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Burst of kindness

Publication Date : 24-12-2013

 

It was a minor story on TV a few weeks ago. A 7-year-old boy thought of giving away the gifts he got that day, his birthday, to the kids in Tacloban. Not all of them were toys, some were useful items. But whatever they were, he figured the kids of Tacloban had a better use for them. It was a nice gesture and gave off a nice glow.

That kid was just one of the tens of thousands of residents of Metro Manila, indeed of various places in the country, indeed of the world, who were deeply moved by the devastation wrought by “Yolanda” and who ached to do something about it. At the time the story came out, which was a couple of weeks or so after the supertyphoon, relief was tumbling in like a flood and, more importantly, was finally getting to where it was supposed to go. So it didn’t seem like much.

But it was much. Like Yolanda itself, which raised the bar on the ferocity of storms, raising fears about the future of coastal countries, the outpouring of goodwill which surged like a storm surge through the nation and the world raised the bar on bayanihan (community spirit). On kindness and decency. On basic humanity.

That was a phenomenon too. Of course we have always been seized by bursts of bayanihan during disasters, everyone, young and old, students and professionals, istambay (bum) and show biz, lending time and sinew to the survivors. Indeed, everyone, men and women, rich and poor, honest and corrupt, giving old clothes, discarded appliances, and money to those ground to nothingness. That was so during “Ondoy”, that was so during “Sendong”, that was so during “Pablo”. The first drowned Metro Manila in water, the second buried Cagayan de Oro in mud, and the third flattened Compostela Valley. But none of them drowned, buried or flattened the country’s spirit of malasakit, which soared in the wake of the wakes for the dead.

But Yolanda went past all this. Maybe it was the scale of the disaster, the mind-boggling sight of a whole city turned into one gigantic garbage dump, the hand of violence that had been laid upon it seen in the twisted metal, the roofless houses, the branches of trees stripped bare. And the bodies, piles and piles of them in the rigors of death, caked in mud, decomposing right where they fell while people keened or drifted past them like shadows. A horrific sight that had pulled in the world’s media, partly in morbid fascination, partly in heartfelt commiseration. Everything about the disaster was outsized, from the shell-shocked paralysis it initially caused to the explosion of do-gooding it subsequently unleashed.

The outsized-ness wasn’t just about quantity, it was also about quality. There was something new, epic, different about the wave of concern and goodwill and willingness to give that went with it. Suddenly everyone wanted to give, and not just give things but give of themselves. Christmas parties and various festivities were cancelled, people deciding to just give the money for them to the survivors of Yolanda. Some others opted to hold less lavish gatherings, the thought of groaning in food and drink and excess of cheer while the survivors groaned in hunger and grief being a thorn on the side of conscience.

Strangely, sublimely, the country discovered simplicity in the heart of Christmas. Strangely, sublimely, the country discovered Christmas in the heart of simplicity.

Adults brought their kids along with them to help pack relief items for the wave upon wave of refugees turning in every day at Villamor Air Base. Some of the adults volunteered to do a bit of counseling, or comforting, even though they had no training in counseling, even though they themselves probably needed comforting. All they knew was that their hearts bled for the grieving, they would be there for them, they would grieve along with them. And lo and behold, they did bring relief to the afflicted, they did bring comfort to the afflicted. And to themselves along the way.

Fund-raising projects mushroomed overnight, chief of them from the artists—who better than them to grasp the human condition, the abject condition?—and chief of them the musicians—who better than the kith and kin of the Warays, who better than the kindred souls of the Warays, to fly to their side? A friend of mine told me this was the busiest she had ever been on a Christmas, she was practically singing every day, sometimes several times a day, but this was also the poorest she had ever been on a Christmas. Most of those gigs were for free, they were for the survivors of Yolanda, they were for the living and dead of Yolanda. But strangely, this was the most fulfilled she had ever been on a Christmas.

This was the poorest she had even been on a Christmas, this was the richest she had ever been on a Christmas.

It’s the most astounding thing in the world. But one that also makes us wonder: Why can’t we do this half the time? Or a great deal of the time? Why can’t we be stirred to these heroic heights, these epic lengths, to lend a hand to those driven to want, trodden to grief, ground to nothingness? Heaven knows they are everywhere around us, a fixture of the season when they tumble out into the streets like a flood.
But I’ll leave that for another day. At least we know we are capable of transcending ourselves, even if it takes the most dramatic thing, the most crushing weight, for us to know it. At least we can show that we are capable of reaching for things that lie beyond our grasp, even if takes seeing the graspable recede even further for us to exert ourselves. Maybe that’s what the season is all about, discovering in the desolation of winter a sudden fire, in the emptiness of death a sudden birth, in the roiling fog of hopelessness a burst of life.

Merry Christmas everyone!

 

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