Thursday, July 26, 2007

A clean, well-lighted place

On June 30, 1992—that was 15 years ago—just before the new president, Fidel Ramos, was going to be sworn in, I was somewhere in Santa Cruz, waiting for our photographer. I was in a rush to finish an assignment so I could be home to watch the swearing in on TV.

I was doing a magazine story and I forget now what it was. But what turned out to be unforgettable was my encounter with a family of soon-to-be-seven that lived in two pushcarts. The mother’s name was Evangelina Gamutan. She was 34 but looked 54. She was ngo-ngo (with a cleft palate) and was heavy with her fifth child. Her children were aged 3 to 13. The eldest looked like she was six and had only been to Grade One. Her husband scavenged for used bottles and sometimes begged for alms.

If Angelina is still alive now she should be 49 by now and with, maybe, 10 children. When I asked her then where she was going to give birth she answered, “Ung a-an abu-in.” Kung saan abutin or wherever.

Soon they were going to be seven in all. The two wooden carts would have become too small for the growing brood. I was struck by the things Evangelina had in her mobile home. She had a dish rack, a rusty thermos bottle, a dirty teddy bear, a broom…Just like what you’d find in any home. You bet she didn’t know there was a new guy up there and newly sworn-in lawmakers and government officials as well.

This scene was swimming in my head while watching Pres. Arroyo deliver her seventh State of the Nation Address (SONA) last Monday. I noted down a pair of words she emphasized—dunong at kalusugan. Knowledge and health as keys to a person’s becoming and one of the basic driving forces of a community’s progress. For how to move forward if one was not equipped with the mental know-how and did not have the physical strength to do what needs to be done?

So easy to say, it almost sounds cliché. But it is obvious, if not glaring, that these two—dunong at kalusugan—are sorely what the majority of Filipinos are pining for. Raw knowledge and talent we have plenty of, for we are indeed a gifted race, but to hone these and translate these into progress and a better life is another story.

While I tend to agree with the research-based generalization that Filipinos are among the happiest in this world, I would probably give credit to our genes and hormonal make-up rather than to the state of affairs in our surroundings. Yes, we have fewer suicides compared with the more affluent nations but it is because being long-suffering has become a way of life.

And speaking of suicides, the day the President was delivering her SONA a desperate man was again high up there on one of the billboards from hell, about to call it quits because he had lost his job as kaminero (street sweeper), his wife with their child in tow, everything that gave meaning to his life. MMDA chair Bayani Fernando’s assurance that he would have his job back gave the man reason to live. That was all it took to give him hope for the moment.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” which is very much part of his theory of personality has long been proven to be very basic. Unlike Freud who delves deep into that dark ocean called the unconscious, Maslow is more of a humanist who focuses on the potentials of persons, their search for higher wisdom, understanding, creativity. Therefore, if the environment is right, persons, people, communities could become actualized, fully grown, happy. That is easier said than done, of course.

Here is the summary of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs which could be represented by a triangle: 1)physiological needs, 2)safety needs, 3)needs of love, affection and belonging, 4)needs for esteem, 4)needs of self actualization. We all had to memorize these in Psychology class.

I was thinking along these lines while listening to the SONA and the President’s list of accomplishments and the sound of feather-fluffing and also her plans for her three remaining years in office. Which of these needs has her government helped to meet dramatically? If surveys are to be believed, most Filipinos are still struggling with numbers 1 and 2. Food, water, the basics to survive.

When will the trickle-down effect be felt?

All most people need is “a clean, well-lighted place”, to borrow the title of Hemingway’s famous but short story. A place to be, to stay, to feel safe in, to belong. Clean and well-lighted, where the body and spirit could feel free and comforted.

Hemingway’s understated story, though set in a small café with a time frame of a few hours, is about basic yearnings for a safe haven, not just for the body but for the spirit as well.

Despair is a major element in the story, perhaps a projection of the Nobel Prize winner’s own search for true meaning and sense of purpose.

We all yearn for that clean and well-lighted place. The truly poor in this country have their literal specifications—a home they could call their own, clean water, nutritious food, good neighbors. And don’t forget the music.

I quote what the late Sr. Christine Tan, RGS, whose feastday it was last Tuesday, said many years ago when she took on a leadership position. Leaders hearken. “Today, as we live through helplessness and national suffering, I hold the key to many lives. Each step I make could build or destroy, contribute to truth or to sham. Perhaps the world will be better because I was born. But while every fiber of my being is immersed in this frenzy of service and passion, deep in my core, nothing matters except that on the day of reckoning, the One for whom I lived my live in struggling purity, will see my face… and recognize it.”