Sunday, February 10, 2013


Si isay ca man?

By Dr. Lucio F. Teoxon Jr.

“Who do you think you are?” Si isay ca man?

This is invariably the question we throw at somebody who comes on too strong or happens to be overbearingly haughty to our sensibilities. We ordinarily have very little patience for the ego-tripper, much more so with the egomaniacal barbarian. If someone comes along who puts on airs for one reason or another, we can hardly wait to cut him or her to size instead of just letting the guy alone. What is it that the small-town braggart, the ordinary citizen with delusions of grandeur, or the arrogant public official drunk with power have in common? Well, they all share one thing—a bloated ego.

Why does that kind of behavior get on our nerves? Moreover, why is it that on the other hand we lavish praises on an individual who is known for his or her modesty, who does not puff up himself or herself with pride even when there is every reason to do so? Something in our value system prompts us to favor one as admirable and despise the other as undesirable. I suppose it is not just an issue of ethics. It is also a question of aesthetics. When we disapprove of somebody’s actuations, we do not only say “sala.” We also say “macanos.” One of Shakespeare’s characters remarked that it is great to have a giant’s strength, but that it is cruelty to use it like a giant. What we truly are simply speaks for itself. There is really no need for self-advertisement.

We are not here advocating non-assertiveness or self-deprecation as virtues par excellence. Even humility becomes vice when indulged in self-consciously. In which case it becomes false modesty. Besides, weakness is the refuge of the inferior. The great German philosopher Nietzsche frowned upon meekness and lack of elan vital as roadblocks to the full realization of man’s potentials for greatness. There is in fact nothing wrong with self-affirmation and a sense of satisfaction in one’s noteworthy achievements. Superior strength of character, intelligence and ability are the hallmarks required of those who would dare to make a difference or escape from the human antheap. In the works of Ayn Rand, enlightened self-interest and native talent are extolled as the cornerstones of the individual’s accomplishments. Timidity has no room in the fictional edifice she fashioned or the philosophy she conceived. One of her books bears this catchy title ”The Virtue of Selfishness.” Oh, well.

At this juncture, it would be immensely useful to clarify, if we can, the commonly muddled issue as to whether or not selfishness is the same as self-love. Let us have for our springboard Christ’s command “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This sentence may be considered as elliptical as it can be restated fully as “You shall love your neighbor as (you love) yourself.” But then the original formulation stands: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. So, it is not really loving one’s neighbor as if he or she were one’s own self, but loving one’s neighbor as oneself. There is here no literal separation or division between oneself and one’s neighbor. There is only a unity. At any rate, even if we take the explicit rendering of Christ’s original statement, it is still evident that love of others is premised upon love of one’s self. They are not diametrically opposed since, to begin with, the latter is the precondition of the former. Self-love then does not really run counter to love of others. It is evidently true that I cannot love my neighbor if I do not love myself in the first place. Love of oneself and love of neighbor are thus not mutually exclusive but interlocked.

Now, the minute I love myself solely without regard for the other so that I only think and act in furtherance of my own self-interest, that self-love all too easily turns into selfishness. Then, we see the birth of a monster that goes by the name of narcissism.  On the other hand, once I sacrifice myself for others even at my own expense, or even perhaps at the cost of my own life, not that I love myself less but that I love others more, then that gesture amounts to what is called as altruism, the highest form of love that is divine. The Greek word for it is “agape.” Jesus Christ put it thus: “Greater love hath no man than this that a man lays down his life for his friends.”

Agapeic love was exemplified by Christ himself when he submitted Himself for humanity’s redemption. But the question naturally surfaces: Is anyone, human as we are, capable of such kind of love, which is absolutely unselfish? May it not be asserted that only Christ can love in this manner as He is the greatest expression of God’s own love for mankind? In modern situation ethics, all moral laws are considered to be relative, depending upon the concrete surrounding circumstances. But there is one exception. The law of love is declared to be absolute. Its command is: "Love and do what you will." The unwritten assumption is that if any man can but love in the agapeic sense, he cannot make any moral error. Thus it is that moral perfection is achieved through its highest expression in unconditional self-giving.

Are there stories that unmistakably demonstrate that ordinary humanity is capable of manifesting “agape” in our dealings with one another? Well, I suppose we may not be disappointed. A poem by Phoebe Cary, “A Leak in the Dyke” comes to mind. It tells the story of a heroic Dutch boy who plugged the leaking dyke with his finger to save his people from drowning and died in the process. There is too the story of Sydney Carton in Charles Dicken’s novel,  A Tale of Two Cities, who decided to be decapitated in the guillotine in place of another man for the sake of the woman he loved, even if he knew his love would remain unrequited. But these are fictive characters. Are there flesh-and-blood heroes who offered their lives in self-sacrifice? 

In 1990, following the 7.8 Ms Luzon killer quake which claimed the lives of countless people trapped in the debris of collapsed buildings, a man labored his way through the rubble of Hyatt Hotel in Baguio City and saved the lives of a number of injured victims. The imminent danger attendant to what he was doing did not deter him from his determination to save others. As he was pulling one more wounded victim to safety, a concrete block mortally struck him down. He was buried alive there together with the wounded that he had tried to rescue.

Another true story of bravery and heroism happened in 1993 during the Krus sa Wawa feast, an annual Bocaue pagoda festival. A 13-year-old boy pulled out from the jaws of death four kids who would have drowned when the pagoda capsized. He did not think of his own personal safety while swimming to their rescue. Unfortunately, he died after saving the kids from drowning.

A recent incident was reported on TV involving a father who threw himself in front of a speeding motorcycle to shield his daughter from being directly hit. True, he suffered serious physical injuries. To him, however, his broken bones were nothing compared to the fact that his daughter was spared what could have been a certain death. I bet there are yet more true-to-life stories of rescue, perhaps even more spectacular, that may not have been reported in the news. But for our purposes here, let these three real incidents suffice.

These guys may not have heard of “agape.” All they knew was that in those crucial moments they were badly needed by fellow human beings in distress. And they responded spontaneously without counting the cost to themselves. It may then be asked:  What made them do their selfless acts? For personal glory? That’s out of the question. Or is it because they must have felt it in their bones that deep within they and those victims were one? An idiom in Pilipino expresses this idea beautifully: Lukso ng dugo.

Joseph Campbell made mention of the German philosopher Schopenhauer whose interest was said to be aroused by similar incidents recounted above. It struck the latter as curious what is it in the human makeup that impels us to perform selfless acts of heroism. The conclusion he reached is that though our individuality is essential in functioning on our plane of manifestation, yet our affinity with one another is more than just physical. It is true that the life force coursing through the veins and arteries of our separate systems is one and the same, even as the current flowing through or lighting up a series of different electric bulbs is one and the same. Campbell said that our actual ultimate root is in our humanity, not in our personal genealogy. But even more than our common humanity or blood kinship, what truly binds us together is one spirit, one consciousness.

So then, once we transcend our separate self-sense and attain true communion with our fellowmen, we won’t be hard put to find it in our hearts to make allowance for the foibles of our pet peeves, the ones with bloated egoes. We can perhaps excuse the most offensive A.H. hereabouts on the ground that s/he may not be fully aware of the irritating impression s/he is creating in the other people's perception. Besides, legions are there who have not awakened to the eternal dimension of their individuality, but content merely to act out the vanity and quirks of their person. If it were not so, then they would have known what to say with conviction when asked, "Si isay ca man?"  

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