IT’S DIFFICULT for most people to relate to Jose Rizal. The man is our national hero who wrote poems, articles and novels. His travels around Europe seem very distant from our experiences. The hardships he experienced during his exile and imprisonment seem unfathomable to us who have barely been outside of our comfort zones. How can we relate to Rizal who was not only skilled in the written word but also in the arts?
If we look into Rizal’s childhood and college years, we realize that there was more to the man than his achievements and political difficulties. In “Memorias de un Estudiante de Manila,” he recalls his childhood days in Calamba and schooldays in Biñan and the Ateneo. This intimate memoir was written when he was between 17 and 20 years old. Leon Ma. Guerrero translated this Spanish memoir in “The Young Rizal.” Its introduction recognizes a different take on Rizal’s life:
“Yet the Memorias, for all their sentimentality, have a freshness, a spontaneity, that have a charm all their own. They have a quality of universality that a more sophisticated and self-conscious autobiography, written in maturity would have lacked. It is easier for the average Filipino to identify himself with the young Rizal…”
Here we see Rizal in a different light. Our view of him is pulled to down-to-earth form. We see his weaknesses and insecurities—i.e, over his short stature and weak health—as well as his strengths, particularly his academic achievements. He reluctantly admits the former and proudly records the latter. His vulnerabilities are revealed when he recalls the death of his sister Concha and later when he writes about Segunda Katigbak, his first love.
His personal diary about his childhood and school days serve as the bridge between the average Filipino and the Rizal he knows. Such personal view on Rizal’s life erases the notion about the impossibility of common people becoming like him. The introduction to “The Young Rizal” even goes so far as to say that “[Memorias’ ] make it possible for every generation to believe that… they can be other Rizals.”
The problem with how historical heroes are portrayed is that they are made to look bigger than life, great men and women we can never hope to become. We always think that we will never scale the heights they reached.
But we don’t need to die for our country or write novels that will shake the world to be like Rizal. We can be heroes by devoting our lives to what we are passionate about such as a particular cause or interest, and making a difference. Rizal’s love for our country and his belief that the Spanish were not mentally superior to the indios pushed him to devote his life to fighting for our independence. Both of these were instilled in him as a child.
Like Rizal, I keep a private diary where I boast of my achievements in school, compare myself with my academic “rivals,” complain about people who mistreat me and talk about the difficulties of living away from my family.
I started my diary when I was around 10 years old. But as I got older, my writings became more narcissistic. I was overwhelmed by my own selfish priorities such as getting good grades, and fretting over boy troubles. My diary doesn’t include what was happening to my friends and family. It has become a selfish showcase of my strengths, weaknesses and insecurities.
In contrast, Rizal’s diary continued to present a good balance between his intimate thoughts and his observations about the world. His writings are not completely self-centered. His observations about the outside world are contained in his writings about his mother’s imprisonment, Gomburza’s trial and his younger sister’s death, to mention a few examples.
If Rizal had restricted himself to writing only about his personal life and troubles, he could have lost sight of the important events taking place around him. If he had limited himself to writing only about the events happening around him, he could have overlooked other essential matters such as morality and religion. For example, during his mother’s imprisonment, Rizal wrote down his conclusions about his family’s so-called friends: “From then on, while still a child, I lost my confidence in friendship, and mistrusted men… we had been unjustly deprived of our mother and by whom? By men who had been our friends, and whom we had treated as inviolable guests.” This was one among the many events in his life that shaped him into the man we know today. The importance of keeping a balance between internal and external influences is one lesson we can learn from him.
Like Rizal, we often look back to our past, trying to figure out the how and why of important events in our lives. It is necessary to look back to our personal histories so that we can understand our present strengths and insecurities, our desires and our needs. Taking the past into account when making decisions can also help us make better choices.
To me Rizal’s childhood and school days are the most relevant aspect of his life. His writings during the period make him more human and a more inspiring figure to young people. His writings demonstrate how one can be aware of significant events without denying his own feelings. They invite us to look into our past so that we can understand ourselves and make the choices that will make our lives productive and meaningful.
We write our own personal histories in our diaries or in our hearts. Ultimately the choice is ours whether to put the lessons we have learned to good use or not.
Karina Rose T. Casing, 18, is a third year BS Health Sciences student at the Ateneo de Manila University.