Dignity in suffering

There is something humiliating in suffering and something elevating and superior in sympathy.  Which is why these two sentiments, said Nietzsche, will always be strained.  Their interaction must be handled with care.

The problem of lahar in Pampanga is compounded by the fact that its victims have been unable to bear their suffering with dignity.  Those who report their suffering in an act of sympathy often unwittingly prevent them from  living their misfortune with honor.

Media encourages them mostly to beg, bare their wounds and profess their helplessness.  It has little to say about their willful survival, and their efforts to help themselves.  It arms them with the shrill vocabulary of its culture of complaint, and prompts them to verbalize the same corrosive cynicism that paints everyone in government as either corrupt or incompetent.

Truly, media has mastered the art of the dysfunctional narrative.  Even Nature is sometimes denied authorship of natural calamities.  Residents in the affected areas are often depicted as if they are defenseless children who must constantly be shepherded by government because their judgment is not adequate.  When things go wrong, it can only be because of government.  No one seems to want to recognize the victims’ ability to make decisions that do affect their lives no matter how foolish and fatal these may sometimes be.

From one perspective, anyone who chose to remain in the critical towns of Bacolor, Guagua, Porac and San Fernando and the city of Angeles after the first appearance of the deadly lahar flows in 1991 and 1992 may be presumed to have chosen, as an act of will,  to live with the risk of being buried in lahar.  Of course, that choice would have been more real and the decision less reckless if livable resettlement sites were available elsewhere.

Even so, the perception of the gravity and immediacy of the risk varies from person to person.  It also varies from season to season.  In summer, the unpredictable rivers are quiet; only the powdery dust reminds us of the presence of lahar.  The fiestas dim our view of the great floods at our door.  And in December, the lahar can even seem like a shroud of snow. If  the people of Pampanga have chosen to stay, they have done so because in their hearts they believed they could outsmart and outlast the lahar.  It is a supremely human and courageous decision that no one need apologize for.

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I am from Pampanga, and home for me has always been the old house in Betis where my parents created a beautiful home for their thirteen children.  My father who was born there is buried in the town cemetery, now under water a great part of the year.  My 73-year-old mother lived in this charming historic village  until 3 months ago.  She has reluctantly moved to Manila, but every week she threatens to take the bus to Betis, because she refuses to resign herself to the possibility that her town, which is next door to Bacolor,  may soon vanish under lahar.

I fully understand her restlessness and her wish to go home, just as I understand the decision of the people of Bacolor to re-establish their houses on stilts recklessly above the lahar, rather than submit to the power of nature and the certitude of science, and resettle elsewhere.   I do not remember that anyone in government ever fed them the illusion that the dikes alone could save their towns.  And even if new towns were built on some distant resettlement sites, I doubt very much if entire communities would have easily agreed to transfer.  There is something profane about abandoning your home.

Lahar is not just an engineering problem, it is above all a cultural one. That is why the best solutions are not always those guided by purely technical reason.  If pure reason had ruled our ways of dealing with lahar in Central Luzon, martial law should have been declared in the region, private lands would have been expropriated and converted into catch-basins, fishponds in the middle of rivers would have been blasted with dynamite,  and entire communities would have been resettled in new towns.  More money would have been spent on resettlement and rebuilding the region’s economy than on endless de-silting and diking.

But our lives are not commanded by pure reason.  We have powerful sentiments, we have deep attachments, and yes, we indulge the “insanity of place”.  We fear Nature, but we also believe we can placate it.  We listen to the voice of science, but we don’t like its insensitivity to the things we value.

So much money might have gone to the pockets of contractors and public officials instead of into lahar projects.  But we cannot conclude from this that the efforts to save the imperiled towns through diking and other forms of engineering intervention were motivated from the start  by corruption or by brazen political calculation.  If the government had not built dikes, the people themselves would have done everything conceivable to do so.  If the government had ordered the people of Bacolor to abandon their town, that order  would have been greeted by a Bacolor secessionist movement.

It is easy for media to pronounce the stupidity and incompetence of those who made decisions that were subsequently  proven to be futile.  An appreciation of the complexity and novelty of the lahar phenomenon and the cultural dimension  of the problems it spawned would have produced a kinder and less arrogant view.

Finally, suffering is humiliating enough.  Media must spare the victims the indignity of having to constantly cry for relief or to complain about neglect.  It can best show its sympathy for  lahar victims by allowing the best of them to teach the rest of us the virtue of carrying  our burdens with dignity, and by humbly — and without fanfare — offering the spontaneous and tender assistance of a kind neighbor.


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