Stars of hope
It was a quiet December evening, and I’ve just had dinner. It was the time of the year that I enjoyed the most, and not just because of the holiday season.
I was in Jones, Isabela, and there, far away from the glare of Manila’s city lights, the night sky was a clear ebony black, and the stars were an endless canopy of distant diamonds.
It was serene and peaceful in the garden of our ancestral home, and for a few days, I put down the responsibilities of everyday life, and reflected on things that don’t involve in a never-ending parade of numbers, rules and laws.
Christmas was upon us, and here in the house where I grew up, I was surrounded by some of the happiest memories of my life.
My parents loved the holidays, and although when we were young, they were still struggling to send all of us to school, they always made sure that we would all be together for the Midnight Mass and Noche Buena.
Life has since taught me that not all Christmases will be as idyllic as those of my youth, and last Christmas was definitely very different from those that came before.
Although Christmas of 2013 was bittersweet for me, I know that it will be far more difficult for so many people in the Visayas. In the days and weeks after the wrath of Yolanda, no one could watch the news reports without being profoundly moved by the devastation wrought on so many lives. And yet, I was also deeply moved by the stories of some of the foreign volunteers who arrived in scores, bringing everything from blankets to medicines to tents, and a wide variety of skills ranging from emergency medical treatment to firefighting, all determined to help in whatever way they could.
Perhaps one of the most moving stories I read was that of a gentleman who was a member of the Jewish team of relief and development experts sent by the Jewish Joint Distribution Center. His mother and grandparents, as it happened, were among 1,300 Jews to whom the late President Manuel L. Quezon issued visas in 1939, not long after the brutality of Kristallnacht, thus allowing them to escape Germany and the inhuman atrocities of the Nazi regime. Here was a chance for him to repay the debt of honour and gratitude his family owed Quezon and the Philippines—how could anyone fail to be moved by this man’s determination to “pay back” the good that had been done to his mother more than seven decades ago?
It has been two months since Tacloban City and so many other towns and villages in the Visayas were wiped off the face of the earth by a typhoon far more devastating than any storm in living memory. Much as I hate to sound cynical, the not-unexpected round of political mudslinging about relief efforts and recovery programs has already begun, and I am tempted to think that despite such a catastrophe, nothing has truly changed in the outlook of the Filipinos. I know this may sound rather heartless, but it seems that while hundreds still languish in the wasteland created by the fury of Yolanda, and scores of bodies lie unburied under fallen trees, collapsed walls and ruined houses, the siren call of political expediency continues to lure us away from our most immediate concerns: getting our people back on their feet, and making sure that the aid that is pouring in from both local and foreign sources is put to the best use possible.
To their credit, donors and volunteers—both from within the country and outside our shores—remain undeterred in their efforts, which are now directed toward reconstruction and rehabilitation. The past few weeks, in fact, have seen visits to Tacloban by such international figures as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon and US Secretary of State John Kerry. Such is the faith of the global community in us, I suppose, and their determination to help, that they refuse to be put off by such things as turf battles, public posturing and partisan bickering.
But we can’t— and shouldn’t—leave it at that. There is a lesson to be learned from the experience of Yolanda, immensely harsh as it may have been, and from where I sit, it is not that we should be better prepared for natural disasters—although that, of course, is very important, given the uncomfortable possibility that we will be hit by even stronger typhoons as the years pass. No, there is another important lesson to be learned from the experience of Yolanda, and I hope that we, as a people, will take notice.
I look at everything that has happened since the 8th of November and the response of so many countries around the world, and I think to myself: this is how we should measure our success as a state and as a people—that we, too, should be able to come to the aid of people in need with manpower, expertise and resources. It is true, of course, that we have sent medical teams and modest contingents to some disaster relief efforts. But how much better it would be if we could mobilize men, materiel and resources, to save even more lives, and to make an even greater difference in efforts to sustain the rehabilitation of areas devastated by natural disasters.
For so long, we have been asking ourselves what we can do for our fellow Filipinos. I think it’s time that we asked ourselves what we can do, not just for our countrymen, but for our fellow citizens in the global village. We are told that the best way to show gratitude for the aid that we receive is to use it well in order to improve our situation. Perhaps, however, it is time to go one step further, and to say that the best thanks that we can give to those who have come to our help is to achieve such a level of development that we, in our own turn, can give the same kind of aid that was given to us. “Paying it forward,” in a very real sense, is the best tribute we can give to those who came to our assistance, because the good will and compassion that they extended to us serve to inspire us to extend our own hands in compassion to others.
I don’t normally speak of religious matters—in times like these, however, I can’t help but remember something that Pope Francis (he of the great heart and the hands of mercy) said: “If we wish to lead a dignified and fulfilling life, we have to reach out to others and seek their good.”
How right he is—there can be no more dignified way of living than to transform the good will that was given to us into the inspiration for our own service to others beyond our shores who, like us, may one day be in great need, as we ourselves were once in great need.
In the final analysis, of what use will wealth and power be to us, if we cannot—or do not—use them to help others, to save lives, to make this world a more compassionate place?
Right now, of course, all this seems a tall order, especially given all that has happened last year: the earthquakes that leveled homes in Bohol and Cebu, and ruined some of the country’s magnificent churches; the unfolding web of corruption and political machinations lurking behind the pork barrel scandal; the tax problems that revealed boxing hero Manny Pacquiao’s feet of clay; the power, gas and LPG rate hikes that dealt the people a double-whammy before Christmas. Challenges they surely are, but we cannot—we must not—let ourselves be intimidated or discouraged.
The stars that twinkled at me were the same stars that the people of Tacloban were watching that night.
As I looked at them, I’m reminded of a beautiful scene in one of my favourite books, “The Lord of the Rings.” In it, Frodo the Hobbit and his faithful friend Sam, weakened by exhaustion and hunger, and haunted by the pervading evil of Sauron, are seeking shelter as night falls over the land of Mordor. Yet through the gloom of the ever-present clouds of that wicked land, the light of the Star of the Elves breaks through, reminding Sam that no evil can ever extinguish the light of goodness.
The stars, indeed, shine brightest when all appears dark and lost.
Those who came to our aid in this time of great need were the stars that shone through the darkness of Yolanda’s destruction. May we, too, in our own time, be stars of hope to others, and transform the Filipino nation into a true emissary of humanity and compassion across the world.
A Peaceful New Year to All!
(The article reflects the personal opinion of the author and does not reflect the official stand of the Management Association of the Philippines. The author is a Senior Partner of The Tax Offices of Romero, Aguilar & Associates and member of the MAP National Issues Committee and MAP Tax Committee. Feedback at <[email protected]> and <[email protected]>. For previous articles, please visit <map.org.ph>)