Christmas is a time of lies
Toyo Eatery has finally opened its bakery, Panaderya Toyo, just a few doors down from its restaurant in Karrivin Alley. Din Tai Fung has a gleaming new outlet in Power Plant Mall. The Japanese ramen chain Tsuta has added a branch in Bonifacio High Street.
The city is full of new restaurants to try, parties to go to, caterers to check out, foodie gifts to give. There’s so much to explore and to write about, but I feel that the most important news is the meal that consisted of a can of corned beef worth P31.50 that was stolen and eaten by Paul Matthew Tanglao, a sales clerk working at a supermarket in Sta. Ana.
As a news story, it leaves much to be desired: Not only is it not clear how he opened and ate the can of corned beef, how he was caught and, most importantly, why the supermarket decided to prosecute him to the full extent possible under the law, even under public scrutiny.
What’s missing are the details that could come only with a statement from the supermarket itself, which remains unnamed. At this writing, the miscreant still remains behind bars, despite having had bail posted. It’s a story straight out of “Les Misérables.”
“At Christmas, we tell the truth,” goes a line from “Love Actually,” one of the most improbable Christmas films, perhaps topped only by “Die Hard.”
I feel nothing could be further from the truth. Christmas is a time when we lie: we pretend to be happy when we are not; we pretend to have money when we don’t; we pretend the world is all right when it actually isn’t.
But Christmas brings out the truth about us even as we refuse to say it out loud. It shows us what we value as a society, how we think as a country, who we are as a people.
Like the souls of the dead in “Coco” who wither and flicker away into dust when they are no longer remembered, the Philippines exists only as long as we continue to believe in it. At the end of 2017, it is chimerical and decaying: just a passport (and an annoyingly restrictive one at that), a group of islands where we live out our wretched lives, and a groaning government bureaucracy out to get you at every turn.
How can we be proud to be Filipinos when we are capable of such gut-wrenching cruelty to our fellow countrymen?
We have become a people who value power over empathy, guile over smarts, money over accomplishments. Rules are for suckers. Ours is a shattered land, of lives that could have been led, of loves that could have been had, if we had not been stuck in traffic.
We overpay for the necessities at the cost of the essentials: reading, nights out at the cinema, huddling with our friends.
Our god is from the old testament—patriarchal, angry, vengeful. It is the sort of god who would smite you for wrongdoing, or, for that matter, put you in jail for stealing a can of meat when you’re starving.
It may come as a surprise that I’m actually ambivalent about the unyielding refusal of clemency to the thief.
Not that I applaud the supermarket owners for harshness, but because I don’t wish to diminish the humanity of the miscreant for being a victim of circumstances. He stole, as he admitted, because he thought if he were caught he would simply be docked the equivalent of the price from his day’s wages, or at worse he’d be sacked.
I say this as someone who runs an office and a household and has been stolen from—either in material goods brazenly disappearing or having staff invent imaginary charges, or slippery accountants embezzling funds.
When I complained about it to fellow parents, they shrugged it off. “It’s in their nature,” they said. “Just assume that anything that isn’t in a safe is fair game. And write off 10 percent of expenses to theft—it’s just how business works.”
To me it’s unconscionable that anyone would see stealing as a kind of harmless, victimless crime like downloading television shows, rather than a conscious, immoral act—something that just comes with the job. I think that “trabaho lang” might be the worst, most demeaning excuse ever invented: probably what an assassin says before he pulls the trigger.
It’s what bus drivers say after they’ve run over someone in their haste: “trabaho lang,” just trying to make quota. Everything goes under the bus in the name of just trying to make ends meet.
In a perfect world, Tanglao would have been paid a fair wage, a decent wage, even. And he would have had a robust lunch and not have had to head into the maelstrom of traffic to return home that night. It is only in such conditions that we are entitled to be harsh with our punishment and our judgement.
Despite this, it should be clear to all concerned that Tanglao was aware of his actions and is guilty of stealing—and if, because it is Christmas, or because we live in an imperfect world, or because we are capable of clemency, the state chooses not to prosecute or punish him, then that is another matter altogether.
Tanglao is a thief, not a business liability, not a sociological phenomenon. He is a thief—treat him with mercy, forgive him, and send him on his way.
Not a bad thing
I said that Christmas is a time of lies. I never said that this was a bad thing. We need to lie to ourselves once in a while
—perhaps once a year. We need to believe that we have money when we don’t; that our family is complete even if one parent will be whisked off to another country for the next 11 months; that we have much to be thankful for, even if, after the tinsel comes down, we have to face our misery, our failure, or loss, our worry, our helplessness once again.
Christmas is a time for pretending that everything is all right, and it is all right to do this.
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