I’ve been interested in social action and human rights work since my college days, as a member of Gawad Kalinga and now as an intern for Ateneo Human Rights Center and Saligan. Having been a member of three non-government organizations (NGOs) has given me a glimpse into the oppression, injustice and sheer poverty enslaving our people. I’d like to think my time there has contributed to improving their lives. But I know that it has not even been a drop in the sea of social, economic and political issues which contribute to their struggles and difficulties.
I’ve also struggled finding my place in all this. What can I do to help? How can I serve? How can I make even just one life better? It seems so overwhelming. Maybe the problem lies not in my desire to serve but in my desire to solve every single problem, creating the perfect world once and for all! But that is not how things work, is it? For as long as we live on this earth and in this world we will always suffer and there will always be suffering people we strive to console. Countless attempts at utopian societies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries have proven this. There is no “perfect”’ world in this lifetime.
This is my first argument. Completely eradicating suffering simply isn’t possible. Yet, so many laws and systems in our country and the world seek to this. Yes, we must strive to do our best to decrease the suffering of our brothers and sisters as much as possible. That is what the spiritual and corporal works of mercy are for. But we must always do so with the mindset that suffering has its place. It can be the disease, but it can also be the sign of new growth. We must not delude ourselves into thinking it is inherently evil. To do so would deprive us the salvation or even joy that suffering can lead to.
I know this sounds crazy. I hate suffering as much as anyone but not all suffering is bad. Sometimes they are just growing pains and we have to be brave enough to see that. Brave enough to face that. And brave enough to do what is necessary. What do I mean by this?
I read an explanation once, that God permitting suffering can be likened to a Father whose daughter is gravely ill and needs an operation. The terrified little girl begs her father not to push through with the procedure. The Father does not want his daughter to suffer either. But he knows that her health will only deteriorate without it. And so, consoling her and assuring her of his love, he allows the doctors to operate on her. After the operation, she may still spend a few weeks recuperating. But it is all worth it because in the end, her life is saved.
And this is how suffering can be salvific. Sometimes we need to suffer in order to prevent a greater evil and bring about a greater good. We shouldn’t be afraid of suffering.
Why do I say this? Because seeing the oppression and destitution in our country, having heard about and listened to victims of unjust labor practices, violence against women and children, hacienderos driving farmers out of their land…I wonder how much of this suffering is the sickness and how much is the operation? Most of it is the sickness, undoubtedly! But hopefully some of them are just growing pains.
This brings me to my second point. My question now is, are we operating on our patients or simply giving them analgesics?
One thing I admire about the workers in Gawad Kalinga and the alternative lawyers of NGOs under Alternative Law Groups (ALGs) is that they strive to operate on the disease. They work on the ground, having barangay-level interaction with the stakeholders. Gawad Kalinga does not only build houses but focuses on holistic community development. They set up daycare centers; provide livelihood programs and faith-centered formation through the Couples for Christ. Likewise, alternative lawyers have paralegal training programs teaching the farmers about Comprehensive Agrarian Reform (CARPER), indigenous people about Indigenous Peoples rights Act (IPRA), women and children about Violence Against Women and Children (VAWC). They also strive to change the laws which can be the very source of oppression; by lobbying in Congress and filing position papers. By no means are these a quick fix! They can take decades! But they are solid foundations for a more just society.
I’m grateful for the time I’ve had with them. They’ve taught me the value of patient perseverance in fighting for what is right. I certainly have a lot to learn! However, there are a few issues where I believe we are giving people pain-killers more than effective medicine. We need to address the disease, not merely the symptoms if we are going to solve anything.