Faces and Facets of Heroism



In my country, we adore our heroes particularly the dead ones. At least on paper. Annual public holidays in the Philippines are peppered with days dedicated to heroes and heroic events. We have a National Heroes Day, Day of Valor, Rizal Day (in honor of the national hero), Bonifacio Day (in honor of the other contender for national hero) and Ninoy Aquino Day (the most prominent opposition figure during the Marcos dictatorship in the 1970s and 80s).

A common denominator among our most celebrated heroes is their violent deaths, whether through execution, assassination or as casualties in battle. Ask any grade school kid what a hero means and a common answer would be someone who died for the country. Even the last line in our national anthem says ang mamatay ng dahil sayo (to die for your sake).

Putting one’s own life on the line for a higher cause is indeed the greatest sacrifice and requires exceptional courage. But the idea that heroism only means martyrdom results in extolling extraordinary deeds but neglecting simple helpful acts that citizens can do. As one columnist often says, we’re so good at dying for our country but we suck at living for it. We soar to great heights in moments of dramatic glory (like ousting corrupt presidents in bloodless revolutions) but fail in the arduous day-to-day task of nation-building (like paying taxes and following traffic laws).

In the age of the Filipino diaspora, a new breed of heroes was recognized. They didn’t intend to die (although a number of them did), they just left. Overseas Filipino workers became the modern day heroes, leaving their families behind to earn higher wages in foreign lands. They toil in the oilfields of the Middle East, in the hospitals of Europe and the US, in the palaces of monarchs and mansions of the rich in order to send their sons and daughters to school, build a concrete house and maybe buy a jeepney or tricycle. A number of them suffer unjust labor practices, violence, discrimination, and physical and sexual abuse. The more unfortunate come home in coffins. In the recent uprisings in the Middle East and northern Africa, a lot of Filipino migrant workers lost their jobs and were trapped in the conflict.

Today, about 3,500 Filipinos are still leaving the country every day and not just blue collar workers but professionals as well including doctors, nurses, teachers, engineers, computer programmers, accountants and scientists. Working in developed countries is a golden opportunity to earn big and advance one’s career. Decades of bad economy and corrupt governance have caused a lot of us to become hopeless and apathetic. It seems the only viable escape is to abandon this sinking ship and migrate abroad.

While millions have left for the so-called greener pastures, there are those who stayed and chose to work here: teachers who educate and inspire their students, healthcare workers who provide services even in the remotest of communities, government employees who do their jobs well despite the systemic corruption, social workers who persevere in helping the poor and disadvantaged, and many others who are trying to make a difference amidst the dysfunction in Philippine society. Theirs is the kind of heroism that keeps hope alive in the face of cynicism and strives to make things work even if the odds are stacked against them.

Two years ago, an artwork posted by a graphic designer on his Tumblr page became a popular T-shirt design. It says: “Where I’m from, everyone’s a hero.” This renewed excitement for heroism came after Ketsana, one of the most devastating typhoons to hit the country in recent history, brought up to 20 feet of flood waters and submerged 80% of the Philippine capital. More than 300 people died and thousands were left homeless. In a matter of hours, Filipinos mobilized to rescue people who were trapped on the roofs of their houses, collect and distribute relief goods, and donate their time and resources to help flood victims get back on their feet. In the midst of tragedy, they became the best version of themselves. They became heroes.

There are extraordinary people who do exceptional things. They are often the ones who become renowned and have books written on their lives, monuments erected for them and public holidays declared in their honor. And then there are ordinary people who do ordinary things exceptionally. The world will probably not know their names but the collective impact of their actions will reverberate in history.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2009-1447/Mike Alquinto A family sits atop a raft, which is being propelled by a man wading through waist-high floodwater, in Pasig City in Manila, the capital. On 30 September 2009 in the Philippines, over half a million people are displaced by flooding caused by Tropical Storm Ketsana (also known as ‘Ondoy’), which struck on 26 September. The storm dumped over a month’s worth of rain on the island of Luzon in only 12 hours.

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