Monday, August 27, 2007
The Sad Face of Poverty
(Note: Prompted by the degrading remarks issued by one Malu Fernandez to the OFW's in Dubai, I ask myself the hard question, "Am I 'matapobre' just like her? Am I doing something for the poor or just turning a blind eye to the sad faces I see everyday?")
Poverty is such a controversial topic for me. I feel obliged to help the poor and cannot turn down offers to buy a garland of sampaguita from occasional beggar child/woman peddlers. I am moved to help, to actually do something concrete like help build a home for the Gawad Kalinga program, but just like the rest, am immobilized by the immensity of the task and end up doing nothing apart from watching all of those pro-poor programs granting them wishes that could turn their lives over. I am moved to tears each time I watch those TV networks giants provide their heart's content like the proverbial genie in a bottle. In the back of my head, I silently say to myself that I am doing my part by keeping the ratings up of those programs, and sitting comfortably in my chair smugly think that I have acted my part. Just like the rest of us, I am apathetic to the plight of our country's poorest of the poor. I wish I could do something but in actuality do nothing, apart from recognizing the situation and fruitlessly hoping it will go away in a couple of years time.
Meanwhile, I see poverty on a daily basis. I recognize it in the face of the hunchbacked old man I regularly sight on our streets pushing his cart full of potted flowers and plants. He navigates our streets by beating his old body to shove his heavy wooden cart unmindful of the harsh elements throughout the day. Each time I see him I am reminded of the old poem from highschool which I was forced to memorized, "stolid and stunned, a brother to the ox?, Who loosened and let down this brutal jaw?". (The snippet of the poem, you can read below.) To be a man and yet to live like a beast, this man's existence is reduced to a mockery, as he lives way far below the acceptable standard of human life. So I everytime I chance upon him, I offer him a wordless prayer that he may find happiness despite of his current situation. And I am sure somehow he is happy, because everyday he wakes up willing and ready to push and shove his cart in our busy streets, as I catch him steadily peddling his wares on an almost daily basis. To be poor and to be happy, that is the fate of most Filipinos. Remember Sisyphus, the man condemned by the Grecian gods to push his boulder to top of the mountain only to let it go and do it all over again once he reaches the summit? Albert Camus once said that Sisyphus is happy, contented with his senseless fate. If you imagine Sisyphus as happy, it not difficult to imagine the poor being happy.
I want to blame the poor for being poor. Sometimes, instead of feeling remorse and guilt, I feel nothing but hatred for them. I hate them for begging and using my acute sense of pity just so I would part my few inconsequential coins or be moved to buy whatever articles they are selling. I hate them for not being able to take care of themselves, for using their babies or somebody else's baby as a tool for further begging. I hate poverty and everything that it represents. I hate the helplessness of their situation, the mindlessness of it all, the quiet desperation and above all the silent acceptance of their fate. So they say, if you are born poor and die poor then it is your fault. Being born poor is never an excuse to being poor all of your life. Some people remain poor for the mere lack of trying.
I know I run the risk of being called judgmental for saying those things. I maybe scorned and be held in contempt for recklessly voicing my opinions out. But the thing is, I honestly want to do something about the problem of poverty in this country. I want to do my share in alleviating the plight of the poor not just in some fancy conceptual terms but in its actual and real sense. I never want to be 'matapobre.' Quite literally, the word means "eyeing the poor" from the root words mata and pobre. To be 'matapobre' is to judge the poor, to insult and to demean them for being poor. I guess that is the easier path, to simply sit in your lofty pedestal and to judge every single one of them for their erroneous and cheap choices. I will never be 'matapobre' in that sense of the word. I don't want to associate myself with the depravity that is poverty but I don't want to disassociate myself entirely with it either. I want to do my share, I want to help. But perhaps, it can only be done "one person at a time", just like our wise parish priest once said. He explains, "If the task of helping the poor is too great for you, too much for you, then perhaps you should do it one person at a time. Help one person at a time."
BOWED by the weight of centuries he leans
Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground,
The emptiness of ages in his face,
And on his back the burden of the world.
Who made him dead to rapture and despair,
A thing that grieves not, and that never hopes,
Stolid and stunned, a brother to the ox?
Who loosened and let down this brutal jaw?
Whose was the hand that slanted back this brow?
Whose breath blew out the light within this brain?
Is this the Thing the Lord God made and gave
To have dominion over sea and land;
To trace the stars and search the heavens for power;
To feel the passion of eternity?
Is this the dream He dreamed who shaped the suns
And marked their ways upon the ancient deep?
Down all the caverns of Hell to their last gulf
There is no shape more terrible than this--
More tounged with censure of the world's blind greed--
More filled with signs and portents for the soul--
More packed with danger to the universe.
Edwin Markham, The Man With a Hoe