Friday, April 10, 2009

The Day The Philippines Stands Still

Of all the holidays celebrated in the Philippines, the population of which is predominantly Roman Catholic, Good Friday as the culmination of Lent has the greatest impact on the country, especially in Metro-Manila. All government offices and most businesses including, malls, retail stores, newspapers, even vital services such as pharmacies and private medical clinics are closed. Public transportation is curtailed; the rapid transit lines are shut down and few taxis, buses, and passenger jeepneys are running.

The entire period beginning on Palm Sunday and ending on Easter is called Holy Week. During this time many people take off work and head for resorts or their home provinces, so by the time Good Friday rolls around, Metro-Manila comes as close to being a ghost town as any large city can be. (Actually, many of these closures begin the day before, which is called Maundy Thursday.) The street outside my window this morning is as quiet as the cityscape in the movie "I Am Legend".

The national attention given to Good Friday is so strong that by comparison, Easter Sunday, festive though it may be, is almost anti-climatic. In this respect the prominence of Good Friday as observed in this country really reflects a dark side of Filipinos' national character. This is due to their narrow focus on the crucifixion story itself rather than Easter's message of resurrection and rebirth. In fact the symbolic nickname that Filipinos give themselves as a people is "Juan de la Cruz" (Juan of the cross) which reflects a feeling of relatedness with the biblical account of Jesus' sufferings . Yesterday's "Philippine Daily Inquirer" features "The passion and death of Juan de la Cruz", an excellent column about this identification framed in the Stations of the Cross as it relates to the current political scene in this country.

On Good Friday, many devout people throughout the country participate in such rituals as self-flagellation and even voluntary crucifixion while crowds of tourists avidly watch these spectacles. To add to this gloom the Saturday after Good Friday which was formerly known as Sabado de Gloria (Saturday of Glory) is now called "Black Saturday". According to my wife, who is a psychologist and was born and raised in this culture, all these traditions reflect a pathological fixation with death, also known as necrophilia. Ironically, the Church in whose name these traditions are carried out and which claims to be pro-life has not liberated the people from such morbid behavior. If anything, it has reinforced this mindset.

This mentality apparently has its roots in the Spanish colonial period. During that 300 year era, the Spanish friars instilled a sense of helplessness and racial inferiority into the minds of Filipinos, and the belittling attitude towards the people by America as the colonial successor to Spain wasn't much better. Perhaps the violence against life that is so common here is a natural emotional reaction to that historical abuse. But it is destructively redirected by Filipinos towards themselves and each other, a way of thinking that might be summarized as "if I suffer, you suffer". Added to this mix is the authoritarian upbringing in which children are raised wherein they have little protection or recourse from parental abuse.

The above psycho-social analysis may seem to be beyond the scope of an expatriate blog, but it's very important that foreigners who plan to live in the Philippines be aware of this troubled aspect of the national psyche that lurks beneath the mabuhay (welcome) facade with which strangers are greeted. Having this awareness will reduce culture shock and go a long ways towards understanding that despite the smiling faces and apparent lightheartedness of the people, in the hearts of too many Filipinos, there is an anger and sadness that makes every day a not so Good Friday.


Alan said...

To me, comparing religions is like comparing whiskeys -- they all taste vile. That said, it's interesting that Jews, who are better acquainted with death than Filipinos, somehow didn't make it a dominant theme (e.g., Moses sacrifices himself for the people's sins and is reborn).

Secular Guy said...

An excellent question, Alan. I need to give that some thought before I could even hazard a guess.