For a recent movie night, some friends and I wanted to watch The Lady, which tells the story of Aung San Suu Kyi and her fight for democracy in her native Burma. But when we tried to rent the DVD, the video store staff told us it was no longer available because no one else had rented it for a year and a half.
I guess this type of film is not everyone’s cup of tea, which is a pity, because the story of Aung San Suu Kyi is perhaps the best example I know to illustrate one of the most important life skills: rising to the occasion. “Life is an occasion,” says Mr. Magorium in another of my favourite movies. “Rise to it.” And this Aung San Suu Kyi has done, with a formidable yet gentle combination of serenity, grace, and courage.
I eventually did get to watch this film, and I’m glad I did. It’s spurred me to read her Letters from Burma in earnest. My UN aunt gave it me last year and I must confess it’s been sitting on my shelf, buried under a stack of other books I’ve been working through. Now I carry it around with me, along with luminous mental images of her flower-framed face and of the troubled country she loves so much.
Speaking of troubled countries, mine made it to the news again this week. Specifically, two Filipino women, a mother and daughter team who are decidedly not cut out of the same fine cloth as The Lady: Janet Lim-Napoles, a wealthy business woman who allegedly “helped divert billions of pesos from poverty-reduction programs into the coffers of lawmakers and their associates” while her daughter Jeanne unabashedly partied it up in the States and Europe.
It is to weep.
Or is it?
During an online discussion of the scandal, a fellow reader asked in an aside: “Is there a scientific reason why Filipinos are always smiling and cheerful?”
I know we Filipinos are world-renowned for our perpetual cheeriness, and I know that there must be all kinds of sociological and psychological reasons for it. I myself have always attributed it to a desire not to appear too pitiful to anyone who might be watching. Like the Chinese, we are always so concerned not to lose face—only we have to paste a smile on it, too.
But Thomas More, the “happy philosopher,” took a loftier view of comedy and good humour. He believed that they can be a powerful tool for developing one’s character and for reforming society at large. “Comedy,” explains one of his biographers, “rests upon the clear-sighted grasp of the ironies and discrepancies of a situation.”
To echo Fergal Keane’s words in his introduction to Letters from Burma, it is a hard time to feel optimism for the Philippines. But I sincerely hope that I’m wrong about the Filipino sense of humour, that it springs from deeper roots than I ever dared to suspect. Because now, more than ever, the “ironies and discrepancies” of the events unfolding in the Philippines call for just such a “clear-sighted grasp.”
Aung San Suu Kyi’s fight for reform in her country is characterized by both steely determination and loving kindness. Thomas More used comedy and satire to deal with his oppressors. Maybe it’s time for the Filipinos to find out if a combination of these approaches can help bring about the changes they so desperately yearn for.