Thursday, June 14, 2007

Wrestling with Rizal

We are not born with reverence for our heroes. In our youth, we come to despise them. Only later in life, when confronted with the questions and quandaries they once were, do we finally learn to respect them.

I write in part from observation, and in part from experience. This is the road I travelled with Jose P. Rizal. Nationalistic fervor, perhaps a wee bit misguided, pushed him to the forefront of my grade school curriculum. Here was a great man, they said, the man who fought and died for our freedom! Let us honor him! Why? Basta!

Sadly, such inflated claims, were simply parroted without substance. In a fashion truer to the spirit of Rizal, one responds with suspicion and cynicism. In the absence of facts, one begins to dwell on the juicy but irrelevant -- Rizal was a dwarf! A playboy! A miser! The sire of Adolf Hitler! An American fiction! A fringe cult god! The Devil! All aimed to cut down a great man's stature, but which really serve only to diminish the critic's spirit.

I like to think that my conversion from this pusillanimity occurred on a chance trip to Calamba, to the reconstructed Rizal home. But more likely it was a longer drawn out process, one that came about from a combination of maturity, self-sought knowledge, and sympathy. Nothing brings us closer to our heroes than the realization that they, too, were flawed mortals and that we have more in kinship with them than we realized.

Rizal was in many ways ahead of this time, and perhaps he is more relevant now as the prototypical Filipino youth. He left the country as a young man, just as the many young Filipino men and women do today. The long sojourn abroad was the catalyst for his quest for national identity, even as their experiences abroad lead young Filipino men and women to ask who they really are. Just as Rizal wondered where his country was headed, so that perenially unanswered question continues to haunt us.

As a term of endearment, some people call him "Lolo" Jose. This, I think, is a mistake. Rizal was and will be forever young -- not merely because Spanish bullets cut him down before his prime -- but because those ideas of his that blaze on today were formed in his youth.

The greatness of Rizal comes not because "he fought for our freedom" but because he asked, "Who are we?" And that is a question only a young man would dare ask.

Note: June 19 is Rizal's birth anniversary.