Resistance, not resilience
Once the high point in our family calendar, with fireworks and festivities in our grandparents’ house in San Pablo, New Year’s Eve this time around was a solemn affair, far closer to the ending scene of “The Empire Strikes Back” than “Return of the Jedi.”
Bereft of a reunion with all my relatives, I bade 2020 farewell with a bike ride, making a loop from Los Baños to San Pablo via Calauan and Nagcarlan, returning via Alaminos and Sto. Tomas, culminating with an ascent through the uphill Mak-Ban road. Windy and sometimes rainy, it turned out to be an exhilarating ride that capped off a season whose fraught circumstances led me to discover the ups and downs of outdoor cycling.
And then, on New Year’s Eve itself, I watched an Akira Kurosawa film with my younger brother. We love the jidaigeki films and Toshiro Mifune’s spirited performances, but perhaps fittingly for the occasion, we ended up watching “Ikiru” (1952)—a tale of a bureaucrat named Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) who was diagnosed with cancer and decided to make the most of what’s left of his life by appreciating the simple joys of the world and attempting to do something meaningful.
“Ikiru’s” message of maximizing our limited time on Earth (the film title literally means “to live”) is a timeless lesson that, despite its universality, we need to be constantly reminded of. On a personal level, it validates my decision to go for that yearend bike ride, encouraging me to keep pedaling my bike in the coming year; pursuing more roads less traveled; and opening my heart to new experiences—with or without a pandemic.
But no matter how determined we are to live fully and passionately, our destiny is not always within our control: Today we cannot even go back to our schools or workplaces, let alone travel or work on projects in our locked-down world. Indeed, if watching “Ikiru” reminds us of the power of the will to live, watching it in the middle of a pandemic reminds us that there are limits to this will.
Consider the events of the past year and how they have affected our lives and livelihoods. While for some of us, the pandemic meant having to work from home, for many others it meant losing work entirely—or being unable to come home. Of course, then as now, our level of privilege continues to determine our experience of the pandemic, but most of us continue to suffer its consequences as well as those of the government’s response to it.
Meanwhile, as our ability to live life on our own terms is stifled, our standards for living and for life itself are lowered to such a point that the bare fact of survival is reason to celebrate.
After all that we’ve been through in 2020—volcanic eruption, earthquake, typhoons, floods, another year of Rodrigo Duterte—perhaps it is understandable that today we might utter phrases like “Heto, buhay pa (Here, still alive)!” with more-than-usual meaningfulness. But Filipinos deserve more than survival. Like the people of New Zealand who have managed to control the pandemic, we deserve to celebrate holidays with our family and friends, and the rest of the year without fear of disease.
Like the people of Singapore and Israel, we deserve the best vaccines, not the bare minimum of what is acceptable.
And unlike Baby River, Mayor Caesar Perez, Sonya and Frank Gregorio, our people deserve to live free of the violence, both structural and real, that have plagued our nation far longer than any pandemic.
In “Ikiru,” Watanabe realizes his newfound outlook by challenging the institution he belongs to, even going against his politician-supporters—and holding his ground against the people who blocked his way. He could not delay the inevitable death that awaited him, but he managed to spend his final moments blissfully, content in having done something worthwhile.
Perhaps there’s a lesson, there, too: If we believe that life is more than survival or subservience, then “to live” should involve the willingness to stand up for our right to do so. Can we not fight the misguided and abusive policies that we are forced to endure? Can we not challenge the people who defend the indefensible, legalize the illegal, and desecrate what is sacred to us? And can we not join hands with others who protect mountain and ocean, culture and freedom, truth and justice, land and life, by making their struggles our own?
Resilience may allow us to survive, but ultimately, it is resistance that will allow our people to reach their potential—and our nation to realize its promise.
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