neither do we recover when we are forced by our traumatic post-calamity impoverishment to sell our bodies or deeply cherished values to gambling, human trafficking or prostitution. Nor do we recover when a foreign belief, practice or culture or set of values is imposed upon us as a condition for receiving aid (i.e., contraception or continuing want? be born-again or be bum again?
Two, the grace to dream big, to be content only with the maximum and not to settle for the minimum. For what is the use of life for a bird if it cannot fly? What is the meaning of help or aid when it does not lead the victims to the realization of their dignity? Let me speak mostly but not exclusively for Eastern Samar about how Yolanda destroyed not only our landscape but also the capacity to dream big. Several weeks and months after the devastation priests made a disturbing observation that in calamity-ridden areas, that is, in some towns at the center and mainly in the south, the surfeit in relief goods led to a rise in gambling and indisposition to manual labor.
Presently the local bishop and clergy have their hands full when it comes to reminding Yolanda victims of their obligation to stand on their own feet: that is, to go back to planting wherever possible, to fishing with a better motivation, including better fishing nets from kindly donors, to be equipped with more and (again) better income-generating livelihood programs (here we must acknowledge and thank the invaluable assistance of local and foreign groups, NGOs as well as LGUs but also remind them that quantity and quality must inseparably be present in these programs). There was one egregious example of how foreign presence made local politicians look bad for being content with the minimum. While local politicians sponsored substandard bunkers, foreign aid groups decried their failure to pass international standards. It was sad that it took foreigners to wake our leaders and people up to dreaming big for ourselves. Or is serving the human dignity of our people too big?
Three, the GRACE TO NOT UNLEARN the lessons of Yolanda. For PAG-ASA and other pertinent government agencies, their zeal to inform and educate the people on the many different facets of the natural calamities we face time and again should also be paired with more culturally friendly and understandable methods and language. The curse of the phrase “storm surge” is now deeply ingrained in our people’s collective consciousness. But our government agencies should not scoff at a deadly mistake they had made. To them our word is: Simplify your methods and language in the matter of informing or educating our people regarding disasters or such other matters that involve life and limb. The greater charge, however, lies with continually reminding our people, our short memories being the constant blight in our horizons, that knowing and obeying instructions and warnings from right sources could mean the difference between life or death.
Four, the grace of experiencing community.
Disasters by nature breed isolation and a sense of alienation from other people and nature, especially when they also result in deaths within families. It is remarkable, for example, how after Yolanda, victims walked like zombies looking for other members of their families, extensions of themselves. Or how victims stole from one another or from department stores and malls with little regard for shame or manners. And yet in places where there was a sense of community victims even helped other victims and recognized their common plight as an invitation not only to struggle for self- or family-survival but also for common survival and recovery. Wherever priests exercised pastoral leadership, it became also clear how victims were able to go beyond their own tragic situations to share goods with and care for other victims.
Finally, the grace of a deeper spirituality. To say that every disaster, including Super Typhoon Yolanda, is a test, a trial is a cliché. But that is no less true than saying that every disaster spells tragedy. Disaster becomes tragedy when we do not do well in our response to it as a test. As Catholic Christians, we have an immense spiritual heritage at our disposal, the saint after whom our Filipino Everyman is named, John of the Cross (Juan de la Cruz), being our foremost mentor. Pardon me, but I think Yolanda was a physical manifestation of what San Juan de la Cruz calls “the dark night of the soul”. And the noteworthy thing is that our own poor, the very people who are often the subject of pity and compassion from outsiders and watchers, ourselves included, are not only open to the message of the Crucified Christ but are also its principal teachers. That is, if we care to listen and humbly give them the podium for a change. I remember asking a seventy-something lady at their tent kitchen in Hernani, Eastern Samar, if she was not angry with God that she lost relatives and neighbors who were dragged by Yolanda’s storm surges to death. She said to me, “Oh no, Father. I believe the Lord loves them so much that he called them home to be with him and he loves us in a different way. He let us live so we could go on telling others of his love.” Or words to that effect. What spirituality could be deeper than that?

To me she is a mentor of courage and hope.

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