Calm Archives - The School Of Life

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.

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 foregign, 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. 

There’s a grand, subtle and beguiling myth that can work it’s way into the centre of our brains, lead us to judge our lives as calamitous failures and drive us into years of anxious and unrewarding effort and struggle. The myth is constructed around an innocent sounding – even exciting – idea: the notion that there is a ‘centre’: a special place on the planet – the right city, or district; and there, and only there, is a real and full life possible. By being exiled from the centre we are condemned to pinched, mediocre existences, we’re cut off from everything important and interesting. We are, we gloomily reflect, ‘mere provincials.’ 

It’s a very long standing – and strangely mobile – thought; a thousand years ago Japanese intellectuals regretted their distance from China; it was only there, they believed, that scholarship, art, poetry and refined manners could flourish; at home they could only ever be second rate. In the late 19th century, an American artist in Massachusetts or Mississippi would be tormented by the conviction that their creative life was stunted, because they weren’t at the centre of cultural life, in Paris. And then in the mid 20th century, the people who actually were in Paris felt that only in New York could they live a proper existence and fully participate in the excitements of the modern world. They lamented the tree lined boulevards and the stately Place des Vosges and dreamed of Central Park and skyscrapers. And, in turn, the residents of New York were soon starting to think that they should really move to California.  

We’re not content – as we see it – to live anywhere; we gird ourselves to make a bid for life at the centre in one of the world’s current hot spots. As a result, we face intense competition and have to work incredibly hard just to survive. And soon we come to think that it’s not simply living in the right city that counts: we have to be in the right part; we have to be invited to certain parties (which we’re not); attend particular events (which we lack the time to do) and know certain key people (who, unfortunately, we never get to meet). We don’t lose faith in the ideal: we’re still sure the true centre is there, it’s just that, tragically, we can’t get access to it and our existence must therefore be judged, particularly by ourselves, as more or less worthless. 

This harsh contrast between the dull provinces and the glorious centre isn’t merely an eccentric preoccupation of a few individuals. There’s a surprisingly objective measure of the precise degree to which any place is considered provincial: property prices. 

Terrace Houses, South Kensington, London; the end house was recently on the market for nearly GBP 20 million.  

Located in a highly fashionable metropolitan district, a lovely house commands a vast price, while a similarly charming mansion in a pleasant but deeply provincial place costs only a small fraction of that. 

A large, architecturally refined terrace house in the best district of Perth, Scotland, recently sold for under GBP 500,000

We sometimes tell ourselves that the difference is down to other economic factors: in the centre it’s possible to earn more, while in the provinces incomes are generally much lower. But the logic is flawed: practically the entire additional income of the high-earning centrist goes to covering the expenses of living where they do. Probably they would be better off, financially speaking, if they took a less well paid post elsewhere. There’s no brute material inducement to head to the metropolis; what draws us (and so many others) is a set of ‘spiritual’ convictions – that is, ideas about the meaning of life. 

There are, at root, four beliefs that fuel centrism and drive us to flee the provinces. To state them buntly: at the centre

1. People are more interesting; 

2. They’re more attractive and sophisticated

3. You will be stimulated and inspired

4. History is being made 

But if we go through them one by one and examine them in detail these ideas turn out only to be fantasies. 

1. People are more interesting

We imagine the metropolitans as liberated from trivial preoccupations; they don’t gossip about banalities; their minds are on higher things; they’re tolerant, intellectually curious and well-educated. We’ll at last meet wonderful people and have fascinating conversations. 

In reality, whether we find someone interesting or not depends more on us than them. Every life, properly engaged with, is endlessly complex, remarkable and informative. For instance in the early 1600s, the Spanish painter Velasquez painted several portraits of one particular man who made a very modest living carrying around a large earthenware jug and selling glasses of water to passers by. 

Diego Velasquez, The Water Seller of Seville, c. 1620

According to the theory of the centre, he is entirely lacking in interest. But Velasquez is entranced. He sees the look on the old man’s face as worthy of the same contemplation as the commanding gesture of a victorious general or the gracious curtsy of a lady of the court. In the picture, the man’s left hand, touching the water-jar, is tender: his right hand, clasping the base of the glass is deft and delicate; they once clutched his mother’s hand; they have brushed tears from his cheeks, been joined in prayer or shaken, they’ve been clenched and shaken in anger.

The painting is a great work of resistance against the centre-provincial divide. Obviously, there are interesting people at the centre, but that’s because there are interesting people everywhere. What makes the difference isn’t where we are but our mode of engagement.  

2. They’re more attractive and sophisticated

In our fantasy, the metropolitans are more stylish and readier to be open-minded. When we get to the centre we’ll finally have the personal-life we long-for. It sounds reasonable: perhaps the people in the perfect bar are more outwardly good-looking, they might be dressed in more enticing ways. But these factors – sadly – have little to do with our own prospects of intimate happiness. 

One reason is that what what makes someone properly enticing are in the end always their more low-key elusive qualities: their tone of voice, the way they move their wrist, how they smirk at an unexpected moment, their adventurousness, their warmth, when they blush, ther curiosity about us. There’s no special link between the outward display – at which centrists may excel – and the actual elements that can make us content. 

Additionally, no move to the city can save us from the sorrows of intimate existence. Whomever we get together with will be (just as we are) extremely difficult to live with in some ways. They’ll want to talk when we want to be silent; they’ll be too clingy or too distant. This isn’t a problem of where we are; it’s a permanent and universal problem of human love that will follow us – if we make it – to the smartest after-parties on the planet and into the most exotic bedrooms. 

3. You will be inspired, you will be stimulated 

The belief is that those in the centre have bigger ambitions, they’re engaged in more exciting and important quests and we imagine that this will rub off on us. We’ll visit the same places, breathe the same air that inspired others and this will fire our own creative capacity.  

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Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, Cafe de Flore 

But if we examine inspiration more closely, it actually works in the reverse way. For the whole of the second half of the 20th century the most famous cafe in the world was the Café de Flore in Paris, where in the 1940s and 50s the philosophers Satre and Simone de Beauvoir used to spend many afternoons chatting, writing and drinking coffee; they also loved the boiled egg salad. The temptation is to think that if we go there too, our minds will similarly be moved in profound and exciting directions. But if we were to ask Sartre why he went there the answer would be banal: there was nothing special about the place at all, it just happened to be near where they lived. They’d advise us to do the same, or just stick to our room and concentrate on thinking. 

It’s not that it’s impossible to be stimulated in the great urban core – but only because it is possible to be inspired anywhere. At root, inspiration is the discovery of the greater meaning of something that seems, initially, unimpressive. One finds potential where others have failed to recognise it. Centrism gets it backwards: it fatally suggests that we should be looking precisely in the places everyone has already looked. 

4. History is being made 

The centre is supposedly where news comes from: this is where the important events take place and where the new ideas circulate first; the people there are in the know. 

But the history that matters to us isn’t which minister is in favour or the trends in theatre production or the latest evolutions of the fashion industry: rather it’s the long-term, overarching and world-wide themes that define the age in which we live – the rise of individualism, the decline of religion; the advancement of capitalism, the retreat of centralised moral authority; and the rising prestige of childhood and the falling admiration for science. This kind of history is being made everywhere: the metropolis isn’t even the ideal point of observation. 

* * * 

These arguments don’t lead to the conclusion that it’s impossible to flourish in the metropolis. What they are arguing is that the good things associated with the idea of centre can in fact be found pretty much anywhere. What matters isn’t so much where you happen to be located but how you engage with whatever, or whoever, happens to be around. These thoughts liberate us from the imaginary devotion to ‘centrism’, that does so much to complicate and undermine our brief but precious lives.  

There’s a dread that we normally keep at the far edges of our minds but which occasionally – particularly at 3am on a restless night – floods our thoughts: if we don’t constantly strive to achieve, if we slip up or if some new catastrophe strikes the economy, we’ll lose pretty much everything and will have to end up living in a caravan, a tiny one-room flat or – god forbid – a hut in the middle of nowhere. 

The bleakness of this image spurs us to ever more frantic efforts. We’d settle for almost anything to avoid it: oppressively long working hours; a job that holds no interest; risky money-making schemes; a loveless marriage that keeps us in the family home or, maybe, decades of suffering the whims of a grim relative for the sake of an inheritance. The hut is a symbol of complete disaster and humiliation.  

It’s in this fear-laden context that we might consider the case of a man called Kamo no Chomei, who was born in Japan around 1155. His father was the well-to-do head of a prominent religious shrine near Kyoto, which was then the capital, and Chomei grew up in luxurious circumstances. He received a refined education and in the early part of his adult life, had an elegant social circle. When he was still in his twenties, his grandmother left him a big house and his future looked bright. But then it all started to go wrong. He made enemies and was sidelined in his career; he got into financial difficulties and by the time he was fifty, he had alienated his former friends, had practically no money left – and was going bald.

Kano no Chomei

Chomei was forced to reform his existence and exist on the most slender material base. Far out in the country, where no-one else wanted to live, he built himself a tiny hut – just ten feet by ten. It was, he reflected, one hundredth of the size of the mansion in which he’d grown up. It wasn’t even a permanent structure; his situation was so precarious he had to ensure that his home could be dismantled and carted away. 

A modern reconstruction shows just how small and basic it was – but doesn’t convey it’s isolated position, in the hills at Toyama, which was considered the back of beyond. Rotting leaves collected on the roof, moss grew on the floor; the water supply was just a rickety bamboo pipe leading from a nearby stream to a little pool by the door. Chomei cooked outside, though eventually he rigged up a small awning to keep the rain off in wet weather; he slept on a pile of bracken on the floor; he had no furniture; he lived mainly on nuts, berries and wild root vegetables which he foraged from the woods – and quite often he went rather hungry. The only people he saw was a peasant family who lived at the foot of the hill, who his former grand friends would have dismissed as lowly rustics. He could only afford clothes made from the coarsest cloth and they soon became mere rags, leaving him indistinguishable from the beggars he used to see in the city. It was here, and in this way, Chomei lived for fifteen years, up to his death in his mid-sixties. 

And it was also here that he wrote a short book, pointedly entitled The Ten Square Foot Hut – one of the great masterpieces of Japanese literature. It’s not – as we might expect – a lament, poring over the misfortunes and betrayals that led him to this degraded condition. Instead it’s full of good cheer, happiness and pleasure; the most touching line in the whole of the essay is the simple affirmation:  ‘I love my little hut, my lonely dwelling.’  

What – we can ask – was it that enabled Chomei to find fulfillment in such an apparently unpromising place? It wasn’t that he was naturally drawn to a minimal material life: no-one who’d known him earlier, in his days of prosperity, would have imagined he’d thrive under such circumstances – least of all himself. He wasn’t someone who for years had been hankering for the simple life. He moved to the hut in desperation and against his inclinations; it was only once he was there that he discovered that he liked it and that it was, in fact, his ideal home. 

Chomei was guided by a distinctive philosophy. And this is a principle of hope, for we can’t magically take on another individual’s personality but we can understand, and perhaps come to share, their ideas. Temperament may be fixed but philosophy is transferable. From his book, we can identify five crucial ideas that together transformed what could have been a purely grim experience into a time of deep and tranquil satisfaction. 

1. Beauty is very important 

It seems like a strange place to start: normally beauty looks like the outcome of immense wealth: elegant possessions, a gracious home and trips to Venice and St. Petersburg. But these expensive things are just the most obvious instances of beauty. As our taste becomes more sensitive and more expansive, the link with money falls away because a great many truly lovely sights are readily available almost everywhere to those who know how to look.  

Around his modest home, Chomei – with a sensitive eye – discovered endless sources of beauty: autumn leaves, fruit trees in blossom, melting snow, the sound of the wind rustling through the trees and the rain beating down on the roof. All were free. He was entranced by flowers: ‘In spring I gaze upon swathes of wisteria that hang shining in the west, like the purple clouds that bear the soul to heaven.’ He found a delightful spot on the hillside: ‘If the day is fine I look out over Mount Kohata, Fushimi Village, Toba and Hatsukashi’ and ‘at night, the fireflies in the nearby grass blend their little lights with the fires the fishermen make at distant Makinsohima: no one owns a splendid view.’

It’s partly the idea of pervading ugliness that makes a lower-level economic life so frightening. Chomei’s antidote is stress the continuing opportunities for visual delight, even on the most minimal of incomes.

2. Time is more important than money

Although we say time is precious, our actions reveal our real priorities: we devote a huge portion of our conscious existence to making, and trying to accumulate, money. We tend to have a highly concrete and detailed sense of accounting around finances, while time invisibly slips away.

Chomei, on the contrary, has a keen sense of the value of his own time, without interruptions, impediments, duties: ‘I can choose to rest and laze as I wish, there is no one to stand in my way or to shame me for my idleness.’ 

He has time to practice playing the lute, or biwa; ‘my skills are poor’ he admits but then he had no audience, he isn’t trying to please or impress anyone: ‘I play music, I sing alone, simply for my own fulfillment.’

He read and re-read the same few favourite books, which he came to know almost by heart; he had time to reflect and to write; he meditated, took long walks and spent a lot of time contemplating the moon.  

His activities were self-directed: he did them simply because he found them enjoyable, not because anyone had asked him or because they were expected of a civilised individual. And he had this luxury only because he disregarded the nexus of money, and the pursuit of status which is so closely connected to it. 

Theoretically Chomei could have found a job, however lowly. But he prefered to cut down his expenses to zero in the name of something truly valuable: his time. 

3. Everything is transient

Chomei opens his book with a metaphor comparing human life to a river: ‘On flows the river ceaselessly, nor does the water ever stay the same. The bubbles that float upon its pools now disappear, now form anew, but never endure long. And so it is with people in this world, and with their dwellings.’ He’s reminding himself – and us – of the half-terrifying, half-consoling fact that our existence and all our pleasures and troubles are fleeting. 

Because our lives are so brief it is the quality of our experiences, rather than the extent of our possessions that matter. The more we have, the more we are exposed to random misfortune; a fashionable home will soon be dated; our prestige in the eyes of others will fluctuate for trivial reasons; we might build a palace and die before it is completed; and the monuments we hope will allow our names to last get misinterpreted or torn down. The simple hut makes an accommodation with impermanence: it might get blown down in a storm or washed away in a flood, officials might arrive at our door and tell us we have to leave; but our needs have been pared down to so little that chance has less to work on. 

4. ‘Worldly’ people are less happy than they seem 

A thought that erodes our willingness to live a simpler life – in a hut, if need be – is the haunting fear that other people are having a wonderful time. Perhaps we could manage to get by, but we’d always be conscious of how much we were missing. 

Chomei is continually reminding himself that a ‘worldly’ life – which in his early and middle years he knew intimately – carries a heavy load of limitations, defects and sorrows. The life of the well-to-do is less enviable than it outwardly seems. The fashionable world is full of what he calls ‘cringing’ – ‘You worry over your least action; you cannot be authentic in your grief or your joy.’ In high society, it is always paramount to consider how any opinion will be judged by the other members of the social beehive; envy is widespread; and there is constant anxiety around losing status – which takes the satisfaction out of prosperity: ‘without a peaceful mind, palaces and fine houses mean nothing.’ 

Chomei’s aim isn’t to disparage the rich: ‘I am simply comparing my past, worldly life with my present one’ – and the balance of pleasures and contentment is distinctly in favour of the latter. Chomei bolsters his hold on the truth: what he’s missing isn’t worth regretting. 

Chomei is just one hut dweller; but there have been many. The ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes (early 400s – 323 BC) lived for years in a barrel, or perhaps a very large ceramic pot, in the marketplace of the wealthy city of Corinth. On one occasion he was visited by the Emperor, Alexander the Great. 

Thomas Christian Wink, Diogenes and Alexander, 1782

Alexander approached and asked if Diogenes wanted or needed anything. ‘Yes’ replied the philosopher, ‘move a little to the side, you are blocking the sunlight.’ Many onlookers mocked him for missing his opportunity for riches, but the Emperor was reported to have remarked: ‘Truly, if I were not Alexander, I wish I were Diogenes.’

In more recent times, in 1846, around the age of 30, the American writer Henry David Thoreau – a graduate of Harvard and heir to a prosperous pencil manufacturing business – moved into a wooden cabin by the side of a small lake in Massachusetts, where he would spend the next two years. It was marginally bigger than Chomei’s modest home and more stoutly constructed and better equipped, having the luxury of a fire-pace and a writing desk. But the moral Thoreau drew was almost identical: to those who are inwardly free, there are riches enough available in a hut.

Interior of Thoreau’s cabin, Walden Pond, Massachusetts. 

In 1881 Friedrich Nietzsche spent the summer months living in a single, small room, which he rented in a house in the Engadine Valley in Switzerland. 

The room where Nietzsche lived, in total, for several years. 

He saw almost no-one, went for long walks in the mountains and stuck to a plain diet. It was far from hideous, but it was very much more basic than the standard of accommodation that, at the time, a distinguished professor – which Nietzsche had been up to this point – would have been expected to enjoy, But he did and he came back for several months almost every year for the rest of the decade. 

In the winter of 1913-14, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein – who at the time was extremely wealthy –  designed and had built for himself a small hut on a isolated hillside overlooking a fjord in Norway. 

Wittgenstein’s tiny residence, Skjolden, Norway 

He was to spend much of this time there over the next two decades, until the deteriorating political condition of Europe made it impossible. In 1936 he wrote to a friend:  ‘I do believe that it was the right thing for me to come here, thank God. I can’t imagine that I could have worked anywhere as I do here. It’s the quiet and, perhaps, the wonderful scenery; I mean, its quiet seriousness.’

What these cabin and hut dwelling people have to teach us isn’t that we ourselves should go off and inhabit miniscule cabins or live in a single small room. Rather, they are showing that it’s possible to live in a materially minimal condition, while being good humoured, ambitious and in search of true fulfilment. They are dismantling our fear that material modesty has to mean degradation and squalour. We can, if we embrace their ideas, live more simply anywhere, including a hut. And in the meantime, we can afford not to be so afraid.

The purpose of language is to help us to get a better grip on reality; the more words there are in our vocabulary, the higher the chance we have of being able to describe what we want, what ails us, what is driving us mad – and then in turn, to summon the help we may badly need.

It can help if the words we have to hand are pretty (and even have a long and distinguished history), but at heart, all we really require is that they should help us. Such is the case with one of the most useful terms in modern psychology: Complex PTSD.

PTSD stands for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a condition officially recognised in 1980 to describe exposure to a relatively brief but devastating event: typically, a war, a rape, an accident or terrorist incident. Complex PTSD, recognised in 1994, describes exposure to something equally devastating but over a very long time, normally the first 15 years of life: emotional neglect, humiliation, bullying, disrupted attachment, violence and anger.

A lot of us, as many as twenty percent, are wandering the world as undiagnosed sufferers of ‘Complex PTSD’. We know that all isn’t well, but we don’t have a term to capture the problem, don’t connect up our ailments – and have no clue who to seek out or what treatment might help.

Here are twelve leading symptoms of Complex PTSD. We might think about which ones, if any, apply to us (more than 7 might be a warning sign worth listening to):

1. A feeling that nothing is safe: wherever we are, we have an apprehension that something awful is about to happen. We are in a state of hypervigilance. The catastrophe we expect often involves a sudden fall from grace. We will be hauled away from current circumstances and humiliated, perhaps put in prison and denied all access to anything kind or positive. We won’t necessarily be killed, but to all intents, our life will be over. People may try to reassure us through logic that reality won’t ever be that bad; but logic doesn’t help. We’re in the grip of an illness, we aren’t just a bit confused.

2. We can never relax; this shows up in our body. We are permanently tense or rigid. We have trouble with being touched, perhaps in particular areas of the body. The idea of doing yoga or meditation isn’t just not appealing, it may be positively revolting (we may call it ‘hippie’ with a sneer) and – deeper down – terrifying. Probably are bowels are troubled too; our anxiety has a direct link to our digestive system.

3. We can’t really ever sleep and wake up very early – generally in a state of high alarm, as though, during rest, we have let down our guard and are now in even greater danger than usual.

4. We have, deep in ourselves, an appalling self-image. We hate who we are. We think we’re ugly, monstrous, repulsive. We think we’re awful, possibly the most awful person in the world. Our sexuality is especially perturbed: we feel predatory, sickening, shameful. 

5. We’re often drawn to highly unavailable people. We tell ourselves we hate ‘needy’ people. What we really hate are people who might be too present for us. We make a beeline for people who are disengaged, won’t want warmth from us and who are struggling with their own undiagnosed issues around avoidance.

6. We are sickened by people who want to be cosy with us: we call these people ‘puppyish’ ‘revolting’ or ‘desperate’.

7. We are prone to losing our temper very badly; sometimes with other people, more often just with ourselves. We aren’t so much ‘angry’ as very very worried: worried that everything is about to become very awful again. We are shouting because we’re terrified. We look mean, we’re in fact defenceless.

8. We are highly paranoid. It’s not that we expect other people will poison us or follow us down the street. We suspect that other people will be hostile to us, and will be looking out for opportunities to crush and humiliate us (we can be mesmerically drawn to examples of this happening on social media, the unkindest and most arbitrary environment, which anyone with C-PTSD easily confuses with the whole world, chiefly because it operates like their world: randomly and very meanly).

9. We find other people so dangerous and worrying that being alone has huge attractions. We might like to go and live under a rock forever. In some moods, we associate bliss with not to having to see anyone again, ever. 

10. We don’t register to ourselves as suicidal but the truth is that we find living so exhausting and often so unpleasant, we do sometimes long not to have to exist any more.

11. We can’t afford to show much spontaneity. We’re rigid about routines. Everything may need to be exactly so, as an attempt to ward off looming chaos. We may clean a lot. Sudden changes of plans can feel indistinguishable from the ultimate downfall we dread.

12. In a bid to try to find safety, we may throw ourselves into work: amassing money, fame, honour, prestige. But of course, this never works. The sense of danger and self-disgust is coming from so deep within, we can never reach a sense of safety externally: a million people can be cheering, but one jeer will be enough once again to evoke the self-disgust we have left unaddressed inside. Breaks from work can feel especially worrying: retirement and holidays create unique difficulties.

What is the cure for the arduous symptoms of Complex PTSD? Partly we need to courageously realise that we have come through something terrible that we haven’t until now properly digested – because we haven’t had a kind, stable environment in which to do so (it’s always hard to get one but we’ve also been assiduous in avoiding doing so). We are a little wonky because, long ago, the situation was genuinely awful: when we were small, someone made us feel extremely unsafe even though they might have been our parent; we were made to think that nothing about who we were was acceptable; in the name of being ‘brave’, we had to endure very difficult separations, perhaps repeated over years; no one reassured us of our worth. We were judged with intolerable harshness. The damage may have been very obvious, but – more typically – it might have unfolded in objectively innocent circumstances. A casual visitor might never have noticed. There might have been a narrative, which lingers still, that we were part of a happy family. One of the great discoveries of researchers in Complex PTSD is that emotional neglect within outwardly high achieving families can be as damaging as active violence in obviously deprived ones.

If any of this rings bells, we should stop being brave. We should allow ourselves to feel compassion for who we were; that might not be easy, given how hard we tend to be with ourselves. The next step is to try to identify a therapist or counsellor trained in how to handle Complex PTSD (this may well be someone trained in trauma informed work, which emphasises directing enormous amounts of compassion towards one’s younger self) – in order to have the courage to face trauma and recognise its impact on one’s life.

Rather touchingly, and simply, the root cause of Complex PTSD is an absence of love – and the cure for it follows the same path: we need to relearn to love someone we very unfairly hate beyond measure: ourselves.


If we were to need any further evidence of the difficulties of being human, we need only study the poignant phenomenon that psychologists call dermatillomania – more commonly known as skin picking.

Those who suffer from it will, by definition, be at the anxious end of the spectrum. Few days will be free of great worry, sometimes a specific concern that feels like it will be the end of us, or else a general eeriness and nameless dread.

In response, as we’ve probably done for years, we will start to pick. Perhaps we reach for one of our hands and a very special zone we’ve almost certainly not told anyone about; a zone of hardened skin made up of extra layers that we begin to press or squeeze at, file down or unsheathe. Or we go to an area of our face and start worry away, pinching, squeezing, lifting, skewering. It might equally – or also – be a part of our lips we go to or a bit of our ankle. In all cases, the skin buckles, damages, goes sore and on occasion, when we go too far, starts to bleed, perhaps profusely. If someone were to come into the room, they might gasp – though we generally do a good job of covering up the blood once we’re done. 

We know – of course – we shouldn’t be doing any of this. But it feels, at the time, so nice, or more accurately, irresistible, like the only thing that is going to work, like exactly the action that will be able to deliver relief. What can it matter, in the context, that we’ll be left with a pitted face or a bleeding foot or a purple raw thumb? It’s what we had to do – and have been doing, probably, for many years. We know we do it, but it escapes and resists direct thought. This might be the first time we’ve heard anyone else talking about it.

Dermatillomania, the psychologists tell us, has to do with anxiety; that much is evident. What is distinctive is how the anxiety is being handled. Some will act out their pain in dramatic and noisy ways; screaming, insulting, cursing… Skin picking is a quieter, more solitary way of trying to come to terms with alarm and self-loathing. It is an introvert’s affliction. 

The skin picker might well like to scream, panic loudly, tell someone to go away or collapse in another’s welcoming arms – but their characters have been shaped through aeons of solitude. They have no faith in any possibility of turning towards someone else for help. They are fundamentally alone. They only have experience of directing anger and sorrow in on themselves. They are taking their pain out on the only character they can reach. 

Knowing all this helps us to imagine what a cure might look like. For a start, it will involve recognising the degree of solitude that has inspired the masochism. No one ends up picking their skin raw who had an early consistent experience of tenderness and attuned care. One does this kind of thing because absolutely no one was around or those that were did a lot of humiliating. It may help to recognise that one is still now terrified pretty much all the time. The targets may shift – losing one’s job, being made fun of, being sexually rejected, ridicule – but the essential drift is that one is a terror-struck person.

When we can compassionately realise that the picking is about fear and self-disgust (the legacy of neglect or cruelty), we are in a position to start to ‘see’ rather than merely be compelled by our pain. We need to find a better way of being worried. We are trying to gain control over a cruel-seeming and cold world, but turning our index finger raw or taking a penknife to our heel isn’t where the issue lies. We need to know that this isn’t some un-analysable quirk. It’s a known and very moving problem, one of the many things a sensitive mind will do in response to a lack of love and to a basic fear that’s had to be borne alone. We need to start to pick at the real source of the agony and learn to leave our innocent bleeding body in peace.