‘Yabang’: Our curse and undoing

HINDSIGHT - F Sionil Jose (Pang-masa) - February 2, 2014 - 12:00am

Yabang — boasting or showing off — is almost second nature to us. In any conversation, the Filipino suddenly pauses, declares, “Modesty aside,” then relates his journey to the top, his awards.

Here now is a caveat to all true believers of whatever institution, ideology and faith. Be not excessively proud of your mansions, your hoard of gold and mega power. Remember always that pride is followed by the fall (Book of Proverbs, 16:18).

Of course, we are all egoists. Egoism is so much a part of our humanity.

The ancient Greeks had a word for it: hubris. Writers particularly are not immune to it — in fact, with it, they flourish because from their very lives, they extract memory and give it precious form as poetry or prose.

It is yabang that makes Filipino males manicure their fingernails, splurge on elegant wardrobes and fancy cars and watches, the same way that Imelda and women with royal pretensions stretch their aging skins and festoon themselves with expensive baubles, including thousands of shoes.

It is also yabang when Corazon Aquino declared at the beginning of her presidency in 1986 that she wouldn’t welcome unsolicited advice.

Yabang again when her son, the president, said he would ignore his critics.

Listen, our historians who do not probe deeply into the character of those who shaped our history should cerebrate the way Nick Joaquin did with his A Question of Heroes. Not that Nick was absolutely correct but by raking into the egos of our heroes, he initiated an insightful way of how to interpret our past.

The revolution of 1896 was subverted by the pompous egos, the rivalry of its leaders, particularly Aguinaldo. Divided and disaffected, they were easily cozened into impotence by Spanish bribery in the Pact of Biak-na-Bato.

The Huk uprising in 1949-1953 was defeated not so much by Ramon Magsaysay and an invigorated Army; it was destroyed by the quarrels among its leaders, conflicts inflamed by conceit more than differences in tactics and ideology.

And again, the defeat of the New People’s Army was made inevitable by the vaulting egos of its leaders and most of all, by the tremendous but crippling self-esteem of its founder, Jose Maria Sison.

So it is with our political parties; they splinter soon enough into factions or new parties. This divisiveness argues perhaps for a parliamentary system. It also illustrates clearly what prevents our people from uniting.

Professional societies are sooner or later fractured by the ego of their leaders. Everyone wants to be president, chairman, CEO; no one wants to be a mere follower. Now we are praying for a messiah to descend from upstairs and deliver us from this despicable chaos. But everyone wants to be that messiah.

We all know of General Angelo Reyes’ suicide a few years back. That was egoism, too, albeit with the nobility of the brave and conscientious. He had declared that he did not start the corruption in the Armed Forces but that he couldn’t stop it. How could he when the highest official of the land was corrupt?

 â€œMen,” he told me, “have specific roles in life.” Knowing he couldn’t fulfill it, the end he chose for himself was the most honorable. How many of our leaders can act like he did?

So then, we must know our own roles. We should also know the roles that others play, and the rules such roles follow. In this manner, social harmony is maintained. It is when we overstep our roles, or act without knowing them, that social anarchy ensues.

The Japanese adhere solemnly to their roles. I was invited to a seminar in the Eighties by the Japan Foreign Office (Gaimusho). It was a small seminar with only about a dozen of us from Asia. At its conclusion we were invited to visit Kyoto to see a portion of the Imperial Palace that was closed to the public but opened only for us. About a dozen officials from the Foreign Office went with us. When we arrived in Kyoto, the guard was shown the list of those who could enter the premises. He allowed only us participants — the Gaimusho VIPs and former ambassadors meekly followed the guard’s orders; they did not pull rank or intimidate him.

Now here comes the Mayor of Makati and that imbroglio with the Dasmariñas Village security guards. He should have understood their role as well as his. As mayor, was there an emergency or something truly urgent that required him to undermine the role of the guards? And so today, although the 2016 elections are still so far away, the mayor’s father, Vice President Jejomar Binay, is already the object of negative speculation: Will he be like his son? Will the Binays who are already in seats of power be mayabang, too? Abangan!

All dictators, the rich and famous, to the lowest security guard who holds a gun, easily forget that power is transitory. Death, the great leveler, tells us we cannot take anything with us — not the proud mansions and giant coliseums we build, least of all a single medal. How was it in ancient Rome? When Caesar was paraded before cheering Romans, a man walking behind him chanted: “Remember, you are mortal!”

How wonderful it would be if our bloated politicians listened to a broken record reminding them they are just plain water absurdly reducible into a bar of laundry soap.

Why do you think so many insignificant blogs and Facebook entries muddle the Internet? Why do our newspapers devote a lot of their pages to our social butterflies?

A hyper ego can easily morph into narcissism, and in its crudest form as celebration of the self, it actually becomes a form of masturbation that, in its escalating practice, drains the body of its creative juices. An example of this corroding narcissism is the poet Jose Garcia Villa. By the time he was 50, he was artistically dead, unable to produce anything creative and original.

To avoid this kind of self-destruct, the self must be tamed, channeled into enterprises that transcend the individual’s aspirations, his ego. It can be used not for just his glorification but for ennobling others, a community, a nation, or humanity as a whole. In the end, the egoist must be able to sacrifice, to give himself to others. The best example of this kind of egoism is no other than Jose Rizal. To emulate him we can escape the narrow compass of our own character. Indeed, writers are not excluded in the “selfie” addiction. But if writers know their roles, they will write better, think more deeply, because they will then be driven by a sense of inferiority, not so much because the greatest writers are looking over their shoulders, but because as artists, they can never compete with the Creator.

This profound humility is expressed by traditional Asian artists; they purposely dent a beautiful pot, or make slight errors in the composition of their paintings, their carvings, calligraphy, as a form of homage to the Almighty.

Please do not accuse me of yabang, too. Physical necessity demands I must now wear a beret. Since I lost my hair, I easily catch cold when the temperature drops. The beret is also convenient. In normal weather, I just tuck it in my pocket. As for my cane, way back when I fell on my face and dislocated an elbow, my doctor, Vince Gomez, told me to walk always with one.

All of us nurture dreams, some of which are modest, some reach for the stars. An inner humility should inform us then that as earthlings created in God’s image, we are insignificant specks of dust in the infinite vastness of the universe.

I am now too old and addicted to comfort and therefore incapable of epic heroism and sacrifice. But I still like to think that when it comes to humility, I am number one.

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