It’s one of the great paradoxes of mental life that we’re often unable to access our true feelings about important matters. What we really think about — for example — the character of a friend, or the next best move we should make in our career or our stance towards an incident in childhood… All of our conclusions on such critical topics can remain locked inside us, part of us but inaccessible to ordinary consciousness.
What we operate with instead are surface and misleading pictures of our dispositions and goals. We may settle, in haste or fear, on the most obvious answers: our new friend is very kind, we should aim for the most highly paid job, our childhood was ‘fun’.
We ignore our truths first and foremost because we aren’t trained to solicit them; no one ever quite tells us that we might need to exhibit the patience and wiliness of an angler while waiting at the river bank of the deep mind. We’ve been brought up to act fast, to assume that we know everything immediately, and to ignore that consciousness is made up of layers, and that it’s the lower strata that might contain the richest, most faithful material.
We may also be hesitant because the answers that emerge from any descent into the depths and subsequent communion with our inner pilot can sound at odds with the settled expectations we have of ourselves in daylight. It might turn out that we don’t, in fact, love who we’re meant to love, or are scared and suspicious of someone who is pressing us to trust them or are deeply moved by — and sympathetic to — a person we hardly know. It’s the profoundly challenging nature of our conclusions that keeps us away from our inner sanctum. We prioritise a sense of feeling normal over the jolting realisations of the true self.
The steps we need to take in order to check in with ourselves are not especially complicated. We need to make time, as often as once a day, to lie very still on our own somewhere, probably in bed or maybe in the bath, to close our eyes and direct our attention towards one of many tangled or murky topics that deserve reflection: a partner, a work challenge, an invitation, an upcoming trip, a relationship with a child or a parent. We might need a moment to locate our actual concern. Then, disengaged from the ordinary static, we should circle the matter and ask ourselves with unusual guilelessness: ‘What is coming up for me here?’ Holding the partner, work challenge, invitation or disagreement patiently in mind, we should whisper to ourselves: what do we really think? What is the real issue? What is truly going on? What is actually at stake?
We should — to sound a little soft-headed — ask ourselves what our heart is whispering to us or what our gut is trying to articulate. We’re striving to access a sincere part of the mind too often crushed by the barking, harried commands of the conformist executive self.
What we will almost certainly find is that — in a quasi-mystical way — the answers are already there waiting for us, like the stars that were present all along and only required the sun to fade in order to come to light in the circumference of the sky. We already know — much more accurately than we ever assume — who we should be friends with, what is good and bad for us, and what our purpose on this earth is.
We only need a few moments in the dark at 11pm or 5am to wander the corridors of the deep mind with the flashlight of consciousness, and to ask: ‘What is coming up for me here?’ We will emerge as wise and as knowledgeable as we already are.
What should in an ideal world define someone as a writer isn’t that they publish books, or give talks at literary festivals or wear black; it’s that they belong to a distinct group of people who — whenever they are confused or in distress — gain the greatest possible relief from jotting things down. ‘Writers’ in the true sense are those who scribble — as opposed to drink, exercise or chat — their way out of pain.
The act of writing, especially in a journal or diary, is filled with therapeutic benefits. So deeply do certain ideas threaten the status quo, even if they ultimately offer us benefits, the mind will ruthlessly ‘forget’ them in the name of a quiet life. But our diaries are a forum in which we can raise and then galvanise ourselves into answering the large questions which lie behind the stewardship of our lives: What do I really want? Should I leave? What do I feel for them?
We may not quite know what we want to say until we’ve started to write; writing begets more writing. The first sentence makes the second one clearer. After a short paragraph that was summoned from apparent air, we start know where this might be going. We learn what we think in the process of being forced to utter ideas outside of our swampy minds. The page becomes a guardian of our authentic elusive self.
Here we can make vows and attempt to stick to them: No more humiliation! The end of masochism! Ordinary life can seem to have no place for stock-taking and moments of grand enquiry. But the page demands and rewards them: What am I trying to do? Who am I? What is meaningful for me? We’d never get away with such things at the dinner table, even among people who claim to love us — but here they make sense.
We can look back at what we’ve written and understand. The page is a supreme arena for processing. We can drain pain of its rawness. We can get used to disasters and stabilise joys. We can turn panic into lists. Five ways to survive this. Six things I am going to tell them. Four reasons not to despair. We won’t need to be so jittery in the world outside after we have told the notebook all this.
The page becomes a laboratory in which to try out what might shock and surprise. We don’t need to honour everything we say. We’re giving it a go and seeing how we feel. It’s the first draft of a letter to ourselves.
Looking back at what we have written should be embarrassing, if what we mean by that is hyperbolic, disjointed, uncertain and wild. If we aren’t appalled by much of what we have said to ourselves, we aren’t beginning to be truthful — and therefore won’t learn.
If in ordinary life we make a little more sense than we might, if we are a bit calmer than we were, it’s perhaps because — somewhere in a drawer — there are pages of tightly compressed handwriting that have helped us to understand our pain, safely explore our fantasies and guide us to a more bearable future.
However healthy it often is to try to fit in and assume we must just be like everyone else, there are also benefits in sometimes accepting that we might in the end be simply rather odd — though this needn’t be a cause of particularly concern or shame.
Perhaps we simply do belong to the peculiar tribe of those who love — above pretty much anything else — to introspect, that is, to try to make sense of themselves, to process their emotions, to analyse their immaturities and to understand the psychological mechanisms they inhabit. We, the happy odd few, belong to that minor clan of the avid self-knowers who take entirely to heart the Ancient Greek command to ‘Know yourself’.
To be so intensely concerned with self-knowledge has probably equipped us with a number of strange traits. We are likely to very much enjoy our own company. We might not mind spending a whole day alone, marinading in ourselves. It’s never a problem if someone cancels dinner on us. We might keep a diary or a file on our computer where we spend hours taking matters apart. We might like hot baths or solitary walks, often in the evening. We might read a lot but in a distinctive way: always looking out for the ways in which the words of others shed light on, and more clearly define, bits of ourselves. We’re likely to be impatient with people who seek relentlessly to stay on the surface of things. Probably someone once asked us over dinner — slightly defensively — why we were ‘interviewing’ them and we weren’t at all; we were just directing to them some of the manic curiosity we normally devote to ourselves.
In love, half the fun won’t be about sex or cuddles, it will be that there is someone there to discuss one of the world’s most interesting phenomena — relationships -— in real time with us.
We might try therapy and even though we may have had our share of disappointing shrinks, it will continue to be an area of intrinsic fascination: many of our favourite books will be psychological ones. As therapy inspires us to do, even though it might have been a long since we lived with our family of birth, we will continue to explore how the past informs our present; we’re never quite done with reflecting on mum and dad. We’re no longer angry with them as we once were, we’re just very interested.
People may often try to persuade us to do other things they call fun — go to the beach, come to a party, go shopping — and even though we’ll agree and there’ll be pleasant moments, the truth is that our favourite pastime remains sitting at home, probably in bed, with a notebook, trying to work out what it means to be alive.
That’s ideally how — after many years — we’d like death to find us. Not scared or oblivious, but curious and attentive, wondering what we’re about to undergo and still speculating on what the brief passage through existence was really all about. We won’t have finished knowing ourselves but we’ll have been most alive whenever we tried to do so.
Two photographs deserve to be counted as among the most significant of the twentieth century. The first was taken on December 24th, 1968, by the astronaut William Anders as the Apollo 8 spacecraft orbited the moon – and showed off the earth as the legendary pale blue dot in an infinity of emptiness.
The second image – far less well known – was taken in 1978 by a team of scientists led by Hugh Clow and Ian Robert Young at EMI Laboratories in England and revealed a cross section of the human brain as seen through the electronic eyes of an MRI scanner.
MRI technology proved to be a revolutionary advance on the CT scans that had preceded it because it created brilliant contrasts, displaying areas that were high in water and fat in white – and those low in water and fat in black. It granted one near-perfect vision over parts of the brain that had previously been known only from an anatomist’s slab: the cerebellar cortex, the occipital lobe, the hypothalamus and the corpus callosum.
MRI gave our species a new degree of insight into itself. Everything that homo sapiens had ever done, thought about, dreamt, imagined, every act of love, bitterness, vengeance, generosity and wonder had passed through this instrument now resplendently displayed against the scan’s cosmic darkness. This is what would it would have looked like inside the craniums of our ancestors who crossed the Torres strait, who colonised the Mongolian steppes, who guarded Jesus, who wrote the Magna Carta, who defended the last remaining Aztec temple, who cracked the Rosetta stone and who invented the bikini.
But after we have been awed all we can be by this extraordinary watery bundle, this fifteen centimetre long, 1,300 gram packed with 86 billion neurons, this simultaneous creator and interpreter of what we call reality, we can admit that this machine nevertheless presents us with as many problems as it does solutions.
The organ is – despite years of patient education and encouragement – wholly uninclined to think logically through its dilemmas. It is primarily an instrument of instinct, substantial portions of its lower basal folds operate with the rabid ferocity of those of a lizard or a rat; it responds at lightning speed to threats and lures with impulses honed over a 200,000 year history but it is entirely reluctant to stay still for a while, pull out a pen and paper and analyse its feelings and desires with anything resembling rigour. It jumps into marriages, it fires off emails, it starts lawsuits, it places its hand on others’ knees, it blurts out its rage, it stuffs itself with sugar, it makes accusations – and thereby repeatedly destroys the foundations of earthly contentment. All the calm and forethought, the perspective and resilience that we would need to steer us through our difficulties are missing from this organic structure. Our wars and slums are visible from outer space; this is where they have their origins.
Sadly, this soupy walnut cannot recognise its worst proclivities and take protective measures against them. It can have been around for fifty years before it comes to basic realisations about its workings: how much it gets wrong, what it misses, where it exaggerates, what it underplays, how others are likely to see it. A stranger can know more about it in a matter of minutes than its owners ascertain in decades. We are consciously aware of only a tiny proportion of the ideas and drives that course through us; at rare moments – perhaps when falling asleep or waking up at an unusual hour – we get a hint of how much there is in our minds that we cannot properly touch; how many stray memories and bittersweet recollections swirl in the lower reaches of consciousness. Nothing has quite disappeared; nothing ever leaves us fully alone; we are filled with ghosts.
More pointedly, the machine is affected by events in its past which gravely distort its assessments of the present. It may come to distrust all men or all women because a few examples once caused it harm. It may lose all ability to smile and be hopeful because it was attacked in its third year or harshly spoken to over its initial decade. It can expect that everyone will be mean to it because – at a formative stage – one or two people were; it can develop a conviction that it is unworthy and should be extinguished. It may be tempted to sabotage itself at moments of its greatest triumph. It can run away from kindly people from a conviction that it doesn’t deserve anything but hurt.
The mind is lazy too, it can’t work up the energy to interrogate itself on its wishes and put in motion plans that could nimbly realise them. It craves distraction just when it brushes up against important ideas. Only one mind in ten million delivers on its actual potential; what we call ‘genius’ is the rare will to transcribe faithfully the best ideas that course through the mind and that normally refuse to be pinned down – even though the raw ingredients for such ideas is present in everyone. We are almost certain to die having mined only a fraction of who we are.
When the mind falls seriously ill, there is almost nothing to be done. Our science is stuck at the level of medieval dentistry. Somewhere in the folds of our cortex, out of reach of medicines or therapies, lie compulsions to despair, to refuse help, to injure ourselves and to remain addicted; we grow convinced of the worst plots and vendettas, we may – after years of suffering – see no alternative but to fire a bullet through our own cerebral tissue.
So, though a technical and artistic triumph, a picture of the inside of our minds can only be greeted with ambivalence at best. We are seeing at once the creation that underpins our most majestic moments – and a piece of unreliable matter that keeps us mired in conflict, sadness and anger and is incapable of doing justice to our underlying brilliance.
The real response to this image should be compassion, that we need to do so much with a tool that is – at best – only half fit for the task: that with this piece of cobbled together intermittent, bug-filled hardware, we have to decide whom we should trust, what we should put our faith in, how we can manage our desires, what course of action we should follow. In another million years, we will have evolved out of the constraints of this particular model, we will look at it with the same pity as we now direct to our early computers or the ill-adapted fins of early sea creatures, we will at last have minds that can help us accomplish what we actually need of them; that won’t just throw up mirages of happiness to tantalise us and then step back and watch us stray and stumble, that will be kind and nimble enough to navigate us through the shallows and the darkness we actually face.
We are likely already to be experts at self-flagellation; masters at itemising the many ways in which we are despicable, undeserving and shameful. But after we have run through every argument about why we are so ignoble and so daft, we should spare a moment to consider that the fault does not lie with us alone. Nature equipped us especially badly for the tasks we were obliged to take on, we never had much of a chance, we were never granted the sort of brains we would have needed not to fail and not to suffer.
So efficient and hushed are our brains in their day to day operations, we are apt to miss what an extraordinary and complicated achievement it is to feel mentally well. A mind in a healthy state is, in the background, continually performing a near-miraculous set of manoeuvres that underpin our moods of clear-sightedness and purpose.
To appreciate what mental health might be (and therefore what its opposite involves), we might take a moment to consider some of what will be going on in the folds of an optimally-functioning mind:
– First and foremost, a healthy mind is an editing a mind, an organ that manages to sieve, from thousands of stray, dramatic, disconcerting or horrifying thoughts, those particular ideas and sensations that actively need to be entertained in order for us to direct our lives effectively.
– Partly this means keeping at bay punitive and critical judgements that might want to tell us repeatedly how disgraceful and appalling we are – long after harshness has ceased to serve any useful purpose. When we are interviewing for a new job or taking someone on a date, a healthy mind doesn’t force us to listen to inner voices that insist on our unworthiness. It allows us to talk to ourselves as we would to a friend.
– At the same time, a healthy mind resists the pull of unfair comparisons. It doesn’t constantly allow the achievements and successes of others to throw us off course and reduce us to a state of bitter inadequacy. It doesn’t torture us by continually comparing our condition to that of people who have, in reality, had very different upbringings and trajectories through life. A well-functioning mind recognises the futility and cruelty of constantly finding fault with its own nature.
– Along the way, a healthy mind keeps a judicious grip on the faucet of fear. It knows that, in theory, there is an endless number of things that we could worry about: a blood vessel might fail, a scandal might erupt, the plane’s engines could sheer from their wings… But it has a good sense of the distinction between what could conceivably happen and what is in fact likely to happen – and it is able to leave us in peace as regards the wilder eventualities of fate, confident that awful things will either not unfold or could be dealt with ably enough if ever they did so. A healthy mind avoids catastrophic imaginings: it knows that that there are broad and stable stone steps, not a steep and slippery incline, between itself and disaster.
– A healthy mind has compartments with heavy doors that shut securely. It can compartmentalise where it needs to. Not all thoughts belong at all moments. While talking to a grandmother, the mind prevents the emergence of images of last’s nights erotic fantasies; while looking after a child, it can repress its more cynical and misanthropic insights. Aberrant thoughts about jumping on a train line or harming oneself with a sharp knife can remain brief peculiar flashes rather than repetitive fixations. A healthy mind has mastered the techniques of censorship.
– A healthy mind can quieten its own buzzing preoccupations in order, at times, to focus on the world beyond itself. It can be present and engaged with what and who is immediately around. Not everything it could feel has to be felt at every moment. It can be a good listener.
– A healthy mind combines an appropriate suspicion of certain people with a fundamental trust in humanity. It can take an intelligent risk with a stranger. It doesn’t extrapolate from life’s worst moments in order to destroy the possibility of anything good emerging with a new acquaintance.
– A healthy mind knows how to hope; it identifies and then hangs on tenaciously to a few reasons to keep going. Grounds for despair, anger and sadness are, of course, all around. But the healthy mind knows how to bracket negativity in the name of endurance. It clings to evidence of what is still beautiful and kind. It remembers to appreciate; it can – despite everything – still look forward to a hot bath, some dried fruit or dark chocolate, a chat with a friend, or a satisfying day of work. It refuses to let itself be silenced by all the many sensible arguments in favour of rage and despondency.
Outlining some of the features of a healthy mind helps us to identify what can go awry when we fall ill. We should acknowledge the extent to which mental illness is ultimately as common, and as essentially unshameful, as its bodily counterpart. True mental health involves a frank acceptance of how much ill health there will have to be in even the most ostensibly competent and meaningful life. And we should be no more reluctant to seek help than we are when we develop a chest infection or a sore knee – and should consider ourselves no less worthy of love and sympathy.
There is really only one question you ever need to direct at someone to work out whether or not they are a good person – and that is, with deliberate simplicity: Do you think you are a good person?
And to this there is only one acceptable answer. People who are genuinely good, people who know about kindness, patience, forgiveness, compromise, apology and gentleness always, always answer no.
One cannot both be a good person and at the same time feel either blameless or pure inside. Goodness is, one might say, the unique consequence of a keen and ongoing awareness of one’s capacity to be bad, that is, to be thoughtless, cruel, self-righteous and deaf to the legitimate needs of others. Only on the basis of a perpetual vigilant impression that one hasn’t got the right to judge oneself above suspicion, does one come anywhere near the ethical high standard that merits the title of ‘good’ (a word one can still never use of oneself). The price of being genuinely good has to be a constant suspicion that one might be a monster – combined with a fundamental hesitation about labelling anyone else monstrous. A guilty conscience is the bedrock of virtue.
Correspondingly, only properly bad people don’t lie awake at night worrying about their characters. It has generally never occurred to the most difficult or dangerous people on the planet that they might be lacking. Their sickness is to locate evil always firmly outside of themselves: it’s by definition invariably the others who are to blame, the others who are cruel, sinful, lacking in judgement and mistaken. And their job is to take these impure people down and correct their evils in the fire of their own righteousness.
It is a grim paradox that the worst deeds that humans have ever been guilty of have been carried out by people with an easy conscience, people who felt they were definitely on the side of angels, people who were entirely sure that they had justice in hand. What unites the people who report their neighbours to the secret police, the crowds who burn their victims at stakes while dancing around their agonised bodies, the government officials who set up purification camps and the nations that wipe out their enemies with special barbarism is their consistent and overwhelming sense that they are doing the right thing – in the eyes of god, history or Truth. When trying to understand why people do evil things, never start from the position of imagining that they understood them as evil; remember that they would have carried out their nastiness cocksure that they were paragons. An impassioned feeling of being the instrument of justice has been at the heart of humanity’s most appallingly unkind moments.
It isn’t always easy to worry about whether or not one might be good. It’s painful to have to be aware of how often one might have benefitted from unfair advantages, how often one might have been impatient or intemperate, malign or thoughtless. Then again, it is only through such arduous doubts that one can keep any sort of check on one’s vanity and aggression and render oneself appropriately thoughtful and gentle.
It is a hallmark of all the cruellest ages of history that certain groups decide that they have landed on a cause that gives them a monopoly on justice: that a particular god has given them a special mission to eradicate sin or when their study of economics or biology have shown them one true path to an upright future – at which point there is no limit to the number of eggs that can be broken to concoct the righteous omelette. And by implication, the kindest stretches of history are those when a majority daily awake wondering how they might go easy on others because they are so flawed themselves, when a sense of scepticism and apology dominates every social exchange, when one is constantly charitable in word and deed from a sense of impeachability – and when people can always readily forgive because they know how much in them needs to be forgiven.
The School of Life has produced 500 films and written 5 million words. This is an enormous problem.
To stand any hope of remaining in anyone’s mind, ideas – even very good ideas – need to be brief and reduced to an essence.
That’s why, for the sake of our followers, we’ve summarised everything we believe down to eight key points: the credo of The School of Life.
It goes as follows:
1. ACCEPT IMPERFECTION
We are inherently flawed and broken beings. Perfection is beyond us.
Despite our intelligence and our science, we will never stamp out stupidity and pain. Life will always continue to be – in central ways – about suffering.
We are all, from close up, scared, unsure, full of regret, longing and error.
No one is normal: the only people we can think of as normal are those we don’t yet know very well.
2. SHARE VULNERABILITY
Recognising that we are each one of us weak, mad and mistaken should inspire compassion for ourselves – and generosity towards others.
Knowing how to reveal our vulnerability and brokenness is the bedrock of true friendship, which we universally crave.
People do not reliably end up with the lives they deserve. There is no true justice in the way that rewards are distributed. We should embrace the concept of tragedy: random terrible things can and do befall most lives. We may fail and be good – and therefore need to be slower to judge and quicker to understand. Those who have failed are not ‘losers’; we may soon be among them. Be kind.
3. KNOW YOUR INSANITY
We cannot be entirely sane, but it is a basic requirement of maturity that we understand the ways in which we are insane, can warn others we care about what our insanities might make us do, early and in good time and before we have caused too much damage – and take constant steps to contain rather than act out our follies.
We should be able to have a ready answer – and never take offence – if someone asks us (as they should): ‘In what ways are you mad’?
Most of the madness comes down to childhood, which will – in a way unique to our situation – have unbalanced us. No one has yet had a ‘normal’ childhood; this is no insult to the efforts of families.
4. ACCEPT YOUR IDIOCY
Do not run away from the thought you may be an idiot as if this were a rare and dreadful insight. Accept the certainty with good grace, in full daylight. You are an idiot but there is no other alternative for a human being. We are on a planet of seven billion comparable fools.
Embracing our idiocy should render us confident before challenges – for messing up is to be expected – comfortable with ourselves, and ready to extend a hand of friendship to our similarly broken and demented neighbours.
We should overcome shame and shyness because we have already shed so much of our pride.
5. YOU ARE GOOD ENOUGH
The alternative to perfection isn’t failure, it’s to make our peace with the idea that we are, each of us, ‘good enough’. Good enough parents, siblings, workers and humans.
‘Ordinary’ isn’t a name for failure. Understood more carefully, and seen with a more generous and perceptive eye, it contains the best of life.
Life is not elsewhere; it is, fully and properly, here and now.
6. OVERCOME ROMANTICISM
‘The one’ is a cruel invention. No-one is ever wholly ‘right’ nor indeed wholly wrong.
True love isn’t merely an admiration for strength, it is patience and compassion for our mutual weaknesses. Love is a capacity to bring imagination to bear on a person’s less impressive moments – and to bestow an ongoing degree of forgiveness for natural fragility.
No one should be expected to love us ‘just as we are’. Learning and developing are at the core of love. Genuine love involves two people helping each other to become the best version of themselves.
Compatibility isn’t a prerequisite for love; it is the achievement of love.
7. DESPAIR CHEERFULLY
We are under undue and unfair pressure to smile. But almost nothing will go entirely well: we can expect frustration, misunderstanding, misfortune and rebuffs. We should be allowed to be melancholy. Melancholy is not rage or bitterness, it is a noble species of sadness that arises when we are open to the fact that disappointment is at the heart of human experience. In our melancholy state, we can understand without fury or sentimentality that no one fully understands anyone else, that loneliness is universal and that every life has its full measure of sorrow.
But though there is a vast amount to feel sad about, we’re not individually cursed and against the backdrop of darkness, many small sweet things should stand out: a sunny day, a drifting cloud; dawn and dusk, a tender look. With the tragedy of existence firmly in mind, we can take pleasure in a single, uneventful day, some delicate flowers or an intimate conversation with a friend. We can learn how to draw the full value from what is good, whenever, wherever and in whatever doses it arises.
Despair but do so cheerfully: believe in cheerful despair.
8. TRANSCEND YOURSELF
We are not at the center of anything; thankfully. We are miniscule bundles of evanescent matter on an infinitesimal corner of a boundless universe. We do not count one bit in the grander scheme. This is a liberation.
Rather than complaining that we are too small, we should delight in being humbled by a mighty ocean, a glacier, or planet Kepler 22b, 638 light-years from earth in the constellation of Cygnus.
We should gain relief from the thought of the kindly indifference of spatial infinity: an eternity where no-one will notice, and where the wind erodes the rocks in the space between the stars. Cosmic humility – taught to us by nature, history and the sky above us – is a blessing and a constant alternative to a life of frantic jostling, humourlessness and anxious pride.
A final point: some of this may sound convincing. But that isn’t enough. We know – in theory – about all of it. And yet in practice, any such ideas have a notoriously weak ability to motivate our actual behaviour and emotions. Our knowledge is both embedded within us and yet is ineffective for us.
We forget almost everything. Our memories are sieves, not robust buckets. What seemed a convincing call to action at 8am will be nothing more than a dim recollection by midday and an indecipherable contrail in our cloudy minds by evening. Our enthusiasms and resolutions can be counted upon to fade like the stars at dawn. Nothing much sticks.
For this reason, we need to go back over things. Maybe once a day, certainly once a week. A true good ‘school’ shouldn’t tell us only things we’ve never heard before; it would be deeply interested in rehearsing all that is theoretically known yet practically forgotten.
That’s why we should keep the eight rules in mind – and why the next step is to subscribe – and to return here often.
We tend to begin our lives with a deeply unrepresentative experience: that of being surrounded by people who care to an extraordinary extent about us. We look up from the dreams and confusions of early infancy and may find a smiling face or two observing us with the utmost tenderness and concern. They watch us as a rivulet of saliva leaks slowly from the corner of our mouth and rush to wipe it away as if dabbing at a precious canvas, then indulgently stroke the fine soft hairs on our delicate scalps. They declare us close to supernatural when, at last, we succeed in pulling our first smile. The applause rings for days when we take our initial steps, giggle, totter, fall, and bravely try to resume our progress. There is astonishment and beatific praise when we arduously manage to form the letters of our own name. Throughout the early years, the big people intelligently coax us into eating broccoli or peas; they make sure we put on our rubber boots when it’s raining; they dance around with us to our favourite songs, they tuck us up and sing to us when we’re feeling sad or unwell. When we’re anxious, they try very sensitively to find out what might be the matter.
It isn’t just at home. At school, the best teachers encourage us when we find something difficult; they understand we might be shy; they’re keen to detect and encourage the early, tentative signs of our particular talents. Granny is no less kind. She keeps photos of us in her kitchen, she’s always interested in our artistic abilities – it can sometimes seem as if she doesn’t really have a life outside of the days when we come to visit. Even total strangers sometimes take a great deal of interest. The guy at the falafel stand in the market once offered us a serving of houmous for free – because he says we’re amazing. Quite a few old people have looked closely at us, smiled and called us lovely. It was strange of course, but (by now) not entirely unexpected either. Without anything arrogant or presumptuous being meant, it’s what we’ve come to expect.
Then, of course, we grow up and are inducted into a horrific reality: we exist in a world of astonishing indifference to almost everything we are, think, say or do. We might be in late adolescence when the point really hits home. We might be in a bedsit at university or wandering the streets of the city at night on our own – when it occurs to us, with full force, how negligible a thing we are in the wider scheme. No one in the crowds we pass knows anything about us. Our welfare is of no concern to them. They jostle against us on the pavements, and treat us as a mere impediment to their progress. Huge trucks thunder past. No one is going to stroke our head or wipe away our saliva now. We’re tiny against the towers and brightly-lit flashing advertising hoardings. We might die and no one would even notice.
It may be a stern truth – but we make it all the more so by focusing only on its darkest dimensions. We remain grief-stricken by how invisible we are, yet we cease to put this bracing thought to its proper philosophical purpose, that of rescuing us from another problem which is gnawing at us all the while: an ongoing and highly corrosive sense of self-consciousness.
In another side of our minds, we haven’t accepted the indifference of others at all, in fact, we know, and suffer intensely, from just how much (as we feel sure) others are thinking of us. We’re extremely worried about how high-pitched and odd our voice sounded when we asked the waiter for a bit more milk. We’re certain that the sales attendant noticed how out of shape our stomach is. The people in the restaurant where we’re eating alone are undoubtedly spending considerable time wondering why we have no friends. The concierge is obsessing that we aren’t posh enough for his establishment and probably won’t be able to pay the bill. At work, they’re still dwelling on that slightly stupid thing we said last month about the US sales strategy. A person we went to bed with four years ago is to this day thinking ill of us in some powerful but undefined way.
We don’t really have evidence for any of this, and yet it can feel like an emotional certainty. It is intuitively clear that our foolishness and less than impressive sides are being noted and dwelt on all the time by everyone at large. Every way in which we depart from what the world considers to be normal, upstanding and dignified has been registered by the widest constituency. ‘They’ can tell that we’ve bumped into doors, spilt things down our front, misremembered anecdotes, tried to show off and have something odd going on with our hair.
To liberate us from this punitive narrative, we may need to conduct a deliberately artificial thought-exercise; we may have to set ourselves the challenge of examining how long we spend on the foolishness (or just existence) of others. How we think and feel about people we don’t particularly know is perhaps the best guide to the workings of the average human imagination: to pretty much the rest of the world, we are the very same sort of strangers or casual acquaintances as we know and deal with in our own daily experience.
And here, the results can be surprising. Imagine that we’re in a lift, standing next to someone on our way to the 20th floor. They know we disapprove of their choice of jacket. They know they should have picked another one and that they look silly and pinched in this one. But we haven’t noticed the jacket. In fact, we haven’t noticed they were born – or that one day they will die. We’re just worrying about how our partner responded when we mentioned our mother’s cold to them last night.
Or it’s well into the last bit of a two hour meeting that we sense that a colleague’s hair really is a bit different today, though we can’t quite put a finger on how – even though they spent a small fortune on their cut and thought intensely about the wisdom of visiting a new salon.
Or we see that someone has a small scar on their chin. They suppose everyone thinks it’s the result of domestic violence, which makes them deeply indignant and close to wanting to return home and hide. But we have no thoughts at all about how they got it (in reality, it was a cycling accident last month). We’re just trying to cope with an overdue report and the onset of yet another debilitating migraine.
At a party, a social acquaintance explains how they’ve broken up with their partner. They feel this will be big news for us. We try to adjust our face in an appropriate pose: was this a liberation from a disastrous marriage or a tragic betrayal by someone they were deeply in love with? We don’t know and in reality, we just want to get back to our other friends in the kitchen.
Two people from the other office get together at a work conference; the next morning when they come down for breakfast, they’re blushing and embarrassed, imagining that everyone will be judging them for their morals. But we don’t: we’re just concerned with the train home; we have no idea how they should be living their lives.
In other words, when we take our own minds as a guide, we get a far more accurate – and far less oppressive – vision of what’s likely to be going on the heads of others when they encounter us, which is, in the nicest way, not very much.
In the 1560s, Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted a work called Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, now hanging in the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. It shows the last moments of the doomed mythological figure. But the genius, and the eternal lesson of the painting, is that the fate of the drowning Icarus is heavily downplayed on the canvas. One has to peer very closely at an area in the bottom right to spot the flailing limbs and the last desperate moments of the dying Greek. The center of the painting is taken up by a ploughman blithely guiding his horse. A shepherd is minding his flock. In the distance, we see a bustling city and ships heading in and out of a harbour. Everyone is serenely unaware of Icarus’s drama. The sun is shining. It’s appalling at one level, and hugely redemptive at another. The news is both very bad and strangely good: on the one hand, no one may notice when we die; on the other, they are also sure not to have noticed when we spill something down our front or do our hair the wrong way.
It’s not that we – or they – are horrible. Our lacking of caring isn’t absolute. If we really saw a stranger in trouble in the water, we would dive in. When a friend is in tears, we are sympathetic. It’s just that for the most part, we need to filter. Our everyday lack of care occurs for a perfectly sane and forgivable reason: we need to spend most our waking energies on navigating, and doing justice to, our own intimate concerns. Once we’ve had to think about our relationship, our career, our finances, our health, our close relatives, our offspring, our upcoming holidays, our friends and the state of our household, there will just be very little time left to reflect on the suddenly high-pitched voice of a customer or the outfit of a colleague.
We are owed the upside of an otherwise tragic insight. We shouldn’t just suffer from the indifference of others, we should – where it matters – properly reciprocate it. We shouldn’t merely suffer from being ignored, we should accept the liberation implicit in the fact that we are being so. And then, in turn, we should embark more courageously on those situations and adventures where a touch of foolishness is always a possibility; the start of a new business, a romantic invitation, a question at a conference… We may fail, but we can believe with new certainty that almost no one will give a damn if we do, an idea that may – above anything else – help to contribute to our success (something which, as we now know, no one will much notice or care about anyway).
It’s not hard to understand the fear of being alone: the empty apartment after work, the eerieness of Sunday afternoons, the sense of exclusion during the holidays… We know the agonies of being on our own very well.
What is far less well understood, and less eloquently or frequently described, is the enormously high price exacted on the other side of the equation. The fear, or more often simply the phobia, of being alone is perhaps responsible for more unhappy relationships, more throttling of psychological development, more claustrophobia and more pent up misery than almost any other: it is – by any reckoning – one of the single greatest contributors to human misery and the driver of some of our weightiest and most unfortunate decisions. If only we were able to get the costs of what is for the most part a simple misapprehension clear in our minds, we might save ourselves a substantial portion of our lives.
We can pick out at least seven unnecessary penalties:
– For a start, and most obviously, people who are afraid of being alone make some very wrong choices around the company they keep. They have no option but to privilege any one over the appropriate one. They have no stomach to be rightfully demanding in their criteria of entry, to insist that someone should be interesting rather than just cosy, challenging rather than just attractive, undefensive rather than merely confident. They don’t have the strength to be able to hold out – as one must – for the 20th or 200th candidate. The only souls with any realistic chance of ending up with the partner they deserve are those who have properly reconciled themselves to the prospect of never being with anyone at all.
– Being with not quite the right person sounds almost bearable but extended over time, like a proverbial pebble in a shoe, ‘slightly wrong’ ends up indistinguishable from ‘entirely horrific’. No nagging doubt one has ever entertained on a wedding day will fail, with the addition of several years, to become a cause for mind-shattering despair. Every beautiful location we travel to together will be ruined, every promising moment will be trampled upon, every success will be compromised. What may begin as slight fractiousness or tedium winds up as cataclysmic irritation, self-disgust, sexual misery, broken finances and the kind of excruciating loneliness that – ironically – merely and innocently being ‘on our own’ would never have the power to generate.
– Furthermore, when terrified of loneliness, we have no strength to argue for our needs within any relationship. One is always at the mercy of the one who fears loneliness less. Partners develop an advanced sense of the person who has nowhere else to go. It’s no use stamping our feet after an argument and saying ‘we’ve had enough’ when, in reality, everyone knows that we will never have had enough – so scared are we of having dinner on our own.
– What’s worse, after time in the wrong sort of company, we tend to develop learned helplessness: every reluctance we once had to be alone grows worse, even as we acquire more experience of what bad company actually means. In our comfortable but deadening captivity, the wild appears more terrifying still: we can’t now imagine ever knowing how to change the dishwasher fluid alone, walking into a party by ourselves or taking the initiative to send our nephews birthday presents, so used have we become to using the other to compensate for our weaknesses. We experience none of the bracing, but also educative pressures visited upon the single, who have no choice but to overcome their inhibitions: those brave souls who, battling against their temperaments and histories, have to learn how to garden, deal with the council, go on holidays in the mountains, endure empty weekends, call up their mother or cook a chicken – and thereby achieve the resilient competence upon which true social discrimination and liberty rest.
– For those who have too lightly signed away their freedoms, there are sure to be constant, and searing, reminders of what they have foregone. Every party and every walk down a busy street will provide evidence of what might have been, all those potentially fascinating or charming members of humanity they have now forever been disbarred from getting to know – because they were so unnaturally scared of having a bed to themselves for a few more years.
– It isn’t just other people we won’t get to know, it’s also ourselves. The constant presence of companions stops us from making friends with our own minds, and exploring our feelings and ideas in a way that only extended stretches of solitude allow. We fail to develop our identities, we grow more like everyone else. The chatter outside prevents us from being able to follow the feint but vital dialogue we might otherwise have been able to have with ourselves. We use another person to distract us whenever any slightly painful or challenging internal matter comes into view. There ends up being so much we won’t ever really feel or understand about ourselves, so many big questions about our careers and our ultimate purpose that we will ignore, because there was always someone else on hand to chat to about what to order in for dinner.
– Worst of all, we might not even be actively miserable after a while. We’ll grow used to cosy mediocrity. We won’t be curious or restless. We won’t dare – as the single must – to go up to strangers and risk our pride. We’ll stop learning. We’ll believe that we’ve answered our needs completely, but only on the basis of suppressing our knowledge of what our needs really are. We’ll have ended up in a conspiracy against uncertainty, novelty and the flux of life.
To start to correct everything that stems from this pernicious fear of being alone, we should from a young age learn that that being alone never means there is something wrong with us, just that we are being appropriately patient, until what truly satisfies us shows up (if it ever does); we have a choice; we have not been punished. Furthermore, being alone does not have to mean being cut off from humanity; the state may indeed be the surest way to commune deeply with it, to fill our minds with the ideas and visions of billions of other humans across time and space – whose perspectives are too often snuffed out when we’re under immediate pressure to respond to someone else in the room. We will never learn the true promise of community, discover our own interests or hold out for the connections we deserve until we make genuine peace with the prospect of a life by ourselves.
The best thing about physical maturity is that it’s very easy to spot; we can so easily tell when someone has another decade of growth to go – and can therefore set our expectations, and our levels of forbearance accordingly. But we have no such luxury when it comes to emotional maturity. Here we can be constantly surprised by whom we have on our hands. The most stunning forms of immaturity can coexist with all the trappings of adult life and a confident and knowledgeable manner. It may be a long time into a love affair or working relationship before we realise that we are unwittingly dealing with an emotional neophyte.
It pays, therefore, to try to arrive at a few general guidelines for how an emotionally immature person can be spotted and if necessary skirted very fast. Here are some of the lines that emotionally immature people have tendencies to come out with in conversation and that should, at the very least, set alarms ringing:
‘I’m not so good at spending time on my own.’
What separates the mature from the immature is, perhaps more than anything else, a capacity for being on their own, without distraction, and thinking about who they are and what they have experienced. The mature person can allow themselves to examine and as it were ‘feel’ their own feelings, even when these are very difficult and hugely unwelcome. They can stomach an encounter with their own rage, their own envy, their own shame. They don’t have to do what the immature person is compelled to do: constantly find someone or something else to prevent them from any risk of understanding their own mind.
‘I don’t really remember much about my childhood.’
There are very few childhoods in which difficult things didn’t unfold. Without anyone meaning for this to happen, with the best intentions, children’s development gets impeded and bruised. What counts therefore isn’t that someone had a ‘happy’ childhood (almost no one on the planet did entirely), but that a person should have a calm and insightful view of what their childhood was actually like, in its good and bad aspects. An inability to remember much about the past doesn’t indicate that it was idyllic or just ‘a long time ago…’, rather that it hasn’t begun to be processed.
‘I’ve never really thought about that before…’
Emotionally immature people have great difficulties with conversations that require them to draw on a knowledge of their own enthusiasms, sorrows, projects and histories. So, as one sits with them over a drink and asks, for example, why their last relationship broke up, or what meaningful work constitutes for them or what they regret most from childhood, one has an above average chance of hearing (perhaps quite sweetly) a reply along the lines that this is all too new and that they have ‘never thought about this before’. It isn’t that the emotionally immature person is being cagey; they simply haven’t properly inhabited, in its authentic pain and intensity, the life they are actually leading.
‘Everything is pretty good. It’s fine, all fine…’
It would be churlish to begrudge anyone a good mood. Nevertheless, the emotionally immature person isn’t often just in a good mood, they are rigidly unable to enter a bad one. Everything is declared fine (their parents, job, love affair, sex life, ambitions) because they have no resources for coping with anything that might be more nuanced and more real, that might entail anger, loss, confusion or wayward desires. One comes away from a dialogue with such a person disoriented and lonely at the idea that any life could be quite so cheerily one-dimensional.
‘That’s just a load of old psychobabble…’
As soon as a conversation threatens their emotional integrity, the emotionally immature person will shut it down with the imperious verdict that it is a piece of over-complicated nonsense. They appeal to an idea of robust simplicity instead, as though the origins of all our problems might lie in thinking too much. It’s the sort of attitude that might lead them to recommend that an anxious person ‘pull themselves together’ or to claim that a lot of mental distress comes from not getting out enough. But of course, none of this stems from confidence: it’s a terrified way of blocking one’s ears and saying ‘No’ to truths that might hurt very much.
Emotionally immature people can be extremely charming and at points entertaining to be around. But as a general rule, we’d be advised to give them a very wide berth indeed and aim to check in on them in a decade or two. Life is in the end far too short, far too interesting and far too lonely to spend very long around people who lack any interest in trying to be, where it counts, emotional grown ups.