A lost unity

The past week has been a journey to the past, not just by me, but of two sets of classmates from two competing schools (I had studied in both). By a grand coincidence, reunions were held in the same city – my hometown Bacolod City.

The first set was composed of classmates that went to school together as far back as 1952 as Prep students. Friendships that last 67 years are worth celebrating any time there is an opportunity. The second set was a combination of grade school, high school, and college classmates spanning at least 50 years from college, many more for those who began as grade school classmates. I have never been so tired of one week straight food and laughter, plus drinks on the side for those among us still capable of a shot or two. One thing for sure – I was not the only one tired from all the festivities.

Meanwhile, the Sea Games opened and we were also cheering for our favorite athletes and teams. That our beginning performance was spectacular simply added to the excitement of reliving the past in a wonderful present. Through all the flurry of activities and boisterous noise of long lost friends trying to make up for long absences, I could not but help notice that the last fifty to sixty years have impacted our bodies and our environments drastically. The spirit is willing, as they say, but the body is being left behind. So, too, are the people and structures of the past. Many have gone and many more have taken their place. Except for a few major streets and buildings, I saw a completely new Bacolod City.

The change has been substantial. An era is almost gone – the 200-year dominance of the sugar industry. The intermittent depressions instead of booms created a pattern of weakening that may be irreversible. And invariably as history teaches us, people and societies seldom ever are prepared for great changes. There is sadness in my heart, of course, but also a restrained eagerness for what is to come. Eras do end and I have witnessed the changes when they were small. I cannot say I am shocked that the sugar industry may be near its terminal stage because enough hints were provided by national and global developments. Still, the heart clings for what gave so much happy memories.

I partially left Bacolod City to study in Ateneo de Manila University more than five decades ago, settling permanently in Metro Manila since 1969. In a way, I have seen how Metro Manila changed in the last fifty years more than Bacolod City. Of course, I enjoyed modernity as it unfolded. At the same time, it is difficult, sometimes even painful, to see how the places you loved being demolished to make way for what is called progress. Many times, progress is enjoyed by only few of a minority – which should disqualify it from being called progress. Surely, the imagery and experience of progress has to be more collective for it to be beneficial to nation.

It used to take me thirty minutes from Quezon City to bring a daughter to school in Pasig then arrive in my place of work in Makati. That same route will take me approximately three hours today. Longer if there are vehicle breakdowns or accidents along the way. It’s taking me 180 minutes now what once took 30 minutes. Or not happening only to me but to most people in Metro Manila. That is not progress. That did not enhance the collective well-being, it damaged it. How, then, can that be progress? Yet, most development beyond Metro Manila is copying the Metro Manila pattern. Obviously, despite the deterioration of the quality of life brought about by being unable to spend enough time with our families. If you do not believe that the quality of life, of the wellbeing of society, has deteriorated with so-called progress, then why do we have A Mental Health Awareness month? Is it not because of the alarming rise of mental depression and suicide incidents? Why are we paying a steep price for progress yet progress does not compensate us in proportion?

When there are sacrifices to be made, Filipinos are willing enough to make them. Our culture has always been very expressive in service – meaning the needs of others are high up in our value system. Whether one farms under the heat of the sun or the cold of the rains, whether one goes fishing in h the dead of night to the wee hours of the morning, whether one works abroad to invest in a radically better future for their families, whether we would rather live as guerrillas than bow before a foreign master, there is sacrifice. And Filipinos accept sacrifice.

But for what? For our families – yes. For our country – yes. For our God – yes. We do not sacrifice for family, country, and God unless there is a common enemy that threatens these three. But fighting one another, spreading hate against one another, reveling in the pain and misery of the other, or insensitive to the poverty and hunger of millions – these negative conditions do not stimulate sacrifice. They engender resentment, they foster internal partisanship. For one another, we can take great risks and even offer our lives. But against one another, material progress will not compensate for a pressure – filled lifestyle.

Observing and reflecting on societal life for more than fifty years, I have not seen us coming together. Rather, I have seen us tearing each other apart. We have not adapted well to political freedom or to the loss of the same political freedom. What comes out as the continuing tragedy is Filipino against Filipino, as though there is nothing and no one more important than what each one feels or believes. It may well be that a common, violent external enemy may be the catalyst for our lost unity. Maybe that is the role China must play for our own salvation.