The Body Keeps the Score is the beautiful and suggestive title of a book published in 2014 by a Dutch professor of psychiatry at Boston University called Bessel van der Kolk. The book has proved immensely significant because it emphasises an idea that has for too long escaped psychiatrists and psychotherapists. Van der Kolk stresses that people who are suffering emotionally are unlikely to do so just in their minds. Crucially, their symptoms almost always additionally show up in their bodies: in the way they sit or breathe; in how they hold their shoulders, in their sleep patterns, in their digestion processes, in the way they treat their spots and in their attitudes to exercise.
Taking the body more seriously opens up new avenues for both the diagnosis and treatment of emotional unwellness. Instead of simply seeing a person as a disembodied mind which must talk its way to a cure, a therapist is advised to see the body as a kind of scoresheet of the emotional experiences that its owner has been through – a scoresheet that should be read and attended to as carefully as any mental account.
To take one example, many people who have grown up having to deal with the overwhelming rage of a parent will have learnt to suppress their own anger and their desire to hit back at those who hurt them. In their minds, they will have become meek and precisely attuned to fulfilling the wishes of others, however unreasonable these might be. But, as importantly, in their bodies, they will have learnt to be very still, almost frozen, because a part of them associates the expression of anything exuberant or powerful with the risk of bringing about retaliation from others. These people might sit in a particularly stiff way and have an ingrained resistance to running that has nothing to do with laziness: what is at stake is a fear of one’s own vitality.
In trying to treat such people, Van der Kolk goes beyond advising traditional talk therapy. He would also recommend that they try – under the supervision of a therapeutically trained teacher – kickboxing or karate, competitive running or swimming – sports these people might long have resisted because of a cowed relationship to their strength. They might also try out rhythmical chanting or drumming, thereby additionally releasing pent-up longings to assert one’s right to be.
Traumatised people tend to have bodies that are either too alert – responding to every breath and touch, flinching and bristling at contact. Or else too numb, shut down, heavy and immobile. Treatment seeks to find a more comfortable half-way house between these two extremes.
Van der Kolk’s book helps us to think anew of how to deal with people who, at the start of their lives, were not properly held, caressed and soothed, in the way that young children desperately need to be in order to feel at home in their own skin.
As part of their work, Van der Kolk and his team opened up a sensory integration clinic in Boston, a sort of indoor playground, for children and adults, where one can get back in touch with a body that was not properly, and by loving hands, touched or cuddled, gently swung from side to side or hung upside down for a giggly moment. In the sensory integration clinic, under the instruction of a therapist, one might dive onto foam filled mats, have a roll around in a ball pool, jump on a swing and balance on a beam. It sounds child-like and is meant to be, offering a serious chance to go back a step to correct a long-standing alienation.
Those who were once neglected by emotionally stunted parents have often almost literally withdrawn from their bodies. They ‘own’ them but they do not properly ‘live’ in them. They might be rendered deeply uncomfortable if anyone touches their shoulders or strokes their back. They might intuitively think their body was ‘disgusting’ , because that’s how it once seemed in the eyes of those who were meant to look after them. For such people, van der Kolk might advise a therapeutically-informed massage to help rebuild a basic trust in one’s skin and limbs. As he puts it, he wants ‘the body to have experiences that deeply and viscerally contradict the helplessness, rage or collapse that resulted from trauma.’
It is no doubt deeply unfortunate that a difficult past appears to give us physical as well as mental symptoms. But the body’s travails can – in Van der Kolk’s optimistic account – also become a source of memory and evidence, when our minds have otherwise seized up or fatally doubt the legitimacy of their own feelings. We can start to remember what might have happened to us by asking ourselves questions in therapy, and at the same time by taking a look at how we are sitting, how we breathe and how we feel when someone we love proposes to hold us. Then we can hope to be healed, not only by wise arguments and kind voices (however consoling these might be), but also by dancing, swaying from side to side on a gigantic swing, chanting in unison or – best of all – surrendering ourselves to a very long and very nourishing hug from someone we have quietly dared to trust.
The purpose of language is to help us to get a better grip on reality; the more words there are in our vocabulary, the higher the chance we have of being able to describe what we want, what ails us, what is driving us mad – and then in turn, to summon the help we may badly need.
It can help if the words we have to hand are pretty (and even have a long and distinguished history), but at heart, all we really require is that they should help us. Such is the case with one of the most useful terms in modern psychology: Complex PTSD.
PTSD stands for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a condition officially recognised in 1980 to describe exposure to a relatively brief but devastating event: typically, a war, a rape, an accident or terrorist incident. Complex PTSD, recognised in 1994, describes exposure to something equally devastating but over a very long time, normally the first 15 years of life: emotional neglect, humiliation, bullying, disrupted attachment, violence and anger.
A lot of us, as many as twenty percent, are wandering the world as undiagnosed sufferers of ‘Complex PTSD’. We know that all isn’t well, but we don’t have a term to capture the problem, don’t connect up our ailments – and have no clue who to seek out or what treatment might help.
Here are twelve leading symptoms of Complex PTSD. We might think about which ones, if any, apply to us (more than 7 might be a warning sign worth listening to):
1. A feeling that nothing is safe: wherever we are, we have an apprehension that something awful is about to happen. We are in a state of hypervigilance. The catastrophe we expect often involves a sudden fall from grace. We will be hauled away from current circumstances and humiliated, perhaps put in prison and denied all access to anything kind or positive. We won’t necessarily be killed, but to all intents, our life will be over. People may try to reassure us through logic that reality won’t ever be that bad; but logic doesn’t help. We’re in the grip of an illness, we aren’t just a bit confused.
2. We can never relax; this shows up in our body. We are permanently tense or rigid. We have trouble with being touched, perhaps in particular areas of the body. The idea of doing yoga or meditation isn’t just not appealing, it may be positively revolting (we may call it ‘hippie’ with a sneer) and – deeper down – terrifying. Probably are bowels are troubled too; our anxiety has a direct link to our digestive system.
3. We can’t really ever sleep and wake up very early – generally in a state of high alarm, as though, during rest, we have let down our guard and are now in even greater danger than usual.
4. We have, deep in ourselves, an appalling self-image. We hate who we are. We think we’re ugly, monstrous, repulsive. We think we’re awful, possibly the most awful person in the world. Our sexuality is especially perturbed: we feel predatory, sickening, shameful.
5. We’re often drawn to highly unavailable people. We tell ourselves we hate ‘needy’ people. What we really hate are people who might be too present for us. We make a beeline for people who are disengaged, won’t want warmth from us and who are struggling with their own undiagnosed issues around avoidance.
6. We are sickened by people who want to be cosy with us: we call these people ‘puppyish’ ‘revolting’ or ‘desperate’.
7. We are prone to losing our temper very badly; sometimes with other people, more often just with ourselves. We aren’t so much ‘angry’ as very very worried: worried that everything is about to become very awful again. We are shouting because we’re terrified. We look mean, we’re in fact defenceless.
8. We are highly paranoid. It’s not that we expect other people will poison us or follow us down the street. We suspect that other people will be hostile to us, and will be looking out for opportunities to crush and humiliate us (we can be mesmerically drawn to examples of this happening on social media, the unkindest and most arbitrary environment, which anyone with C-PTSD easily confuses with the whole world, chiefly because it operates like their world: randomly and very meanly).
9. We find other people so dangerous and worrying that being alone has huge attractions. We might like to go and live under a rock forever. In some moods, we associate bliss with not to having to see anyone again, ever.
10. We don’t register to ourselves as suicidal but the truth is that we find living so exhausting and often so unpleasant, we do sometimes long not to have to exist any more.
11. We can’t afford to show much spontaneity. We’re rigid about routines. Everything may need to be exactly so, as an attempt to ward off looming chaos. We may clean a lot. Sudden changes of plans can feel indistinguishable from the ultimate downfall we dread.
12. In a bid to try to find safety, we may throw ourselves into work: amassing money, fame, honour, prestige. But of course, this never works. The sense of danger and self-disgust is coming from so deep within, we can never reach a sense of safety externally: a million people can be cheering, but one jeer will be enough once again to evoke the self-disgust we have left unaddressed inside. Breaks from work can feel especially worrying: retirement and holidays create unique difficulties.
What is the cure for the arduous symptoms of Complex PTSD? Partly we need to courageously realise that we have come through something terrible that we haven’t until now properly digested – because we haven’t had a kind, stable environment in which to do so (it’s always hard to get one but we’ve also been assiduous in avoiding doing so). We are a little wonky because, long ago, the situation was genuinely awful: when we were small, someone made us feel extremely unsafe even though they might have been our parent; we were made to think that nothing about who we were was acceptable; in the name of being ‘brave’, we had to endure very difficult separations, perhaps repeated over years; no one reassured us of our worth. We were judged with intolerable harshness. The damage may have been very obvious, but – more typically – it might have unfolded in objectively innocent circumstances. A casual visitor might never have noticed. There might have been a narrative, which lingers still, that we were part of a happy family. One of the great discoveries of researchers in Complex PTSD is that emotional neglect within outwardly high achieving families can be as damaging as active violence in obviously deprived ones.
If any of this rings bells, we should stop being brave. We should allow ourselves to feel compassion for who we were; that might not be easy, given how hard we tend to be with ourselves. The next step is to try to identify a therapist or counsellor trained in how to handle Complex PTSD (this may well be someone trained in trauma informed work, which emphasises directing enormous amounts of compassion towards one’s younger self) – in order to have the courage to face trauma and recognise its impact on one’s life.
Rather touchingly, and simply, the root cause of Complex PTSD is an absence of love – and the cure for it follows the same path: we need to relearn to love someone we very unfairly hate beyond measure: ourselves.
If we were to need any further evidence of the difficulties of being human, we need only study the poignant phenomenon that psychologists call dermatillomania – more commonly known as skin picking.
Those who suffer from it will, by definition, be at the anxious end of the spectrum. Few days will be free of great worry, sometimes a specific concern that feels like it will be the end of us, or else a general eeriness and nameless dread.
In response, as we’ve probably done for years, we will start to pick. Perhaps we reach for one of our hands and a very special zone we’ve almost certainly not told anyone about; a zone of hardened skin made up of extra layers that we begin to press or squeeze at, file down or unsheathe. Or we go to an area of our face and start worry away, pinching, squeezing, lifting, skewering. It might equally – or also – be a part of our lips we go to or a bit of our ankle. In all cases, the skin buckles, damages, goes sore and on occasion, when we go too far, starts to bleed, perhaps profusely. If someone were to come into the room, they might gasp – though we generally do a good job of covering up the blood once we’re done.
We know – of course – we shouldn’t be doing any of this. But it feels, at the time, so nice, or more accurately, irresistible, like the only thing that is going to work, like exactly the action that will be able to deliver relief. What can it matter, in the context, that we’ll be left with a pitted face or a bleeding foot or a purple raw thumb? It’s what we had to do – and have been doing, probably, for many years. We know we do it, but it escapes and resists direct thought. This might be the first time we’ve heard anyone else talking about it.
Dermatillomania, the psychologists tell us, has to do with anxiety; that much is evident. What is distinctive is how the anxiety is being handled. Some will act out their pain in dramatic and noisy ways; screaming, insulting, cursing… Skin picking is a quieter, more solitary way of trying to come to terms with alarm and self-loathing. It is an introvert’s affliction.
The skin picker might well like to scream, panic loudly, tell someone to go away or collapse in another’s welcoming arms – but their characters have been shaped through aeons of solitude. They have no faith in any possibility of turning towards someone else for help. They are fundamentally alone. They only have experience of directing anger and sorrow in on themselves. They are taking their pain out on the only character they can reach.
Knowing all this helps us to imagine what a cure might look like. For a start, it will involve recognising the degree of solitude that has inspired the masochism. No one ends up picking their skin raw who had an early consistent experience of tenderness and attuned care. One does this kind of thing because absolutely no one was around or those that were did a lot of humiliating. It may help to recognise that one is still now terrified pretty much all the time. The targets may shift – losing one’s job, being made fun of, being sexually rejected, ridicule – but the essential drift is that one is a terror-struck person.
When we can compassionately realise that the picking is about fear and self-disgust (the legacy of neglect or cruelty), we are in a position to start to ‘see’ rather than merely be compelled by our pain. We need to find a better way of being worried. We are trying to gain control over a cruel-seeming and cold world, but turning our index finger raw or taking a penknife to our heel isn’t where the issue lies. We need to know that this isn’t some un-analysable quirk. It’s a known and very moving problem, one of the many things a sensitive mind will do in response to a lack of love and to a basic fear that’s had to be borne alone. We need to start to pick at the real source of the agony and learn to leave our innocent bleeding body in peace.
Children spend a lot of time worrying: that there may be a crocodile under the bed, that a gigantic cat may take them away in the night, that a flood might sweep away their home. When they seek comfort in the early hours from the terrors of their dreams, they tell us of having imagined being buried alive, of being chased by dogs down underground carparks or of having had their legs chewed off by a herd of one-eyed zebras.
And of course, to appease their worries, we take them in our arms and tell them that, thankfully, it will all be OK, that there is nothing to be concerned about, that they are safe and that the world will do them none of the harm they dread. Schools send out the same message: humans have it under control, teachers know the way (they just need to be listened to), there is no need for panic. The doctors are equally reassuring and have fascinating stethoscopes too; it’s just a scrape, it will heal up in just a few days, a bit of cream and it will be gone. And the bedtime stories do their best to tie things up neatly: the kangaroo and its mum lived happily ever after, the boy recovered the family fortune, the owl made it back to its nest and the moon rediscovered its place in the sky. It was, and always will be, completely fine in the end. It’s time for bed now. No, we can’t have another one. Night night, soldier.
We think, by the way of optimism, that we are making them resilient, and preparing them for a sometimes very rough world. We are not always wrong but might there be occasional space for a rather darker but equally and sometimes more calming approach? What if – at points – we began to picture what might happen if the owl got properly lost and the boy didn’t find the money, if we think about what it would it be like if a few things did go very very wrong and a bit of cream didn’t put it right? We are so scared of scaring children, might we be making them more afraid by shielding them from what is properly daunting?
For the Stoic philosophers of Ancient Rome, the way to find calm is not to insist that bad things don’t happen. They can and do happen all the time – maybe not exactly in the way that small children imagine them, but often pretty close: there are famines and plagues, fires and wars. There are some dangerous animals and some properly beastly people. There are horrific diseases and there is death. But crucially, the Stoics insisted, though these things are possible, to a far greater extent than we’re inclined to think, they can be endured. They can be thought through and mastered by our minds. We must not leave them as unexplored worries and shove them to the back of consciousness; that is to give them victory and allow them to unsettle us perpetually. Even our own death can be measured up to and the spectre confronted. There aren’t always happy endings, it’s nothing like what children’s stories imply, but may be there can be a way nevertheless, if we look at what our options are in the midst of calamity.
‘To find calm,’ wrote the philosopher Seneca, ‘imagine not what will probably happen, but what can happen.’ In other words, picture the worst, push your worries to their limits and see what you might have left: it might not be pretty, but it might – in its way – be OK. The Stoics advised running through the most awful scenarios, grave disgrace, total poverty, the loss of a limb or two, and tried to analyse their terrors head on. The route to inner strength wasn’t to run away from anxiety, it was to switch on the light in the room of fear and see what is really there. If there were a flood, how could we cope? If there were a plague, how might we manage? If we got a diagnosis, what might we do next? That is resilient thinking, not the response that tells us that we are being silly and that it will be entirely alright – until it isn’t and then we are lost.
The most Stoic story in the history of children’s literature was written and illustrated by the German-born British writer Judith Kerr and first published in 1968. The Tiger who came to Tea tells the story of a little girl called Sophie who is having tea with her mother when there is a ring at the door. It is – as it can sometimes be in life – a tiger. A natural response would be to panic. It might be normal to scream. It would be extremely understandable if one lost all will to live. But Sophie’s mother appears to have read Seneca and perhaps Marcus Aurelius too and takes the new visitor in her stride. It’s not an ideal outcome of course, but it’s not grounds for complete consternation either. Stuff happens – and the mother might have expected something like this. So she sets about trying to appease the tiger’s hunger. She gives him all the food they have, he ransacks the cupboards, he swallows everything around, he bashes the kitchen about, he even empties the taps of their last drops of water. And then, though it’s been a bit bad, he goes away. When Sophie’s father comes home from work, he’s rather dismayed that there’s no food left, but the parents decide this might be a great occasion to go out for a meal, and so they head off and have something delicious in a nearby cafe. The next day, Sophie and her mother restock the house. They find a big tin of tiger food – and buy it ‘just in case.’ But in fact, the tiger doesn’t return. It may have been terrifying, but it was a one off visit. Life goes on. Tigers come for tea – and then they go away again.
The Stoics would have called The Tiger who came to Tea a premeditation, an exploration of a difficult scenario designed to show us that it can happen but that it can also be borne. We do our children an injustice when we guess that they can only bear happiness. They – like all humans – are wired for catastrophe. The most loving and realistic thing is not to pretend that fearsome events don’t befall us; they may and they can fairly destroy what we value along the way. The key move when we are scared is to stay with our fears long enough to probe what the dreadful things can really do to us and analyse matters to the point where we can perceive that we could endure what appeared merely catastrophic from afar; it’s to know that tigers will come – and after some trouble and considerable damage, that they might even go away again.
Art has never been mere entertainment. Alongside philosophy and religion, it has been humanity’s chief source of consolation. It is what we should turn to in our very worst moments.
Here are seven of the most calming works of art ever produced.
1. Hiroshi Sugimoto, The Atlantic Ocean, 1989
Because of the way our minds work, it is very hard for us to be anything other than immensely preoccupied with what is immediately close to us in time and space. But in the process, we tend to exaggerate the importance of certain frustrations that do not, in the grander scheme, merit quite so much agitation and despair. We are inveterately poor at retaining perspective. Art can help by carrying us out of present circumstances and reframing events against a more imposing or vast backdrop.
This is a move being made by the Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto through his gigantic empty photographs of the Atlantic ocean in a variety of moods. What is most notable in these sublime scenes is that humanity is nowhere in the frame. We are afforded a glimpse of what the planet looked like before the first creatures emerged from the seas. Viewed against such an immemorial scene, the precise discontents of our times matter ever so slightly less. We regain composure not by being made to feel more important, but by being reminded of the miniscule and momentary nature of everyone and everything.
As our eyes wander over the vast grey swell of the sea, we can immerse ourselves in an attitude of gratifying indifference to ourselves and everything about our laughably minor fate. The waters of time will close over us; and it will – thankfully – be as if we had never lived.
2. Ansel Adams, Aspens, Dawn, Autumn, 1937
Because death is always such a personal tragedy, because it can sometimes feel as if it was something we have been singled out for while others are still playing volleyball down at the gym in full health, it is helpful to be reminded that it will eventually prove a non-negotiable necessity for every living thing on the planet, from the Burgundy snail to the South American tapir, the dental hygienist to the genius-level left side hitter.
There can be consolation in contemplating the presence of death in species and life forms other than our own – just to enforce the message of the ubiquity of the end.
In Ansel Adams’s photograph, a row of aspens have been surprised by the photographer’s light and stand out as strands of silver against the blackness of night. The mood is sombre, but elegant. There is a consoling message within the artistry that can appease our raw grief and anxiety about our mortality and the fleetingness of time. The image invites us to see ourselves as part of the mesmerising spectacle of nature. Nature’s rules apply to us as much as they do to the trees of the forest. It’s not personal. The photograph is a reframing device: it invites us to think of our own deaths as having a natural order that has nothing to do with individual justice. The photograph tries to take the personal sting out of what is happening to us.
Leaves always wither and fall. Autumn necessarily follows from spring and summer. Encountering this spectacle in art, we are invited to reframe our thoughts about mortality in the broad purview of nature: nature’s sequences apply to us as much as they do to plants and trees. Time moves forward relentlessly. The seasons pass – and we hasten towards old age, death and oblivion. The image takes these awkward truths and, through its technical skills, lends them a redemptive dignity and grandeur.
3. Ludolf Bakhuysen, Warships in a Heavy Storm, 1695
In the 17th century, the Dutch developed a tradition of painting that depicted ships in violent storms. These works, which hung in private homes and in municipal buildings around the Dutch republic, were not mere decoration. They had an explicitly therapeutic purpose to them: they were delivering a moral to their viewers, who lived in a nation critically dependent on maritime trade, about confidence in seafaring and life more broadly. The sight of a tall sailing ship being tossed to a twenty degree angle in a rough sea looks – to an inexperienced person – like a catastrophe. But there are many situations that look and feel much more dangerous than they really are, especially when the crew is prepared and the ship internally sound.
The Dutch painter Ludolf Bakhuysen’s Warships in a Heavy Storm looks chaotic in the extreme: how could they possibly survive? But the ships were well-designed for just such situations. Their hulls had been minutely adapted through long experience to withstand the tempests of the northern oceans. The crews practiced again and again the manoeuvers that could keep such their vessels safe: they knew about taking down sails at speed and ensuring that the wind would not shred the mast. They understood about shifting cargo in the hull, tacking to the left and then abruptly to the right, and pumping out water from the inner chambers. They knew to remain coolly scientific in responding to the storm’s wilful frantic motions. The picture pays homage to decades of planning and experience. Bakhuysen wanted us to feel proud of humanity’s resilience in the face of apparently dreadful challenges. His painting enthuses us with the message that we can all cope far better than we think; what appears immensely threatening may be highly survivable.
What is true of storms in the North Sea may be no less true of the turmoils in our lives. The storms will die down, we will be battered, a few things will be ripped, but we will eventually return to safer shores.
4. Claude Monet, Poppies, 1873
Much to the consternation of sophisticated people, a great deal of popular enthusiasm is directed at works of art that are distinctly cheerful: meadows in spring, the shade of trees on hot summer days, pastoral landscapes, and smiling children.
The highest selling postcard of art in France is Poppies by Claude Monet.
Sophisticated people tend to scorn. They are afraid that such enthusiasms might be evidence of a failure to acknowledge or understand the awful dimensions of the world. But there is another way to interpret this taste: that it doesn’t arise from an unfamiliarity with suffering, but from an all too close and pervasive involvement with it – from which we are impelled occasionally to seek relief if we are not to fall into despair and self-disgust. Far from naivety, it is precisely the background of suffering that lends an intensity and dignity to our engagement with this work of art. Claude Monet hasn’t just made a pretty picture; he has bottled hope.
5. Caspar David Friedrich, Rocky Reef on the Sea Shore, 1825
Caspar David Friedrich shows us a striking, jagged rock formation, a spare stretch of coast, the bright horizon, far away clouds and a pale sky to induce us into a mood. We might imagine walking in the pre-dawn, after a sleepless night, on the bleak headland, away from human company, alone with the basic forces of nature.
The picture does not refer directly to the stresses and tribulations of our day to day lives. Its function is to give us access to a state of mind in which we are acutely conscious of the largeness of time and space. The work is sombre, rather than sad; calm, but not despairing. And in that condition of mind – that state of soul, to put it more romantically – we are left, as so often with works of art, better equipped to deal with with the intense, intractable and particular griefs that lie before us.
6. Anonymous, Kintsugi Bowl, 1990
The Japanese have an artistic tradition, known as kintsugi, wherein the broken pieces of an accidentally-smashed pot are carefully picked up, reassembled and then glued together with lacquer inflected with a luxuriant gold powder – to create a beautiful ode to the art of repair. In kintsugi, there is no attempt to disguise the damage, the point is to render the fault-lines obvious and elegant. The precious veins of gold are there to emphasise that things falling apart isn’t unexpected or panic-inducing: it creates an opportunity for us to mend – and mend redemptively.
7. Richard Serra, Fernando Pessoa, 2007-8
We’re often intensely lonely in our suffering. We’re not only sad, we believe we’re the only ones to be so. But we are, in reality, all on the edge of despair. We should learn to suffer with less of a sense of persecution or an impression that we have unfairly been singled out for punishment.
‘Fernando Pessoa’ is a beautifully dark monumental work by Richard Serra, named after a Portuguese poet with a turn for lamentation (as he wrote: ‘Oh salty sea / how much of your salt is tears from Portugal.’).
The work does not deny our sorrows, it does not tell us to cheer up or point us in a brighter direction (what people often do when we tell them our troubles). The large scale and monumental character of this intensely sombre sculpture implicitly declares the normality and universality of grief. It is confident that we will recognise and respond to the legitimate place of solemn emotions in an ordinary life. Rather than leaving us alone with our darker moods, the work proclaims them as central features of life. In its stark gravity, like many of the greatest works of art, Serra’s ‘Fernando Pessoa’ creates a dignified home for sorrow.
Too many books have been written trying to explain what art might be for. In moments of great crisis, the answer is only too obvious: art is there to help keep us alive.
Extraordinarily, it will pass. It always does. One day, the crisis roiling our minds and our societies will be history. But it will not be forgotten lightly. There will be a sense of a world that existed before – and of one that came after. Older people will evoke for younger ones what pre society was like – and the contrast will awe and puzzle. Crucially, quite what the change will be isn’t predetermined. It doesn’t lie in our hands to avoid the crisis; it is very much up to us to determine what the crisis might mean and could give birth to over the long term. As in personal life, breakdowns have a capacity to lead to breakthroughs. What might these be? We can already ask ourselves what we would ideally want the world to be like after; what we would want a lot more of – and what very much less of.
What we learnt we wanted more of…
For much of history, the status quo is made to feel impregnable. Nothing new can be tried; every provocative idea is to be batted away; this is the way we’ve always done it and always will. Visionary thoughts for reorganising society, for amending our ways of working, earning, loving or nursing ourselves, are made to feel outlandish and impractical; the current state is inviolable. Except, of course, it isn’t. Crises reveal that – under sufficient pressure, and with the imaginative restlessness bred by necessity – pretty much everything is up for being rethought: the money supply, the education system, the hospital service, community support, entertainment, leisure, love. We might live wholly differently and in some ways, far more fruitfully, joyfully, kindly and efficiently. We have over the years learnt everything we need to know about stagnation; we have a chance, once the storm has abated, to remember possibility. After so much horror that was unforeseen, the current non-existence of a beautiful idea – however apparently fanciful – need never again be any sort of conclusive argument against it.
The old world taught us a great deal about ourselves as individuals. The storm reminded us of ourselves as creatures of the group: we relearnt that none of us survives unless everyone survives and that the overall health of a society depends on the protection and security of its least prestigious members. We learnt that there is no island distant enough, no penthouse exclusive enough, no private ventilator plausible enough to save us. We learnt that if we were to live, we had to rely on what belonged to us all – and that every nation, even a so-called mighty one, can only ever be as strong as its communal foundations.
We learnt, extraordinarily, that we are not principally interested in ourselves, that there is something far more compelling and gratifying than individual pride. We learnt about the pleasures of serving others. We learnt to give due recognition to an urge that otherwise lay buried and shy within us: the desire to help strangers.
We learnt how exhausting it is to try to resolve all our needs with only one other very special person, who we hoped could render everyone else superfluous. We outgrew Romanticism, and discovered a more open-hearted, less possessive form of love: a love of friends, neighbours, colleagues and fellow vulnerable suffering humans.
And what we learnt we wanted less of…
To wage war on frivolity isn’t to be dour or unalive to the pleasures of dancing, messing about or cracking extremely rude jokes. True frivolity involves being far too serious about things that are at heart very silly without recognising them as such; it is to devote one’s greatest energies to banality while refusing the claims of warmth and fellowship. There will plenty of other crises: the asteroid of 2043, the earthquake of 2192, the alien invasion of 2289… We should make sure that when these strike, we’ll be preoccupied with pursuits in line with our natural dignity and sense of meaning: we may be laughing, we might even be dancing, but we’ll have learnt to evaluate each day against the more purposeful measure of death.
We will, along the way, also have learnt to appreciate the hitherto unheralded pleasures of an evening stroll through familiar, undramatic, deeply lovable streets, or an afternoon in a public garden, lying in the grass next to unknown families having a picnic. We will become connoisseurs of all that is wondrous and available for almost nothing in the here and now.
We will do away with our fear of touch. We will treasure every moment of tangible contact: a satisfying fiddle with our cheek or a deep exploration in our left nostril, an arm around a shoulder, a kiss, the simple miracle of a hug.
After the storm, we will have less patience with sentimental good humour. We’ll know so much about darkness, we’ll have had our fill of glossy assurance. It will be pessimism cheerfully borne that will provide us with the wisest perspective. We’ll be experts at melancholy and the finest form of comedy: gallows humour.
Every brush with death, individually or societally, begs us to address one large and otherwise fatefully ignored question: how would we really, really prefer to live? The storm is our tragic chance to piece together one or two more profound and satisfying answers.
– ACCEPT: We are a miraculous, unlikely fragile species in a mysteriously oxygenated corner of the universe. We have never been and never will be complete masters of our circumstances, we remain invariably at the mercy of awesome uncontrollable forces to which we should submit with a measure of grace.
– CONCEDE: Our impotence before events, the powerlessness of our mighty brains, the humbling inflicted on us by nature, our vulnerability to the absurdities of microbial life.
– LET GO: of ideals of perfection, of uncreased lives and flawless trajectories. We should expect – regularly – to be taken wholly by surprise.
– NO PERSECUTION: None of it was done with us in mind. We have not been singled out. We may be victims; we were never targets.
– LOVE: Our fellow broken humans; hold out a hand to our similarly scared and confused neighbours, build friendships around the always-surprising and blessed discovery of mutual vulnerability.
– SERVE: Gain relief from how much richer it is to love than to be loved and how much more gratifying to serve than to be served. Take a holiday from the gruelling search for self-fulfilment in the name of that infinitely easier goal: the reassurance and relief of others.
– PESSIMISM: Gain peace of mind not by expecting the best, but by scoping out the very worst and making oneself at peace in its grimmest recesses. Drain terror of its unexamined dimensions. Bore yourself out of fear.
– APPRECIATE: especially birdsong, the drawings of the under sevens, pictures of palm trees, lemons and the memories of beaches and hugs.
– LAUGH: At the absurdity of the shitshow; insist on defiant humour on the way to the gallows.
– SELF-FORGIVENESS: For our inability to be exactly as we would wish and as calm and intelligent as we would hope. It is normal (and almost sane) to be demented most of the time.
– SMALL PLEASURES: A day at a time; with a special place for modest pleasures: the sight of flowers, chocolate, hot baths and very dark jokes with unshockable friends.
We come from a species that, in only a few hundred thousand years, reached a dazzling understanding of existence, built some stupendous machines and learnt to think of itself as in charge. We may need to accept the need to feel, in the late hours, a little bit scared – and for a time, very very small.
Some of us belong to a social group politely known as ‘worriers.’ That is, we are close to panic on a range of issues pretty much all the time. We worry that the scratch on our knee will turn cancerous, that we’ll catch a deadly disease from touching the hotel door, that all our savings might disappear in a random economic disaster and that our enemies could spread rumours that will forever disgrace and demean us.
So overwhelming and debilitating can these fears become, we may be advised by well-meaning friends that we should probably go and visit a psychotherapist in haste in order to calm ourselves.
Here we’re likely to learn a lot of very reassuring things, in particular, that none of our powerful fears is really any kind of reflection on what is likely to happen in the real world. The scratch on the knee is just a scratch, there isn’t about to be some global catastrophe, there isn’t some disease that is going to wipe us all out, the hotel door is blameless, we’re not going to be financially ruined, no one is properly interested in humiliating us. And so on and so forth.
We learn to make a distinction between our inner world and the outer world, the first filled with terror and apprehension, the second emerging as a far more benign, indifferent and easy going place. We also learn, if we read a little psychotherapeutic theory, why there should in some of us be such a dislocation between the inner and outer worlds. It comes down to a theory about childhood; some of us had childhoods that were so disturbed and cruel, so filled with shame and loneliness, that they have coloured our view of the whole of life; we assume that things will always be as bad as they once were.
The task of psychotherapy is then to start to show us how powerfully and negatively biased our perceptions are and that the adult realm actually contains far fewer demons than we thought, and far more opportunity, solace and forgiveness. We learn that the catastrophe we feared would happen has in fact safely already happened. We get a lot better.
But then, if we’re unlucky, at key moments in our lives, we may run into a range of harrowing events that threaten to upend everything we’ve carefully learnt to believe in and that make a mockery of the soothing voices we’ve come to trust. Suddenly, in spite of our best efforts to be resilient and sane, we learn that we are in fact facing a mortal illness. Or, after slowly overcoming a compulsive handwashing fetish, we’re told that a germ truly might kill us after all. Or, despite our attempts to explore our sexuality with courage, we learn that some enemies really do want to humiliate us for the pleasures we’ve pursued.
In confusion and bitterness, we may turn against therapy and its naive view of reality and cry bitterly: ‘See! It really is as bad as I always thought it was… I suspected that life was hell and it really is.’ Or, as one comic is reputed to have had inscribed on their gravestone, ‘I told you it wasn’t just a cough.’
This may sound like the moment when all attempts at psychotherapeutic calm or at emotional maturity and wisdom more broadly fairly come to an end. But once we have endured the initial panic, we can insist that this need be nothing of the sort. We can strive for wisdom despite, or even in the midst of, a range of the most awful external eventualities.
We should be clear on what is at stake: psychotherapy does not promise us that nothing will ever go wrong in our lives again. It can’t remove intractable evils. What it can do, however, is to teach us a variety of mental manoeuvres that will render those evils – death among them – a great deal less painful and persecutory than they would otherwise have been. There are better and worse ways to endure the afflictions we cannot avoid. There are ways of interpreting disasters that add a whole new layer of pain and fear to them – and others that, while they do not magic away the chaos, at least remove its secondary, aggravating characteristics.
Let’s consider two of the things that those of us with a choppy inner life (and a difficult past) may – quite unfairly – tell ourselves when we run into the vicissitudes of life and compare it with what wiser voices might propose:
‘This is going to be the end of everything…’
It doesn’t take very much – when you’ve already felt a disaster or two rock your world at an early age – to know in your bones what’s coming next when a problem hits. Death is clearly nigh. There isn’t going to be any safe way out of this debacle. It’s all over… But, however counterintuitive this might sound, even in a pandemic, one may be exaggerating. Even with a cancer diagnosis, one may be losing perspective. The outer world can be bad, very bad, and still the inner world can be making it worse, may be adding yet more fear, yet more dread and more of a sense of doom than would be strictly necessary. Not every calamity is the end; not every end need be a deluge.
Some of us will have enjoyed the blessing of that essential figure of early childhood: the soothing adult. Our toy broke and it seemed it was a misery beyond compare; we wailed, we screamed, we called death upon ourselves. Nothing so bad had ever been seen. But then a kindly adult came, took us in their arms, and said ‘I know, I know’ and held us so tightly until our tears abated. And then, in a calm and loving voice, they plotted with us how we might repair things: perhaps there’d be a similar toy in another shop; maybe we could get some glue and have a go at fixing the head back on; maybe there’d be a way of playing with it even if it had only one leg… And so gradually we recovered a taste for life and kept on going – and many decades later, when disaster strikes once more, we’re able to call on the voice of the kindly parental figure, and give ourselves more options: certainly it is bad, but think of how much remains. Perhaps we can pick up the pieces and begin anew. Maybe the horror will end. There might just be a small solution. And even if there isn’t, the kindly voice gives us a sense that everything can be OK anyway, even dying can be coped with – for maybe the original owner of that calm voice approached their end a few years back with a serenity and good humour we can now emulate in turn. Not even death has to be a disaster.
‘You deserve all the bad things that happen to you…’
For some of us, it isn’t just that bad things happen to us, bad things happen to us because we are bad people. We suffer because we deserve to suffer; and we deserve to suffer because we are – to put it relatively mildly – pieces of shit. It feels natural to turn whatever is negative and might have been entirely accidental into a verdict on us and on our right to be. We have such reservoirs of shame and self-loathing that when we suffer a reversal, we don’t only end up – for example – sick or broke or abandoned in love, we hear a voice in our heads that at once adds immeasurably to the misery; a voice that tells us that we are, aside from on our own and in a cold rented room, also a mistake that should never have been born. No one doubts that sometimes people go broke, no one doubts that love lives can go wrong, but not everyone who goes broke or has a bad marriage ends up feeling that they are the worst person in the world and that the leading option must be to kill themselves. For some of us, we aren’t just our worst moments, we can exist outside of our foolishness. No error we make ever puts us entirely beyond the pale. We may be in prison, most of our friends may have left us, but we still know we’ve got lovable sides. Someone could in theory still see past our sins and love us. We retain an echo of the love we once drew strength from all those years back; we are still the little boy or girl that someone loved, despite everything that came after. We may have done a very bad thing, we are not totally bad people.
We tend to believe that the difference between a good and a bad life must lie strictly in the quality of the events that befall people. But to a surprising extent, the difference actually lies in the way each of us is able to interpret events. There are newly convicted prisoners, newly condemned patients and freshly diagnosed plague victims who know how not to add shame, persecution, self-hatred and unbounded panic to their already considerable burdens. There are those of us who know how to incorporate a soothing commentary to a battlefield: who can tell ourselves in the middle of an inferno that we do not deserve this, that a lot can be fixed, that we are still loveable, that it can probably be survived and that if it can’t, we will simply have to cross a threshold over which a hundred billion or so of our species has already passed – in a process which will, in its own ghastly way, be fine for us too.
Therapy well done isn’t a discipline that tells us all will be brilliant; it offers us another go at hearing the voice of the soothing parent we missed out on first time around who knew that we could cope even when it isn’t.
There is an old misanthropic joke that goes: just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean someone’s not following you. The true retort to this grim wisecrack would be: and even if someone is following you, that doesn’t mean you deserve it or that it has to be the end of you. And, in a related move, just because there is a plague, doesn’t mean you are going to die. And just because you’re going to die, doesn’t mean you can’t ever grow to accept your non-existence with a measure of dark humour and serenity.
Even at the end of the world, there will be some of us taking it worse than others, some of us who will feel that they deserve it, that this means they are disgusting and wretched and that none of the beautiful stuff ever meant anything – and others who will be greeting catastrophe without catastrophizing. The good news is that, long before the planet expires, with a little help from therapy and philosophy, we have the capacity to move ourselves into the wiser camp, the camp of those who can endure difficult things without adding a further critical persecutory commentary, and are able, in the face of the most awful events, to soothe themselves with the kindness and empathy of the gentlest parent calming down the sobs of the distressed and frightened child we all once were and at some level remain.
We may not think of it in quite such naive terms, but we are liable to start out – somewhere in the semi-conscious mind – with a script of how our lives might go.
First will come education, with its deep friendships, moments of intoxicating self-discovery, tender first loves and at points, sheer riotous good fun.
Then will come a career, something that pays, but won’t be done merely for money. We’ll be competent, respectable and fairly honoured for the intensity of our efforts.
Alongside it will come a central relationship, probably a marriage. The union will last forever and be marked by mutual satisfaction, sincere friendship and frequent passionate sex. There’ll be kids too, offering us a chance to nurture a grateful, adorable small person, the best of its two parents, whom we will watch grow into an admirable, motivated adult.
With advances in science, we will lead an active and pain-free life, mentally and physically healthy, into our early eighties. Our parents will themselves have died at an advanced age and when the time comes for us, the end will be swift and painless.
This is, more or less, the script we’re handed by a technologically advanced, secular, consumer society – and it’s no wonder that, in many moods, we should want to cleave to it and trust it wholeheartedly.
But the truth, never asserted as a general rule, never insisted upon in tones of suitable melancholy solemnity, is that no one gets through their allotted span without a major off-script event. Something, somewhere, will go catastrophically wrong. Not potentially, or incidentally, but necessarily, because of the structure of human existence and of our appalling exposure to error, accident, madness and illness.
Someone very important to us will die long before they should, in horrific and entirely unexpected circumstances.
We’ll suffer a significant reversal in professional life, probably triggered by a folly on our part, an entrenched character flaw or a collision with one of the very sharp edges of the business cycle.
A central relationship will go wrong: a child will develop a major grievance, someone whom we trusted entirely will betray all the hopes we’d lodged in them.
Illness and death will strike from the blue: a stroke on the airport concourse, cancerous cells in an unfeasibly young body, a haemorrhage that came at least twenty years too soon.
The permutations are as endless as they are ghastly. We cannot know what it will be exactly; what is certain is that it will be something; an event committedly disastrous in nature that will stop us in our tracks, make us question every resilient assumption and break our hearts. The only guarantee is that we will not exit this life without a calamity.
If there is any defence or consolation to be found, it lies – of course – in knowing the fact head on and preparing for it assiduously in the quieter stretches. ‘To philosophise is to learn to die,’ knew Montaigne, and he might have added, to be more all-encompassing, to suffer too. Expecting the unexpected horror is the one move we can make to insulate ourselves a little from the vengefulness and wickedness of Fortune.
We know that something will come. And when it happens, we should not feel especially cursed. Our lives may appear to have gone off-script, but that is only because the script we were holding to was a sentimental lie. We are, in fact, following the path that all humans must walk. We should never feel persecuted for falling victim to what is the repressed yet general truth.
It is, at least, on the basis of off-script events that we develop our deepest friendships, surrender our self-righteousness, acquire the right kind of gallows humour – and grow up. Newly aware of the ubiquity of random disasters, we start to appreciate the bits that are on-script. We can know just how much to cherish the quiet days in which nothing much has yet gone very wrong.
And when the off-script event comes, we can at least say that we knew – and realised a while back that this what it means to be human.
Every human worries on occasion, but for some of us, the suffering is on a quite different and more life-destroying scale: we are, without wishing to be ungrateful or absurd, more or less permanently anxious.
What makes matters so hard for us, the anxious, is that we are unable to maintain a distinction between what objectively deserves terror and what automatically and unthinkingly provokes terror. The quintessential calming question – ‘Is there actually anything to be scared of here?’ – can’t even enter consciousness: there’s no sense that a benign response could even be possible.
Easily terrified people aren’t stupid; they may even be among the brightest. It is just that somewhere in their history, the mental equipment designed to distinguish logically between relative dangers has been destroyed. They have – somewhere along the line – received such a very big fright that pretty much everything has now grown frightening. Every slightly daunting challenge becomes a harbinger of the end; there are no more gradations. The party where one knows no one, the speech to delegates, the tricky conversation at work… these put the whole of existence into question. Pretty much every day is a crisis.
Let’s go in for a metaphor. Imagine that at a formative moment, when the anxious would have been profoundly unprepared and without the resources to cope, they had an encounter with a bear. The bear was beyond terrifying. It raged, it stamped, it crushed. It threatened to destroy everything: it was incomprehensibly mind-defyingly awful. As a result, the anxious person’s inner alarm jammed into the on-position and has stayed stuck there ever since. There is no use casually telling this person that there aren’t any bears around at the moment or that this isn’t the season or that most bears are kind or that campers rarely encounter them: that’s easy for you to say that, you who was never woken up with a giant grizzly staring at you with incisors showing and giant paws clasped open for the kill.
The result of this bear encounter is an unconscious commitment to catastrophic generalisation; the anxious fear all bears but also all dogs, rabbits, mice and squirrels, and all campsites and all sunny days, and even associated things, like trees rustling in the wind, or prairie grass, or the smell of coffee that was being made shortly before the bear showed up. The anxious can’t do logical distinctions: they can’t arrange threats into separate boxes.
To start to dig ourselves out of the quicksand of worry, we – the anxious – need to do something that is likely to feel very artificial and probably rather patronising too. We need to learn – on occasion – to distrust our senses completely. These senses, that are mostly terrific guides to life, have to be seen for what they also are: profoundly unreliable instruments, capable of throwing out faulty readings and destroying our lives. We need to erect a firm distinction between feelings and reality; to grasp that an impression is not a prognosis; and a fear is not a fact.
One side of the mind has to treat the other with a robust kindly scepticism: I know you’re sure there is a bear out there (at that party, in that newspaper article, in that office meeting). But is there one really? Really really? Emotion will be screaming yes like one’s life depends on it. But we’ve been here before and we need – with infinite forbearance – to let the screaming go on a little – and ignore it entirely. The cure lies in watching the panic unfold and in refusing to get involved in its seeming certainties.
We need to be like a pilot of a sophisticated craft coming into land in deep fog on autopilot: their senses may tell them that a dreadful collision is imminent, their reason knows that the sums have been done correctly and that a smooth landing is, despite the darkness and the awful vibrations, definitely about to unfold.
To get better, which really means, to stop dreading bears everywhere, we need to spend more time thinking about the specific bear that we once saw. The impulse is to focus always on the fear of the future. But we need instead to direct our minds back to the past – and revisit the damaging scenes with compassion and in kindly company. A consequence of not knowing the details of what once scared us is a fear of everything into the future. What sort of bear was it, what did it to us, how did we feel? We need to relocalise and repatriate the bear, to get to know it as a spectre that happened at one point in one place, so that it can stop haunting us everywhere for all time.
That we were once very scared is our historical tragedy; the challenge henceforth is to stop giving ourselves ever new reasons to ruin the rest of our lives with fear.