By Emerlinda R. Roman
Dear graduates, if you will pardon the cliché, you have come a long way. And this afternoon, before you step into the new paths you will be walking, let me put a question: have you given a thought to what you have to offer?
You may be thinking: offer to whom? Your parents? Your family? Well, many of you will plan to get a job, practice the profession you have been trained for, contribute to the family income, help support your siblings. Those are good goals, and I hope you will indeed achieve them. But I would like you to go beyond that. I would like you to think beyond yourself as an individual or as a member of your family.
The question “what can you offer” really means “what can you contribute”? That is, what can you contribute to society? Of course you can contribute your talents, your skills, your gifts. You can also contribute your efforts, your hard work, your persistence and determination. And if we’re speaking long term, your becoming leaders of the nation.
But let us pause a minute and go to something more basic. The most basic, the most necessary thing which I hope you are prepared to contribute is something you might think old-fashioned. I refer to good citizenship. There is no way you can even think of being a leader, if you have not figured out what it means to be a good citizen.
What does being a good citizen mean? I suggest to you that it means, above all else, thinking beyond the self, pointing your thoughts not just on what is good for you but thinking about the implications of your decisions on others, the significance and value of your actions on society and knowing what it’s like to pull together for the common good.
This translates into knowing your place and doing your part, in both the most simple ways (like obeying traffic rules and not littering), and in more critical ways (like paying taxes, and voting according to your conscience, and standing up to be heard on important issues). And it is based on the firm conviction that what you say and do makes a difference.
Again, we need to examine a little bit more of that common phrase – “making a difference”. What we say enters into collective consciousness, becomes part of the national zeitgeist, the spirit of the time and place. Other people hear it and are affected by it. We all know that the effect of a statement like “I’ll never be good enough to do that” is very different from the effect of a statement like “If I try hard enough, I know I can do it.”
Similarly, when we say “Of course he’s corrupt – he’s a Filipino after all,” we convey and create a completely different feeling from when we say “Of course some Filipinos are corrupt, but some Filipinos are not.” And it isn’t only other people who are affected by our words. We ourselves are affected as well.
In much the same manner, what we do – whether or not anyone else sees it – has an effect on both ourselves and the people connected to us, as well as on the society of which we are a part.
A lie makes a fool of someone. Theft takes away from someone. Breaking our word disappoints someone who was counting on it. The sale of a vote deprives a more deserving candidate of the chance to lead, and deprives his or her constituency of the opportunity to experience more effective leadership.
With each careless act we chip away at the structure and weaken it. With each unthinking, irresponsible act, we weaken our own house, our own nation, and render it more unstable, more vulnerable. And, needless to say, we weaken our own characters.
The belief that something is okay as long as “one gets away with it” is a mistaken notion. In fact, one never gets away with anything. Not really. What one gets is exactly what one deserves. A nation is what its citizens make of it.
There is hardly any point in trying to become an inspired leader if one doesn’t understand what it means to be a good citizen, a responsible member of society. I would be quite disappointed if I thought that you – soon-to-be graduates of the University of the Philippines – did not believe that this precedes being a successful entrepreneur or a brilliant professional.
Again, this is hardly a new idea. In fact, there was a time when we took it all for granted. Which might be why it seems like an old-fashioned notion today. Parents taught it to their children. Teachers reinforced it in the classrooms. Priests preached it from their pulpits. Political leaders relied on it as the basis for governance. No longer. We seem to have forgotten it.
How this happened is easy enough to explain. Repeated and protracted economic crises split up families, depriving children of their parents’ guidance. Phenomenal population growth crowded our schools, preventing teachers from influencing their students as they should. Widespread corruption eroded the authority of both church and state. The complicated, multilayered dilemmas of modern life wrecked havoc on old certainties.
We have grown more and more skeptical, more and more cynical. Today, the prevailing creed is quite obviously: “It’s every man or woman for himself or herself.”
But, ladies and gentlemen, we all know a society built on such a creed will not hold. For some time now, we have been witness to the effects of just such a frame of mind. And these effects are frightening. We all realize how fragmented, contentious, disaffected, and undisciplined our society is. And we recognize that this is what is keeping our country from taking its place among the world’s strong nations.
Dear graduates, this, unfortunately, is what you confront as you begin your new lives. A bleak prospect? I would be lying if I did not admit that it is.
However, I choose to think that the future is not a dark one. It is not too late to reverse the situation. There is room for optimism. We must begin by returning to the basics. There is no reason why we cannot learn, all over again, to be good citizens. It is not so complicated after all. Everything else that you become must be built on that.
I look into your faces now, and I am firmly convinced that you have it in you to do this. I think of your parents and your mentors, and of how through all these years, despite the numerous constraints under which they have had to struggle, they have managed to guide you to this spot on which you stand today. I know what they are thinking today. And I feel that their bright hopes and brave efforts cannot possibly be futile.
Our generation may have failed to see or acknowledge how much responsibility we ourselves bore for the continuation of the circumstances that we now live in. Perhaps we were not brave enough, not heroic enough to change what needed to be changed, to challenge the questionable, and to defend what is right.
I believe that you and your generation have the strength and the will to accept the responsibility for it; to commit yourselves to it; to live your lives as you know they should be lived; and to do it with courage, imagination, and good humor – qualities we all know Filipinos do not lack.
Your role as good citizens is significant. It is a tough world out there but I hope you will strive to make it better because we need you to show us our own greatness.