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Kapwa: The Self in the Other

More recently, I discovered a deeper core value of Filipino culture known as kapwa, which my parents did not explain to me when I was growing up. However, they did communicate it through their attitudes and behaviors. Whether my parents realize it or not, kapwa was—and still is—an energy that gets transmitted from person to person not through words but through intentions and actions. Kapwa (pronounced cup-wah) means “the Self in the Other” or “shared identity”. In contrast to the Western idea of the self vs. the other, kapwa is “a recognition of a shared identity, an inner self shared with others.” This viewpoint beholds the essential humanity that is recognizable in everyone, therefore linking people rather than separating them from each other.” (Virgilio Enriquez).

Kapwa in Cleveland, Ohio

This concept of recognizing our humanity in other people calls to mind a story from my childhood in the Slavic Village neighborhood of Cleveland. I must have been eight or nine years old. My mom befriended a non-Filipino Anglo woman at our local church who was clearly mentally ill to almost everybody who knew her. (Coincidentally, the woman had the same first name as my mom. Today, I see this as a symbolic representation of my mother’s willingness to treat this woman as an equal despite her chronic condition. Think of it this way. My mother, Maria*, saw and experienced herself in her church friend, Maria*.) Back then, the woman struck me as a bit strange because she wore multiple layers of clothes, constantly held a cross to her chest, muttered prayers under her breath, and was hyper-religious. Now, looking back from my psychiatry vantage point, she most likely had paranoid schizophrenia. But my mom didn’t seem to mind any of this, so I didn’t mind either. Over the years, my mom and dad would always reach out to her and talk to her, even though others steered clear. They also made the effort to get to know her son, who was also mentally ill.

My parents would regularly visit Maria and her son and make sure they had rides to appointments. They would also pick up little things from the drug store as needed. Even when this woman went into a nursing home, my parents stayed in touch with her and her son and visited them frequently. When she died, my parents went to her wake and funeral. I also attended the wake, and her son thanked me for my presence. In fact, I still have the rosary that he gave to me as a remembrance of his mother. My parents continued to help her son as much as they could. I specifically remember that he, too, had to go into a nursing home, and they would buy him cigarettes and deliver them to him. (At the time, this was a culturally acceptable gift and considered very generous.)

Looking back, I am certain that my mom’s treatment of this mentally ill woman and her son inadvertently inspired me to become a psychiatrist. My mother saw the humanity and divinity in this woman and made the effort to connect with her despite her severe mental illness. Today, I take a similar, albeit unspoken, approach with others: You’re human; I’m human; we’re in this life together; so let’s see what we can do to help each other.

Kapwa & Bayanihan in Club HOPE

Today, Club HOPE remains a dream in my heart. It’s an idea. It’s the feeling of belonging and the realization that humans rely on each other for healing and hope. It is an emerging expression of the bayanihan spirit and kapwa—two implicit but very important values of my Filipino cultural heritage.

Presently, Club HOPE is an online resource. At times, I wonder if it will ever materialize into a physical building where people can meet in a supportive, shared space. I continue to struggle with an internal conflict formed many years ago in my family of origin. On the one hand, my immigrant parents stressed the importance of fending for myself and achieving economic independence. Yet, I feel drawn, more than ever, to the communal ethic. My internal hobgoblins try to tear down the Club HOPE dream from time to time by whispering doubts and fears in my ears. Perhaps life would be safer and more convenient if I continued to defer the dream. On the other hand, my parents demonstrated the value of developing and maintaining a community in which individuals and families treat each other as equals and help each other. There are many times when we must band together to lift the weight of our life circumstances and move to a better place.

An Integration of Cultural Values

My wish for and approach to Club HOPE is to combine (or integrate) both sets of values from my family’s immigrant experience, for each is valid and important. So, here’s how I look at it. Each person is on an individual journey, and each person strives for individual success. But we do not have to make the effort alone, because Club HOPE is a community of people—a collection of individuals—who pick each other up emotionally and spiritually and carry each other emotionally and spiritually to the next place (or next phase) in our life journeys. In sharing our hopes, our dreams, our shortcomings, our setbacks—that is, our stories—we discover the source of our conflicts and our strengths. We honor our pasts. We celebrate our individual cultures, and together, we create new approaches and traditions of our own.

As the founder of and a participant in the Club HOPE community, I am part of a big wave that is rolling, and I want to harness that energy to the best of my ability for the betterment of others. I am less afraid than I have ever been. I am calling on the Universe in Her wisdom to bring Club HOPE into this dimension of time and space. In fact, I don’t want just one Club HOPE in one place, such as northeast Ohio. I want a Club HOPE in every city where human beings are impacted by addiction and want a safe space to gather for support and inspiration. I want to unleash love and healing in the way it’s always been done—person to person, hand to hand, and heart to heart—in the spirit of bayanihan and kapwa. Welcome to the Club!

(*Editor’s note: The name has been changed to Maria to protect identity.)


Editing by Paul M. Kubek of PMK Consulting, LLC.

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