The star of hope

Ours is a crisis country. That seems to be natural, the Philippines being in the typhoon and earthquake belts. Calamities and disasters bring us to crisis situations and it is only a matter of how many times, and how bad each time.

By a stroke of luck, or serendipity, my corporate career made a sudden and drastic turn in my mid-30s. From an earlier life in the province full of sugar cane, and belonging to one side of the coin where sugar planters belong, I moved on to the great Manila (anywhere in Metro Manila was simply Manila to us then) for college and then work. I knew I was part of the fortunate and truly enjoyed the blessings. What I did not know all this time was just how bad it was for the unfortunate.

One day, I found a mountain just a few hours away from Manila. It was at the heart of the Tagalog region and quite troubled at that time, an arena where the communist rebellion was active and influential. That should have made me simply turn around and return to the comfort of the metropolis, or to the boyhood home in the sugar cane province. However, for reasons I find hard even now to fully explain, the mountain and what it represented totally captured my spirit, my curiosity, and my imagination.  

Fast forward to today, 40 years later. I am still a probinsyano, an Ilonggo, a history I cannot change but appreciate even more now. At the same time, the sojourn that became a sustained journey to the mountain, to the heart of the Tagalog region, and decades of immersion in ordinary Filipino communities taught me so much that I can claim I am more today than what I was before.

Basically, my eyes opened to Filipino culture, to life among the ordinary and the poor, and the aspect of citizenship from the collective dimension. It was impossible for me to stay like before, to bask in the blessed circumstances of my younger years, yet remain mostly ignorant to what the vast majority of Filipinos are and how they live. My newly-opened eyes brought me to advocacy work and political activism. I became drawn to the plight of the poor and the plight of the nation.

Over almost another 40 years, I learned the greater and deeper meaning of crisis. The primordial lesson is that the circumstance of territory, our being in the typhoon and earthquake belts, is not the worst crisis by far that we undergo regularly as a people and a nation. It is rather, by far, man-made more than natural disasters that are the most painful, the most horrible, the most terrible.

The poverty of a people situated in one of the most blessed territories on this earth is not a natural disaster, it is a grievous anomaly. Nature has been more generous to the Philippines than it has to the vast majority of countries in the world. One of the richest in biodiversity means one of the richest in life-forms, one of the richest in natural wealth like minerals, including oil and gas, one of the richest in marine life, including fish and other seafood other nations can only dream of (or steal), one of the richest in fertile land. Maybe the closest to paradise in abundance and, most of all, in beauty.

To have been poor, to remain in poverty without a clear and visible exit, is a man-made curse that defied the intent of creation.

If poverty is the anomaly, corruption is the curse. Poverty has not been the response of the Filipino to a blessed land. Rather, poverty is the consequence of the greed of man, not from the ordinary or the poor Filipino who represents the vast majority, but from the powerful who used their elite status and resources for themselves more than people or nation. That is corruption, that is the curse.

I am not saying anything new. Neither is the Filipino the exclusive victim of curses and anomalies. The world, and especially the few in the world who own and control the global power and resources, know even more than me what it is all about. Sadly, those with the advantage will not give it up to level the playing field. Instead, they will expect the disadvantaged to work for it, to struggle long and hard for a piece of it, or die in the process. The world has known for a long time what I only discovered in the latter part of my life.

The glaring and painful contrast rises to the surface even more today because we are in the Christmas season. As Christians, Christmas is a global feast hoisting the impossible dream of Jesus who began Christendom. Christmas is a story of love, the unending wish of a father to rescue his children from the mess they got into, the birth of the equal-in-worth-and-dignity dignity of the poor whom the founder of Christianity chose to be a member of.

Christmas is also the story of the star, the bright celestial light that draws kings and shepherds alike, the brilliance from the skies that delivers hope from despair. There have been 2,000 Christmases that have been, and it is true that anomalies and curses continue to choke the majority of mankind. Yet, the star does not dim, the hope does not fade, and in the midst of darkness or pain, the light of joy has not been snuffed out. Because 2,000 years in the spectrum of existence is but a drop in the ocean of time.  

At the same time, all is not left to creation, or the creator. There is before us at every moment of our temporal existence the loving invitation to follow the star, to give more than to take, to love, not exploit, the other.

Merry Christmas!