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THE POLITICS OF SADNESS

Other than Prozac, Zoloft, or a prayer, what can cure our national depression?

And in the remote capital of our wildest imagination, one day, to our collective shock, the government ceased all operations, focused only on the one thing none of us ever imagined would deserve its full attention: Sadness.

“What silliness!” said the Senator, his eyes darting from one face to the next at the Heroes Hall of the grand palace.

“The sadness or the happiness of our people is not for us to judge,” quipped the Justice.

“To be happy or to be sad is a personal issue,” opined the Governor. “It is not the business of the State.”

The President raised his hand in mock surrender. “I beg to disagree,” he said. “But we are in charge of the welfare of the people.”

FICTION/NON-FICTION This piece first appeared in the lifestyle section of the Aug. 24 issue of Manila Bulletin, where the author is lifestyle editor

FICTION/NON-FICTION This piece first appeared in the lifestyle section of the Aug. 24 issue of Manila Bulletin, where the author is lifestyle editor.

Now, welfare is a very broad term. In Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, its quick definition is, first, “a government program for poor or unemployed people that helps pay for food, housing, medical costs, etc.” and, second, “the state of being happy, healthy, and successful.” From the Middle English phrase wel faren (fare well), it is defined, on the other hand, by Oxford dictionary mainly as “the health, happiness, and fortunes of a person or group” and sub-defined as a “statutory procedure or social effort designed to promote the physical and material wellbeing of people in need.”

“Aha!” exclaimed the Vice President, unsure only seconds ago whether to go with or against his boss. “Only the last definition has the words that should matter to us, officially—physical and material.”

“That’s right!” said the Cabinet Secretary. “I can provide the housing, but not the home.”

The Senator harrumphed: “I hate to agree with Mr. Secretary, but how do we draw material proof of sadness? Is it tears in the eye? Does it show in an X-ray, in a CT Scan? Do I impeach you, Mr. President, for the sole reason that the daily news reads like a sappy teledrama?”

“Let me put it this way,” the Justice shook his head. “There is no food on the table, no roof over the head, therefore there is sadness. There is sickness in the family, no job, no money, therefore there is sadness. I do get the point of today’s agenda, but the issue here is not sadness. It is food, housing, employment…”

The Mayor looked up from his notes: “But my constituents must be happy because, as you know, a new hospital has just opened in my city and the industrial park is near completion.”

“But it was also in your city that a woman jumped off a new building, Mr. Mayor, on a clear, bright day,” said the President. “It was your wife.”

The mayor was aghast. “With all due respect, Mr. President, this is a political discussion, not a personal one.”

“Order in the hall!” cried the Justice.

“It is all political,” insisted the President. “Bigamy is against the law, so is physical assault. Our laws did not protect your wife against unhappiness and yet you, the cause of her sorrows, maybe the cause of her death, stand here among us talking about your constituents being happy.”

‘By forgetting what it is we are here for, we have committed a kind of political suicide. We are now dead, dead to the needs of our people, unresponsive, ineffectual, insensitive to and powerless against the will of both the individual and the collective, the citizen and his country.’

“This is atrocious!” wailed the Vice President, now a little hopeful he had the chance to discredit the President. “Although this is an informal gathering, may I remind everybody that we are all here in an official capacity?”

The President shook his head. “We are officially committed to 100 million people,” he explained. “Our business is the welfare of every Filipino—his hopes and dreams, his physical, mental, emotional wellbeing, his past, present, and future, his freedom, his health, his education, his daily—”

“And hers, too!” said the Congresswoman, raising her voice. “Section 14 of the constitution: The State recognizes the role of women in nation-building, and shall ensure the fundamental equality before the law of women and men.”

“Hers, too, of course,” said the President and locking eyes with the Mayor, he continued, “And, yes, your late wife’s included.”

“It was clinical depression, Mr. President, in case you are forgetting,” said the Mayor, his voice less sure than before.

The Vice President is all confused now, wondering whether opportunity lay with the President or against him. “All the evidence points to marital violence, but none of it has been proven,” he said.

The Justice nodded his head. “Come now, come now, this is a matter for the courts to settle, not ours—and not here. What are you driving at, Mr. President?”

The President said, in all earnestness, “What I want is to discuss our national depression and why, by forgetting what it is we are here for, we have committed a kind of political suicide. We are now dead, dead to the needs of our people, unresponsive, ineffectual, insensitive to and powerless against the will of both the individual and the collective, the citizen and his country.”

“Is anything the matter with you, Mr. President?” asked the Vice President, who realized too late that for the first time he asked a question out of true concern.

“Everything is the matter with all of us,” replied the President. “Our sadness as a people has become almost like second skin. It is apparent in our people flashing big smiles through their troubles, waving at the cameras while chest-deep in floodwater, after having lost their homes, their livelihoods, their loved ones. There is no denying that this so-called positive spirit is a mask, a denial of our desperation, like a man who, covered in dust, caked in blood, writhing in pain, and dying in the street, finds consolation in his view of the sky.”

There was moment’s pause.

But a moment was all it took to jolt the Senator out of his reverie. Quickly, he found his voice back: “You are asking for the impossible, Sir! There is depression everywhere, in the richest nations, in Norway, in Denmark, in Japan, in the US and even among the affluent who have every means to pursue happiness.”

“Precisely!” barked the President. “While in the most progressive nations, unhappiness is a complexity that remains a mystery to those who study it, or those afflicted by it—an excess of chemicals in the brain or lack thereof, a certain predisposition, a genetic malfunction, a poetic/dramatic/lyrical sensibility, a practical choice, a code of honor, the result of such grave questions as ‘Who Am I’ or ‘What Is the Meaning of Life,’ a longing of the soul that cannot be met by anything physical or material or transitory—ours is triggered by a lack of the most basic things that the constitution or at least their taxes or at least the promises we made on the campaign trail should have guaranteed for every citizen of this country.”

No one in the Heroes Hall was oblivious to the suffering of the people, though many of them, armed with the system or the long history of corruption and ineptitude in the country to blame, would only brush it off. The truth was they knew about hunger or illness or homelessness or crime but had had very few occasions, if at all, to link any of it to sadness, to which, their power, prosperity, popularity notwithstanding, none of them were strangers.

The President called the name of the Congresswoman. “Remind us again of Section 9 of our Constitution,” he said.

Effortlessly, the Congresswoman, who helped draft the so-called “supreme law” of the land decades ago, did as she was told: “The State shall promote a just and dynamic social order that will ensure the prosperity and independence of the nation and free the people from poverty through policies that provide adequate social services, promote full employment, a rising standard of living, and an improved quality of life for all.”

From there, with the Congresswoman providing the direct quote from the sacred document, the President presented the Constitution as an ideal that remains so far removed from reality.

“Elementary education is compulsory for all children of school age,” but there are millions of children under 12 on the streets, enslaved in child labor, drug rings, prostitution dens.

“The State affirms labor as a primary social economic force” and must be committed to protecting the rights of workers and promoting their welfare, but for the benefit of big business monopolized by the very privileged few, millions of them have their opportunities limited to contracts that expire between three and six months.

The State is committed to making “essential goods, health, and other social services available to all people at affordable cost,” but the poor die by the millions because most hospitals are run like a business no different from or worse than a fast food joint.

After a long list of examples, the President said, “But what we suffer the most from is a malady of the spirit, a lack of faith, a lack of hope, a sense of helplessness, a sadness that envelopes us all, even those, like you, who have everything. But think for a moment: Saddled with the sadness you and I are familiar with, the powerless and the poor among our people still have to search for food, tend to their sick without aid of medicine or surgery, push themselves into crowded trains to get to work on time, knowing they are sure to lose the job in three months, or keep their infants from getting rained on under the awning on a street pavement.”

The Congresswoman broke down. She couldn’t help it. She fought the urge to fish out of her purse a pill or two of St. John’s Wort.

The Cabinet Secretary closed his eyes and thought about his son coming of age on Zoloft.

The Governor heaved a sigh of relief that he remembered to take his daily dose of Rivotril.

The Justice had the instinct to call his psychiatrist.

Like the Congresswoman, but without tears, the Senator was overwhelmed, reminded of the day his wife and three children left him for good, calling him insufferable, irresponsible, selfish, “a very lonely man.”

The Vice President considered how this, like any other time, even early in the morning when the need would arise, was the perfect time to drown himself in brandy.

With no more resistance or any strong emotions, the discussion went a little further, but in the end, nothing was resolved. None would take the blame. None, even if they tried, could see how they alone could have triggered the national depression.

At the end of the day, the President retired to his bedroom, feeling unbearably sad. He took a long, hot shower and popped a 10-milligram melatonin pill with a shot of vodka. Still sleepless and restless in bed an hour later, he decided to lose himself in a videogame.

TODAY’S WRITING TIP: The truth is the greatest fiction. From facts you can draw out the most unbelievable fantasy.

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