We live in a highly individualistic society in the U.S., and sometimes it may seem that the only way to live in a true community is within the microcosmic context of college campuses or intentional communities. Tracing this post-Enlightenment, American “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” myth back to its origins, one may find that this way of being is entrenched in the very fabric of our culture. It also seems common that many Americans may see this way of living as natural and part of a larger global phenomenon. Living in the Philippines, I’ve perceived a very different viewpoint on how humans can interact with each other in a larger societal context. What I’m referencing is the Filipino notion of kapwa, or the idea of being one with another in shared identity.
I would like to state from the outset that these are simply my humble observations from experiences I have had thus far with some incredible people, but are not necessarily representative of the culture at large, as I cannot even begin to scratch the surface of cultural understanding in only four short months. From my foreigner’s perspective, kapwa seems to be a central and almost subconscious part of the Filipino mindset. It combines sensitivity to one’s fellow beings, joy when one shares themselves and their heart with others, and the idea that one’s life is wholeheartedly bound up in the lives of others.
To put it in the context of a Boston College student, consider what your typical thoughts are when you wake up each morning. Maybe how you’re really hungry, or how you’re really stressed out about a paper you have due tomorrow, or a relationship that’s on the rocks, or what you’re going to spend your time doing that day. All of these are natural and expected feelings, but notice how they are all centered on the self. Maybe it’s just my perception, but it doesn’t seem to be within the common notion of American society to wake up in the morning and start thinking about how other people in your community are doing, or what their days will be like, and what happiness they’ll find that day. Kapwa acknowledges these interconnections and reliance on one another as essential to one’s being.
Practicing the ideal of kapwa may seem foreign (literally), cliche social justice-y, and idealistic to many of us, but how can this idea challenge our current thought patterns as largely individual college students? I’m not trying to group all of the “non-west” or even the Philippines into a stereotyped cluster of people who solely love and care for each other. In fact, the extreme wealth gap in the Philippines would illustrate that quite the opposite is happening in society. What I am saying is that this idea could be present on a day-to-day basis. Sensitivity to the needs of others, even the unstated and dormant ones, is a key feature in the concretization of this idea, and plays into the notion of how to actually show genuine care for the advancement, well-being, and happiness for one’s fellow human beings.
Talking about compassion is important, but until something is experienced through lived reality, understanding what it means to share identity with others is not fathomable. It’s about recognizing the fact that everything we do, whether it is as small as cooking a family dinner, or as lofty as “changing the world,” is reliant on our fellow partners in the human experience. We are each other’s greatest teachers, and perhaps the sooner that this notion becomes more present in the western world at large, the sooner we can start working together. I challenge myself and fellow students to look for the kapwa in our own lives, since I do not think that one has to travel all the way to the Philippines to start working toward this concept of shared identity.