Sources of hope

One evening almost a year ago, I found my youngest daughter in a solemn huddle with her mother.  I immediately sensed I was about to hear a disclosure for which I wasn’t prepared.  “Jika has something to tell us,” my wife said, confirming my intuition.  “Are you going to have a baby,” I jokingly blurted.  “Are you getting married?”

She frowned in mock anger, and countered, “Of course not! But if you give me permission and I’m accepted, I will be going away for a while.”  Intrigued, I groped for a seat. “I have applied to be a Jesuit volunteer,” she said calmly.  For a while I thought I heard her say she was going to be a nun. I didn’t know how to respond.  But slowly, a warm glow spread through my chest and I was moved.

Among our four children, Jika has always been the methodical and deliberate one. I often wondered whether this was due to her training as an accountant or whether she had elected accounting because it resonated her innate rationality.  In any case, it was convenient to have an organized mind in a family of solitary liberals.

It’s been almost 5 years since she began working for Unilever, a global firm with a huge presence in the Philippines.  Recruited as a management trainee before her graduation from the University of the Philippines, she joined the company right after passing the accountancy board.  She worked 10 to 12 hours a day, regularly coming home not earlier than 10 P.M.  Worried about her driving home alone at night, I remember talking to her about these long working hours and asking if she was happy at work.  My inquiry surprised her; I realized I was talking to a member of a new generation of highly disciplined and driven young people who worked hard and partied hard.

Frugal to a fault, she saved a big part of her earnings for graduate studies abroad as well as for a yearly vacation to some faraway place.  She liked going out with friends on Friday and Saturday evenings. She was bourgeois in every way.  Watching her steady transformation into a corporate yuppie, I once ironically remarked to my wife that perhaps we were going to have, at last, a real capitalist in the family.  Now I know I was way off the mark.

When it looked certain she would pass the tough screening of the Jesuit Volunteers Philippines (JVP), she wrote her superiors a letter of resignation. They asked if she was moving to another firm.  No, she said, she was quitting to do volunteer work for a year. Touched by this odd act of selflessness, the company asked her not to resign and offered her instead a leave that would keep the door open to her return.

Having heard so many good things about the Jesuit volunteer program, my wife and I had no trouble giving our consent to Jika’s unusual detour from the single-minded pursuit of career to a life of simplicity, solidarity, and service.  The JVP program has been for the past 25 years Ateneo’s best alternative to a finishing school. Combining faith-driven solidarity with the poor with the challenge of independent and simple living, the program has attracted and shaped some of the finest young people this nation has had the fortune to produce.  It attracts fresh college graduates who, instead of immediately plunging into a career, dedicate a year of their lives in earnest service to others, while pondering the rest of the years that lie before them.  Most of the volunteers are in their early 20s.

I remember asking Jika, who is turning 27, only one question, and I was careful not to sound discouraging: “Isn’t this coming a bit late for you?  I mean, why now, when you are already on a secure track in your career.”  I kidded her that maybe she was just passing through a quarter-century crisis and needed time to rethink. She protested she was not that old, unaware that at 24 her mother and I already had our first child, and that both of us were by then already fully embarked on an academic career.

Jika left last Tuesday on a slow boat to Palawan where she is assigned as a non-formal educator in Mathematics at the St. Ezekiel Moreno Parish in Macarascas, Puerto Princesa.  She will be tutoring and living with about 40 grade school and high school girls from the surrounding communities who are enrolled in a distance education program.  She has always dreamed of becoming a teacher.  If she succeeds in giving even only half of these girls enough motivation to skip early marriage for a chance at personal growth, I know she will have accomplished her purpose.

I think my wife and I are lucky to have children who deeply love their country and are not deterred by its problems, but I would not say they are in that sense extraordinary. There are many like them from this generation — young highly motivated Filipinos who without fanfare do what they can to create a better nation.

I’ve often wondered what it is that keeps many young Filipinos from packing their bags and leaving this country that their elders have messed up so badly. Trite as it may sound, I think it is the capacity to live John F. Kennedy’s memorable line: Ask not what the country can do for you but what you can do for the country. Some see it in secular terms, as the active pursuit of citizenship.  Others, like this year’s 32 JVP volunteers who will be working in the country’s most underserved communities, think of it spiritually as establishing a personal relationship with God by being a person for others.  I think of it as the culmination of the search for the right balance between the twin demands of self-creation and of social solidarity.

For all the dark thoughts we often harbor about our country, I truly think we are far from doomed as a nation.  Our children give us hope.


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