The hopeful ‘Pinoy’

It is hard to believe that a people that have gone through some of the worst disasters in the world and have seen their country drop from being the most developed to one of the poorest in Southeast Asia, can remain so hopeful about the future. But that’s exactly the finding of the country’s two most reputable polling organizations. We are an incurably hopeful people.

In its December 2023 Ulat ng Bayan national survey, Pulse Asia reports that as many as 92 percent of the Filipino adults they asked are confident that the coming year will bring hope. Only 1 percent replied that they are not hopeful, while 7 percent are unsure. This preponderant optimism cuts across all social classes and remains basically unchanged from the previous year.

The Social Weather Stations (SWS) reports an even higher figure of 96 percent who are hopeful about the new year. Only 3 percent view 2024 with fear—the lowest, says SWS, since they began asking this question in 2000. It is tempting to portray this positive outlook as a collective sigh of relief over the end of the existential threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, rather than a sense that things will get better in political or economic terms. But there’s surely more to this than meets the eye.

Pag-asa” (hope) and “pangamba” (fear) are complex concepts laden with many layers of meanings and references. Unpacking them could tell us a lot about how Filipinos view their life circumstances and what they think they can change or what they must accept. From this, we might arrive at a more nuanced understanding of so-called “Filipino resilience,” the capacity to spark solidarity in times of acute emergency and to bounce back with renewed spirit from every misfortune or tragedy.

Last Oct. 4-6, the Philippine Sociological Society held its annual conference at the De La Salle University in Manila, precisely to tease out the many associations of the notion of hope in our culture. I was invited to be a keynote speaker on the conference theme “The Sociology of Hope: Ecologies, Embodiments, and Everyday Lives.” My first thought was to decline the invitation, convinced that the Filipino sense of hope is laced with a large dose of fatalism and that resilience often sounds like an attempt to give a positive spin to an attitude that’s probably closer to resignation.

I ended up writing a keynote speech titled “Hope, Faith, Resentment, and Fatalism: Notes Toward a Sociological Understanding of Filipino Resilience.” In the spirit of reflection and hope with which we greet the new year that is upon us, I’d like to share some portions of that speech.

I began with observations of how Filipinos deal with the myriad problems that arise when a member of the family falls victim to a dreaded illness like end-stage kidney disease which requires regular dialysis. My hunch, I said, is that their sense of realistic solutions is heavily shaped by a tacit recognition of the limits of what is possible, or of what they themselves can do, or afford.

Filipinos tend to speak more about hope when they know they have reached the limits of their capabilities. Thus, they hope for miracles—the sudden reversal of a dire situation through divine intervention—because they cannot see themselves as the potential prime movers behind such reversals. Behind this recognition of the limits of their agency lies a basic distrust not just in their own capacity to effect meaningful change, but also in institutions.

I have vivid memories of people in emergency rooms and hospital corridors busily figuring out how to get past their predicaments. They would often swap stories of how to navigate the complex world of public charities like the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office, the Department of Social Welfare and Development, the Malasakit Centers, and the offices of mayors and governors, and senators and congressmen. Some become so adept at tapping what is available in these agencies and offices that, in addition to dialysis sessions, they manage to collect boxes of adult nutritional supplements that they can monetize in the thriving black market for such products.

It is difficult to characterize this response to precarity as driven by hope or trust in the ultimate goodness of society. More likely, it is a form of survivor-pragmatism, which can have the effect of either ratifying the status quo or supplying the impulse to change it.

It is interesting that the saying “bahala na” has often been regarded as the hallmark of Filipino fatalism. (“Bathala Na” or “Let God” is how some writers prefer to render this quintessential Filipino concept.) But such an attitude cannot be equated with hopelessness, for, indeed, Filipinos remain hopeful even when they have every reason not to be.

Perhaps, this is what the philosopher Richard Rorty meant by “ungrounded hope”—not so much the hope of finally getting things right, as the hope that what we do in the present may, with luck, lead us to something better. We may simply call it faith in the face of uncertainty—a stoicism that steels us for the turbulent times in our everyday lives.

Happy New Year!