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The gift of feeling in Leticia Ramos Shahani

Much has been said about the stellar career of the late former senator Leticia Ramos Shahani. What stands out in the narratives is the rare capacity to wed character to competence, political savvy to passion and principle. There are very few of her kind. Most, whether men or women, turn out to be despots or pliable politicians susceptible to unholy influence. She was, from every possible angle, a stateswoman.

Like most women who are able to shoulder their way to power, there was a certain glint of steel in her character. A thoroughgoing professional, she had a no-nonsense approach to getting things done, burrowing her way through the tortuous labyrinths of bureaucracy and coming out of it with landmark legislation on women’s rights, the promotion of culture and the arts, and other such initiatives that are now institutions.

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She had a punctilious probity that gave her a sharp edge. She was all stick-and-bones when something was awry, and could not suffer fatuous windbags. Yet also, she had a touchingly soft spot for those in the margins, and fought for what she believed was right with a fiery courage and consistency.

The Swiss psychiatrist Paul Tournier once said that part of the tragedy of societies is that the few women who manage to ascend to power lose their very contribution to public life: the gift of feeling. They adapt to the alpha male culture and become just as tough and abstract. Soft and “subjective” considerations like compassion get swept to the sidelines in boardrooms. The result is a hard, coldly rationalistic world of amoral business and politics.

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Leticia Ramos Shahani, iron-souled, soldiered on and yet kept her gift of feeling, ablaze like a house on fire.

Her lifelong advocacy for women’s rights had behind it her mother’s example, and her own experience of being a woman in the workplace, torn between the heart-tugging demands of family and the hard requirements of being up to speed so she can run with the wolves.

Widowed early, she rued that her children had to be in tow wherever she went in her peripatetic diplomatic journeys. “I was a single parent; they had to go where I go, and I did not have much time for them. In times when they wanted to talk, I would tell them, ‘You have five minutes to tell me what you want to say…’”

As a diplomat, she was disciplined by the exacting requirements of having to live in a world of protocols. “They are not just ceremonious pomp,” she said once, commenting on President Duterte’s tendency to ride roughshod on the time-honored traditions of his office. “Protocols are rules of civility among nations; they cannot just be shunted aside.”

The tight adherence to good form she attributes to the religion of her childhood. “Our family was one of the early Protestant converts in our town. My brother and I went to Sunday school. He is the only president of this country who has had that kind of spiritual upbringing.” She said this by way of explaining her concern for “moral recovery,” for ethics in our public life.

While burnished with the patina of old-world cosmopolitanism, she went back to her roots in Pangasinan. “I globalized early,” she said. She got her nails dirty again as a farmer, milking carabaos and pulling up weeds.

The last time I visited her was about two months ago; she was upbeat and her usual gritty self in the face of an increasingly virulent cancer. “The doctors said I have two to three months. They said that two years ago. Well, I am ready. I have had a good life. But tell me, what lies beyond this life?”

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Ever the intellectual, she waxed philosophical on the plight of her body upon death. Would it simply disintegrate, scattered like dust in the wind, or come together again as the Bible says, resurrected in some unknown form?

I said it is undiscovered country, but we are told that the body shall be raised again. We shall see and recognize each other. Her eyes brightened. “You mean I shall see my mother again?” she said, and wistfully ruminated on the prospect.

I bid her goodbye with a lump in my throat.

Dr. Melba Padilla Maggay is a social anthropologist and author of “Rise Up and Walk, Culture and Religion in Empowering the Poor,” published in Oxford, UK.

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