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Why Kristel Tejada’s death is a portent of something we already feel

March 16, 2013

I was going to be post-less for more than a week, without mention of the news of the day, without even mentioning Lahad Datu (which is a geopolitical topic, but frankly I think it’s too inane to write about). But we have this story coming from the University of the Philippines in Manila, and with the outrage mounting I decided to add my voice to the indignation.

Yes, I am indignant.

First of all – if UP has sound tuition-bracketing procedures that are in place, as my former boss maintains – why are people still falling off the tuition rails? They shouldn’t! If UP has accepted them, it has a responsibility to make sure that the student can pay their tuition! We’re talking about the national university, with a mandate to provide quality tertiary education to the Philippine people and help other universities in the Philippines with the same.

Second – why doesn’t UP provide generous installment payment schemes? “Generous” refers to the terms of payment and not to a gratuity of the government, because UP is being run by the government, paid for by the taxpayer.

Third – why does it seem to be the case that the UP administration and the government are blind to the needs of the working-class students who enroll in UP? Kristel Tejada’s parents are not destitute people, but part of the working class – her father actually has a decent job. Despite AEP’s (and other UP System and Admin officials’) protestations to the contrary, it appears that UP has been (from the Roman presidency) lately focusing its efforts on an ever-nonchalant middle class in order to gain more funds, because the government has cut off funds from it.

We must be indignant, and we must be truly angry. If possible we must rush to UP and protest this – in a state of peaceful indignation, of course, and use everything in our power to turn back UP’s draconian tuition measures. But there is one thing about this whole affair which I noticed, that worries me, which people have not reflected on enough. If they did, though, they would be horrified, too.

Midway through commenting on a friend’s status about the news, it hit me. Here is my comment (I have highlighted the pertinent phrases):

 (…) her mother even reportedly knelt before the chancellor of UPM to ask for clemency. The issue is why people are not allowed to pay in installments in UP. I don’t think it’s a whimsical suicide, but increasingly, people back in the Philippines have developed a horrifying sense of despair about everything. It’s not a mental problem but a spiritual one. I realized it one month being here in Taiwan: people here are full of hope, and even if they are comfortable they are kind. Back home, things are different: we have developed a frightening culture of silent fear and barbarism.

Let us be sad for the Philippines, and realize that her suicide is a portent for our people – and act furtively to stop our mass despair.

Mass despair. It hit me that it was not just a mental problem, but a spiritual one. It’s something in our soul, that causes us to take our lives like this. We look at each other, and see that there is no hope in the other’s eyes. We desperately look for it in our family, our friends, our acquaintances, but no, there is no such spark. Kristel might have looked to her parents for help, to others, but there was, in the end, nothing all of them could do. All of these people had no hope in their eyes, even the UPM chancellor they begged for help.

Rather than sell her body (which is a realistic alternative but which would kill her resolve anyway), Kristel drank poison. We who are still weakly holding on to the system might be induced to do this at some point in time, and this is the frightening thing. Not just drink poison: if Kristel had prostituted herself that would have been a suicide too, because she threw away her dreams and relegated herself to that mass of bodies with no real emotion. We drink poison or we sell our bodies and souls: this is suicide. And everyday we face this frightening reality in the Philippines.

This is why the Philippines is still the most religious country in the world, and why “charismatic” Catholic and Pentecostal groups are gaining ground. It’s not because of spiritual revival (sorry to say this), but because of the ever-growing sense of despair.  We find hope only in churches, in singing songs and hymns with other members of the community, we find peace in church, but we go through hell outside.

It’s not because we are “getting to know the Lord more”, but because we see that the Church is a fireplace – one which is open only on Sundays. We do not carry the fire out of the Church – we just file out after the service and the fellowship as if it were a simple show, and return to our own hopeless lives and gaze at the same hopeless faces. It is like being at war, but the thing is, the Philippines is in peacetime. No one is blockading us, no one is threatening to level our hoses, enslave our children and rape our women – but we feel like that is the case. And then we gather together at the fireplace – but it never feels enough!

I am an imperfect person and could not tell you the exact solution to this from experience. There are many martyrs in the Philippines, though, that everyday brave the stream of hopelessness and emerge as victors. I have been fortunate to be friends with some of them, and they have many weapons. For some of them, it is the truth of their condition. For others, it is the complete reliance on the mercy of God. For still others, it is the setting of small, manageable goals, which is a form of humility. All of these weapons point to that real hope, which is the real spiritual revival people should be seeking. 

It is not all that bleak, this situation. But, with Kristel Tejada’s suicide, we must begin seriously questioning this state of affairs. It’s not only “Change the government! Change the system!” that must be done. Perhaps we should withdraw awhile, and acknowledge the truth about what is happening in the Philippines, and then begin to hope in God again, without the pomp, without the performances, without the grand pronouncements. Then perhaps we will find our way.

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