In a commentary earlier this year on America’s political situation, the New York Times columnist David Brooks observed a lack of what he called “big love” for country, as well as an under-appreciation from its citizens of what it could yet achieve as a global superpower. “Big love involves thinking in sweeping historical terms,” he wrote, “but today the sense that America is pursuing a noble mission in the world has been humbled by failures and passivity. The country feels more divided than unified around a common purpose.”
Reading this on the other side of the world, I wonder if the opposite could be true for us.
In our much smaller and developing Philippines, public voice is louder than ever. How we have been writing and speaking, especially since the national elections, has revealed us to be children of reform, acting based on lessons learned (or not learned) from revolutionary and authoritarian regimes. Whether we know it or not, we are seeking balance—most noticeably between urgently pursuing prosperity and cherishing traditional values. Our young republic is expressing its awareness of what it will take to sustain the progress we have made throughout many chaotic transitions.
Earlier this week, Oxford published as part of its list of new words, the Filipino expression,“bayanihan.” It is defined as a “traditional system of mutual assistance in which the members of the community work together to accomplish a difficult task” and further described to be “a spirit of civic unity and cooperation among Filipinos.” Here, it is worth noting that Oxford only acknowledges words that fill gaps in our global literature and that are likely to stand the test of time.
It is also to the concept of bayanihan that we owe one other recent global recognition, the National Defense University of the United States’ International Fellows Hall of Fame Award given last August to Undersecretary Emmanuel T. Bautista of the Cabinet Cluster on Security, Justice, and Peace. Bautista, who was cited for his accomplishments in authoring and executing the Internal Peace and Security Plan Bayanihan as chief-of-staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), is the first Filipino to receive this recognition.
Recently speaking at a gathering of the Good Filipinos Movement, Bautista identified bayanihan as the key to building greater friendship between government, business, media, academe, and civil society. He described to the crowd of about 100 ordinary citizens the difference between “defeating the enemy” and “winning the peace,” and asked for their continued involvement in promoting a people-centred approach to protecting and developing the country.
At the end of his speech, Bautista directed his attention to the young military officers present at the gathering. “It has always been an honor to serve this country with all of you,” he enthused. “Now, the Filipino people eagerly watch as you carry out your duties and build our Armed Forces into an institution they can be proud of.”
At the same event, the artist Joey Ayala performed his 1992 classic, Kung Kaya Mong Isipin, Kaya Mong Gawin, a song that aims to remind Filipinos that all great things begin in the imagination. “Naisip ko na ito na ‘yung pinakabagay para sa atin ngayon,” he said. “Ito ‘yung kanta na nagsasabing, it can be done.”
In the face of viciously divisive politics, these words work wonders. It is so inspiring to hear them from the great minds of our time, who continue to celebrate a special kind of daring—one that tells us that it is a worthwhile thing to venture forth together so we can explore what else is out there for us as a nation.
“When you have big love for your country or a cause, you are loving something that transcends a lifetime. You are pursuing some universal ideal and seeking excellence,” Brooks also wrote in his New York Times article. “Big love involves using power well, seeking honor and glory, and being worthy of them.”
And so, in the end, the “big love” Brooks seeks for his country might very well be that thing we call “bayanihan”— the word that fills the gaps.
Marielle Antonio is a Program Officer at the Institute for Solidarity in Asia (ISA), a non-profit that advocates for governance reform and envisions a Dream Philippines where every government institution delivers and every citizen participates and prospers. Contact the author through email@example.com and learn more about the group’s work through isacenter.org.