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No Free Lunch

Christmas and true sharing

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My column last appeared on Christmas Day six years ago, when it was still in the Inquirer’s business section. My message then remains timely, so allow me to reprise what I wrote at the time, hopefully to a wider readership this time.

We Filipinos look forward to Christmas with such keen anticipation, starting from the onset of the “ber” months (for some, even earlier). Then it comes—and it’s suddenly over. Time and again we hear it said how nice it would be if it could be Christmas all year round. And this is because there is something about this holiday that brings so many good things for people, and more importantly, in  people.

For those of us who watch the economy, Christmas means a seasonal boost in production, hence jobs and incomes. Producers ramp up production to anticipate heavier holiday demands, and retail establishments hire additional staff to accommodate the holiday crowds. Filipinos from all over the world come home in droves, and the arrival area at the airport becomes a veritable sea of humanity while the traffic outside borders on anarchy. Those who cannot come home ramp up remittances to their families to make up.

All these show up in the economic data. Overall production and incomes grow faster than usual, leading to higher quarter-on-quarter GDP growth. The unemployment rate goes down, as more jobs become available, albeit temporarily. Prices rise faster than usual, and the peso-dollar exchange rate falls amid a flood of incoming dollars. Except for the price rise—and for many, the peso appreciation—these conditions would indeed make many a businessperson or worker wish for Christmas to last all year round.

Perhaps lost to many of us is the fact that this is a season when the misery of millions of Filipinos with no means or livelihood gets further magnified against the stark contrast of the seeming plenty among those who have the means to make Christmas truly merry. As of last count, close to three million Filipino workers continue to be without a job—and there were more this year compared to a year ago, despite the speeding economy.

Counting their families, this means that at least 15 million Filipinos continue to suffer from poverty and deprivation. The third-quarter hunger survey of the Social Weather Stations likewise revealed a disturbing result consistent with increased joblessness: More than one in five Filipinos (21 percent) suffered hunger due to poverty, a significant rise from the second quarter’s 18.4 percent.

More than that, countless Filipinos are spending a bleak Christmas deprived of their homes, possessions and even loved ones in the wake of recent calamities, the latest being “Pablo” that claimed more than a thousand lives in eastern Mindanao. And as the holiday always comes on the heels of the typhoon season, there is in any given year always a sizable part of our population for whom Christmas is anything but merry.

The already glaring gaps within our society thus get even more magnified at Christmas. This is why the holiday season ought to be an occasion for the more comfortable among us to ponder on how the seasonal generosity we engage in at this time of year can be made an all-year-round commitment, and how it can be made more meaningful and more lasting.

We are in fact celebrating the occasion of how God began to set the supreme example for all of us. By sending His Son to become one of us and live among us humans, God showed us that to truly help the poor, we must live with them, and feel their pains with them. For most of us, it is easy to share with the poor and disaster-stricken what we have in excess, in the form of our discarded clothes and possessions, food, and cash.  But Christ’s example showed that true caring and sharing goes well beyond that. True sharing is to feel with those to whom we give: to actually share in their pain and suffering, feel and share their aspirations, and then give of ourselves beyond our mere possessions. This is the example Jesus Christ gave when He lived as a man among men.  He came to help—indeed to save—us humans, by being one of us. If we wish to truly help those who are left behind and are marginalized amidst the seeming improvement in our economy, then it is Christ’s example we are called upon to follow.

I believe this is the reason why Gawad Kalinga and similar programs have met with wide support.  Such initiatives give people the chance to be with the poor, feel with the poor, and work with the poor, not merely give to the poor. Spending a few weekends actually building a home for a stranger is truly giving of one’s self. It represents taking a concrete stake in another family’s life. One who actually suffers aching muscles and other physical discomforts out of helping build a home and a livelihood for someone will likely want to continue at least monitoring, if not getting continuously involved in improving that family’s welfare.

One of the most meaningful experiences of my life was living for a few weeks among poor rice farmers in Bicol and Iloilo when I studied postharvest rice technologies for my master’s thesis many years ago. It helped me understand what we would otherwise never understand if all we do to help the poor is to share our possessions, rather than share of our lives.

A blessed and joyful Christmas to us all! May Jesus Christ, the honoree of it all, stay at the center of our celebration and merrymaking, and not be drowned out amidst the materialism and commercialism that have marked the holiday season through the years.

And may its true spirit of sharing be with us all year through!

(E-mail: cielito.habito@gmail.com)


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