PPE for the Soul

TO MY Dear Students in Health Psychology Class at ADDU,

We were the first in many things. We were first in conducting a graduate class online. We were also the first to provide an online symposium- "Kamustahan- Mental Health in the New Normal," our expression of service to the community. We were the first to conduct a research output- “The Impact of Social Determinants and Psychological Distress to Adolescent E-Learners: A pilot study.” We were the first to engage in a syllabus that innovated to address the current pandemic from the health psychology discipline. We were the first to wrestle with the mental health system in the country. We sense the invitation to do our bit to change the direction of our future where social justice is at the core of what moves us. The word "first" in the Judeo-Christian worldview is a place of privilege like a firstborn entrusted to redeem something. A firstborn symbolizes a message of hope, an evidence of Presence who says, ‘things will get better’. A Zimba mandate from the movie The Lion King who heard from the sky, "Remember who you are!"

What is the significance of ending our "online class" during the 122nd Philippine Independence Day of 2020, in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic? Yes, we met even during a holiday. We did not go to work but we celebrated our achievements from our online class. I join you in celebrating our history's freedom. We celebrated by affirming our discoveries in the last four weeks, of the power of "being together" online. We identified what we needed to improve. We formed a sense of community where we gifted each other with our struggles and vulnerabilities. I shared with you my grief in the passing of my mother, and about my nurse sister who is still battling the effects of the Covid-19 virus. Nonie, I blessed you on your birthday, by saying that you modeled for us your honesty for sharing your feelings of anxiety, grief, and confusion over a fellow church member who committed suicide. We greeted you "happy birthday" from our locations around the world. Caring knows no geographical boundaries. I felt the kindness of all of you. I felt that we held each other with such tenderness and respect. When Igue started to play some tune on the piano, I thought he was going to sing a solo for Nonie. When he started playing, I could not decipher the melody because it was not the traditional happy birthday song.

I wanted to invite us to close our celebration with a song. I wanted us to sing, but I could not find the right one. A song appropriate for being first, for being companions together during this pandemic, and for having each other to look forward with hope on what lies before us. I went to bed last night still unable to sleep because my eyes refused to close, and my soul continued to whisper. Then an FB post, my last image for the night lull me to sleep- Bambo’s Noypi song. I think I found the song, but I was too tired to sing. Instead, FB sang for me.

Noypi is the song! There is no other time in our history where Filipino heroism crossed cultural borders and is the best broadcast around the world through our selfless service as health care workers. No, we do not have monuments built for us as proofs. In fact, some of us perished on unlabeled graves to join the thousands who lost their lives as casualties of the Covid-19 pandemic. No need for these monuments because we are in a movement. We do not need the monuments because they are time-bound. Some of them are being turned down as I am writing to you today as justice is being served to destroy these monuments that stood unchallenged for centuries for their misuse of power that perpetuated black slavery. We join a movement with our fellow Bayanis around the world who are not immortalized in structures of power, but in the stories told in hallways of health care facilities. The stories that are etched in the hearts of many families who could not say goodbye to their loved ones in the intensive care units. Our Bayanis became their voices, their hands, their last faces of love. These stories will be told to their future children. I long to sing with you the Noypi song, sometime. This will be our way of fanning the flame of the inspiration we got from our online classes, our vision of being part of a new movement, in this new normal. Yes, even if for now, this song could also be sung in the minor key, as a song of lament for what we have lost. Maybe Igue could provide his rendition to welcome the paradoxes of reality between lament and victory in the same melody.

Rey and Igue, I know that this class was your last academic course before you will take comprehensive exams to write your thesis and earn your masters’ degree. I am excited for you. I also want to believe that your finals in this online class is also an embrace of being "first" to make sure that it was not just another class to complete for graduation. I also keep with me the memory of you Cherill and your tears in class. When your words could no longer capture your profound encounter with truth, tears provided the language.

As I end, may we lavish in the sacrament of the hidden life through online learning: behind our laptops; behind our pens and pads; behind our borderless spaces, so limited, yet so universal. As we move forward to this new normal, may I remind us that we will surrender the illusion of the false promises of prestige, position, popularity and possessions, which left us empty. May we help stir each other in our sense of mandate to alleviate the sufferings of our people by taking seriously the disciplines required of us as scholars. The situation we are facing now calls us to be exactly these kinds of Filipino learners- Bayanis. We are insatiable in our hunger for knowledge that serves those who may never be able to access the privileges we still enjoy. We will refuse the temptation to fear of scarcity and worry that can paralyze us. We have one another. We will incarnate the gift of our being chosen as first and our being cared for in our small networks of bayanihan, to serve in this new normal.

If, and when I find more of us along the way, the reentry through online learning, is not only a change of platform but a rediscovery of what we are made of from the substance of who we are--May agimat ang dugo ko.

Let me know when we can sing the Noypi song, in whatever tune, either as a form of a vision, a form of a lament, or a celebration of praise for our discoveries. We are welcome in whatever tune when we open our next online classroom. Igue, do you think you can make a rendition where all of these are present? This is part of a new and better normal- online learning where the "first" Bayanis are formed, singing together, “May agimat ang dugo ko”, in integrated medlies, in solidarity with other Filipinos around the world.

In Solidarity,

Dr. Ruel Billones

Part-Time Faculty of the Ateneo de Davao University (Psychology Dept)

Research Fellow in Clinical Psychology

Symptoms Science Center

National Institutes of Health

Bethesda, Maryland, USA


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