That’s How the Light Comes In

January 09, 2020
Von Katindoy
Enthused by a recent SALT training session that emphasized learner engagement with the world, I experimented with the idea of using newspaper opinion pieces to preamble classical texts in my philosophy class. Happily, the insights that my students arrived at through the former allowed them to all the more appreciate the latter. A case in point was Mabeth Mabonga’s “I Hate My Boss” (Philippine Daily Inquirer, July 28, 2019) which paved the way for our discussion of Gabriel Marcel’s “Primary and Secondary Reflection: The Existential Fulcrum” (1951). My students first traced how Mabonga, an OFW (overseas Filipino worker), liberated herself from her largely nihilistic perspective as a victim by engaging in reflection and refraction; by the time we got to Marcel, they found it easier to dovetail the continuum of primary and secondary reflection with their life experiences. Ditto with “The Truths I Learned at the Ateneo” (Philippine Daily Inquirer, June 4, 2019), where John Nery’s admonition to aspire deliberately to be a Rizal rather than a Lete made the Socratic dictum in “Apology” (399 BC) more urgent and compelling. The philosophical texts continue to speak to our times indeed, despite the temporal distance between them and the opinion pieces. This is precisely why they are called the classics.
There is, however, another explanation that is more troubling. To wit: maybe it is because we have not really changed in a hundred years despite the dizzying advances we are witnessing in the 21st century. In fact, no less than the public historian and Ateneo professor Ambeth Ocampo said exactly that in response to the query as to why Mabini continues to be relevant in this day and age. The habit of blaming our present ills on the previous administration did not originate with Secretary Panelo. Long before the term “fake news” was coined to denote false claims to validity, facts were already being distorted to demonize the likes of Mabini, Laurel, and Quirino, all to advance various political agendas. The phenomenon of “laglagan,” which hinges on regionalism, continues to persist until today, a hundred years after it led to the murder of Bonifacio and Luna. Likewise, giving second chances to those who distract and entertain us did not start in 2019. The impunity of self-interest trumping the common good was not introduced by the Ampatuans. No wonder, then, that Professor Ocampo shared in a recent podcast that teaching Philippine history from 1898 to the present time “has no redeeming value. It’s all downhill after Bonifacio and Aguinaldo.” When I look back at the opposition’s dismal 2019 electoral loss, VP Robredo’s aborted stint as anti-drug czar, and the infantile government response to the Magnitsky Act, it is difficult not to agree with the esteemed historian.
And yet, in keeping with the hopeful context of the new year and, for that matter, the new decade, I am reminded of a memorable philosophy lecture which I attended as a student of the late Dr. Ramon Reyes. Toward the end of our class in contemporary philosophy, Doc Reyes, as he was fondly called, offered a hopeful view of humanity’s march toward the truth. He pointed out that, for all the evils and monstrosities humankind had to contend with since time immemorial, we should not lose sight of the gains we have achieved in marching toward the truth. Slavery used to be acceptable. Women used to be treated as second class citizens. Fascism used to be a viable option. The state and the church used to be monolithic. Colonization used to be the only way forward. Doc Reyes, when asked if all these significant milestones can only mean that the truth tends to change over time, pointed out that it is not so much the truth but rather how we perceive and interpret the truth that changes. Our understanding and appreciation of the truth may be likened to the parable of the blind men and the elephant, where a group of blind men who have never come across an elephant argue about their respective versions of what an elephant is.

The onus is on those whom society has tasked to serve as gadflies to help humanity realize that the seemingly divergent and contradictory views that we tend to cling to will ultimately help us inch closer to the truth. Alas, such can only come to pass if we make time for reflection, argumentation, and deliberation. It is so for humanity as it contends with the ongoing debate about global climate and ultranationalism. It is so for our country as we contend with the rehabilitation of the Marcos past and the persecution of those who dare to speak truth to power. It is so for the Ateneo as we seek to find a just and lasting solution to the issue of sexual harassment and another round of collective bargaining agreement. As we gear up for the other elephants that are before us this 2020, may we draw strength and inspiration from the poet and musician Leonard Cohen when he sang thus:
“Ring them bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light comes in.”