Of love and citizenship

I often wonder which is worse: to be without friends who care or to live without money. I think that, ultimately, it is not having enough friends that is the worse form of poverty. But, in fact, the two are related.

Without money, one will likely have little time and less inclination to connect with friends. Every moment of one’s waking life will be consumed looking for money to buy food, and pay for utilities and rent. That is probably why those who have fallen on hard times usually become invisible, unable to tap the love that their circle of friends can provide.

Of my contemporaries who chose the academic life, I can count with less than the fingers of my two hands those who, I would say, managed to save enough to be able to pay the costs of an occasional holiday or a Sunday meal at a restaurant, or, most important of all, the recurrent medical expenses that tend to pile up after retirement.

But I know quite a lot — professors with the highest academic credentials and long years of service who have fallen into penury. They have failing health and are unable to afford proper medical care. Some live alone in rented apartments, surrounded by books they cannot sell, and generally disconnected from family and friends.

Even the ones who have savings can hardly be thought of as living in blissful comfort. But, at least, they have money set aside purposely for maintenance medicines, for the rare vacation with family, and for the regular reunions with relatives, classmates, and friends of long standing. The bulk of their savings typically comes from the extra money earned from sideline work — what in the University of the Philippines is designated as “limited practice of one’s profession” — or the earnings of a spouse and unmarried children, or from a modest inheritance.

Indeed, there is very little that Filipino academics can typically look forward to in terms of security upon retirement. It is probably slightly better now for younger colleagues who are nearing retirement age. A series of salary upgrades in the last couple of years has brought academic salaries to a decent level. Those long overdue adjustments will be reflected in their retirement pensions.

But, so small are the retirement pensions of those of an earlier generation that one dreaded disease like cancer or heart failure or kidney malfunction could wipe out overnight their entire lifetime savings. The lack of adequate medical insurance particularly for those in the senior years is a great part of the problem. I have seen many friends survive a major health emergency but only to face later a trail of unpaid hospital and doctors’ bills.  The distress they go through, worrying where to get the money or who to approach for help, can easily aggravate their health condition.

In times like these, a great consolation comes from knowing that the doctor who treated you was once your student, or the brother or sister of someone you had helped at school. Indeed, there’s a quiet community of health professionals out there who feel a special affinity to retired teachers who had spent all their productive lives serving others. They are the ones who would usually charge a nominal professional fee or waive it altogether, and send you home with a generous supply of professional samples of the medicines you need.

The academic community itself has seen so many of these recurrent misfortunes over the years that it has evolved the practice of periodically inquiring into the condition of colleagues facing dreaded illnesses who have disappeared from view. Using the internet and any of the social media platforms, they raise funds at short notice. When someone dies, they extend support, mostly in the form of an assuring presence, to the loved ones left behind. None of these initiatives have ripened into anything formal or institutional, but that’s probably where their power lies as social mechanisms of collective empathy. It is what makes a society a human community.

“We feel well when we can look after others,” said the Chilean evolutionary biologist Humberto Maturana. “Love” is what he calls this basic feature of human coexistence. It is something fragile, and in the modern world, usually taken for granted and easily forgotten. Power and money quickly fill up the vacuum that results from the abandonment of love.

“Ambition, mistrust, the culturally anchored pursuit of power, and the passion for control are the forces … that cause love to disappear. The economization of relations — [by which] claims are exchanged, needs negotiated, compromises enforced—destroys the pleasures of simple togetherness because it is organized according to the patterns of commercial business practice.”

Professor Maturana is the rare scientist who does not hesitate to draw ethical lessons from the practice of his scientific discipline. In his lectures, interviews, and books, he argues with great conviction that “love is the emotion constituting democracy.” For him, it is what fuels active citizenship.

Here’s how he explains the connection in a wide-ranging interview he gave to Bernhard Poerksen (“From Being to Doing”): “The fundamental features of democracy include human beings—citizens—who respect themselves and each other, living together and working together on a project and a form of coexistence. Is it not revealing and extraordinary that there are no citizens in a monarchy or dictatorship? [H]ere you are a subject or a slave but not a citizen.”

Thoughts like these invite us to reflect, beyond the conventional associations of Valentine’s Day, on the broader meaning of love and its importance to the project we call democracy.