As my sister and I walked the dog this afternoon, at the always-crowded seaside mall in our city, I realized—as from some numb myocardial crevasse—that the mundane has a way of entwining itself around your soul. I’m thinking of that first serpent coiled around that forbidden tree, how it slithered greenly into consciousness. Is what we call happiness merely a degree of freedom from despair? I had gone back to my usual dose of anti-depressants. At some point, I hadn’t been able to bear my oppressive thoughts. Now, the days pass serenely and I’ve long since come to be grateful for the uneventful, even the dull.
I am still fascinated by David Foster Wallace, whose essays I’ve started to read. Unfortunately, I can’t find a copy of his novel, Infinite Jest; it’s not even available as an e-book. I am amused by his long syntactical coils, how he could go as deep as three or four levels in the footnotes, how I hear his voice as that of a sidewalk philosopher, an otherwise ordinary dude who just happened to be brilliant. He did study philosophy at Harvard, though he didn’t finish his graduate degree, becoming a writer instead, and a professor of creative writing. But for all his humor and insights, he seemed to have led a more-or-less tortured life, going in and out of hospitals, on and off medication, until his nth and final suicide attempt. He had a loving wife and family and friends. He had a lucrative career. He was famous and talented. And he hanged himself at 46.
While driving along the congested bowels of Metro Manila, past grimy buildings, shanties, beggars, and the occasional “MMDA art” (i.e. colorful patterns painted over the graffiti), I often realize that there is an absence of justification for things, and that our tragedy as human beings is that we perceive this absence. Or we are beings for whom absence exists. When some people, usually students, ask me if I believed in God, my standard answer is that I consider myself a theist. They hear “atheist,” so I usually have to reiterate, “no, a theist. Someone who believes in God.” It seems believing in God and believing in nothing are not mutually exclusive.
In the medicated state, a state wherein presumably there is enough serotonin between your neural receptors, the absence of justification ceases to be a reason to be sad. There is a lot to be said for drugs that correct chemical imbalances in the brain. This is an important point because only someone who knows how it is to be truly depressed can understand that “sad” doesn’t mean melancholia or any of those romantic moods one assumes fuel poetry, something associated with looking out of a rain-splattered glass window. In fact, looking out of a rain-splattered glass window makes me happy. When I’m depressed, nothing can make me happy. The enemy is within, is consciousness itself.
These days, I am not un-happy. Most of the time, it is even possible to experience joy. As part of a family whose members are often in different countries for large blocks of time, I go through wrenching separations on a seasonal basis. (In a way, it’s better if you don’t see a loved one for decades at a time; that I see my family for only months at a time, every year, is a special torture.) The last time this happened, when I was left alone in the house once more, at a time when the academic term was winding down and I did not have the distraction of work, and a more-or-less doomed romantic interest was turning into heart shrapnel, I lapsed into an all-too-familiar black mood. While it had scared me, it only lasted for a couple of weeks, and I attributed the recovery to my having gone back on medication. While I don’t believe I’m the suicidal type, the experience of being depressed, for me, is enough to warrant doing something about my condition. But as I don’t intend to launch into yet another defense of the pharmacological solution, I will proceed with my point.
Today is the first day of May, and the first time, in too many weeks to count, that we had some rain. It wasn’t much, but it lowered the temperature to bearable levels. The sky was my favorite shade of nimbus-glum. When my environment is gray, as on quiet and drizzly late afternoons, I feel lighter, as though the world takes on the burden of sadness and there is nothing left for me to carry. Some people feel too much: the Romanticists assumed their inner states were a quality of Nature, and I had loved Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings the first time I saw them. Walking the dog with my sister on the bayside area, I wondered what it is that we demand of happiness. I had happened to look up at the huge “Mall of Asia” sign on the façade of the center building. In the six years since it opened, this place has become a landmark of Pasay City. Like my country, like my city, maybe a little like my life, it is overcrowded, unpretentious, and familiar. And it is always turned toward the sea. What can I say? I like it here.