We were all children once
On Inauguration Day in America last January, President Biden, in his speech, invoked St. Augustine’s writing that a people is a multitude defined by the common objects of their love.
Recently I found myself in Harper Lee’s hometown in Alabama, on which she based the fictional town of Maycomb in her book “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a favorite. Lee begins the book with an epigraph by Charles Lamb: “Lawyers, I suppose, were children once.”
In a place like this, I found myself waxing nostalgic for the simple life — the wonder years of childhood, the easeful life in a small town. Like Scout in the book, I grew up in a tiny town in Cavite where I knew everyone on my street and beyond. Like Scout, I adored my only brother and my father. I remember, as a child, sneaking up to the courthouse on the second floor of the municipio to watch my father defend a case. Like Atticus, I remember my father as a man of honor and humility with a strong sense of justice, the type who accepted bottles of fresh carabao’s milk as payment for his work.
We did not have money. We never went on holidays. Most of our free time was spent, my brother and I, riding our bicycles around town or playing in the rice fields around our home. On Sundays, while my father read his newspaper or grown-up books, I read fairy tales, Greek mythology, and stories from the Bible. Like Atticus with Jem and Scout, my father, through his example, instilled in me lessons that have made me the man I am today.
Harper Lee, in an interview after her book became a sensation, said: “… the South is still made up of thousands of tiny towns… I would simply like to put down all I know about this because I believe that there is something universal in this little world, something decent to be said for it, and something to lament in its passing.”
Perhaps it is that “something universal” that made the book resonate with me when I first read it as a young man in that small town on the other side of the world—those universal lessons of justice, honor, and humility that I somehow absorbed from the way my father lived his life.
I would like to think that that “something universal” evoked by Lee’s book is also the common object of love that defines us as a people. I have no doubt that many Filipinos share my deep longing to bring back front and center in our public life those old-fashioned small-town values like kindness, humility, honor, and decency, values that children, like Scout and you and me back then, did not have to learn because human beings are all born that way. Nelson Mandela once said, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
If we truly love our children, we must find ways to disrupt the story peddled by those in power these days—the story of hate, arrogance, dishonesty, and mean-spiritedness. We must remember and insist, again and again, who we truly are — that we all believe in kindness, humility, honor, and decency, that these are the common objects of love that bind us together and define us as a people.
It is never too late. As in America in the dawning of the post-Trump era, we have the power to summon the better angels of our people and bring back decency into our lives and the lives of our children. I am reminded of Barack Obama’s favorite quote by Martin Luther King Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
There is no better time to act. We all could start small. Perhaps, give a cookie to that person you usually ignore — the security guard, the janitor, the street vendor, the traffic police. Or check in on your elderly neighbor who lives alone. Or extend a heartfelt thanks to your work colleagues in your next Zoom meeting. Like the butterfly effect, these small acts of kindness, of humility and decency, could have a profound ripple effect on someone somewhere that we could not even begin to imagine.
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Joel Villaseca is usually an attorney ,but these days he spends most of his time as a monk in New York City.
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