It is completely understandable that we are often maddened by what might be called ‘normal’ humanity. The way in which emotion so regularly triumphs over careful reasoning; the power of group loyalty, even when the group doesn’t seem to deserve much devotion; the vast mechanisms of status-seeking that drive so much excess consumption; widespread selfishness and indifference to the greater needs of more distant others. And we can find ourselves — in the privacy of our heads, or in the occasional late-night outburst — railing against the fools and idiots who (so unfortunately) seem to occupy so many of the prominent places of power, wealth and influence.
In such moods the 19th century naturalist Charles Darwin has much to say to us. He was born in England in 1809 into a well-to-do and intellectually distinguished family. He was much influenced by visiting, in his twenties, the Galapagos Islands where he could see first hand species remarkably different from those that existed elsewhere. In later life he was a quiet, rather withdrawn man (he became the world’s leading expert on barnacles). He achieved worldwide fame for his great work On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection but he felt that people had not quite understood the implications of his ideas and in 1871, when he was in his sixties, he brought out The Descent of Man.
Darwin liked to say that he had thought of calling his book ‘the Ascent of Man’ — but that that would suggest some idea of progress. Rather what he wanted to do was show that despite the obvious technical advances of past centuries modern people were still at the same moral level, or perhaps slightly worse, than their remote ancestors.
His big point is that the basic psychological characteristics of human beings evolved to aid survival in the remote past. At the simplest level, we are (generally) attracted to sweet things because in the very extended period of early human development that meant eating wild berries which are great for our health. It has only been in very recent times that this inbuilt desire has turned against us and given us a craving for sugar, which by Darwin’s time had become a major industrial commodity.
We also evolved to be highly conscious of our position within our own immediate group, since so much of our survival — in the past — depended on that; so today being ‘liked’ feels as if it a life or death issue because in the past it indicated that you would be served when the spoils of the hunt were being distributed.
Practically everything — then — depended on having a mate and reproducing. And so our minds are massively preoccupied by these questions, even though today, they are not at all central to our individual survival or even happiness. And, obviously, emotive behaviour is much earlier and much more deeply rooted than elaborate reasoning, which is a very recent and still terribly fragile development in human culture.
We can put on clothes and drive in cars, but we’re still carrying our primate heritage and that, though disappointing, is not our fault.
Charles Darwin teaches us to feel compassion for the very large primitive part of who we all are.
When we think of an ‘addict’, certain stock images come to mind: a homeless person in the park sniffing glue, a gaunt figure with a heroine needle in their arm, a breakfast-time vodka drinker…
But such gothic characterisations mask what is in reality a far more universal and less overtly dramatic — though still pernicious — phenomenon. Addiction doesn’t have anything to do with what one is addicted to: it can’t be neatly circumscribed to those who rely on hard drugs or alcohol. In its essence, addiction simply means leaning on something — it could be anything — because it prevents particular ideas from coming into our minds. The addict relies on their chosen pursuit to block unwelcome emotions from storming the theatre of their consciousness.
The particular object of their addiction might be whisky or marijuana, but it could just as well be their mobile phone or ever more copious buckets of fried chicken. One can be addicted to talking to one’s mother or cleaning cupboards, doing the accounts or tracking migrating birds.
What the addict fears above all is to be left alone, to have nothing to do other than to turn into themselves and to face unbearable sadness or regret, fear or longing.
The popular misunderstanding of what addiction is lets too many of us off the hook. It allows people to claim that they are merely going to the office again or checking the news, toning at the gym or catching up on football results.
Yet addicts are not evil or weak. They are first and foremost scared. The solution shouldn’t — therefore — involve censorship and lectures, rather love and reassurance. We should make moves to allow people to feel as safe as possible about opening more doors in their minds and confident that they can handle whatever might be skulking inside.
It is never really fried chicken or social media updates we like anyway: we are just at a loss as to how to begin to reflect without terror on the course of our lives.
A basic distinction in humans is between those who are simple and straightforward to deal with – and those who are – as we tend to be reminded when we interact with them – repeatedly tricky or complicated to handle.
What makes straightforward people gratifying to be around isn’t so much that their positions and intentions are always inherently unproblematic, it’s that we happen to know exactly what the issues are from the start. There is therefore no need to guess, infer, decode, untangle, unscramble or translate. There are no sudden surprises or revolutions in perspective. If these straightforward types don’t want to do something, they will, politely and in good time, explain that it’s really not for them. If they’re unhappy with our behaviour, they won’t smile sweetly while developing noxious stores of envy or hatred in the recesses of their minds; they will immediately provide a gentle but accurate statement of how we are frustrating them. If they are worried a project is going awry, they won’t pretend that all is well until a catastrophe can no longer be denied. If they are attracted to someone, they will find charming, kind and inoffensive ways of making their feelings clear. And in bed, they may want to please, but they can also be honest and unashamed about what actually excites them.
The problem with complicated people is that they are painfully unsure about the legitimacy of their own desires – which renders them unable to let the world know what they truly want and feel. They may appear to agree with everything we’re saying but it emerges – very far down the line – that they had a host of reservations that require an age to uncover and resolve. They will ask you if you’d like another slice of cake when it turns out they are pining for one. They will swear that they want to join you for the dinner you had suggested, when in reality, they had been aching for an early night. They will give every impression of being happy with you while crying inside. They will say sorry when they want you to apologise. They feel overlooked but won’t ever push themselves forward or raise a complaint. They are longing to be understood but never speak. When they are attracted to someone, the only outward evidence might be a few sarcastic comments – leaving the object of their affections bemused or unimpressed. Around sex, they go along with what they feel might be ‘normal’ as opposed to what actually interests them.
What could explain such confusing complexity? The root cause is poignant; it springs not from evil or inherent manipulativeness but from fear; the fear of how an audience might respond were one’s true intentions to be known.
There is, as ever, likely to be a childhood origin to this pattern of behaviour. A child becomes complicated – that is, underhand, roundabout or even deceitful – when it is given the impression by its earliest caregivers that there is no room for its honesty. One imagines a child whose needs (for another biscuit, for a run around the garden, for help with homework or for a chance not to see granny) might have been received with evident irritation or open anger. It never quite knew when its parent would get annoyed or explode or why. Or else a child might have sensed that a parent would be unbearably saddened if it revealed too many of its authentic aspirations. Why would one directly say how one felt or what one wanted, if the result were to be shouting, tears, or a complaint from a loved but fragile grown up that this was a betrayal or all simply too much?
And so the child grew into an adult expert at speaking in emotional code, they became someone who prefers always to imply rather than state, who planes the edge off every truth, who hedges their ideas, who has given up trying to say anything that its audience might not already want to hear; someone who lacks any courage to articulate their own convictions or to make any even slightly risky bid for the affection of another person.
Fortunately, none of us are fated to be eternally complicated. We can untangle ourselves by noticing and growing curious about the origins of our habitual evasiveness and reluctant slyness. We can register how little of our truth was originally acceptable to those who brought us into the world. Simultaneously, we can remind ourselves that our circumstances have changed. The dangers that gave birth to our coded manner of communicating have passed: no one is now going to shout at us, or feel so inexplicably hurt, like they once did. Or if they do, we have agency. We can, as a last but crucial resort, walk away. We can use the freedoms of adulthood to dare to own up to more of who we actually are.
We can also recognise that our complicated behaviour doesn’t in fact please people as we might have hoped. Most of the people we deal with would far rather be frustrated head on than sold a fine tale and then have to suffer disappointment in gradual doses.
Human interaction is inherently filled with a risk of conflict: we are never far from misaligned goals and divergent desires. The simple and straightforward ones among us have known enough love and acceptance early on to be able to bear the danger of ruffling a few feathers; they invest their energies in trying to deliver their truths with thoughtful diplomacy rather than in burying them badly beneath temporary and saccharine smiles. We discover simple communication when we can accept that what we want is almost never impossible for others to bear; it’s the cover-up that maddens and pains.
Part of our problem as a species is that we’re troublingly good at making things perfect. We can set our minds on an extraordinary goal and – with heroic sacrifice, thousands of hours of effort, many wrong turns and periods of intense despair – we can reach the target. We can pull off a masterwork, we can exceed all normal expectations, we can triumph and awe – and advance humankind.
And unfortunately, it appears that in many fields, we’re getting ever better at reaching perfection. What we call the modern age has – from technology to cookery, hostelry to sport, fashion to medicine – witnessed an unparalleled increase in the number and scale of our achievements. To begin a list of these, in aviation, we launched the perfect passenger plane, the Airbus A350 in 2013; in football, Brazil’s Carlos Alberto kicked the perfect goal into the Italian net in the 1970 World Cup Final; in engineering, Michel Virlogeux designed the perfect bridge to span the Tarn valley in southern France in 2004, Coco Chanel introduced the perfect black Ford Dress in 1926; Jonas Salk and his team at the University of Pittsburgh designed the perfect vaccine for polio in 1952; Dieter Rams designed the perfect radio, the RT20 Tabletop, for Braun in 1963; Stephen Shore took the perfect photograph at the Causeway Inn, Tampa, Florida in 1977; the Swiss graphic designer, Adrian Frutiger, designed the perfect font – Univers – in 1957; the baker Pierre Hermé designed the perfect pastry in 2005, the 2000 Feuilles Praliné, made of piedmont hazelnut and thin layers of Brittany crêpe dentelle; in 1989, Intel released the perfect microprocessor, the 80486; W. H. Auden wrote the perfect poem, ‘Musée de Beaux Arts’ in 1938; Rutherford made the perfect analysis in physics with his model of the atom in 1911; Aman opened the perfect hotel, the Aman Giri in Utah in 2009; Tony Banks and Peter Gabriel of Genesis wrote the perfect song Firth of Fifth in 1973 and Eric Rohmer made the perfect film, The Green Ray in 1986.
Viaduc de Millau, 2004
Chanel Ford Dress, 1926
Dieter Rams, RT20 Tabletop, Braun, 1963
A350 Airbus, 2013
Pierre Hermé, 2000 Feuilles Praliné, 2005.
The 80486, by Intel, 1989
It is of little use telling a species like ours that aiming hard at perfection might be impossible or inadvisable; that perfectionism, the grasping and aching for the transcendent and the flawless, might be a foolish quest – as the final chords of Bach’s Dona Nobis Pacem echo around King’s College Chapel or the cargo doors of the Space Shuttle Atlantis open to release the Galileo Spacecraft, on its way to map the moons of Jupiter.
Nevertheless, it’s crucial to insist: the quest for perfection – uncritically held up as a collective goal by the modern age – carries grave dangers. We may all have perfect moments, we may all at points pull off perfect feats, but it is in the power of no one who has ever walked the earth to have a perfect life.
We keep being surprised by the point. At the more sublime end of the spectrum, we read biographies of great artists and scientists, chefs and engineers, and profess to be surprised when we hear of ugly divorces and selfish friendships, distasteful politics and poor parenting. We somehow keep expecting that a human can be as perfect as what they create; we don’t seem to understand that the reason why perfect objects and achievements have such a hold on us is precisely because we are, as a race, and as individuals, inherently imperfect. We would not be so moved by the music of Bach or the poetry of Auden if this level of perfection were our usual home. Our tears are telling us a crucial fact: both that perfection is what we aspire to and also that it is something we only ever have a tenuous hold on. We cannot dwell on the icy brilliant peaks, we ascend to them at rare moments – but our real dwelling place is in the marshy lowlands and the murky forests. We have feet of clay and, only at a very few moments, damaged angels’ wings.
It’s this duality which the modern age has left us so confused about. It has generalised outwards from humanity’s most heroic feats, it has tried to democratise genius and inspiration, talent and goodness – leaving us to imagine that human life itself might be a perfectible phenomenon, only waiting for a few more discoveries and technical innovations until every crease has been ironed out and the pathway to a brightly lit, immortal zone is clear.
It sounds kind but the effect may be catastrophic, for we suffer dearly at an individual level from our collective dreams. How insufficient and humiliated we have to feel in a perfectionist world to be only ever that most modest of things: us – with our only too well known flaws, compulsions, errors and absurdities, that can strike as unforgivable as we survey them in the restless hours of another damnable night. What we need so badly are reminders that being the way we are was always the only possibility; that to stumble and miss, to regret and to understand too late are inherent features of the patchily evolved largely foolhardy animal we are.
Other eras, more primitive than our own in their technologies, less graced with achievements of perfection, understood the point better than we do. The Ancient Greeks created the artistic genre we know today as ‘tragedy’ to remind themselves that the highest humans, the great warriors and statesmen, poets and orators, were in the end all profoundly flawed – and never more than when they failed to accept that they might be so. The bloodsoaked stories of tragedy that unfolded on stages across the Peloponnese under the Attic sun told of errors of judgement, blindspots, excessive tempers and stubborn sides of character that unwound the lives of the most able and admirable of people. The moral was clear: no one escapes the general law of humanity, that we cannot get through this life without significant lapse and misdeed, that we are inherently inadequate and damaged – and that true wisdom begins the moment we fully take this on board about ourselves and others, and from which can spring self-forgiveness, pity and compassion.
The message from the Judeo-Christian tradition was as solemn and as cautionary. No human can ever be perfect and that to imagine we can be is to offend against the very laws of the universe. There is only perfect being, and our brief highpoints are only ever the result of his grace. For the theologian St Augustine, writing in the dying days of the once proud Roman Empire, every human is marked by the taint of ‘original sin.’ The phrase is dated, peculiar but enormously useful. The transgressions of Adam and Eve mean that all their descendants, not just this or that unlucky one, but all of us cannot expect to lead perfect lives. We are sinners casting around on our knees for redemption.
The Buddhists, thousands of miles away, though at a similar time, made an identical point. For them too, life was a conclusively imperfect journey, always marked by suffering, always riddled with delusion and fallacy. To remind themselves of this, Zen in Japan initiated an artistic tradition which foregrounded, and learnt to see the distinctive beauty in, imperfect things: lopsided pots still marked by the craftsman’s hands, roof tiles stained with rain, garden paths overgrown with moss, rainy days in which the pine trees appear only fleetingly through bands of mist. To sense the gap between the more perfectionist sections of the West and the more modest Zen Buddhist potters, we need only compare an ideally symmetrical soup tureen from the royal Sèvres Porcelain workshop with a tea bowl from Japan in the same period. The soup tureen is quietly certain that life is a perfectible journey; as we ladle our vegetable consommé, it delivers a sermon on ideals of balance and harmony; but in Japan, as we raise an endearingly misshapen cup of green tea to our lips, we’re hearing a perhaps yet more valuable lesson still about the gracious acceptance of our always unruly and fractured selves.
We may have made some perfect things; but we should never (unless a Zen Buddhist craftsman is responsible) expect of ourselves what we would expect from an object, let alone a scientific formula, a rocket or a song. We should not judge ourselves by the standards of our finest creations.
To counter the temper of modernity, a philosophy of im-perfectionism should be applied across our lives. In relationships, it becomes the bedrock of tolerance and good humour. A person who announced themselves on an early date as a creature of near perfection – and improving every day – would swiftly prove insufferable and always remain hard to know. A sense of another’s reality only emerges when we can admit to our mutual vulnerability and fear. What we seek in love is not so much a perfect being as someone who can warn us of their multiple flaws with insight, in good time, and when they have as yet not ruined too much of our lives. And on the receiving end of love, we crave not so much for someone to be awed by us as for them to see our failings clearly yet to treat them with generosity and warmth.
At work, a philosophy of imperfectionism prepares us for how long anything half way decent will take to produce. We are not expecting the novel, business plan, painting or power station to be right immediately; we have budgeted for lengthy frustration and are therefore readier to take the inevitable reversals in our stride. What ends up looking perfect will, and must, demand long periods when it feels ugly, confused and beyond rescue. We don’t give up so easily – because we never expected things to be other than hellish.
In relation to ourselves, a philosophy of imperfectionism inspires the kind of self-compassion that keeps people out of hospital. Of course we have messed up large sections of our lives, missed crucial opportunities and done some properly ridiculous things. It is hard for anyone with imagination to look back and not feel intense distress at who they have been. But there is a difference between taking responsibility for errors and feeling that these must place us beyond redemption. To believe in human perfection isn’t a bracing but salutary ideology; it’s a path to breakdown and, at moments of serious mishap, suicide. There is nothing wise about failing to accept of what modest stuff we’re made.
Finally, a philosophy of imperfection is what small children hunger for. The English child psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott was struck by how many of the parents he saw worried acutely that they had not been perfect in their roles: they admitted guiltily to having been sometimes tired, intemperate, disinterested and cynical. Winnicott playfully congratulated them. Children with perfect parents, he remarked, are on the road to psychosis. The task of a parent isn’t to be perfect, he explained, it’s to prepare a child as gently but as thoroughly as possible for the deeply imperfect conditions of life: to help these idealistic small people to accept that frustration is endemic, that bowls fall of tables and shatter, that teddy bears lose their eyes, that car journeys are too long, that parents are astonishingly annoying, that mum is daft and dad a fool, that there is too much homework, that many experiences are bitter and that everyone must eventually get old and die. More than that is not required, insisted Winnicott – in Playing and Reality, a book published in 1953 (the year colour television, that marvellously perfect box, was invented). A parent only needs to be, in his famous formulation, ‘good enough’. We can be good enough parents, workers, spouses, friends and humans; that will be sufficient.
The modern world has done us an enormous service in encouraging us to raise our ambitions; it is in danger of creating mass psychosis by failing to remind us clearly enough that we are also – invariably and continuously – silly, mistaken and beautifully irredeemable fallen angels.
One of the wisest things about young children is that they have no shame or compunction whatsoever about bursting into tears, perhaps because they have a more accurate and less pride-filled sense of their place in the world: they know they are extremely small beings in a hostile and unpredictable realm, that they can’t control much of what is happening around them, that their powers of understanding are limited and that there is a great deal to feel distressed, melancholy and confused about. Why not then, on a fairly regular basis, sometimes for only a few moments at a time, collapse into some highly salutary sobs at the sheer scale of the sorrow of being alive?
Unfortunately, such wisdom tends to get lost as we age. We get taught to avoid being, at all costs, that most apparently repugnant (and yet in fact deeply philosophical) of creatures: the cry-baby. We start to associate maturity with a suggestion of invulnerability and competence. We imagine it may be sensible to imply that we are unfailingly strong and in command of what is going on.
But this is, of course, the height of danger and bravado. Realising one can no longer cope is an integral part of true endurance. We are in our essence and should always strive to remain cry-babies, that is, people who intimately remember their susceptibility to hurt and grief. Moments of losing courage belong to a brave life. If we do not allow ourselves frequent occasions to bend, we will be at great risk of one day fatefully snapping.
We labour under the misapprehension that the only thing that could justify tears would be one clear and unambiguous catastrophe. But that is to forget how many miniscule elements go wrong every hour, how much supposedly ‘small things’ can impact us and how extremely heavy they may end up feeling in a bewilderingly short time.
When the impulse to cry strikes us, we should be grown-up enough to consider ceding to it as we knew how to in the sagacity of our fourth or fifth years. We might repair to a quiet room, put the duvet over our heads and give way to unrestrained torrents at the horribleness of it all. We easily forget how much energy we normally have to expend fending off despair; now at last we can properly allow despondency to have its way. No thought should be too dark any more: we are obviously no good. Everyone is evidently extremely mean. It’s naturally far too much. Our life is – undoubtedly – meaningless and ruined. If the session is to work, we need to touch the very bottom and make ourselves at home there; we need to give our sense of catastrophe its fullest claims.
Then, if we have properly done our work, at a point in the misery, some idea – however – minor will at last enter our minds and make a tentative case for the other side: we’ll remember that it would be quite pleasant and possible to have a very hot bath, that someone once stroked our hair kindly, that we have one and half good friends on the planet and an interesting book still to read – and we’ll know that the worst of the storm is over.
Our societies do us an injustice in promoting either sentimental jollity or outright terror. What life actually demands is a judicious mix of stoicism, gallows humour and plentiful sobbing. Despite our adult powers of reasoning, the needs of childhood constantly thrum within us. We are never far from craving to be held and reassured, as we might have been decades ago by a sympathetic adult, most likely a parent, who made us feel physically protected, kissed our forehead, looked at us with benevolence and tenderness and perhaps said not very much other than, very quietly, ‘of course’. To be in need (as it were) of mummy is to risk ridicule, especially when we are a couple of meters tall and in a position of responsibility. Yet to understand and accept one’s younger longings in fact belongs to the essence of genuine adulthood. There is in truth no maturity without an adequate negotiation with the infantile and no such thing as a proper grown-up who does not frequently yearn to be comforted like a toddler.
In sensible households, we should all have signs, a bit like the sort they have in hotels, that we can hang on our doors and announce to passers by that we are spending a few minutes inside doing something essential to our humanity and inherently connected to our capacity to live like a grown-up: sobbing like a lost child.
At some point in the 1650s, the French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal jotted down one of the most counterintuitive aphorisms of all time: ‘The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he cannot stay quietly in his room.’
Really? Surely having to stay quietly in one’s room must be the beginning of a particularly evolved kind of psychological torture? What could be more opposed to the human spirit than to have to inhabit four walls when, potentially, there would be a whole planet to explore?
And yet Pascal’s idea usefully challenges one of our most cherished beliefs: that we must always go to new places in order to feel and discover new and worthwhile things. What if, in fact, there were already a treasury inside us? What if we had within our own brains already accumulated a sufficient number of awe-inspiring, calming and interesting experiences to last us ten lifetimes? What if our real problem was not so much that we are not allowed to go anywhere – but that we don’t how to make the most of what is already to hand?
Being confined at home gives us a range of curious benefits. The first is an encouragement to think. Whatever we like to believe, few of us do much of the solitary original bold kind of thinking that can restore our spirits and move our lives ahead. The new ideas we might stumble upon if we did travel more ambitiously around our minds while lying on the sofa could threaten our mental status quo. An original thought might, for example, alienate us from what people around us think of as normal. Or it might herald a realisation that we’ve been pursuing the wrong approach to an important issue in our lives, perhaps for a long time. If we took a given new idea seriously, we might have to abandon a relationship, leave a job, ditch a friend, apologise to someone, rethink our sexuality or break a habit.
But a period of quiet thinking in our room creates an occasion when the mind can order and understand itself. Fears, resentments and hopes become easier to name; we grow less scared of the contents of our own minds – and less resentful, calmer and clearer about our direction. We start, in faltering steps, to know ourselves slightly better.
Another thing we can do in our own rooms is to return to travels we have already taken. This is not a fashionable idea. Most of the time, we are given powerful encouragement to engineer new kinds of travel experiences. The idea of making a big deal of revisiting a journey in memory sounds a little strange – or simply sad. This is an enormous pity. We are hugely careless curators of our own pasts. We push the important scenes that have happened to us at the back of the cupboard of our minds and don’t particularly expect to see them ever again.
But what if we were to alter the hierarchy of prestige a little and argue that regular immersion in our travel memories could be a critical part of what can sustain and console us – and not least, is perhaps the cheapest and most flexible form of entertainment. We should think it almost as prestigious to sit at home and reflect on a trip we once took to an island with our imaginations as to trek to the island with our cumbersome bodies.
In our neglect of our memories, we are spoilt children, who squeeze only a portion of the pleasure from experiences and then toss them aside to seek new thrills. Part of why we feel the need for so many new experiences may simply be that we are so bad at absorbing the ones we have had.
To help us focus more on our memories, we need nothing technical. We certainly don’t need a camera. There is a camera in our minds already: it is always on, it takes everything we’ve ever seen. Huge chunks of experience are still there in our heads, intact, and vivid, just waiting for us to ask ourselves leading questions like: ‘where did we go after we landed?’ or ‘what was the first breakfast like?’ Our experiences have not disappeared, just because they are no longer unfolding right in front of our eyes. We can remain in touch with so much of what made them pleasurable simply through the art of evocation. We talk endlessly of virtual reality. Yet we don’t need gadgets. We have the finest virtual reality machines already in our own heads. We can – right now – shut our eyes and travel into, and linger amongst, the very best and most consoling and life-enhancing bits of our pasts.
We tend to travel because of a background belief that, of course, the reality of a scene must be nicer than a mental image we form of it at home. But there is something about the way our minds work that we would do well to study when we regret our inability to go anywhere: there will always be something else on the lens between us and the destination we travel to, something so tricky and oppressive as to somewhat undermine the purpose of having left home in the first place, namely: ourselves. By an unavoidable error, we bring ourselves along to every destination we ever want to enjoy. And that means bringing along so much of the mental baggage that makes being us so intolerably problematic day to day: all the anxiety, regret, confusion, guilt, irritability and despair. None of this smear of the self is there when we picture a trip from home for a few minutes. In the imagination, we can enjoy unsullied views. But there, at the foot of the golden temple or high up on the pine-covered mountain, we stand to find that there is so much of ‘us’ intruding on our vistas. We ruin our trips by a fateful habit of taking ourselves along on them. There’s a tragi-comic irony at work: the vast labour of getting ourselves physically to a place won’t necessarily get us any closer to the essence of what we seek. As we should remind ourselves, we may already enjoy the very best that any place has to offer us simply by thinking about it.
Let’s turn to another Frenchman with a comparable underlying philosophy. In the spring of 1790, a twenty seven year old writer called Xavier de Maistre locked himself at home and decided to study the wonders and beauty of what lay closest to him, entitling the account of what he had seen A Journey Round my Room.
The book is a charming shaggy dog story. De Maistre locks his door and changes into a pair of pink and blue pyjamas. Without the need for luggage, he ‘travels’ to the sofa, the largest piece of furniture in the room, which he looks at it through fresh eyes and appreciates anew. He admires the elegance of its feet and remembers the pleasant hours he has spent cradled in its cushions, dreaming of love and professional success. From his sofa, de Maistre spies his bed. Once again, from a traveller’s vantage point, he learns to appreciate this complex piece of furniture. He feels grateful for the nights he has spent in it and takes pride that his sheets almost match his pyjamas. ‘I advise every man who can to get himself pink and white bedlinen,’ he writes, for these are colours to induce calm and pleasant reveries in the fragile sleeper.
However playful, de Maistre’s work springs from a profound and suggestive insight: that the pleasure we derive from journeys is perhaps dependent more on the mindset with which we travel than on the destination we travel to. If only we could apply a travelling mindset to our own rooms and immediate neighbourhoods, we might find these places becoming no less interesting than foreign lands. What then is a travelling mindset? Receptivity, appreciation and gratitude might be its chief characteristics. And, crucially, this mindset doesn’t need to wait for a faraway journey to be deployed.
A walk is the smallest sort of journey we can ever undertake. It stands in relation to a typical holiday as a bonsai tree does to a forest. But even if it is only an eight minute interlude around the block or a few moments in a nearby park, a walk is already a journey in which many of the grander themes of travel are present.
We might, on such a walk, catch sight of a flower. It is extremely rare properly to delight in flowers when one can at any point take off to another continent. There are so many larger, grander things to be concerned about than these small delicately-sculpted fragile manifestations of nature. However, it is rare to be left entirely indifferent by flowers when the world has narrowed dramatically and there is global sadness in the air. Flowers no longer seem like a petty distraction from a mighty destiny, no longer an insult to ambition, but a genuine pleasure amidst a litany of troubles, an invitation to bracket anxieties, a small resting place for hope in a sea of difficulties.
Or we might, on a local walk, spot a small animal: a duck or a hedgehog. Its life goes on utterly oblivious to ours. It is entirely devoted to its own purposes. The habits of its species have not changed for centuries. We may be looking intently at it but it feels not the slightest curiosity about who we are; from its point of view, we are absorbed into the immense blankness of unknowable, incomprehensible things. A duck will take a piece of bread as gladly from a criminal as from a high-court judge; from a billionaire as from a bankrupt felon; our individuality is suspended and, on certain days, that may be an enormous relief.
On our walk around the block, themes we’d lost touch with – childhood, an odd dream we had recently, a friend we haven’t seen for years, a big task we had always told ourselves we’d undertake – float into attention. In physical terms, we’re hardly going any distance at all, but we’re crossing acres of mental territory. A short while later, we’re back at home once again. No one has missed us, or perhaps even noticed that we’ve been out. Yet we are subtly different: a slightly more complete, more visionary, courageous and imaginative version of the person we knew how to be before we wisely went out a modest journey.
We will – one day – recover our freedoms. The world will be ours to roam in once more. But during periods of confinement, aside from the obvious inconveniences, we might come to cherish some of what is granted to us when we lose our customary liberties. It cannot be a coincidence that many of the world’s greatest thinkers have spent unusual amounts of time alone in their rooms. Silence gives us an opportunity to appreciate a great deal of what we generally see without ever properly noticing; and to understand what we have felt but not yet adequately processed.
We have not only been locked away; we have also been granted the privilege of being able to travel around a range of unfamiliar, sometimes daunting but essentially wondrous inner continents.
Most of what we would really like to do is annihilated long before its possible birth by a relentlessly forensic and masochistic sense of our own incompetence. We can’t possibly invite people to dinner at home because we’re not really great cooks; we can’t show anyone the poem we’ve written because it’s not quite right yet; we won’t strip off and dive into the sea because our body’s not in beach shape. We would so much like to love, live, be free, be authentic but…
Few activities fit more neatly into this category of throttled aspiration than singing. How deeply we would like to give it a go, but how well we know our absurdity. We’re reluctant even to try to string a few notes together in solitude. We could be walking in a desert and still not feel free to do more than hum, so deeply have we internalised our worry about judgment.
Which is a particular pity because singing is amongst the most basic forms of expression at which no one could ever – in any priori way – be bad. Our remote ancestors probably sang before they could speak; and as babies we all likely responded to a lullaby long before we could comprehend the actual words.
More or less all societies except our own have made collective singing a central ritual of communal existence. Nowadays, even the remaining fragments of opportunity – in a church or on the football terraces – are often inaccessible; some part of us might long to join in and merge our own weak and out of tune voice with the crowd; but these occasions can feel like they belong to others whose outlook and convictions we don’t directly share.
The ideal collective anthem has an easy enough, forgiving tune – we can follow the phrasing and the lilt of the melody, even if (to an expert ear) we’re never quite in key. But it also expresses ideas that are deeply meaningful to us.
Some good options for a singing exercise:
Encouragement: The Beatles: Hey Jude
Kindness: The aria ‘Blow gently you breezes’ from Act I of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte
Universality: Beethoven Ode to Joy
The words are distributed, someone takes us quickly through the tune, so we’ve all got at least the minimum basics. Then the lights are lowered a bit – to create a sense of occasion; there’s an awesome amplifier to power things on, the music comes on, just an introductory bit of melody and then we’re given the signal to start. Of course we lose the timing of the words, we put the stress sometimes on the wrong point; our breathing is all wrong; but we’re doing it. We’re soaring.
We’re aware, as we sing, that others are saying – believing – the same things: they, like us, are breaking through the barrier of embarrassment and awkwardness to join with us in creating this superlative collective moment.
Admiration isn’t enough, we need to participate with our own authentic, and far from perfect, voices
From this point of view, the greatest glory of collective singing isn’t performance by a famous choir. It’s rather, in the back room of a pub or around a campfire or in someone’s house, when people who can’t really sing, manage to sing together and what they sing gives collective voice to the buried longings of each of their flawed, lonely and yearning hearts.
And this moment singing isn’t just about singing. We’re encountering a fundamental idea: that we don’t need to be good at something, anything for us to join in. That we belong here anyway. That we deserve to exist. Others – much more than we think – are like us; they’re not judging us harshly most of the time; they’re wishing that they, themselves, could take the step we’re taking and – in fact – they are finding some of the encouragement they need precisely in our own inept, gloriously out of key but utterly genuine and beautiful efforts.
When we first arrive on the earth, nothing is more alien to our minds than the idea of needing permission. We simply try to do whatever we want: when the carpet looks interesting, we give it a lick. When the cat annoys us, we give its tail a yank. When there’s an intriguing plug socket, we push our fingers into it. When we wonder what something might sound like as it hits the floor, we give it a shove. We try to get everything right now or we scream.
But soon enough, a lot of contrary messages come our way. Liking something isn’t enough. You must always ask, not just take. What you want is probably owned by someone else, and they need to give you their approval. A lot of what you crave may hurt others. You need to act a bit less and think a bit more. In fact, a great deal of what you want is just a terrible idea. The smile that comes back indulgently but firmly on a hundred thousand occasions says as much: no, that’s someone else’s, no, we don’t do that sort of thing here; no, that would be unkind… Unfortunately, it seems as though the most exciting new ideas continuously defy the rules of existence: apparently, you can’t just strap a radio to the hamster, you can’t eat only cake for lunch, you can’t bury your brother in sand, you can’t drill a hole in someone’s head to hear their thoughts. And we learn a few sobering things about timing. It has to happen after homework. Next year. When you’re an adult. There’s seemingly no situation that doesn’t require waiting infinitely longer than one would have liked.
And so we grow up with a host of background ideas about what we’re permitted to do, what the status of our longings is and where kindness and goodness might lie. We learn that we need to check in constantly with a parent to make sure that we have their nod to ride our bike to the shops. We need to ask before we switch subjects at school. We have to put our hand up before we say anything in class and have to have a permission slip to go to the doctor. At university, we need to get our thesis topic approved; at work, we need to check with the HR team if it’s OK to work from home on Friday. Even in personal life, prohibitions abound. We can’t just end a relationship like that, especially when there’s a holiday planned. Now we are living in a certain country, it would be very strange and costly to move. Things are not very satisfactory, but who are we to change them, given how silly we probably are?
We’re no longer the infant who just popped everything interesting into its mouth and smiled. Now we look around and wonder: Is this OK? And generally we cease to wonder very much. We simply assume it’s probably not. Even in the absence of active prohibition, we stifle our impulses. We internalise those millions of nos. Being a good adult becomes synonymous with waging a war on our wants. We get very good at being patient. We develop guilt about our desires. We are aware of how much our needs might hurt others. We look for approval from teachers, bosses, governments – and perhaps gods. We imagine that most of what already exists defines what is sensible and plausible; if it hasn’t happened by now, there must be very good reasons why it shouldn’t going forward. And we’re careful not to hurry; even if we do have a goal in mind. Far better to wait a decade or two rather than risk any sort of rash move…
It’s an attitude that serves us well in some areas. We know how to save ourselves from some of our more counterproductive desires. But the irony – and eventual quiet tragedy – is that the older we get, the less our wants are in fact liable to be foolish, vain, nasty or impatient. We may well want some pretty sensible and for us pretty essential things. And yet we wage war on ourselves with some of the same harshness, intemperance and mockery that might once have been deployed on us when – many years before – we were desperate to drink the whole chocolate fountain at the mall. Precisely as our wants get more legitimate, our arguments against them burn on with the punitive energy of early childhood.
So we may want to start a business, leave a relationship, shift city, imagine another way of living, structure things very differently at home or rearrange how we spend the weekends – and move not a millimetre.
It can take so long for us to learn that the appropriate rules of engagement with our desires might look rather different from what we were brought up to believe.
– The desired thing may not be so silly at all; our wants aren’t all daft. We can have very big and still very legitimate dreams.
– The desired thing might not have a possessor, a licensor or a permit giver. It may lie outside the realms of ownership. There may be broad indifference to whether we act in some way or not. There may be no law and no one to be upset by our move.
– The prize might just belong to whomever dares to step forward and take it. There’s no formal procedure, it’s just the courage to imagine it could be ours.
– Another person may want it as much as we do. Our desires don’t always upset others. The fact that we want it isn’t a sign that the other automatically won’t want it as badly.
– The reason why certain ideas haven’t happened isn’t necessarily because they are silly, but because there is a strong and always surprising lack of originality in human conduct. We are creatures of tradition. That it doesn’t exist isn’t a sign that it can’t or shouldn’t, just that everyone is as much waiting for permission as we are.
– And lastly, maybe we aren’t well served by waiting yet longer. We are dealing with a finite currency of time. Our wants don’t miraculously get better by being put off. It might be more than sensible to want this immediately: to decide we can write a book at 24, or own a business at 17 or walk out on a relationship at 52. We don’t have forever. We could try to do this before sundown.
We need, in short, a new philosophy of wanting – wanting as an overall concept rather than in relation to wanting anything in particular. We need to take a highly surprising message to the sensible eleven year old boy or girl who is inside us, still monitoring our impulsive selves with strictness but little imagination: that the time for permission is over.
Our resigned mental structure is a feature of religion and politics as much as of individual psychology. For most of human history it was customary to believe that permission had to be sought via sacrifices, special rituals and prayers from the superior beings and forces that governed the cosmos. The foundational myth of Rome tells us how the citizens were originally unable to decide where to build their city and were reluctant to start construction until they had received a sign from the gods – which eventually arrived in the form of twelve birds flying over the Palatine hill. Having received the proper divine approval for their plan, they were ultimately rewarded, many generations later, with mastery of the known world, the implication being that if they had proceeded without permission, the city would never have prospered.
We may assume we don’t share this cowed and primitive view of the world, but our underlying attitude – in its essential form – suggests we do. We don’t quite know whom we are asking, and we can’t say precisely what approval would look like, but in an archaic part of our minds, we’re still waiting to be given endorsement for many of our most cherished plans. We want to know from some potent but undefined source that if we act we’ll still be good people, that we won’t be punished, that this is allowed, that we won’t bring down retribution on ourselves or trouble the universe.
But the truth, of course, is that there won’t ever be signs that completely reassure or permit us around a majority of courses of action in adult life. There is no cosmic authority to allow or frown, to get angry or to punish us. We are on our own. There’s no figure who can, as a parent once did, tell us it’s OK for us to move forward or that we must sit back and wait five more years. Our maturer picture of the world is genuinely godless: it’s a less intimate, colder idea of reality. The universe doesn’t have a plan for us: it doesn’t care what we do or why we do it; it doesn’t punish our transgressions or reward our virtues. We’re alone, and free with our own decisions. In a momentous passage, the Russian novelist Dostoevsky reflected that if there were no God, everything would be permitted. He feared anarchic self-indulgence, but there’s a sweeter side to his worry: everything that is important to us is, in fact, permitted already. We’re answerable only to our best understanding of ourselves, to our self-knowledge and to our noblest intentions.
Revealingly, our culture is fascinated by inventors and artists who struck out on their own, went strongly against the tide of current opinion and were eventually vindicated, even if only after their deaths. We get excited by the stories of their lives because we unconsciously find in them something that’s missing in us: a bold indifference to permission, a corrective to our timidity. Poignantly, the most popular song people request at their funerals is Frank Sinatra’s secular hymn to mature independence, My Way. Not because so many of us have really managed to live without the need for permission but because, at the end, we so deeply wish we had and so clearly recognise we needed to.
Many of us spend a large a part of our lives, in one way or another, feeling stuck, that is in a state where a strong desire to move forward on an issue meets with an equally strong compulsion to stay fixed where one is. For example, we might at one level powerfully want to leave a job in finance in order to retrain in architecture – but at the same time, remain blocked by a range of doubts, hesitations, counter-arguments and guilty feelings. Or we might be impelled to leave our marriage – while simultaneously unable to imagine any realistic life outside it. To act feels horrific, but doing nothing is killing us as well. Every avenue appears shut off. And so one ruminates, turns over the question late at night, tries the patience of therapists – and watches life go by with mounting anxiety and self-disgust.
As an outsider, one might be tempted to ask questions to move things on: Why don’t you try to enrol on a course to see if you might like a new area of work? Why don’t you discuss your dissatisfactions with your partner? Why don’t you go to counselling? What about splitting up? But we’re likely to find that our friend can’t make any progress, whatever we say. It seems as if they are subject to a law disbarring them from progressing, not a law you’d find in the statutes of the country they live in, but some sort of personal law – a law that might go like this: Make sure you don’t achieve satisfaction in your career; Make sure your relationship has no life in it but cannot be abandoned; Make sure you aren’t happy in the place you live in.
In order to understand the origin of these laws, we have to look backwards. Difficult childhoods and the complicated families they unfold in are the originators of a lot of these restrictive unspoken laws, whose impact echoes across our lives. Some of these laws might go like this: ‘Make sure you never shine, it would upset your little sister’. ‘You have to be cheerful not to let my depression break through.’ ‘Never be creatively fulfilled because it would remind me of my envy’; ‘Reassure us that we are clever by winning all the prizes at school’; ‘We need you to achieve to make us feel OK about ourselves’. ‘You would disappoint me if you became boisterous and one day sexual’.
Of course, no one ever directly says such things in a family (laws couldn’t operate if they could so easily be seen), but the laws are there nevertheless, holding us into a particular position as we grow up and then, once we have left home, continuing to surreptitiously distort our personalities away from the path of their legitimate growth. It can be hard to draw any connection between adult stuck situations and any childhood laws. We may miss the link between our reluctance to act at work and a situation with dad at home thirty years before. But we can hazard a principle nevertheless: any long-term stuckness is likely to be the result of butting into some sort of law inherited unknowingly from childhood. We are stuck because we are being overly loyal to an idea of something being impossible generated in the distant past, impossible because it was threatening to someone we cared for or depended on.
Therefore one of the main paths to liberation lies in coming to ‘see’ that the law exists and then unpicking its warped and unnecessary logic. We can start by asking whether, beneath our practical dilemma, there may be a childhood law at work, encouraging us to stay where we are. We can dig beneath the surface problem in search of the emotional structure that might be being engaged (in the unconscious, architecture = the creativity dad never enjoyed, sexual fulfilment = what hurt my loveable mum). We may discover that some of the reason we can’t give up on finance and take up a more imaginative role is because throughout childhood, we had to accept a law that we couldn’t be both creatively fulfilled and make money – in order to protect our volatile father from his own envy and inadequacy. Or we can’t leave our marriage because, unconsciously, we’re coming up against a law from childhood that tells us that being a good child means renouncing one’s more bodily and visceral sides.
The specifics will differ but the principle of a hidden law from childhood explains a huge number of adult stucknesses. The way forward is, first and foremost, hence to realise that there might be a law in operation when we get stuck, that we aren’t merely being cowardly or slow in not progressing; and that we feel trapped because we are, in our faulty minds, back in a cage formed in childhood, which we have to be able to see, think about and then patiently dismantle. We can along the way accept that we are now adults, which means that the original family drama no longer has to apply. We don’t have to worry about upsetting parental figures; their taboos were set up to protect them but they are making us ill; we can feel sad for the laws that these damaged figures imposed on us (often with no active malevolence) but can recognise that our imperative is move them aside and act with the emotional freedom that has always been our birthright. We may need to be disloyal to a way of being that protected someone we cared about or depended on – in order to be loyal to a more important someone still: ourselves.
The great drawback of the word ‘paranoia’ is that it can sound like something only very obviously disturbed people would ever end up being. We associate the term with types who are sure that the FBI is following and that aliens are planning a descent to earth. And thereby we miss out on ways in which, in a far more subtle but equally destructive manner, we ourselves are in fact prey to a host of paranoid and unfair interpretations of reality that over time drain life of a sizeable share of its joy and promise.
Our everyday paranoia can have worked its way into being a constant, imperceptible feature of the way we look at the world. When a boss asks if we might step into their office for a word, it’s clear we are going to be fired. When a partner has been absent for a while, there is no doubt that they are having an affair. When we want to make a move on someone we like, we can tell they will judge us revolting. Equipped with such certainties, we take understandable precautions; we don’t smile much, we never initiate, we interpret every silence and ambiguous situation as the end or an insult. It can sometimes feel preferable to be dead.
The first step to overcoming our paranoia is to notice that, despite our robust disinterest in UFOs, we may actually be sufferers. We need to notice how often, and with what perverse imaginative energy, we keep interpreting uncertainty in a negative direction – and with what relentlessness we picture everyone and everything as having nefarious or damaging dimensions. We need to spot with what masochism we narrate the story of our lives so that nothing can ever be pure or reliable. We need to step back and identify with what insistence we close off every avenue of hope, every promise of trust – and how quickly and naturally it seems that everyone must hate us and disaster is going to have to descend.
As ever, paranoia has a history. It is an assumption about the future based on certain unconsciously held ideas formed in a past one has forgotten, or deftly chosen not to look at. Movingly, the paranoid person is not entirely wrong: some people are mean, some situations do turn out for the worst, some very bad stuff happens… But the subsequent error is twofold. Firstly, the paranoid person locates the issues invariably in the future, they scan what’s ahead rather than turning backwards and locating a particularly traumatic event that will have been responsible for the genesis of their frightened and angst-ridden mind. And secondly, there is an error of generalisation. The paranoid person imagines that everyone is about to be horrible and every hopeful situation is going to turn sour not because this is true, but because it was once true, and their difficulties have not been set into a proper context by a robustly healthy adult mind.
In the past of every paranoid person there will, we can say with near certainty, be an experience of appalling let down. Someone who should have been kind wasn’t at all; somewhere that should have been safe turned into a place of horror; someone one was waiting for didn’t show up. So traumatic was this, the paranoid person took their experience and imagined it to be applicable across the whole landscape of human experience. And so now, necessarily, every love story must turn bad, every apparently respectable person must be cruel and every good thing has to turn to dust. Paranoia is a negative experience generalised – and then forgotten that it has been so.
This gives us clues as to how to leave the paranoid mindset behind. We must work to expand the data upon which our impressions of reality have been founded. We need to learn that the entire world isn’t evil, we’ve just had a very bad, and very selective, introduction to it. There are a few pathological people, but the vast majority are kind and keen to help. There are a few big disasters, but most days are going to end calmly. We need a new voice in our minds that can in a kindly way probe at our sinister assumptions: ‘Are you sure they never wanted to see you again?’ ‘Did they really mean to insult you?’ ‘Does it have to be the end of this project?’
Then we need to remember that we are no longer the people we once were when the events which gave rise to our paranoia occurred. At that point, we were small. We had no options. We couldn’t run away, complain – or find a more benevolent environment. Children have no agency, but the adults we’ve grown into resolutely do. We have the choice, and indeed the right, to move away from the minority of settings that can harm us and individuals who seek to bring us down. We don’t have to cling to fear and anxiety because we have the confidence and security to know that we can look after ourselves.
Naturally, it doesn’t help anyone over a psychological problem to give it a label so horrible, no one would ever freely want to imagine themselves as a sufferer. So we should learn to see paranoia in mild, universal and respectable terms: as a very common but very unnecessary suspicion that disappointing and persecutory things are about to happen, not because they are, but because they once did. We’re paranoid not because someone is actually following us, but because – way back – someone did follow us, and we were too young and too fragile to learn to set negative events into their proper perspective.
The opposite of paranoia is, in a sense, love, a trust that we deserve not to suffer, that others will respond appropriately to our vulnerability, that we are not to be natural targets of mockery. We aren’t a bit paranoid because we are mad conspiracy theorists, but for a far more poignant and understandable reason: because we were once extremely scared, very weak and very alone, and now never again need to be so.