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Our thoughts are – nominally – free to go in any direction at any time of day or night. In practice, perhaps far more than we dare to admit, they remain tightly tied to wherever we happen to be on the Earth’s twenty-four-hour axial journey around the Sun. There are ideas which make most sense to us at daybreak, others which have to wait for high noon and others that require the night to convince us.

There can be no more resonant span in this rotation than the interval we know as dusk, when the sun slips below the horizon and throws its beams across the lower atmosphere, rendering the sky – for up to forty minutes in the northern latitudes, and as little as twenty minutes in the equatorial ones – neither quite light nor quite dark.

Dusk fascinated the Norwegian artist Harald Sohlberg, who painted it dozens of times in locations around his native Oslo – not only because he found it ‘beautiful’, but in order to focus our attention on the transformations this time of day can perform for us psychologically. There might be many sorts of dusks around the world, but what they whisper to us tends to be very similar.

Harald Sohlberg, Spring Evening, Akershus, 1913

Throughout daylight hours, we are invited to be purposeful. Our horizons are limited to the human world. The shadows are short and our perspectives can grow so too. We push our miniscule part of history forward a few more millimetres: we send emails, call for meetings, attend a conference, write a paper. With the sun high in our meridian, we grow tall in our own estimations. We make plans, we accuse someone of disrespecting us, we get frustrated with our progress.

But then comes dusk with its range of contrary messages. A narrow band of cloud many miles away turns a brilliant crimson. Distances we had forgotten about make themselves felt. We are no longer the measure of all things. Whatever has agitated us recedes in importance. The moment bids us to loosen our mind’s fervent hold on the memory of the missing document or the course of the tetchy meeting; for the first time in many hours, we know viscerally that these things, too, will pass.

Dusk invites all of us – the desperate, the anxious and the arrogant – into the shelter of night, where grown-up priorities can weigh less heavily on us. There is nothing more we can do to alter anything now; we will have to wait and keep faith. We must stop grandstanding. And for a few especially pained ones among us, dusk is there to confirm that it might all be OK, despite the hatred, the shame and the ignominy.

The miraculous thing about every day – often missed by people who are extremely busy, content or conceited – is that it will inevitably end. However dreadful it has been, and some days are mightily so, it will reach a close. And all the things that draw their seriousness from the height of the sun will be dimmed by the approach of night.

How unbalanced we would be if – by some technological innovation – we managed to banish night altogether. Dusk saves us through erasure. Without dusk, there would be no more recalibration and no time for our arrogance to abate nor for our anxiety to be absorbed. We can be grateful that, despite all our gadgets and our pride, the wisdom of dusk is only ever a few hours away.

Pieter Saenredam was a 17th-century Dutch artist who adored calm, white, minimal interiors, mostly those of churches, of which he painted some twenty-five in his lifetime. A typical Saenredam interior has high ceilings, tall windows, a serene even light and a few distant figures somewhere in a corner or alcove talking in what we can imagine to be a murmur.


Pieter Saenredam, The Interior of the Nieuwe Kerk, Haarlem, seen from the south-west, 1658

In its masterful exploration of a very narrow seam, Saenredam’s work lends itself to a simple psychological enquiry. Why do certain people thrill to his paintings, with the emptiness and the quiet drawing them in and making them long powerfully? And why are many others left cold and even repulsed? Where is the reassuring clamour and bustle, they might ask; where are the colours; why is everything eerily dead?

What can explain our differences in taste is the idea of compensation. We are attracted to things visually that make up for what we’re missing psychologically. Conversely, we are uninterested in elements we already have enough of or that burden our lives. The styles we love in art capture aspirations that are currently under-supported and that we long to bolster. It isn’t that we are presently like the art we love; we just hope to become so.

To be moved by Saenredam’s work is to register that there is too much going on in our lives, that we must simplify and purify our routines, that we need space to process what has happened to us, that we need to shut the door on more things.

We become more complete people when we learn to ask, of any artwork we love, what it might tell us about what is missing from our lives. Beauty isn’t just a pleasing aesthetic response; it’s a call to evolve in a certain direction in a search for contentment and completeness.

The phenomenon of being ‘triggered’ — though it may, at times, be applied too liberally — sits on top of a hugely important concept in psychological life which demands our respect, compassion and attention. To be triggered is, in its most basic form, to respond with intense fear and anger to a situation in the here and now which, to other people, may seem blameless and unconcerning. One moment we are calm, the next we are catapulted into despair and terror; only minutes ago, the future looked hopeful, now only ruin and disaster seem to lie ahead.

Photo by Capture Moments on Unsplash

Most of us who suffer from these episodes would very much like to better hold on to equanimity and hope. It may be important to know how to be scared or incensed when situations actually demand it. But (as the triggered person typically feels after an episode) it is also deeply counterproductive and plain exhausting to be visited by powerful emotions that aren’t warranted by what lies before us, and that fail to advance our interests in any way.

The way out of being uncontrollably triggered is to understand how the mechanism operates. The mind is triggered when it believes it recognises in the world around it a situation that it feels from memory to be highly damaging and dangerous. Our triggers are a secret guide to our histories: they tell us about things we were once very afraid of. The triggering element is like a piece of a jigsaw that will precisely fit into an analogous puzzle in the past. We are triggered now by what we were devastated by then.

Even if we don’t remember too much about our past, we can surmise everything we need to know from reverse engineering our triggers. If we are constantly afraid we are going to be excommunicated and mocked, this will — in some form — be exactly what happened to us at some stage long ago. If we’re terrified that someone is going to overpower us and not listen to our ‘no’s’, this is an almost sure echo of what we once experienced. The precise relationship between trigger and catalytic event may not always be literally equivalent; there can be some displacement along the way. But the link will be strong all the same. The trigger contains and maps onto a traumatic event.

Let’s imagine a person who is triggered, that is, thrown into powerful despair and self-loathing, by images on social media of blatantly attractive and popular people. No sooner have they seen these than they start to doubt and despise themselves, reflect on their inadequacies and remember all the reasons why they are fated to be a failure and unloved.

The trigger is not entirely ‘nothing’. There is something a little dispiriting about the beauty parade on certain sorts of social media. But the point at issue is the scale of the reaction that is generated. In seeking to account for it, we have to look backwards. The person has been triggered because the contemporary event contains, in a garbled, disguised and unconscious form, the essence of a profoundly traumatic dynamic in earlier life which lies mostly unknown and unexplored — and thereby commands immense and unending power over the victim. 

Let’s suppose that this person had a mother who favoured their more ebullient younger sibling over them and that their looks were part of what damned them to horrific neglect and emotional coldness. It doesn’t, in the circumstances, take much to be returned back to this place. We are animals who are primed to sniff out in the present the slightest sign of the dangers of the past.

The tragedy of triggering is that it fails to notice the differences between then and now; between the awfulness we suffered long ago and the relative innocence of the modern moment. In so far as bad things do happen nowadays, triggering also fails to account for the way in which we are no longer children, and are therefore able to respond to the threats that do come our way with a lot more creativity, strength and calm than we possessed as four or ten year olds. Were things ever to get as bad as they once were, we have so many more options than we did…and therefore so many reasons to feel less agitated and vulnerable.

To be triggered is to lose our powers of discrimination. In the heat of the moment, we can longer distinguish between A and B. So frightening is A that everything between it and Q is, at heart, another A. We can’t tell that someone is not telling us that we are guilty, that the situation isn’t evidence of doom, that we are not being mocked, that our colleague isn’t attacking us, that we aren’t being reprimanded unbearably, that we haven’t been told we’re an idiot or a monster. We can’t distinguish between looking a bit tired and looking fundamentally unacceptable, between something they’ve done that got them sent to prison and something we’ve done that won’t ever be noticed. So primed has our history made us to appalling scenarios, we have no ability not to refind them at every turn — especially when we are a little low or tired.

Photo by FLY:D on Unsplash

Though we might assume that we’d want to escape our triggers, we are also drawn to them through a compulsive sense of familiarity. Calm and confidence aren’t our resting places; they don’t feel normal and are therefore worrying in their own way. We want our awful hunches confirmed. It can feel right to put ourselves in environments where people might be mocking, to look out for stories of disgrace or ruin or to befriend people who are constantly on the edge of undermining us. When our mood feels eerie and sad, we might go to the very website that triggers us or call up the person we know is going to alarm us.

The cure for triggering is love; love understood as a process of patiently holding someone and, like a kindly and soothing parent, helping them to discriminate between black and white, terror and calm, evil and goodness. The cure lies too in learning to work backwards from our current triggers to the dynamics that once created them. Rather than worrying yet more about the future, we should ask ourselves the simple question: What does my fear of what will happen tell me about what did happen? What scenario from my past is contained in my alarm at the future?

To overcome our triggers is to come to navigate the present with all the confidence and excited curiosity that should have been ours from the start. And maturity could be defined as: knowing what triggers us and why — and a commitment to dampening our first responses in the name of a patient exploration and understanding of the past.

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It’s natural for most of us to spend time worrying about our reputation: what others think of us, whether we are deemed good or bad by the community…

This can quickly become a painful topic, and our thoughts can descend into bonfires of worry. What if we are accused of something? What if we are ostracised and mocked? What about if we become a pariah?

A useful way out of the panic was suggested many centuries ago by the Stoic thinkers of Ancient Greece and Rome. They suggested that we divide the topic of reputation into two. 

On the one hand, who we are and what we think of ourselves.

And on the other: what other people may decide to declare or say about us.

The Stoics reminded us of an important detail. We can never be certain of the second part of the equation; we can’t control the world beyond a certain point. There is always the possibility that someone vengeful, mean or disturbed will say something about us and try to damage us. We can never be completely assured that they won’t.

This might seem like alarming news, but the Stoics wished us to take it on board with courage and then gain strength from focusing on the first part of the equation: what we think of ourselves.

And here, things are far far brighter, because we are far more in control. We can calmly evaluate what we’ve done, what our hearts are like — and we can then come to a view of what sort of people we are, which provides us with a vital bulwark against the possible vagaries and tempests of public opinion. We have a solid anchor. We know who we are.

Modern psychotherapy would add an important detail to this analysis. Our sense of who we feel we are is often highly distorted in a negative direction by our past — which makes us far more jittery about public opinion than is sound. Our sense of self is the result of how other people viewed us in childhood, especially our parents or caregivers. Some of us wander the world with an acute sense of shame and self-distrust that we absolutely don’t deserve, and project a lot of paranoia and fear onto others — primarily because we have been treated with disdain in our early years. 

We will start to feel a lot more solid and immune from the ups and downs of gossip once we become conscious of how negatively biased we have been and settle in our minds what we are worth — irrespective of either what figures from our past said or what someone around us now might suddenly decide.

The path to immunity from worry about reputation lies in a more secure and just handle on our own value.

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One of the most painful patterns of mental life goes by the term OCD: obsessive compulsive disorder. To the sufferer of OCD, there is something that requires constant rumination and investigation: a poisonous gas is seeping into the house, a sharp knife may have been left out in the kitchen and could be seized on by an intruder, there’s something inappropriate they might have looked at online a while back and the police might be on their way, their skin may be aging prematurely and they need to look in the mirror constantly to learn more.

Photo by Cody Doherty on Unsplash

There is no use, in such cases, offering simple reassurance. No matter how often one shows the sufferer that no gas is flowing, that the knives are locked away, that they haven’t done anything bad online and that they aren’t disintegrating physically, it doesn’t work (though one might do it for a bit anyway, just to be nice).

This is because the true object of terror lies somewhere else. OCD is a trauma from the past that has been projected into the future and metastasized into a paranoia. It can therefore only be solved by persistent detective work. We might, through patient investigation, discover that the terror of gas poisoning had its origins in a depressed mother who appeared to want to asphyxiate us in childhood; the dread of a sharp knife might reflect an unacknowledged fury at a caregiver who let us down appallingly. A fear of arrest might be connected to a sense of never being legitimate in one’s family of birth. Dread of aging might be a consequence of a parent’s rivalrous jealousy. Fear has jumped its cause in random, almost poetic ways; one has been left with its shell, while its innards remain protected.

Our minds are likely to insist that their terror has nothing at all to do with the past – and simply everything to do with the gas tap or the dimpled brow. We should stay sceptical before such protests – if only because, were we to solve one surface worry without drilling into its ultimate cause, we’d simply facilitate its movement elsewhere. We need to travel back to the source of dread and drain it properly. The world will only feel like a safe place once the unfortunate sufferer remembers their original injury, localises it and separates it off from modern-day anxieties.

As must seem entirely unbelievable to anyone in the grip of OCD, a day might come when one has relearnt what dreadful event shook one’s foundations and bred ensuing obsessions – and the present can start to feel as calm and as bearable as it should always have been.

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There remain few expressions better able to capture the futility of a task than one which compares our efforts to ‘rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.’ The hull has been breached, the ship is sinking; to concern ourselves, at such a moment, with the position of the loungers would be the ultimate folly, the deepest possible failure to recognise the true hopelessness of the situation. 

Deckchairs on the promenade deck of RMS Titanic, April 1912

The point seems grimly apt because we are, many of us, a little like the passengers on a stricken liner. Our larger hopes in life have been fatally holed: we see now that our career won’t ever particularly flourish; our relationships will always be compromised; we’ve passed our peak in terms of looks; our bodies are going to fall prey to ever more humiliating illnesses; society isn’t going to cure itself; significant political progress looks deeply improbable. Our ship is going down. It can feel as if trying to improve our condition, let alone find pleasure and distraction would be an insult to the facts. Our instinct is to be as funereal and gloomy as our ultimate end.  

But there’s one crucial element that differentiates our predicament from that of the passengers who lost their lives on the RMS Titanic in the early hours of the 15th of April 1912: time. They had little more than two hours between the moment when they felt the ominous shudder of the impact and the moment when the once-majestic vessel broke apart and sank into the north Atlantic. We’re going down too, but far, far more slowly. It’s as if the captain had let it be known that the hull had been breached, that there were no lifeboats and that there was zero chance of ever reaching port but had added that it would for that matter probably be many decades before we would actually slip beneath the waves. 

So, though we can’t be saved, though the end will be grim, we still have options as to how to use our remaining time. We are involved in a catastrophe, but there are better and worse ways of filling the days. In the circumstances, expending thought and effort on ‘rearranging the deckchairs’ is no longer ridiculous at all, it’s an eminently logical step; there could be no higher calling. 

When our large hopes for ourselves become impossible, we have to grow inventive around lesser, but still real, options for the time that remains. Keeping cheerful and engaged, in spite of everything, becomes a major task. If we were on a very gradually sinking luxury liner in the early 20th century, we might every evening strive to put on a dinner jacket and go and dance the Foxtrot to the music of the string quintet, sing a cheerful song or settle into the Second-class Library on C-Deck — as, all the while, bits of seaweed and debris lapped at our ankles. Or we might look out for the best spot for our collapsible recliner so that we could watch the sea-birds wheeling in the sky or gain some privacy for a long, soul-exploring conversation with a new friend – to the sound of crockery smashing somewhere in a galley down below. We might try our first game of quoits on the slightly tilting deck or drop in — contrary to our habits up to this time — on a wild party in Steerage. Of course our lives would – from a larger perspective – remain a thorough disaster but we might find we were starting to enjoy ourselves. 

Such inventiveness is precisely what we need to learn to develop to cope with our state. How can we invest the coming period with meaning even though everything is, overall, entirely dark? It’s a question our culture hasn’t prepared us for. We’ve been taught to focus on our big hopes, on how we can aim for everything going right. We crave a loving marriage, deeply satisfying and richly rewarding work, a stellar reputation, an ideally fit body and positive social change. We’ve not been prepared – as yet – to ask ourselves, what remains when many of these are no longer available, when love will always be tricky, politics compromised or the crowd hostile. What are our viable versions of seeking the best spot for a deckchair on a listing liner? 

If marriage is far less blissful than we’d imagined, perhaps we can turn to friendship; if society won’t accord us the dignity we deserve, perhaps we can find a group of fellow outcasts; if our careers have irretrievably faltered, perhaps we can turn to new interests; if political progress turns out to be perennially blocked and the news is always sour, we might absorb ourselves in nature or history.

We are turning to what our society might dismiss as Plan-Bs; what you do when you can’t do the things you really want to do. But there’s a surprising catch – or, really, the opposite of a catch. It may turn out that the secondary, lesser, lighter, reasons for living are, in fact, more substantial than we’d imagined. And once we get to know them, we might come to think that they are what we should have been focused on all along – only it has taken a seeming disaster to get us to realise how central they should always have been.

In October 1976, one of the greatest pop songs of the 20th century was heard for the first time: Gloria Gaynor’s eternal assertion of defiance I Will Survive. It was initially released as a B side, but it quickly became one of the bestselling singles of all time thanks to its power to touch something universal in the human soul. 

Gloria Gaynor hadn’t written the song herself. The words had, in fact, been penned by Dino Ferkaris, a rather successful, but temporarily disgruntled, professional songwriter who’d just been sacked by Motown Records. 

The song is in part a recollection of being trampled upon, of being taken for granted, but it’s not really about the wrong others have done to us; it’s an honest appraisal of the way we have let them do these things to us, because we have been insufficiently on our own side.

At first, I was afraid, I was petrified
Kept thinking I could never live without you by my side

The other has undoubtedly harmed us, but the deeper problem is that we have not known how to esteem ourselves highly enough to stop them doing so. They thought that we would crumble and lay down and die and they did so for good reason: because this is what we did so many times before. The beauty of the song is that it doesn’t deny that we have been accomplices to the bad treatment that we have traditionally been accorded. We identify with its heroine because she is frank enough to admit that she has been the architect of her own humiliation.

Gloria identifies with the over-compliant fearful part of ourselves. But it’s because she understands our submissive tendencies so well that her deep encouragement to say a resolute ‘fuck off’ to the world is so rousing. This is not the voice of someone who has never been put upon, it is that of a weak and timid being who is no longer going to let her fears rule her life.

Defiance doesn’t mean asserting that I know I will survive. At the moment when we belt out the song on the dancefloor or (more likely) the kitchen, we don’t really know what will happen to us: our fears are still raw. We may have been bullied throughout our relationships or our childhoods, we may only recently have instructed a lawyer to initiate divorce proceedings or written an email to a colleague. When we join in joyfully, with the chorus, we’re making a great and precious leap of faith. We’re finally insisting that our ability to cope is greater than our past has traditionally led us to imagine.

Gloria is backing us up to attain what we might term emotional escape velocity. She’s instilling – with the encouragement of deceptively simple yet mesmerising chords – the state of mind in which we can bear to take on those who have injured us. 

An attitude of defiance is never the whole of what we need. For things to go well, we also have to call on reserves of conciliation, compromise, acceptance and tolerance, the mature virtues by which genuinely good things are kept afloat in an imperfect world. But that’s not where we are right now; at this point, we still need to gird ourselves for a fight. And this is when the voice of Gloria Gaynor is not just a magnificent instance in the grand history of pop, it is, for us (in a way it might feel embarrassing to admit to anyone else), the voice our soul needs to hear to save us from the weak – but agonisingly familiar – side of our nature that has so often given up so soon, too soon, on our hopes of freedom. 

 

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.

There’s a pattern that goes like this: it’s late, given when we’ve got to wake in the morning, but instead of going to bed, we stay up. The next day, of course, we feel sluggish and weary and we promise ourselves an early night. Then it happens again: it’s already midnight and we’ve got a normal start the next day but we don’t turn in. It’s not that we’re full of energy – we actually feel desperately tired – but we resist going to bed. And the following day it’s the same: we’re worn out yet we don’t turn in until a very late hour. And it keeps on going. 

Vittore Carpaccio, The Saint’s Dream (1497)

At times during this cycle we feel deeply frustrated: we call ourselves idiots and worse: obviously we need to get to bed early, yet we are too stupid, stubborn and self-sabotaging to do so. And to our profound exhaustion we add the burden of self-disgust. But our anger at our own behaviour doesn’t lead us to change our habits. If our partner complains about our late hours we dismiss it as nannyish nagging – and it’s all the more irritating because we know they are right. 

It’s one of the weirdest features of being human: a completely clear sense that how we’re behaving is bad and counter-productive doesn’t get us to stop. Harsh criticism is the utterly entrenched human tactic for getting people to change – just as self-condemnation is our instinctive strategy for self-improvement – yet it doesn’t actually work. It induces panic, shame and despair but doesn’t bring about the desired alteration. 

A gentler – and more productive – approach begins with curiosity: it takes the difficult area of behaviour seriously and asks what it wants and what it is seeking. It seems foreign, and almost irresponsible, to ask the key question: what’s nice about staying up late? Why, positively, are we doing it? (We shy away from this because it seems awful to suggest that there could be anything interesting or good about an action that’s clearly messing up our lives.) So what might we be trying to achieve by staying up late? 

For many years, through childhood, night-time seemed immensely exciting. It was secret, mysterious zone when from our dark room we might hear the grown-ups laughing around the dinner-party table, talking of things we weren’t supposed to know about, and catch, perhaps, the sweet scent of cigar smoke. If we were ever allowed to be up late it was for a very special occasion: a new year’s party at Granny’s house, when bearded great-uncles would slip us chocolates and we’d crowd into a bedroom with our cousins to watch a long film; or there was the thrilling time we had to take a late-night flight at the start of an overseas holiday and the world seemed enormous and filled with adventure. 

Later, in adolescence and when we were students, the night became glamorous; it was, when poets found their inspiration, when parties became wild, when our friends became most expansive in their plans to reform the world and when we finally kissed our first love. 

And even though such lovely associations may not be at the front of our minds, we continue to have a subterranean, but significant, sense that to go to bed early is to miss out on the joys of existence. Our late-night activities might be utterly prosaic but just by being awake into the early hours we’re participating in an ideal of what adult life is supposed to be like. And so, night after night, the bed is there, quietly waiting for us to draw back the sheet, turn out the light, lie down and close our eyes, but it’s half-past midnight or 2am and we’re still up.

We can look on ourselves with greater and legitimate tenderness. We’re not idiots because we stay up into the night; we’re in search of something important; the problem isn’t what we’re looking for but the fact that we can’t find it this way. The thrills that have implanted themselves in our memories were only by accident linked to being up late. The conviviality, the sense of discovery and adventure, the feeling of exploring big ideas and the experience of emotional intimacy have no intrinsic connection to the hours of darkness. The deeper engagement with a friend or a lover, the working though of a complex-idea, the determination to investigate a neglected area of our potential: these aren’t late-night speculations; they are the tasks of our day-time selves – requiring for their proper accomplishment, our poised and well-rested minds.  

We will at last be able to let ourselves turn in early – and get the sleep we need – not when our irritation with  ourselves reaches an unbearable peak and we renounce as hopeless our search for adult happiness and finally submit to the banality of an early bedtime, but when we relocate our longings and seek our pleasures where they can more realistically be found: in the bright, energetic hours of the new day. 

For the last two centuries a cult has been spreading widely and rapidly around the world, seeking to dominate and control every moment of our lives; today it has hundreds of millions of adherents, including almost all the conspicuously successful individuals on the planet; nether a religious dogma nor a political creed, it is devoted instead to a single, striking ideal: busyness.

It insists that a good life – the only life worthy of a capable and intelligent person – is one of continuous activity and application; one must strive relentlessly to fulfill every ambition; every hour of the day and the evening must be filled with intense activity.  A hero should be up at dawn, following the news on the Shanghai stock exchange; they should jet to Hamburg for a morning meeting (working intensely throughout the journey) and then squeeze in a visit to a seminal exhibition at the Galerie der Gegenwart at the Hamburger Kunsthalle; in the afternoon they are back at the head office for tough negotiations concerning an urban development project in Sao Paulo – though they take a quick break for a video chat with their five-year old child, who has just had their first violin lesson; in the early evening they drop in on a gala reception at the Opera House, to have a quick word with the finance minister who is also attending; then there’s dinner with a group of major investors, where they’re presenting their strategic overview of next year’s expansion in India; when they get home they field calls from Boston (medical technology) and Tokyo (intellectual property rights); then they sit up late in bed going over papers on tax efficiency and family trusts.  

The glamour of their life is constantly being reinforced: there’s an admiring article about their business in one of the financial weeklies; luxury adverts are aimed at them; their name is on the wall of them museum, as a major benefactor. Their life is immensely interesting and the whole world, it seems, envies them.

Our own hectic days may not be quite as high-flying, but this is the direction in which they are aiming; if we haven’t arrived it’s because we haven’t tried hard enough; the only thing for it is to push ourselves harder and cram more into each day. 

But instead of being blissfully satisfied with our hectic lives we feel permanently nervous and strained, though we are careful to conceal it as much as possible from others, and from ourselves. Our irritability is cast as rightful impatience with slackers and mediocrities;  our frustration and disappointment is interpreted as a necessary spur to greater activity; our growing gloom and sadness, beneath our zestful demeanour, will – we tell ourselves – disappear when finally we get on top of everything we have to do and attain the level of success that will guarantee our happiness. 

More dramatically, we find we are on the verge (or beyond the verge) of collapse. we fall ill or we suddenly snap and do something disastrous: we start screaming during a conference call; we get enraged with a lackadaisical junior colleague who then lodges a harassment claim; we have an affair and our partner finds out; we take drugs ‘to unwind’ or to keep up our level of intense activity – and then we find we’re addicted and increasingly unable to function.  

Our cult of busyness demands that we take on more than we can properly cope with; it ignores or denies our actual fragility – and encourages us to ignore or deny it too – until we have a breakdown and want to lock ourselves away, smash our phones, lie on the floor and weep. 

It’s moving to think, by contrast, of the attentive mother who settles her child down for an afternoon nap after an exciting morning. The child doesn’t know it’s worn out, but the mother is aware of the need for tranquility and rest. If the child had its way it would be zooming around the garden, going to another birthday party or watching a frenetic video – before having a tantrum. The maternal function, so to speak, is to calm the child’s days, when the child itself is unable or unwilling to recognise its own overwrought state. As adults, we need the maternal part of ourselves to step in and prescribe slower, quieter days and to rescue us from the oppressive ideal of the busy life, which is slowly destroying us. 

But the motive for seeking a quieter life is not purely self-preservation. Simple days, when nothing much seems to be happening and when we haven’t apparently accomplished anything – days the busy person would consider dull and wasted – can be deeply fruitful.  

As in the busy life, the perfect quiet day might also start early: from the window we watch the dawn slowly colouring the sky above the houses across the street and slowly fading. We spend part of the morning organising the linen cupboard: folding sheets, stacking blankets, ironing a few napkins and arranging them neatly. Maybe next time we’ll go through our wardrobe and weed out the clothes we haven’t worn for ages. We’re at last bring order and harmony to our domestic existence. 

As we’re going about our simple tasks we can untangle our thoughts and feelings. When we’re proccupied we don’t properly notice the details of our emotional states or what’s going on at the back of our minds. Now we start to pay closer attention: why did we fall out with that friend last year? Was it, perhaps, that we never particularly liked each other anyway? What did we really feel in their company? Who, ideally, would we like to be friends with? And what is it about them that appeals to us? 

In the afternoon we take a long walk alone. We pass an old brick wall we’d hardly noticed before – it’s been weathered by the sun and the rain and delicately spotted with yellow lichen: how long has it been there, what has happened to the people who built it? It was probably rather stark and raw originally – time has been kind to it. 

We pause to look carefully at a tree; the branches look bare, but close up we can see the first, tiny tips of green starting to emerge from some of the brown buds. In the past we only ever noted the big changes, now we’re registering the beautiful, minute steps, accomplished day by day that take it from one season to another. 

In our slow days we have the time, and the patience, to notice what seem, at first, like small sources of pleasure. And as we appreciate them, we realise how big and moving they really are – and how much we missed out on when, in our busier time, we tried to do everything. 

After a light supper, we lie soaking in a hot, deep bath. As the body relaxes and the mind is soothed, we meditate on what we really want to do with our lives. In place of the conventional aspirations which used to drive us we become sensitive to our own authentic ambitions. It could be nice to take up drawing; how might our relationship with our mother be improved; what kind of work gives us most satisfaction; what kind of relationship might be possible that could be really fruitful? We start to dig around in the neglected territory of our needs and longings and begin to think through how they could realistically evolve. 

We turn in early, so we’ll be fresh in the morning. In the minutes before we sleep we go over the memories of a trip from years ago: recapturing the charming manners of a particular waiter or the pleasure of opening the shutters in the morning and looking down a narrow street towards the sea; we’re planning to stay quietly put for a while but we don’t need to go anywhere – our lives are rich and large already. 

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