Bahala Na: Hopeful or Fatalistic?

If you’ve been living in the Philippines for a while now, you might have noticed that a lot of people use the Tagalog phrase, “bahala na.” While it has no direct English translation, Filipinos usually say it when pertaining to a future with an unknown outcome. The closest might be the popular Spanish expression que sera sera, or whatever will be, will be.

These two words have gained an infamous reputation throughout the years of its usage, especially among foreigners in the country. In fact, author Tomas Andres defines it in his book Dictionary of Filipino Culture and Values as “the Filipino attitude that makes him accept sufferings and problems, leaving everything to God…This attitude is a fatalistic resignation or withdrawal from an engagement or crisis or a shirking from personal responsibility.”

But is this cultural phenomenon really as bad as a lot of people say it is? Some Filipino researchers would beg to differ.

Sikolohiyang Pilipino, an organization intended to establish and strengthen Filipino psychology internationally, asserts thatbahala na can actually be a positive value. Psychologist Alfredo Lagmay interprets it as “determination” and “risk taking” instead of fatalism. Rather than being passive about what’s to come, those who utter the phrase could be telling themselves that they are ready to face the difficult situations, and that they will do their best when those decisive moments finally arrive.

Bahala na can also serve as a mantra that can provide a dose of courage for the person to make that leap and do whatever it takes to succeed in his endeavor. In her journal article “Sikolohiyang Pilipino: A Legacy of Virgilio G. Enriquez,” Philippine Studies specialist Rogelia Pe-Pua adds that “even before they have said ‘Bahala na!’ they have probably done their best to prepare for the forthcoming situation.”

Still, it is up to the individual which meaning he attaches to the phrase when he’s under great stress or even just talking about the future in general. It’s also useful to take note of the non-verbal expressions of the one speaking. Does he say it with a strong voice that conveys a determined attitude, or does he say it with a sigh followed by a shrug of the shoulders? More than anything, these cues from a person’s body language might do a better job of telling you whether he has given up or is simply looking ahead with a strong sense of hope.

-published in Expat Newspaper (2011)

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Photo via bandageboy

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