“Kapwa is a recognition of a shared identity, an inner self, shared with others. This Filipino linguistic unity of the self and the other is unique and unlike in most modern languages. Why? Because implied in such inclusiveness is the moral obligation to treat one another as equal fellow human beings. If we can do this – even starting in our own family or our circle of friends – we are on the way to practice peace. We are Kapwa People.” — Professor Virgilio Enriquez, founder of Sikolohiyang Pilipino.

Pakikipagkapwa. It means connecting myself with others, feeling myself in the other and having a sense of shared identity and a shared inner self. That sense of having a common human identity, community and destiny lies deep in our psyche…It’s the translation in our particular culture and history of a universal truth that tells us to treat others the way we ourselves want to be treated because at our innermost core we have a shared humanity.

I can’t help but reflect on how powerful this deep, age-old Filipino sentiment can be when rekindled and placed in action, in our homes, communities, schools or workplaces and yes, especially in our social and political life today.

This sense of a shared identity is reflected in many Tagalog words, words that carry with it sentiments and feelings that resonate at a subliminal level.

Kababayan means my fellow-countryman; root word– bayan, country. When Filipinos meet other fellow Filipinos, that instant recognition and connection spark up because, we are, kababayan.

Kaakbay means to support. The root word “akbay” conjures images of lifting up, shoulder on shoulder.

Kaibigan means friend; the root word is “ibig” which means to love.

Kasama means someone I am with, the root word “sama” means “to be with or be together with.”

Kaanak means one’s kin; root word being “anak” which means sons and daughters.

Filipino media has capitalized on the deep registers these words have on the Filipino psyche. One TV network is known as Kapuso, kapuso meaning being one at heart. Its rival network is the Kapamilya Network, meaning belonging to the same family. Kapwa Ko, Mahal Ko (Love my Fellowman) is a decades-long public service program that has been providing assistance to the poor and the needy.

Researching into the origin of the word “Kapwa”, I came across this. It seems that the word originated from two words:
Ka– a union that refers to any kind of relationship, a union, with everyone and everything.
Puwang– space.

The word Kapwa refers us to that “space” that we share with others as fellow-Filipinos and fellow-human beings, sensing that “space” as being both a psychic and physical space. (And with that, we can imagine a time when life and work was more communal. When, after the day’s shared work was done, our ancestors would be sitting around in a circle, perhaps around a communal fire, under a starry night, perhaps drinking some rice wine, while discussing village concerns or simply sharing their stories.)

The list of Filipino or Tagalog words that start with the prefix ka- is long. While I am not a linguist, it signals the sense of sharedness and relatedness we have that underpins Filipino personhood. With the arrival of Western colonizers—first the Spanish, then the Americans, with the passing of time, this sense of shared identity has been suppressed, overlaid with Western individualism and values; and, a world-view that separates oneself from the other.

According to Professor Enriquez, Kapwa is the “unity of the one-of-us-and-the-other”. After extensively researching the cultural heritage of indigenous Filipino groups and tribes and their IKSP (Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Practices), he concluded that Pakikipag-kapwa is a core Filipino value underlying the Pagkatao ng Filipino (the Personhood of the Filipino). He maintained that “Kapwa implied moral and normative aspects that obliged a person to treat one another as fellow human being and therefore as equal.” Such a position was “definitely inconsistent with exploitative human interactions,”. But he also foresaw that this Filipino core value was threatened by spreading Western influences. “…once AKO (the I) starts thinking of himself as separate from KAPWA, the Filipino ‘self’ gets to be individuated as in the Western sense and, in effect, denies the status of KAPWA to the other.”

Today, most people who hear the word “kapwa” think it means neighbor. But standard Tagalog dictionaries like Vito Santos’ define kapwa as “fellow being” and “other person.” And older, Spanish dictionaries translate kapuwa as “both” and “the one and the other”, or “others.” From all this research, Enriquez concluded that the original Filipino idea of “others” was inclusive. He wrote: “The English “others” is actually used in opposition to the “self,” and implies the recognition of the self as a separate entity. In contrast, kapwa is a recognition of a shared identity, an inner self shared with others.” He also said, “A person starts having a kapwa not so much because of a recognition of status given him by others but more so because of his awareness of shared identity. The ako (ego) and the iba-sa-akin (others) are one and the same in kapwa psychology.”

As further described by Dr. Katrin de Guia, “Kapwa is a Tagalog term widely used when addressing another with the intention of establishing a connection. It reflects a viewpoint that beholds the essential humanity recognizable in everyone, therefore linking (including) people rather than separating (excluding) them from each other. Enriquez felt that this orientation was an expression of ‘humanness at its highest level’.” – from Kapwa: The Self in the Other, Worldviews and Lifestyles of Filipino Culture-Bearers

Pakikipagkapwa, seeing ourselves as connected with others, leads us to better relations within our families, with schoolmates or fellow workers. It leads towards concern for our community, our country and for our environment, both social and natural.

More importantly, it leads us towards putting the human being’s needs as the highest value, over and above other values be it Money, Power, Prestige, the State, Ideas and yes, even Religion.

The times we are living in are calling for us to awaken and rekindle that pakikipagkapwa that have been suppressed under centuries of colonial influence, a call to hark back towards our ancestral way of being in the world— one that is imbued with a deep sense of community, cooperation and solidarity.

It may be that the “mythic Filipino” is not dead and gone, just sleeping but ready to awaken, to inspire and reanimate the best qualities that we have residing in our depths.

Imagine what our lives, our society and our world be like if we, parents and children, leaders and followers, employers and employees, politicians and citizens practiced pakikipag-kapwa. On a personal level, the “kapwa” in us will consider the welfare and well-being of those whose lives we touch and will be more considerate of the effects of our action on them. On a community level, the “kapwa” in us will be concerned about what is happening in the immediate environment and will respond in whatever way is in reach to help make the community a better and safer place to live in. On a wider and social level, the “kapwa” in us will not tolerate disrespect for human rights, will value human life, each human life. It will not disrespect women, or dispossess minorities. Neither will it endanger human life, nature, and our planet by abusing and misusing our resources in the search for greater profit, ensuring that life on our planet will be sustainable for generations to come. It will reject all forms of injustice and discrimination.

This universal value of a shared identity as it expresses itself in our culture is also manifested in other cultures because it is rooted in our common humanity. Yes, we are Kapwa People and within us lives a powerful force that can help build a culture of peace.

Footnote: Many thanks to Dr. Katrin de Guia who, through her book and conferences, has made Sikolohiyang Filipino (Filipino Psychology) more accessible and relevant to a wider audience.

Source: De Guia, Katrin, Ph.D. Kapwa, The Self in the Other, Worldviews and Lifestyles of Filipino Culture-Bearers. 2005. Anvil Publishing Inc. Pasig City, Philippines.