by Johanne Arceo
The context I was in when I said yes to the Jesuit Volunteers Philippines (JVP) was that of an existential crisis.
Whenever I was met with the question about the purpose of life, I have always found comfort in the words of Aristotle, “Happiness is that which, in itself, the end we strive upon.” Swearing an oath to live by these words, I went about my 20 years of life running after things I thought would make me happy. But my version of happiness was pretty hedonistic: it meant nice clothes, nice parties, nice friends, nice travels, nice everything. It was only lately when I realized that I have a huge gap in my philosophy. The Aristotelian happiness is about fulfilling my greatest potential as a human by perfecting my virtues; about being all that I can be. And so amidst this existential crisis — along with the fear of leaving the comforts of my snug version of happiness — I decided to “find myself” in JVP right after graduating in 2012.
The first thing I learned in my journey is that everything in life undergoes process. There is always a clumsy beginning, followed by the spur of first growth, then the developing phase, and then graduating into a mature and well-established stage. It goes for the physical and mental development of a growing person, as well as for the growth of communities, completion of projects, creation of relationships, or simply moving into a totally new city with a very different dialect and lifestyle. This has taught me to be patient and to constantly strive to improve in the present stage, hoping to progress soon eventually into the next stage. This taught me that there is indeed an appointed time for everything, and everything ripens according to its own pace. This taught me that there is always a bigger master plan, where everything that we go through would make sense in its completion.
Another thing that I learned is that the real development of a city can be seen in the development of its people. No matter how tall the skyscrapers are or how technologically advanced the processes may be, a lot can still be said about a society by the way it treats its weakest members. This is what made me fall in love with Cagayan de Oro, much more Xavier Ecoville: parents willing to give their extra paracetamol to a neighbor whose baby is burning with fever, nanays charging only half of a manicure’s worth if their neighbor avails of their service, a 7-year-old kid patiently teaching me Bisaya. When God saw Sendong happening in Cagayan de Oro, He knew very well that its people will survive and persist because they simply have each other. If only for how Xavier Ecoville has been brought into fruition, CDO definitely lives up to its name a the “City of Golden Friendship.”
Thirdly, I have learned more than ever that I must not lose faith in humanity. One of my favorite quotes from Mahatma Gandhi is brought to mind, and it makes so much more sense now — “Humanity is an ocean; If a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.” I can go on all day about this, starting with the list of bogus tenants in Ecoville hehe. Nevertheless, there are much more reasons to be hopeful and inspired than to be frustrated about. Amidst the prevailing mindset of hopelessness and getting ahead at the expense of others, there are a handful of people who are still willing to hope and strive patiently. There are those who still put others first before their own interest, and render service to their fellow Sendong survivors. I learned that the ways of truth and love will prevail in the end, and that service to my neighbor must be unconditional.
Laslty, I learned that suffering is fundamental to humanity, and that’s okay. In a world where we constantly strive to be comfortable, we are made to believe that suffering is evil; that it should be avoided and feared. But slowly, I am starting to learn now that suffering is a gift. It defines the most significant points in the history of mankind. And most importantly, suffering makes us more human. And because God has given us this capacity, I therefore say that suffering is grace. It has been given to us out of love, so that in this love we may learn to grow.
In closing, I remember what Ate Cres (a nanay in Ecoville who is a member of the sewing group) has told me over a hot serving of banana cue in her talipapa stall one casual Wednesday. She told me that while Sendong took away everything they had, God didn’t allow Sendong to take away their lives. It may be then that God still has a purpose for them. “Nga basig wala nila nabuhat ang ilang misyon sa ilang kinabuhi.” Now in my life, I had been struck by a lot of things, but never had I been as struck as when Ate Cres spoke those word with so much spontaneity that only truth could perfect. It changed the way I looked at my own life. Apparently, I am alive now for a definite purpose. As much as Ate Cres is still alive for a purpose. As much as all the other humans on earth are still alive for a purpose. Poverty is not just the loss of physical things. It is, even more properly, the ceasing of the soul to persevere in finding its purpose. It is the death of dreaming and hoping. It is the scarcity of humans who are fully alive with a sense of purpose and meaning. Ecoville is definitely not poor.
I look back to my life pre-volunteer year, and it’s funny how my friends and I used to sit inside cozy little air-conditioned coffee shops exchanging theories on how to save the world with process optimizations or advantageous investment portfolios. What do those things matter now? The twelve months spent as a JVP have given me more “step-one’s” than conclusions to my existential inquiries, as if I am starting all over again a whole new existence.
And it’s nothing but exciting.
In those twelve months, there were a lot of times that I came face-to-face with myself. The greatest battle indeed was with the self as I, little by little, saw that there was a lot in me that had to be pruned and purified. The fruits of my Lenten reflection of that year taught me about dying to my self, letting go of worldly pride, and seeking to be with the Lord. My Father allowed me to learn things the hard way by letting me face my fears, weaknesses and insecurities alone, because He knew very well that that was the only way to get through my stubborn head. He allowed me to make mistakes that I alone could not solve as long as I had my fears, weaknesses and insecurities in me, because He simply wanted me to get rid of them. And as I slowly did, the end of the year gave me an overwhelming sense of peace and gratitude that can only be described as grace. It is indeed, a whole new way of existing.
I may have still not found the purpose for my life, but I’m definitely on my way. I know I’m on the right way because, finally, God has brought me to the people of Xavier Ecoville. I may not have Ate Joy’s motherly strength and wisdom that inspires so much respect and admiration, or Kuya Ryan and Manenay Alexis’ hyperactive fires of passion and leadership that carries though 24/7, or Ate Tat’s warm and sunny presence that reminds everyone to take pleasure at their work, or Ate Camille’s immense talent and eye for detail partnered with the silence of humility. But I have learned so much just by watching them. God brought me to these experiences of getting lost and “finding myself” to strengthen my core as I face greater challenges. And for that, I am humbled and thankful.
Indeed, all is grace. As my favorite philosophy prof (Eddieboy) has introduced to us, “For all that has been, thanks! For all that will be, yes!”
Originally published in the April 2019 issue of THE WINDHOVER, the official Jesuit Magazine of the Society of Jesus – Philippine Province.
Photo taken by Jerlie Sianda.