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Usapang utang na loob, paano nga ba ito mababayaran?

Ralph Chan, Austria

If you're not currently reading, watching, or listening to Philippine showbiz entertainment news, I recommend doing so. Because with the advent of Filipino actress Liza Soberano's 14-minute vlog ‘This is Me.’ [1], the Filipino trait utang na loob is on everyone’s lips again. Soberano decided to do a rebrand and in the said vlog, she explained what mis happenings she experienced during her time as artist with a contract with one of the major TV stations in the Philippines with ABS-CBN and being managed by Star Magic and talent manager Ogie Diaz. Many Filipinos - normal na mamamayan but also many in the showbiz entertainment industry - found the message and how she delivered the message in the said vlog condescending and many accuse her of being ungrateful – wala siyang utang na loob. Because instead of saying thank you to the people who helped her get the career she has now, she criticized them. Although she said in another interview that she only mentioned facts, ingratitude is now attributed to her and her brand. Without going into more detail on the controversy, this article wants to initiate a reflection and pursue a discussion on whether gratitude, or rather our ‘debts’, actually ends at some point in our lives, that we have towards those who have helped us?

What is Utang na loob?

Utang na loob is part of Filipino psychology, a typically Filipino trait, difficult to translate as it does not exist how we understand it in the Western world. Virgilio Enriquez [2], the father of Filipino psychology, often argued that this is one of the core values and traits of Filipino culture, along with pakikisama (companionship/appreciation), hiya (shame), and pakikiramdam (sensitivity). They are counted as part of the so-called accommodative surface value, the core Philippine value system. These are values that help Filipinos meet the demands of the world around them. In other words, utang na loob is about appreciating the good deeds people have received from someone, especially when they were in time of need or help and owe the same to that person. The essence of it is a commitment to repay a person who has done a favour to you a lifetime of gratitude. The favours that evoke the Filipino utang na loob sentiment are typically those whose value is impossible to quantify and that involves a deeply personal inner dimension. It is a phenomenon that goes much deeper than the ordinary debt or even the Western concept of owing a favour.

Does it end one day? Or do we need to pay gratitude our whole life?

It seems that these Filipino traits are in fact very valuable. They are socially accepted and widely respected in society as these are taught from an early age. To show gratitude towards to those who help us. The positive side is when it is given voluntarily, as a gesture to express gratitude. That means being thankful for what you received, acknowledging it, and willingly giving back as a token of gratitude.

But there are also voices that question these traits, mainly with the argument that it is no longer up to date. These critical voices say, for example, that utang na loob can also be exploited and used negatively against the person. Because when it is used as an excuse to get something in return, it just seems toxic. Especially when it is often not clear enough for one person, misunderstandings, generational conflicts, or loss of contact sometimes occur. For example, if utang na loob is the reason someone cannot continue to grow and develop as a person, many argue that it is not worth it. For example, when love is being used as an excuse for a negative action and you feel guilty for noticing and addressing it, because you actually want to show gratitude. Unfortunately, the toxic form of utang na loob can be found in all sorts of places - in the workplace and even in politics. The victims of such toxic acts are usually the younger generation due to the existing and unspoken hierarchical rules in Filipino families and society. To answer the question, it is up to each individual whether and for how long he or she wants to repay his or her debt of gratitude. There is no general answer to that question. It is up to the individual to decide.

“Proceed, wherever you want to go, in gratitude!”

Although it's hard to unlearn the venomous form of utang na loob, but while there's life, there's hope. Everybody can help to make utang na loob more appreciative and non-toxic again, as an expression of a person's malasakit (concern). Ipakita natin ang pagiging tao sa pakikipag kapwa. We can start with, for example, not listing everything we've done for someone, or dealing with every mistake. It no longer makes our malasakit seem conditional and transactional, but unconditional and accepting. With that in mind, let's end this reflection with a comment from Filipino TV presenter Boy Abunda, who said: “Do not disregard your past and the hard work. Proceed with your life, wherever you want to go, in gratitude… Because gratitude opens your heart and life to more blessings.” [3]




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