ALL RIGHT, my students are bright, as we boast of having one of the finest nursing programs in the country. Their training is rigid, and the selection process very tight. But, at the turn of the semester, I feared that my students would take my subject lightly. I took pains in urging them not to treat philosophy as a “minor subject”, for there must be some reason why it is a curriculum requirement.
After a month, my students submitted their phenomenological reflections. My heart broke when I discovered that many of them wanted to pursue something else, but were forced by their elders, who finance their studies, to take up nursing instead. It is sad that our ailing economy kills the dreams of the young. Older people are infected with bitter pragmatism, and few of them are as supportive as the father in a PLDT commercial (“Kung saan ka masaya, anak, suportahan ta ka”).
Our class had an engaging discussion on Martin Heidegger, who posits that when man confuses being with having, the origin of desire is located in external possessions: money, gadgets, and whatnot become the source of happiness; deprivations lead to feelings of sadness and frustration. In this case, the human-being has identified her self with objects of passing significance, and has forgotten her own existence.
“At the moment, what essence do you find in your existence?,” I asked them. It is not very difficult to figure out: e$$ence. It does not take a sociologist to understand why. Our government is a joke, our economy a disaster, and only God knows what other tribulations await our benighted land. No wonder that many professionals are now taking up nursing—doctors, dentists, physical therapists and, yes, even lawyers. Some of them have been my students, older than I am, and resigned to this nation’s dim tomorrow.
Universities and colleges endeavor to prepare students for life through God-centered education and service, and this is where we anchored our discussion of Gustavo Gutierrez’s Liberation Theology. Gutierrez proposes that what motivates Christians to participate in the liberation of the oppressed “is the conviction of the radical incompatibility of evangelical demands with an unjust and alienating society. They feel keenly that they cannot claim to be Christians without a commitment to liberation.” The emphasis here is on praxis (action), for no self-respecting Christian can be a spectator to social unrest.
Many students seem to forget their fundamental mission. The line: “I want to be a nurse because I want to care for the sick and needy” we only hear of now in the question and answer portion of the Search for Little Ms. Philippines. Caring for the sick has been reduced to a necessary hassle in the quest for the good life.
We do not need more nurses. We need more caring nurses.
My students showed an encouraging response. They pledged to offer their services in marginalized communities where medical practitioners are needed most. This they promised to do for a considerable amount of time after they earn their license. The pledge, of course, is not binding, and I cannot ask the foreign embassies to bar their visa applications if they don’t comply. Such act, nonetheless, shows us a glimmer of hope.
I know that it is difficult to speak with finality. Ate Hedy, my sister, held the same convictions when she was a young nurse teaching at a university in Laoag City. Aware that many families have been destroyed because of overseas employment, she opted to stay, live a life of moderation, and build a happy family. Ate Hedy is in now in New Zealand.
I look at nurses who have left, not with judgmental eyes, but with compassion. There’s Ate Mona and Weng in California, Auntie Elsie and Uncle Gerry in Hawaii, Mohini Dasi in Saudi Arabia, Ate Joy, Jemy, and Jenny in New Zealand, and other relatives I hold so dear in more parts of the world. The Philippines is always in their minds, and they send me nice presents every Christmas.
Many people say that I can afford to be idealistic only because I don’t have children yet. The moment you raise your own family, they warned, you will abandon your youthful arrogance; philosophy cannot build you a home, it cannot send your children to decent schools.
Am I losing the crusade? I don’t know, but when Kit, one of my students, fell in love with Friedrich Nietzsche, the feeling was ecstatic. Discussing the enigmatic German philosopher with his friends, even during night-outs, Kit’s collection of Nietzsche’s books puts to shame my own. Also, whenever I organize debate societies, most of those who join are nursing students. I learn a lot from these folks, and I grow with them. My best friend Alona, a former colleague who now teaches in Ateneo, reminds me to be thankful for having a job that allows me to earn a living while being enriched by amazing people.
There are a few bad times, though, such when I caught one of my students reviewing for his anatomy class while I was delivering a lecture on Marx. This prompted me to ask: “What good does it do to you when you find the parietal bone, and lose your own self?” And the message got across.
I sure have my own moments of weakness, too. Such when one of my students asked, “Sir, kuntento ka na ba sa ganyan? (Are you contented with your situation now?) “What do you mean?”, I asked back. “Yung ganyan, walang sariling bahay, padorm-dorm, walang kotse, (You live in a dormitory, not having your own house, your own car), he clarified.
I am not asking my students to be exactly like Socrates, who loved to go to the marketplace to see the things he was happy without. Neither am I leading them to the footsteps of Diogenes, a cynic, who lived in a barrel, and owned nothing but a cloak, a bread bag, and a stick, reasoning that in having very few possessions, his happiness won’t be easily stolen from him.
But, I urge my students to be steadfast in their search for meaning so that at the end of the day, they can look back with neither resentment nor regret. The way to meaning, of course, is not without a price. But it is the only way a truly existent man should take.
Now, I should stop evading the question. “Sir, kuntento ka na ba sa ganyan?”
The answer I cannot give with enough certainty. But one thing I am sure of: I just love to teach philosophy, and I thank my students for the life I live now. I thank them for letting me wake up each morning with a sweet smile on my face.
It is a business both daunting and rewarding to preach the gospels of Socrates, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Gutierrez, in a world facing the most difficult of times.