Dancing on Empty Stomachs
This much I agree with Manuel Buencamino: “Kristel Tejada deserves more than just being turned into a prop or a tool. Let her rest in peace. Let her family grieve with some dignity.” This is where the pornography of grief should end, though – I agree that much – but Teo Marasigan’s rebuttal got me thinking a bit.
Manuel’s right: there could have been another reason for the suicide. The same is true for so many people who have committed suicide: yes, you cannot pin suicide on just one factor. To quote a statement often uttered in the wake of this tragedy, “suicide is complex.” And the complexity of this situation allows commentators like Manuel – and myself, even – the free pass of dissecting this situation. The same complexity that allows activists to create a battlecry around the circumstances of Kristel’s death. The same complexity that allows us to all grieve and cry, whether genuinely or in one of those self-serving orgies of preaching to the crowd. Or even finding dignity in protest.
There’s where I disagree with Manuel, though: if it’s that complex, should society wash its hands of the responsibility that comes with the death of a brilliant student whose dreams were dashed by poverty? Especially if poverty is society’s problem in the first place?
What strikes me as weird, following this whole talk and buzz (or brouhaha) around her death, is this: those pinning the blame on Kristel – whether directly or indirectly – are the ones with fingers readily pointed at the weak constitution of the victim’s willpower. Is there no strength in her asking for a loan? Is there no strength in her writing a letter to a politician asking for a shot at a scholarship? Is there no strength in her parents, begging – or rather, requesting – for a reprieve or a chance from the UP administrators, much less cling on to the hope that she be rebracketed under the STFAP? Is there no strength in her hanging on, sitting in, and taking in all the shame and humiliation that comes with her situation? For all we know, that strength was sapped.
That should bring us to what should bring us clarity in all this weirdness: poverty is not a source of strength. Poverty – and everything that comes with it, like hunger, sickness, frustrations, and despair – weakens the body, the mind, the soul. If all you have for lunch is candy, doesn’t it weaken the body? If you run the risk of getting a bad scholastic record because your education hangs on a much more tenuous balance than that of your peers, doesn’t it hurt the mind? If you’re forced to give up on your dreams because of circumstances outside of your control, doesn’t that crush the soul? While some find strength in these adverse circumstances, some are weakened by it. Shame and humiliation eat and gnaw at the body like hunger and cold. Some kids have their scholarships, benefactors, and dreams – and yes, STFAP brackets – to hang on to. Kristel was poor and crushed enough as it was without those. And if there’s any other cause that we’re looking for, for her to take her own life, if there’s any weakness that we’re looking for in her constitution, it’s one made frail and weak by her poverty.
And that’s where the system comes in, I think. Poverty is not an individual situation, it is social: perhaps more social than Facebook, Twitter, and whatever the word “social” is appropriated for these days. Poverty is not a personal problem, it is a systemic problem: the very reason why many of our intellectuals and policy-makers obsess themselves over the plight of the poor. And yes, Kristel’s death cannot be pinned down to one thing: a “confluence of factors” may be the most ethical, gentle, politically-correct, and soundbite-worthy thing to say. But that shouldn’t mean that there should not be outrage around the irritating, maddening, anger-inducing poverty (and all its humiliations) she went through before she took her life. That’s what we should be railing against, because it affects all of us. And if it doesn’t, there will come a time where we’ll be affected by it.
As complex as suicide is, there are things that drive people to doing so, among other “weak” acts like selling a kidney or being driven into prostitution. Things that may be as simple as being poor, left with little to no choices, and left to one’s own devices where you can find them. And perhaps the only reason why we get accused of “romanticizing” the poor is because no roses grow in the trash heap, no birds fly above the charcoal furnace, and the songs in the squalid squatter areas do not come from a Stradivarius.
And for those looking for “cause:” yes, to use the soundbite, suicide is a complex thing. But you don’t “cause” it. You drive the person enough to the wall, that the wall breaks, and that person either falls over the edge, or jumps from the edge. Suicide in our society is an irrational thing, but even the most irrational things in the world have their reasons. We can never prove that what killed Kristel, because this is not a case of, in its most legalistic and technical form, murder. This is a case of suicide: we can only point to what drove her to the wall and to the edge. Without a shadow of a doubt, what weakened her, what impoverished her, what suicided her, are the circumstances that were out of her control. Circumstances that our society could have averted in the first place. Circumstances we don’t want to look at: because all those candies for lunch, all those promissory notes, all those appeals for a scholarship and rebracketing hold more evidence than a suicide note we try to use as a shield. Or as an apology, for that matter. It is that glaringly obvious circumstance: Kristel was marred in poverty, mired in desperation, and denied a place.
Manuel and I can agree to disagree at this point, but the weirdness does not stop there. What makes the buzz even weirder is that whenever we talk about the poor, we talk with somewhat no idea how much our slips are showing. We may know what it’s like to be poor, sharing anecdotes about our once-poor lives and our experiences with hunger and shame, but the fact to the matter is we are not poor, and we do not experience what they’re going through right now. The least we owe them is empathy.
The great orator Raul Manglapus should have left us with some empathy for the poor by virtue of the powerful words he used in “Land of Bondage, Land of the Free,” but we somewhat act more like the amo than the tao. We find it easy to pin indolence on the plight of the poor, bringing up our anecdotes for drunkards and gamblers in the sitio as if it’s the universal truth among poor people. But what of poor people who work eight hours a day, work another eight hours to try their darndest to make ends meet, and still not have enough? What of the poor people who, by strokes of luck and circumstances they’re not in control of, remain poor despite the backbreaking labor of things that we wouldn’t be caught dead doing? Are they lazy? Are they weak? They’re not: I dare say they’re much stronger than we think. And they’re the ones who should benefit from all of this “agenda-setting,” this desire for change.
Or at least from a little empathy. A little understanding. Assholes? None bigger than a system that keeps poor people poor, none stinkier than that which impoverishes people. Kristel is not a tool, but evidence that sometimes, a system that benefits us so much is something that kills one of us. A system that forces us to dance on empty stomachs.
And that’s why it’s an “agenda,” at least in Manuel’s eyes: it hits you right in the pit of the stomach.