Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Grace and courage

By: Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Ernest Hemingway took his life 50 years ago in 1961. “The Old Man and the Sea” (1952) was the last of his great works. He lived another nine years, but his creative gifts seem to have left him, and that in some way probably led to his suicide. 

“The Old Man and the Sea” is a rare story for Hemingway in that the hero is a poor man, a subsistence fisherman. He usually wrote about more glamorous figures—warriors, bull fighters, white hunters and sophisticated men and women of the Paris night. Hemingway didn’t focus on the poverty of his fisherman, however, but on the same virtues he found in all his heroes, namely, courage, competence, resolve, and as he put it, the ability to show “grace under pressure.” When we talk about poor people, we often get trapped in statistics and the overt misery of their lives, and fail to notice the great virtues that they have.

At Christmas we are helped to appreciate the virtues of the poor when we see in the Belen how God chose the way of poverty to save the world. The world is saved through the virtues of the poor. 

Hemingway’s fisherman, Santiago, hadn’t caught a fish in several months. He wondered if he would survive much longer and if he would ever regain the respect of the younger fishermen who had began to treat him as a joke. He vowed to catch a great fish and one night went out in his small skiff the size of the bancas Filipino fishermen use. Out on the high sea, farther out than he had ever been, with only a small lamp for company, he caught a truly mighty fish, an 18-foot marlin. After a long battle, Santiago killed the marlin and tied it to the side of his boat since it was too big to bring aboard. 

Soon the sharks came. Santiago managed to kill five, but still they came. To kill five sharks from a banca type boat, Santiago had to be leaning out just over the thrusting jaws of the sharks; he was practically in the water with them. The sharks ripped away chunks of the marlin’s flesh. The small boat rocked with the force of the attacks. 

Santiago headed for home, but the sharks followed. Day and night they ravaged the marlin until there was nothing left but the skeleton. Still, Santiago didn’t cut it loose. At least he could show the other fishermen he remained a great fisherman. When he arrived at his beach, he left his boat and the marlin’s skeleton on the shore for everyone to see and staggered off to his hut. 

Such courage and determination have many other faces. Take, for example, the poor men and women of Tondo, where even everyday tasks require courage. 

It must take great courage, for example, for the mothers in the urban poor areas just to get up in the mornings, and face the daily round of children crying for lack of food, irritable husbands, the deafening noise of the slum, and the bad smell, violence within and without the homes, and the absence of any sign that matters will get better. They do this day after day and still manage to show a great love for their children and a care for their neighbors. This combination of courage and love can stand as a definition of grace under pressure.

Sometimes poor women, in order to have the city remove garbage piles, or supply water, have to march to City Hall to see the mayor, though they fear they will be embarrassed and that people there will laugh at them. It takes courage for them to start out on that march. In these simple actions of the poor are found the basic building blocks of our democracy. 

Another form of bravery is exhibited by poor men making charcoal in the Ulingan dump area of Tondo. All day the men stand over their smoking pugons stoking fires and adding driftwood to feed the flames. The noxious smoke blows up into their faces. People nearby can hear the coughing; it comes with a harsh roar from deep in their chests. Sometimes the men stumble away from their position by the pugon to take a breath of fresh air. The coughing doubles then over in pain, yet they go back and take their places once again at the uling smoke, as soldiers take their place in the firing line, or bull fighters take their stand before the charging bull. They earn P200 a day, just enough to keep their families alive and together. 

There are plans to replace the old-style pugon with a smokeless pugon with help from the Archdiocese of Manila and general manager of the National Housing Authority, Chito Cruz. Until this happens the ulingan men are sacrificing their health for their families. I think Hemingway would appreciate this courage, and the fact that they don’t think they are doing anything special.

Heroic actions surely took place among the poor the night of the recent floods in Cagayan de Oro and Iligan. We will never know all the details. The poor give their lives easily for their loved ones. Happy New Year to all, young and old, rich and poor, saints and sinners.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates.

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