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Three things I learned from Yolanda victims

Tacloban City—Experience isn’t the best teacher—disaster is.

Except that, as a nation, we can’t seem to learn our lessons, both historical and otherwise. We still can’t keep death and suffering to a minimum, despite decades of being visited upon by killer typhoons and similar catastrophes. And let’s not even forget about the horrors of Martial Law, a subject matter best discussed separately.

As a people, Filipinos have managed to muddle through, even with government apathy and ineptitude. The best example of this level of resilience is the one showed by those hardest-hit by typhoon Yolanda, Tacloban residents included. They can certainly teach us a thing or two about life.

Here are a few lessons Yolanda victims have taught this writer:

1. We can all afford to be kinder, more generous. Tacloban is a city in perennial conflict with the Leyte provincial government—and the rivalry runs deep. Supposedly, if you’ve worked for the provincial government (currently headed by a presidential ally), you can’t work with the city government (led by someone affiliated with a presidential foe), and vice-versa. It isn’t even as clear-cut as saying, as a certain Cabinet official once pointed out, “The President is an Aquino” and the Tacloban mayor is affiliated with the Marcoses. The situation goes far beyond that and was reported to have complicated efforts to rehabilitate the city and provide food and decent shelter to Yolanda victims.

However, based on conversations I’ve had with residents of Tacloban, this did not in any way impair their proclivity toward kindness. For example, upon learning I didn’t have enough change, a tricycle driver offered to return my money. If I were in Manila, I would have grabbed it without thinking twice about courtesy and civility. After all, for more than I can ever care to remember, I have fallen prey to the predatory fares of tricycle drivers in the Philippine capital. They demand too much without giving any thought at all about public service. But this was Tacloban, seven months after nearly being obliterated by typhoon Yolanda, and the thought of a tricycle driver offering me a free ride was enough to make me pause. I then tapped the driver on the back, a meaningful gesture that conveyed the message that I was touched by—and will remember—his warmth and generosity.

2. We can all learn to live with less. When I took on this assignment, I agreed, among others, to live without a refrigerator as part of an experiment by my organization. It was surprisingly painless. I found it easy to let go of having immediate access to cold water, and, for that matter, other ice-cold beverages, most of which are best consumed at night in dimly-lit bars with the company of hotties, Waray or otherwise.

Being refrigerator-free was nothing compared to the suffering of others in Tacloban who have been deprived for months of the things we often take for granted. Don’t get me wrong—I do not intend to romanticize poverty and suffering. But I once met and later interviewed a female urban poor leader, who has known how it is to be uprooted, hungry, and desperate, and the way she describes her living conditions was as such: so flimsy you could blow it away by sneezing.

During our meeting, she expressed the shelter and relocation concerns of her group members. Although the expected outcome was desolate, she remains upbeat and enthusiastic, especially for someone who has had very little in the way of money and possessions. From her, I learned the lesson bears repeating again and again: it doesn’t really take much to make us happy.

3. There is pleasure in being alone. Extroverts don’t—and probably won’t—get. But then again, it’s not their fault. After all, it is in their nature to seek attention, crave approval, and gather millions of likes for their selfies on Facebook. However, on occasion, it pays to spend some time alone, to just keep quiet and—pardon the brutality—shut up. (Which is what introverts generally do since I think I am one.)

Besides gaining a different perspective on life, spending time alone helps you filter noises from signals, separate the wheat from the chaff, and pay attention to what really matters. Ever so patient—sometimes to the point of indifference—most Yolanda victims have yet to grow weary of the tedium of daily life, the erratic, unstable spurts of their area’s economic growth, and the unforgivable mess that is the government’s rehabilitation program.

Every stranger I’ve spoken to—jeepney drivers, tricycle drivers, vendors—have all expressed a quiet fortitude to move forward in the face of great adversity. “I talk to everyone I meet about my experience with the great storm because I want them to understand what our lives were like during that period,” a tricycle driver told me.

So every time you’re caught in a jam on EDSA, trapped on the train on the way home, or tempted to raise holy hell about this government, think of Yolanda victims, both the living and the dead. Better yet, offer a moment of silence. After all, the gesture might be good for your soul, too.

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