Friday, November 07, 2008

Why can’t we be serious?

As a people, Filipinos seem hopelessly enamoured with humour. We laugh at our shortcomings and failures, and we make fun of our inability to be serious when it’s time to be. What we fail to realize is that this is a very ambiguous trait that, as the world turns, could either make or undo us as a people.

When Joseph Estrada was elected president of the country, many scoffed at his rudimentary English, even chastising him from speaking English in his public appearances or meetings with foreign dignitaries, yet we all knew his shortcomings before electing him to the highest office in the land. Later, we even collected all the jokes about him as if these were his only legacy and memorialized them every time we had the opportunity to crack an Erap joke.

Some of us may justify this inclination for humour or taking things very lightly with a defeatist shrug and with the ever-so-popular lame excuse that life is just too short. So we may not care about the affairs of the state, especially if we are talking about the Philippines and the poverty in our country when we are thousands of miles away here in comfort in Canada. I even heard someone said that if you wish to talk about the problems that plague the Philippines, then you’d better go home and do the talking there. “Life is too short,” he said, and why would he bother?

People, such as this person I was talking about, would rather spend time kibitzing or horsing around, sending retread jokes on the Internet or drinking coffee while bantering with his cohort of happy-go-lucky-misery-proof friends. If you persist in discussing serious issues with them, they will brusquely dismiss you as opinionated, or even high-minded. To them, life is just too short to waste time on matters one doesn’t have any control of. One person whose views border on the edge of hedonism and crudeness even said that life is a joke.

It is no wonder that as a people we have not progressed well; at least, on the intellectual level. Our achievement index is flat. So long as we are able to satisfy our basic needs, nothing else matters. The bottomline for most of us is just to fill our pockets. We revel in the glitzy success of our entertainment stars like singers or dancers, yet we don’t encourage those with the genuine artistic talent to flourish. We’re awed by the palatial mansions a few among us have acquired, yet we ignore the conditions of many doomed to stay in public housing or low-rent apartments in the inner city. We recognize our well-off physicians and professionals who’ve made good in their careers, but we don’t commiserate with the plight of those at the lower rungs of the economic ladder who continue to struggle in making both ends meet.

Filipinos here in Canada are part of the phenomenon of larger-scale migration due to exploitation and hardship in our native land. Most of us were driven to leave our country to seek better opportunities abroad, but majority of the migrants among us were forced to leave their families to seek jobs abroad because of poverty, lack of employment and our economy’s persistent underdevelopment. There are also some of us who have to leave our homeland because of intolerable persecution and suppression of our political rights.

To the Philippine government, our migrant workers, like Filipino live-in caregivers in Canada, are no more than an object of further exploitation. They pay exorbitant fees just to come here without gaining any protection in return. Migrant workers have also become an abundant source of foreign exchange which, however, is not used by the government to stimulate the economy and create jobs, but to further aggravate poverty and our country’s underdevelopment.

Most of our migrant workers wish to return to our homeland, a yearning many of us share. Yet the conditions in our country have remained very unforgiving so they have decided to settle permanently in this foreign country. If we talk about this desire and longing to go home, surely many will laugh and call it a big joke. Get a life, they will tell you. You are out of the frying pan now, why should you go back to the fire?

This cavalier tendency to take things in stride is not without any downside. It may become an opiate that numbs our senses to the point that we may never be able to recognize the need to be serious, or have the ability to care. Not everything can be cured by laughter; the doctor that prescribed it must have forgotten to add. Especially when it is insensitive humour that attempts to treat life only as an illusion and to forget that reality can be harsh, cruel, and quite brutish.

Worse, this nonchalance could turn us into a hapless fool like Titania, queen of the fairies in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, who exclaimed, “My Oberon! What visions have I seen! Methought I was enamour'd of an ass.”

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