‘Bahala na’By Michael L. Tan
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Last Wednesday was the 94th birth anniversary of Dr. Alfredo Lagmay, one of the pioneers of psychology in the Philippines. If he were still around I am sure he would be gratified to see how the field has developed as an academic discipline, from a tiny part of the College of Education to a department in the College of Social Sciences and Philosophy with more than 600 students right now, larger than many colleges in the University of the Philippines system.
Psychology is also being professionalized, with its first licensing exams scheduled later this year. There is also a system of accreditation for older psychologists to get their licenses without having to go through the exam, based on their college training and actual practice.
Let’s get back to Lagmay now. It was National Academician Dr. Evelyn Mae Tecson who reminded members of the academy about Lagmay, who was a National Scientist. She did this by sending out copies of an article titled “Bahala Na!” (yes, with an exclamation point), first delivered at a psychology conference in 1976 and subsequently published in the Philippine Journal of Psychology.
I wanted to share his findings because they continue to be relevant today, first because of the insights he had on a very important Filipino norm that is often misinterpreted by non-Filipinos, and second because the article shows what psychologists can do to help us understand ourselves.
Lagmay’s “bahala na” research was spurred by an article by Lynn Bostrom that appeared in the Silliman Journal in 1968, where “bahala na” was compared to American fatalism. I don’t have a copy of Bostrom’s article, so we will have to rely on Lagmay’s summary: “She observed that this fatalistic attitude permeates the daily life and habitual existence of Filipinos and that it is more prevalent in the Philippines than in America.”
Lagmay felt there was a lack of empirical data in Bostrom’s paper, as well as in other papers about “bahala na” that had been produced so far. So he came up with research involving a thematic apperception test, where 15 Filipinos living in the “greater Manila area” (what would now be called Metro Manila) were asked to tell the interviewer a story about some concrete experience they had with “bahala na.” The thematic
apperception test usually involves picture cards to get a respondent going with a story but in this research, they simply asked for a story, followed by an analysis of these stories.
Based on the stories, Lagmay and his research colleagues observed that “bahala na” seemed to be elicited by a situation whose consequences could not have been determined in advance, where someone has a lack of material resources or funds to respond to a problem, where the situation is serious or delicate (maselan), and even where a person wants to test his limits, strengths and weaknesses.
I was struck by the emphasis on uncertainty and unpredictability because just last week I wrote about how Filipino risk perceptions might revolve around this uncertainty, captured by terms like “alangan” (not the young coconut, as one reader joked) and “alanganin.” (Side comments based on readers’ feedback: I am not referring to “alangan” in the sense of young coconut, or “alanganin” in the sense of gender uncertainty, although I would assert that gender uncertainty could relate to bahala na, and I will explain this shortly.)
Lagmay observed that the person who says “bahala na” does not avoid a problem; instead, he or she remains committed to meeting the problem, even while recognizing the difficulties or seriousness of it. Important for Lagmay was the improvisation or extemporization, as the person looks for ways to solve the problem.
Almost 40 years after Lagmay first delivered this paper, I strongly feel psychologists and other social scientists should pick up and conduct more studies, to elaborate on that “bahala na.” Since I work in health care, I see “bahala na” being blamed all the time when patients come in, including women who have gone into labor, with very little or no preparations, much to the chagrin of doctors, nurses and midwives. The patients say they’re too poor to prepare, which does have some truth, but even if it seems like a lame excuse it’s worthwhile probing more into what seems like fatalism.
I suggest that when people say “bahala na,” it isn’t automatic resignation but a way to embolden oneself, almost like “I’m going to do what I can”—the improvisation Lagmay referred to, as one lives one moment to the next. You see this all the time in times of disaster where the options are narrowed down. I remember hearing a man being interviewed on television after Tropical Storm “Ondoy,” and how he tried to save his child as they were being swept away by the floodwaters. “Bahala na,” he recalled himself saying as he struggled to keep his child afloat. He was unable to save the child.
If I might go back to the problem of patients not being prepared for their medical needs, it may be less of fatalism than an inability to see the options that are available. Remember the case two or three weeks ago of a woman delivering her child in a bus? It turns out she didn’t even know she was due to deliver because she never had a prenatal checkup.
I wasn’t surprised to read that. Poor women, especially in rural areas, see a pregnancy as another event in life that you face when the time comes. In the 1980s I was involved in a research project for Unicef where we studied maternal health practices in the Cordillera. And I was amazed at stories of how a woman would get up in the middle of the night and tell her husband it was “time,” go out into the dark, and deliver the child by a river, holding on to a branch, all by herself.
Although we do have proverbs that reflect a recognition of the dangers of child delivery—for example, that a pregnant woman has one foot in the grave—by and large the poor still see pregnancy as another challenge in life that you face when the time comes. No shopping for baby clothes or a crib when you live in a shack.
What I did find missing in Lagmay’s research was “bahala na” as “huling hirit,” a final declaration: “I’ve done all I can, and now we’ll have to leave things to providence.” I have to say there is controversy over whether “bahala” actually refers to Bathala or a supreme being, something Rizal himself rejected, saying that the Spaniards mixed up “Bathala” and “bahala.” But “bahala na,” whether involving a God or not after all that can be done has been done, is perhaps our version of hoping for the best, preparing for the worst.
Certainly, we should still look at the fatalism angle, but we should do this considering the many contexts of “bahala na.” On a light note, I thought of the “alanganin” of gender ambiguity—is it a he or is it a she—and how “bahala na” becomes a way of saying, “Should we care? It’s his, or her, life.” Bahala na, bahala ka. Now, “bahala ka” does deserve studies too.
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