Friday, August 18, 2006

[Essay] Evolution

It’s human nature to cling to the past. To many, it’s a comfort zone, an idealized world of what things were like in “better” days. We have many words for these kinds of people: conservative, traditional, old-fashioned. Not that these traits should always be viewed in a negative light. There is virtue in the past after all, just as there are vices.

To some people though, there are sacred cows which appear to be unassailable by time: history and language. Yet nothing can be farther from the truth. All things change eventually, even if at times they will revert to a previous incarnation, for change is still present in regression. It is too easy to forget that history and language are tools of humans, and human beings are always in a constant state of flux.

The historians might ask how can history change if it has already happened? A valid question, to be sure, and the cynical might reply that we build a time machine. But one is not needed. We must remember that history, in the end, is about perception, and there are many illusions that can fool the senses. There is an old saying that it is the winners who write history, and there is probably no truer statement than that when you look at the past few centuries of Philippine history. When the country was under Spanish rule, who do you think was the hero that was praised in the history books? For a period in time, Filipinos praised Magellan for “discovering” the Philippines. It wasn’t until the yoke of colonial rule was broken that Lapu-Lapu was hailed as a hero in lessons taught to children. Or take a more recent view of things. Emilio Aguinaldo, the country’s first president, was again hailed as a hero during his prime. What few people realize is that his betrayal of Andres Bonifacio was easily omitted, until election time came once again, and the nation’s first president pitted himself against one of the most political-savvy presidents our nation gave birth to: Manuel Quezon. Did the facts change? No. But the perception of the facts did. In fact, some of the facts weren’t even known depending on the circumstance. Fossil fuel, for example, might be a boon during the industrial age, but who knows what generations from now will think of it? Poison, pollutant, or power perhaps?

But while there is politics involved when it comes to history, how can something as benign as language be affected? It is tempting to isolate politics from language, but the two are more entwined than most people think. Again, one merely needs to look at our nation. Who determined our national language? There must have been an arbiter to declare that the indios of this archipelago spoke Tagalog, and would later change to Spanish, then English, and finally Pilipino. But one might argue there is a change between languages used, and that for the most part, a language remains the same language as it was. What one must realize that language is just as living and evolving as history. The only language that has ceased changing is Latin, yet people can always find new idioms and metaphors for the so-called dead language. Just look at English. There’s no word that has mutated as much as “nice”, for example. From its etymological roots meaning stupid, it’s now used as a compliment. Other languages are more blatant in their adoption of change. The Japanese, for example, have an entire alphabet called katakana which is used for words borrowed from other countries: terebi for TV, oisuki for whiskey. The Chinese spell non-native words either through their literal meaning, or by how the word would sound in Chinese. And Filipinos are always speaking in Pilipino-English (or Taglish) that the line between what is English and what is Pilipino is getting blurred. And these past two decades alone has given birth to several new words in the English language: Internet, anime, blog. And there are several words that have taken the place of their more generic counterparts such as “Xerox” popping up more frequently than the word “photocopy” for example. Or words that have taken new and additional meanings, such as the word “gay” being more than just a synonym for happy.

Yet people will always insist that what they think is true to be the only truth in the world. As if change is a word that is merely spoken, but never applied to themselves or those around them. Not that constancy is a bad thing: if everything was always changing, we’d be in constant state of chaos. People would have no basis or common ground for their history, and communication would simply be ineffective if we continued to speak in varying levels and meaning. But taking that into consideration, where does that leave us? Are we to love change, or loathe it?

One of the most beautiful and frightening things about being human is that we are walking paradoxes. We struggle against change, but we eventually succumb to it. We try to experience new sensations, but old habits are difficult to break. To resist change absolutely is to die, for only the dead ceases to evolve. But to embrace change wholeheartedly is similarly lethal, for we have lost our identity, if not our physical self. Both elements are warring with each other in the human soul, sometimes one side overcoming the other more frequently. But that is not to say we should always be resisting change. As a person greater than me once said, there’s a time and place for everything.

Constancy can be part of memory, while change is something we might aspire or hope for. In the meantime, the present has room for life, whatever life means to you.