In our lives, we start off by hoping that we will be liked by everyone. We aspire to broad popularity. It’s hardly surprising: we evolved as group creatures, dependent for their survival on the approval of all the other members in their small roving band of hunter-gatherers. A single hostile acquaintance could have been the harbinger of physical attack. We can’t help but instinctively worry ourselves sick about what others think of us.
Yet in the febrile conditions of modernity, it is close to impossible to get through life without attracting any enemies. However polite and well-meaning we may be, however much we might incline to conciliation and gentleness, somewhere along the way, we will slip up in a way that threatens to attract terrifying levels of hostility and mockery. Wholly unwittingly, we might upset someone who tried to get into a relationship with us; our success might elicit envy; our politeness might be mistaken for superciliousness; our kindness might be read as piety. A rumour that we are unprogressive in our opinions might spread in the workplace. Nothing needs to have gone especially wrong for us to find ourselves in social exile.
It’s this instability that necessitates an appreciation for the value of that ultimate protection against group think and mob-rule, the friend. We cannot rely upon the sanity of the crowd, we have to instead focus our efforts on the good will and sympathy of a few extremely carefully chosen souls.
In this regard, we might contemplate a picture of seven close friends (and a dog) painted in the 1830s by the Danish artist Constantin Hansen.
At first glance, it looks like a pretty rendition of a contented circle relaxing at an open window in one of the most beautiful cities of Europe. But there is a darker aspect to Hansen’s work. This wasn’t just a portrait of friendship (though it was that, too), it was an evocation of the toll that can be imposed on free spirits by the narrow-mindedness and prejudice of society at large. Its deeper message was intended for the judgemental bourgeoisie back in Denmark for whom these people weren’t loveable oddities but shocking outcasts. Carl Christian Constantin Hansen had gone to Rome to escape financial pressures after his parents’ death. The painting shows him in his studio (sitting on the far left) chatting with Danish friends who were all, like him, misfits in one way or another. His friend Albert Küchler – standing in the middle of the balcony – was in the process of becoming a Catholic, an absurd step in the eyes of his family back home. Next to him, in the white trousers, is Ditlev Blunck, who had to live in exile because his homosexuality was regarded as scandalous in Denmark. And sitting on the table is Jørgen Sonne, who had exited a respectable career in the military in which his enthusiasm for Hindu spirituality wasn’t viewed as an asset.
To a contemporary Danish audience, they would have been read as a weird, scandalous group with no care for earning money or leading regular pious lives. The things they cared about sharply flouted the expectations of respectable minds. And yet, the way Hansen depicts them lets us feel, even in our own time, the comfort offered by kindly mutual regard. Whatever they were saying in the townhouses and Bible-reading classes of Copenhagen, in a studio in Rome, there was sympathy and communion. Friendship had defeated gossip.
We may not be talented artists in flight from our punishing provincial Protestant backgrounds, but we are liable in some ways to have upset, or to be in danger of upsetting, the judgements of our own era. We should not be too surprised if we have excited hatred; lunacy and delusion are the general rules. The only escape lies in identifying a number of people (we’d be extremely lucky if it was seven; even one or two will do) who won’t judge us by the standards of the day, who won’t require us to have a certain kind of career, to obey particular principles in our personal lives or to espouse fashionable opinions about politics or class. We will have in them a bulwark against the pitiless massed guardians of truth and justice outside the door. We will be able to be ourselves and still be considered with love.
We have suffered long enough from hoping that sanity and kindness might be widespread. It should by now have grown evident that the mind of the average person is too hostile a place for us to flourish, and that we must sharply edit those whose judgement we will let ourselves be affected by. Once we have given up on the poisonous goal of respectability, we will at last be ready for friendship – and, if we are especially lucky, the companionship of a highly cordial-looking spaniel.
Almost inevitably, somewhere along the path of our friendships, we are fated to stumble upon one of the most paradoxical yet universal of characters: the envious friend.
At one level, this person is kind, sympathises with us in our sorrows and believes that they want the best for us. Yet, despite such salutary affections, we may not be able to overlook some more troubling dynamics shimmering beneath the surface:
— When we invite them for dinner, they repeatedly ‘forget’ to say thank you.
— When we have a new partner, they don’t appear overly pleased.
— When we get a new job, they don’t ask us a single question about how its going.
The situation is as wounding as it is uncharted. How are we to cope? Can this be happening to us? A few ways forward suggest themselves.
1. Acceptance of the Problem
Firstly, we shouldn’t ever compound the matter by denying that it might exist or wonder for too long whether we’re imagining things. We’re not. Those silences, missing questions and strange looks mean exactly what we suspect they do. Of course there is envy! We shouldn’t expect any bond to be without at least an important degree of this ubiquitous feeling.
And the reasons are self-evident. We tend to be friends with people who share our aspirations and values and it is therefore highly likely that at some point along our journey together, either they will acquire something we very much want, or vice versa: it might be a partner, a profession, a qualification or a home. But it will be something for sure. We envy people for the same reason as we are friends with them: because we like the same sort of things.
We are unhelpfully inclined to be sentimental and therefore dishonest on this score: we deny that we could possibly harbour envy for someone we also like, which can lead us to unconvincing denials and cuts off opportunities for processing and growth. We need to learn to feel better about envy, in order not to have to twist our characters to avoid admitting to it.
We should, with reasonable good cheer, simply own up to our envy as we would to a sore knee or an ulcer. Children can be good guides in this area: an average four year old is comedically open about their ravenous jealousy. They don’t contort themselves into knots in the name of politeness. They wail immediately when their friend gets a better fire truck — or try to hit them over the head or gouge out their eyes. Parents tend to be so shocked by this, they force the child into fruitless denials. They inspire them to hide their envy from two people: the person they’re envious of. And, far worse, themselves. They implicitly teach their offspring a pernicious and untrue idea: that you cannot both be a nice person and envy your friend.
And therefore, tragically, in adult friendships, neither party is left able to call out the problem sensibly or deal with it maturely, leaving it to fester in embarrassment and shame instead.
2. Mutual Confession
This brings us to the second solution to envy in friendships: we should go in for mutual playful non-pejorative moments of confession. All good friends should — in an entirely good natured way — routinely discuss the presence of envy between them. The question shouldn’t be whether or not there is envy, just what sort of envy it might be this week.
Friends should, for example, over dinner each write on a sheet of paper: What I am envious of now… And laugh with great compassion at the results.
An important part of the reason why we don’t process envy as we might is that we imagine there to be only one solution to the emotion: that the person who has something that their friend lacks will have to hand to it over.
But of course, we can’t be expected to surrender our partner, our house or our position nearer the top of the company to make our old friend feel better.
However, that’s not remotely necessary because what the person who envies us really wants is not, in the end, our love life or accommodation or profession. What they want is reassurance.
They want to know that we still love them despite our new advantages. They crave to be told that though we have won the lottery, sold our shares or found a dazzling lover, we remain deeply attached to them and care for them as much as we ever did.
Unfortunately, owning up to our true longing (and hearing it appeased) is devilishly hard for a sequence of reasons we’re now in a position to appreciate: because the envious person can’t admit to what they’re feeling, because there aren’t generally any good occasions on which confessions can be made — and because we aren’t collectively schooled in the art of offering reassurance to others in the wake of our successes.
In a better world, we would take greater care. As a matter of course, every time something went well for us, we would be sure to add in ample reassurance that — despite our new status — we would continue to love and cherish those we had long loved.
We should stop worrying that there might be seams of envy entangled in our friendships; and focus our energies instead on a far more important goal: learning to handle envy with kindness, honesty, intelligence and laughter.
It’s an embarrassing confession, but for a certain group among us, it’s fair to say that a great deal of our lives is spent asking essentially the same question, week after week, always with the same blend of frustration, despair and puzzlement: Why am I so lonely?
Why, in other words, do I so often find myself at odds in social groups, why can’t I more easily connect with people, why do I not have more friends worthy of the name?
It’s tempting to jump to the darkest conclusion: because I am awful, because there is something wrong with me, because I deserve to be hated.
But the real answer is likely to be far less punitive and in its way far more logical: we, the isolated members of the tribe, are lonely for a very firm and forgivable reason: because we are interested in introspection, and they – the others — for all their intelligence and wit and strength of mind, are not.
They may have many hobbies and passions and lots to say about a host of things, but they are simply not interested in looking deeply inside themselves. It is not their idea of fun to go into their childhoods, to trace the links between their emotions and their actions or to lie for a long time in a bath or a bed processing events in their interior lives. Introspection is not their thing. They haven’t told us this in so many words — and they never will; they don’t even realise it perhaps. We simply have to surmise that this is the case on the basis of external evidence: that we never feel we have much to say to them, even though – objectively – there might be so much to share.
It’s the lack of introspection that explains why conversation with them so often gets stuck in odd places: discussing the price of train tickets or the best way to prepare muffins or what so-and-so from university (whom we never really knew or liked) is now doing. It explains why, when we try to nudge the conversation onto something more intimate and vulnerable, we seem somehow never to manage and end up in yet more rounds of discussion about the sports results or the new political scandal.
They aren’t necessarily cold, but it can certainly seem that way because they aren’t interested in communicating what is really going on in their hearts. Sometimes we can be surprised when, out of the blue, they tell us that they consider us to be a close friend.
We should accept that most of our acquaintances – however much they might in theory want to be friendly – do not want to do so at the cost of looking inside their own minds.
And we for our part are lonely because we are operating with a notion of intimacy that is far less common than we torture ourselves by imagining. We will be blessed if we meet just one or two people in a lifetime who want to play as we do. The rest of the time, we shouldn’t compound our problems by feeling lonely that we’re lonely. It’s painful but utterly understandable; our favourite pastime, however noble it might be, is a very unusual one indeed.
One of the cruellest aspects of mental illness is that it strips us of any ability to believe that other people might be suffering in the way we are. We aren’t being wilfully egocentric or arrogant; we are condemned by our illness to a feeling that we are uniquely pitiful, uniquely unacceptable, uniquely awful. The central legacy of mental illness, and a major contributor to our suicidal impulses, is a feeling of exceptionalism. Our mental troubles coat us in appalling degrees of shame.
Ill, we start to run away from other people. Gatherings become impossible – for we grow preemptively terrified of the presumed invulnerability and judgmentalness of those we might meet. We can’t possibly make small talk or concentrate on what someone else is saying when our heads are filled with catastrophic scenarios and an intrusive voice is telling us that we should die. There seems no compact or acceptable way to share with old friends what we have been going through: they knew us as chatty and optimistic. What would they make of the tortured characters we have become? We start to assume that no one on earth could possibly know – let alone accept – what it is like to be us.
This is especially tragic because the central cure for mental illness is company. Our disease denies us access to precisely what we most need in order to get better.
In 1891, the Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler exhibited The Disappointed Souls. Five figures are pictured in varied states of dejection. We don’t know quite what has gone wrong in their lives, but Hodler’s talent invites us to imagine possibilities: a marriage here, a social disgrace there, an unbudgeable depression, a feeling of overwhelming anxiety… However awful the individual stories might be, the true horror of the painting emerges from elsewhere, from the way each crisis is unfolding in complete isolation from its neighbours. The disconsolate figures are only millimetres away from one another, but they might as well be on alternative planets. It should be so easy to reach out, to share the burden, to lend a comforting hand, to swap stories – and it would be so life-giving. But no fellowship seems possible in this depiction of hell. Sadness has wrapped each sufferer up in a pitiless sense of their own singularity.
Ferdinand Hodler, The Disappointed Souls, 1891
A further horror is that Hodler wasn’t painting any one scene, he intended his work as an allegory of modern society as a whole, with its absence of community, its lonely cities and its alienating technologies. But in this very depiction lies the possibility of redemption. We will start to heal when we realise that we are in fact always extremely close to someone who is as wretched as we are. We should hence always be able to reach out to a similarly broken neighbour and lament in unison. We should learn to come together for a very particular kind of social occasion – a crying party – whose whole focus would be an exchange of notes on the misery and lacerations of existence.
In an ideal gathering of the unwell, in a comfortable safe-seeming room, we would take it in turns to reveal to one another the torments in our minds. Each of us would detail the latest challenges. We’d hear of how others were going through sleepless nights, were unable to eat, were too terrified to go outside, were hearing voices and had to fight against constant impulses to kill themselves. The material would be dark no doubt, but to hear it would be like a balm for our stricken lonely souls.
Ideally, we would keep meeting the same people, week after week – so that our lives would grow entwined with theirs and we could exchange mutual support as we travelled through the valley of sickness. We would know who was in particular difficulty, who needed tenderness and who might benefit from an ordinary-sounding chat about the garden or the weather.
It isn’t possible that we are as alone we currently feel. Biology doesn’t produce complete one-offs. There are fellow creatures among the seven billion of our species. They are there – but we have lost all confidence in our right to find them. We feel isolated not because we are so but because we are unwell. We should dare to believe that a fellow disappointed soul is right now sitting next to us on the bench, waiting for us to make a sign.
One of the major reasons why our lives are busier than they might be is that we come under immense pressures to ‘go out’, usually in the evening, typically to one of the most peculiar and paradoxical of all human social inventions: parties.
It is because these parties are so ubiquitous and benefit from such widespread approval that we’re liable to miss how confusing and, along the way, unhelpful they can be to our always sensitive inner selves.
What draws us to leave home isn’t merely a sense of duty, it is the desire to connect deeply with other humans, to attenuate a perhaps painful sense of isolation and to find an echo of our fears and longings in the eyes of others.
But what typically happens when we reach the party should lead us to interrogate, at a minimum, the pressures we are under to leave home. It is usually evident that our hosts have been to a lot of trouble: their place may look charming, glasses may be sparkling on a side table, some plates of interesting canapes might be circulating and the room will perhaps be crowded with a lot of well-turned out individuals enjoying energetic conversations.
But if we were to conduct an anthropological investigation into what was actually being said, we might discover that the guests were all acting in accordance with a well-established and rigid social code that might lead us to doubt why we had ever freely opted to stand in the center of a room holding a glass and wondering who to talk to next. At least 8 rules come to mind:
1. Emphasise your successes, though boast only covertly.
2. Never allude to troubles, doubts or worries; apparently no-one comes to a party to hear what is going on in another’s heart.
3. As much as possible, agree with others. If someone is talking about their new puppy, say ‘how lovely’ – especially if you dislike dogs. If someone mentions that they’ve been on a skiing holiday at the foot of a mountain you’ve never heard of, remark ‘oh that’s amazing.’
4. Keep it light: laugh even if you don’t especially find anything funny; look for the amusing side of every topic.
5. Don’t reveal any earnest aspiration to connect with a fellow broken ailing human.
6. Mingle: it’s rude to talk at length with anyone; speak to as many as possible, even if only for a minute.
7. Hug people you would normally cross the road to avoid.
8. If anyone fails to stick to the rules and says or does something ‘wrong’ (like being sincere), slip off rapidly to talk to someone else who knows how to behave ‘properly’.
It’s tantalising. All of us have rich and complex histories. All of us have dazzling minds that can record the most subtle impressions and are filled with tender and poignant scenes accumulated over decades. We all had complicated childhoods, are ambivalent about our careers, troubled by despair and anxiety, worried about our relationships, puzzled by sex – and heading towards decay and death far sooner than we can bear. And yet still we continue to mention the traffic and ask about each other’s recent holidays.
How many sincere sides we might long to discover in our new companions if only we could: what happened in their childhoods, how did they find their way through adolescence, what do they make of their parents, what do they dislike about themselves, what makes them fall into bed sobbing, have they ever thought of suicide? But the social codes governing parties ensure that we will never come close to any such enquiries. We may have been asked along to the evening; our deeper selves have not been invited.
The moral is clear. If we seek others, we should stay at home, if we wish to alleviate loneliness, we should turn down invitations, if we want company, we would be better off communing with dead writers and poets rather than hunting for solace at large gatherings.
We should cease to be ashamed of our buried longings to remain by ourselves. It is very normal, and highly understandable, for properly social people – that is, people who really wish their souls to connect with those of others – to feel anxious about parties – and to prefer to see people very seldom and then only in the smallest and most intimate of contexts. If we properly crave the love and understanding of people, it will be too much to bear the humiliations and betrayals involved in the average get-together. We should restrict our social lives to the exceptional evening out with a true friend who can weep with us, sympathise us with and exchange authentic and heartfelt notes with us on the fleeting ecstasies and long-running sorrows of being human. That will be a ‘party’ worth breaking our isolation for.
We typically spend a lot of time getting the table and food right when we invite others over for a meal; but now that no direct hosting will be possible for a while, we have one small but central advantage. We can properly concentrate on the best bit: the conversation. We can invite others to a chat room at dinner time – and there talk as we’ve seldom done before.
Typically, we stumble on fascinating conversation topics a little bit by chance. Shyness can hold us back. We can fall back on polite but not especially inspired staples. That’s why it may be worth sharing a set of Virtual Conversation Menus with some friends ahead of time and then working our way through ‘imaginary courses’ during an online chat.
Arranged to accompany a virtual dinner party, these Conversation Menus invite us to open up around key themes: the virus, but also love, money, travel, ambition, self-knowledge and the meaning of life. They contain questions that will raise smiles, build friendships and foster the best kind of intimacy, ensuring that our meals apart can be as good as they ever were together.
Conversation Menu: The Virus
– What is it you most miss of the old world before?
– What will you do more of as soon as you are released?
– What is it you understand better now?
– What seems much less important now?
– How could you best use your time in this period?
– What most reassures you?
– How would you calm down an anxious seven year old who came to you for advice?
– Who most inspires you in this period?
– Describe an ideal location you’d now like to be in if you could still travel?
– What kind of physical contact do you miss?
– If you had to write a book during this period, what might it be about?
– How do you hope the world could change for the better after this?
Conversation Menu: Ambition
– Were your parents fulfilled in their ambitions for themselves?
– What were your parents’ ambitions for you?
– What remains for you to achieve?
– Who would you like to impress?
– What achievements of others make you jealous?
– What personal vulnerabilities and flaws have held you back in your ambitions?
– What, for you, is the relationship between lovability and achievement?
– What is failure for you?
– What alternative careers do you suspect you might be rather good at?
– What price have you paid for your ambitions?
– What is the best way to cope with the disapproval or neglect of the world?
– Knowing what you now know, how would you advise a very young person about their ambitions?
Conversation Menu: Love
– Finish this sentence: If someone likes me a lot, I start to feel…
– In what ways are people you are attracted to similar to one or other of your parents?
– On a date, what would you most want to be liked for?
– What kinds of suffering would you want a prospective partner to have experienced in the past?
– In what way is your partner (or an ex) quite annoying?
– List five ways in which you are, after all, quite difficult to live with.
– In what ways are you not a great communicator?
– What’s tricky about sex?
– Are you good at breaking up?
– Which of your ex-partners hurt you the most?
– Make a case for why adultery could, sometimes, be excused.
– Which of your flaws would you like to be treated more generously?
Conversation Menu: Self-Knowledge
– How much do you like yourself? What do you attribute this to?
– In what ways are you neurotic (given that we all are)?
– What difficulties did your childhood bequeath you?
– How might people describe you when you are not in the room?
– What do you find it difficult to communicate directly?
– In what contexts do you find it hard to trust people?
– What do you characteristically do when you are emotionally hurt?
– In what areas of life would you describe yourself as immature?
– How did your mother leave you feeling about yourself? And your father?
– How do you typically respond to frustration?
– What do you think explains why you personally are more of an introvert – or an extrovert?
– How would you still like to grow emotionally?
Conversation Menu: The Meaning of Life
– What problem would you like to solve for other people?
– Name two meaningful moments you have had.
– What is a meaningful conversation in your eyes?
– How has your quest for a meaningful life made relationships and your career more meaningful but more difficult for you?
Imagine you have five years left to live. Assume you won’t be incapacitated until the moment of death. What would you have the confidence to do – now that your death verdict has been announced – that you might previously have lacked?
– In my relationships, I would have the confidence to…
– In my friendships, I would have the confidence to…
– In my work, I would have the confidence to…
– With my family, I would have the confidence to…
– What’s the greatest unhappiness in your inter-personal life at the moment?
– What transcendent experiences have you had? Where were you? What did
they feel like?
– What sort of group could you imagine belonging to? What would it need to be
like for you to feel proud to belong?
– What advice would you give to your 19 year old self? How have you grown since then?
Conversation Menu: Secrets
– Tell your dinner companion a big secret about yourself.
– How do you secretly hope a friend would describe you at your funeral? Be as specific to your individual character as possible.
– What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done? Name the general area if the specifics are too tricky.
– What negative character flaws do you fear — in your worst nightmares — that other people have spotted about you?
– List three things about a person close to you that secretly annoy you (like humming, doing the wrong thing in the bathroom, being late…)
– What sort of things have made you envious recently?
– List three (now guilt-inducing) occasions when you were especially mean to certain people.
– What things would alarm your family if they knew?
– What are some of your most pervasive insecurities?
– What do you worry about in the early hours?
– What do you think is quite odd about you?
– Which of your flaws would you want to be forgiven?
Conversation Menu: Resolutions
– What immature side of yourself would you like to work on? (we all have them)
– Describe one thing you would do in the coming 12 months if you were a more confident person.
– If you could not fail, what would be the ideal next move in your career?
– Who are you envious of? What positive bit of their life can you introduce into your own?
– Describe your life in the most boosterish, optimistic way. Then in the darkest, most honest, most pessimistic way.
– How did your parents shape what success and failure mean to you?
– What old ambition can you happily let go, knowing you will never achieve it?
– What can you forgive yourself for? What could you forgive another person you know for?
– Who in your life can you draw supportive energy from to realise an ambition? And who drains your energy – who might you have to let go?
– What small evolutionary steps – a daily practice or good habit – could you undertake to realise an ambition?
– If this was the last year of your life, how would your resolution change?
– How do you hope your life will look different as a result of a resolution – in a year’s time?
Conversation Menu: Family
– What do you blame your parents for?
– What do you credit your parents for?
– What might a good friend of your parents say about their inadequacies?
– What did you learn about relationships from your parents? What have you tried to unlearn?
– What was once rather sweet about you?
– What qualities did you possess as a child that you wish you still had more of as an adult?
– Have you ever had an imaginary friend or very favourite soft toy? Describe them.
– What were you especially embarrassed about as a teenager?
– If you had to join someone else’s family, what sort would it be (design the ideal one)?
– In what ways are you envious of your siblings? (If you do not have siblings, choose other relations of your own generation.)
– Of the family you spend time with, who brings out your best qualities?
– What three things do you enjoy doing most as a family? And least?
Conversation Menu: Hope
– What’s the kindest thing anyone’s done for you?
– Describe an important teacher in your life – outside school.
– Name something nice that happened to you today.
– What small everyday pleasure do you love?
– What is the most significant difference you feel you have made in the life of any individual?
– Who has most influenced you in relation to wanting to make a difference? Tell us one person who you personally know, and one who is famous or historical.
– What would you change as the absolute ruler of the world?
– What small political change do you think you could help with?
– Misery likes company: what sad sides of yourself would you like to share if you could find fellow sufferers?
– What do you feel sad or anxious about on Sunday evenings?
– What message should the hopeful you more regularly impart to the despairing you?
– What do you remain hopeful about?
Conversation Menu: Work
– If I was more of a success, a/my partner would…
– If I was more of a failure, a/my partner would…
– Men secretly feel that successful women are…
Women secretly feel that successful men are…
– Could you respect a partner who earned far less than you? How would you feel if your partner earned far more than you?
– What is the most cynical thing you could say about your work?
– In what ways is your organisation (a bit) dysfunctional?
– Ideally, my colleagues would be more like me. Discuss.
– The best person I ever worked for/with was so good because…
– When I was a child and thought about the future; I wanted to be…
– If life were 400 years long, what careers would you want to have had?
– My ideal obituary would explain that I…
– You hear of someone who has died. Which of these are you most impressed to learn about their legacy and why?
a) They made a small contribution to a big project that was genuinely worthwhile.
b) They took honourable risks, quite a few of which didn’t work out.
c) They put family before maximising income.
d) They were a supportive colleague and mentor.
e) They helped their partner succeed in their career.
Conversation Menu: Confessions
– Which of your exes would you like to go back and sleep with?
– What do you wish your partner could forgive you for?
– How has your childhood made you difficult to be around?
– What mistakes would you want to avoid in a future relationship?
– Describe your discovery of masturbation.
– What hang-ups do you have around sex?
– What part of your body do you worry might put a lover off?
– What do you want more of in your sex life – but have difficulty asking for or finding?
– How much do you earn?
– What would you fix in your life with infinite money?
– What salary level for another person starts to make you feel humiliated at your earnings?
– What is it about your character that hasn’t enabled you to make more money?
Conversation Menu: Taboos
– Are you dominant or submissive sexually? And in the rest of life?
– Have you ever had an incestuous thought? Who was it about?
– Name three sexual scenarios that especially excite you.
– What experience do you have of impotence – yours or a lover’s or a friend’s?
– How much money do you have in your bank account?
– What would be the first thing you would do if you won the lottery?
– What do you, perhaps secretly, spend really quite a lot of money on?
– Which of your acquaintances/friends/family members makes you feel inadequate around money?
– When was the last time you experienced ‘Schadenfreude’? Do you dare to admit what triggered it?
– When have you acted without 100% integrity?
– Have you ever sabotaged your own success?
– Which close relative do you like the least – and why?
Conversation Menu: The Body
– What about your body is desirable?
– In what ways has your physical appearance affected your personality?
– If you could redesign your body from scratch, what would it look like?
– When you look in the mirror, what’s the first thing you check?
– What do you find physically attractive in others?
– Give the person you are talking to a sincere compliment about their physical appearance.
– What repels you in other bodies?
– What clothes interest/excite you, for yourself or others?
– What elements of physically ageing are your most afraid of or upset by?
– What might be the upsides of ageing?
– How have you been aging recently? What do you notice?
– At the current rate, what might you regret on your deathbed?
Conversation Menu: Utopia
– In a better society, what would people be like? Describe their (psychological) characteristics?
– How would you like to be a better person?
– If you had magical powers to ‘improve’ two people around you, what would you correct in them?
– What are you oddly, perhaps privately, remarkably utopian about? What do you allow yourself to be idealistic about?
– Design your ideal country: how would it be different from your own?
– In your utopia, what would be banned?
– In your utopia, who or what would be more readily forgiven?
– In the utopia, everyone would try out four very different careers in a working life. What would you pick?
– In your utopia, who would deserve to be treated as a celebrity?
– In the utopia, education is a lifelong endeavour. Schools and universities teach their students not just formal knowledge, but the emotional skills they need to thrive. What subject or lesson could you teach?
– In the utopia, advertising does not promote useless things, but virtues and good causes. What would you like to advertise?
– What can you do to make the world a slightly better place?
Conversation Menu: School
– What’s it taken you a bit too long to learn about yourself?
– What would you want to teach your younger you about life?
– Name a psychological area in which you are improving as a person.
– If you had the patience and opportunity, what would you ideally want to teach a family member about life?
– How did you suffer at school?
– What was, in a way, fun at school?
– Who did you have a crush on during your school years?
– Who did you dislike at school? Why – with hindsight – do you think that was?
– In your ideal school, what would people be taught?
– What would you, ideally, want to teach people about love?
– What should young people learn about the world of work?
– How would you like to be a wiser person going forward?
Conversation Menu: Travel
– Describe your first memorable encounter with another culture.
– What for you counts as ‘exotic’?
– In what ways are you not a good traveller?
– What supposedly interesting destinations do you have no interesting in seeing, and why might this be?
– With a citizen from what country other than your own could you imagine having a fulfilling relationship? What might you learn?
– Describe, in some detail, your ideal hotel.
– What do you still want to discover in the world?
– What occupation or role would you be well suited to if you could travel back in time to another era?
– Describe an ideal travelling companion.
– What sides of you does your own country not understand/enhance/reflect?
– When you say you are interested in ‘other cultures’, what bits specifically interest you?
– What images/sensations/moments of trips have stayed with you? Be precise and evocative.
Conversation Menu: Children
– What is the point, if any, of having a child?
– In so far as you find children endearing, what is it that moves you about them?
– In what ways are children a disappointment?
– How do children spoil the relationships of their parents? And enhance them?
– Describe an ideal (not perfect, just ideal for you) child, in your eyes, according to your values.
– What mistakes do you feel many parents make?
– What should children learn about the adult world?
– How might you (inadvertently) mess up your children?
– What might a child find ridiculous about you?
– What might a child find endearing/charming about you?
– Where do you lose your temper with children – and why might this be?
– What have you ever learnt from a child?
Conversation Menu: Friendship
– What sides of you still feel lonely?
– Describe an ideal, imaginary friend.
– What frustrates you about social life?
– What would help to turn a stranger into a friend?
– When you are made anxious by being in company, what are you anxious about?
– What do you want your friends to ‘get’ about you?
– What enables you to ‘connect’ well with someone?
– Who have you had to eject from your social life – and why?
– What would you want to admit to a true good friend?
– What would you want to laugh about with a true good friend?
– ‘Every time a friend of mine succeeds, a small part of me dies,’ said Gore Vidal. What does this make you think of in your life?
– Tell a companion at table something vulnerable and revealing which opens a door to deeper friendship.
Conversation Menu: Death
– What would you ideally like to tell someone you once knew who is now dead?
– What must you remember to tell someone before they die?
– Who you are afraid of not feeling the ‘right’ things around when they die?
– Whose death would you find almost impossible to get over?
– What part of your body do you suspect is going to let you down fatally in the end?
– What do you still need to do before you die?
– How many summers do you guess you have left?
– Imagine giving an address at the funeral of someone around the table: what would you say?
– How would you like to be remembered?
– What is liberating in the idea of death? What might it be a relief from?
– Knowing we are all dying (at varying speeds), what honest, direct thing would you like to tell your companions at this point? Make a short speech if necessary.
– What would you like the idea of death to liberate you from?
Conversation Menu: Money
– What feels like enough money for someone to have a year?
– What is a noble way to make money?
– In what ways are you somewhat irrational around money?
– What are you ashamed of around money?
– How might money corrupt you?
– What would you do with unlimited funds?
– What sides of your character have stopped you from making more money?
– What suspicions do you have of the very rich? And the very poor?
– What would you want to teach a child about money?
– What shaped your attitudes to money?
– What role has money played in your relationships?
– How, in your mind, are money and sex connected? Why are both often very taboo?
Conversation Menu: Culture
– What would you like a book to explain to you?
– If you were to write a book, what might it be like and about?
– If someone were to make a film of (bits of) your life, what might be key elements of the plot?
– What has shaped your taste in interior decoration?
– In what areas do you feel you might have ‘bad taste’?
– What supposedly great art is not for you?
– In what ways, and when, have you been dishonest about your cultural tastes and dispositions?
– What kind of tastes in art would an ideal lover have?
– Shared embarrassment brings people closer: hum one of your favourite songs to a dinner companion. Listen to them do likewise.
– Write the first sentence to an imaginary book which you’d want to keep reading thereafter.
– If you were a great visual artist, what elements would you want to bring out in a dinner companion?
– With a companion, sketch the plot of a thriller you could write together: what might happen in it?
We normally imagine that we are in a fit state to receive our friends when we have, finally, cleared away most of what we normally are: when we’ve hidden away the sweets and the half-eaten crisps, when we’ve tidied up the magazines and jumpers, when we’ve slipped our tear stained diary under the bed, fluffed up the cushions and put together a hugely unrepresentative meal consisting of three courses, dark chocolate truffles, an Italian wine and a mint tea infusion. This, we believe, is what will best enable us to be known, accepted and liked.
The impulse is very understandable but it is also, in its poignant way, very counterproductive. We spend so much of our time striving to be ‘normal’ and – as we believe – more like the people we admire, but we fail to notice how much we are disguising our reality and constructing a front that is more likely to intimidate than reassure others. If the impulse behind friendship is at heart a longing to be seen and for the true nature of our lives to be understood with generosity, then it is paradoxical that so many of the social encounters we choreograph are staged and guaranteed not to foster the kind of self-revealing intimacy we seek.
Rather than creating an artful ‘false self’ for public occasions, we would be wiser – and more daring – to use gatherings specifically to show people we are drawn to what our lives are truly like. Instead of the standard dinner party, we might invite our friends around to a cleaning party: an evening where we present our dwelling exactly as it normally is, and – for good measure – ask our friends if they might accompany us in a bit of light but thorough housekeeping.
We might, together, empty out the fridge, change the beds, vacuum the living room and sort out some books into ‘keepers’ and ‘charity shop’ piles – before sitting on some stools and cracking open a few tins of baked beans. Rather than insisting on our normalcy and intimidating others with our seamless existence, we might openly display the mess in our clothes cupboards and ask our friends for help in differentiating between summer and winter wardrobes.
However pleasant it may be to do nothing very much with someone other than sit on the sofa and sip some wine, it can be far more beneficial to a union to set to work on a task; to have a job to do. This is – for example – why it is generally so much easier to get close to people at university than in later life; for university friends will, through circumstance, naturally end up doing so much more with us: together we’ll make beds, go to the laundromat, struggle to cook a chicken – and in the process, we’ll laugh, penetrate each others’ social defences and see each other as fellow vulnerable suffering humans. There is simply a limit to how well we can ever get to know someone with whom we will only ever sit in a coffee shop..
Without anything openly deceitful being meant, much of the reality of our lives is under-represented in the picture of ourselves we give to others. We appear far more competent, focused, respectable, domestic and unpanicked than we are. We think it is polite to plaster over our imperfections and, to an extent, it may be. But in the long-term, it means that we are continuously implying that we are someone else to those we care most about.
In reality, everyone is in fact spending quite a lot of their time putting socks back into pairs, crying, shopping for groceries, vacuuming, eating junk food, thinking of their death and taking out the rubbish bins. We might imagine it to seem insulting to invite a good friend around – and then to hand them a toilet brush. But in fact it is a gesture of the truest kind of friendship: a chance for another person to step into the reality of our lives and to know us for who we really are.
At the dawn of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud made a remarkable discovery: that there can be an immense difference between what someone will tell you when they are sitting opposite you in a chair, looking at you in the eye – and what they will tell you when they are lying flat on their back, looking up at the ceiling.
Freud’s goal from the first was for his patients to be extremely honest with him; to divulge their true selves with as little inhibition as possible – for it was their self-ignorance and denial that, in his view, were the ultimate causes of their illnesses. A capacity to be honest was not – for Freud – merely refreshing, it might make the difference between sanity and despair.
The benefits of staring at the ceiling: Sigmund Freud’s couch, transported from Vienna to London in the year before his death in 1939.
But Freud also came to realise how much his own presence could be responsible for inhibiting his clients from reporting candidly on their dreams and fantasies. Something about seeing his face and feeling his eyes on them meant that patients were inclined unhelpfully to disguise their true selves, to hold back from the more embarrassing or sensitive material of their lives and to attempt to appear more ‘normal’ than was true – or good for them. Freud recognised just how much opposition there could be to talking in an unvarnished way about incest, cross-dressing, castration, impotence, cannibalism, anal sex or murder while sitting face to face, as one might in a Viennese cafe or a standard doctor’s surgery. Hence his decision, taken in 1890, to shift his patients onto a couch, which was ever since to become a mainstay of all psychotherapeutic consulting rooms the world over.
More than we perhaps realise, seeing another person’s face can discourage us from a confession; we edit our self presentation in the light of their reactions; we hold back from accessing the properly interesting, complicated and troubling (and therefore important) parts of ourselves. This happens in consulting rooms but it will happen just as often in that far more familiar context of the dinner party or social gathering. Here too, though we have come together ostensibly in order to be sincere and speak with honesty about our lives, we may succumb to fear of sharing what is truly going on inside us. Feeling eyes on us, we hold back from divulging our reality. We flinch at putting others off, we follow every twitch of their mouths and censor ourselves in line with what we imagine (often quite unfairly) to be their appetite for judgement and distaste. As a result, we may spend far longer than any of us want circling what happened on a recent holiday or how the house renovations are going – when there would be so much else we would need and like to share.
With Freud’s example in mind, we should pioneer our own forms of horizontal conversation. After dessert or between courses, we might suggest that we all go and lie down somewhere on the floor. It might be on blankets or on the carpet, it could happen in the kitchen or the hall. We might find it useful to switch off the lights.
It can be a strange sensation, to be stretched out in a darkened space with people – some of whom we may not yet know too well – with an open invitation to free associate about our lives. We might all stay silent for two minutes to adjust to the situation. In those moments, we might think about the broad structure of our years: once we were babies, then toddlers. We went to school and it felt like it would go on forever. Then we started work, travelled, had relationships, made some big mistakes, were thrilled and sometimes despaired – and now it’s now. We’ll get older and eventually – not as far away as we would like – we will die. We become newly conscious of voices, our own and that of others; we can hear so many more of the nuances when we aren’t also being called to look, or constantly to ensure our own expression hasn’t developed in gormless or bored directions.
In the dark, it matters a bit less what other people might think of us. We can be a bit more loyal to ourselves – and in the process, while examining the light fittings in the gloom, do other people the ultimate social favour: that of letting them see our vulnerability and peculiarity, which is what can appease their own sense of oddity and loneliness.
We might broach some of the most sensitive themes:
– What I’m scared of is…
– A thing that was tricky in my childhood…
– At work I have difficulties around …
– I feel lonely when…
– I’m so ashamed that…
– What I’d love more than anything…
– If only I wasn’t so scared, I would…
– If it didn’t seem so selfish, I would…
– If I couldn’t fail, I would…
By lying down in a strange way at dinner, we’re not in reality drifting towards eccentricity. We’re using an unusual manoeuvre in order to do something very sensible that we have aspired to for a long time: finally to tell other people what it is like to be us – and to hear individually strange but collectively deeply liberating truths from others about the nature of being alive.
One of the most astonishing and moving of all sights is that of a well-practiced orchestra working together to perform a great symphonic masterpiece. Along with 47 other equally focused colleagues, Sigrid will be sawing away at the violin, Jai-wu bellowing into a trombone, and Kaspar pounding the tympany – but the result will be the opposite of chaos. Despite every human remaining (at heart) an unfathomable self-focused individual, for a time, the members of an orchestra are able to generate a sublime sense of harmony. Their collective work stands as one of the most beguiling metaphors for what we would ideally want social life to be like: a setting in which every person could make their own unique contribution in a beautifully coordinated way to a noble overarching whole.
However, this kind of coherence is one we normally despair of ever experiencing ourselves, unless we started on the voila at seven and have acquired a deftness at following the intricacies of a conductor’s baton.
At the same time, we know that when friends are gathered around the dinner table, each person’s individuality too often leads to disagreement and discord, or at least incomprehension and boredom. We may love our friends, but it is frequently not easy to get access to a feeling of collective harmony.
Yet there is an exercise that can allow us to experience an echo of the kind of cohesion the members of an orchestra will generate – but that does not, fortunately, require us to practice for twelve years for four hours a day. One person starts by knocking out a steady beat on the table with their hand. The person next to them then strikes a fork (very gently) on a wine glass, to a different rhythm. The person beside them uses their plate as a delicate drum, carefully banging knife against the rim, in a complimentary beat. The next individual has the job of letting out a ‘hmmm’ sound in time with the knife or fork and another person joins in with an occasional ‘nananah … nananah’. And gradually a little social miracle occurs: by an engrained social instinct we collectively cohere around a harmonious tone. We’re started an orchestra, we’re making music; we’re almost ‘one’.
It is a useful strategy to try something along these lines quite early on in the evening, just for quarter of an hour or so, especially if a few of the guests are potentially agitated or querulous. The experience of being an ensemble has a lingering effect. It’s not so easy to get irritated by someone’s view on public holidays or the American Civil War if, only a little while before, you’ve been happily nanah-ing and plate clinking together.
Adult social life labours under an arduous rule: that the better we want to get to know someone, the more serious should be the topics we try to raise with them. It might be acceptable to discuss the weather with a passing acquaintance, but when it comes to a wish to open ourselves up to someone else and to discover their profound selves in turn, then we should head for the graver themes of existence: what we truly want to get out of our careers, what motivates us in relationships, how we assess our families, what politics should aim for. Seriousness of mind is, in this view, the royal road to friendship.
And yet, if self-disclosure and familiarity are really the underlying goals, then we may more closely have to the study the behaviour and wisdom of small children and in particular their insight that one cannot claim to know anyone well until the body has been closely engaged in the process of acquaintanceship.
Young children are, for the most part, daringly uninterested in conversation. When breaking the ice with a new companion, they will skirt politics, they won’t discuss the stockmarket, they will avoid consideration of family history or upcoming holidays. With the lack of respect for precedent that comes more naturally to someone newly arrived on the planet, they will – even before names have been exchanged – at once try to do something physical and, when they are especially inspired, they are likely to head for one of the most legendary bodily exercises of all: sofa jumping.
They will clamber up on to the nearest sofa, perhaps raising it in height by adding a few cushions, and then take a flying leap onto the floor, seeing how far they can land – and in particular, how much further than their new team mates. If the situation is auspicious, there will be a well-polished wooden floor or glossy tiles, which will allow for skids and the clearing of occasionally remarkable distances.
The notion of being an adult is understandably linked to the idea of being serious. There is so much that we have to be responsible for, so many troubling facts that claim our attention and so many potential difficulties that we must be permanently alert to.
But seriousness becomes a hidden enemy in getting on properly with other people, for our rational, thoughtful and controlled selves are only a limited part of who we really are. Meeting a person at the grave level is doomed to give us a distorted impression of them – and, equally, to convey a very unrepresentative slice of us.
A commitment to seriousness limits us too, in terms of who we feel we will be able to get on with. We become restricted to merely the sub-section of the world that shares our intellectual concerns, our aesthetic orientations and our psychological dispositions – as well as our preferred ways of discussing these. We are dramatically prioritising the most erudite contents of our minds as the basis for our social existence – even though in reality, practically no one else thinks about intellectual issues precisely as we do and yet very many people might remain potentially highly viable friends. We will, in other words, be committing ourselves to loneliness.
Instead of letting our mental prowess guide our friendships, we should – at key points – let the body be the ambassador of intimacy. It is obviously (by all current standards) ridiculous for a group of adults to clamber, one by one, onto a sofa in their socks and to strive with every muscle to take the largest leap of which they are capable; to swing their arms backwards and make themselves into a rocket or a plane and attempt to land with some of the bounce and grace of a kangaroo or gazelle – while in fact collapsing far nearer to their launchpad than they would have wished into an indecorous, giggling and slightly bruised heap.
Nor is there anything especially respectable about growing extremely competitive in the course of such a game, about getting into technical disputes with other participants (‘Were the jumper’s legs properly together as they lept? Were they together when they landed?’) and scouring the kitchen for some tape to mark everyone’s landing spot. But at the same time, seldom could silliness be more important.
We often do things which, later, we judge to have been absurd and ridiculous. We wince at how we could have been such numbskulls and vow never to make an embarrassment of ourselves again. But the true way out of embarrassment isn’t to attempt to expunge it entirely from our routines, it is to orchestrate deliberate occasions when it can have an honoured place in our social lives.
Calculated, on-purpose silliness means willingly abandoning our minds’ overly rigid notions of dignity. We should strive to be adult enough to consent – for a while – to the claims of childhood, a period of our lives when we knew blessedly little about house prices and what Picasso thought of capitalism.
Sofa jumping has a power to transform our relationships with others, because at last, we’ve been idiots together. Instead of our foolishness (which we try so hard to keep secret) being a barrier to connection and the grounds for shame and blushing, it becomes an arena in which we can meet as full equals. We can’t – fortunately – ever take someone entirely seriously again after we have seen them screwing up their eyes before taking a leap or eagerly disputing just how far they’ve jumped across the room as compared to their opponents. In other words, we can’t – after sofa jumping – ever treat them with unimaginative indifference again.
Part of the enormous appeal of sex is its power to change the dynamics of a relationship with another person. After we have seen someone naked, perhaps on all fours, writhing in pleasure, after we have caressed the intimate zones of their body and seen them passionately interested in a few parts of ours, we know them in a wholly new way: there will be a complicity between us, smiles will come more readily, as will forgiveness and tenderness. It won’t matter so much that they might earn far more than we do or have studied a great deal longer, we will in important ways be allies and soulmates.
For practical (though sometimes slightly sad) reasons, we aren’t able to have sex with very many people in the course of our lives. And yet the quest for greater intimacy and connection that to a significant extent powers our sexual appetites is capable of being deployed elsewhere; it would be tragic if all our longings for warmth would forever have to pass simply through the desperately narrow gate of sex. Fortunately, through the game of sofa jumping, we have another, far more available chance to build up the connections we long for. No true encounter should be complete without at least a few rounds.