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A People Of Hope

You first see it in their smiles: spontaneous, warm, infectious. The Philippines shining through, as the national airline's ad puts it. Charming, you might say, though there is much more to it than just charm. The Filipino's easy smile reveals a cheerful approach to life, a sense of humor, a pleasant disposition and, most important, an indomitable spirit.

As Filipinos comfortably combine work and play, they find countless reasons for celebration - a good harvest, a raise in pay, the arrival or departure of a relative or friend, baptisms, weddings, birthdays. And, not to be left out, the fiesta, the feast of all feasts of every Philippine town. Filipinos have been celebrating since time immemorial. Historical accounts of life in pre Spanish communities describe how planting, harvesting and building a house were done cooperatively by groups of families and always ended with eating, drinking, music and dance. To this early fiesta tradition, the Spaniards introduced the Catholic saints who later became the focus of the celebration. Today the early harvest festival with its acquired Christian overlay continues to provide Filipinos respite from the rigors of daily life.

Filipinos find humor in most things. Through good times and bad, they laugh and make jokes. Sometimes misjudged as frivolity, laughing at themselves and the mess they are in is actually an important coping mechanism. Poking fun at difficult circumstances or at people who oppress them is away of fighting back, of overcoming. The long difficult years of the Marcos era was a fertile period for Filipino humor.

Beneath the laughter is a resilient spirit that enables Filipinos to weather the worst economic and social conditions. According to a Philippine story of creation, the first Filipino man and woman sprang from the bamboo. Whatever bonding took place in that mythical womb persists to this day. Modem Filipinos like to compare themselves to the bamboo that sways and bends with the wind, no matter how strong, but never breaks. And like the bamboo, which thrives in the harshest environment, Filipinos survive the most trying of times.

The Filipino's resilience and adaptability have been tested throughout history. Recently, the most destructive earthquake in memory struck Northern Luzon, followed by a killer typhoon which paralyzed booming Cebu City. After 600 years of inactivity, ML Pinatubo erupted, burying cities and towns while flash floods washed away Ormoc, Leyte. Despite these disasters, the Filipino, though bent, remained unbroken.

In earlier times, Filipinos have lived through centuries of colonial rule with their spirit intact Accounts of Filipino encounters with Spaniards describe how they preserved their freedom and much of their indigenous culture even as they withstood the repression of colonial rule. If they could not put themselves physically beyond the Spaniard's reach by moving to other islands, they put on a veneer of accommodation, which actually belied an indifference to the colonizer's presence.

Thus the Filipinos obeyed the Spaniard's law but did not surrender. The same psychological distancing saw Filipinos through other dark period: in their history. But history has also demonstrated that there is a limit to what Filipinos can tolerate, a point at which they say sobra na, lama r 7 (enough is enough!). The EDSA Revolution resounded with this battle cry.

Just as resilience gives rise to pragmatic indifference, so does it prompt optimism in a people who incorrigibly believe that the future is always brighter than the present. Nationwide surveys conducted regularly reveal this optimistic streak: Filipinos complain about their lot, but predict things will improve.

Every beginning is a season of hope. Every new regime promises a better life. Dissatisfaction with the past government on which Filipinos had pinned much hope for change cast a pall of cynicism over the last national elections. Their choice among the presidential candidates was none of the above. But came election day, they queued up at the polls, making up the largest electoral turnout yet. Although the new president won by a slim margin, he immediately received the support of the majority and the country's optimism was renewed.

For Filipinos hope is founded on religion. With a deep faith in God, their innate religiosity enables them to comprehend and accept reality in the context of divine will and plan. Faith in the Resurrection and in one's just reward in the hereafter eases the suffering even of the poorest lives. The Filipino God is a personal God whom they thank, threaten, call upon for mercy or forgiveness and appease by pledges. Prayer comes naturally and rites of thanksgiving and appeasement are a part of individual and community life. Faith allows Filipinos to leave matters in God's hand and is best summed up in the expression, bahala na. The term has its roots in the ancient Filipino god Bathala, the supreme caretaker,to care, the meaning of bahala, is a prime function of divinity in whom mortals put their absolute trust Bahala na is sometimes viewed as defeatist resignation, but among Filipinos it is a reservoir of psychic energy from which they can draw strength when things get rough. It is what allows them to endure even when the situation is uncertain or becomes overwhelmingly hostile. It was this font of faith that gave Filipinos the courage to face armed tanks in 1986.

Faith is not rooted in the dominant Catholic religion alone. Prehistoric ritual artifacts recovered all over the country show evidence of folk belief years before Islam or Christianity reached the Philippines. The folklore of the ancient Filipinos tell of their own unique view of the world: their belief in a spirit world populated by deities,' in the existence of the soul and in an afterlife the quality of which was determined by the life the person led on earth.

Then as now, faith is the wellspring of hope for Filipinos. And with abiding hope, they face a brighter future.

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