My feet were unusually dirty. My shoes got soaked from mud and garbage and rain. But it is the exact opposite of what this is about.
When asked about how I felt after the visit to Smokey Mountain, a famous slum area in Manila, I was left unanswered. It continues, the perplexity still puzzles and there is no arrival. There is only living through, living along, living on, living. It appears fragile, it feels hopeful. We are ever more present in the scheme of things. Given that gift, we are ever more mindful of the little things we can do for the improvement of communities that we may or may not be dwelling in.
More importantly, these little things impact a shift in the mindset of the whole.
It was a rainy Saturday morning. Three weeks ago, Tom and Anna of Adventure in You organized their first Wandergive project in the Philippines. A group of volunteers gathered despite the storm in the country. Coordinating with Ann and Paul, the founders of Young Focus, they introduced the organization and its quarters alongside its projects and activities. Aside from that, they also walked us around to witness the truth of what takes place daily in Smokey Mountain and how the past and current conditions of the place and its residents reflect a multitude of colorful stories.
There is this woman whom Tom pointed to me. She was sitting in a tattered mattress foam. In one hand was a clear plastic cup. She was drinking a beverage from a pitcher that appears like pineapple juice. However, she looked like she was in a daze. It must be the alcohol mixed in her drink. It must be her kids playing in the pools of dirty water. It must be her house in the corner of the second floor of the wretched building, its foundation made from scraps of wood and tarpaulin drenched from the nonstop rain. It must be life’s physically and emotionally wearisome challenges and the consequential numbness from it all.
I remember Paul saying, “Your country is very beautiful, but this, this is the different side.”
Now what can we do with this different side?
Young Focus is first and foremost a non-government organization that was born out of an enduring hope and passion to share love. As a consequence, part of the Smokey Mountain community received help and continues to receive help through projects and activities that does not only provide but also sustain. Their very target is educating families, focusing largely on children as well as getting them involved in the process of improvement. The organization makes an effective implementation of balancing the education between academic and practical. The continuous improvement I have observed is the kind that begins with the willingness and desire and determination of the individual and eventually of the collective. The ones that started to participate at a young age in the projects of Young Focus have now become successful professionals and active pursuers of their dreams. Somehow, this generation and the budding generations are gracefully changing the reputation of Smokey Mountain. It appears fragile, yet it feels hopeful more than ever.
When we visit, when we take the time to get to know their situation, we are shocked of what we’re not used to seeing and smelling and touching. But then awareness, if not understanding, enters and depletes what our minds had set all along.
The ancient problem of poverty may not end there as easy as 1, 2, 3. Perhaps you will be left unanswered in the end, just like me. Questions may arise, overwhelming emotions may disintegrate the illusionary stability of life. Nonetheless, the core of doing and participating gets us nearer to our truest nature. It amplifies our capacity to be lovingly human. What better way to be human?
Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity. – Simone Weil
What really granted me the biggest smile during the few hours I’ve spent there was when we were led to a classroom on the second floor. Inside was a smiling teacher who was asking the children one by one about the books they’ve read over the week. It was the young boy’s turn in front of us to discuss, he was holding across his chest a book called Seabiscuit (a personal favorite). After his review of the non-fiction story, Ann went beside the boy and contributed additional information on how Seabiscuit, despite being an underdog of a race horse, became a symbol of hope to the Americans during the Great Depression. Listening and witnessing the ongoing interaction among the students, the teacher, and Ann made my soul swell with joy. It was a picture of a present thriving with love and of a future designing divine possibilities.
One thing I’ve learned from that rainy Saturday was that the root of help and compassion begins with attention. And by attention, I mean presence in its most naked form where judgments and comparisons are stripped. Meanings attached are dissolved. From attention, it eventually expands, ultimately encompassing labels.
The act is not about us nor about them, not about the discrepancy in our living conditions, but ultimately about the exchange. There are no identities or roles assigned on who is privileged, unfortunate, lucky, disadvantaged. If the society assigns to them a role of being victims, then they will act as victims and assume an attitude of being victimized be it related to drugs, alcohol, or any other criminal acts expected of a person growing up in that type of environment. They are playing the role well. And on the other side of the wall, there is the comfortable and privileged, sometimes even luxurious kind of living. The lucky ones. They are sympathizing with the victims because they are living the life of bounty.
It is disturbing that oftentimes we need to have witnessed such unwanted circumstances to be able to appreciate how abundant our present lives are.
Who are you when there is no identity, no role, no badge? When the exchange is all we have left? We are confronted with simply giving and receiving. When this is what remains, a blanket of possibilities unfolds. Your presence is powerful enough for that inspiring shift of the whole.