Heroism is human

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar - The Philippine Star

With the end of the year comes a distinctively Filipino holiday, the day that we commemorate the life, the works and the death of our national hero Jose Rizal. Of course to truly do him justice, we would need more than a day – not only because of his achievements but because of his flaws, because the brilliant student he was as a youth and the exile in Dapitan are not the same people, because neither his life nor his beliefs were simple. Jose Rizal was a complex man… and who better then to embody such a complex idea as nationalism?

When we think of Jose Rizal, we think of his martyrdom. The image of his execution, his apparent twisting that he might face his executors and deny to the government the symbolic branding of a traitor. Yet while Rizal was certainly willing to die for his ideals, he never set out to be a martyr. By all accounts he loved life, and did what he could to preserve it.

He fought the injustice of the allegations against him, which would pin upon him the revolution begun by Andres Bonifacio – a revolution he did not agree with and in fact condemned. Rizal’s focus had always been on democratic rights rather than for independence per se, and in his own words those are two different things, as a people can be independent without being free.

Yes, he died for his country, but let us not forget that he also died a victim of injustice, wrongfully accused by an insecure leadership in search of a scapegoat, desperate to silence a critical voice.

When we think of Jose Rizal, we think of his works, primarily the Noli Me Tángere and the El Filibusterismo, the novels where he so articulately and passionately laid bare the ills he believed to be besetting his homeland. But as influential as those novels were – primarily through the rage they inspired in the Spanish friars in the Philippines – Rizal also left behind a plethora of other writings, many of them letters personal in nature.

They too are worth reading in order that we not forget the man behind the myth, the one whose glib tongue failed him at critical moments, who could be petty and sensitive to even the appearance of insult, the one who struggled with his own decisions and how to balance his ideals with the consequences for his family.

When we think of Jose Rizal, we think of his individual genius. And it’s true, he was extraordinarily talented, master of many languages, a poet and a polymath and trained in ophthalmology. But he was also greatly dependent on the support of his family and friends. Much of his time in Europe was only made possible because of the friends, particularly his greatest ally, Ferdinand Blumentritt. They or their contacts would put him up for room and board, and his novels would not have been published without generous financial assistance. His elder brother Paciano was also of immeasurable help, especially to the young Rizal, and much of his education was thanks to the efforts of the man that he called more noble and generous than all Spaniards put together.

Our heroes are not heroes because they are somehow better than us. In fact, if there was something innate in them that made them a different class of being, they could not be our heroes. The greatest danger of having heroes is that of hero worship, where they are treated like gods instead of men – literally, in the case of our national hero. They are heroes precisely because they are like us, and we are like them – it is only because of this that we can learn from their example. The lessons we take from their lives and sacrifices must be the right ones, the type that fuels us to become more like them instead of like those that they fought against.

What makes Rizal heroic? It was not a willingness to blindly follow the words of so-called great men. Rizal was a hero who brought about a new way of thinking, in whose ideas the concept of a “Filipino nation” took root, and he did that by not passively accepting the status quo. He questioned the conventional wisdom that Spaniards where better than Filipinos by nature or God’s design; he used his own experiences, and his own research, to reach the conclusion that the so-called indios were not inferior to their colonizers. He did this through the exercise of his own faculties, by finding objective sources.

To take the words of our heroes – even someone such as Rizal – as complete truth would be to undermine the very things that made them heroic. Rizal was a man, not a god, and the history of our nation is better for it.

For our nation was built by people like us. This is why it is important to remember our history, because the lessons on display in the lives of those who went before us are still applicable today, for the new generation of people striving to build a better nation. Our efforts cannot help but build on what they left behind, the next link in an unbroken chain into the future. Our heroes made mistakes, they fought amongst themselves, they changed their minds and had moments of weakness.

But each of them strove in their own ways to make the nation a better place for its people. They would disagree with each other and clash, their principles irreconcilable – such as Rizal and Bonifacio or Bonifacio and Aguinaldo – but it is in that contest of ideas that our nation was formed. To build a nation, to make it better, is no easy thing – there are no certain solutions, even when the problems are clear.

What is heroic is to keep striving for better, to keep learning from those around you, to be open to new ideas and critical of those that would base their claims solely on their own authority or the volume of their voice.

To be heroic is to strive, and fail, and strive again. To love one’s nation is not to be blind to its faults, or to swear obedience whether it be right or wrong. If we are to learn anything from Rizal, from the man heralded as the first Filipino, then it should be this: that to love is to speak the truth and act on it, as best as we can. For there is meaning in such acts, even when it is but a final twist as we fall to the ground.


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