The learned helplessness of Metro Manila

Shakira Sison

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The learned helplessness of Metro Manila
'We have learned that the only way to deal with the inefficiency of our roads is to simply avoid them. Our "solution" to city flooding is to simply not go outside.'

Three-hour daily commutes. Two-hour MRT lines. Eight-hour traffic jams. Heavy flooding after thirty minutes of rain. Canceled school days. Extended work hours. The routine of being stranded, stuck in traffic, or standing in line – this is the way of life in Metro Manila.

Why is this so? We collectively shrug and say, “Ganyan talaga (That’s just how it is).” We are done finding solutions and have given up even identifying the problem. Instead we “fix” our situation using things we can control. In order to get to a certain destination, we just leave in the wee hours of the morning. We allow an absurd two hours for a 10-km ride. We avoid certain areas and choose to conduct business or socialize closer to where we are. Worse, instead of rushing home to our families, we stay at work late, or hang out until traffic subsides. We have learned that the only way to deal with the inefficiency of our roads is to simply avoid them. Our “solution” to city flooding is to simply not go outside.

Those who don’t have the luxury of options have no choice but to deal with the everyday struggle of their commute. It has gotten so bad that merely trying to get from work to home is considered a form of class violence. Sorry na lang for those who have no other way to make a living than to traverse the major thoroughfares or use public transportation. Pasensiya na lang (just have patience) if you’re one of these unfortunate souls who do have to make it to work every day.

Turning a blind eye

Our public officials turn a blind eye because they’re not directly affected. Even if they are, and even if they honestly want to make an effort to help others, there are too many layers of bureaucracy to even try to chip away at the hardened red tape that runs our lives. Where do we even begin solving the problem of flooding? Banning plastic bags is a popular and political Band-Aid solution, even if we all know that large-scale urban planning is needed to address the floods that have become a way of life.

Besides, who is really affected? Just those who don’t have any power or means to exempt themselves from this regular onslaught. Metro Manila’s problem of public transportation and flooding is so great that addressing its causes requires a plan spanning decades. No administration or candidate would benefit from including it in his or her platform, and for most of them that’s enough reason to not act on such hopeless concerns.

Learned helplessness

The metropolis has gotten used to this daily ordeal and its inhabitants have merely accepted it as a part of life. It calls to mind the psychological theory of learned helplessness, where an individual forced to repeatedly endure unpleasant situations becomes unwilling to avoid them (even if they have a choice) because he or she believes that such situations are beyond their control.

We are these individuals forced to endure the suffering of dangerous railways, severe traffic, flooding, and other inconveniences of city living. Metro Manila residents often feel battered and exhausted by their daily grind just from the hassle of getting to and from work. But because of the hopelessness of the situation, we simply continue on. Workers instead leave earlier and work later. We just sleep, text, or rant online during traffic jams. We post photos of flooded streets, give each other traffic advice, and wish each other safe travels on our grueling commutes home.

We simply adapt, move our business and work days around, or take the day off when we can. We turn a blind eye ourselves. Faced with this daily torture, it becomes a matter of sanity not to dwell on this despondency and be consumed by it all of our waking hours. We put this hopelessness behind us and try to enjoy the remaining hours of the evening to get a few hours of sleep, even if it means we get to do it all over again the next day.

Ganyan talaga, eh.

A few years ago, I wrote about the relativity of discomfort when the memory of living in Manila was still fresh. I couldn’t understand why Americans were so impatient about every little thing. I bragged about being able to endure my three-hour daily commute between Ayala and Quezon City. I said that there was just no way out of it except to be patient. Like many, I had made peace with the unsolvable problem that was already evident (though not as severe) 13 years ago.

Having been deprived of this daily challenge for over a decade and encountering it only during visits home, I realize how we have become captive to the inefficiency of our local governments who appear ruthless in subjecting us to this daily torture. Metro Manileños appear to collectively suffer from a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, in that we have gotten so used to the daily suffering that we’ve begun to worship our captors for the occasional small mercies of having only half as much traffic or just minor flooding, or if they happen to sing and dance for us on the campaign trail.

We’ve forgotten what we’re entitled to. We choose to forget that a convenient way of getting to and from our sources of livelihood is our right. We accept the annual flooding of our homes as our fault for living in low-lying areas. We instead clap when a politician delivers “relief” goods after a storm. Isn’t the true “relief” not having to be displaced by a storm in the first place?

It’s so difficult to reconcile ourselves with what we deserve when the idea of getting it is so out of reach.

The inaudible drone of suffering

Maybe if leaders realize that the cost of traffic jams amounts to P 2.4 billion per day, they would have more of a stake in it rather than just pegging it on the happiness of their constituents they obviously aren’t bothered about. The suffering of our working class has become such a constant drone that it’s become inaudible when lumped with the rest of the country’s problems.

We tend to listen instead to those who have loud voices and bigger stages, or at least something new to say. We tend to shrug and get on with our lives.

How can we not, when there are bills to pay, work days to get to and get home from, and children to feed? We are so used to the inconvenience of Metro Manila living that we’ve become thankful for just making it home alive.

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