Dear members of the Board of Trustees, administrators and faculty members of the Ateneo de Naga University especially the Jesuit fathers, headed by the University president, Fr. Roberto Rivera, SJ, thank you very much for the singular honor of being conferred a Doctorate Honoris Causa by the Ateneo de Naga.
Thank you also for giving me this privilege to address you with this keynote, albeit virtually, for your Commencement Exercises for this year, 2021.
Allow me to begin by congratulating the batch of graduating students for this “pandemic school year.” You will be remembered as the batch that completed almost two years of your College through Online learning.
You deserve a special recognition for being able to complete your academic requirements against all odds, during this abnormal year of global crisis.
Since you are all part of an important institution of learning, I have decided, for this keynote to answer just the question, “What lessons have we learned from the past year and a half of pandemic experience?” Let me share seven brief answers:
ONE, we proudly claim to be intelligent creatures, and yet we realize that there is still so much that we do not know about nature and our environment, or even about the functioning of the human body.
Up until this very moment, we still have not invented a cure for Covid19 infection. At most, we have only fast-tracked the making of vaccines that rely on the body’s natural ability to develop the antibodies that we need in order to be able to fight the infection.
This pandemic has been a humbling experience for all humankind. We thought our species has already dominated the world, and yet we suddenly feel threatened by a microscopic virus. Now we have become more aware of the fact that we are actually such vulnerable creatures.
Although we have succeeded in exploring the outer space and have even landed space vehicles on the planet Mars, we were unprepared for a simple viral outbreak that could wipe out millions of people even in the era of artificial intelligence, and modern medical science and technology.
TWO, we are living in very unequal societies in most countries around the world.
Governments have responded to the pandemic with policies and health protocols that have only made the inequities among peoples more evident, such as in regard to access to goods and services, access to food, access to health care and hospitalization, access to medication and vaccines, during lockdowns.
Now we realize that the real reason why the community pantry experiment of one young woman from Maginhawa street has shaken the consciences of Filipinos was the plain truth that went with its motto: “Kumuha batay sa pangangailangan; magbigay ayon sa kakayahan.” “Take what you need; give what you can.”
We realized that the world is actually a huge community pantry, and that the reason why majority of our people are needy is because some people have taken more than what they need and hardly ever thought of sharing what they can. The saying is right, “There’s enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.”
THREE, this pandemic has made us realize how crucial it is to have a functional government that genuinely looks after the public welfare and the common good.
Just when we were shifting again towards authoritarianism and dictatorship, now we see how even a social media packaged strong man can suddenly turn into a lame duck in the context of this pandemic crisis.
It has never been more obvious than now that governance is not primarily about strong leaders but about strong institutions of democracy run by good public servants.
FOUR, we achieve a greater humanity not by competing with one another or proving ourselves to be better, stronger, smarter, or more capable than the others.
What will make us prevail as a human species is not the animal instinct of “matira and matibay” or survival of the fittest.
Our truest human instinct actually works for the survival of the weakest among us, especially the children, the elderly, the sick, those with disabilities, the poor and the disadvantaged.
We give this instinct its best expression when we build community and solidarity, when we learn the values of care, compassion, selflessness and sacrifice.
When we can rise above the things that divide us and consciously focus on what can unite us, when we can respect our differences and promote dialogue, nonviolence, and peaceful coexistence not just with fellow human beings but with all fellow creatures on our one and only home, the planet earth.
When we no longer treat each other as strangers but as brothers and sisters, as members of the same family of humankind.
FIVE, we cannot win the battle against this pandemic if we treat only the doctors, nurses and other health care workers as the frontliners.
They should be secondliners in this battle. We have lost far too many of them in the past eighteen months because we have forgotten that we all should be in the first line of defense.
Ang tunay na frontliners ay tayong lahat. Kung ayaw nating mangagbagsakan sila at maubos, huwag nating iwan ang trabaho sa kanila.
At huwag na nating dagdagan pa. Bago pa tayo magpaalaga sa kanila, alagaan na natin ang sarili natin at ang isa’t isa. That is the only way we can prevent our health care system from breaking down.
SIX, we are all still reeling in a collective state of trauma and paranoia without our realizing it. Our concept of quarantine used to be about sick people being isolated in order to contain the trasnmission of a disease.
With covid19, governments have defensively quarantined whole populations, detained children and senior citizens at home. Inevitably, this has taken its toll on the mental health of our people.
In a state of crisis, people bond together to support each other. But this pandemic has forced us to distance from each other.
It has also deprived us of the intimacy of touching, kissing, embracing, and shaking hands, which are also essential to our humanity.
Inevitably, this defensiveness has gotten into our system. We have tended to regard even the hypocondriac obsessive compulsive behavior caused by fear of infection as the new normal.
To call this a NEW NORMAL is to accept defeat, that we cannot anymore retrieve the intimacy, spontaneity, warmth and proximity in our families, communities and societal activities.
The big challenge has to do with living a certain degree of normality in this very abnormal situation. We are in a collective state of trauma, hysteria, paranoia, and soon, we will have to debrief, in order to gradually get out of it.
Finally, SEVEN, one of the big blessings that has saved many of us from going insane during this pandemic is digital technology and the internet.
Millions of people have drawn a lot of spiritual and psychological support through online communications and livestreaming on various digital platforms.
What used to be instrumentalized mainly for pornography, consumerism, political manipulation by troll companies, online gambling and other addictive habits, suddenly became a lifeline for communal worship, family interactions, online learning, working from home, for all forms of human bonding, and a rich source of intellectual, psychological and spiritual resources.
It took a pandemic for us to use this new technology for what it is really worth—a useful tool for social communication. Look, without even being there in Naga physically, I am able to address you and we are able to hold this commencement exercise.
Let me end by reminding you, dear fellow educators that education must form, not just the mind but the heart and soul as well. As Dr. Haim Ginott, a holocaust survivor, once said to a group of teachers, “Your efforts must never produce learned monsters or skilled psychopaths.”
Finally, dear graduates, I also wish to remind you that everything that you have learned in the Ateneo de Naga is important only if it serves to make you more authentically human.
And our model for authentic humanity is no other than the man whom your Jesuit mentors have taught you to emulate, the carpenter from Nazareth.
He it was who taught you to set your life’s priorities right by putting first things first. And that first thing is your Alma Mater’s motto: PRIMUM REGNUM DEI. Seek first, the kingdom of God.
This is Bishop Ambo David of the Diocese of Kalookan, one with you in aiming for the greater glory of God!