One of the great impediments to understanding bits of our lives properly is our overly-ready assumption that we already do so. It’s easy to carry around with us, and exchange with others, surface intellectual descriptions of key painful events that leave the marrow of our emotions behind. We may say that we remember — for example — that we ‘didn’t get on too well’ with our father, that our mother was ‘slightly neglectful’ or that going to boarding school was ‘a bit sad.’
It could — on this basis — sound as if we surely have a solid enough grip on events. But these compressed stories are precisely the sort of ready-made, affectless accounts that stand in the way of connecting properly and viscerally with what happened to us and therefore of knowing ourselves adequately; if we can put it in a paradoxical form, our memories are what allow us to forget. Our day to day accounts may bear as much resemblance to the vivid truth of our lives as a postcard from Naxos does to a month-long journey around the Aegean.
If this matters, it’s because only on the basis of proper immersion in past fears, sadnesses, rages and losses can we ever recover from certain disorders that develop when difficult events have grown immobilised within us. To be liberated from the past, we need to mourn it and for this to occur, we need to get in touch with what it actually felt like; we need to sense, in a way we may not have done for decades, the pain of our sister being preferred to us or of the devastation of being maltreated in the study on a Saturday morning.
The difference between felt and lifeless memories could be compared to the difference between a mediocre and a great painting of spring. Both will show us an identifiable place and time of year, but only the great painter will properly seize, from among millions of possible elements, the few that really render the moment charming, interesting, sad or tender. In one case, we know about spring, in the other, we finally feel it.
This may seem like a narrow aesthetic consideration, but it goes to the core of what we need to do to get over many psychological complaints. We cannot continue to fly high over the past in our jet plane while high-handedly refusing to re-experience the territory we are crossing. We need to land our craft, get out and walk, inch by painful inch, through the swampy reality of the past. We need to lie down, perhaps on a couch, maybe with music, close our eyes, and endure things on foot. Only when we have returned afresh to our suffering and known it in our bones will it ever promise to leave us alone.
Many of us crave to be more interesting people. The question is how we might become so.
We rightly tend to associate being ‘interesting’ with achieving difference from the norm: with being able to serve up some unusual and intriguing stories and ideas. But what might be the best way to lay our hands on these?
One prestigious thesis tells us that we should try our best to root out new and well-reviewed books and articles, travel to remote places and befriend people who are prominent in the arts and business.
This correctly latches on to something — that we should aim to be different — but it entirely overlooks that, before we’ve ever read a single book, gone to any foreign country or met any Nobel Prize laureates, we are all compellingly different anyway. The problem is that we just don’t allow ourselves to come across as such.
To get a taste for this pre-existing level of originality, imagine if we placed a microphone in any of our minds and listened closely in on the chatter.
We would quickly find the most surprising, and authentically gripping information: we’d realise that we were attracted to some very unexpected people, often just the sort we weren’t supposed to have any feelings for. We’d realise that we had some hilariously personal (and shocking) takes on politics and society — and that we didn’t agree with most of the standard lines proposed to us by the media. Our anxieties, fears, hopes and excitements would show a properly distinctive and captivating pattern.
We are — though we try so hard never to admit this to ourselves let alone anyone else — already a real character.
We understand this point in relation to children. Every child under seven is fascinating. They almost never do anything interesting in the outside world, but it’s the honest, uncensored way in which they report on their inner lives that guarantees their interest. When they chit chat about their granny or their teacher or their take on their dad, we’re open mouthed.
We were once fascinating too, before we got overly worried about seeming normal.
There are of course some things that we should — as we grow up — take care not to mention to spare others hurt, but a lot fewer than we think. When we next fear coming across as dull, we need only lean in more closely on the data from our deep selves: we should, and the habit may require a little conscious effort to develop, get in touch with what we actually believe. What emerges may sound odd, but it is also liable to be hugely charming, warm-hearted and comforting — and a lot closer to what people around the table deep down feel too than what was printed in today’s newspaper.
Everyone is interesting. So-called interesting people are simply those who’ve allowed themselves to listen in on and share with others a selection of what is really going through their minds.
They have not allowed self-hatred and self-suspicion to block them from disclosing their reality. They have been confident enough to imagine that the truth about themselves could be a pleasure for others to hear — and, with a few obvious caveats, it almost certainly will be.
It is hard to imagine that there could be any such thing as excessive intelligence. After all, most of the problems of the world and of individual lives clearly come down to a shortfall in cleverness – and a surfeit of impulsiveness, self-righteousness and cruelty.
Yet it seems that there could still be a way of using our intelligence that cuts us off from necessary encounters with simple truths about us:
- — With humdrum facts
- — With down-to-earth ideas and appetites
- — With unglamorous impulses and naive yet profound speculations
If we can put it another way, there might be ways of being intelligent that could – at points – render us distinctively stupid.
There is a kind of person we can dub over-intellectual whose very cleverness can encourage them to miss key points.
It may make them blind to evident ideas that are nevertheless significant.
It may give them a permanent taste for what is abstruse and infinitely subtle – at the expense of anything that doesn’t pass an exaggerated threshold of convolution.
They may neglect the chance of an interesting conversation with a six year old because their associations of intelligence are rigidly affixed to scholarliness – or they might disdain the offer of a walk with their aunt because she left school at sixteen and has never taken an interest in politics.
Their intricate minds may end up misunderstanding reality, which comprises both Ludwig Wittgenstein and hot baths, Immanuel Kant and Dancing Queen, Aristotle and orange and polenta cake.
The over-intellectual may spend hours parsing the distinction between freewill and determinism, they may devote themselves to interpreting Maxwell’s theory of electricity and magnetism – and yet still be a novice when it comes to explaining their heart or avoiding a sulk.
True cleverness means resorting to complexity when, but only when, it is called for – and otherwise keeping room open for ways of speaking and thinking that are appropriately basic and visceral.
It may be highly fitting to use riddles and jargon when one is dealing with the operations of a nuclear reactor or the nature time at the edges of the universe.
But it becomes a particular form of obtuseness to remain in such a register when unpicking issues in relationships or family dynamics.
Those who are properly intelligent can accept that there are central truths about every life that can and should be expressed in the language of a child.
It is an achievement enough to sound very clever. It may be an even greater one to know where and when to remain heart-stirringly simple.
One of the ways in which we can accelerate, and keep faith with, change is to look forward to a time when it has occurred and anticipate what it might be like to have made progress with our psyches. Here is some of what we might expect when we have come to lead more self-accepting lives:
– We would not be inordinately pleased with ourselves or bask in an impression of our own wondrousness. We would still be clear-eyed as to our multiple faults; it’s just that we would have started to interpret these in a new way. No longer would they be an argument for self-flagellation or for feelings of exceptional wretchedness; no longer would they have to lead to long periods of depression and paranoia. We would be aware both of our shortcomings and of how endemic these were to the race as a whole. We wouldn’t feel singled out or persecuted. We would know that we belonged to a sinful and inherently foolish species that had been making a mess of things from the start, and that there were, from a sufficient perspective, few options for us other than to do so in turn.
– We would have learnt to cast a benevolent eye on our follies, to treat ourselves like naughty children, deserving of a measure of imagination and sympathy, not monsters intent on causing harm. We would know how rooted our wayward characters were in aspects of our early history and in family dynamics that defied easy understanding and alteration. We would know we were idiots, but, from some angles at least, idiots of the more loveable sort.
– We would know that we deserved love not because of how perfect and accomplished we were, but because of how broken and desperate we remained. We would understand that the noblest kind of love springs from sympathy for what is weak and malformed, not from admiration for what is flawless and serene.
– We would have learnt how to let other people into our lives and how to bond with them around a shared revelation of fear and dependence. We would let off small signs to others that we understood that they might be going through something similar to us, and that they would be safe with their vulnerabilities in our company. We would have grasped that true friendship demands a sloughing off of pride and an acceptance of our mutual mediocrity and neediness. We would have ensured that our friendships were kindly and humour-filled celebrations of our common eccentricities, disappointments and terrors.
– We would be modest about our capacity to love ourselves reliably. We would know that we had for years been struck by a chronic illness and that it could not be overcome in a few weeks or months. We would be committed to managing our symptoms and to carefully shielding ourselves from what might provoke or aggravate our condition. We would be especially careful of media, false friends, overfull diaries and the wrong kinds of professional ambition. But we’d also know that lapses into self-hatred were inevitable and would not castigate ourselves for them too severely when they occurred. There would be no need to hate ourselves for sometimes hating ourselves on top of it all.
Our awareness of how much time we had lost to self-hatred would render us especially sensitive to moments when we were free of the sickness and could engage with our work and with our friends, with nature and with culture without sapping fear and despair. We would be particularly grateful for those days when we could wake up free of dread and could trust that we were deserving and good enough to continue.
With a new assertiveness against self-hatred, we would in addition pick up how to speak to our inner critic in a new and less abject way whenever they visited us in our low moods. Here are some of the answers we might have learnt to give to this ferocious voice:
Inner critic: You’re a disgrace.
Self-loving reply: Of course: I have failed, I have got things wrong, I have been impatient, I have been immature and hare-brained. I know this inside out. But there are limits to how mesmerised one should remain by this appalling insight. I have better things to do than to jump at its mention every time like a soldier to a bugle. I refuse to devote the remainder of my days to a rehearsal of all the particulars of my own unworthiness.
Inner critic: You’ve made some terrible mistakes.
Self-loving reply: As we all have. We are all born blind; we stumble in the darkness. We bring our good intentions to bear on the confusing reality of life and give birth to catastrophes. We have been sinners since Adam and Eve. I may be bad, but I am not alone.
Inner critic: You should surely want to die.
Self-loving reply: That is the easy way out. The challenge is to work out how to continue in the face of all the arguments in favour of slitting one’s own throat. And there is no better reason than because one is still capable of helping others who, right now, are as lost as we once were.
Inner critic: Look at all those other, amazing people who do better than you.
Self-loving reply: I have no further interest in comparing my life to theirs. I can’t tell what they may be going through inside or what fate could have in store for them. I can only own my own story, with its particular mixture of pain and arduousness. I have done the best I could, within the limited confines of my understanding and with the awkwardness of the cards I was dealt.
Inner critic: You have wasted so much time.
Self-loving reply: To which the only answer is love: love what remains of our days, love charity, self-forgiveness, mercy, modesty, acceptance, appreciation and gratitude.
Progress will be slow, some days it will seem as though we have learnt nothing at all, but broadly we will be on our way. We will be in recovery from the depredations of self-directed loathing. We will know that we have acquired more fruitful options than to tear ourselves apart. We will have left the shores of self-hatred for the wider, kinder seas of self-acceptance.
We are so used to thinking of Jesus as a divinity whom we accept or reject on the basis of faith that we are apt to miss a far more relevant detail: that he was an extremely acute philosopher, whose rules on human conduct maintain a deep and ongoing applicability.
One of the most salient of his lessons comes in chapter eight of the Gospel of Saint John. Jesus has recently come down from Galilee to Jerusalem when some Pharisees, members of a sect focused on precise adherence to Jewish tradition and law, present him with a married woman whom they have caught having sex with someone other than her husband. ‘Teacher,’ they ask him, ‘this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. In our law, Moses commanded that such a woman must be stoned to death. Now what do you say?’
Jesus is being edged into a trap. Will he say that it is completely fine to have an affair (in other words, to condone something that one’s society regards as sexually very wrong)? Or will the mild-mannered preacher of love and forgiveness turn out to be just as strict about legal matters as the Jewish authorities he liked to criticise?
Jesus makes a deft move. He doesn’t categorically deny the mob the right to stone the woman to death – but he adds one apparently small but in practice epochal caveat to this right. They can kill and destroy her to their hearts content if, but only if, they can be absolutely sure that they have first satisfied one crucial criteria: they have never done anything wrong themselves.
Importantly, by this Jesus doesn’t mean if they have never slept around outside of their marriage, he means if they have never done anything wrong at all, whatsoever, across any area of their lives. Only absolute moral purity grants us the right to be vicious, high-handed and unsparing towards transgressors. An important principle of ethics is being introduced: we are to be counted as properly innocent not when we are blameless in this or that area, but when we have done nothing wrong whatsoever, at any point and in any context. If we have, if we have slipped up in any field, even one very far removed from the crime at hand, then we are duty bound to stretch our powers of empathy, to strive to identify with the wrongdoer and to show them an advanced degree of mercy and charity. We may not have committed that particular crime, but we are implicated in sin more generally – and therefore must forgive.
Jesus responds to the Pharisees with what have become immortal words: ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone…’ The mob, understanding the rebuke, put down their projectiles and the terrified woman is spared.
The real target of this story is a perennial problem in the human soul: self-righteousness. Self-righteousness is the degenerate outgrowth of something otherwise extremely valuable: a desire to be in the right. The problem is that being in the right in some areas has a fateful tendency to lead us to see ourselves as morally blameless across our entire lives and therefore encourages a particular mean-spiritedness and inhumanity towards those who transgress in situations where we have been good. Our impeccable position on, say, the economy, or poverty or the right way to run a household can give us grounds for viewing ourselves as morally blameless in and of ourselves – a stance from where extraordinary cruelty can follow.
Jesus’s point is that the surest way to be kind is not to take pride in never having done a particular species of wrong. It lies in seeing that, inevitably, we too have been foolish and cruel at other moments, and in using that knowledge to foster compassion towards those whom it lies in our powers to ‘stone’. A world in which we keep our own wrongs firmly in mind becomes, paradoxically, a properly virtuous and humane place.
It remains unhelpfully hard to be able to admit that one is lonely. Unless one has recently been widowed or just moved to a new city, there are no respectable-sounding explanations for why someone would find themselves without a sufficient number of friends. The supposition quickly forms that a person’s loneliness must be explained by something diseased and troubling within their character. If they are lonely, it is because there are things in their nature that merit for them to be left alone.
Yet in reality, what makes someone feel lonely isn’t usually that they have no one they can be with, but that they don’t know a sufficient number of people who could understand the more sincere and quirk-filled parts of themselves. A warm body with whom to have a meal isn’t hard to find; there is always someone with whom one might discuss meteorological matters. But true loneliness doesn’t end the moment one is chatting with someone, it ends when a companion is able to follow us closely and honestly in the revelation of the intimate ailments and vulnerabilities of being human.
We stop feeling lonely when, at last, someone is there to acknowledge with frankness how perplexing sex remains, how frightening death is, how much envy one feels, how many supposedly small things spark anxiety, how much one sometimes hates oneself, how weepy one can be, how much regret one has, how self-conscious one feels, how complex one’s relationship to one’s parents is, how much misery one harbours, how much unexplored potential one has, how odd one is about different parts of one’s body and how emotionally immature one remains. It’s the capacity to be honest about these potentially embarrassing and little-spoken of sides of human nature that connects us to others and finally brings our isolation to an end.
It’s often said that we have built a lonely modern world. If this is so, it has nothing to do with our busy working schedules or gargantuan cities. It has to do with the fiction we tell ourselves about what we’re like. We trade in brutally simplified caricatures, which leave out so much of our real natures – so much of the pain, confusion, wildness and extremity. We’re lonely because we can’t easily admit to other people what we know is true in ourselves – and see no evidence for our peculiarities in public discourse. We tell stories about what we’ve been up to lately or how we feel at the moment that capture almost nothing of the truth of who we are, not because we are liars, but because we are ashamed of the gap between what we sense in ourselves and what is generally spoken of. We’re encouraged to present a cheerful, one-dimensional facade in which everything awkward but essential has been planed off. Without a hold on our true selves and energy to divulge our core, we have no chance of ever genuinely ‘meeting’ anyone else – however many so-called friends we might lay claim to.
A first step towards ending loneliness would be to encourage ourselves to investigate our own characters with greater depth – and then reassure us that our discoveries will have analogies with those of other people, even if they are as yet keeping quiet about what these might be. We should be prompted to open the more secret doors of our minds and step into the sad, angry, envious or self-hating rooms – turn on the lights and examine the contents without prudishness or denial, shame or guilt. When we are then next with someone else, we should risk shedding the usual superficial perfectionist expectations and comparing our mutual eccentricity and fear.
The heightened loneliness of some melancholy souls can be explained because they are unusually closely in touch with the less public, more candid parts of themselves. They are dissatisfied with their relationships with people around them because they have made friends with so many of the lesser known rooms in their own minds. They haven’t shied away from uncomfortable and surprising ideas and feelings – and hunger to discuss these in unsuperficial dialogue with equally forthright others.
We are lonely because we have collectively been slow to accept that are delightfully.strange and unhinged people who lose little by confessing as much to those we meet. We should allow ourselves to reveal more of who we really are to those with the imagination and sense of adventure to listen, and to bring their own weirdness to the table in turn. Friendship begins when our unwarranted shame can finally be dismissed.
It’s not necessarily a well-flagged problem: we tend to situate the risks to our happiness elsewhere – but for a proportion of us, the greatest obstacle to our flourishing lies in a high and persistent degree of inhibition. We are, in a range of areas, painfully hesitant about saying what we deeply want, appreciating where we are talented and pursuing our objectives in the world with a decent amount of tenacity, strategy and courage. It can look as if we might be simply well-mannered and quiet but we are something more pernicious and self-harming: ashamed of what we seek and, in the largest sense, of who we are.
Part of the reason we stay meek for too long is that we imagine a more forthright life in unhelpfully dramatic terms. We picture it involving radical large-scale moves and major upsets of people we care about, and therefore understandably withdraw from the prospect of unleashing offence and chaos. But this isn’t what directness invariably has to mean. We could come to view the business of speaking up in more modest terms, as an evolution rather than a revolution; and go in for a few confidence-building measures that nevertheless stand a chance of slowly wearing away at our unhelpful timidity.
We might consider a range of everyday moves that point the way to a more liberated way of living.
1. Taking pleasure in our accomplishments
The timid tend to live – paradoxically – in terror of being accused of boasting. So whatever they have accomplished, they take great care to hide. If something has gone well, they publicly put it down to luck and privately assume that far worse is soon to come. But there might be an opportunity, every now and then, to acknowledge what has been a success. One might try, on occasion, to stop putting oneself down and open up about a success one has been involved in. It could feel as dangerous as shoplifting, yet there might be genuine benefit in taking the measure of, and a little pride in, one’s strengths and virtues.
2. Walk into rather than away from a fear
We are used to taking our fears as reliable alarm bells. If we don’t want to go to the party, it must be because gatherings are dangerous. If we don’t want to start a new initiative, it must be because the risk is untenable. But some alarms may be going off for no good reason at all, simply because we’ve grown up feeling suspicious of ourselves. Fear, which is in principle there to help us take care of our interests, may be shielding us from being properly alive. We might – at selected points – need to hear an alarm, ignore it completely and walk on.
3. Cause problems for someone else
Our impulse is always to accommodate other people. We laugh at their jokes, go along with their plans and try never to ruffle their feathers. But inside, we may also be very angry, have a legitimate grievance and something important we need to say or do that bucks the trend. And therefore, we could at moments radically inconvenience someone, not to be bloody minded, but because there is an important principle at stake which we don’t this time want to give up on. We might learn the subtle art of being, where it really counts, a pain.
To be inhibited is to assume that it would be unwelcome and a little shocking to show anyone else that we liked them and might be likeable in turn. We would never dare to pay compliments or allow ourselves to be overt in our enthusiasms. After all, other people always have partners; we’re never their type and we’re anyway a bit disgusting. Except that none of that may be remotely true. There is a loneliness in almost everyone that we may be able to provide a hugely fitting answer to.
5. Stay in bed a bit longer
We are terrified of being deemed lazy and defend ourselves against feelings of unworthiness through heroic work schedules and iron self-discipline. It feels more bearable to be permanently busy and in pain. But we might dare to push against our masochism and try, in a minor way, to try out something we’ve never dared: a bit of insurrection. We might go home early or take a morning off, we might accept that a bit of self-indulgence, a bit of not-caring-what-they-will-say, belongs within the economy of any well-lived life.
6. Treat yourself
Part of our innate shame is likely to manifest itself in an inner austerity. It might always feel better to sidestep pleasure but we might, in the name of mental health, throw the habit of a lifetime away and sometimes, without guilt, simply daydream for a few hours, buy ourselves an expensive piece of clothing (preferably in a bold colour) or step into a bakery and ask for a large slice of blueberry cake or a Portuguese custard tart (or two).
7. You are (a bit) amazing
You are – whatever your flaws, which we’ve heard quite enough about already – part of cosmic creation, an extraordinarily original and vibrant witness to the universe, partaking of the same sort of biological matter that wrote Paradise Lost and sent rockets to Jupiter – and possessed of your own unique moments of lyricism, insight and brilliance.
A deeply heretical set of thoughts rears its head: perhaps you deserve to be here. Perhaps you are not inherently shameful. Perhaps you are allowed love and, every now and then, to be loved in return. Perhaps you can be at ease with who you are, with what you want and with all the mistakes and embarrassments you have (like all of us) generated. Perhaps no one would complain if you took a few baby steps to freedom.
It’s a rather simple question that quickly gets to the core of someone’s sense of well-being and legitimacy: did your childhood leave you feeling that you were – on balance – OK as you were? Or did you somewhere along the way derive an impression that you needed to be extraordinary in order to deserve a place on the earth? And, to raise an associated question: are you therefore now relaxed about your status in life? Or have you become either a manic overachiever or filled with shame at your so-called mediocrity?
Around twenty percent of us will be in the uncomfortable cohort; alternately refusing to believe that anything could ever be enough, or cursing ourselves as ‘failures’ (by which we in essence mean that we have not managed to beat insane statistical odds). At school, we probably worked very hard, not because we were drawn to the topics, but because we felt compelled for reasons that were – at the time – not entirely clear; we just knew we had to come close at the top of the class and revise every evening. We may not be exceptional right now, but we are seldom without an acute sense of pressure to be so.
In childhood, the story might have gone like this. A parent needed us to be special – by virtue of intelligence, looks or popularity – in order to shore up a floundering sense of their own self. The child needed to achieve and could not, therefore, just be; their own motives and tastes were not to be part of the picture. The parent was – privately – in pain; unable to value themselves, battling an unnamed depression, furious with the course of their own lives, perhaps covertly tortured by their spouse. And the child’s mission, for which there was no option but to volunteer, was to make it all somehow better.
It seems odd to look at achievement through this lens, not as the thing the newspapers tell us it is, but – very often – as a species of mental illness. Those who put up the skyscrapers, write the bestselling books, perform on stage, or make partner may, in fact, be the unwell ones. Whereas the characters who – without agony – can bear an ordinary life, the so-called contented ‘mediocrities’, may in fact be the emotional superstars, the aristocrats of the spirit, the captains of the heart. The world divides into the privileged who can be ordinary and the damned compelled to be remarkable.
The best possible outcome for the latter is to have a breakdown. Suddenly, after years of achievement, they can – if they are lucky – no longer get out bed. They fall into a profound depression. They develop all-consuming social anxiety. They refuse to eat. They babble incoherently. They in some way poke a very large stick in the wheels of day-to-day life and are allowed to stay home for a while. A breakdown is not merely a random piece of madness or malfunction, it can be a very real – albeit inarticulate and inconvenient – bid for health. It is an attempt by one part of our minds to force the other into a process of growth, self-understanding and self-development which it has hitherto been too cowed to undertake. If we can put it paradoxically, it is an attempt to jumpstart a process of getting well, properly well, through a stage of falling very ill.
In an apparently ill state, we might cleverly be seeking to destroy all the building blocks of our previous driven yet unhappy careers. We may be trying to reduce our commitments and our outgoings. We may be trying to throw off the cruel absurdity of others’ expectations.
Our societies – that are often unwell at a collective and not just an individual level – are predictably lacking in inspiring images of good enough ordinary lives. They tend to associate these with being a loser. We imagine that a quiet life is something that only a failed person without options would ever seek. We relentlessly identify goodness with being at the centre, in the metropolis, on the stage. We don’t like autumn mellowness or the peace that comes once we are past the meridian of our hopes. But there is, of course, no center, or rather the centre is oneself.
Occasionally an artist will make things that bring such bathetic wisdom home. Here is Montaigne, capturing the point in the third volume of his Essays, written a few years before his death towards the end of the sixteenth century: “Storming a breach, conducting an embassy, ruling a nation are glittering deeds. Rebuking, laughing, buying, selling, loving, hating and living together gently and justly with your household – and with yourself – not getting slack nor belying yourself, is something more remarkable, more rare and more difficult. Whatever people may say, such secluded lives sustain in that way duties which are at least as hard and as tense as those of other lives.”
In the late 1650s, the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer painted a picture called The Little Street, that continues to challenge our value system to this day.
Perhaps success might – after all – be nothing more than a quiet afternoon with the children, at home, in a modest street. You catch a similar point in certain stories by Chekhov or Raymond Carver, in Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind, in Thomas Jones’s study of A Wall in Naples (1782) and in the films of Eric Rohmer, in particular Le Rayon Vert (1982).
Most movies, adverts, songs and articles, however, do not tend to go this way, they continually explain to us the appeal of other things: sports cars, tropical island holidays, fame, an exalted destiny, first-class air travel and being very busy. The attractions are sometimes perfectly real. But the cumulative effect is to instill in us the idea that our own lives must be close to worthless.
And yet there may be immense skill, joy and nobility involved in what we are up to: in bringing up a child to be reasonably independent and balanced; in maintaining a good-enough relationship with a partner over many years despite areas of extreme difficulty; in keeping a home in reasonable order; in getting a lot of early nights; in doing a not very exciting or well-paid job responsibly and cheerfully; in listening properly to other people and, in general, in not succumbing to madness or rage at the paradox and compromises involved in being alive.
There is already a treasury to appreciate in our circumstances when we learn to see these without prejudice or self-hatred. As we may discover once we are beyond others’ expectations, life’s true luxuries might comprise nothing more or less than simplicity, quiet, friendship based on vulnerability, creativity without an audience, love without too much hope or despair, hot baths and dried fruits, walnuts and dark chocolate.
Given how much we all long to be happy, we might presume that accepting the possibility of happiness in our lives would be an uncomplicated, serene and automatic process. But for many of us, however theoretically attached we might be to the notion of being happy, the possibility of actually being so is liable to trigger deep ambivalence and fear. We would – it appears – often prefer to be worried and sad rather than attempt take on the risks surreptitiously connected in our minds with positive moods. We may – however paradoxical it sounds – be nothing less than afraid to be happy.
As ever, our fear has a history that begins in childhood, where one of the following is likely to have occurred. Someone we deeply loved, and perhaps admired too, was unhappy. Their sorrow moved us profoundly and led us to identify with them so that our caution around contentment continues to function as a secret tribute to them. To be happy would, in a way that would pain us profoundly, mean being disloyal. However much they might on the surface have encouraged us to venture out and seize opportunities for joy, an important part of us wishes to stay with them under the canopy of grief. So without knowing we’re doing this, we ensure that we will always have a modest career because they never had educational possibilities or we turn down sexual opportunities because they were sexually neglected. Alternatively, someone we were close to might have been jealous of us and led us to want to downplay our achievements and hide our contentment – in order to feel safe from their envy and rage. We learnt to associate gloom with safety and joy with risk. More generally, we may have lacked any plausible role models for happiness. We may have grown up in an environment where being anxious and panicky was the default state, where it seemed natural to picture the plane crashing, the police showing up, the business collapsing and the mole morphing into cancer. We may be intellectually aware that there could be other ways to interpret the future, but equanimity doesn’t feel like what our tribe does. To this resistance, we might have added a layer of intellectual superiority: happiness seems for the little people, the leading symptom of understanding the world intelligently must be sadness.
All such positions contribute to a psyche where the onset of happiness is a cause for grave and glaring alarm. When we are finally on holiday, or in love or surrounded by friends or free of financial pressure, we panic. Our senses have been jammed for so long in fear mode, they are filled with dread when the alarm stops wailing.
To return to a more balanced state, we’re liable systematically to sabotage the conditions of contentment. We start working on holiday and soon uncover a cause for concern at the office; within hours, we may be protesting that we need to return home. Or else we do our utmost to convince a new lover that we’re not worth it, by seldom calling them or (if they really don’t get the message) having an affair. It feels so much more normal to be abandoned.
In order to acclimatise ourselves to joy, we need to return to the past and unpick how we learnt to use anxiety as a defensive strategy to protect us against other threats we were too young and too easily overwhelmed to answer.
The manic worrier worries, as it were, about ‘everything’ because they are unable to be appropriately concerned with, and in mourning for, one or two big things from long ago. The anxiety that belonged to one particular distant time and place has been redistributed and subdivided across hundreds of ever shifting topics in the present (from workplace to reputation, money to household tasks), because its true source and origins remain unknown to the sufferer.
We are using the flotsam and jetsam of everyday worries as a proxy for an unmasterable trauma: shame; humiliation; a sense we don’t matter to our caregivers; neglect or abuse. We should not sarcastically point out to worriers that they need ‘something else to worry about’, we should realise that something terrifying that they have buried deep in their unconscious is lending a continuous sense of dread to their fragile present.
We manic worriers need not sarcasm but supportive and intelligent company to give us the love we need to dare to look back at the past – and the insight with which to try to do so. Our dread is a symptom of an ancient sorrow, a sign that we keep not finding anything in the outer world that answers to the horror of the inner one.
Needless to say, it isn’t the case that there is never anything to worry about in the present, just that there is a lot less than the manic worrier tends to believe. Furthermore, what there is to worry about can be coped with with far more resilience than the manic worrier can imagine, for they are operating with what is essentially a child’s sense of their own powers and capacity for survival. Manic worriers should gradually come to exchange their feelings of dread for the future for a patient understanding and mourning for an unfairly traumatic and as yet insufficiently explored past.
There is nothing greedy or stupid about happiness. The ability to take appropriate satisfaction from the good times is a profound psychological achievement: it is a mark of deep seriousness to be able to giggle, have a pillow fight with a child, delight in a fig, sunbathe, sometimes knock off work early to have an ice cream and appreciate a daffodil. Sorrow is obvious; there is always a richness of reasons to despair. Fear is safe as well; if we are waiting for the enemy with sword in hand, we may gain a vital few seconds were the blow to come. But the truly courageous and heroically defiant move (given our background) would be to dare to put down our weapon, lessen our preparations for catastrophe, resist the terrors ingrained in us over decades and once in a while believe that, astonishingly, for a time, there might truly be nothing to worry about.
From a young age, we’re taught to expect that the truly important ideas must lie outside of us, usually very far outside of us in time and place. Someone else – cleverer, wiser and more prestigious than we – will already have hatched the crucial thoughts and it is our task to pay homage to their intelligence, to learn what they had to say, to be as faithful as possible to their words and to align our perspective with theirs.
As part of this process, we will need to read a lot of books, listen to teachers and write untold numbers of essays about pre-existing intellectual authorities. We will find that the best way to convince anyone of anything we might be saying is to do our utmost to hide that we may have formulated the idea ourselves and instead to add copious footnotes to show that we got it all from someone else, preferably someone with a prestigious name and a long publishing record. One of the most foolhardy answers to give to any enquiry as to where a thought originated is to remark that it simply popped into our very own heads. Our heads are not understood to be where anything especially valuable might lie.
This readiness to submit to outside expertise has its evident merits: a society in which everyone refused to listen to those who had come before them would squander a lot of time, would be needlessly presumptuous and would have to keep reinventing wheels. But the background impulse automatically to mine the ideas of others before asking ourselves what we think is ruinous in its own way, leading to punishing degrees of stagnation, the wrong kind of conformity and a woeful number of minds that end up in the grave with their riches wholly untapped.
Not all good ideas have yet been had – and our minds are as good a place as any in which they might one day hatch. We need to develop a greater loyalty to what is going on in these minds: we have met hundreds of people, experienced a great many places, entertained a vast variety of sensations and perceptions. Our minds are stocked. We have read more than Socrates, we have had as many – if not more – experiences than Plato. We don’t have to go back to university to do yet another degree. We already have the raw material with which to produce valuable insights. We are simply lacking confidence.
One thinker who was especially irked by this tendency to underrate our own minds was the sixteenth-century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne. He took particularly objection to the habit (already prevalent in his day) of manically footnoting and quoting other people in academic works:
“Whenever I ask an acquaintance of mine to tell me what he knows about something, he wants to show me a book: he would not venture to tell me that he has scabs on his arse without studying his lexicon to find out the meanings of scab and arse.”
This kind of reluctance to put trust in our own experiences might not be problematic if other minds could be relied upon faithfully to express everything we had thought and felt; if, as it were, they knew all our arses and all our scabs. But, as Montaigne recognised, other people, even very clever ones, will be silent on a great many important themes that circulate in our minds. If we allow existing thinkers to define the boundaries of our curiosity, we will needlessly hold back the development of our minds. A meeting in Italy crystallised the issue for Montaigne:
“In Pisa I met a decent man who is such an Aristotelian that the most basic of his doctrines is that the touchstone and the measuring-scale of all sound ideas and of each and every truth must lie in conformity with the teachings of Aristotle, outside of which all is inane and chimerical: Aristotle has seen everything, done everything.”
Aristotle had, of course, done and seen a lot. Of all the thinkers of antiquity, he had perhaps been the most comprehensive, his works ranging over the landscape of knowledge. But the very scale of Aristotle’s achievement bequeathed a problematic legacy. He had, paradoxically, prevented many of his successors from behaving like him – for he had risen to greatness only by doubting much of the knowledge that had been built up before him and putting immense faith in the fruits of his own mind.
Montaigne was criticising the impulse to think that the truth must always lie far from us, in another climate, in an ancient library, in the books of people who lived long ago. It is a question of whether access to genuinely valuable things must be structurally limited to a handful of geniuses born between the construction of the Parthenon in Athens and the sack of Rome, or whether as Montaigne daringly proposed, they may be open to you and me as well. He wanted to point us to an unexpected source of wisdom and insight: our own craniums. If we attend properly to our ideas and learn to consider ourselves plausible candidates for a thinking life, it is, implied Montaigne, open to all of us to arrive in the coming days at insights no less profound than those in the great ancient books.
The thought is not easy. We are educated to associate virtue with submission to authorities, rather than with an exploration of the volumes daily transcribed within ourselves by our perceptual mechanisms. Montaigne tried to return us to ourselves.
“We know how to say, ‘This is what Cicero said’; ‘This is morality for Plato’; ‘These are the ipsissima verba of Aristotle.’ But what have we got to say? What judgements do we make? What are we doing? A parrot could talk as well as we do.”
Interesting ideas are, Montaigne insisted, to be found in every life. However modest our biographies, we can all derive greater insights from ourselves than from all the books of old.
“Were I a good scholar, I would find enough in my own experience to make me wise. Whoever recalls to mind his last bout of anger…sees the ugliness of this passion better than in Aristotle. Anyone who recalls the ills he has undergone, those which have threatened him and the trivial incidents which have moved him from one condition to another, makes himself thereby ready for future mutations and the exploring of his condition. Even the life of Caesar is less exemplary for us than our own; a life whether imperial or plebeian is always a life affected by everything that can happen to a person.”
Only an intimidating scholarly culture has made us think otherwise, said Montaigne: “We are richer than we think, each one of us.”
In the leading Italian novel of the 20th century, The Leopard by Tomasi di Lampedusa, one of the central passages describes two characters dancing together at a party, shortly after their engagement has been announced. They are in love but:
… they were blind to each other’s failings, deaf to the warnings of fate, deluding themselves that the whole course of their lives would be as smooth as the floor they were dancing on. Neither was particular kind, both were selfish, each had many secrets; yet there was something sweet about watching them together: their hopes were muddled and naive – but he was murmuring playfully in her ear; the scent on her hair was delightful; they were mortal creatures, for whom death was still an abstract, distant notion; they held one another, trying to brighten the brief passage between birth and death.
This paragraph is regularly held up to Italian students as a high point of literary brilliance. But there’s a very strange feature to it: there’s nothing in it that we didn’t already understand or know. The author didn’t have access to any truth from which we had been barred: we’ve seen couples dancing; we’ve been in relationships; we’ve experienced love; we know how complicated we are; we’ve had moments of tenderness and compassion for others despite their flaws. All the truths the passage describes were already in our minds; but we stayed silent. What might have held us back from writing similarly charming and true passages is that we have vastly under-respected our own intelligences: we have not had the courage of our most powerful intuitions. We have behaved as if we needed permission or a famous name like di Lampedusa (who was – in fact – just like any of us, until he started to take his own thoughts seriously).
Centuries earlier, another Italian artist, Michelangelo, defined his own attitude to his work as a sculptor: the statue is already in the stone, my work is to liberate it.
Michelangelo: The Awakening Prisoner
Just like Michelangelo’s stones, there are already all kinds of great thoughts in our heads: it is merely that we need to liberate them from the dense block of our own hesitancy.
We suffer from excessive respect. We are taught to admire the minds of infinite, baffling but astonishing figures like Michelangelo, Aristotle, Plato, di Lampedusa or Montaigne. We are invited to stand in awe at the achievements of these geniuses but also – somewhere along the way – we are made to feel that their thought processes must be quasi-magical and that it is ultimately simply mysterious how they were ever able to come up with the ideas they have had.
But there is a radically different view, suggested by a hugely prescient quote from the 19th-century American genius Ralph Waldo Emerson: In the minds of geniuses, we find – once more – our own neglected thoughts. What this tells us is that the genius doesn’t have different kinds of thoughts from the rest of us. They simply take them more seriously. We ourselves will often have had our own sketchy, hesitant version of their ideas – which is why their works can have such a distinctive impression on us. What they present feels surprising and impressive, of course; yet also obvious and right – once it has been pointed out. They are giving clear and powerful articulation to notions that are already familiar because we’ve been circling them ourselves, possibly for years, without quite ever being able to close in on them properly.
Genius can in this sense be defined as paying closer attention to our real thoughts and feelings and being brave and tenacious enough to hold onto them even when they find no immediate echo in the world beyond. The reason why we disavow so much of what passes through our minds is under-confidence. We kill off our most promising thoughts for fear of seeming strange to ourselves and others (which explains why small children are, in their own way, so much more interesting than the average adult: they have not yet become experts in what not to say or think). But when we censor and close down, when we take fright and try not to think, is exactly the moment when the so-called genius starts to take note of what is happening within them.
We operate with a false picture of intelligence when we identify it too strongly with what is exotic and utterly beyond us. It is something far more provocative than this. Clever is what we all can be when we pay careful attention to what is truly passing through consciousness. We all have very similar and very able minds; where geniuses differ is in their more robust inclinations to study them properly.
Imagine, for once, that the truth does not lie outside of you.
Put aside external authorities.
Ask yourself what you think.
Stay faithful to what you have felt.
Believe that it is within your capacity to know.
Learn to catch your own unthought thoughts.
Examine – as it were – your own arse.