this story originally appeared in the philippine daily inquirer on november 9, 2014.
I’VE ALWAYS had a particular interest in power and death and the strange correlation that exists between the two.
I remember that as a child, I would examine the ant colonies in my grandfather’s front yard. I would pour boiling water over an anthill and watch the scalding liquid seep through every crevice of the small compound of dirt that housed a kingdom of strong and noble creatures and their queen. Elegantly, almost mechanically, deliciously. I enjoyed being the powerful bully towering over their tiny quivering bodies, watching as they disintegrated before me. I regarded them as no more than specks in my grandfather’s front yard, and myself as their merciless god.
Years later I would come to understand how tiny we all really are. We have cosmic narratives dedicated to this fact, explaining to us in detail how the planet Earth is itself no more than a speck in the vastness of the universe, and how we, too, can so easily be flushed out of our small kingdoms, squished, and drowned into oblivion.
Now isn’t it funny how ants and gods can sometimes be very much alike?
But this isn’t a story about ants, or gods, or cosmic narratives. This is a story about humans and our perpetual quest for power. You see, humans—much like tiny ants and ruthless gods—operate on a bureaucratic framework. In this quest we have seen the destruction of our own kind, of our natural environment, and of a whole spectrum of other organisms that live with and among us, all to amass more power.
What we seem to ignore is that when nature tries to reclaim its place and fights back, it does not selectively ravage its victims according to that bureaucracy, with the privileged elites in impenetrable armor and the inferior and the powerless marked with red target points on their foreheads. When nature decides to fight back, we all bear the consequences.
I hail from a small city called Butuan, which is perched regally on the northern end of the island of Mindanao. At the height of Supertyphoon “Yolanda” on Nov. 8, 2013, we were among two-thirds of the Philippines that took very little damage from its wrath. This, however, did not prevent stories from the wasteland that had become of the provinces of Samar and Leyte from reaching our borders.
We are free to speculate that only in times of tragedy do the purest and noblest of intentions take full effect. But time passes, and so do the pureness and nobleness.
The stories were harrowing. A mother sleeping next to her six dead children in her ramshackle shelter made up of pieces of wood, scraps of sackcloth, and whatever was left of her home, her husband still missing. Fathers returning from the bustling streets of Metro Manila, finding their homes ravaged, and searching for their missing loved ones on an empty stomach, with no roof under which to rest for the night and no sense of hope to hold on to. Firefighters collecting corpses with their bare hands, and, exhausted at the end of the day, eating heartily using the same hands from parcels of food handed to them, the pieces of meat resembling so much the very flesh they had collected earlier, the smell of death clawing at them, their throats constricting, preventing the food from going down…
Per the last official count early this year, more than 6,000 people died, more than 1,000 were missing, and millions were displaced. But if this whole tragic circumstance should teach us anything, it’s that in times of despair, the human spirit triumphs over all cosmic narratives. There are no more ants, or gods, or a vast universe to divide us; we are only human beings in the most basic sense, working together to rebuild a society and to nurse broken spirits.
For a moment, the gods were humbled. It was no longer about amassing power. It was about survival, making sure that the living had enough to get through another night, and that the dead were given a dignified farewell. Specks in the dark, we were, after all, only as big or as small as we allowed ourselves to be.
Fast-forward through time.
It is now a full year after the catastrophe, and the cackling gods soar above Samar and Leyte’s destitute land as the ghosts of the dead ripple from beneath them. Those still displaced are now forced to brace for the 20 or so incoming storms per year in nothing but ramshackle tents made up of pieces of wood, scraps of sackcloth, and whatever was left of their homes. Part of what we collected that were good enough one year ago have been reduced to rotting canned goods, tattered clothing, melted candlesticks, expired drugs, and whatnot, having accomplished nothing but fatten up some forsaken storage facility a few hundred kilometers from the people who needed them the most.
Dystopia is real. It is neither a place nor a disposition, but a characteristic, and we are at the forefronts of its discovery.
We are free to speculate that only in times of tragedy do the purest and noblest of intentions take full effect. But time passes, and so do the pureness and nobleness. Unfortunately for the victims of Yolanda, the aftermath of the supertyphoon does not recuperate with time, as ordinary flesh wounds would. More than time, they need tangible help, still.
Only one year has passed since Yolanda rained down its wrath upon Samar, Leyte and other unfortunate places. Yet we seem to have already forgotten what it’s like to be human. We are ants and gods once again. I write this to remember.