the mediocrity that we condemn ourselves to

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MAKATI, Philippines – In the prologue to his memoir, Senator Juan Ponce Enrile writes:

“Yes, life over the years I have lived has changed in many ways. Living became easier, more convenient and a lot faster, but it also became more complex and dangerous. Food remains scarce to many people despite advances in industrial and agricultural production. A great number of the population merely subsist with meager pay or with no employment at all. At great social cost, many more are leaving their homes and loved ones, exposing themselves to unknown perils, just to seek livelihood in foreign lands. The environment has become degraded due to inordinate consumption and waste. Our seas, rivers and the very air we breathe have become polluted.

I have seen how poverty, squalor and decay stalked the land, and how injustice, violence and discord divided our people.”

No matter how you view him, this passage from Sen. Enrile’s memoir evokes a certain sadness and the realization of how hard it is to get the right things done the right way in our country. That one of the most powerful men in the country for the past 40 or so years shares this lament makes you wonder what it would take to fix the ills that we know surrounds us.

When I was in the United States, one of my mentors was a man named Ron Harkey ( Ron was in his late-50s when I got to collaborate with him. He is a legend in the financial services sales industry. Ron taught me a lot of things. He did so by breaking me down and building me up again. All the buzzwords that we hear about excellence being a habit, Ron lived it and when you worked with him, you better make it a habit too. Ron taught me how to build a business – that is, one client at a time. I learned what working hard really meant from him and that there is no short-cut to success. He was the living embodiment of what he mentored to those who chose to be mentored by him.

Ron is a proud American. He would always say that he would forever be thankful for having been lucky to have been born in what he proudly would proclaim as the greatest country in world. His phrase for it was winning the “genetic lottery”.

Looking back, when I left the country to study and eventually work in the United States, I now realize I was a relatively detached and sheltered person up to that point. Just short of 30 years old at that time, I still had not formed a stable view of the world and how I wanted to engage in it. I had skated through school and even work. I was never a consistent hard worker not having had the opportunity to step out of my sheltered existence to understand what it really was. I took short-cuts when available and rationalized many things to a fault. I relied on my own version of the “genetic lottery”, (modesty aside) an above average intellect inherited from my parents, to get by. I was very Filipino in that way, palaging (as Congressman Rudy Farinas aptly put it) may palusot. Now I know that such is not enough.

We, Filipinos, have this annoying habit of making reklamo but never really doing anything tangible to resolve these complaints. When people come to me under these circumstances, I always tell them why don’t you do something about it. Be it confronting the object of the complaint or at least initiating the process by which they can seek redress for their grievances and perceived (or real) slights. More often than not I receive a reply which goes along the lines of – huwag na lang mas lalo pang gugulo or worse, ayaw ko nga, ikaw na lang susuportahan na lang kitaSus!

There is also this lack of discipline that is very maddening but is a fact of life in the Philippines. It seems like everyone thinks that laws, proper social norms and other standards meant to regulate behavior apply to everyone else except us. What ultimately happens, which becomes the bane of our existence (though we may or may not realize it), is that everyone accepts these “wrong” behaviors because everyone else does it – the “herd mentality”.

Our conscience shaped by the value system that we were taught when we were young and hardened by our experiences should logically act as the unconscious regulator of our individual or collective behavior. Who hasn’t felt that tinge of guilt at having bribed that traffic cop to escape a ticket? What about using our personal connections to get ahead in many things? Di ba hindi man pinapahalata sa loob-looban mo nararamdaman mo rin ang kahihiyan?

Filipinos go to great lengths para lang hindi mapahiya. This would include rationalizing actions, making up stories to outright lying. On the other hand, we also avoid actions where mapapahiya ang ibang tao. The latter behavior underlies the hesitation to make people accountable for their actions. There is a sense that if someone does something which will bring shame upon another person baka ma-karma. Corollary to this, it is very difficult to get a person to accept and admit mistakes as well as acknowledge that they don’t know something. I always tell people that what is more important is how they learn from their mistakes. Also, it is always better to say “I don’t know” when you don’t than to make something up and dig yourself a deeper hole. This is likely a symptom of an underlying inferiority complex that never really left us from the time we called it colonial mentality. At the end of the day, these behaviors confine us to narrow-minded thinking that belies a lack of maturity.

Two things bother me about where we are right now. The first is the seemingly gradual erosion of the level of behavior that is acceptable. This points to a degradation of the way values are being taught and cemented by experience. With this I am reminded of two things that have just played out in the national scene – the utter lack of remorse or accountability for plagiarism by a Senator of the Land and the aloofness of the impeached Chief Justice of the Supreme Court over his obvious malfeasance. When these supposed paragons of character instead resort to distorted rationalizations of their behavior, what does that say about the manner in which we choose our public officials?

The second thing that bothers me is the inconsistent and sometimes invisible calling to account for bad behavior. Marami pa rin talagang nakakalusot. What makes it worse and downright sad, is that we oftentimes nonchalantly pride ourselves sa ating mga palusot.

Unless we change as a people and engage ourselves in helping change things, we condemn ourselves to a mediocre and pitiful existence as people marked by the poverty, squalor, decay, injustice, violence and discord that Sen. Enrile describes. We will wallow in this existence because we have become accepting of what should not be accepted while at the same time resorting to “crab mentality” due to purely malicious inggit.

One cannot really ascribe to our nation and as a people a collective sense of pride. Filipino pride is an empty phrase because given the totality of things, what is there to be proud of? Yes – there are occasions (e.g. when Manny Pacquiao beats someone up) when we feel such an emotion but these moments are fleeting and in many cases, mababaw. But what have we really done as a nation to uplift the lives of those who still scrounge for garbage as a means of living, of those who die unnecessarily because getting sick is not an option (so they just die), of those who have lost hope or never had it in the first place.

To those of us who know better, it is about time to accept the state we are in, fight it and start our own individual process of change. This means being more disciplined, thinking more about what’s best for the many instead of what’s in it for me, not settling for puwede na, putting in the hard honest work (i.e. huwag na magpalusot), resisting the temptation of being drawn to the “herd mentality” and for God’s sake following traffic rules (sorry, my own pet peeve).

I made this and sent it to MMDA via their Twitter account. Until now – this still happens.

Changing a culture that has been built over at least five centuries of experiences seems impossible. Maybe it is. That doesn’t mean we cannot individually do our part to committing to this change. Just because someone else is doing something (no matter how obviously and blatantly wrong) doesn’t mean we should be doing it too in “lemming-like” fashion. You know what they say about those lemmings (these small rodents of the Arctic tundra), they’ll follow those in front of them even if it’s off the top of a cliff.

As for me, the probabilities are not in my favor of reaching the ripe-old age of 88 year that Sen. Enrile has so far lived to. But if by some miracle I do, I would want to be writing my memoir with a prologue that includes this –

I have seen how poverty, squalor and decay stalked the land, and how injustice, violence and discord divided our people. AND WE CONQUERED THESE.

Then I can look Ron Harkey (with a twinkle) in the eye and say – “hey dude, I fought for and won the “genetic lottery” too”.


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