Light your candle

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

I had a serious debate with myself a little earlier. A great depression had come over me after I learned of the third teenager to be violently killed in a matter of two weeks. All three deaths were terrible, reprehensible. I felt like retching – as if to throw out a deadly virus threatening to poison my body system. Yet, it was time for me to begin writing my weekly article. All kinds of thoughts were crisscrossing my mind but I knew there was nothing there but inexpressible anguish. I decided then that there would be no article from me this Friday with only death and emptiness swallowing me.

There were years when anger would save me from depression or frustration. Anger is such a powerful emotion that it can counter whatever is there. But I had gone through enough anger for a lifetime, anger that turns to rage, rage that turns to hate. It had eaten me up before but I was able to sustain it. I told myself that I simply wanted change and I could enumerate the conditions out there that deserved to be obliterated. Life is beautiful, we are told, and we know it can be true. But life is ugly, too, even if no one tells us. From the cesspool of ugliness, there are a million reasons for change, the same million reasons for anger and hate.

Decades later, which is now, I recall all those dreams for change. Even more, I remember the struggles I joined to effect change. All the time, I thought I was driven by righteous anger. After all, Jesus took to the whip to drive away the money changers from the temple. And, after all, I sincerely wanted change and invested so much of myself, my family and my resources to do my share. In those struggles, life and death situations arose. Yet, I persisted, buoyed by the same determination from others with whom I walked the path of change. Anger, too, made me forget my fears, made me blind to the risks.

Today, I can still find the cesspool of ugliness, the million reasons for change, the same million reasons for anger and hate. Driven as I was, I did not allow the exhaustion and frustration to paralyze me into inaction. That is what anger and hate can do, in the name of change. And that is what anger and hate can do – never achieve the noble change we fight for in the first place. Of course, I did not know it then. There was change; I could see it, I could feel it. After all, the dictatorship collapsed, was driven out. After all, another plunderer was removed. And one more survived the efforts to remove her but has not removed the bitter taste of a suspected yet unresolved plunder. Are we not supposed to fight thieves and murderers? Are we not supposed to fight evil? So, I fought.

It must have been some kind of divine intervention that brought me to a second and simultaneous path for change called Gawad Kalinga. After one plunderer was removed, there was relative peace in the land, a kind of political honeymoon to give the political successor an opportunity to make meaningful change happen. That pause gave me the time to see change happening in a quiet and simple way. It looked small and insignificant at that time because the tens of millions of poor Filipinos and a whole nation asking to be rid of corruption needed more than the noble work of a few without resources at that. But the nobility of the work was nevertheless attractive enough even if the scale was not. I poured myself into the new advocacy without pressing distractions from political crises. Funny, but that small, seemingly insignificant alternative path of change is achieving much more than the traditional, power and resourced manner we call good governance. Maybe, because good governance never came, just flashes of it. Names and faces changed, and that was what we thought was change was all about. Of course, together with the new names and faces, personalities were different, governance styles were different, even some personal values were different. The system, though, stayed basically the same. And the system and its institutions represent the real value system of those in power in the major fields of society – the State, the Church, Big Business, the Academe, civil society.

I could see one path of change actually doing something good by the day, and it never stopped. It is still there, bigger than it was, of course, and more pro-active and imaginative. Many others, too, are into that kind of change, radically positive, as unmindful of politics and religion as possible, and just quietly persistent. Yes, doing good, and especially if one does not give up, will always produce more good. And when we eliminate anger and hate from the equation of change, we sidestep the pendulum of constant back-and-forth with little to show after so long.

When poverty, corruption, and violence seem to overwhelm societal life when we feel like choking, it is beyond just the ugliness of the specific causes – it is hopelessness itself that is the greatest killer. It is this hopelessness that good people doing good works chips at until a silver lining can be seen through the dark clouds. It is hope that good people and good works deliver, every time, all the time. Because goodness has a power in itself, too, and maybe greater than despair. Ask the Christians who were saved by kind-hearted Muslims in Marawi. They know the power of goodness, both parties, the saved and the savers.

I pick myself up again. I must work to deliver more hope, one day at a time, every day if I can. Because hope is what makes me dream of the tomorrow of my children and grandchildren, the same hope that keeps millions of other Filipinos strong against crisis after crisis. If you feel like cursing the darkness, light your candle instead.


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