The unbearable weight of a new year

Because it is the beginning of the year, I am torn — I suppose like everyone else — between hope and anxiety as I look ahead to the unfolding of the rest of 2009.  Everything I have read in the last three months forecasts a far more critical year than the one that has just ended.  Experts paint a picture of a new phase in the global economy, a new era filled with uncertainty, danger, and difficulty. But, since hardship has never been a stranger to us Filipinos, perhaps there is not much that dismays us anymore. Thus we tend to dismiss the direst warnings with an air of fatalism.

It is easy to misrecognize this as optimism.  Optimism belongs to those who see themselves as effective agents of history, rather than as mere spectators of passing events.  I doubt if the 92% of Filipinos that the Social Weather Stations recently reported as hopeful about 2009 are real optimists.  I see them more as “bahala na” fatalists.

Filipino fatalism is not passive.  It is often reckless, a source of vitality rather than of paralysis.  Instead of being resigned to the way things are at any given moment, Filipinos take chances and face risks with equanimity.  They thrive on instinct rather than on knowledge, and are not easily deterred by failure.  They affirm life stubbornly, instead of rejecting out of hand the lousy deals it offers.  Our kind of fatalism believes that if you have so little in life to start with, you don’t have much to lose if you venture out.

We have never been afraid of the new.  In fact we readily take to it, partly because there is not much in our relatively young culture that is solid enough to ground and hold us.  I think it is this attitude that has allowed us to slide into modernity – the belief that “everything solids melts into air” – without much difficulty.  I have always believed that this is what accounts for the vaunted adaptability of our intrepid overseas Filipino workers.

The idea that everything changes, that nothing in the world endures, can actually be unnerving to anyone who takes it seriously.  This belief clashes with all the positive values of stability, identity, and continuity.  The West sought to reconcile the belief in change with the value of continuity by riding on scientific knowledge to shape and manage change.  The results have not been singularly beneficial. Indeed in the eyes of some philosophers, the disastrous consequences have so often outweighed the good that they have felt justified to speak of the “dialectic of reason.”

This growing skepticism over the power of science and technology to control the direction of change has paved the way for what is now called the postmodern sensibility.  This is a way of thinking that questions all the existing grand narratives about history, life, and the universe.  It highlights the contingent nature of events, and the lack of any intrinsic order or purpose.

For relentlessly debunking the picture drawn by Western religious cosmologies and their modern scientific equivalents, the German thinker Nietzsche is sometimes called the first postmodern.  He wrote: ‘Let us beware of saying there are laws in nature.  There are only necessities: there is nobody who commands, nobody who obeys, nobody who trespasses.  Once you know that there are no purposes, you also know that there is no accident; for it is only beside a world of purposes that the word ‘accident’ has meaning.”

Nietzsche has often been associated nihilism, the rejection of all values.  This is quite understandable, but also ironic.  While Nietzsche rejected existing values, he was far from advocating a way of living in which everything is permissible. He rejected received values not because he did not believe in living according to certain standards, but because he thought that human beings must deliberately chose their values in the light of changing circumstances. If they are to be of service to life, values should furnish our sense of discipline, he said.  They must, in his words, be our “defense and necessity.”

In a world that has become more complex every year, in which doctrines that have endured the test of time suddenly fail, where material fortunes built over many generations evaporate overnight, it is easy to find justification for the reckless fatalism of the Filipino.  But this is not a sustainable answer to the challenges of the modern world.  Instead of pushing beyond the frontiers of modern science in a quest for new directions, such a way of life eventually falls back on the fictions of pre-modern superstition.  A reckless “anything-goes” attitude is a self-defeating response to complexity.  It does not affirm life; it destroys and dishonors it.

When one has lived long, it becomes easy to believe that even as nothing endures in the world, nothing new is also created.  Every New Year suggests something different, but it also conveys the sense of something eternally recurring.  How does one deal with déjà vu? Santayana admonishes us to remember the past so as not to be condemned to repeat it.  But Nietzsche’s advice is better: I must live with the thought that my actions today will be repeated “once more and innumerable times more.”  Thus — “What I do or do not do now is as important for everything that is yet to come as is the greatest event of the past.”

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