Picture this: a young man sitting beneath the shade of a guava tree, lying restfully with its native hat covering its head. He sleepily sits there, waiting for the guava fruit to fall instead of picking it. This image of a familiar folklore character has been known for ages across generations of many Filipinos. He is Juan Tamad, or Lazy John, a stuff of many folk tales, and, unfortunately, a common negative image referring to those who incarnates his eponymous name.
Juan Tamad has become a cliché, a metaphor for laziness, procrastination and complacency. A character that though appears to be Filipino in origin but always renounced, shunned and judged by many Filipinos. I grew up reading books on Filipino stories, and I encountered some of Juan’s lazy tales. And I keep on hearing his name and his shadowy reputation, almost a stigma that labels anyone who is deemed as unproductive, whether at home or in the workplace. Yet I am prompted to question this thought: Is Juan Tamad really lazy? Or is there some hidden truth one has to see?
I thought, maybe Juan Tamad is not really lazy at all. Perhaps he just stops and rests for a while after a long day’s work under the tiring heat of the sun. Maybe the guava tree is the nearest to him and finds its shade a nice spot to relax. He feels tired and to rest is not a requirement but a natural thing to do. He knows when to stop after too much work. Perhaps this is the value Filipinos have forgotten all along, when in the middle of frantic tasks in our daily jobs and routines, our bodies and minds get tired yet we don’t spend time to rest. Juan, more than just a lazy image, can be an image of restfulness, a siesta for the soul.
Or maybe Juan has wisely and patiently learned how to wait. At rest or not, he knows that the guava, like every other fruit, falls naturally. It comes to a point when the fruit’s stem detaches from the branch of the tree, and gravity is undoubtedly a force that causes the fruit to fall. A friend hinted another idea that also crossed my mind: that Juan is wise enough to observe the course of nature, like what Isaac Newton did that made him discover the law of gravity. Juan may not be a physicist, but he understands life and nature. To sit or lie down, to observe and to wait all seem laziness to us, but Juan reminds us otherwise – there is wealth of wisdom found in such moment.
To sit or lie down, to observe and to wait all seem laziness to us, but Juan reminds us otherwise – there is wealth of wisdom found in such moment.
This brings me to remember wu wei, a teaching by the ancient Chinese sage Lao Tzu who wrote the beautiful verses of Tao te Ching. While wu wei or Nondoing in English can be said as the whole theme of this ancient book, a clear reference to it is found in the 38th verse: “The Master does nothing yet leaves nothing undone. The ordinary man is always doing things yet many more are left undone.” (translated by Stephen Mitchell) Though such paradox is tough for a logical mind to digest, Nondoing is a common truth found in all natural things. We can never force a seed to germinate or a flower to bloom. They all follow their own time, their own pacing and their own natural process. Nondoing is doing without doing, allowing things we cannot control to happen and accomplish in their own accord. We do more if we control less.
Maybe Juan understands this truth. In the surface he appears lazy, but we cannot see what is beneath where his discernment and understanding lies. In a land of natural abundance, Juan, who often typifies a Filipino worker in the countryside, works his way in the field, and trusts that the Earth he has tilled is fertile enough to bring countless blessings, without forcing it to produce or to grow anything he needs. All he needs to do is to wait, be patient, and keenly observe. Like the oft-quoted Zen saying, “Spring comes and the grass grows by itself”, Juan knows this truth – he does and finally does nothing. He returns to his quiet being, sitting beneath the guava tree and appreciates the moment in serenity and harmony with all there is.
For years, Juan has become a cultural stereotype and Filipinos have popularly accepted that “fact” without questioning and digging deeper meanings. Exploring Juan in a different light is not to reverse his reputation but to find and add meaningful insights to his image, and inevitably to the Filipino spirit. Perhaps Juan is a beautiful archetype that encodes this undiscovered Filipino psyche of patience, of creative incubation, of restful awareness that chart the regions of our innate spirituality universally found in ancient teachings. Somehow, we can find this beauty not just outside but inside of us, and that is a refreshing way to be proud as a Filipino.
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