Searching for ‘greatness of spirit’

In cynical and despairing times such as ours, nothing perhaps lifts the flagging spirit more than to witness an event that expressly celebrates what some people do for others and their communities, quietly, persistently, and, often, in defiance of convention. Brimming with ideas and energy, they have a peculiar need to empty themselves.  They are the kind who might say, like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, “I give no alms; I am not poor enough for that.”

These were some of the thoughts that crossed my mind last Friday afternoon at the annual presentation ceremonies of the Ramon Magsaysay Award.  The Cultural Center of the Philippines main theater was filled to capacity despite the rains.  The program began right on the dot. With clockwork precision, this year’s six awardees were introduced one after the other. Their thoughtful citations were read as they stood solemnly in front of the audience.

That moment of recognition, when the Foundation proclaims to them and to the world what it is they are precisely being honored for, to me, represents the highest point of the ceremony.  I think of many others like them, whose generosity has gone largely unnoticed, unrecognized, and untold, yet tirelessly doing what they think they must do. It is in the name of these anonymous others that the awards have been kept alive all these years.

Over the last 60 years, the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation has scoured the remotest corners of Asia in search of individuals who embody a human quality that it calls—for want of a precise word—“greatness of spirit.”  This is not to be equated with mere do-gooding, or with forms of work aimed at making the world a better place.  Least of all is it to be confused with sheer personal success or achievement.

“Greatness of spirit” signifies a passionate commitment to a chosen purpose that, invariably, serves the common good.  Single-minded and unwavering, this commitment is typically accompanied by a clear-minded comprehension of what needs to be done, and why the right time to do it is now.  The individuals who are in its grip manifest an uncommon willfulness in the face of adversity—which is why they are often thought of as human beings out of season—ahead of their time, out of place in the modern world, or plainly mad.

Youk Chhang of Cambodia, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge massacres of the mid-’70s, led an astounding effort to systematically document every aspect of the Cambodian genocide in the pursuit of what he calls “the duty to memory.” Our own Howard Dee gave up a flourishing career as a business executive to pursue what he calls his “social apostolate of 50 years,” catalyzing initiatives in the areas of peace, justice, and the cause of indigenous peoples.

Bharat Vatwani of India, a psychiatrist, could not wait for families to bring their mentally-ill kin to his clinic.  Together with his wife, also a psychiatrist, he launched a program to rescue and treat the mentally-afflicted who roamed the streets of India, and reintegrate them with their families.  Vo Thi Hoang Yen, a young charismatic Vietnamese woman, did not allow her physical condition caused by childhood polio to prevent her from spearheading a comprehensive program to help millions of PWDs regain their place in Vietnamese society.

Sonam Wangchuk took up the cause of disadvantaged youths of India’s minority tribes, who routinely fall through the cracks of an outmoded educational system, by redesigning the learning systems of his community and running a school expressly meant for those who failed in the matriculation exams of the state. An essential part of this school’s mission is to inculcate in the students an attitude that declares peace with nature and seeks to heal the planet and its people.  Maria de Lourdes Martins Cruz, a nun from war-torn East Timor, left her convent to heal and feed the poorest of her people, organize them for self-reliance, and bring reconciliation among warring communities in the difficult transition to Timorese independence.

We are not just talking here of exceptional individuals who excel in a particular field of activity.  We are talking of selfless human beings who replicate and multiply themselves by their ability to inspire and persuade others to join them in their quest.  In doing so, they become vessels of social solidarity, offering alternative visions of what human cooperation can achieve.

Working outside the institutions of the State, established religion, academe, or the market—they have found new ways of solving old problems, or identified unmet or underserved human needs.  By casting new light on such needs, their initiatives have often compelled a public reevaluation of existing societal priorities.

The Foundation celebrates them as personifications of everything we value in the human spirit—selflessness, imagination, vision, initiative, perseverance, audacity, and an affirmative belief in the boundless capacity of human beings to overcome obstacles, and to work together for a common purpose.

That is what the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation has tried to do in the six decades of its existence.  It plucks greatness of spirit out of the improbable milieu in which it has often grown. It shines a light on the bearers of this rare gift, holding them up as exemplars of transformative leadership—so they may be an eternal source of hope for a human community that is slowly being choked by cynicism, intolerance, selfishness and bigotry.