11/14/2010

Smallness and Impermanence

In 2005, Nick Joaquin wrote an essay titled A Heritage of Smallness This was the first piece I've read by Joaquin, though from his biography and what I have heard from others about his work, I realize that he is an influential writer, especially for Filipinos who write in English.

I found his essay on Smallness disturbing. His stance is strident yet firmly based in material evidence.

Society for the Filipino is a small rowboat: the barangay. Geography for the Filipino is a small locality: the barrio. History for the Filipino is a small vague saying: matanda pa kay mahoma; noong peacetime. Enterprise for the Filipino is a small stall: the sari-sari. Industry and production for the Filipino are the small immediate searchings of each day: isang kahig, isang tuka. And commerce for the Filipino is the smallest degree of retail: the tingi....

We work more but make less. Why? Because we act on such a pygmy scale. Abroad they would think you mad if you went in a store and tried to buy just one stick of cigarette. They don't operate on the scale. The difference is greater than between having and not having; the difference is in the way of thinking. They are accustomed to thinking dynamically. We have the habit, whatever our individual resources, of thinking poor, of thinking petty.


In a phrase, Joaquin posits that Filipinos have given up on their country. Forget about the ravages of wars and colonization. Dismiss the toil of overseas workers who go months, perhaps years without seeing family. Overlook the greed of other nations who prey upon fear of hunger and exploit the natural resources of the country without even a nod to the environmental impact.

After reading the article, I thought two things - where is the hope in this piece? Is there nothing that can be done except to feel the double shame of being poor and being blamed for being poor? The tacit "Well, you're getting what you deserve, so stop whining." attitude disturbs me the most.

Then I went back to the beginning, to the sense of 'smallness.' What Joaquin lists are evidence of a people who live in the moment, who are less concerned with material permanence than with what is happening in the here and now. He writes "Many little efforts, however perfect each in itself, still cannot equal one single epic creation. A galleryful of even the most charming statuettes is bound to look scant beside a Pieta or Moses by Michelangelo; and you could stack up the best short stories you can think of and still not have enough to outweigh a mountain like War and Peace."

Joaquin is looking for cultural permanence, masterworks which hold up to the test of time in a very solid way. But his list made me think of all the people in Ashrams and meditation rooms across the West, people who are trying to limit their carbon footprint and live sustainably. These are not people looking for permanence. They strive for a sense of presence, Nowness, something that is apparently woven into the fabric of the Filipino psyche. They, and I often mean just Me, are looking to free ourselves from the Stuff of our Lives, to live authentically for the sense of experience. If the product of the expression of that authentic living creates something worthwhile for others, then that's fine, but it isn't the goal.

And why is that? What has undone the West and is undoing the Philippines? I'd argue it's the particular mentality of More for the sake of More, for denial of the passage of time and the impermanence of all things.

There's this:

The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us

And also this:

10 Centuries in 5 Minutes

Why do we measure success in material things when we know they do not last? That the material does not do anything more than sustain our bodies and provide us tools to create? That all things change and that what really matters are Purpose, Autonomy, and Mastery?

Yes, I understand that money gains us food and shelter and that sometimes the Purpose of work is money in order to have more autonomy and the chance to increase Mastery. But does it? What if the Purpose of the work is creating food from the earth? What if we had communities that made fair trade a way of life? What if specialization wasn't emphasized, but rather the wholeness of a community experience? It would all look very normal, not very Epic, and maybe really Small.

But so what? If we are happy not striving to create the Epic, but creating the Authentic, then why not be Small? To whom are we trying to prove our worth?

Joaquin ends his essay by invoking the Parable of the Talents, where the one who invested and increased his coins was considered more worthy than the man who buried his coin in fear. I'm sure Joaquin is trying to say that the parable shows we must increase always, but I always saw the parable as cautionary - do not bury what you have been created to be because fear will limit you and prevent others from benefiting from your gifts.

I'm reminded of a folktale where a man fishes just enough to sustain his family and trade for the things he does not have time to make himself. A foreigner praises his ability to fish and encourages him to expand his operations. "Why?" the man asks. "Then you'll have more money to buy things," says the foreigner. "But I'm happy," the man says. "I fish in the morning, trade during mid day and enjoy my family." "But don't you see," the foreigner replies. "If you made more money you could take care of your family better, have a bigger house, better status in the village, become important." "And then what?" the man asks. "Then you can make even more money and have more houses, more status, more power." "But why?" "So you can retire, and fish and be with your family." "But I have that already," says the man. "Why would I want to work and do things that take me away from what I already have?"