“Shining a New Light on Utang na Loob”

Finding new meaning behind giving and receiving help
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Created by Flrncia

Published on Sep 19, 2023
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I am an individualist. As much as possible, I try not to ask for help if I can do it myself. Receiving help makes me feel uncomfortable, indebted. Maybe that was just how I was raised, or maybe it’s because I don’t want to feel like I owe anyone anything after that. 

See, here in the Philippines, we have the concept of utang na loob. Literally, it translates to ‘a debt of gratitude’. It is ingrained in our culture so much that we don’t have to say it out loud. No matter the size of the favor, it entails a debt of gratitude which, eventually, we’ll have to repay. 

At least, that’s what I thought at first. A class in college challenged the notion. Rather than a debt of gratitude, De Castro better translates it to a ‘debt of goodwill.’ [1] He relocates the value of the act of helping from the act itself — its kind or amount — and roots it in the goodwill of the person who, in this act, gives a bit of himself. 

Utang na loob is better translated as a debt of goodwill because it takes into consideration the inner self of the person helping. After all, loob translated to English means inner or inside. It goes a step beyond the visible act and factors in the motivations — intrinsically recognizing the goodness of the helping person. 

Their goodwill stems from their own ‘kagandahang loob’ and can only be enacted with ‘kusang loob’. The former roughly refers to the inner goodness inherent in each person, while the latter refers to the person’s free will. 

Both are necessary conditions for us to know whether an act really entails a debt of goodwill. De Castro mentions that ‘an act can be considered to convey kagandahang loob only if it is done out of kusang loob.’ [2] Or ‘an act can be considered to convey inner goodness only if it is done out of free will’. 

Particularly, we must look at the classic trio of object, circumstance, and intention. Are they acting under compulsion? Are they motivated by positive feelings such as charity and love? Are they doing this without any anticipation of reward? 

If the answer to all of those questions is yes, then indeed the act stems from their kagandahang loob, enacted through kusang loob, and entails utang na loob. 

Taking all of this together, utang na loob can then be understood as the Filipino understanding of the inner call to do good that everyone experiences. 

Understanding it in this way rid me of the negative connotations I had of the concept. Whenever I received help, I did not feel socially pressured anymore to reciprocate in kind or scale. Rather, I reciprocated because the goodness in me answered the goodness in them. 

It also pushed me to ask for help from other people whenever I needed it without an overarching sense of dread that somewhere down the line, I’d have to repay it. 

Comparing the two translations, debt of gratitude and debt of goodwill, not much has changed. If  you think about it, under both understandings, you’d still repay the person who helped you. It is only in recognizing their motivations that your own motivations would change, too. 

We do not live alone, nor are we meant to. Whether we like it or not, we’d need help at one point or another. Receiving it with the thought that eventually paying it back — or even better forward — comes from our own goodness rather than obligation allows us to accept it openly and freely.

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