To be criticised is never pleasant. It is rarely a good day when we have to read an unflattering social media post about ourselves, when we are given harsh feedback on a project or hear that we are being gossiped about by strangers.
However, the question of how much criticism needs to hurt depends on something which has nothing to do with the specific attack we happen to face: how much we happen to like ourselves.
The degree to which we buckle in the wake of negative comments reflects how we, deep down, feel about ourselves. When we carry within us a sufficient ballast of love, criticism need never be very much more than niggling. We can overcome it by dinner time – or at least the end of the week. We can take on board with relative good humour that we are not necessarily loved by everyone, that not everything we do is perfect and that there may be one or two outright enemies, who would prefer us dead – even while most people tolerate us easily enough. There need be nothing surprising or terrifying in being doubted by a few others.
But for the more vulnerable ones among us, there is no option but to experience criticism as an assault on our very right to exist. We don’t hear that we are being mildly upbraided for an aspect of our work; we at once feel that we are being told to disappear. It isn’t just one or two people who are mocking us, the whole world is apparently thinking only of how ridiculous we are. We will never get past this moment of negative assessment; the hatred will never end. It’s a catastrophe.
If criticism from outside proves devastating, it is because it so readily joins forces with an infinitely more strident and more aggressive form of criticism that has long existed inside of us. We are already struggling so hard to tolerate ourselves against inner voices that confidently assert how undeserving, ugly and devious we are, that there is no room left for us to take on further reminders of our awfulness. The key of present criticism has inserted itself into a lock of historic hatred – and let loose an unmasterable surge of self-loathing.
When we are suffering, we should remember that we aren’t exceptionally weak; we almost certainly had a far worse childhood than the average person.
Once upon a time, we were probably humiliated and shamed without being soothed, held or reassured, and this is why we now take current criticism so much to heart. We don’t know how to defend ourselves against our enemies because we have never been deeply appreciated. We already hate ourselves so much more than our worst enemies ever will. A part of us is responding to adult challenges with the vulnerability of a child who faced disdain on a scale they couldn’t master. The present challenge feels like a catastrophe because catastrophe is precisely what was once endured.
We may not easily be able to stop feeling unhappy about criticism, but at least we can change what we feel unhappy about. Our vulnerability need not be – as we initially, instinctively think – a sign that we are actively awful. It is evidence that we were, long ago, denied the sort of love that we would have needed in order to remain more steadily and generously on our own side at moments of difficulty.
One explanation for the low-level sadness that often dogs our spirits is a lack of a seldom mentioned but essential ingredient in a good life: spontaneity. Without necessarily being entirely aware of the affliction, we may suffer from an excess of orderliness, caution and rigidity; we know pretty much exactly what we’ll be doing a year from now, we rarely make a move without having planned it in detail, we seldom go anywhere new on the spur of the moment. Our limbs are tight, our words are measured, our interactions prescribed. Everything is under close surveillance, but not for that matter especially satisfying. We haven’t danced in a long while.
What might, by contrast, a more spontaneous life be like? It would be one in which we were able to act with less inhibition and fear in accordance with our true beliefs and values. Around friends, we might, in a rush of unfettered emotion, but without anything romantic being meant by it, tell someone that we loved and admired them very much. Or we might, when upset by someone, allow ourselves to communicate hurt and disappointment directly. In company, we could feel free to outline what we actually thought about a political matter hedged in by groupthink. In bed, we might share one of our more intense and seldom-mentioned fantasies. In our work, we might embark on a bold and potentially life-changing initiative far sooner than we had imagined. In our leisure time, we might find ourselves starting to write a collection of recipes or poems – or else booking a flight at the very last minute and ending up in a country we didn’t know very well on an itinerary that we had made up only that morning rather than (as would be customary for us) a year or two before.
The opposite of spontaneity is rigidity, an inability to allow too many of our own emotions into consciousness, and a corresponding reliance on hard work, manners and precise timetabling to prevent intimacy with the raw, confusing, intense and unpredictable raw material of life itself. We are rigid, first and foremost, because we are afraid. We stay rooted to our familiar spot because any movement is experienced as intensely dangerous. We ruminate excessively as a way of trying to exert control over a chaotic environment through our own thoughts. We seldom act, out of dread of making a terrible mistake.
Spontaneity is almost always something that we have lost, rather than (mysteriously) failed to learn. It is a potential within all of us at birth, but it can – under the very wrong circumstances – be stripped from our characters. If we were to imagine a cruel experiment designed to rid someone of their capacity for spontaneity, one would probably need, at the age of one and half or so, to frighten them rather a lot (be it over a wish to ruffle an adult’s hair, explore a cupboard or sob uncontrollably). One would have to make the child feel that their emotions were too much to bear or illegal. One would shame them for any signs of exuberance or playfulness. And one might model for them behaviour marked by panic whenever something new appeared on the horizon: an unexpected ring at the door would be a crisis, a holiday a succession of possible catastrophes.
It’s in the nature of our psychology that a pattern developed in relation to one particular set of circumstances in childhood becomes a feature of adult character, until and unless we remember and understand its dynamics. In other words, we’ll continue not to be spontaneous until we can grasp how and why being so once felt so dangerous. The English psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott spoke of a healthy upbringing being one in which a child was able to express their True Self without too much need, at first, for the compliance and hypocrisy of a False Self. Only when this True Self had had a chance to have its day could a person bear to submit to the demands of the world without too much loss of creativity or initiative. We need – with some urgency – to work out what happened to our True Self.
We should along the way recognise that many of our inhibitions are no longer warranted by the wide-open adult world, that whatever terrors we laboured under as children, we can afford now to relax our muscles, let our limbs hang more loosely from us and take a few risks to express our sexuality, our politics, our enthusiasms and our distastes. We might tell a friend we like them very much indeed; we might get stern with someone who keeps taking advantage of us, we might dare to make a move without a requirement to remove every last vestige of risk. We have for too long been clenched into place as if waiting for a blow that belongs to the past, not the future.
Were we to admire the work of the artist Francis Bacon, it might in part be because it seems to contain a small morality tale about spontaneity. Bacon’s canvases were, in their general layout, extremely rigid and coolly formal, being made up of sombre colours, symmetrical lines and stark perspectives. But in the middle of this austerity, Bacon typically allowed for a great deal of haphazardness and accident. He introduced figures composed with utmost serendipity, by throwing paint, and sometimes sponges at the canvas, by pressing his brushes into swirling shapes in a frenzy of calculated disorder.
Francis Bacon, Turning Figure, 1962
We might need to do a version of Bacon’s experiments in our own lives; to prepare areas of great order and logic, but then allow for moments when we relax the shackles, safe in the knowledge that not everything is at stake and that the rewards may be decisive. We can throw paint and see how it lands, pay someone a compliment and see what happens, go to another country and be confident of somehow finding a bed for the night, turn our lives a little upside down and trust that they will be interesting at the very least. It may once have felt very safe to avoid any risk – but the real risk today is to lead the remainder of our lives without ever giving expression to the spontaneous True Self, hiding inside its cage, terrified and clenched. We can, at last, discreetly enough that no one notices at first, try to dance a little. Or take off without too much of a plan.
One of the reasons why our lives are harder than they might be is that most of us have not got a firm handle on the art of mature self-assertion; that is, the ability to put forward our interests in the face of contention in a way that comes across as credible, dignified, serene and effective. We are daily confronted by challenges to our positions that would require us to find a voice: a partner who subtly denies us affection; a colleague who malignly undermines our proposals; a parent who treads on our aspirations. And in response, we tend to behave in two equally unfortunate ways.
It was the genius of Aristotle, the first systematic Western explorer of human emotions, to see that maturity very often lies at a midway point between two extremes. His Nicomachean Ethics advances a famous tripartite table outlining ideal forms of behaviour – along with their two characteristically deficient or excessive departures.
And, to follow the model, in the case of the topic at hand, one might add a further line:
In response to threats, we typically follow one of two paths. We may say nothing: after all, who are we to speak, why would anyone listen; how dare we? None of which stops us hating and cursing inside. Or else we bottle up the toxins until they have built a head of steam, and then let rip in a tirade of insults, florid accusations and sulphurous vindictiveness which at a stroke destroys the credibility of anything we might have been trying to convey – and ensures that we can safely be put in a box labelled tyrannical and unhinged.
At the root of our failures tends lies one woefully familiar psychological problem above all: self-hatred. It is because we haven’t learn to love and respect ourselves (indeed, the very concept sounds instinctively alien and somewhat disgusting) that we say nothing, trusting that we have no right to take our own positions seriously. Associated with this is a despair at the possibility of any form of advanced intra-human understanding. We have no experience of dialogue working out, of someone clearing their throat, apologising for being a nuisance, and then calmly and eloquently articulating a point – only for their interlocutor to concede, to thank them for speaking up and to promise to look at things a little differently in the future. Our inner world is instead populated by shadow images of powerful tyrants who don’t listen, and meek serfs without any fair right to exist. Or else, from an associated form of self-suspicion, we rush our lesson and, by making a doomed assault on the integrity of our opponent, essentially prove to ourselves that we knew it could never work out.
It can – it must be said – be extremely exhausting constantly to assert oneself. In the course of a typical day, we will face an array of moments in which we should rightfully speak up properly, at once politely yet firmly, determinedly yet respectfully. It would of course have helped if we’d had early training: one of those childhoods read about in psychology manuals, the kind where a parent gently asks the upset three year old: ‘Darling, how do you feel about that?’ and listens to the answer – rather than telling it to stop being so damn silly or attacking it for being very inconsiderate given what a hard day it’s been at the office.
The challenge of mastering assertion too frequently lacks dignity. We should see it as one of the great psychological hurdles; to have learnt how to assert oneself steadily and graciously might be ranked a feat no less worthy of celebration than climbing a mountain or making a fortune (and a lot more useful).
We should assert ourselves not because it’s always going to work; indeed a bit of pessimism can be hugely handy, for it’s when we know that people might not get it at all that we no longer feel so desperate that they must. We should assert ourselves irrespective of results because it will lend us an all important sense of our own agency and strength. And we’ll twitch less.
To get us going, right now, we might consider where we are being gently but punishingly trodden on by those around us: people who are conveniently and cleverly telling us that it’s all our fault, or expecting us to do the heavy lifting, or relying on us to smile and put up with their ill temper. Unusually for us, we might properly take on board that life isn’t going to go on forever, that we have a right to be here and that there is a small but fair chance of being understood – and therefore, for once, rather than simply saying nothing or shouting, we might wait until we are rested and feeling kind to ourselves and take up a position on a piece of very unfamiliar Aristotelian middle ground, patiently uttering some very magical words: I’d love it if we might have a quick chat at some point. Whenever it’s convenient. There’s just something it would feel great to discuss…
One of the most striking capacities of the human mind is our ability to get clearer about ideas that might otherwise have been vague or hard to grasp via the process of drawing analogies.
Analogy works by picking out a feature that is clear and obvious in one area and importing it into another field that happens to be more confusing and intangible. Take the analogical phrase ‘papering over the cracks’ – commonly used to suggest a shoddy, incomplete, lazy or dishonest manoeuvre. It is easy to develop a vivid image in our minds of how putting up wallpaper can hide multiple defects in plasterwork. But it might be much harder to see that, in a relationship, going on an expensive holiday won’t do anything to address the daily conflicts of life together or that, at work, moving to fancy offices won’t alter the deep problems with the quality of the management team.
In the early part of the twentieth century, while he was starting to write In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust was continually daunted by the task of trying to find words to capture his confused sense of how multiple each of us is. So varied are we, he thought, it’s almost as though every one of us contains multitudes, hiding under the cover of a single name. One evening, Proust was sitting in a garden in Paris looking at a fountain: from a distance, it looked like a single column of water. But as he approached it, he saw that it was actually made up of lots of individual jets arranged very closely together. It struck him then that a good analogy for a bit of human psychology he had been struggling to define would come from the Jardin du Luxembourg: we are each of us like a fountain, he thought, configured out of diverse, separate impulses, desires, attitudes and concerns that then from a distance (seen by another person) give off an impression of being unified and coherent.
Analogies shed light not only on visual or psychological phenomena; they illuminate whole areas of intellectual concern. For example, in order better to understand what art is for, we might drawn an analogy between art and advertising. We might say that a painting by Botticelli is a kind of ‘advert for tenderness.’
An advert for tenderness
Thinking about art in terms of advertising helps us to see something that we might have missed if we had stuck to more narrowly to an aesthetic lexicon: that many works of art are trying to persuade us of something rather than just pleasing us, they are trying to seduce us to appreciate a particular point of view and take their implicit philosophy deep into our souls. By drawing an analogy with adverts, which we know are obviously in the selling game, we can become newly conscious of the more didactic sides of certain paintings. We’re not being sold products as such, but we are being induced to ‘buy into’ attitudes and frames of mind.
Some of the best analogies function by illuminating an elusive area in one field with reference to a very tangible and every day one in another. When it comes to cooking, we know well that a certain ingredient can be very important in a dish even though it would be pretty useless on its own: for example, egg yolks play a crucial role in spaghetti carbonara – but a pure dish of yolks would be highly unappealing. This concept of one thing needing to combine with others in order to fulfil its potential value and of being unappetising without them is immediately simple to understand in the kitchen, but can be rather harder to grasp in other areas. For example, we often struggle to define what the role of money should be within a good relationship. Should it matter at all? Is it key? Should we even think of it? The best way to put it might be with recourse to a cooking analogy: money is one ingredient in the dish of conjugal happiness, but a pure pile of cash on its own, without other ingredients (such as tenderness and generosity, self-knowledge and attraction) is not going to be of any more use than egg yolks without Parmesan cheese, garlic, pancetta, olive oil and spaghetti. An analogy is a deft mechanism for importing understanding from one region of our minds where it is in good supply to another where there is currently a shortfall.
It can seem like it might take a special type of imagination to come up with helpful analogies – and that it took a rarefied degree of poetic genius to dream up the great literary comparisons, like when Wordsworth compared human loneliness to a solitary cloud drifting in the sky, in the title line of what was once one of the most famous poems in English: I wandered lonely as a cloud.
But helpful analogies are, in fact, everywhere because it seems as if the universe is inherently structured as a set of motifs that repeat themselves across fields: that the rain drops on a window will imitate the patterns of a dried out river bed and the fissures on the surface of Mars will follow some of the same logic as the lines on our palm.
This pattern repetition means that if we properly understand one aspect of one area, we already possess important clues for making sense of aspects of other areas. What goes on in national politics will have close analogies with what typically happens in a relationship. To understand a power struggle at the top of a large corporation, we might make a comparison with the machinations in a medieval royal court. The development of an adolescent can be illuminatingly compared to that of a frog from a tadpole. The behaviour of hormones in our bodies will follow some of the same patterns as air currents in the sky.
We are often more confused than we might be because we are brought up to think in silos. We should, when things get unclear, always reach around for analogies from apparently alien but secretly sympathetic domains: biology should be invited to illuminate art, art politics, politics relationships, relationships nature, nature our moods, our moods cookery and so on and so forth. The benefits of analogy forms an argument for keeping our minds well-stocked with knowledge from other disciplines, whatever domain we happen to be in. Engineers should – on this score – spend a good amount of time reading poetry, poets cookery books, cookery writers economics manuals and so on. And when we are at moments of particular confusion, we should try to break the stalemate in our thinking by looking out for patterns, processes or phenomenon in another subject that might bring a little clarity to our own. We stand to find a lot of lids that fit our respective jars.
Try to describe a dilemma you are facing with different analogies from foreign disciplines.
Complete the following:
– If my relationship were a car, it would be a…
– If key people in my office were animals, they would be…
– If my career were a kind of weather, it would be…
– If the problem in my life was a moment in history, it would be…
– If my body was a sort of material, it would be…
We banish a great many thoughts from our minds on the grounds that they are, as we put it, ‘mad’. Some of them evidently are: too mean, flawed, absurd or petty to deserve further exploration. But it’s one of the tragedies of our thinking lives that, amidst the detritus of dismissed thoughts, there are invariably a great many that could have been of high value, if only we had dared to examine them further, if only we hadn’t been so scared of their less conventional and more speculative dimensions, if only we hadn’t been so resistant to an occasional burst of ‘mad’ thinking.
Many of the greatest thoughts humanity has ever produced possess – at some level – an unusual and, from some angles, insane dimension. The masterpieces of art, the business plans of certain corporations, the conversations of inspired lovers, the visions of political theorists, all have elements of protest against the settled status quo, and contain aspects that are eccentric, contrary to received opinion and impatient with day-to-day practicalities – and yet that have for all this hugely benefited our species. Our thinking lives are grievously harmed by a background imperative to appear at all times wholly normal and entirely sane: we should, to maximise our insights, learn to make friends with moments of ‘mad’ thinking
A central step in ‘mad’ thinking is to temporarily set aside the normal (but not always wise) restrictions on our imaginations. For instance, money is naturally almost always a major consideration but in a spirit of ‘mad’ enquiry, we can ask ourselves how we’d approach an issue if money weren’t a factor. Maybe we’d suddenly see that a particular career deeply suited our nature, perhaps we’d concentrate far more on beauty or kindness, honesty or adventure, we might end up living in a completely different country or starting a new relationship. Without the inhibiting need to think only within the parameters of sensible financial planning, ideas that we usually censor might start to come to the fore, some of which could be highly valuable. Furthermore, it could turn out, on closer examination, that some of our desirable plans were not in fact entirely dependent on finances, it was simply that we had grown used to turning down every more ambitious idea on the grounds of money.
Similarly, around a career move we could ask ourselves, in a ‘mad’ spirit, what we’d do if we knew we couldn’t fail. Liberated not to think always of our laughing critics, we might discover that we’d very much like to pursue a business venture – if we it knew it would be solidly profitable after a few years; or perhaps we’d concentrate on sport – if we were guaranteed to reach a professional level. Or we might opt to spend more time looking after our children – if we knew this wouldn’t prevent advancement in our working life. Or we might spend our evenings writing a novel – if we could be sure that it would get published and sell a respectable number of copies. Of course, in reality there can’t be such guarantees but holding our fears aside for a certain amount of time helps us to identify our areas of real enthusiasm, longing and ambition that we would otherwise too soon push out of our minds.
More broadly, we can use ‘mad’ thinking to develop our social and political perspectives. We might ask, for instance what our concerns would be if we could be the absolute ruler of the world for a month. Maybe we’d take a great deal of interest in architecture or reinvent the school system. We might rethink how people get rewarded and whose face appears on magazines. We could redesign holiday resorts or re-engineer the way leaders are chosen. This ‘mad’ exercise helps us to recognise social and political ambitions that may have genuine merit. ‘Mad’ thinking is not, as we might first suppose, at odds with reality, it is an imaginative mechanism for revealing less obvious – but important – possibilities in the real world.
‘Mad’ thinking may not contain precise answers (how actually to remake the media or wean us off fossil fuels) but it encourages us in something that is logically prior to, and in its own way as important as, practical and technological mastery: the identification of a particular issue that we would like to see solved or that moves us. Changes in personal life and in society and business don’t in any case usually begin with practical steps: they start as acts of the imagination, with a sharpened sense of a need for something new, be this for an engine, a piece of legislation, a social movement or a new way to spend the weekend. The details of change may eventually get worked out, but the crystallisation of the wish for change has to take place at a prior stage, in the minds of people who are free enough to envisage what doesn’t yet exist and isn’t as yet wholly reasonable.
One of the world’s most inspiringly ‘mad’ thinkers was the French nineteenth-century writer Jules Verne. In a series of novels and stories, he had the most unlikely thoughts about how we might live in the future. In 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, published in Paris in 1870, Verne narrated the adventures of the Nautilus, a large submarine that tours the world’s oceans often at great depth (the 20,000 leagues – about 80,000 kilometres – refer to the distance travelled). When writing the story, Verne didn’t worry too much about solving every technical issue involved with undersea exploration: he was intent on pinning down capacities he felt it would one day be important to have. He described the Nautilus as being equipped with a huge widow even though he himself had no idea how to make glass that could withstand immense barometric pressures. He imagined the vessel having a machine that could make seawater potable, though the science behind desalination was extremely primitive at the time. And he described the Nautilus as powered by batteries – even though this technology was in its infancy.
‘Wouldn’t glass shatter at that pressure?’ Keeping certain questions at bay for long enough to shape a vision. Original illustrations by Alphonse de Neuville and Edouard Riou.
Jules Verne wasn’t an enemy of technology; he was deeply fascinated by practical problems. But, in writing his novels, he held off from worrying too much about the details to the ‘how’ questions. He wanted to picture the way things could be, while warding off – for a time – the many practical objections that would one day have to be addressed. Verne was thereby able to bring the idea of the submarine into the minds of millions while the technology slowly emerged that would allow the reality to take hold. Eventually, we always need to work out answers to ‘how’ questions, but ‘mad’ thinking reminds us of the significance, dignity and legitimacy of starting with our intentions.
In his earlier story of 1865, From the Earth to the Moon, Verne had explored the notion of orbiting and then landing on the moon. He let himself imagine such a feat without getting embarrassed that it was entirely beyond the reach of all available technology.
It could become real in part because it had first been imagined. Illustrations by Henri de Montaut for the original edition.
Verne imagined that the United States would launch a mission to the moon from a base in southern Florida. He fantasised that the craft would be made of the lightest metal he knew (aluminium). He assigned what seemed an unspeakably large price tag to the venture; the equivalent of more than the entire GDP of France at the time – which turned out to be a very respectable guess at how much the Apollo programme would cost. It was a truly prescient imaginative description. His vastly popular book may not directly have helped any engineer, but it did something that in the long run was perhaps equally important to the mission: it fostered an aspiration. It explains why NASA named a large crater on the far side of the moon after Verne in 1961, and the European Space Agency followed suit with the launch of the Jules Vernes 2008, a rocket which travelled to the International Space Station carrying the original frontispiece of the 1872 edition of From the Earth to the Moon in its cargo bay.
The projectile, as pictured in an engraving from the 1872 Illustrated Edition.
Asking oneself what a better version of our lives might be like, without direct tools for a fix to hand, can feel highly immature and naive. Yet, it’s by formulating visions of the future that we more clearly start to define what might be wrong with what we have – and start to set the wheels of change in motion. Through ‘mad’ experiments of the mind, we get into the habit of counteracting our detrimental tendencies to inhibiting our thinking around wished-for scenarios that seem (in gloomy present moments at least) deeply unlikely. Yet such experiments are in truth often deeply relevant, because when we look back in history we can see that so many machines, projects and ways of life that once appeared extremely utopian have come to pass. Not least, Captain Kirk’s phone.
The ‘Communicator’ from 1966
We all have a ‘mad’ side to our brains, which we are normally careful to disguise, for fear of humiliation. Yet the road to many good ideas, precise insights and valuable suggestions has to pass through a few rather outrageous or ridiculous-seeming early notions. If we feel too much disgust or fear as our minds throw up their wilder suggestions, we will stop the thinking process too early – and won’t have given some of our best thoughts the chance they sometimes desperately need.
In the privacy of the mind, allow yourself time for some ‘mad’ thinking.
What is the biggest version of your current ambitions?
If you could not fail, what would you do?
If others would not ever laugh, what would you do?
If there were no financial pressures, how would you approach things?
If you could be the absolute ruler for a while, how would you reform the world?
Without thinking too much, complete the sentence: If you didn’t have to be sensible, I would….
Describe your ideal country: what would the houses be like? What would the ideal corporation do? How would people have relationships? What technologies would they have?
Select a few bits of this madness – and make it your goal.
One central problem of our minds is that they tend to throw out thoughts that are, above anything else, vague. They aren’t wrong, so much as extremely imprecise – which counts because it means that we don’t have a secure handle on what we truly feel or want and so are unable to steer our lives to accurate and satisfying destinations. The mind seems to suffer from a fateful laziness: it likes to point in very general terms to sensations and wishes without delving into their specific characters; it spontaneously gives us the overall headline rather than the telling and operative detail, which means that we are hampered in our ability to formulate exact plans and to diagnose our real problems.
For example, when we think about what sort job we’d like to do in the future, what may first and foremost come to mind is that it should be ‘creative’ or involve ‘working with people’. When we reflect on what’s missing from our lives, we might point at the problem by speaking of a lack of ‘fun.’ Someone might ask us how we found a recent restaurant meal and we might capture our impressions with the term ‘brilliant’. Such accounts are not false, but they are sorely lacking in the specificity that we require in order to understand ourselves and our situation properly. To find the right sort of job, we need a more accurate grip on our talents and sources of satisfaction than is provided by the word ‘creative’. Re-engineering our love lives will be an extremely indistinct affair if the missing ingredient cannot be rendered any more precise than an absence of ‘fun’. Finding a meal ‘brilliant’ doesn’t get us far in unlocking the secrets of successful restauration.
To work against the inertia of the mind, we need to ask ourselves further questions, we need to break down our vague first feelings into their constituent parts: what is it about ‘creativity’ that we really enjoy? During what moments of our current working lives do we feel dissatisfied? When we say ‘fun’, what is it we really mean? What are five experiences of fun we might recently have had? And what are their opposites? We start with generalities and we end up, if things go well with the questioning, with finely-grained truths.
This is hard work. The first person to spot the arduousness, and to pioneer focused thinking, was the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates. He became famous in Athens for standing around the marketplace asking what seemed like very simple questions about what his fellow citizens were trying to achieve with their lives. They would tell him at once, and with great confidence, that they cared about ‘justice’ or that they admired ‘courage’ or that they were keen on ‘beauty’ or ‘art’. And Socrates would respond not by agreeing or disagreeing but by asking them what they meant by ‘justice’ or ‘courage’ or ‘art’ or ‘beauty’. These weren’t unfair questions: his friends were relying heavily on these words. But after a few minutes of more searching discussion, it would always turn out that these people couldn’t say at all clearly what they meant. Socrates was getting at something fundamental: we go around feeling that our thoughts are clear, but if we deliberately submit them to further questioning, we realise that they suffer from a grave vagueness. However, there’s no inner warning system to alert us to this, no intellectual alarm in our brains to shout ‘watch out, you’re being vague! You’re formulating plans with woolly ideas!’ And so we don’t easily realise how out of focus our minds are and how at risk we will hence be of hitting reefs and shallows.
Vagueness is a problem because it means failing to pick out what it is that really matters to us in any given situation: we’re circling the right territory but we’re not closing in on the core issue – so our thoughts are ineffective guides to action. Suppose we like a film, but we can’t really say why; when someone asks us, we can’t define what’s fascinating or impressive about it. Often this wouldn’t matter. But if we’re trying to become a cinematographer or script writer, we won’t know how to reproduce what has impressed us until we start to isolate what we really experienced.
In our thinking work, we are often like miners in search of a precious metal who initially always hit a compound ore – and need (but don’t realise we need) to sift out the valuable essence. Lack of a definition can sometimes seem like a purely academic worry but it is at the root of a great many failed efforts and doomed goals.
Big words and phrases we rely on – like courage, love, justice, fun, art, family – are the deceptive public outer casing in which our own experiences, loves and fears are approximately contained. However, our own meaning is likely to be much more specific, more detailed, more intimate and perhaps more quirky – and to understand ourselves, we will need to discover, individually, the words that lie behind these words.
The difference between vagueness and focus is what separates great from mediocre art. Marcel Proust had a friend called Gabriel de la Rochefoucauld, who once wrote a novel called The Lover and the Doctor, which he sent to Proust in manuscript form with a request for comments and advice. “Bear in mind that you have written a fine and powerful novel, a superb, tragic work of complex and consummate craftsmanship,” Proust reported back to his friend in his characteristically polite way. But it seems that the superb and tragic work had a few problems, not least because it was filled with clichés: “There are some fine big landscapes in your novel,” explained Proust, treading delicately, “but at times one would like them to be painted with more originality. It’s quite true that the sky is on fire at sunset, but it’s been said too often, and the moon that shines discreetly is a trifle dull.”
Why did Proust object? After all, doesn’t the moon shine discreetly? Don’t sunsets look as if they were on fire? Aren’t clichés just good ideas that have proved rightly popular?
The problem with clichés is not that they contain false ideas, but rather that they are superficial articulations of very good ones. They are, to return to the crux of the issue, vague. The sun is often on fire at sunset and the moon discreet, but if we keep saying this every time we encounter a sun or a moon, we won’t be getting at our actual sensations. When the first volume of Proust’s novel was published eight years after The Lover and the Doctor, he also included a moon, but skirted ready-made moon talk in favour of an unusual and authentic metaphor that better captured the reality of the stellar experience:
“Sometimes in the afternoon sky, a white moon would creep up like a little cloud, furtive, without display, suggesting an actress who does not have to ‘come on’ for a while, and so goes ‘in front’ in her ordinary clothes to watch the rest of the company for a moment, but keeps in the background, not wishing to attract attention to herself.”
A talented artist is, first and foremost, someone who takes us into the specifics of valuable experiences. They don’t merely tell us that spring is ‘nice’, they zero in on the particular contributing factors to this niceness: leaves that have the softness of a newborn’s hands, the contrast between a warm sun and a sharp breeze, the plaintive cry of baby blackbirds. The more the artist moves from generalities to specifics, the more the scene comes alive in our minds. The same holds true in painting. A great painter goes beneath a general impression of pleasure in order to select and emphasise the truly attractive features of the landscape: they show the sunlight filtering through the leaves of the trees and reflecting off of a pool of water in the road; they draw attention to the craggy upper slopes of a mountain or the way a sequence of ridges and valleys open up in the distance. They’ve asked themselves with unusual rigour what is it that they particularly appreciated about a scene and faithfully transcribed their salient impressions.
The goal isn’t to become artists or philosophers, but to do something that naturally accompanies these tasks: to turn generalities into specifics, to move from woolly first impressions to authentic details, to go from vagueness to focus – and therefore to give ourselves the best chance of reaching what we actually seek.
One of the truly frustrating features of our minds is that the more interesting or pertinent our thoughts happen to be, the more they have a tendency to escape our grasp. It seems as though there is a devilish correlation between how important and necessary a thought is to us and how likely it is to elude our command. The truly precious thoughts have something almost airborne about them so inclined are they to flit away from us at the slightest approach of our conscious selves.
It is telling that many of the world’s finest thinkers have equated ideas with winged creatures. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato compared the mind to a large cage in which a number of birds – or ideas – will be circulating. He added that we can only catch these birds when they are sitting on a perch, but that they spend much of their time agitatedly racing from one end of the cage to the other, leaving only a blur of feathers to behold. Great ideas may pass through our minds and yet it is quite another matter – as Plato knew – to persuade them to land in them.
For the Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov, ideas are like butterflies – and the talented thinker, like a skilful lepidopterist (which Nabokov also happened to be), must learn to lie patiently in wait until they can be coaxed into flying into the net of awareness.
Nabokov: in wait for a thought
For her part, Virginia Woolf expressed intense jealousy at Marcel Proust’s astonishing ability to catch so many butterfly thoughts and put into words the subtler concepts and tentative feelings that most of us register only in the outer airy zones of consciousness but cannot reach up to and turn into solid words: ‘Oh if I could write like that!’ she complained, ‘How has someone solidified what has always escaped—and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance? The thing about Proust is his combination of the utmost sensibility with the utmost tenacity. He searches out these butterfly shades to the last grain. He is as tough as catgut & as evanescent as a butterfly’s bloom.’
The core reason why we cannot hold onto our bigger, more essential ideas is because – even though they are frequently crucial to our development – they also tend to induce intense anxiety. Just as a particular thought-bird or butterfly is about to settle on its perch or fly into our net, an alarm goes off in our minds; we panic, and the creature veers off at the last moment. We abandon our new train of thought and return to the comfort of more tamed, domesticated and familiar concepts.
We shouldn’t be surprised that thinking is so often interrupted by anxiety. New ideas threaten the mental status quo and are often sharply at odds with our current commitments and habits. An original thought might, for example, alienate us from what people around us think of as normal. Or it might herald a realisation that we’ve been pursuing the wrong approach to an important issue in our lives, perhaps for a long time. One part of us may want the butterfly thought to elude us in order that we won’t have to face up to regret or loss. If we took a given new idea seriously, we might have to abandon a relationship, leave a job, ditch a friend, apologise to someone, rethink our sexuality or break a habit.
To encourage ourselves to know our minds, sitting on our own in silence with a blunt demand that we should ‘think harder’ may not be the best approach. In order to give new, threatening-but-important thoughts the best possible chance of developing, we may have to make use of certain mental tricks. The mind sometimes doesn’t think too well if thinking is all it is allowed to do; so it should be a given a routine task to distract it and help it lower its guard. For instance, a long journey alone in a train or on a plane may render our mind more willing to entertain certain intimately challenging ideas. We can find reassurance that we are at a distance from the normal context of our lives; if we make a decision we won’t have to act on it immediately. Something similar might happen if we go alone to a cafe – or take a walk in the countryside: here the rhythm of our steps is semi-automatic, we half notice what’s going on around us – but it’s not important or urgent; the more paranoid, rigid surface of the mind can be gently occupied so that our deeper and more awkward thoughts can slip in unnoticed.
We should accept that our brains are strange, delicate instruments that evade our direct commands and are perplexingly talented at warding off the very ideas that might save us or help us flourish.
We might suppose that the best place to think would be a large room with a big desk, plenty of natural light and a window with a view – perhaps onto water or a park.
This is the premise behind the layout of most offices. The nearer one gets to the top, the closer one’s work station will approximate to this supposed ideal: in tribute to the quality of thinking that, ideally, one would do there. Bosses tend to have big desks and even larger views.
But these assumption are not – in fact – really true to the way our minds work.
The primary obstacle to good thinking is not a cramped desk or an uninteresting horizon. It is, first and foremost, anxiety. Often the most profound thoughts we need to grapple with have a potentially disturbing character. If we were to pinpoint them accurately and get clear about their significance, there could be a risk. We might discover that some of our past, rather cherished, beliefs were not as wise as we’d supposed; we might realise we were previously deeply wrong about something; we might have to make some significant and tricky changes to our lives.
As these potential implications start to come vaguely into view, our inner censor, motivated by a desire for calm rather than growth, gets alarmed. A vigilant part of the self gets agitated; it distracts us, it makes us feel tired or gives us a strong need to go online. Skilfully, it confuses and muddles our train of thought. It blocks the progress we were starting to make towards ideas that – though important and interesting – also presented marked threats to short-term peace.
It in this context that the shower emerges as so helpful to the way our minds work and earns the right to be honoured as one of the best places on earth in which to do any kind of serious reflection. Amidst the crashing water and the steam and with a few minutes of respite before the day starts, the mind is no longer on guard. We’re not supposed to be doing much inside our heads; we’re mainly occupied with trying to soap our backs and properly rinse our hair. The ideas that have been half-forming at the back of our minds, ideas about what the true purpose of our lives might be and what we should do next, keep up their steady inward pressure – but now there is a lot less to stop them reaching full consciousness. We’re not meant to be thinking and so – at last – we can think freely and courageously.
This quality of sufficient – but not overwhelming – distraction might equally well be present when we’re driving down the highway or walking in a forest; when there’s just enough for the managerial timid side of the mind to be doing to keep it from interfering with our authentic and bolder inner machinations.
Our world places a very high premium on good ideas – but spends very little serious effort in investigating why we find it extraordinarily hard to hatch them.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote: ‘In the minds of geniuses, we find our own neglected thoughts.’ In other words, so-called geniuses don’t have thoughts different from the ones most of us have. They’re just a lot better at not allowing their inhibitions and preconceptions to get in the way of properly entertaining them.
In a utopian future, we would get a lot more creative about what real thinking is and where it happens. We’d learn that the real enemy of good thinking isn’t a small desk or a modest view: it is – almost always – anxiety, for which there can be few better cures than that library of our deeper selves: the morning shower.
1. We have unfortunate tendencies to look at agitation as something quasi-physical, as a bodily emanation and therefore as best addressed via physical mechanisms: baths, teas or walks.
2. But agitation is always a mental phenomenon, it is a result of ideas – and a calm mindset therefore relies on having to hand a raft of calming ideas that can be called upon at moments of panic.
3. What follow are some of our favourite calming ideas.
CONTENTS: Key Calming Ideas
– The Importance of Pessimism
– Pessimistic Resilience
– Itemising Anxieties
– Budgeting for ‘small’ problems
– Accepting the limits of Free Will
– Nature and Calm
– History and Calm
– Other People are different
– Intentionality and Agitation
– Others as Children
– Acceptance and Anxiety
The Importance of Pessimism
1. Our lives are powerfully affected by a special quirk of the human mind, to which we rarely pay much attention. We are creatures deeply marked by our expectations. We go around with mental pictures, lodged in our brains, of how things are supposed to go. We may hardly even notice we’ve got such phantasms. But expectations have an enormous impact on how we respond to what happens to us. They are always framing the way we interpret the events in our lives. It’s according to the tenor of our expectations that we will deem moments in our lives to be either enchanting or (more likely) profoundly mediocre and unfair.
2. What drives us to fury are affronts to our expectations. There are plenty of things that don’t turn out as we’d like but don’t make us livid either. When a problem has been factored into our expectations, calm is never endangered. We may be sad, but we aren’t screaming. Yet, when we can’t find the car keys (they’re always by the door, in the little drawer beneath the gloves) or our partner does not welcome us warmly after a trip, the reaction may be very different. Here we are suffering from expectations. We are enraged because somewhere in our minds, we have a perilous faith in a world in which car keys simply never go astray and partners show no vengeance when they have been abandoned for a few days. Every one of our hopes, so innocently and mysteriously formed, opens us up to a vast terrain of agitation.
3. Strangely, even when we’ve had pretty disappointing experiences, we usually don’t lose faith in our expectations. Hope triumphs over experience. We console ourselves with an apparently reasonable thought: the reason why something didn’t work out this time had nothing to do with expectations. It was just that we were momentarily and unusually unlucky. Rather than adjust our ideas of what existence is like, we shift our hopes to the future.
4. A solution to our distress and agitation lies in a curious area: with a philosophy of pessimism. It’s an odd and unappealing thought. Pessimism sounds unattractive. It’s associated with failure, it’s usually what gets in the way of better things. But when it comes to our dealings with the world, expectations are reckless enemies of serenity. Pessimism is the royal route to calm.
– What are some of the things that make you angry.
– Tease out of every angry situation an implicit optimistic thesis about life. Frame your answers as: I believe in a world in which…
I.e. I believe in a world in which… I am understood by my family… I don’t get caught in traffic… I am not frustrated by bureaucracy…
– Imagine redrawing your picture of the world.
5. One of the great theorists of agitation is the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca. He insisted that anger is always the result of certain rationally-held ideas; if we can only change the ideas, we will change our propensity to anger. And in the Senecan view, what makes us angry are dangerously optimistic ideas about what the world and other people are like.
6. How badly we react to frustration is critically determined by what we think of as normal. Our frustrations are tempered by what we understand we can expect from the world, by our experience of what it is normal to hope for. We aren’t overwhelmed by anger whenever we are denied something we desire, only when we believe ourselves entitled to obtain it. Our greatest furies spring from events which violate our sense of the ground-rules of existence.
7. Because we are agitated most by what we do not expect, we must teach ourselves to expect everything. As Seneca put it: “Nothing ought to be unexpected by us. Our minds should be sent forward in advance to meet all the problems, and we should consider, not what is wont to happen, but what can happen.”
8. He chided his readers for their hazy optimism as regards the future. They would be wiser to reflect on how open we are to disaster at all times: “We never anticipate evils before they actually arrive… So many funerals pass our doors, yet we never dwell on death. So many deaths are untimely, yet we make plans for our own infants… No promise has been given you for this night – no, I have suggested too long a respite – no promise has been given even for this hour.” There is dangerous innocence in the expectation of a future formed on the basis of probability. Any accident to which a human has been subject, however rare, however distant in time, is a possibility we must ready ourselves for.
9. Because habit risks seducing us into sentimental somnolence, Seneca entreated us to spare a little time each day to think of everything that could go wrong. We do not know what will happen next: we must expect something. In the early morning, we should undertake what Seneca termed a praemeditatio, a meditation in advance on all the sorrows of mind and body to which the goddess may subsequently subject us.
A Senecan Praemeditatio:
[The wise] will start each day with the thought… Fortune gives us nothing which we can really own. Nothing, whether public or private, is stable; the destinies of men, no less than those of cities, are in a whirl. Whatever structure has been reared by a long sequence of years, at the cost of great toil and through the great kindness of the gods, is scattered and dispersed in a single day. No, he who has said ‘a day’ has granted too long a postponement to swift misfortune; an hour, an instant of time, suffices for the overthrow of empires.
How often have cities in Asia, how often in Achaia, been laid low by a single shock of earthquake. How many towns in Syria, how many in Macedonia, have been swallowed up. How often has this kind of devastation laid Cyprus in ruins. We live in the middle of things which have all been destined to die. Mortal have you been born, to mortals have you given birth. Reckon on everything, expect everything.
– Make up your own Praemeditatio. What are some of the things you should prepare for?
1. At many points we are surrounded by situations which might either go right or go wrong. And we are taught that the best way to deal with the uncertainty is to proceed as if things might go right. This is – so the thesis goes – the best way to ensure that they will in fact go right.
2. But this approach places us very much at the mercy of events. It is brittle at moments when life doesn’t go our way. And while we wait to find out, it means we are often oscillating between hope and terror of what will happen if things go wrong.
3. There is a better method: which is to make ourselves fully at home with the worst scenarios and see that they are, in their own way, survivable. So rather than fearing bankruptcy, we should ask ourselves how it would be possible to survive bankruptcy. Rather than fearing cancer, we should acclimatise ourselves to how we could cope even if it was diagnosed. Rather than fearing death from afar, we should see that it too we would come to terms with.
4. Instead of letting fears creep up on us, we should defy them to do their worst and see that we could negotiate even with the great terrors: disgrace, poverty, disease… They aren’t desirable of course, but they can be mastered and this is what we should put a high degree of mental effort into. We should move from dimly being terrorised by spectres to asking ourselves on a regular basis and head on: How could I deal with x or y trauma or catastrophe? We should train ourselves for the worst – and see that the worst could be endured.
– List 5 of the greatest fears
– Imagine how these could be survived.
5. To return to Seneca and the Stoics: in February 63, Seneca’s friend Lucilius, a civil servant working in Sicily, learned of a lawsuit against him which threatened to end his career and disgrace his name forever. Seneca wrote to him as follows: ‘You may expect that I will advise you to picture a happy outcome, and to rest in the allurements of hope, but I am going to conduct you to peace of mind through another route’ – which culminated in the advice: ‘If you wish to put off all worry, assume that what you fear may happen is certainly going to happen.’
6. Seneca wagered that once we look rationally at what will occur if events turn against us, we will almost certainly find that the underlying problems are more manageable than our anxious imaginings suggest. Lucilius had grounds for sadness, but not hysteria: ‘If you lose this case, can anything more severe happen to you than being sent into exile or led to prison? ‘I may become a poor man’; I shall then be one among many. ‘I may be exiled’; I shall then regard myself as though I had been born in the place to which I’ll be sent. ‘They may put me in chains.’ What then? Am I free from bonds now?’ Prison and exile were bad, but – the linchpin of the argument – not as bad as the desperate Lucilius might have feared before scrutinising the anxiety.
7. The way to practice calm resilience is to rehearse how one might cope with the most awful things one might imagine. Seneca devised an exercise for people afraid of going bankrupt. It wasn’t his way to talk about how improbable this was. They were counselled to spend a few days sleeping on the kitchen floor, drinking water from the dog bowl, eating stale bread. The anxious wealthy would, Seneca promised, soon come to an important realisation: ‘Is this really the condition that I feared?’ …Endure [this poverty] for three or four days at a time, sometimes for more…. and I assure you…you will understand that a man’s peace of mind does not depend upon Fortune.”
1. Plato once usefully compared the mind to an aviary, in which our thoughts are like birds restlessly flapping around their enclosure, and occasionally alighting on a perch. What is helpful in this metaphor in this context is that if one doesn’t know the contents of an aviary, it is possible to imagine that there are many more birds flying around than there in fact are, and to be more alarmed by their flapping, speed and noise. Philosophy is an attempt to itemise the ‘birds’ in one’s mind, so as to be less surprised and frightened by them. Even if we cannot remove certain anxieties, knowing exactly what they are and listing them systematically is a source of enormous relief.
2. It is therefore imperative regularly to list one’s anxieties: to find a quiet moment to convert a vague feeling – I am anxious – into a specific list: I am anxious about these x points…
3. We have developed a technique in this regard that we call Philosophical Meditation:
Budgeting for ‘Small’ Problems
1. Many of our anxieties are caused by a lack of readiness; by being surprised by complexities we had not budgeted for. We assume that far too many things are easier than they in fact are – then get cross and unduly agitated when they show their true face.
2. One way of putting it is that many of our actual problems lack prestige in our own eyes. When a problem has high prestige, we are ready to expend energy and time trying to resolve it. This has often happened around large scientific questions. It was entirely understood that mapping the human genome would be enormously difficult – as well as hugely beneficial. It is taken for granted that developing a commercially viable driverless car is a monstrously difficult puzzle, but one worth devoting great resources to. This respect leads to an unexpected but crucial consequence. We take our time – and we don’t panic around the challenges, because we understand the difficulty of what we are attempting to do. We are a lot calmer around prestigious problems. It’s problems that feel trivial or silly and yet that nevertheless take up sections of our lives that drive us to heightened states of agitation.
3. We typically associate panic with the presence of a difficult task or an urgent demand. But what actually causes panic is a difficulty that hasn’t been budgeted for or a demand that one has not trained or prepared to meet. The road to calmer dealings with existence isn’t necessarily about removing points of contention. It’s rather about assuming we will encounter them and learning to devote a lot of time and thought to them. We would be calmer if we could make certain of our problems more prestigious in our own eyes.
4. It is precisely because of our failure to deem certain problems ‘serious’ that we can end up particularly enraged by them. It can be the ‘small’ aspects of life that threaten our calm more than the larger ones.
5. For example, many of the difficulties of modern couples and families can in part be blamed on the way prestige is distributed. Couples are not only besieged by practical demands at every hour, they are also inclined to think of these demands as pretty much humiliating, banal and meaningless, and are therefore likely to be averse to investigating them at length or offering pity or praise to one another, or themselves, just for enduring them. The word ‘prestige’ sounds wholly inappropriate when applied to the school run and the laundry because we have been perniciously trained to think of this quality as naturally belonging elsewhere, in high politics or scientific research, the movies or fashion. We seem unwilling to allow for the possibility that the glory of our species may lie not only in the launch of satellites, the founding of companies and the manufacture of miraculously thin semi-conductors, but also in an ability – even if it is widely distributed among billions – calmly to spoon yogurt into small mouths, find missing socks, clean toilets, deal with tantrums and wipe congealed things off tables. Here too, there are trials worthy not of condemnation or sarcastic ridicule but also of a degree of prestige, so that they may be endured with greater sympathy and fortitude. We should aim for a range of goals in this area:
– Increase patience: when we accept that an issue is intricate and serious we are willing to be patient around it. If our partner doesn’t have much insight into scuba diving or the origins of the First World War we don’t throw up our hands in contemptuous despair. We take it for granted that these are matters on which a perfectly reasonable and decent person could be confused or ignorant.
– Make upset reasonable: if one’s partner gets very agitated about which brand of olive oil to buy or how many sheets of toilet paper it is reasonable for one person to use in a day, it’s easy to mock them and make them look ridiculous. But raising the prestige of the domestic means accepting that such details are matters on which a sane and sensible person could have strong feelings.
– Make disagreement legitimate: on many complicated issues it’s going to make a lot of sense that there is more than one initially pretty plausible way of seeing them. After all, we accept that there might be more than one sensible approach to running a commercial aquarium or performing root canal surgery.
6. We might typically associate panic with the presence of a difficult task or an urgent demand. But that’s not quite right. What actually causes panic is a difficulty that hasn’t been budgeted for or a demand that one has not trained or prepared to meet. The road to calm has a lot to do with assuming that challenges are going to happen and that they will inevitably require quite a lot of time and thought to address.
Accepting the Limits of Free Will
1. One of the great debates within philosophy concerns the extent to which we have free will and the extent to which our lives are determined. The final answer to this can never be precisely known, but what is obvious is that our agitations and anger are almost always the result of an excessive allegiance to a misplaced idea of free will. It is the notion that we could have made things otherwise which aggravates our bitterness. Our confidence in our capacity to change our destinies – though in many ways at the root of our progress and initiative – is also responsible for the lion’s share of our fury.
2. In order to temper our trust in our own free will, Seneca and the Stoics had a powerful image with which to evoke our condition as creatures at times able to effect change – and yet never far from being subject to immensely powerful external necessities. We are like dogs who have been tied to an unpredictable cart. Our leash is long enough to give us a degree of leeway, but is not long enough to allow us to wander wherever we please. The metaphor had been formulated by the Stoic philosophers Zeno and Chrysippus, and reported by the Roman Bishop Hippolytus: “When a dog is tied to a cart, if it wants to follow, it is pulled and follows, making its spontaneous act coincide with necessity. But if the dog does not follow, it will be compelled in any case. So it is with men too: even if they don’t want to, they will be compelled to follow what is destined.” A dog will naturally hope to go wherever it pleases. But as Zeno’s and Chrysippus’s metaphor implies, if it cannot, then it is better for the animal to betrotting behind the cart rather than dragged and strangled by it. Though the dog’s first impulse may be to fight against the sudden swerve of the cart in an awful direction, his sorrows will only be compounded by his resistance. It is better to head in a bad direction without a pain in the neck than to be dragged and strangled. As Seneca put it: “An animal, struggling against the noose, tightens it… there is no yoke so tight that it will not hurt the animal less if it pulls with it than if it fights against it. The one alleviation for overwhelming evils is to endure and bow to necessity.”
3. To reflect that we too are never without a leash around our neck helps to reduce the violence of our mutiny against events which veer away from our intentions. The wise will learn to identify what is necessary and follow it at once, rather than exhaust themselves in protest. When a wise man is told that his suitcase has been lost in transit, he will resign himself at once to the fact. Seneca reported how the founder of Stoicism had behaved upon the loss of his possessions: ‘When Zeno received news of a shipwreck and heard that all his luggage had been sunk, he said, ‘Fortune bids me to be a less encumbered philosopher.”
4. It may sound like a recipe for passivity and quietude, encouragement to resign ourselves to frustrations that might have been overcome. It could leave us without the heart to build even a diminutive aqueduct like that in Bornègre, in a valley a few kilometres north of the Pont du Gard, a modest seventeen metres long and four metres high. But Seneca’s point is more subtle. It is no less unreasonable to accept something as necessary when it isn’t as to rebel against something when it is. We can as easily go astray by accepting the unnecessary and denying the possible, as by denying the necessary and wishing for the impossible. It is for reason to make the distinction.
5. Whatever the similarities between ourselves and a dog on a leash, we have a critical advantage: we have reason and the dog doesn’t. So the animal does not at first grasp that he is even tied to a leash, nor understand the connection between the swerves of the cart and the pain in his neck. He will be confused by the changes in direction, it will be hard for him to remember the history of the zig-zagging, and he will therefore suffer constant painful jolts. But reason enables us to theorise with accuracy about the path of the cart, which offers us a chance, unique among living beings, to increase our sense of freedom by ensuring a good slack between ourselves and necessity. Reason allows us to calculate when our wishes are in irrevocable conflict with reality, and then bids us to submit ourselves willingly, rather than angrily or bitterly, to necessities. We may be powerless to alter certain events, but we remain free to choose our attitude towards them, and it is in our spontaneous acceptance of necessity that we can find our distinctive freedom.
Nature and Calm
1. It cannot be a coincidence that Seneca, the Stoics, and many of the calmest philosophers and thinkers of all times have been interested in the consoling and calming power of nature, especially in its most impressive, monumental moments.
2. This is perhaps because in mighty natural phenomena lie reminders of all that we are powerless to change, of all that we must accept. Glaciers, volcanoes, earthquakes and hurricanes stand as impressive symbols of what exceeds us. In the human world, we grow to believe that we may always alter our destinies, and hope and worry accordingly. It is apparent from the heedless pounding of the oceans or the flight of comets across the night sky that there are forces entirely indifferent to our desires. The indifference is not nature’s alone; humans can wield equally blind powers over their fellows, but it is nature which gives us a most elegant lesson in the necessities to which we are subject. As Seneca wrote: “Winter brings on cold weather; and we must shiver. Summer returns, with its heat; and we must sweat. Unseasonable weather upsets the health; and we must fall ill. In certain places we may meet with wild beasts, or with men who are more destructive than any beasts…. And we cannot change this order of things… it is to this law [of Nature] that our souls must adjust themselves, this they should follow, this they should obey… That which you cannot reform, it is best to endure.”
3. Sometimes we respond quite negatively to encounters with things that are much larger and more powerful than ourselves. It’s a feeling that can strike us when we are alone in a new city, trying to negotiate a vast railway terminal or the huge underground system at rush hour and we sense that no one knows anything about us or cares in the least for our confusions. The scale of the place forces upon us the unwelcome fact that we don’t matter very much in the greater scheme and that the things that are of great concern to us don’t figure much at all in the minds of others. It’s a potentially crushing, lonely experience that intensifies anxiety and agitation.
4. But there’s another way an encounter with the large scale can affect us – and calm us down. Heading back to the airport after a series of frustrating meetings, the sunset behind the mountains is magnificent: tiers of clouds are bathed in gold and purple, huge slanting beams of light cut across the urban landscape. To record the feeling without implying anything mystical, it seems as if one’s attention is being drawn up into the radiant gap between the clouds and the hills, and that one is for a moment merging with the cosmos. Normally the sky isn’t a major focus of attention, but now it’s mesmerising. For a while it doesn’t seem to matter so much what happened in the meeting or the fact that the contract will – maddeningly – have to be renegotiated by the Paris team. It’s strangely calming and comforting to be absorbed in the contemplation of something vastly bigger than oneself.
5. Artists and Philosophers have given this feeling a name: the Sublime. We experience this sensation of the Sublime whenever we are hugely impressed by something that seems much much larger and more powerful than we are. It overwhelms us with its grandeur while also being offered a vivid sense of our own relative littleness. At this moment, nature seems to be sending us a humbling message: the incidents of our lives are not terribly important in the scheme of things. And yet, strangely, rather than being distressing this sensation can be immensely comforting and calming.
6. The sublime is calming because it counteracts a persistent and very normal source of distress in our lives. Our minds naturally focus on what is immediately before us. We instinctively get deeply engaged with whatever happens to be close to us in space and time. And we have a proportionally less intense, more detached relationship to things that feel very far off. It’s not a surprising arrangement. Very often what’s immediately present is more relevant to our survival than what happened five years ago or might happen much later in our lives. Our minds are geared to fleeing a snake or staving off hunger. Translated into the terms of modern life, it means that last night’s squabble over flecks of toothpaste on the bathroom mirror and the work deadline of Tuesday morning feel hugely agitating – though in terms of the overall meaning of a relationship, career or of a whole life they are in fact pretty minor incidents. The problem is, our minds are structured so as to give maximum attention to what is happening now. Whereas to actually see the importance of anything we have to situate it in a much larger frame of reference. In the bigger picture, the squabble and the deadline really might not be so crucial.
7. What the Sublime does is – very unusually – foreground our engagement with the larger horizons of existence. Instead of looking at this or that detail (which therefore seem very big, because they dominate the current moment) we’ve got an experience in which the specific details of our lives are seen as proportionally much smaller and therefore as posing a far less significant threat to us. Things that have up to now been looming large in our minds (what’s gone wrong with the Singapore office, the fact that a colleague behaved coldly, the disagreement about patio furniture) tend to get cut down in size. The Sublime drags us away from the minor details which normally – and inevitably – occupy our attention and makes us concentrate on what is truly major. Local, immediate irritants are reduced, for a while, in their power to bother us.
8. The painful comparison of our own situation with that of others whom we feel are more fortunate is an unfortunately reliable source of psychological distress. It tends to make us feel irritated with ourselves – if only we pushed ourselves harder, didn’t make so many blunders and could overcome our laziness we’d perhaps be able to raise ourselves to their level. Or we get more and more annoyed by the external obstacles that seem to stand in our way. The encounter with the Sublime is helpful here too because it doesn’t just make oneself look comparatively small. It undercuts the gradations of human status and makes them – at least for a time – look relatively fairly unimpressive too. Next to the mighty canyon or ocean, even the king or CEO do not seem so mighty.
9. The sight of the dry expanses of the Arizona desert offer a philosophy of calm embodied in matter: the way it suggests as if year by year little will change; a few more stones will crumble from the meso; a few plants will eke out an existence; the same pattern of light and shadow will be endlessly repeated. There is a stark separation from human concerns and priorities. And this separation applies to everyone equally. The spaces of the desert are indifferent not to me in particular but to humanity in general. Caring about having a larger office or being worried that one’s car has a small scratch over the left rear wheel or that the sofa is looking a bit moth-eaten doesn’t make much sense against an enormity of time and space. The differences in accomplishments, standing and possessions between people don’t feel especially exciting or impressive, when considered from the emotional state that the desert promotes. Here the desert seems to be trying to convince us of a number of things that usefully correct and balance out our standard ways of thinking. Here little things seem hardly worth getting bothered or upset about. There’s no urgency. Things happen on the scale of centuries. Today and tomorrow are essentially the same. Your existence is a small temporary thing. You will die and it will be as if you had never been.
10. It could sound demeaning. But these are generous sentiments for we otherwise so easily exaggerate our own importance. We are truly minute and entirely dispensable. The world would trundle on much the same without us. The Sublime does not humble us by exalting others – instead it gives a sense of the lesser status of all of wretched humanity. Traditionally, another of the major sources of the consoling perspective of the Sublime has been the sight of the sky at night. People would look up from the troubled surface of the earth and find consolation in their impression of the rational, beautiful order of the heavens. The Ancient Greeks and Romans for instance linked their divinities to the lights they saw in the night sky, which we now know to be planets and which we continue to call by the name they worshiped them by: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and the rest.
11. It is a line of thought that has persisted in one version or another for a very long time. In the late 18th century, for instance, the German Philosopher Immanuel Kant thought the the sight of ‘the starry heavens above’ was the most Sublime spectacle in nature and that contemplation of this transcendent sight could hugely assist us in coping with the travails of everyday life. Although Kant was interested in the developing science of astronomy, he still saw the stars as serving a major psychological purpose. Unfortunately, since then, the advances in astrophysics have become increasingly embarrassed around this aspect of the stars. It would seem deeply odd today if in a science class there were a special section not on the fact that Aldebaran is a orange-red giant star of spectral and luminosity type K5 III and that it is currently losing mass at a rate of (1–1.6) × 10−11 M⊙ yr−1 with a velocity of 30 km s−1 but rather on the ways in which the sight of stars can help us manage our emotional lives and relations with our families – even though knowing how to cope better with anxiety is in most lives a more urgent and important task than steering one’s space rocket around the galaxies. Although we’ve made vast scientific progress since Kant’s time, we haven’t properly explored the potential of space as a source of wisdom, as opposed to a puzzle for astrophysicists to unpick.
12. On an evening walk you look up and see the the planets Venus and Jupiter shining in the darkening sky. If the dusk deepens you might see some stars – Andromeda, Aries and many others. It’s a hint of the unimaginable extensions of space across the solar system, the galaxy, the cosmos. They were there, quietly revolving, their light streaming down as spotted hyenas warily eyed a stone-age village; and as Julius Caesar’s triremes set out after midnight to cross the channel and see the cliffs of England at dawn. The sight has a calming effect because none of our troubles, disappointments or hopes have any relevance. Everything that happens to us, or that we do, is of no consequence whatever from the point of view of the universe.
13. And though we know that the moon is a lifeless accumulation of galactic debris we might make a point of watching it emerge – as a representative of an entirely different perspective within which our own concerns are mercifully irrelevant.
History and Calm
1. It is easy to feel that what is happening now in our societies is of unparalleled awfulness. This is very much what the news industry constantly wants us to believe. Exaggeration of our present depravity is a basic drive of the modern media.
2. So it pays to look back in time and to see that what is happening now is only the latest layer being added to an immense accumulation of human events, the thinnest layer of bark on the bulk of a billion-year-old tree of troubles. We can use history as an antidote to anxiety and panic. And we might do this, for instance, by turning to the writings of the ancient Roman historian Suetonius.
3. Born towards the end of the first century AD, Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus worked for many years at the top levels of the Imperial administration, rising to the position of chief secretary to the Emperor Hadrian. He was the first historian to try to give a fairly accurate portrait of what the rulers of the Empire were actually like. In The Twelve Caesars he provides a fair summary of their achievements from Julius Caesar down to Domitian – who reigned until 96 AD, by which point Suetonius himself was in his twenties. He then records insider views on what these people had actually been like to work for and how they had behaved in private. He had access to the archives and was personal friends with many of those who had served in senior positions.
In the book Suetonius quietly catalogues the follies and crimes of the first twelve men to rule the western world. Amongst them:
Julius Caesar: ‘Caesar paid immense bribes to have himself elected as Pontifex maximus’ (Head of the state religion).
Caligula: ‘Many people were branded or sent down the mines or thrown to the wild beasts or confined in narrow cages where they had to crouch or were sawn in half, not for major offences but because they did not properly admire a show he had sponsored at the Circus or did not refer with sufficient respect to his genius.’ ‘The method of execution he preferred was to inflict numerous small wounds but avoiding all major organs. He often gave the command: ‘Make them feel they are dying.’”
Nero: ‘He dressed himself in the skins of wild animals and attacked the private parts of men and women bound to stakes.’ ‘He wandered through the streets at night randomly murdering strangers and throwing their bodies into the sewers.’
Vitellus: ‘His ruling vices were gluttony and cruelty. He banqueted three or four times a day and he survived by taking frequent emetics. He used to give himself a treat by having prisoners executed before his eyes.’
Domitian: ‘At the beginning of his reign Domitian would spend hours alone every day catching flies and stabbing them with a needle-sharp pen.’
Though Suetonius writes about grotesque people – who were also at the time the most powerful people on the planet – and about horrific events, reading him can leave one feeling remarkably serene. One might flick through the pages sitting at an airport, crunching an apple and sublimating the frustration of a delayed plane. Or perhaps tucked up in bed, after a fierce row with one’s partner. The experience could be strangely relaxing. It seems paradoxical, because Suetonius is ostensibly merely providing us with a record of some deeply disreputable actions. And yet the effect is to leave us feeling more comfortable and more relaxed, less pent up about one’s own day-to-day issues or resentful about one’s humiliations.
4. One reason the study of history can help us be calmer, is that it tends to be a narrative of resilience. Suetonius writes of earthquakes, plagues, wars, riots, rebellions, conspiracies, betrayals, coups and mass slaughter. Considered on its own it seems to be the record of a society that is utterly corrupt and incompetent, that is so rotten, its total collapse must surely be immanent. But, in fact, Suetonius was writing before – and not after – the most impressive period of Roman achievement – which would come fifty years later under the rule of the stoic philosopher and Emperor, Marcus Aurelius.
5. Very strangely, as it turns out, these are not the annals of a society that is falling apart. They are the stories of genuinely awful things that were compatible with a society heading overall towards peace and prosperity. Reading Suetonius suggests that it is not fatal for societies to be in trouble; it is usual for things to go rather badly. In this respect, reading ancient history generates the opposite emotions to scanning today’s news. The news machine is based on the idea of getting us agitated. News is always trying to tell us that something entirely new and very alarming is occurring: there’s a wholly original health risk, international conflict, threat to global stability or risk to the economy. Whereas Suetonius would be deeply unperturbed. The news has been much worse before and things were, in the end, OK. People behaving very badly is a normal state of affairs. It was ever thus: there have always been disappointing leaders and greedy magnates. There have always been existential threats to the human race and civilisation. It makes no sense, and is a form of twisted narcissism, to imagine that our era has any kind of monopoly on perversity or chaos. Suetonius would never be shocked by modern scandal because he’d heard so much worse before. By reading him we enter unconsciously into his less agitated and more Stoic reactions.
6. On a grand scale, this explains why grandparents typically have a calmer approach to bringing up children than parents do. The grandparents have a more accurate grasp of how normal – and therefore less alarming – many problems are. Their calm is based on two key bits of knowledge. They know that whatever is done, one’s children will turn out very far from perfect – and therefore the intensely agitating worry that one might be making a mistake is usually a bit misplaced. But they also grasp that even when things go a bit wrong, children will generally cope well enough. Their sense of danger and their sense of hope have both been made more accurate by experience. History encourages the less panicky sides of ourselves.
7. In the 18th century, Edward Gibbon wrote a monumental study entitled The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He was deeply influenced by Suetonius and came to the view that ‘History is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortune of mankind.’ He starts out by evoking the power, security and massive extent of the Roman Empire in its period of greatest strength. Across seven volumes, he then describes error, disaster, collapse and failure on the largest possible scale – and, in so doing, he discovers a further source of tranquility.
It took many centuries for Rome to fall and Gibbon covers a vast sweep of events, and he movingly notes that most events however huge they seem at the time ‘leave a faint impression on the page of history.’ Everything gets forgotten. The same will happen to us – and to our troubles. The way of ordering things which seems so essential and important to us will eventually become bizarre and outmoded. History functions as a corrective. It gains its power because it balances out the more self-centred of our preoccupations. It restores us when the present seems as if it is all that there is.
8. Gibbon himself was a remarkably sedate and dispassionate figure, who spent much of his life sitting quietly at his desk able to cope admirably with the tribulations of his life – he got on badly with his father, he was unable to marry the person he wanted to, he suffered for years from a swollen testicle. He was calm not despite recounting the horrors of the past and the evidence that everything comes eventually to ruin – but because he knew and loved the past so well.
Other People are Different
1. In a wiser world than our own, we would regularly remind ourselves of the various reasons why that vast and troubling category – other people – simply cannot reliably live up to the expectations we may have formed.
2. It sounds strange to place the thought so simply but other people are simply not extensions of us. They feel things differently, want different things at different times and never exactly speak our language. We are, at heart, desperately and painfully alone.
3. Much that matters to us will not be in synch with others. Despite our hopes, other people will not get tired at the same time as us, want to eat the same things, like the same songs, have the same aesthetic preferences, the same attitude to money and the same idea about Christmas. For babies, there is a long and strange set of discoveries about the real separate existence of the mother. At first it seems to the child that the mother is perfectly aligned with it. But gradually there’s a realisation that the mother is someone else: that she might be sad, when the child is feeling jolly. Or tired, when the child is ready to jump up and down on the bed for ten minutes. We have similarly basic discoveries to make of other people. They are not extensions of us.
4. This was a set of insights associated first and foremost with the Viennese psychoanalyst Melanie Klein. Klein suggested that newborns cannot really grasp that people around it are in fact people, with their own alternative reality and independent points of view. In the early weeks, the mother is not even ‘a mother’ to her child, she is just a pair of breasts which appear and disappear with unpredictable and painful randomness. In relation to this mother, all the infant experiences are moments of intense pain and then, for reasons it can’t understand, moments of equally intense pleasure. When the breast is there and the milk flows, a primordial calm and satisfaction descends upon the infant: it is suffused with feelings of well-being, gratitude and tenderness (feelings that will, in adulthood, be strongly associated with being in love, a moment where breasts continue to play a notable role for many). But when the breast is desired and yet for whatever reason it is missing, then the infant is thrown into unfathomable panic: it feels starving, enraged, terrified and vengeful.
5. This, thought Klein, leads the infant to adopt a primitive defence mechanism against what would otherwise be intolerable anxiety. It ‘splits’ the mother into two very different breasts: a ‘good breast’ and a ‘bad breast’. The bad breast is hated with a passion; the infant wants to bite, wound and destroy this object of unholy frustration. But the good breast is revered with an equally thorough though more benign intensity.
6. With time, in healthy development, this ‘split’ heals. The child will gradually perceive that there is in truth no entirely good and no entirely bad breast, both belong to a mother who is a perplexing mixture of the positive and the negative: a source of pleasure and frustration, joy and suffering. The child (for, by now, we are talking of someone aged around 4 years old) discovers a key idea in Kleinian psychoanalysis: the concept of ambivalence. To be able to feel ambivalent about someone is, for Kleinians, an enormous psychological achievement and the first marker on the path to genuine maturity.
7. But it isn’t inevitable or assured. The grey area is hard to reach. Only slowly can a healthy child grasp the crucial distinction between intention and effect, between what a mother may have wanted for it and what the child might have felt at her hands nevertheless. While no sane mother would ever want to frustrate and scare her own child, this child might nevertheless have been badly hurt and confused by her. These complicated psychological realisations belong to what Klein called ‘the depressive position,’ a moment of soberness and melancholy when the growing child takes on board (unconsciously) the idea that reality is more complicated and less morally neat than it had ever previously imagined: the mother (or other people generally) cannot be neatly blamed for every setback; almost nothing is totally pure or totally evil, things are a perplexing, thought-provoking mixture of the good and bad…
8. Unfortunately, in Klein’s analysis, not everyone makes it to the depressive position, for some get stuck in a mode of primitive splitting she termed (somewhat dauntingly) the ‘paranoid-schizoid position’. For many years, even into adulthood, these cursed people will find themselves unable to tolerate the slightest ambivalence: keen to preserve their sense of their own innocence, they must either hate or love. They must seek scapegoats or idealise. In relationships, they tend to fall violently in love and then – at the inevitable moment when a lover in some way disappoints them – switch abruptly and become incapable of feeling anything anymore. These unfortunates are likely to move from candidate to candidate, always seeking a vision of complete satisfaction, which is repeatedly violated by an unwitting error on the lover’s part.
9. We don’t have to believe in the literal truth of Klein’s theory to see that it has value for us as an unusual but useful representation of maturity. The impulse to reduce people into what they can do for us (give us milk, make us money, keep us happy), rather than what they are in and of themselves (a multifaceted being with their own often elusive centre of gravity), can be painfully observed in emotional life generally. With Klein’s help, we learn that coming to terms with the ambivalent nature of all relationships belongs to the business of growing up (a task we’re never quite done with) – and is likely to leave us a little sad, if not for a time quite simply depressed.
10. Any upbringing will be imperfect in important ways. The atmosphere of home might have been too strict or too lax; too focused on money or not adequately on top of finances. It might have been emotionally smothering or a bit distant and detached. Family life might have been relentlessly gregarious or limited by lack of confidence. Getting from being a baby to a reasonably functional adult is never a flawless process. We are all, in diverse ways, damaged and insane. The child might have learned to keep its true thoughts and feelings very much to itself and to tread very carefully around fragile parents; and in later life this person may still be rather secretive and cagey in their own relationships. The characteristic was acquired to deal with a childhood situation, but such patterns get deeply embedded and keep on going. Our adaptations to the troubles of our past make us all maddening prospects in the present.
11. The error we’re always tempted to make is to see defects as special to those around us. We get to know their irritating, and disappointing sides – and draw the conclusion that we’ve been especially unlucky. We’ve become involved with people who seemed lovely on the surface but have revealed themselves strangely disturbed and defective. So we look around for new people to be involved with. Our expectations are continually renewed. We blame everything but our hopes.
12. And yet, the reasons why other people are disappointing are universal. The problems may take on a local character, but everyone would have them to a significant extent. We don’t need to know the specific eccentricities we would find in a stranger. But you can be sure there will be some – and that they will, at points, be pretty serious. The only people we can think of as normal are those we don’t yet know very well.
Intentionality and Agitation
1. One of the most fundamental paths to calm is the power to hold on, even in very challenging situations, to a distinction between what someone does – and what they meant to do.
2. In law, the difference is enshrined in the contrasting concepts of murder and manslaughter. The result may be the same; the body is inert in a pool of blood. But we collectively feel it makes a huge difference what the perpetrator’s intentions were.
3. We care about intentions for a very good reason: because if it was deliberate, then the perpetrator will be an ongoing and renewable source of danger from whom the community must be protected. But if it was accidental, then the perpetrator will be inclined to deep apology and restitution, which renders punishment and rage far less necessary. Picture yourself in a restaurant where the waiter has spilt a glass of wine on your (new) laptop. The damage is severe and your rage starts to mount. But whether this was an accident or a willing strategy is key to an appropriate response. A concerted desire to spill signals that the waiter needs to be confronted head on. You may have to take radical, defensive steps: like shouting at them or calling for help. But if it was an accident, then the person isn’t your enemy. There’s no need to swear at them. In fact, it makes a lot of sense to be forgiving and kindly, because benevolence will imminently be heading your way.
4. Motives are, therefore, crucial. But unfortunately, we’re seldom very good at perceiving what motives happen to be involved in the incidents that hurt us. We are easily and wildly mistaken. We see intention where there was none and escalate and confront when no strenuous or agitated responses are warranted.
5. Part of the reason why we jump so readily to dark conclusions and see plots to insult and harm us is a rather poignant psychological phenomenon: self-hatred. The less we like ourselves, the more we appear in our own eyes as really rather plausible targets for mockery and harm. Why would a drill have started up outside, just as we were settling down to work? Why is the room service breakfast not arriving, even though we will have to be in a meeting very soon? Why would the phone operator be taking so long to find our details? Because there is – logically enough – a plot against us. Because we are appropriate targets for these kinds of things, because we are the sort of people against whom disruptive drilling is legitimately likely to be directed: it’s what we deserve.
When we carry an excess of self-disgust around with us, operating just below the radar of conscious awareness, we’ll constantly seek confirmation from the wider world that we really are the worthless people we take ourselves to be. The expectation is almost always set in childhood, where someone close to us is likely to have left us feeling dirty and culpable – and as a result, we now travel through society assuming the worst, not because it is necessarily true (or pleasant) to do so, but because it feels familiar; and because we are the prisoners of past patterns we haven’t yet understood.
Others as Children
1. Small children sometimes behave in stunningly unfair ways: they scream at the person who is looking after them, angrily push away a bowl of animal pasta, throw away something you have just fetched for them. But we rarely feel personally agitated or wounded by their behaviour. And the reason is that we don’t assign a negative motive or mean intention to a small person. We reach around for the most benevolent interpretations. We don’t think they are doing it in order to upset us. We probably think that they are getting a bit tired, or their gums are sore or they are upset by the arrival of a younger sibling. We’ve got a large repertoire of alternative explanations ready in our heads – and none of these lead us to panic or get terribly agitated.
2. This is the reverse of what tends to happen around adults. Here we imagine that people have deliberately got us in their sights. If someone edges in front of us in the airport queue, it’s natural to suppose they have sized us up and reasoned that they can safely take advantage of us. They probably relish the thought of causing us a little distress. But if we employed the infant model of interpretation, our first assumption would be quite different: maybe they didn’t sleep well last night and are too exhausted to think straight; maybe they’ve got a sore knee; maybe they are doing the equivalent of testing the boundaries of parental tolerance: is jumping in front of someone in the queue playing the same role as peeing in the garden? Seen from such a point of view, the adult’s behaviour doesn’t magically become nice or acceptable. But the level of agitation is kept safely low. It’s very touching that we live in a world where we have learnt to be so kind to children: it would be even nicer if we learnt to be a little more generous towards the childlike parts of one another.
3. The French philosopher Émile-Auguste Chartier (know as Alain), was said to be the finest teacher in France in the first half of the 20th century. And he developed a formula for calming himself and his pupils down in the face of irritating people. ‘Never say that people are evil,’ he wrote, ‘You just need to look for the pin.’ What he meant was: look for the source of the agony that drives a person to behave in appalling ways. The calming thought is to imagine that they are suffering off-stage, in some area we cannot see. To be mature is to learn to imagine this zone of pain, in spite of the lack of much available evidence. They may not look as if they were maddened by an inner psychological ailment: they may look chirpy and full of themselves. But the ‘pin’ simply must be there – or they would not be causing us harm.
4. Alain was drawing on one of the great techniques of literary fiction: the ability to take us into the mind of a character, perhaps a very unglamorous or initially off-putting figure, and show us the powerful – but unexpected – things that are going on in their mind. It was a move a novelist like Dostoevsky was deeply excited by: he’d take the kinds of characters that his readers would normally dismiss with a shudder – an outcast, a criminal, a gambler – and describe the complex depths of their inner lives, their capacity for remorse, their hopes, their powers of sensitive perception.
5. This move – the accurate, corrective, reimagining of the inner lives of others – is relevant far outside the realm of literary fiction. It’s a piece of empathetic reflection we constantly need to perform with ourselves and with others. We need to imagine the turmoil, disappointment, worry and sadness in people who may outwardly appear merely aggressive. We need to aim compassion in an unexpected place: at those who annoy us most. To grow calmer, we must move from fear to pity.
Forgiveness: Others are ‘Bad’ from Pain
1. Injuries at the hands of others will happen to us all the time: a small jabbing comment, a joke at our expense amidst a group of old friends, a line of sarcasm, a sneering assessment, a provocative comment on the internet. We may believe that it is natural evil rearing its head. But we should hold on to a truth as basic as it is inviolable: other people have been nasty because they are in pain. The only reason they have hurt us is because they are – somewhere deep inside – hurting themselves. They have been catty and derogatory and foul because they are not well. However outwardly confident they may look, however virile and robust they may appear, their actions are all the evidence we need that they cannot in truth be in a good place. No one solid would ever need to do this.
2. The thought is empowering because nastiness so readily humiliates and reduces us. It turns us into the small damaged party. Without meaning to, we begin to imagine our bully as potent and even somehow impressive. Their vindictiveness demeans us. But the psychological explanation of evil at once reverses the power dynamic. It is you, who has no need to belittle, who is in fact the larger, steelier, more forceful party; you – who feels so defenceless – who is all along actually in power.
3. The thought restores justice. It promises that the guilty party has – after all – been punished along the way. You might not have been able to right the scales personally (they left the room already or kept the conversation flowing too fast for you to protest – and in any case, you’re not the sort to make a fuss). But a kind of punishment has been delivered cosmically already somewhere behind the scenes; their suffering, of which their need to inflict suffering on others is simply incontrovertible evidence, is all you need to know that they have been served their just desserts. You move from being a victim of crime to being an audience to an abstract form of justice. They may not be apologising to you, but they haven’t escaped freely either; their sulphur is proof they are paying a heavy price.
4. This is not merely a pleasant story. A person who feels at ease with themselves can have no need to distress others. We don’t have the energy to be cruel unless, and until, we are in inner torment.
5. Along the way, the theory gives hints at how we might – when we have recovered from the blow – deal with those who dealt it. The temptation is to get stern and cruel back, but the only way to diminish the vicious cycle of hate is – of course – to address its origins, which lie in suffering. There is no point punching back. We must – as the old prophets always told us – learn to look upon our enemies with sorrow, pity and, when we can manage it, a forgiving kind of love.
You have not been singled out: ‘Bureaucracy’
1. We grow up at the centre of a responsive world. Parents massively re-organise their lives so as to accommodate the needs of a new baby. They spend ages selecting just the right presents at birthdays and Christmas and blame themselves if the gifts fail to delight. Account is taken of a child’s mood and physical state: if they’re tired we’ll go home; if they’re hungry we’ll eat. One of the ambiguous achievements of good parenting is that the child comes to assume that the other people really can be alert to their needs. It’s not always that we’ll get just what we want, but that our genuine needs, properly stated, will meet with recognition and understanding.
2. But inevitably we will often run up against the rigid indifference of the wider world. A parking ticket won’t be waived because you are in a hurry and need to pop into the corner shop to buy a lemon for stuffing the chicken for dinner. The tax office won’t say, we understand, you’ve been a bit stressed recently and so why don’t you just return your details when you can, we know how it is: if you’ve been arguing with your partner and it saps your energy for form-filling. Citing these kinds of needs and troubles make perfect sense in intimate relationships. We’re often quite good at making allowances for friends, family, neighbours – and, of course, for children. We can be flexible when we want. But these attitudes stop applying when we cross the boundary from personal dealings to the zone that could be broadly summed up as ‘bureaucracy.’
3. Bureaucracy is a reliable, ever fertile source of agitation in our lives. You’re calling the phone company to change your payment plan. They want to know your online account number, which you’ve forgotten. But you do have your password, your address, your mother’s maiden name and information about your first pet (a Collie-Kelpie cross called Pipi, with a love of chewing carpets). Unfortunately, this won’t suffice. The service person doesn’t doubt your identity; you both know it would be bizarre for an impostor to attempt to use your credit card to reduce the payment on your phone connection. If they’d stolen your card why would they be carefully saving a small amount of money each month, and they’d have to have stolen your phone as well and not bothered to change the number. It’s maddening. But without the particular account number you can’t proceed. It doesn’t matter what the operator wants because if the number isn’t entered, the system won’t make the changes. Human sympathy doesn’t count for much in the face of the purely technical demand for a string of digits.
4. It’s maddening not just because it is time consuming and inconvenient. It sets off fundamental alarm bells. It’s bringing one into a situation where compassion, understanding and human connections don’t have the power to solve problems. Where ‘who you are’ (i.e. a pretty decent, honest, well-meaning individual) doesn’t matter.
5. Or you arrive at the airline check-in kiosk just a couple of minutes after the flight has officially closed. You know the flight hasn’t started boarding, they haven’t even called passengers to the gate. A friend who arrived ten minutes ago and is on the same flight is actually standing next to you. You’ve only got a small bit of hand luggage; the plane isn’t full (you friend was offered a choice of eats). But you can’t get a boarding pass, because there’s a rule that says when the flight is closed, it’s closed. You won’t be able to get home in time to read your daughter a bedtime story.
6. The deeper stress – which gets added to the sheer inconvenience of having to wait for the next plane – is that the details of your needs count for nothing against the purely formal requirements of an administrative system. Something that’s humanly crucial – the warmth of your family life – can carry no weight here; you can’t plead about the lonely child or about how you’ve missed them; the machine (or the over-burdened member of staff you pour out your troubles to) cannot put things right.
7. The evolution of bureaucracy hasn’t been an accident. In a traditional society power is personal – and the relationships to the people is intimate. The clan chief knows and is related to the governed. So the idea of being understood is always there as a hope (however it might have been frustrated in practice): there’s the sense that if you sway this individual they can do what they think is fitting and appropriate: they can decide for themselves what to do. Or it could be hugely unfair – the opportunities for favouritism, nepotism, bribery are endless.
8. Bureaucracy, on the whole, is a necessary component of a good enough society. This was the point articulated by the German sociologist Max Weber at the very end of the 19th century. Weber saw that modern government and industry operate on a large scale. And they attain a higher degree of efficiency and fairness by instituting systematic process and standard rules that set up ‘correct’ ways of doing things. Officials and employees are required to apply the rules in an impartial and accurate way. And standing back we know why this is so. It is to avoid favouritism and to avoid complicated special pleading that would massively clog up the system. This leads of course to a conflict with the specific contours of the individual case.
9. The apparent unresponsiveness is not brought about by a deliberate desire to ignore people’s particular situations. It’s an unfortunate but largely unavoidable by-product of good and reasonable intentions. One’s specific needs are being ignored in the broad interests of fairness, keeping costs down and keeping a big, complex undertaking going. We get agitated when we find ourselves at the intersection of our own particular needs and the average, usual case that the system is designed to get good at dealing with. It’s not – as our panic reactions sometimes suggest – that bureaucracy is out to get us or that those who manage it are soulless robots. The explanation is strangely banal. It’s that the price of an overall drive to efficiency is that some small percentage of cases will becomes horribly entangled for what look like tiny reasons. And every so often we will find ourselves at just such a point.
10. The desperation we sometimes feel around bureaucracy is part of a larger fact about the hardness and indifference of the external world. At key points your needs, no matter how worthy, get nowhere: a hotel won’t put you up because you are really longing to visit the city or could really do with a few days on a lounger by a pool. You can’t get moved to the front of the supermarket checkout queue because you are feeling bored; the shop won’t give you a pair of trousers because they suit you perfectly; the restaurant won’t feed you because you are hungry. Or, no matter how urgent some bit of work might be, your laptop has trouble communicating with the printer – you just get the message ‘cannot locate printer’. And nothing you do seem to make any difference. Our private concerns – however intense and reasonable and good – on their own count for nothing in face of the impersonal forces of commerce, technology and nature. We won’t be cut any slack.
11. The calming move sees such unfortunate incidents as inevitable, rather than as avoidable, affronts. They are unavoidable in the way that in the past the journey from Edinburgh to London could not be accomplished in less than a week, no matter how urgent the mission. The vision of the world made that time frame seem not shocking or disappointing or maddening, but completely necessary. One’s irritation and hope would be focused on the margins: one might fervently hope to arrive in 167 hours and start to get very edgy if after 171 hours one is still somewhere in East Anglia.
12. If we assume from the start that quite often technology will be baffling (because it is still in some respects in its own stage-coach era) then its failures will appear less offensive. If we take it for granted that banks, utility companies, airlines and governments will be significantly inefficient 5% of the time, we will understand that every so often our dealings with them will get tangled. The foundation of such calm is understanding. Our wider vision of the world and of history frames our sense of what is likely to happen and why. We move from irritating explanations – the company doesn’t care, tech people are idiots – to less inflammatory and more accurate ones: the pursuit of efficiency will inevitably produce a certain number of maddening cases that don’t fit the rule; the development of new technology will, inevitably, fall short of its most impressive versions in a significant number of ways.
13. Being calm does not mean one thinks the situation is nice or agreeable or interesting. It just means that one is adding to the difficulties by fuming and seething to no good effect. Which, stated in the abstract, sound like a very small development. But which, when we recall the times of soul-churning rage reveals itself as a huge, and deeply benign, achievement. It is our wider vision of the world that makes the difference between inconvenience and high-level consternation.
Acceptance of Anxiety
1. It would be nice to think that it would be possible to eventually achieve deep and permanent calm. But this hope can itself become a source of agitation. Setting our sights on a very appealing – but actually unreachable – goal leads to frustration and disappointment. The greater the investment in the ideal of unruffled peace of mind the more upsetting any failure of poise becomes. It’s painful of course but there’s also a comic side to the clash between hope and what actually tends to happen: the yoga master who has spent years pursuing serenity in an isolated monastery setting off to demonstrate their poise to the world and getting stressed and deranged at the airport when their luggage fails to appear on the carousel. It isn’t their suffering that’s funny. We’re laughing with relief at the reminder that getting agitated isn’t simply a personal failing of our own, it’s a universal and unavoidable part of the human condition.
2. We should never seek the total elimination of anxiety. Indeed, to do so can become a source of agitation in itself. Knowing we cannot always be calm belongs to the attempt to be calm. We carry too many sources of stubborn agitation inside us. Beyond any specific thing we happen to be worrying about, looked at over time, a stern conclusion is inescapable: we simply are often anxious, to our core, in the very basic make-up of our being.
3. Consider that quintessence of anxiety: the panic attack. You’re on a plane on the tarmac and it’s time to shut the doors. Suddenly, the insanity strikes you. You’ll be in a highly explosive sealed aluminium tube, breathing recycled kerosene-infused air, for the next six-and-a-half hours, with no way of getting off or out. The pilot may be exhausted or inwardly distressed. Air traffic control at any of the 40 waymarks along the journey may get momentarily distracted. You’ll be streaming 5 miles above the surface of the planet. No one else seems remotely sensitive to what any of this implies – they’re chatting and reading magazines – but for you, it’s the beginning of a kind of hell. You are on the verge of giving way to what we currently know as a panic attack.
4. Or you’re walking up the narrow stairs to a party in a top floor apartment. It’s the birthday of a friend of a friend and you can hear the sound of voices and bass through the door. This is customarily described as fun – but you’re overwhelmingly conscious that you’ll hardly know anyone, that you’ll have to explain who you are and what you do to complete, busy and not necessarily overly sympathetic strangers and that if you want to be alone and unobserved for a while, the bathroom is liable to have a line of seven drunken people outside it. Once again, the descent into panic begins.
5. Or you wake up at three thirty in the morning, the house is quiet. Outside an owl is hooting. The papers from work are by your bed. You’ll be at the conference in just a few hours. And promptly, the strangeness of it all, of being alive, of being you, of leading your sort of life, of no longer being the child you once were, of having one day to die, hits you. Your heart starts racing, your palms begin to sweat; you give way to panic.
6. Panic attacks are commonly interpreted, by society at large but also by their confused, guilty or shamed sufferers, as an illness close to madness: the result of a mysterious chemically-based flaw in the brain that severs us from reality and normalcy. The suggested treatment is therefore medical, involving forceful attempts to dampen and anaesthetise parts of the misfiring mind.
7. Yet, such an interpretation – however kind in its intentions – depends on a prior, and not necessarily unassailable or wise assumption: that the normal response to the conditions of existence should and must be measured calm. However, when we look imaginatively at what is actually going on in our minds as anxiety mounts, we have to conclude that we are at such points acutely sensitive to what are a host of genuinely worrying things. Our anxiety may be unhelpful and socially problematic. But it is not, for that matter, necessarily unfounded or delusional – a thought that can spare us, if not panic itself, at least the secondary debilitating concern that we have lost our minds.
8. The root cause of an anxiety attack is something both troublesome and intensely accurate and beautiful-in-origin: sensitivity. Our thoughts may be very disturbing but they are not unreasonable or devilish. In our hellish moments, we’re picking up on some fundamental aspects of the human condition that we otherwise brutishly keep at bay in a world that insists on cheerful blitheness as the default mode. Flying truly is a properly implausible activity filled with genuine dangers which it takes a resolutely leaden mind not to notice. The average party does require us to present a radically simplified, inauthentic self to a succession of indifferent strangers. It is deeply odd that human beings (who once roamed the savannas) should congregate in deafening cuboid chambers, sucking small quantities of fermented fruit juice from transparent containers, while inside their brains unknown and possibly dark thoughts may circulate. It might not take much for these shadowy characters to gang up and assault us.
9. The very same sensitivity that lies behind our attacks is also and rightly at the heart of some of the most prestigious moments of culture. The same sense of the oddity of being alive – the weirdness of people, the uncertain brevity of life, the overwhelming vastness of the world of which we occupy such a minute portion, the bizarre condition of being a self-conscious creature, an animal that can turn its mental gaze inwards and track each moment and hold the years in comparison – has repeatedly been shared by the world’s most acclaimed artists, philosophers and poets.
10. In her great novel Middlemarch, the 19th-century English writer George Eliot, a deeply self-aware but also painfully self-conscious and anxious figure, reflected on what it would be like if we were truly sensitive, open to the world and felt the implications of everything (she was describing herself): ‘If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.’
11. It is, as Eliot recognises, both a privilege and a profound nightmare to be correctly attuned to reality, to hear that grass growing and that squirrel’s heart beating – and, also, by implication, to sense the judgement in the social encounter, the threat of the plane engine, the latent violence in the stranger’s stare, the enclosed nature of the meeting room. We might well, as she sometimes did, long for a little more ‘well-wadded stupidity’ to block it all out.
12. Nevertheless, Eliot’s lines offer us a way to reinterpret our anxiety with greater dignity and benevolence. It is not a sign of degeneracy. It is not the result of not seeing reality, but of not being able to put it out of one’s mind. It is – though difficult – a kind of masterpiece of insight, like a vision of a saint, where rare things not often heard or seen come into consciousness. It emerges from a dose of clarity that is (currently) too powerful for us to cope with – but isn’t for that matter wrong. We panic because we rightly feel how thin the veneer of civilisation is, how mysterious other people are, how improbable it is that we exist at all, how everything that seems to matter now will eventually be annihilated, how random many of the turnings of our lives are, how prey we are to accident; how ultimately surprising it is that our thoughts and feeling as tethered to vulnerable, tender packets of flesh and bone. Anxiety is simply insight that we haven’t yet found a productive use for, that hasn’t yet made its way into art or philosophy. It’s a mad world that insists that the anxious are the ones who have lost their minds.
13. Of course we sometimes panic. The greater question is why we ever believed we might not – and came to associate normality with robustness. Our panic attacks aren’t drawing us further from reality, they are an insistent tug back to it. We are in such a hurry to see anxiety as sick, we fail to notice its phosphorescent health. There might be fewer such attacks if a degree of alarm were more generally factored in as a legitimate, constant response to the oddity of flying, going to parties or more widely, of being alive.
14. We should never exacerbate our suffering by trying to push our disquiet aggressively away. Our lack of calm isn’t deplorable or a sign of weakness. It is simply the justifiable expression of our mysterious participation in a disordered, uncertain world.
15. Though we may focus day-to-day on this or that particular worry creating static in our minds, what we are really up against is anxiety as a permanent feature of life, something irrevocable, existential, dogged – and responsible for ruining a dominant share of our brief time on earth. Tortured by anxiety, we naturally fall prey to powerful fantasies about what might – finally – bring us calm. At certain points, especially in the north, the fantasies latch on to travel. On a sunny island, at last, there would be peace: under the clear blue sky, on the island eleven-and-a-half hours from here, seven time zones away, with the warm water lapping at our feet, and with access to a seaside villa on pontoons, with Egyptian cotton sheets and a refreshing breeze. It is just a matter of holding on for a few more months – and parting with an extraordinary sum. Or perhaps we would be calm if the house could be as we really want it: with everything in its place, no more clutter, pristine walls, ample cupboards, stripped oak, limestone, recessed lighting and a bank of new appliances. Or perhaps we will be calm when one day we reach the right place in the company, or the novel is sold, or the film is made or our shares are worth $5 bn – and we can walk into a room of strangers and they will know at once. Or (and this one we keep a little more to ourselves), there might be calm if we had the right sort of person in our lives, someone who could properly understand us, a creature with whom it wouldn’t be so difficult, who would be kind and playfully sympathetic, who would have thoughtful, compassionate eyes and in whose arms we could lie in peace, almost like a child – though not quite. Travel, Beauty, Status and Love: the four great contemporary ideals around which our fantasies of calm collect and which taken together are responsible for the lion’s share of the frenzied activities of the modern economy: its airports, long-haul jets and resort hotels; its overheated property markets, furniture companies and unscrupulous building contractors; its networking events, status-driven media and competitive business deals; its bewitching actors, soaring love songs and busy divorce lawyers.
16. Yet despite the promises and the passion expended in the pursuit of these goals, none of them will work. There will be anxiety at the beach, in the pristine home, after the sale of the company, and in the arms of anyone we will ever seduce, however often we try.
Anxiety is our fundamental state for well-founded reasons:
– Because we are intensely vulnerable physical beings, a complicated network of fragile organs all biding their time before eventually letting us down catastrophically at a moment of their own choosing.
– Because we have insufficient information upon which to make most major life decisions: we are steering more or less blind.
– Because we can imagine so much more than we have and live in mobile-driven, mediatised societies where envy and restlessness will be a constant.
– Because we are the descendants of the great worriers of the species, the others having been trampled and torn apart by wild animals, and because we still carry in our bones – into the calm of the suburbs – the terrors of the savannah.
– Because the progress of our careers and of our finances play themselves out within the tough-minded, competitive, destructive, random workings of an uncontained capitalist engine.
– Because we rely for our self-esteem and sense of comfort on the love of people we cannot control and whose needs and hopes will never align seamlessly with our own.
All of which is not to say that there aren’t better and worse ways to approach our condition.
17. The single most important move is acceptance. There is no need – on top of everything else – to be anxious that we are anxious. The mood is no sign that our lives have gone wrong, merely that we are alive. A calm life isn’t one that’s always perfectly serene. It is one where we are committed to calming down more readily, where we strive for more realistic expectations; where we can understand better why certain problems are occurring, we can be more adept at finding a consoling perspective. The progress is painfully limited and imperfect – but it is genuine.
18. The more calm matters to us, the more we will be aware of all the very many times when we have been less calm than we might have been. We’ll be sensitive to our own painfully frequent bouts of irritation and upset. It can feel laughably hypocritical. Surely a genuine devotion to calm would mean ongoing serenity? But this isn’t really a fair judgment to make, because being calm all the time isn’t a viable option. What counts is the commitment one is making to the idea of being calmer. You can count legitimately as a lover of calm when you ardently want to be calm, not when you succeed at being calm on all occasions. However frequent the lapses, the devotion counts as real.
19. Furthermore, it’s a psychological law that those who are most attracted to calm will also – in all probability – be especially irritable and by nature prone to particularly high levels of anxiety. We’ve got a mistaken picture of what the lover of calm looks like; we assume them to be among the most tranquil of the species. We’re working with the highly misleading background assumption that the lover of something is the person who is really good at it. But the person who loves something is the one who is hugely aware of how much they lack it. And, therefore, of how much they need it.
20. We should spare ourselves the burden of loneliness. We are far from the only ones with this problem. Everyone is more anxious than they are inclined to tell us. We’ve collectively failed to admit to ourselves what we are truly like.
21. We must learn to laugh about our anxieties – laughter being the exuberant expression of relief when a hitherto private agony is given a well-crafted social formulation in a joke. We can laugh about the terrors of having a body, about the absurd scale of our ambitions, and about how easily we lose perspective on everything. We should hug; not the forced intimacy or oppressive bonhomie of most modern hugs, but the melancholy sympathetic way Botticelli’s angels do it, having come down to earth to offer comfort to humans for the brute facts of earthly existence.
We must suffer alone. But we can at least hold out our arms to our similarly tortured, fractured, and above all else, anxious neighbours, as if to say, in the kindest way possible: ‘I know…’
It can be humbling to realise just how many great achievements haven’t been the result of superior talent or technical know-how, merely that strange buoyancy of the soul we call confidence.
We spend vast amounts of time acquiring confidence in narrow technical fields: confidence at quadratic equations or bioengineering, economics or pole vaulting. But we overlook the primordial need to acquire a more free-ranging variety of confidence, one that can serve us across a range of tasks: speaking to strangers at parties, asking someone to marry us, suggesting a fellow passenger turn down their music, changing the world.
We so often lack confidence because we implicitly regard its possession as a matter of slightly freakish and irreplicable good luck. Some people simply are very confident, for reasons that neuroscientists may one day uncover. But – we tell ourselves – there isn’t much we can do about our particular situation. We are stuck with the confidence levels we were born with.
In fact, the opposite is true. Confidence is a skill, not a gift from the gods. And it is a skill founded on a set of ideas about the world and our natural place within it. These ideas can be systematically studied and gradually learnt, so that the roots of excessive hesitancy and compliance can be overcome. We can school ourselves in the art of confidence.
2. Idiocy and Confidence
In well-meaning attempts to boost our confidence ahead of challenging moments, people often try to draw our attention to our strengths: our intelligence, our competence, our experience.
But this can – curiously – have awkward consequences. There’s a type of under-confidence that arises specifically when we grow too attached to our own dignity and become anxious around any situation that might seem to threaten it. We hold back from challenges in which there is any risk of ending up looking ridiculous – which comprises, of course, almost all the most interesting situations.
In a foreign city, we grow reluctant to ask anyone to guide us to the nice bars, because they might think us an ignorant, pitiable lost tourist. We might long to kiss someone – but never let on out of a fear that they could dismiss us as a predatory loser. Or at work, we don’t apply for a promotion, in case the senior management deems us delusionally arrogant. In a concerted bid never to look foolish, we don’t venture very far from our cocoon; and thereby – from time to time at least – miss out on the best opportunities of our lives.
At the heart of our under-confidence is a skewed picture of how dignified a normal person can be. We imagine that it might be possible, after a certain age, to place ourselves beyond mockery. We trust that it is an option to lead a good life without regularly making a complete idiot of ourselves.
One of the most charming books written in early modern Europe is In Praise of Folly (1509) by the Dutch scholar and philosopher Erasmus. In its pages, Erasmus advances a hugely liberating argument. In a warm tone, he reminds us that everyone, however important and learned they might be, is a fool. No one is spared, not even the author. However well-schooled he himself was, Erasmus remained – he insists – as much of a nitwit as anyone else: his judgement is faulty, his passions get the better of him, he is prey to superstition and irrational fear, he is shy whenever he has to meet new people, he drops things at elegant dinners. This is deeply cheering, for it means that our own repeated idiocies do not have to exclude us from the best company. Looking like a prick, making blunders and doing bizarre things in the night doesn’t render us unfit for society; it just makes us a bit more like the greatest scholar of the northern European Renaissance.
There’s a similarly uplifting message to be pulled from the work of Pieter Bruegel. His central work – The Dutch Proverbs presents a comically disenchanted view of human nature.
Everyone, he suggests, is pretty much deranged: here’s a man throwing his money into the river; there’s a soldier squatting on the fire and burning his trousers; someone is intently bashing his head against a brick wall, someone else is biting a pillar. Importantly, the painting is not an attack on just a few unusually awful people: it’s a picture of parts of all of us.
Bruegel’s and Erasmus’s work proposes that the way to greater confidence isn’t to reassure ourselves of our own dignity; it’s to grow at peace with the inevitable nature of our ridiculousness. We are idiots now, we have been idiots in the past, and we will be idiots again in the future – and that is OK. There aren’t any other available options for human beings.
We grow timid when we allow ourselves to be over-exposed to the respectable sides of others. Such are the pains people take to appear normal, we collectively create a phantasm – problematic for everyone – which suggests that normality might be possible.
But once we learn to see ourselves as already, and by nature, foolish, it really doesn’t matter so much if we do one more thing that might look quite stupid. The person we try to kiss could indeed think us ridiculous. The individual we asked directions from in a foreign city might regard us with contempt. But if these people did so, it wouldn’t be news to us; they would only be confirming what we had already gracefully accepted in our hearts long ago: that we, like them – and every other person on the earth – are a nitwit. The risk of trying and failing would have its sting substantially removed. The fear of humiliation would no longer stalk us in the shadows of our minds. We would grow free to give things a go by accepting that failure was the norm. And every so often, amidst the endless rebuffs we’d have factored in from the outset, it would work: we’d get a kiss, we’d make a friend, we’d get a raise.
The road to greater confidence begins with a ritual of telling oneself solemnly every morning, before heading out for the day, that one is a muttonhead, a cretin, a dumbbell and an imbecile. One or two more acts of folly should, thereafter, not matter very much at all.
3. Impostor Syndrome
Faced with challenges, we often leave the possibility of success to others, because we don’t seem to ourselves to be anything like the sort of people who win. When we approach the idea of acquiring responsibility or prestige, we quickly become convinced that we are simply – as we see it – ‘impostors’, like an actor in the role of a pilot, wearing the uniform and making sunny cabin announcements while incapable of even starting the engines.
The root cause of impostor syndrome is a hugely unhelpful picture of what people at the top of society are really like. We feel like impostors not because we are uniquely flawed, but because we can’t imagine how deeply flawed the elite must necessarily also be beneath a more or less polished surface.
The impostor syndrome has its roots far back in childhood – specifically in the powerful sense children have that their parents are really very different from them. To a four year old, it is incomprehensible that their mother was once their age and unable to drive a car, tell the plumber what to do, decide other people’s bedtimes and go on trips with colleagues. The gulf in status appears absolute and unbridgeable. The child’s passionate loves – bouncing on the sofa, Pingu, Toblerone… – have nothing to do with those of adults, who like to sit at a table talking for hours (when they could be rushing about outside) and drink beer which tastes of rusty metal. We start out in life with a very strong impression that competent and admirable other people are really not like us at all.
This childhood experience dovetails with a basic feature of the human condition. We know ourselves from the inside, but others only from the outside. We’re constantly aware of all our anxieties and doubts from within, yet all we know of others is what they happen to do and tell us, a far narrower, and more edited source of information. We are very often left to conclude that we must be at the more freakish and revolting end of human nature.
But really, we’re just failing to imagine that others are every bit as fragile as we are. Without knowing what it is that troubles or wracks outwardly impressive people, we can be sure that it will be something. We might not know exactly what they regret, but there will be agonising feelings of some kind. We won’t be able to say exactly what kind of unusual sexual kink obsesses them, but there will be one. And we can know this because vulnerabilities and compulsions cannot be curses that have just descended upon us uniquely, they are universal features of the human mental equipment.
The solution to the impostor syndrome lies in making a crucial leap of faith, the leap that others’ minds work in basically much the same way as do ours. Everyone must be as anxious, uncertain and wayward as we are.
Traditionally, being a member of the aristocracy provided a fast-track to confidence-giving knowledge about the true characters of the elite. In 18th-century England, an admiral of the Fleet would have looked deeply impressive to outsiders (more or less everyone), with their splendid uniform (cockaded hat, loads of gold) and thousands of subordinates to do their bidding. But to a young earl or marquis – who had moved in the same social circles all their life – the admiral would appear in a very different light. He would see them losing money at cards in the club the night before; he would know that their pet name in the nursery was ‘Sticky’ because of their inept way of eating jam doughnuts; his aunt would still tell the story of the ridiculous way the admiral tried to proposition her sister in the Yew Walk; he would know they were in debt to his grandfather, who regarded them as pretty dim. Through acquaintance, the aristocrat would have reached a wise awareness that being an admiral was not an unattainable position reserved for the gods. It was the sort of thing Sticky could do.
The other traditional release from under-confidence of this type came from the opposite end of the social spectrum: being a servant. ‘No man is a hero to his valet,’ remarked the 16th-century essayist Montaigne – a lack of respect which may at points prove deeply encouraging, given how much our awe can sap our will to rival or match our heroes. Great public figures aren’t ever so impressive to those who look after them, who see them drunk in the early hours, examine the stains on their underpants, hear their secret misgivings about matters on which they publicly hold firm views and witness them weeping with shame over strategic blunders they officially deny.
The valet and the aristocrat reasonably and automatically grasp the limitations of the authority of the elite. Fortunately, we don’t have to be either one to liberate ourselves from inhibiting degrees of respect for the powerful; imagination will serve just as well. One of the tasks that works of art should ideally accomplish is to take us more reliably into the minds of people we are intimidated by and show us the more average, muddled and fretful experiences unfolding inside.
At another point in his Essays, Montaigne playfully informed his readers in plain French that: ‘Kings and philosophers shit and so do ladies’.
Montaigne’s thesis is that for all the evidence that exists about this shitting, we might not guess that grand people ever had to squat on a toilet. We never see distinguished types doing this – while, of course, we are immensely well informed of our own digestive activities. And therefore, we build up a sense that because we have crude and sometimes rather desperate bodies, we can’t be philosophers, kings, or ladies; and that if we set ourselves up in these roles, we’d just be impostors.
With Montaigne’s guidance, we are invited to take on a saner sense of what powerful people are actually like. But the real target isn’t just an under-confidence about bodily functions; it is psychological timidity. Montaigne might have said that kings, philosophers and ladies are wracked by self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy, sometimes bump into doors and have weird lustful thoughts about members of their own families. Furthermore, instead of considering only the big figures of 16th-century France, we could update the example and refer to CEOs, corporate lawyers, news presenters and successful startup entrepreneurs. They too can’t cope, feel they might buckle under pressure and look back on certain decisions with shame and regret. No less than shitting, such feelings belong to us all. Our inner frailties don’t cut us off from doing what they do. If we were in their roles, we’d not be impostors, we’d simply be normal.
Making a leap of faith around what other people are like helps to humanise the world. Whenever we encounter a stranger we’re not really encountering such a person, we’re encountering someone who is – in spite of the surface evidence to the contrary – in basic ways very much like us – and that therefore nothing fundamental stands between us and the possibility of responsibility, success and fulfilment.
4. Trust in the System
There is no more common response, when we take our ideas out into the world, than to hear a ‘no’ in return.
We develop a proposal at work that seems pretty good to us. We do some research, put together strategic options and hand it to a senior colleague who agrees to give it some thought. Then, after six weeks, a message comes back: the firm is grateful for the suggestion, but won’t be interested in taking the plan further. There’s no very precise explanation, just a general view: the timing is wrong, it doesn’t fit with general policy, it’s not the kind of thing that’s right for the team… We may be very disappointed, but we take the comments on the chin. Our suggestion couldn’t really have been a good one. We should perhaps be more careful in the future.
Or maybe we’ve hit upon an idea for a new kind of product. It looks to us as if there might be a significant gap in the market. We call in a business advisor and talk through it. But they tell us, with a striking degree of sarcasm, that it’s not going to work. They’ve got very elegant glasses and once worked with BMW and Google. Later, we delete the whole presentation from our laptop.
Or, perhaps for years, we’ve been happily using our old phone. It’s not terribly sophisticated but it does just the things we want. Unfortunately, we leave it on a train. At the shop, they’re not at all helpful. They tell us our model is absurdly outdated, equipped with a stone age processor and a 960×540-pixel resolution display that doesn’t respond well to any of the new swipe commands. There’s nothing to be done. We accept the suggestion of a phone we don’t like so much. Then a few weeks later, at a conference, we see someone happily using exactly the phone we wanted.
In big and small instances, we cave in to the judgements of The System, besides whose might and invincibility our own hopes seem feeble and disposable. The root of our under-confidence is a touching, but ultimately hugely dangerous degree of trust, a legacy of times in our lives when those in charge properly had our best interests in mind – and took the time to assess every one of our needs. When a parent told us we couldn’t use the computer in our bedroom or that it wasn’t advisable for us to go on the school trip to Japan, we could trust that they weren’t being merely mean or unimaginative; they were the bearers of bad news out of mature benevolence.
From such experiences, we may develop a more generalised belief in the open-heartedness of those who frustrate us. The senior manager, business advisor or sales assistant are, we feel, in their own ways as careful about their judgements as our own families.
Which, of course, can’t be true. At the end of the Classical period, on the cusp of the 4th and 5th centuries of the modern era, as the Roman Empire in the West was collapsing, the Christian philosopher St Augustine tried to describe the essential, unavoidable flaws of all human systems. He drew a fundamental contrast between two realms. One he called the City of God, an imagined ideal in which institutions could be exactly the way we’d like them to be: wise, altruistic and benign. And on the other hand, there was what he called the City of Man, a realm which described institutions as they actually were: occasionally well-meaning, but frequently lazy, casual, corrupt or indifferent.
The dark brilliancy of Augustine’s diagnosis was his conviction that it would by nature be impossible for human institutions ever to meet our hopes. They could never be the wise and kindly organisations that they presented themselves as being. Such aspirations belonged to what he thought of as the after-life – or, as as we might now more reasonably put it, to nowhere.
Children have great trouble imagining the inner lives of those in authority. A young school child can be deeply puzzled to see their teacher on a Sunday morning at the shops or jogging round the park. In their minds, this mighty person is simply and exclusive ‘the teacher’. Their whole life (the child thinks) revolves around the classroom and the large desk they stand behind. They have no history, they couldn’t have been a child themselves, they have no problems or frustrated dreams or wakeful nights. Our childish selves struggle to flesh out the reality of adult existence.
But maturity means – ideally – going from the myth of a person, however important their status in a system, to a full recognition of their humanity. We finally pay others a strange but valid compliment when we accept them as versions of the same complex and imperfect creatures we know ourselves to be. This may feel like disenchantment, but it is also a crucial vehicle for a future in which the word ‘no’ seems just a little less impartial and beyond question.
5. History is Now
One of the things that separates confident from diffident people is their approach to history. Broadly-speaking, the unconfident believe that history is over; the confident trust that it is still in the process of being made – one day possibly by themselves.
The way we enter the world carries with it an inherent bias towards an impression that history has been settled. Everything around us conspires to give off a sense that the status quo is entrenched. We are surrounded by people far taller than we are, who follow traditions that have been in place for decades, even centuries. Our understanding of time hugely over-privileges the immediate moment. Last year feels, to a five year old, like a century ago. The house we live in appears as immutable as an ancient temple; the school we go to looks as though it has been performing the same rituals since the earth began. We are constantly told why things are the way they are and encouraged to accept that reality is not made according to our wishes. We come to trust that human beings have fully mapped the range of the possible. If something hasn’t happened, it’s either because it can’t happen – or it shouldn’t.
The result is a deep wariness around imagining alternatives. There is no point starting a new business (the market must be full already), pioneering a new approach to the arts (everything is already set in a fixed pattern) or giving loyalty to a new idea (it either exists or is mad).
When we study history, however, the picture changes sharply. Once time is speeded up and we climb up a mountain of minutes to survey the centuries, change appears constant. New continents are discovered, alternative ways of governing nations are pioneered, ideas of how to dress and whom to worship are transformed. Once people wore strange cloaks and tilled the land with clumsy instruments. A long time ago, they chopped a king’s head off. Way back, people got around in fragile ships, ate the eyeballs of sheep, used chamber pots and didn’t know how to fix teeth.
We come away from all this knowing, at least in theory, that things do change, but in practice – almost without noticing – we tend to distance ourselves and our own societies from a day-to-day belief that we belong to the same ongoing turbulent narrative and are, at present, its central actors. History, we feel, is what used to happen; it can’t really be what is happening around us in the here and now. Things have – in our vicinity at least – settled down.
To attenuate this insensitivity to the omnipresence of change and, by extension, the passivity it breeds, we might turn to some striking lines in T. S. Eliot’s cycle of poems, the Four Quartets:
So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.
Winter afternoons, around 4pm, have a habit of feeling particularly resolved and established, especially in quiet English country chapels, many of which date back to the middle ages. The air in such chapels is still and musty. The heavy stone floors have been slowly worn away by the feet of the faithful. There might be a leaflet advertising an upcoming concert and a charity box hoping to catch our eye. Over the altar, a stained glass window of the saints (Peter and John, holding a lamb each) glows from the last of the light. These are not places and times to think about changing the world, everything hints that we would be wiser to accept the way things are, walk back home across the fields, light a fire and settle down for the evening. Hence the surprise of Eliot’s third line, his resonant: ‘History is now and England.’ In other words, everything that we associate with history – the impetuous daring of great people, the dramatic alterations in values, the revolutionary questioning of long-held beliefs, the upturning of the old order – is still going on, even at this very moment, in outwardly peaceful, apparently unchanging places like the countryside near Shamley Green, in Surrey, where Eliot wrote the poem. We don’t see it only because we are standing far too close. The world is being made and remade at every instant. And therefore any one of us has a theoretical chance of being an agent in history, on a big or small scale. It is open to our own times to build a new city as beautiful as Venice, to change ideas as radically as the Renaissance, to start an intellectual movement as resounding as Buddhism.
The present has all the contingency of the past – and is every bit as malleable. It should not intimidate us. How we love, travel, approach the arts, govern, educate ourselves, run businesses, age and die are all up for further development. Current views may appear firm, but only because we exaggerate their fixity. The majority of what exists is arbitrary, neither inevitable nor right, simply the result of muddle and happenstance. We should be confident, even at sunset on winter afternoons, of our power to join the stream of history – and, however modestly, change its course.
One of the greatest sources of despair is the belief that things should have been easier than they have in fact turned out to be. We give up not simply because events are difficult, but because we hadn’t expected them to be so. The struggle is interpreted as humiliating proof that we do not have the talent required to carry out our wishes. We grow subdued and timid and eventually surrender, because a struggle this great seems impossibly rare.
The capacity to remain confident is therefore to a significant extent a matter of having internalised a correct narrative about what difficulties we are likely to encounter. And yet, unfortunately, the narratives we have to hand are – for a range of reasons – deeply misleading. We’re surrounded by stories of success that conspire to make success seem easier than it in fact is – and therefore that unwittingly destroy the confidence we can muster in the face of our obstacles.
Some of the explanations for the preponderance of optimistic narratives are benign. If we told a small child what lay in store for them – the loneliness, the fractious relationships, the unfulfilling jobs – they might cave in and give up. We prefer to read them the adventures of Miffy, the adorable bunny.
Dick Bruna, Miffy
At other points, the reasons for the silence around difficulty are slightly more self-serving; we are trying to impress people. The successful artist or skilled entrepreneur go to great lengths to disguise their labours and make their work appear simple, natural and obvious. ‘Art lies in concealing art,’ knew the Roman poet Horace.
The great stand-up comic does not reveal the time spent agonising over every detail of their performance. They will not tell us of the anxieties around whether it was best to deliver the last line sitting, to convey an impression of stunned passivity, or standing, to imply a stifled energy about to be released; or whether it was preferable to use the word ‘tiny’ or simply go with ‘very, very small’ as the punch-line to the opening joke. Appearing to say the first thing that comes into one’s head is the result of decades of rehearsal.
As customers, we pay to have news of struggle kept from us. We don’t wish to read the novelist’s early drafts; we don’t want to hear the company’s difficulties setting up the hotel or the engineer’s complains about the hydraulic system. We want to admire the polished surface of the gadget without reminder of the cramped circuits beneath.
But there comes a point, when we move from consumers to producers, that we start to pay in heightened currency for our ignorance, the currency of confidence and self-respect. We see our early failures as proof of conclusive ineptness – rather than as the inevitable stages on every path to mastery. Without an accurate developmental map, we can’t position ourselves properly vis-à-vis our defeats. We have not seen enough of the rough drafts of those we admire – and therefore cannot forgive ourselves the horror of our early attempts.
Certain societies have been wiser than our own in communicating the challenges of all noble endeavours. For instance, the ancient temple dedicated to the Goddess Aphaia, on the Greek island of Aegina, was decorated with prominent pieces of sculpture that set out to give everyone a very precise idea of what your life was going to be like as a warrior. Someone would try to stab you with a spear; the person standing next to you in the phalanx would collapse; you’d be pushed over backwards, bash your head with your own sword and a determined adversary would probably fire an arrow in your back as you turned to flee.
Those who commissioned the temple were deliberately preparing their people for the hardships of battle, so that when they entered the field, they would be ready. At the same time, they were dignifying the lives of those who dared undergo these titanic struggles. The warriors deserved prestige – the temple builders were saying – because war was never a route to easy glory. It was imperative that such statuary would not be hidden away, but displayed right in the centre of town, so that one would encounter it on serious and important occasions from youth onwards. Despite their limited resources, the ancient Greek communities went to astonishing lengths to remind themselves of what the most prestigious job available – spearing enemies – actually involved.
We are, by contrast, recklessly short on detailed, honest and compelling accounts of what to expect around key aspects of our professional lives. To shore up our confidence, we would need regularly to encounter the modern equivalents of the works of the classical sculptors: films, poems, songs and novels that would represent for us the agonies that unfold in the unglamorous but hugely representative hubs of modern capitalism; the world’s distribution centres, tax offices, airport lounges, HR conferences and management retreats.
The confidence-boosting artists would show us, without reserve or coyness, what a successful life truly involves. They would take us through the tears we will shed in office cubicles, the meetings in which our ideas will be rejected and our projections thwarted, the mocking articles we will read about ourselves in newspapers, the hours we’ll spend in lonely foreign hotel rooms while we miss out on our children’s school plays, the sense that our best insights have arrived far too late, the inability to sleep from worry and confusion.
And thereby, we’d be better placed to meet our own eventual experiences against a realistic set of expectations. Our setbacks would take on a different meaning. Instead of looking like confidence-destroying evidence of our incapacities, they would much more readily strike us as proof that we were on the standard path to what we admire. We’d interpret our worries, reversals and troubles as unavoidable landmarks, not aberrations or fateful warnings.
Confidence isn’t the belief that we won’t meet obstacles. It is the recognition that difficulties are an inescapable part of all worthwhile contributions. We need to ensure we have to hand plenty of narratives that normalise the role of pain, anxiety and disappointment in even the best and most successful lives.
There is so much that we put off every day: the relationship that it would, for the sake of both participants, perhaps be better to end; the new person it would be thrilling to get close to; the alternative career that promises to latch on to our deepest talents; the house with the beautiful views over water. And yet we do nothing. There may be distressed moments of recognition at three in the morning, but in the light of day we bury our longings and muddle on. We find ourselves musing on the interesting things we’ll do when we retire. We let life leak away.
Our hesitation is grounded in a sense of risk. Every move presents us with appalling dangers. The new house might not be right, the change of career might lead to ruin, the beloved might reject us, we could regret the old relationship. But our inaction is not in itself cost free, for in the wings, out of regular conscious awareness, there is something arguably far more frightening still than failure: the tragedy of wasting our lives.
We too easily ignore the most stupid yet deepest fact about our existence: that it will end. The brutal fact of our mortality seems so implausible, we live in practical terms like immortals, as if we will always have the opportunity to address our stifled longings – one day… There will be time next year – or the year after. But by hyping up the dangers of failure in action, we underrate the seriousness of the dangers lurking within passivity. In comparison with the horror of our final exit, the pains and troubles of our bolder moves and riskier ventures do not, in the end, seem so terrifying. We should learn to frighten ourselves a bit more in one area to be less scared in others.
It’s hardly surprising that we struggle with the notion of how long we will be here. At first life seems quite evidently endless. At seven, it feels like an eternity until Christmas. At eleven, it’s almost impossible to imagine what it might be like to be twenty-two. At twenty-two, thirty feels absurdly remote. Time does us a disservice in seeming so long, and yet turning out to be resolutely so short. Typically people only get gripped by the idea of mortality at a few select points in their lives. Turning forty or fifty can bring a sudden reversal of perspective. We panic or get morose. We buy a new car or take up an instrument. What this really indicates – though – is a dramatic failure of anticipation. The extraordinary aspect is not that we’re dying, but that the reality of the nature of existence didn’t get fixed firmly enough in our brains at an earlier, more appropriate moment. A mid-life crisis isn’t a legitimate awakening; it’s a sign of being shamefully ill-prepared.
We should never need to be awoken. In an ideal culture, our mortality would be systematically impressed upon us from the earliest age. There would be a specific day each month when everyone attended a stranger’s funeral. Every news bulletin would be followed by a live feed from a hospice. Career guidance would start with a brief meditation on the preponderance of heart attacks and pancreatic cancers. We’d have impressively grim monuments across our cities (in supermarket car parks and around football stadiums): ‘To Those Who Wasted Their Lives’. Worrying about where life was going would be treated as an admirable and important characteristic. You’d often overhear people saying: ‘I really like X, they’re so concerned about wasting their life.’
Even without this ideal society-wide support there are moves we can make ourselves to usefully intensify our awareness of our own limited spans: we should assemble our own repertoire of reminders, perhaps a skull, a set of cancer statistics or a close-up of the sort of capillary that can unleash a stroke.
Frans Hals, Young Man with a Skull (1626)
We need regular, forceful encounters with reminders that there is something else we should be far more frightened of than embarrassment around holding someone’s hand or a bit of trouble as we change the subject of our university degree.
Learning that someone hates us deeply, even though we have done nothing ostensibly to provoke them, can be one of the most alarming situations we face. At a bar after work, we might be told – via a malevolent third party – that two people in the office deem us extremely arrogant and disrespectful and, for the last few months, haven’t lost a chance to do us down behind our backs. Or we might learn that a friend of a friend, a senior professor, has forceful objections to a paper of ours; they called it ‘naive’ and ‘stuck in the 1970s’ and made a series of sarcastic jokes at our expense at a conference. Furthermore, because of technology, we’re now aware of a vast new range of potential enemies scattered around the digital universe. We are only ever a few seconds of online search away from pitiless personally-targeted assessments of all that we are.
For the under-confident among us, enemies are a catastrophe. In our psychological make-up, the approval of the world effectively supports our approval of ourselves, which means that when enemies agitate against us, we lose faith not in them (they continue to exert a mesmeric authority over us), but – more alarmingly – in ourselves. We may, when with our friends, casually profess to hate the haters (and curse their names with bravado), but in private, over the ensuing months, we simply cannot dismiss their judgements, because we have accorded them a status logically prior to our own in our deep minds. Their objections may feel unbearable, like a physical discomfort we cannot correct, but we can’t reject them as unwarranted either. In despair, it feels as if we do not know how to carry on, not only because we’ve been called idiots or egotists, but because – as a result – we must simply be idiots and egotists. The judgements of others have been given a free pass to enter all the rooms of our minds. There is no one manning the border between them and us: the enemies are freely in us, wondering wildly and destructively through the caverns of our inner selves, ripping items off the shelves and mocking everything we are. In our distress, we may keep harping back to the idea (it brings tears to our eyes) that the situation is profoundly ‘unfair’: we did nothing especially wrong, our intentions are benevolent and our work is acceptable. Why, therefore, has our name been trampled upon and our reputation trashed? Either because we truly are fools (which is an unendurable truth) or because we’re not fools (in which case the hatred is an unendurable error). Whatever is right, we can’t just walk away and get on with our lives. We feel compelled to take some kind of corrective action to scrub away the stain our enemies have applied. In the middle of the night, we contemplate a range of responses: angry, passive-aggressive, self-harming, charming, begging… Our partner might implore us to drop it and return to bed. We cannot: the enemy refuses to leave our heads.
Where does such under-confidence around enemies come from? We should, as ever, begin with parents and sketch an imaginary portrait of types who could unwittingly create such tortured mindsets. However ostensibly loving these parents might have been, they are also likely to have felt a high degree of trust in the system. If the police were investigating one of their friends, their guess would be that the authorities were correct in their suspicions. When reading a newspaper, if they were to read a destructive review of a novel, even one by an author whose work they’d much enjoyed in the past, it would seem evident that the author had lost his talent and was now kidding the public. And if the parents were friends with an architect who was up for a major prize which then went to somebody else, they’d feel the friend – whose buildings they admired – must have lacked talent in comparison with the winner, whose dark asymmetrical structures they would vow at once to take a second, more respectful look at.
When it came to their own children, these underconfidence-generating parents would have applied a similar method of judgement: the issue of how much and where to love would have been to a large extent determined externally. If the world felt the baby was adorable, they probably were (and if not, then not so much). Later, if the child won a maths prize, it was a sign not just of competence at algebra, but of being – far more broadly – a love-worthy person. And if conversely, the school report described the child as an easily-distracted dreamer who looked like he would flunk his exams, that might mean the offspring didn’t really quite deserve to exist. The love-ability of the child in the eyes of the parents rose and fell entirely in accordance with the respect, interest and approval of the world.
To be on the receiving end of such parenting is a heavy burden. We, the recipients of conditional love, have no option but to work manically to fulfil the conditions set up by parental and worldly expectations. Success isn’t simply a pleasant prize to stumble upon when we enjoy a subject or a task interests us, it is a psychological necessity, something we must secure in order to feel we have the right to be alive. We don’t have any memories of success-independent affection and therefore constantly need to recharge our batteries from the external power source of the world’s flickering and wilful interest. Unsurprisingly, when enemies come on the horizon, we are quickly in deep trouble, for we have no ability to hold in our minds the concept that they might be wrong and we right, that our achievements are not our being and that failure of our actions does not presuppose failure of our entire selves. Rendered defenceless by our upbringing, we have no border post between inside and out. We are at the mercy of pretty much anyone who might decide to hate us.
Contrast this with the blessed childhood of the confident. Their parents would have maintained a vigorously sceptical relationship to the system. The world might sometimes be right, but then again, on key occasions, it could be gravely and outrageously wrong. Everyone was, in their eyes, endowed with their own capacity to judge. It is not because the crowd is jeering that the accused is guilty – or vice versa. The Chief of Police, the lead Reviewer of The Times and the head of the Pritzker prize might well be idiotic; these things happen. In their role as parents, the messages of the confidence-inducing were no less generous in their scepticism: ‘You are loved in and of yourself because of what you are, not what you do. You aren’t always admirable or even likeable, but you are always deserving of affection and charity of interpretation. It doesn’t matter to me if you end up the president or the street cleaner. You will always be something more important; my child. If they don’t have the wisdom to be kind, fuck them!’. Without necessarily intending this, the parents set up a soothing voice that still plays on a loop in the recesses of the mind, especially at moments of greatest challenge. It is the voice of love.
We cannot go back and change the past that made us but by understanding the structure of what we are missing, we may at least strive to integrate emotionally healthier voices into our agitated interiors. The verdict of the system is never totally wrong, but nor is it ever more than occasionally right: police forces get muddled, reviewers redirect their disappointments onto innocent targets, prize committees fall under the sway of fashion. The world doesn’t reliably ‘know’. We cannot change the presence of an enemy, but we can change what an enemy means to us: these figures can shift from being devoted, impartial agents of truth about one’s right to exist to being – more sanely – people who have an opinion, probably only ever a bit right, about something we once did, and never about who we are (that is something we decide).
Panicking about having acquired a few enemies can be a symptom of a dangerous trust in human beings as a whole. Underconfident types work with the assumption that almost everyone they encounter will be sane, measured, intelligent, judicious and in command of themselves. If, despite these attributes, certain people still write nasty things online or describe us as a nuisance, the attacks simply have to be true. Yet the more psychologically robust are saved from such dispiriting assumptions by a highly useful skill: fierce pessimism. They assume from the start that most people, even grand and supposedly intelligent ones, are in fact riddled with prejudice and beset by low motives and are capable of deliberate cattiness and meanness better suited to a playground of the under fives. They lie, they slander, they project, they say things to make themselves feel better, they are envious and inadequate, cruel and close to evil. Why should we be unduly surprised and disturbed if a few people happen to be nasty to us, given that nastiness is more or less the fundamental truth of human nature? The benefit of thinking a lot less of everyone can be a calmer attitude towards the specific meanness of a few.
Armed with darker thoughts, the confident know that every decent and interesting person is going to accumulate a string of enemies as they make their way through life. It would be impossible for it to be otherwise, given human nature. The specific reasons will be varied and somewhat random: some of these enemies will flare up because they have vested interests in a status quo we are challenging; some may be uncomfortably reminded of their own renounced ambitions when they encounter our skills; some may find our achievements humiliating to their sense of self-worth; some are people who might have wanted to be our friends or even our lovers, and then turned sour when this proved impossible. We will constantly be the target of anger. But we don’t have to believe ourselves to be its true cause.
In the 17th century, the Dutch developed a tradition of painting that depicted ships in violent storms. These works, which hung in private homes and in municipal buildings around the Dutch Republic, were not mere decoration. They had an explicitly therapeutic purpose to them: they were delivering a moral to their viewers, who lived in a nation critically dependent on maritime trade, about confidence in seafaring and life more broadly. The sight of a tall sailing ship being tossed to a twenty degree angle in a rough sea looks – to an inexperienced person – like a catastrophe. But there are many situations that look and feel much more dangerous than they really are, especially when the crew is prepared and the ship internally sound. The Dutch painter Ludolf Bakhuysen painted Warships in a Heavy Storm in 1695.
The scene looks chaotic in the extreme: how could they possibly survive? But the ships were well-designed for just such situations. Their hulls had been minutely adapted through long experience to withstand the tempests of the northern oceans. The crews practiced again and again the manoeuvers that could keep such vessels safe: they knew about taking down sails at speed and ensuring that the wind would not shred the mast. They understood about shifting cargo in the hull, tacking to the left and then abruptly to the right, and pumping out water from the inner chambers. They knew to remain coolly scientific in responding to the storm’s wilful frantic motions. The picture pays homage to decades of planning and experience. One can imagine the older sailors on the ship saying to a terrified novice, with a laugh, that just last year off the coast of Jutland, there was an even bigger storm – and slapping him on the back with paternal playfulness as the youth was sick overboard. Bakhuysen wanted us to feel proud of humanity’s resilience in the face of apparently dreadful challenges. His painting enthuses us with the message that we can all cope far better than we think; what appears immensely threatening may be highly survivable.
What is true of storms in the North Sea may be no less true of enemies at the office. Their aggression can be terrifying, like the giant waves off Den Helder, and yet in reality – with deft emotional skill and internal reorganisation – can prove eminently manageable. The storms are not really about us and we can survive them by refusing to let the verdicts of others become our verdicts on ourselves. We should keep in mind a confident distinction between the hater and the critic, aim to correct our genuine flaws – and otherwise forgive the injured, roaring winds that seek to punish us for pressures that have nothing to do with us. The storms will die down, we will be battered, a few things will be ripped, but we will eventually – as the sun rises over the spires of Alkmaar – return to safer shores.
It’s normal to expect that we will always – almost by nature – actively seek out our own happiness, especially in two big areas of potential satisfaction, relationships and careers.
It’s therefore odd and not a little unnerving to find how often many of us act as if we were deliberately out to ruin our chances of getting what we’re on the surface convinced we’re after. When going on dates with candidates we are keen on, we may suddenly lapse into unnecessarily opinionated and antagonistic behaviour. Or when we are in a relationship with someone we love, we may drive them to distraction through repeated unwarranted accusations and angry explosions – as if we were somehow willing to bring on the sad day when, exhausted and frustrated, the beloved would be forced to walk away, still sympathetic but unable to take our elevated degree of suspicion and drama.
Similarly, we might be led to destroy our chances of a major promotion at work when, just after giving a particularly convincing presentation to the board, we grow bizarrely strident with the CEO or become drunk and insulting at a crucial client dinner.
Such behaviour can’t be put down to mere bad luck. It deserves a stronger, more intentional term: self-sabotage. We are familiar enough with the fear of failure, but it appears that success can sometimes bring about as many anxieties – which may ultimately culminate in a desire to scupper our chances in a bid to restore our peace of mind.
What could possibly explain this suspicion of success? In certain cases, an unconscious desire to protect those who love us, particularly those who cared for us in childhood, from a sense of envy and inadequacy that might be triggered by our gains. The beautiful new partner or the promotion to a senior role may prove silently devastating to those around us, prompting them to wonder about how little they have achieved by comparison and to fear that they will be deemed no longer good enough to merit our company.
It can feel odd to accept that those who loved us as children could harbour envious feelings towards us – especially when they might in most other ways be highly devoted to us. Yet these caregivers may nevertheless be carrying a private layer of regret within them about the course of their own lives and attendant fears of being neglected and thought unimportant by others, even their own children. As we were growing up, there might have been telling reminders about not getting too big for one’s boots and not forgetting where one came from, disguised pleas not to be forgotten and overlooked. We can end up in a bind: the success we long for threatens to hurt the feelings of those we love.
The solution, once we discover the impasse, is not to sabotage ourselves; it is to grow deeply generous and proactive around the real reasons why our caregivers could have ended up feeling so apprehensive about our achievements. We should recognise that these caregivers are not, ultimately, afraid of our success so much as they are afraid of being abandoned and reminded of their own inadequacies. The task isn’t therefore to ruin our chances, it is to try – when we can manage it – to reassure our nervous companions of our essential loyalty and of their primordial value.
A second common type of self-saboteur is one who finds the price of hope too high to pay for. We may, when we were younger, have been exposed to exceptionally brutal disappointments at a time when we were too fragile to withstand them. Perhaps we hoped our parents would stay together and they didn’t. Or we hoped our father would eventually come back from another country and he stayed. Perhaps we dared to love someone and, after a few weeks of happiness, they swiftly and oddly changed their attitude and mocked us in front of our peers. Somewhere in our characters, a deep association has been forged between hope and danger – along with a corresponding preference to live quietly with disappointment, rather than more freely with hope.
The solution is to remind ourselves that we can, despite our fears, survive the loss of hope. We are no longer those who suffered the disappointments responsible for our present timidity. The conditions which forged our caution are no longer those of adult reality. The unconscious mind may, as is its wont, be reading the present through the lenses of decades ago, but what we fear will happen has – in truth – already happened; we are projecting into the future a catastrophe that belongs to a past we have not had the chance to fathom and mourn adequately.
Furthermore, what fundamentally distinguishes adulthood from childhood is that the adult has access to a great many more sources of hope than the child. We can survive a letdown here or there, because we no longer inhabit a closed province, bounded by the family, the neighbourhood and the school. We can use the whole world as an orchard in which to nurture a diversity of hopes that will always outstrip the inevitable, yet only ever occasional and survivable, crushing disappointment.
Lastly, we may destroy success from touching modesty: from the sense that we surely cannot really deserve the bounty we have received. We may turn to consider our new job or lover in the light of all the sides of ourselves that we know to be less than perfect – our laziness, cowardice, stupidity and immaturity – and conclude that there must have been a mistake and that we must therefore return our gifts to the more deserving. But this is kindly, though balefully, to misunderstand the way success and pain are allotted. The universe does not distribute its gifts and its horrors with divinely accurate knowledge of the good and bad within each of us. Most of what we win is not quite deserved and most of what we suffer isn’t either. Cancer wards aren’t filled with the exceptionally wicked.
When we feel oppressed by a sense of not meriting our favours, we need only remind ourselves that we will soon enough not deserve our maledictions either. Our diseases, public falls from grace and romantic abandonments will in time be as undeserved as our beauty, elevations and loving partners might now be. We should not worry so much about the latter, nor complain quite so bitterly about the former. We should accept from the start, with good grace and dark premonition, the sheer randomness and amorality of fate.
It can be useful to keep the concept of self-sabotage in mind when interpreting our and others’ odder antics. We should start to get suspicious when we catch ourselves pulling off erratic performances around people we deep down really like or need to impress.
Furthermore, faced with certain kinds of viciousness and unreliability in others, we should dare to imagine that things are perhaps not quite as they seem; we might have on our hands not a malevolent opponent, but an almost touchingly wounded self-saboteur – who chiefly deserves a little patience and should gently be coaxed out of doing themselves further harm.
We should come to terms with, and help others to see, just how hard and unnerving it can sometimes be to get close to some of the things we truly want.
10. Confidence in Confidence
Though we assume that we, like everyone else, must want to be confident, in our hearts, we may harbour private suspicions that confidence is, in fact, really rather an unappealing state of mind. We might, without necessarily fully realising it, find the idea of being truly confident strangely offensive – and secretly remain attached to hesitancy and modesty.
We may take quiet pride in the fact that we aren’t the types to complain in restaurants. We don’t kick up a fuss about our salary. We don’t ask all our friends to rearrange their holidays for our sakes. We don’t play our music loudly. Our meekness is protecting us from some deeply off-putting associations around self-assertion. These might have been forged early on in our lives in the presence of people who were both hugely unpleasant and highly certain of their right to exist. They may have been terrifyingly demanding, impatient, dismissive and brash. They might have shouted in service situations and slammed the phone down on people they believed didn’t respect them enough. We may have started to think that this is how people needed to behave in order to succeed and that if this was the case, then conspicuous success wouldn’t be for us.
We shouldn’t forget that suspicion of confidence has traditionally enjoyed immense cultural endorsement. Christianity, for centuries the greatest influence on the mindset of the West, was highly sceptical about those who might think too well of themselves. While the meek basked in divine favour, the arrogant would be the last to enter the kingdom of heaven. The political theory of Karl Marx added to this argument a set of theories apparently proving that economic success was always founded upon the exploitation of others. No wonder it may feel as if – to be moral citizens – we should steer clear of all overly robust assertions of our own interests.
Yet this attitude too can carry dangers. We may lack the confidence not to be cruel and promote idiocy, but to fight for kindness and wisdom. Our lack of confidence in confidence may be allowing degraded versions of self-assertion to thrive.
We may also just be being unfair. Our negative view of confidence can be overly dependent on the quirks of our own histories, on the sort of people we first encountered confidence in who were not, in fact, its best or most reliable representatives. Our real problem may not be confidence per se so much as a lack of other virtues like manners, charm, wit and generosity. We may be wrongly diagnosing the root of our objections. There may be a few danger of growing into braggarts, self-seekers and blowhards. But confidence is in its essence entirely compatible with remaining sensitive, kind, witty and softly-spoken. It might be brutishness, not confidence, we hate.
Furthermore, our attraction to meekness may be cleverly masking some rather cowardly resentments against self-assertion. We might not so much admire timidity as fear giving confidence a try. It was this species of self-protective deception that particularly fascinated Nietzsche, who thought it a typical error of many Christians, who might pride themselves on their ‘forgiveness’ while, in reality, simply trying to excuse their ‘inability to take revenge.’ We should take care not to dress up our base deficiencies as godly virtues.
It isn’t unfortunately enough to be kind, interesting, intelligent and wise inside: we need to develop the skill that allows us to make our talents active in the world at large. Confidence is what translates theory into practice. It should never be thought of as the enemy of good things; it is their crucial and legitimate catalyst. We should allow ourselves to develop confidence in confidence.