Trying to see the light

Trying to see the light

12:30 AM May 31, 2024

We want security, a primal need, but we also want freedom, a human aspiration. When we are fearful, security is primordial. When there is confidence, freedom becomes a burning desire.

Poverty seeks security. Poverty faces daily threats of survival, and scarcity is the defining feature of daily life. On the other hand, abundance seeks expansion and adventure for new things. Poverty and abundance have a natural tension. Unchecked, the tension becomes deadly.

Inequality, then, is a natural promoter of tension. Over time, the tension leads to an implosion or an explosion. Extreme inequality follows the same formula of life except it will speed up the final ending.

It is true that man’s history, including the Filipino’s, had for the longest time been of extreme inequality. There were the kings and emperors, then the peasants and the slaves. One family could not only rule but own and control all lands, even had the power of life and death over their subjects. What could be more extremely unequal than that?


Yet, it took millennia for societies to evolve, to breach the need of collective security or resignation for individual freedom. Humanity has succeeded but not by much considering the turbulence in many countries. The initial slow pace of evolution is what keeps the extreme inequality largely in place. It seems man developed the resilience to endure hardship over time.

Having written an opinion column for almost 25 years, I have had to observe life around me in different ways. First, observing Filipinos and trying to make sense of it, Filipinos coming from different regions, different economic classes, with different subcultures. I have sensed maturity evolving faster at the middle to upper middle level, very slow among the poor and poorest, and not that much faster among the elite once they become so.

Maturity is hard to come by, and even harder to maintain as life becomes more comfortable. The great leaps are often from the totally dependent who discover capacity and relative independence. In the beginning, independence is a heady state. Its novelty to the once incapable and dependent is like a child first learning to walk and then wanting to walk faster and run.

From poverty to middle class, then, is my first observed great leap. This grand phase continues as things improve, as comfort is reached, and the first luxuries are experienced. As a sector, imagine millions of relative beggars able to do the simple things by themselves and enjoying the fruits of their labor. Not much, it may seem to the rich, but very much, indeed, from those who had lived in scarcity all their lives – and their ancestors before them.


It seemed to me but natural that the new rich would continue upwards with unimpeded progress, and some really do. They become the visionaries, the statesmen, the great builders, the outstanding philanthropists. Because these exceptions command great attention from the rest of society, we are led to believe that there are more of them. The recognized heroes and their exploits become the new and living legends of society. In fact, there are not that many of them.

For most, I would say, the first and great successes have brought so many benefits that they unwittingly stop growing – except horizontally by adding more zeros to their accumulated wealth. Like the poor and very poor, progress becomes slow again. This must be the reason why there have been so many reminders that we cannot bring our material wealth to heaven. I believe they refer to people who sought for something better, found wealth, and then narrowed their search to only material wealth thereafter.


The unusual length of being poor had become a pattern, almost a feature of the genes, so much so that it has been passed on from one generation to another. The poor in the Philippines inherited their poverty. It has been in their genes, in their consciousness, in their culture and, inexplicably but sadly, engendered resignation more than anger or wisdom. Exploiters in politics and business have taken advantage of this. They can do more, give more, push the envelope of development more, but will not. Just enough to prevent an implosion or explosion.

There are exceptions, of course, and we have had to depend on these exceptions for the little growth and progress in the Philippines. If the elite as a class, rather than only the exceptions among them, were to lead the charge for more progress and enlightenment, the rise of the poor and very poor towards relative capacity and self-sufficiency should not take more than a generation or two. That is because the power, the control, and the influence of the elite is almost total in the Philippine scene. The poor and very poor, too, will ride the wave to get out of their historical misery.

Unfortunately, I do not see it happening. Material wealth is an aphrodisiac, and addictive. The perks that go along with it – power and influence – make the addiction even deeper. If it is difficult to learn from pain, as is the state of the traditional poor and very poor, then it is extremely unlikely that the atrophied rich will learn life lessons from luxury. We go only by exceptions, and hope they inspire powerfully. Just like the exceptions among the poor who make it to the next levels. We know, though, that there are just not enough of them.

Life is continuously flowing. There is a natural inner urge that collides with stagnancy, producing subtle but constant tension. Nature pushes for the new. Any stubborn and extended effort to keep things the same creates tension with the natural design. From the outside, we do not see much of this. We think the poor are quietly resigned, and they are to a certain point. But beyond that is also tension for them. Just not enough yet.

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We have clues but no answer. We sense where we are going but, strangely, we are also trying not to get there.

TAGS: opinion

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