There remain few expressions better able to capture the futility of a task than one which compares our efforts to ‘rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.’ The hull has been breached, the ship is sinking; to concern ourselves, at such a moment, with the position of the loungers would be the ultimate folly, the deepest possible failure to recognise the true hopelessness of the situation.
The point seems grimly apt because we are, many of us, a little like the passengers on a stricken liner. Our larger hopes in life have been fatally holed: we see now that our career won’t ever particularly flourish; our relationships will always be compromised; we’ve passed our peak in terms of looks; our bodies are going to fall prey to ever more humiliating illnesses; society isn’t going to cure itself; significant political progress looks deeply improbable. Our ship is going down. It can feel as if trying to improve our condition, let alone find pleasure and distraction would be an insult to the facts. Our instinct is to be as funereal and gloomy as our ultimate end.
But there’s one crucial element that differentiates our predicament from that of the passengers who lost their lives on the RMS Titanic in the early hours of the 15th of April 1912: time. They had little more than two hours between the moment when they felt the ominous shudder of the impact and the moment when the once-majestic vessel broke apart and sank into the north Atlantic. We’re going down too, but far, far more slowly. It’s as if the captain had let it be known that the hull had been breached, that there were no lifeboats and that there was zero chance of ever reaching port but had added that it would for that matter probably be many decades before we would actually slip beneath the waves.
So, though we can’t be saved, though the end will be grim, we still have options as to how to use our remaining time. We are involved in a catastrophe, but there are better and worse ways of filling the days. In the circumstances, expending thought and effort on ‘rearranging the deckchairs’ is no longer ridiculous at all, it’s an eminently logical step; there could be no higher calling.
When our large hopes for ourselves become impossible, we have to grow inventive around lesser, but still real, options for the time that remains. Keeping cheerful and engaged, in spite of everything, becomes a major task. If we were on a very gradually sinking luxury liner in the early 20th century, we might every evening strive to put on a dinner jacket and go and dance the Foxtrot to the music of the string quintet, sing a cheerful song or settle into the Second-class Library on C-Deck — as, all the while, bits of seaweed and debris lapped at our ankles. Or we might look out for the best spot for our collapsible recliner so that we could watch the sea-birds wheeling in the sky or gain some privacy for a long, soul-exploring conversation with a new friend – to the sound of crockery smashing somewhere in a galley down below. We might try our first game of quoits on the slightly tilting deck or drop in — contrary to our habits up to this time — on a wild party in Steerage. Of course our lives would – from a larger perspective – remain a thorough disaster but we might find we were starting to enjoy ourselves.
Such inventiveness is precisely what we need to learn to develop to cope with our state. How can we invest the coming period with meaning even though everything is, overall, entirely dark? It’s a question our culture hasn’t prepared us for. We’ve been taught to focus on our big hopes, on how we can aim for everything going right. We crave a loving marriage, deeply satisfying and richly rewarding work, a stellar reputation, an ideally fit body and positive social change. We’ve not been prepared – as yet – to ask ourselves, what remains when many of these are no longer available, when love will always be tricky, politics compromised or the crowd hostile. What are our viable versions of seeking the best spot for a deckchair on a listing liner?
If marriage is far less blissful than we’d imagined, perhaps we can turn to friendship; if society won’t accord us the dignity we deserve, perhaps we can find a group of fellow outcasts; if our careers have irretrievably faltered, perhaps we can turn to new interests; if political progress turns out to be perennially blocked and the news is always sour, we might absorb ourselves in nature or history.
We are turning to what our society might dismiss as Plan-Bs; what you do when you can’t do the things you really want to do. But there’s a surprising catch – or, really, the opposite of a catch. It may turn out that the secondary, lesser, lighter, reasons for living are, in fact, more substantial than we’d imagined. And once we get to know them, we might come to think that they are what we should have been focused on all along – only it has taken a seeming disaster to get us to realise how central they should always have been.
In October 1976, one of the greatest pop songs of the 20th century was heard for the first time: Gloria Gaynor’s eternal assertion of defiance I Will Survive. It was initially released as a B side, but it quickly became one of the bestselling singles of all time thanks to its power to touch something universal in the human soul.
Gloria Gaynor hadn’t written the song herself. The words had, in fact, been penned by Dino Ferkaris, a rather successful, but temporarily disgruntled, professional songwriter who’d just been sacked by Motown Records.
The song is in part a recollection of being trampled upon, of being taken for granted, but it’s not really about the wrong others have done to us; it’s an honest appraisal of the way we have let them do these things to us, because we have been insufficiently on our own side.
At first, I was afraid, I was petrified
Kept thinking I could never live without you by my side
The other has undoubtedly harmed us, but the deeper problem is that we have not known how to esteem ourselves highly enough to stop them doing so. They thought that we would crumble and lay down and die and they did so for good reason: because this is what we did so many times before. The beauty of the song is that it doesn’t deny that we have been accomplices to the bad treatment that we have traditionally been accorded. We identify with its heroine because she is frank enough to admit that she has been the architect of her own humiliation.
Gloria identifies with the over-compliant fearful part of ourselves. But it’s because she understands our submissive tendencies so well that her deep encouragement to say a resolute ‘fuck off’ to the world is so rousing. This is not the voice of someone who has never been put upon, it is that of a weak and timid being who is no longer going to let her fears rule her life.
Defiance doesn’t mean asserting that I know I will survive. At the moment when we belt out the song on the dancefloor or (more likely) the kitchen, we don’t really know what will happen to us: our fears are still raw. We may have been bullied throughout our relationships or our childhoods, we may only recently have instructed a lawyer to initiate divorce proceedings or written an email to a colleague. When we join in joyfully, with the chorus, we’re making a great and precious leap of faith. We’re finally insisting that our ability to cope is greater than our past has traditionally led us to imagine.
Gloria is backing us up to attain what we might term emotional escape velocity. She’s instilling – with the encouragement of deceptively simple yet mesmerising chords – the state of mind in which we can bear to take on those who have injured us.
An attitude of defiance is never the whole of what we need. For things to go well, we also have to call on reserves of conciliation, compromise, acceptance and tolerance, the mature virtues by which genuinely good things are kept afloat in an imperfect world. But that’s not where we are right now; at this point, we still need to gird ourselves for a fight. And this is when the voice of Gloria Gaynor is not just a magnificent instance in the grand history of pop, it is, for us (in a way it might feel embarrassing to admit to anyone else), the voice our soul needs to hear to save us from the weak – but agonisingly familiar – side of our nature that has so often given up so soon, too soon, on our hopes of freedom.
The temptation, when we are worried, is to direct our determined intelligence to trying fully to anticipate whatever may be coming for us down the line. We try to strip the unknown of its surprises; we seek, quite understandably, to nothing less than control the future.
This is far from foolish; there is lots to be learnt from arduous anticipation and rational planning. But, after we have weighed up all possible prognoses and taken every step these might reasonably demand, there is also a moment to confront an apparently maddening but in reality, if we can approach it from the right angle, highly releasing thought: we can’t ever tell exactly what will happen to us and nor should we try. A great part of our lives lies in the hands of the unknown, in the current of time, in the province of fate. Our minds, however impressive, cannot peer into the future and wrestle it of every last ambiguity. We are subject too many variables. Our mental telescopes only permit us to see so far. We must learn to sleep on the pillow of doubt.
To help us foster the right kind of scepticism, we should equip ourselves with an attitude of benevolent trust in the face of our ignorance. One of its clearest expressions in Western culture can be found in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of Saint Matthew, where Jesus – in his Sermon on the Mount – recommends that we quell our anxieties as to where precisely our next meal will come from by looking at the behaviour of birds:
Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? [Matthew 6:26]
We don’t need to believe in a divine creator or indeed relinquish every sensible attempt to forward-plan our diets to see the wisdom of the point. For all the astonishing powers of our minds, there is a critical role for knowing how to switch them off in the face of uncertainty. We should not torture ourselves with manic, insistent rumination on what cannot ever yet be known.
Beneath the interpretation of Christianity, we sense the origins of such trust: in our childhood experience of Fathers and Mothers who imbued us with a confidence to navigate the uncharted future, who had faith that we would find a little place to eat along the way, even if we didn’t know its name right now. It is never too late to fill in for the absence of such lessons. We can replace God with terms like Nature, Fate or the Universe. We can’t tell exactly what will have happened by next year, what the outcome of the test is going to be, who we will love, how our career will pan out or when we will die. But what we can trust is that, whatever unfolds, we will – broadly – be fine. Even death is endurable.
One of Friedrich Nietzsche’s more unusual loves were cows, whom he considered the most philosophical of all the animals. In a section of Thus Spake Zarathustra, he wrote: ‘Unless we change (or be converted) and become as cows, we shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.’ What lent the cows their particular wisdom in Nietzsche’s eyes was their advanced capacity not to worry overly about their own futures; they knew how to sit quietly in a field, occasionally swatting away a determined fly, chewing strands of meadow grass and taking each minute as it came. For all their mental limitations, they had achieved something the human mind is extremely bad at: resigning itself to the limits of what can plausibly be known and leaving the rest to one side. The real symbols of a thinking life should not, in this vein be a volume of Montaigne or Plato, but a well-positioned and suitably reverential image of a cow.
We hear no end of reminders as to the benefits of intellectual work. We need also, along the way, to rediscover the occasional art of knowing when and how to stop thinking.
We are geniuses at focusing on what is missing from our lives. Our dissatisfaction generally serves us well; it keeps us from complacency and boredom. But we are also dragged down by a pernicious inability ever reliably to stop, take stock and recognise what isn’t imperfect and appalling. In our haste to secure the future, we fail to notice what has not yet failed us, what isn’t actually out of reach: what is already very good. We should be sure to create small occasions when we pause our striving and, for a few moments, properly take on board some of what we have be grateful for – a corrective to all the lessons in cynicism and sourness the world teaches every day.
– Most of the 78 organs in our bodies have performed pretty reliably since the day we were born.
– We don’t need to be afraid of starving – or even of being very cold.
– Every year, if we just stay in one spot, there are at least two weeks of perfect weather.
– We are never too far from a very hot bath.
– We’ve sometimes been surprised by how things turned out.
– We can with complete impunity fantasise about the people we can’t have.
– We’ve come a long way since the early shyness, incompetence and fear.
– Everyone messes up their life quite a bit.
– Of course we couldn’t have known.
– Compared with what we feared in the rockiest patches, this is almost OK.
– We’re still here.
– There were no outright catastrophes today.
– A few times, we really experienced what love felt like.
– A few times, we really felt understood.
– Many of the people we love are still alive.
– There’s always music.
– Without asking anyone, we could go into many shops and buy a treat.
– We could disappear for a bit.
– We’re no longer trapped, like children are.
– We still have quite a lot of time left.
– Children of three or four are, intermittently, reliably sweet.
– There hasn’t been a war here for a while.
– You can turn on the tap and clean water comes out for almost nothing.
– We can leave the places we were born and raised.
– There’s always someone suffering just in the way we are.
– Everyone is weird, we just don’t have access to their inner minds.
– The silent majesty of a clear night sky.
– We’re very normal in the number of idiocies we’ve committed.
– We don’t have to take ourselves seriously.
– We can feel heroic about the ordinary.
– We have managed to learn a few things down the years.
– There are lots of beautiful people we can take pleasure in looking at.
– There are people who have loved us, even though we didn’t totally deserve their affection or devotion.
– A few bits of our body are really rather beautiful.
– Our parents met and managed to make love successfully. And their parents did too. We so nearly didn’t even exist.
– People who didn’t absolutely have to took a serious and benign interest in our education and development.
– Things really do look better when we have slept.
– Many of the world’s most interesting people have written down their thoughts and ideas.
– Other people are usually shyer, sweeter and kinder than we’d anticipated.
– We’ve perhaps found one good friend.
– We can write everything we feel down on paper.
– We can, without too much effort, order a bowl of French fries.
– We once really turned someone else on.
– Others forget the stupid things we’ve done faster than we do.
– Sincere apologies tend to be gladly accepted.
– We can reinvent ourselves – a bit.
– We didn’t turn 18 in 1939.
– Parents keep on loving us even if we largely ignore them for a few years.
– Children continue to love us even if they say they don’t; and even if we were not always perfect parents.
– By the time we are forty, nothing we did or thought at the age of twenty will seem very important.
– No-one can stop us having our own thoughts.
– We can get to hear the jokes and stories of the funniest people on the planet.
– In the middle of the night, and in the early morning, we have the world to ourselves.
– It isn’t what happened to us that counts; but how we choose to tell the story.
– We do not know what will happen in the future.
We start our lives surrounded by people who know a great deal more than we ever could. To a four year old, a very average adult is a miracle of supreme intelligence; they know how to drive a car, say hello in a foreign language, pay for a meal with a credit card and describe who Napoleon Bonaparte was – incomprehensible mysteries when one has only spent a few summers on the planet. The whole of formal education feels like a process of catching up: we are required to take in information and techniques that our parents, teachers and professors built up over decades. A central assumption embeds itself in our developing minds: we don’t know. But they do.
As we reach adulthood, a benign version of our instinctive deference shows up in our willingness to trust experts. We don’t know what checks should be made on the quality of the domestic water supply, but we’re sure the people in charge of the reservoirs know what they’re doing and that we can therefore drink a glass of water from the kitchen tap without enquiry or anxiety. We don’t know how much fuel a plane needs to get safely from Dubai to Singapore though we’re confident the people operating the airline will and so can rest easy in our seats. On a whole range of technical and scientific matters, we surrender scepticism to others, without having any independent ability to check the evidence or master the intricacies of the arguments. They know – and we’re happy to assume they must.
But much that goes wrong in our lives can be traced back to an extension of this form of deference to areas where it doesn’t naturally belong and where it stymies our good instincts and accurate interpretations of our needs. There is likely to be much that, somewhere in our minds, constantly strikes us as illogical, unnecessary or sad about the way the world is presently arranged. There are moments when we feel we have understood a situation or read a dilemma with a clarity or wisdom that appears to elude everyone else. We can wake up at unusual hours with a powerful impression of what it would be right and good for us to do next but that, we know, would have no support from anyone in our circle. Faced with the original or contrary fruits of our own minds, our default position tends to be – after a brief moment of rebellion perhaps – that we cannot possibly be right, that there must be a reason why we are mistaken, that others will naturally understand certain complicated and often regrettable things better than we do, just because they always have. It doesn’t seem quite correct to us, but what could that ultimately matter? Someone will know!
Part of the poignancy of the Christian nativity story, even for those of us who don’t ‘believe’ in it, is the suggestion that a very extraordinary thing unfolded in the most ordinary of settings. The son of God is born not in a palace surrounded by attendants and gilded furniture, but in an agricultural outhouse amidst bellowing animals and the smells of hay and excrement. In a 15th century version of the scene by Robert Campin, the barn is a mess, the beams are wonky, most of the sidewalls are missing, outside the sky is overcast and the trees bare; it feels like just another ordinary day in a not especially interesting corner of our banal world – and yet, as the painting’s original viewers would have powerfully felt, the most significant moment in the history of mankind has just unfolded.
One moral we might usefully extrapolate from this story is that very special things, which includes very special thoughts, can happen pretty much anywhere. Good ideas don’t have to be born in palaces, or indeed institutes of advanced research, government think tanks or the minds of acclaimed professors. They could happen right now, to someone like us, in the kitchen or while we’re on our way to buy some washing powder or post a letter. The ordinary world in which we dwell is not divorced from the precinct of good ideas, it’s where good ideas are constantly coming to mind, begging to be nurtured by us until they can develop to ‘adulthood’.
Far from teetering on the verge of arrogance (as we may believe we are), most of us are labouring under an unduly modest assessment of our rights to think. However implausible it may sound, we are operating with essentially the same piece of mental hardware as was used by Aristotle, the Buddha and Shakespeare. We might suppose that their extraordinary contributions must have been result of a very special process of education or some kind of native ‘genius’. But we are better read and better informed than they ever were. The crucial ingredient lies neither in mental equipment nor in training: it lies with what a person can allow themselves to believe they are capable of; the limiting factor is mental low self-esteem.
The American 19th century writer Ralph Waldo Emerson once protested against our undemocratic assumptions of a preordained elite class of thinkers – and sought to remind us of how much we have in common with the cleverest of people. ‘In the minds of geniuses,’ he wrote, ‘we find – once more – our own neglected thoughts.’ In other words, so-called geniuses don’t have thoughts different from the ones we have. They have just learnt to value them differently. They have had the courage to stick by them, even when these thoughts happened not to chime with those of the majority. The concept that ‘no one really knows’ isn’t, it emerges, some piece of impudent or vengeful protest against legitimate authority. The confidence to imagine that one might know some things that haven’t yet entered the consciousness of others is just a critical factor in our capacity to stick by and develop insights of brilliance.
We have been a bit too polite for a bit too long. We have been dangerously reluctant to imagine that even on quite central points, ‘they’ might be seriously misguided. We haven’t dared to think, for instance, that the head of a school (who did a PhD in a top American university) might actually have very little insight into the real sources of educational fulfilment. Or, around architecture, we suppose that if a building gets a major award, it must genuinely represent the desirable future of construction, even if we ourselves – secretly – think it’s an aggressive sham. Even though the ultimate purpose of architecture is to please people, we discount the notion that our own reaction, carefully sifted and articulated, might be decisively relevant.
The way we marry, the education of our children, the way we structure financial rewards, our approach to advertising, the way we report news, all these aren’t founded on inviolable laws of nature; all might be ripe for questioning and improvement.
Our problem is compounded because our education system primes us to feel that the right thing to do – whenever we want to understand something – is to read what someone else has to say on the topic. In the process, we automatically and inadvertently give up on an equally and often far richer source of insight: our own experience. If we want to know the nature of love, for instance, it may not be necessary to do a psychology degree, we already have the information in our heads because we have had relationships and so know loving and being loved at a level of richness no other data source could rival. We should revere the art of paying very close attention to what we have already thought and felt: to the accurate recollection and examination of the nuances of our own emotions. To really understand an issue, we may need to go, not to the library, but out for a long walk or up for a very hot bath.
If we try to list things that nobody knows, we typically reach for highly arcane issues: the internal structure of a black hole, how the rules of logic are encoded in the brain; the real identity of the classical writer conventionally called ‘pseudo-Dionysius’ or what the highest possible prime number is. But it would be more accurate to say that nobody knows many of the most urgent things about modern life. The list of things of currently unsolved problems includes:
– How to make it normal for marriages to be happy.
– How to build cities that are as graceful and charming as the centres of Toulouse or Seville
– How to ensure that most people end up in a job they really like.
– How to have more interesting conversations – both in quality and quantity.
– How to properly educate ourselves.
– How to reliably align profit with virtue.
– How to harness our own creativity.
The frontier of knowledge isn’t far away: it’s in our bedrooms, around our dinner tables and on our local streets. Far from practically all the important things being already known, we are collectively still very ignorant about how to do some very basic things in our lives. The areas of precise knowledge are small – though very welcome – patches of illumination in the far larger, murky arena of existence. This should not be a cause of despair but of liberation.
In order to give our minds the true respect they deserve, we may need to learn to be a little less respectful of the minds of others. We might even need to be somewhat rude. The nineteenth century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer argued in favour of assuming that everyone we meet is pretty much an idiot – and therefore not worth paying too much attention to, in a way that leaves us free to chart our own course: ‘Would a musician feel flattered by the loud applause of an audience if he knew that they were nearly all deaf?’ After so long of thinking of ‘them’ as very clever, to do ourselves justice, it might be time to start to think of them – at moments at least – as, gloriously, not having much of a clue.
What most of us long for above all else is ‘security’, the sense that we are – at last – safe on the earth. We pin our hopes for security on a shifting array of targets: a happy relationship, a house, children, a good profession, public respect, a certain sum of money… When these are ours, we fervently believe, we will finally be at peace. We may mock the term ‘happily ever after,’ synonymous as it is with naive children’s literature but in practice, we do indeed tend to live as if we could one day, somewhere over the horizon, reach a place of rest, satisfaction and safety.
It’s therefore worth trying to understand why happiness ‘ever after’ should be congenitally so impossible. It isn’t that we can’t ever have a good relationship, a house or a pension. We may well have all this – and more. It’s simply that these won’t be able to deliver what we hope for from them. We will still worry in the arms of a kind and interesting partner, we will still fret in a well-appointed kitchen, our terrors won’t cease whatever income we have. It sounds implausible – especially when these goods are still far out of our grasp – but we should trust this fundamental truth in order to make an honest peace with the forbidding facts of the human condition.
We can never properly be secure, because so long as we are alive, we will be alert to danger and in some way at risk. The only people with full security are the dead; the only people who can be truly at peace are under the ground; cemeteries are the only definitively calm places around.
There is a certain nobility in coming to accept this fact – and the unending nature of worry in our lives. We should both recognise the intensity of our desire for a happy endpoint and at the same time acknowledge the inbuilt reasons why it cannot be ours.
We should give up on The Arrival Fallacy, the conviction that there might be such a thing as a destination, in the sense of a stable position beyond which we will no longer suffer, crave and dread.
The feeling that there must be such a point of arrival begins in childhood, with a longing for certain toys; then the destination shifts, perhaps to love, or career. Other popular destinations include Children and Family, Fame; Retirement or (even) After the Novel is Published.
It isn’t that these places don’t exist. It’s just that they aren’t places that we can pull up at, settle in, feel adequately sheltered by and never want to leave again. None of these zones will afford us a sense that we have properly arrived. We will soon enough discover threats and restlessness anew.
One response is to imagine that we may be craving the wrong things, that we should look elsewhere, perhaps to something more esoteric or high-minded: philosophy or beauty, community or Art.
But that is just as illusory. It doesn’t matter what goals we have: they will never be enough. Life is a process of replacing one anxiety and one desire with another. No goal spares us renewed goal seeking. The only stable element in our lives is craving: the only destination is the journey.
What are the implications of fully accepting the Arrival Fallacy? We may still have ambitions, but we’ll have a certain ironic detachment about what is likely to happen when we fulfill them. We’ll know the itch will start up again soon enough. Knowing the Arrival Fallacy, we’ll be subject to illusion, but at least aware of the fact. When we watch others striving, we may experience slightly less envy. It may look as if certain others have reached ‘there’. But we know they are still longing and worrying in the mansions of the rich and the suites of CEOs.
We should naturally try to give the journey more attention: we should look out of the window and appreciate the view whenever we can. But we should also understand why this can only ever be a partial solution. Our longing is too powerful a force. The greatest wisdom we’re capable of is to know why true wisdom won’t be fully possible – and instead pride ourselves on having at least a slight oversight on our madness.
We can accept the ceaselessness of certain anxieties and rather than aim for a yogic calm state, serenely accept that we will never be definitely calm. Our goal should not be to banish anxiety but to learn to manage, live well around and – when we can – heartily laugh at, our anxious state.
Many of us are daily tortured by a feeling of imminent catastrophe. Something terrible seems about to happen to us:
– We’re going to be abandoned
– We’re going to be shamed and humiliated
– We’re going to be publicly mocked
– We’re going to lose physical control over ourselves
– We’re going to be seen as a loser, weirdo or monster
The fear of such imminent catastrophes leads to a state of hypervigilance: where we are permanently on the alert, permanently worried, permanently scared, and permanently really very unhappy.
People may try to reassure us, but reassurance goes nowhere; the terror remains.
One way to break the deadlock is to reflect on one of the most telling phrase in all of modern psychotherapy, uttered by the English psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott: ‘The catastrophe you fear will happen has already happened.’ But, added Winnicott, the catastrophe has been forgotten; and that is what is making us so ill and sick with worry. If the future is to get brighter, we will need to remember the catastrophe and locate it where it really belongs: safely but also poignantly and tragically in the past.
It is strange that we should have forgotten the catastrophe. But that’s the point with trauma; it disappears from memory. It is too painful to be held in active consciousness, to be processed and verbalised – and it therefore gets pushed into the unnameable unknown zones of the mind, where it creates ongoing havoc.
To start to master trauma, we can reverse engineer a picture of what must have happened long ago, in years that we can’t now easily think about; we can take what we fear of the future and picture that a version of this terror actually already unfolded. The best clue to our past lies in our fears of the future.
Imagine filling in a simple table. Start with the left-hand column first: The logic of the exercise dictates that we should, for every entry in the left, be able eventually to think of an entry in the right. Bringing this to the surface is liable to be immensely difficult. One can’t do it on command. It requires time, very relaxed circumstances, perhaps music, a long train or plane journey, a chat with a friend or therapist, a night or two when one stays up very late with a pad and paper and no phone and just thinks while the rest of the world sleeps.
The logic of the exercise dictates that we should, for every entry in the left, be able eventually to think of an entry in the right. Bringing this to the surface is liable to be immensely difficult. One can’t do it on command. It requires time, very relaxed circumstances, perhaps music, a long train or plane journey, a chat with a friend or therapist, a night or two when one stays up very late with a pad and paper and no phone and just thinks while the rest of the world sleeps.
But eventually, some memories are likely to resurface, along with a lot of sadness and (ideally) compassion for oneself. One isn’t about to be revealed as a monster; one was – already – made to feel like a monster. One isn’t about to be abandoned, one was already left…
This doesn’t mean that there is never anything to be afraid of in the present. But we have to draw a distinction between abject terror and fear. There are things to fear in the here and now but there aren’t things to be abjectly terrified of – and for one central reason: because we are adults and it is the privilege of adults to have a basic freedom, agency and independence. We can take action, were bad things to occur to us, in a way that children who were traumatised never could. Life may yet get very tricky for us, but we never need be as terrified of it we were when the original catastrophe occurred.
Most likely, nothing as bad as we have feared will ever occur, not because we are lucky but because we were very unlucky in the past – and it is this bad luck, rather than something in the real world, that is leading us to be so unjustly and so cruelly afraid of living today. With sufficient exploration of the past, the terror of what is ahead could – just – be relocated to the category of historic trauma where it truly and cathartically belongs.
We grow up – inevitably – with a strong attachment to a plan A, that is, an idea of how our lives will go and what we need to do to achieve our particular set of well-defined goals. For example, we’ll do four years of law school, then move out west, buy a house and start a family. Or, we’ll go to medical school for 7 years, then go to another country and train in our speciality of interest and hope to retire by fifty. Or we’ll get married and raise two children with an emphasis on the outdoors and doing good in the world.
But then, for some of us and at one level all of us, life turns out to have made a few other plans. A sudden injury puts a certain career forever out of reach. A horrible and unexpected bit of office politics blackens our name and forces us out of our professional path. We discover an infidelity or make a small but significant error which changes everything about how crucial others view us.
And so, promptly, we find we have to give up on plan A altogether. The realisation can feel devastating. Sobbing or terrified, we wonder how things could have turned out this way. By what piece of damnation has everything come to this? Who could have predicted that the lively and hopeful little boy or girl we once were would have to end up in such a forlorn and pitiful situation? We alternately weep and rage at the turn of events.
It is for such moments that we should, even when things appear calm and hopeful, consider one of life’s most vital skills: that of developing a plan B.
The first element involves fully acknowledging that we are never cursed for having to make a plan B. Plan As simply do not work out all the time. No one gets through life with all their careful plan As intact. Something unexpected, shocking and abhorrent regularly comes along, not only to us, but to all human beings. We are simply too exposed to accident, too lacking in information, too frail in our capacities, to avoid some serious avalanches and traps.
The second point is to realise that we are, despite moments of confusion, eminently capable of developing very decent plan Bs. The reason why we often don’t trust that we can is that children can’t so easily – and childhood is where we have all came from and continue to be influenced by in ways it’s hard to recognise. When children’s plans go wrong, they can’t do much in response: they have to stay at the same school, they can’t divorce their parents, they can’t move to another country or shift job. They’re locked in and immobile.
But adults are not at all this way, a glorious fact which we keep needing to refreshing in our minds and drawing comfort from in anxious moments. We have enormous capacities to act and to adapt. The path ahead may be blocked, but we have notable scope to find other routes through. One door may close, but there truly are many other entrances to try. We do not have only one way through this life, even if – at times – we cling very fervently to a picture of how everything should and must be.
We’re a profoundly adaptable species. Perhaps we’ll have to leave town forever, maybe we’ll have to renounce an occupation we spent a decade nurturing, perhaps it will be impossible to remain with someone in whom we’d invested a lot….
It can feel desperate – until we rediscover our latent plan B muscle. In reality, there would be a possibility to relocate, to start afresh in another domain, to find someone else, to navigate around the disastrous event. There was no one script for us written at our birth, and nor does there need to be only one going forward.
It helps, in flexing our plan B muscles, to acquaint ourselves with the lives of many others who had to throw away plan As and begin anew: the person who thought they’d be married forever, then suddenly weren’t – and coped; the person who was renowned for doing what they did, then had to start over in a dramatically different field – and made it.
Amidst these stories, we’re liable to find a few people who will tell us, very sincerely, that their plan B ended up, in the end, superior to their plan A. They worked harder for it, they had to dig deeper to find it and it carried less vanity and fear within it.
Crucially, we don’t need to know right now what our plan Bs might be. We should simply feel confident that we will, if and when we need to, be able to work them out. We don’t need to ruminate on them all now or anticipate every frustration that might come our way; we should simply feel confident that, were the universe to command it, we would know how to find a very different path.
Some extremely worrying things are, as always, happening in the world.
However bad it is, we are surrounded by an industry that has to scare us. What we call the news is really a business that understands that you cannot make money by telling people that things are, on balance, going to be OK. The point of news is to make money by terrorizing its audience – it has plenty of material to play with and it executes perfectly. It may be trying to inform us, but its chief commercial aim is to ensure that we’ll be panicked enough to keep reading and watching.
But for our own sanity (and it is mental survival that is ultimately at stake), we need an antidote, a place of refuge. It cannot simply carry on like this, day after day, the tension ratcheting up with every new edition and bulletin. One place we might turn is a resource that is on hand to remind us that extreme difficulties are not new, that the worst sounding troubles can be survived and that it has (extraordinarily) often been a lot worse even than this: an antidote that goes by the name of History.
When political events seem to have reached a new low, we could – for example – turn to the writings of the ancient Roman historian Suetonius.
Born towards the end of the first century AD, Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus was an imperial administrator and chief secretary to the Emperor Hadrian. He was the first historian to try to give an accurate portrait of what the rulers of the Empire from Julius Caesar down to Domitian had actually been like. It’s a shocking story.
Suetonius’s book amounts to a catalogue of extraordinary follies and crimes of the first twelve men to rule the western world. Amongst them:
Julius Caesar: Who emerges as a thief, a liar, an egomaniac and a murderer.
Caligula: A notorious psychopath who, to quote Suetonius, ‘sent people down the mines or thrown to the wild beasts or confined in narrow cages where they they had to crouch or were sawn in half, not for major offences but because they did not properly admire a show he had sponsored at the Circus or did not refer with sufficient respect to his genius.’ We hear that: ‘The method of execution he preferred was to inflict numerous small wounds but avoiding all major organs. He often gave the command: ‘Make them feel they are dying’.’
Then came Nero: Of him we hear: ‘He dressed himself in the skins of wild animals and attacked the private parts of men and women bound to stakes.’ ‘He wandered through the streets at night randomly murdering strangers and throwing their bodies into the sewers.’
Afterwards, it was the turn of Vitellus: His ruling vices were gluttony and cruelty. He banqueted three or four times a day and he survived by taking frequent emetics. He used to give himself a treat by having prisoners executed before his eyes.’
Then it was time for Domitian: ‘At the beginning of his reign Domitian would spend hours alone every day catching flies and stabbing them with a needle-sharp pen.’
Though Suetonius writes about grotesque people – who were also at the time the most powerful people on the planet – reading him can leave one feeling remarkably serene. One might read him tucked up in bed, after news of the latest election win. The experience is strangely reassuring, because it’s at heart a narrative of resilience.
Suetonius writes of earthquakes, plagues, wars, riots, rebellions, conspiracies, betrayals, coups, terrorism and mass slaughter. Considered on its own it might seem to be the record of a society whose collapse must surely be immanent. But in fact Suetonius was writing before – and not after – the most impressive period of Roman achievement – which would come fifty years later under the rule of the stoic philosopher and Emperor, Marcus Aurelius.
The disasters that Suetonius catalogues were compatible with a society heading overall towards peace and prosperity. Reading Suetonius suggests that it is not fatal for societies to be in trouble; it is in fact usual for things to go rather badly. In this respect, reading ancient history generates the opposite emotions to scanning today’s news. Events have been much worse before and things were, in the end, OK. People behaving very badly is a normal state of affairs. There have always been existential threats to the human race and civilisation. It makes no sense, and is a form of twisted narcissism, to imagine that our era has any kind of monopoly on idiocy and disaster.
By reading Suetonius we enter unconsciously into his less agitated and more Stoic reactions. He and History more generally encourage access to what we need now more than ever: the less panicky, more resilient sides of ourselves.
Nature is valuable not only for itself; it is also to be revered as the single most persuasive and redemptive work of philosophy.
Nature corrects our erroneous – and ultimately very painful – sense that we are essentially free. The idea that we have the freedom to fashion our own destinies as we please has become central to our contemporary world-view: we are encouraged to imagine that we can, with time, create exactly the lives we desire, around our relationships, our work and our existence more generally. This hopeful scenario has been the source of extraordinary, unnecessary suffering.
There are many things we want desperately to avoid, which we will spend huge parts of our lives worrying about and which we will then bitterly resent when they force themselves upon us nevertheless.
The idea of inevitability is central to the natural world: the deciduous tree has to shed it leaves when the temperature dips in autumn; the river must erode its banks, the cold front will deposit its rain; the tide has to rise and fall. The laws of nature are governed by forces nobody chose, no one can resist and which brook no exception.
When we contemplate nature (a forest in the autumn for example, or the reproductive cycle of a salmon), we’re witnessing rules that in their broad irresistible structure apply to ourselves as well. We too must mature, seek to reproduce, age, fall ill and die. We face a litany of other burdens too: we will never be fully understood by others; we’ll always be burdened by primordial anxiety; we’ll never fully know what it is like to be someone else; we will invariably fantasise about more than we can ever have; we’ll realise we cannot – in key ways – be who we want to be.
What we most fear will happen irrespective of our wishes. But when we see this frustration as a law of nature, we drain it of some of its sting and bitterness. We recognise that limitations are not in any way unique to us. In awesome, majestic scenes (the life cycle of an elephant; the eruption of volcano), nature moves us away from our habitual tendency to personalise and rail against our suffering.
A central task of culture should be to remind us that the laws of nature apply to us as well as to trees, clouds and cliff faces. Our goal is to get clearer about where our own tantalisingly powerful yet always limited agency stops – and where we will be left with no option but to bow to forces infinitely greater than our own.