By DR. BERNARDO M. VILLEGAS
Whatever weaknesses we Filipinos have as a people (e.g., lack of discipline, lack of concern for the common good, lack of punctuality, etc.), we are often cited for an outstanding trait that is highly valued by foreign visitors or the people of the host countries of Overseas Filipino Workers. That virtue is captured by the Tagalog word “malasakit” which can be loosely translated as empathy or the ability to share the feelings of others. This is not mere sentimentalism, emotionalism or an excess of feelings. It involves both mind and will. It means perceiving the sufferings of others and doing something about it. I would like to think that this trait is still imbued in us through family upbringing, especially in large families where siblings learn to take care of one another. In fact, the phenomenon of the OFWs is a demonstration of the extreme sacrifices many of our fellow citizens are willing to assume in order to economically support the relatives left behind.
As we celebrate the birth of Christ, the very epitome of love for human beings, I would like to refer to a very insightful article that appeared in the Opus Dei website. It is precisely entitled “Sharing Others’ Feelings.” It starts with pointing out how many problems could be avoided if we truly tried to understand better others’ feelings, their expectations and ideals. Of course, the place to start is in the family, i.e., in the relations between husband and wife, parents and children, siblings among themselves. Then this “malasakit” should encompass an ever enlarging circle of friends and work colleagues until it reaches the whole community in which one lives and operates. The fundamental principle should be taken from a quotation from St. Josemaria Escriva, Ffounder of Opus Dei, found in the book The Way (No. 463): “Charity consists not so much in giving as in understanding.” The first requirement is recognizing in the other person someone worthy of consideration and placing oneself in that person’s shoes. What comes to mind is the advice given by Pope Francis to those who give alms to the poor: “Look them in the eyes.” The poor are not just objects of official charity or pity. They are human beings who want to be treated as equals.
This Christmas we should remind ourselves that a Christian should do everything possible to follow in the footsteps of Christ, not only in carrying the Cross, but in all the acts that He performed for the benefit of others (except of course, performing miracles): “Right from the start, the disciples experienced how sensitive Christ was to those around Him — His ability to put Himself in the place of others, His refined understanding of what was going on inside the human heart, His sensitivity to the sufferings of others. On reaching Naim, without a word being spoken, He realized the heartbreak of the widow who had lost her only son. On hearing Jairus’ petition and the laments of the mourners, He brought consolation to the first and calm to the others. He was aware of the needs of those following Him and was concerned when they had nothing to eat. He cried with Martha and Mary before Lazarus’ tomb, and became indignant at His followers’ hardness of heart when they wanted to call down fire from heaven upon the Samaritan village that refused to receive them.” Of course, we cannot imitate Him in His raising from the dead the son of the widow of Naim or the daughter of Jairus or Lazarus. But we can do everything we can to comfort those who are suffering. We even have a unique Tagalog word for that, i.e., “nakikiramay” which is not just giving condolences but actually sharing the sorrows felt by the bereaved.
In his book “Christ is Passing By,” St. Josemaria defines the real meaning of the charity of Christ: “The charity of Christ is not merely a benevolent sentiment for our neighbor; it is not limited to a penchant for philanthropy. Poured out in our soul by God, charity transforms from within our mind and will. It provides the supernatural foundation for friendship and the joy of doing what is right.” St. Josemaria asks us to learn from the examples of the first twelve apostles, who were not exemplary for their charity before Christ taught them its true meaning. Before they were converted by the charity of Christ, the apostles had raw sentiments which led them to fail to show compassion towards others. St. John, who ended his life just repeating the mantra “Love one another” started out as a very vehement person so that he merited with his brother James the Great the nickname “son of thunder.” St. Peter himself also showed harshness towards the adversaries of Christ (remember how he cut the ear of one of those who were arresting Christ). But he ended up addressing the people in the Temple with words devoid of any rancor, seeking their conversion. With all meekness and kindness he exhorted them: “And now brethren, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers… Repent, therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:17, 10 – 20).
(To be continued).