I’ve more affinity with the south than the north and was horrified by what happened to Tacloban. I like the place, even if it is Imelda Marcos’ favorite city, and even if my stomach protests its liberal supply of bahalina into it. I can understand Waray reasonably well even if I can’t speak it. I used to go there quite frequently for meetings in the 1990s, living in a hotel beside the sea, lapping up its languorous whisperings at night, reveling in its idyllic sereneness.
I can feel the holy terror that filled the hearts of its residents late last week.
More than 10,000 dead is a staggering amount. But it’s the individual pictures that tear your heart out: A woman keening over the body of her boy in a chapel, rigid bodies caked in mud lying on the streets, arms and legs sticking out of their covers, small children sitting outside their shanty or what is left of it, staring dully at a blank sky and a blanker future. Losses of this magnitude are always catastrophic any time they happen, but more so when they happen at the threshold of a season given to joy and thanksgiving. Indeed, when they happen to those who had so little to begin with.
One is tempted to say that disasters are democratic in that they fall on both the rich and the poor. But that isn’t always true. Supertyphoons and superearthquakes tend to ravage the poor more than the rich: They have flimsier roofs, they do not have the means to move to higher ground, and the higher ground they move on to, such as churches and makeshift shelters, are just as brittle as the ones they left behind.
You are poor, you are far more vulnerable. You are bereft, you will be more bereft.
That thought rankles in your brain at the spectacle of our recently ravaged. We remain, despite our vaunted growth, a country mired in poverty. A hurricane howls over New York, floods overrun Central Europe and turn Prague and neighboring cities into a gigantic pool, a killer earthquake shakes buildings in Tokyo, but you do not see bodies lined up in the streets, children huddled against a gray sky, a sea of faces lost and despairing. You see those scenes in Tacloban, and before that in Ormoc, Cagayan de Oro, and Metro Manila itself, and you are reminded how impoverished we are and how frailer our lives are made by it.
To this day, they still remember the devastation wrought by Hurricane “Sandy” and the score or so dead it left behind. A few months from now, only their kin and friends will remember the thousands dead in the Visayas in the wake of Supertyphoon “Yolanda.” They will be too busy taking care of the living. They will have become collateral damage in the protracted war that is their lives.
It’s almost obscene to call this resilience. It’s almost profane to call us resilient. That is what John Kerry does. “Your spirit is strong,” he says by way of comfort, by way of encouragement, by way of solidarity. Maybe he means well, though I don’t know that the stricken will find his words exceptionally comforting, encouraging, and transcendent. The rest of us will probably just say, “Your credit is good, but we need cash.” Or wonder why he couldn’t just put it the way Erik Spoelstra did: “We extend our condolences to the victims of Supertyphoon Haiyan. We will keep them in our thoughts and prayers.”
In the past, the bishops, who were never themselves victims, also used to use the word “resilience” each time this country was flattened by earthquakes, landslides, storms, torrential rains, floods, and others—well, the insurance companies call them “acts of God.” The Filipino spirit is resilient, they said, it will survive, it will prevail. Well, there are other words for resilient. Those are vulnerable, frail, insignificant, negligible, forgettable, dismissible, miserable, not really there. Or indeed passivity, acceptance, resignation, getting by, making do, moving on.
What you call resilient, we call forced to good.
Some things we can’t do anything about. Acts of God are one of those, though we can always add our voices, however teeny-weeny, to calling on Kerry’s favorite country to do something about its carbon emissions that are causing the winds to howl and the earth to heave. And we can always, like Dylan Thomas, rage against the dying of the light, even if only as a matter of attitude, even if only as a metaphysical stance. That is what a strong spirit is, a rebellious one.
Other things we can do something about. We can always get angry at the terms of our existence. We can always burn and rave at our vulnerability, at our powerlessness, at our poverty. We can always be as outraged about our deprivation as we have been of late about our corruption. We can always be oppressed by our lot as we have been of late about their plots. We can always refuse to be humored and called resilient, we can always refuse to have our grief waved away by faint comfort, we can always say, “Leave us be, we are hurt and we are angry.”
We can always refuse to be poor, or at least rebel against it. Because the scary part is that this has just begun, the world will get darker from here. The National Economic and Development Authority reckons that though the series of disasters that has befallen us will not affect the figures of our growth, it will affect the number of our poor. More semi-poor will become poor, more poor will become poorer. Which at the very least makes you wonder what the sense is in a growth that is so sticky it refuses to trickle down. And which at the very most makes you aghast at the thought that given that disasters are getting more plentiful and more ferocious, given that catastrophes have become our way of life, or death, how will we fare, who are mostly poor, in the world of tomorrow?
Never mind resilient, we can do with just being less helpless.