There’s a pattern that goes like this: it’s late, given when we’ve got to wake in the morning, but instead of going to bed, we stay up. The next day, of course, we feel sluggish and weary and we promise ourselves an early night. Then it happens again: it’s already midnight and we’ve got a normal start the next day but we don’t turn in. It’s not that we’re full of energy – we actually feel desperately tired – but we resist going to bed. And the following day it’s the same: we’re worn out yet we don’t turn in until a very late hour. And it keeps on going.
At times during this cycle we feel deeply frustrated: we call ourselves idiots and worse: obviously we need to get to bed early, yet we are too stupid, stubborn and self-sabotaging to do so. And to our profound exhaustion we add the burden of self-disgust. But our anger at our own behaviour doesn’t lead us to change our habits. If our partner complains about our late hours we dismiss it as nannyish nagging – and it’s all the more irritating because we know they are right.
It’s one of the weirdest features of being human: a completely clear sense that how we’re behaving is bad and counter-productive doesn’t get us to stop. Harsh criticism is the utterly entrenched human tactic for getting people to change – just as self-condemnation is our instinctive strategy for self-improvement – yet it doesn’t actually work. It induces panic, shame and despair but doesn’t bring about the desired alteration.
A gentler – and more productive – approach begins with curiosity: it takes the difficult area of behaviour seriously and asks what it wants and what it is seeking. It seems foregign, and almost irresponsible, to ask the key question: what’s nice about staying up late? Why, positively, are we doing it? (We shy away from this because it seems awful to suggest that there could be anything interesting or good about an action that’s clearly messing up our lives.) So what might we be trying to achieve by staying up late?
For many years, through childhood, night-time seemed immensely exciting. It was secret, mysterious zone when from our dark room we might hear the grown-ups laughing around the dinner-party table, talking of things we weren’t supposed to know about, and catch, perhaps, the sweet scent of cigar smoke. If we were ever allowed to be up late it was for a very special occasion: a new year’s party at Granny’s house, when bearded great-uncles would slip us chocolates and we’d crowd into a bedroom with our cousins to watch a long film; or there was the thrilling time we had to take a late-night flight at the start of an overseas holiday and the world seemed enormous and filled with adventure.
Later, in adolescence and when we were students, the night became glamorous; it was, when poets found their inspiration, when parties became wild, when our friends became most expansive in their plans to reform the world and when we finally kissed our first love.
And even though such lovely associations may not be at the front of our minds, we continue to have a subterranean, but significant, sense that to go to bed early is to miss out on the joys of existence. Our late-night activities might be utterly prosaic but just by being awake into the early hours we’re participating in an ideal of what adult life is supposed to be like. And so, night after night, the bed is there, quietly waiting for us to draw back the sheet, turn out the light, lie down and close our eyes, but it’s half-past midnight or 2am and we’re still up.
We can look on ourselves with greater and legitimate tenderness. We’re not idiots because we stay up into the night; we’re in search of something important; the problem isn’t what we’re looking for but the fact that we can’t find it this way. The thrills that have implanted themselves in our memories were only by accident linked to being up late. The conviviality, the sense of discovery and adventure, the feeling of exploring big ideas and the experience of emotional intimacy have no intrinsic connection to the hours of darkness. The deeper engagement with a friend or a lover, the working though of a complex-idea, the determination to investigate a neglected area of our potential: these aren’t late-night speculations; they are the tasks of our day-time selves – requiring for their proper accomplishment, our poised and well-rested minds.
We will at last be able to let ourselves turn in early – and get the sleep we need – not when our irritation with ourselves reaches an unbearable peak and we renounce as hopeless our search for adult happiness and finally submit to the banality of an early bedtime, but when we relocate our longings and seek our pleasures where they can more realistically be found: in the bright, energetic hours of the new day.
For the last two centuries a cult has been spreading widely and rapidly around the world, seeking to dominate and control every moment of our lives; today it has hundreds of millions of adherents, including almost all the conspicuously successful individuals on the planet; nether a religious dogma nor a political creed, it is devoted instead to a single, striking ideal: busyness.
It insists that a good life – the only life worthy of a capable and intelligent person – is one of continuous activity and application; one must strive relentlessly to fulfill every ambition; every hour of the day and the evening must be filled with intense activity. A hero should be up at dawn, following the news on the Shanghai stock exchange; they should jet to Hamburg for a morning meeting (working intensely throughout the journey) and then squeeze in a visit to a seminal exhibition at the Galerie der Gegenwart at the Hamburger Kunsthalle; in the afternoon they are back at the head office for tough negotiations concerning an urban development project in Sao Paulo – though they take a quick break for a video chat with their five-year old child, who has just had their first violin lesson; in the early evening they drop in on a gala reception at the Opera House, to have a quick word with the finance minister who is also attending; then there’s dinner with a group of major investors, where they’re presenting their strategic overview of next year’s expansion in India; when they get home they field calls from Boston (medical technology) and Tokyo (intellectual property rights); then they sit up late in bed going over papers on tax efficiency and family trusts.
The glamour of their life is constantly being reinforced: there’s an admiring article about their business in one of the financial weeklies; luxury adverts are aimed at them; their name is on the wall of them museum, as a major benefactor. Their life is immensely interesting and the whole world, it seems, envies them.
Our own hectic days may not be quite as high-flying, but this is the direction in which they are aiming; if we haven’t arrived it’s because we haven’t tried hard enough; the only thing for it is to push ourselves harder and cram more into each day.
But instead of being blissfully satisfied with our hectic lives we feel permanently nervous and strained, though we are careful to conceal it as much as possible from others, and from ourselves. Our irritability is cast as rightful impatience with slackers and mediocrities; our frustration and disappointment is interpreted as a necessary spur to greater activity; our growing gloom and sadness, beneath our zestful demeanour, will – we tell ourselves – disappear when finally we get on top of everything we have to do and attain the level of success that will guarantee our happiness.
More dramatically, we find we are on the verge (or beyond the verge) of collapse. we fall ill or we suddenly snap and do something disastrous: we start screaming during a conference call; we get enraged with a lackadaisical junior colleague who then lodges a harassment claim; we have an affair and our partner finds out; we take drugs ‘to unwind’ or to keep up our level of intense activity – and then we find we’re addicted and increasingly unable to function.
Our cult of busyness demands that we take on more than we can properly cope with; it ignores or denies our actual fragility – and encourages us to ignore or deny it too – until we have a breakdown and want to lock ourselves away, smash our phones, lie on the floor and weep.
It’s moving to think, by contrast, of the attentive mother who settles her child down for an afternoon nap after an exciting morning. The child doesn’t know it’s worn out, but the mother is aware of the need for tranquility and rest. If the child had its way it would be zooming around the garden, going to another birthday party or watching a frenetic video – before having a tantrum. The maternal function, so to speak, is to calm the child’s days, when the child itself is unable or unwilling to recognise its own overwrought state. As adults, we need the maternal part of ourselves to step in and prescribe slower, quieter days and to rescue us from the oppressive ideal of the busy life, which is slowly destroying us.
But the motive for seeking a quieter life is not purely self-preservation. Simple days, when nothing much seems to be happening and when we haven’t apparently accomplished anything – days the busy person would consider dull and wasted – can be deeply fruitful.
As in the busy life, the perfect quiet day might also start early: from the window we watch the dawn slowly colouring the sky above the houses across the street and slowly fading. We spend part of the morning organising the linen cupboard: folding sheets, stacking blankets, ironing a few napkins and arranging them neatly. Maybe next time we’ll go through our wardrobe and weed out the clothes we haven’t worn for ages. We’re at last bring order and harmony to our domestic existence.
As we’re going about our simple tasks we can untangle our thoughts and feelings. When we’re proccupied we don’t properly notice the details of our emotional states or what’s going on at the back of our minds. Now we start to pay closer attention: why did we fall out with that friend last year? Was it, perhaps, that we never particularly liked each other anyway? What did we really feel in their company? Who, ideally, would we like to be friends with? And what is it about them that appeals to us?
In the afternoon we take a long walk alone. We pass an old brick wall we’d hardly noticed before – it’s been weathered by the sun and the rain and delicately spotted with yellow lichen: how long has it been there, what has happened to the people who built it? It was probably rather stark and raw originally – time has been kind to it.
We pause to look carefully at a tree; the branches look bare, but close up we can see the first, tiny tips of green starting to emerge from some of the brown buds. In the past we only ever noted the big changes, now we’re registering the beautiful, minute steps, accomplished day by day that take it from one season to another.
In our slow days we have the time, and the patience, to notice what seem, at first, like small sources of pleasure. And as we appreciate them, we realise how big and moving they really are – and how much we missed out on when, in our busier time, we tried to do everything.
After a light supper, we lie soaking in a hot, deep bath. As the body relaxes and the mind is soothed, we meditate on what we really want to do with our lives. In place of the conventional aspirations which used to drive us we become sensitive to our own authentic ambitions. It could be nice to take up drawing; how might our relationship with our mother be improved; what kind of work gives us most satisfaction; what kind of relationship might be possible that could be really fruitful? We start to dig around in the neglected territory of our needs and longings and begin to think through how they could realistically evolve.
We turn in early, so we’ll be fresh in the morning. In the minutes before we sleep we go over the memories of a trip from years ago: recapturing the charming manners of a particular waiter or the pleasure of opening the shutters in the morning and looking down a narrow street towards the sea; we’re planning to stay quietly put for a while but we don’t need to go anywhere – our lives are rich and large already.
There’s a grand, subtle and beguiling myth that can work it’s way into the centre of our brains, lead us to judge our lives as calamitous failures and drive us into years of anxious and unrewarding effort and struggle. The myth is constructed around an innocent sounding – even exciting – idea: the notion that there is a ‘centre’: a special place on the planet – the right city, or district; and there, and only there, is a real and full life possible. By being exiled from the centre we are condemned to pinched, mediocre existences, we’re cut off from everything important and interesting. We are, we gloomily reflect, ‘mere provincials.’
It’s a very long standing – and strangely mobile – thought; a thousand years ago Japanese intellectuals regretted their distance from China; it was only there, they believed, that scholarship, art, poetry and refined manners could flourish; at home they could only ever be second rate. In the late 19th century, an American artist in Massachusetts or Mississippi would be tormented by the conviction that their creative life was stunted, because they weren’t at the centre of cultural life, in Paris. And then in the mid 20th century, the people who actually were in Paris felt that only in New York could they live a proper existence and fully participate in the excitements of the modern world. They lamented the tree lined boulevards and the stately Place des Vosges and dreamed of Central Park and skyscrapers. And, in turn, the residents of New York were soon starting to think that they should really move to California.
We’re not content – as we see it – to live anywhere; we gird ourselves to make a bid for life at the centre in one of the world’s current hot spots. As a result, we face intense competition and have to work incredibly hard just to survive. And soon we come to think that it’s not simply living in the right city that counts: we have to be in the right part; we have to be invited to certain parties (which we’re not); attend particular events (which we lack the time to do) and know certain key people (who, unfortunately, we never get to meet). We don’t lose faith in the ideal: we’re still sure the true centre is there, it’s just that, tragically, we can’t get access to it and our existence must therefore be judged, particularly by ourselves, as more or less worthless.
This harsh contrast between the dull provinces and the glorious centre isn’t merely an eccentric preoccupation of a few individuals. There’s a surprisingly objective measure of the precise degree to which any place is considered provincial: property prices.
Terrace Houses, South Kensington, London; the end house was recently on the market for nearly GBP 20 million.
Located in a highly fashionable metropolitan district, a lovely house commands a vast price, while a similarly charming mansion in a pleasant but deeply provincial place costs only a small fraction of that.
We sometimes tell ourselves that the difference is down to other economic factors: in the centre it’s possible to earn more, while in the provinces incomes are generally much lower. But the logic is flawed: practically the entire additional income of the high-earning centrist goes to covering the expenses of living where they do. Probably they would be better off, financially speaking, if they took a less well paid post elsewhere. There’s no brute material inducement to head to the metropolis; what draws us (and so many others) is a set of ‘spiritual’ convictions – that is, ideas about the meaning of life.
There are, at root, four beliefs that fuel centrism and drive us to flee the provinces. To state them buntly: at the centre
1. People are more interesting;
2. They’re more attractive and sophisticated
3. You will be stimulated and inspired
4. History is being made
But if we go through them one by one and examine them in detail these ideas turn out only to be fantasies.
1. People are more interesting
We imagine the metropolitans as liberated from trivial preoccupations; they don’t gossip about banalities; their minds are on higher things; they’re tolerant, intellectually curious and well-educated. We’ll at last meet wonderful people and have fascinating conversations.
In reality, whether we find someone interesting or not depends more on us than them. Every life, properly engaged with, is endlessly complex, remarkable and informative. For instance in the early 1600s, the Spanish painter Velasquez painted several portraits of one particular man who made a very modest living carrying around a large earthenware jug and selling glasses of water to passers by.
According to the theory of the centre, he is entirely lacking in interest. But Velasquez is entranced. He sees the look on the old man’s face as worthy of the same contemplation as the commanding gesture of a victorious general or the gracious curtsy of a lady of the court. In the picture, the man’s left hand, touching the water-jar, is tender: his right hand, clasping the base of the glass is deft and delicate; they once clutched his mother’s hand; they have brushed tears from his cheeks, been joined in prayer or shaken, they’ve been clenched and shaken in anger.
The painting is a great work of resistance against the centre-provincial divide. Obviously, there are interesting people at the centre, but that’s because there are interesting people everywhere. What makes the difference isn’t where we are but our mode of engagement.
2. They’re more attractive and sophisticated
In our fantasy, the metropolitans are more stylish and readier to be open-minded. When we get to the centre we’ll finally have the personal-life we long-for. It sounds reasonable: perhaps the people in the perfect bar are more outwardly good-looking, they might be dressed in more enticing ways. But these factors – sadly – have little to do with our own prospects of intimate happiness.
One reason is that what what makes someone properly enticing are in the end always their more low-key elusive qualities: their tone of voice, the way they move their wrist, how they smirk at an unexpected moment, their adventurousness, their warmth, when they blush, ther curiosity about us. There’s no special link between the outward display – at which centrists may excel – and the actual elements that can make us content.
Additionally, no move to the city can save us from the sorrows of intimate existence. Whomever we get together with will be (just as we are) extremely difficult to live with in some ways. They’ll want to talk when we want to be silent; they’ll be too clingy or too distant. This isn’t a problem of where we are; it’s a permanent and universal problem of human love that will follow us – if we make it – to the smartest after-parties on the planet and into the most exotic bedrooms.
3. You will be inspired, you will be stimulated
The belief is that those in the centre have bigger ambitions, they’re engaged in more exciting and important quests and we imagine that this will rub off on us. We’ll visit the same places, breathe the same air that inspired others and this will fire our own creative capacity.
But if we examine inspiration more closely, it actually works in the reverse way. For the whole of the second half of the 20th century the most famous cafe in the world was the Café de Flore in Paris, where in the 1940s and 50s the philosophers Satre and Simone de Beauvoir used to spend many afternoons chatting, writing and drinking coffee; they also loved the boiled egg salad. The temptation is to think that if we go there too, our minds will similarly be moved in profound and exciting directions. But if we were to ask Sartre why he went there the answer would be banal: there was nothing special about the place at all, it just happened to be near where they lived. They’d advise us to do the same, or just stick to our room and concentrate on thinking.
It’s not that it’s impossible to be stimulated in the great urban core – but only because it is possible to be inspired anywhere. At root, inspiration is the discovery of the greater meaning of something that seems, initially, unimpressive. One finds potential where others have failed to recognise it. Centrism gets it backwards: it fatally suggests that we should be looking precisely in the places everyone has already looked.
4. History is being made
The centre is supposedly where news comes from: this is where the important events take place and where the new ideas circulate first; the people there are in the know.
But the history that matters to us isn’t which minister is in favour or the trends in theatre production or the latest evolutions of the fashion industry: rather it’s the long-term, overarching and world-wide themes that define the age in which we live – the rise of individualism, the decline of religion; the advancement of capitalism, the retreat of centralised moral authority; and the rising prestige of childhood and the falling admiration for science. This kind of history is being made everywhere: the metropolis isn’t even the ideal point of observation.
* * *
These arguments don’t lead to the conclusion that it’s impossible to flourish in the metropolis. What they are arguing is that the good things associated with the idea of centre can in fact be found pretty much anywhere. What matters isn’t so much where you happen to be located but how you engage with whatever, or whoever, happens to be around. These thoughts liberate us from the imaginary devotion to ‘centrism’, that does so much to complicate and undermine our brief but precious lives.
There’s a dread that we normally keep at the far edges of our minds but which occasionally – particularly at 3am on a restless night – floods our thoughts: if we don’t constantly strive to achieve, if we slip up or if some new catastrophe strikes the economy, we’ll lose pretty much everything and will have to end up living in a caravan, a tiny one-room flat or – god forbid – a hut in the middle of nowhere.
The bleakness of this image spurs us to ever more frantic efforts. We’d settle for almost anything to avoid it: oppressively long working hours; a job that holds no interest; risky money-making schemes; a loveless marriage that keeps us in the family home or, maybe, decades of suffering the whims of a grim relative for the sake of an inheritance. The hut is a symbol of complete disaster and humiliation.
It’s in this fear-laden context that we might consider the case of a man called Kamo no Chomei, who was born in Japan around 1155. His father was the well-to-do head of a prominent religious shrine near Kyoto, which was then the capital, and Chomei grew up in luxurious circumstances. He received a refined education and in the early part of his adult life, had an elegant social circle. When he was still in his twenties, his grandmother left him a big house and his future looked bright. But then it all started to go wrong. He made enemies and was sidelined in his career; he got into financial difficulties and by the time he was fifty, he had alienated his former friends, had practically no money left – and was going bald.
Chomei was forced to reform his existence and exist on the most slender material base. Far out in the country, where no-one else wanted to live, he built himself a tiny hut – just ten feet by ten. It was, he reflected, one hundredth of the size of the mansion in which he’d grown up. It wasn’t even a permanent structure; his situation was so precarious he had to ensure that his home could be dismantled and carted away.
A modern reconstruction shows just how small and basic it was – but doesn’t convey it’s isolated position, in the hills at Toyama, which was considered the back of beyond. Rotting leaves collected on the roof, moss grew on the floor; the water supply was just a rickety bamboo pipe leading from a nearby stream to a little pool by the door. Chomei cooked outside, though eventually he rigged up a small awning to keep the rain off in wet weather; he slept on a pile of bracken on the floor; he had no furniture; he lived mainly on nuts, berries and wild root vegetables which he foraged from the woods – and quite often he went rather hungry. The only people he saw was a peasant family who lived at the foot of the hill, who his former grand friends would have dismissed as lowly rustics. He could only afford clothes made from the coarsest cloth and they soon became mere rags, leaving him indistinguishable from the beggars he used to see in the city. It was here, and in this way, Chomei lived for fifteen years, up to his death in his mid-sixties.
And it was also here that he wrote a short book, pointedly entitled The Ten Square Foot Hut – one of the great masterpieces of Japanese literature. It’s not – as we might expect – a lament, poring over the misfortunes and betrayals that led him to this degraded condition. Instead it’s full of good cheer, happiness and pleasure; the most touching line in the whole of the essay is the simple affirmation: ‘I love my little hut, my lonely dwelling.’
What – we can ask – was it that enabled Chomei to find fulfillment in such an apparently unpromising place? It wasn’t that he was naturally drawn to a minimal material life: no-one who’d known him earlier, in his days of prosperity, would have imagined he’d thrive under such circumstances – least of all himself. He wasn’t someone who for years had been hankering for the simple life. He moved to the hut in desperation and against his inclinations; it was only once he was there that he discovered that he liked it and that it was, in fact, his ideal home.
Chomei was guided by a distinctive philosophy. And this is a principle of hope, for we can’t magically take on another individual’s personality but we can understand, and perhaps come to share, their ideas. Temperament may be fixed but philosophy is transferable. From his book, we can identify five crucial ideas that together transformed what could have been a purely grim experience into a time of deep and tranquil satisfaction.
1. Beauty is very important
It seems like a strange place to start: normally beauty looks like the outcome of immense wealth: elegant possessions, a gracious home and trips to Venice and St. Petersburg. But these expensive things are just the most obvious instances of beauty. As our taste becomes more sensitive and more expansive, the link with money falls away because a great many truly lovely sights are readily available almost everywhere to those who know how to look.
Around his modest home, Chomei – with a sensitive eye – discovered endless sources of beauty: autumn leaves, fruit trees in blossom, melting snow, the sound of the wind rustling through the trees and the rain beating down on the roof. All were free. He was entranced by flowers: ‘In spring I gaze upon swathes of wisteria that hang shining in the west, like the purple clouds that bear the soul to heaven.’ He found a delightful spot on the hillside: ‘If the day is fine I look out over Mount Kohata, Fushimi Village, Toba and Hatsukashi’ and ‘at night, the fireflies in the nearby grass blend their little lights with the fires the fishermen make at distant Makinsohima: no one owns a splendid view.’
It’s partly the idea of pervading ugliness that makes a lower-level economic life so frightening. Chomei’s antidote is stress the continuing opportunities for visual delight, even on the most minimal of incomes.
2. Time is more important than money
Although we say time is precious, our actions reveal our real priorities: we devote a huge portion of our conscious existence to making, and trying to accumulate, money. We tend to have a highly concrete and detailed sense of accounting around finances, while time invisibly slips away.
Chomei, on the contrary, has a keen sense of the value of his own time, without interruptions, impediments, duties: ‘I can choose to rest and laze as I wish, there is no one to stand in my way or to shame me for my idleness.’
He has time to practice playing the lute, or biwa; ‘my skills are poor’ he admits but then he had no audience, he isn’t trying to please or impress anyone: ‘I play music, I sing alone, simply for my own fulfillment.’
He read and re-read the same few favourite books, which he came to know almost by heart; he had time to reflect and to write; he meditated, took long walks and spent a lot of time contemplating the moon.
His activities were self-directed: he did them simply because he found them enjoyable, not because anyone had asked him or because they were expected of a civilised individual. And he had this luxury only because he disregarded the nexus of money, and the pursuit of status which is so closely connected to it.
Theoretically Chomei could have found a job, however lowly. But he prefered to cut down his expenses to zero in the name of something truly valuable: his time.
3. Everything is transient
Chomei opens his book with a metaphor comparing human life to a river: ‘On flows the river ceaselessly, nor does the water ever stay the same. The bubbles that float upon its pools now disappear, now form anew, but never endure long. And so it is with people in this world, and with their dwellings.’ He’s reminding himself – and us – of the half-terrifying, half-consoling fact that our existence and all our pleasures and troubles are fleeting.
Because our lives are so brief it is the quality of our experiences, rather than the extent of our possessions that matter. The more we have, the more we are exposed to random misfortune; a fashionable home will soon be dated; our prestige in the eyes of others will fluctuate for trivial reasons; we might build a palace and die before it is completed; and the monuments we hope will allow our names to last get misinterpreted or torn down. The simple hut makes an accommodation with impermanence: it might get blown down in a storm or washed away in a flood, officials might arrive at our door and tell us we have to leave; but our needs have been pared down to so little that chance has less to work on.
4. ‘Worldly’ people are less happy than they seem
A thought that erodes our willingness to live a simpler life – in a hut, if need be – is the haunting fear that other people are having a wonderful time. Perhaps we could manage to get by, but we’d always be conscious of how much we were missing.
Chomei is continually reminding himself that a ‘worldly’ life – which in his early and middle years he knew intimately – carries a heavy load of limitations, defects and sorrows. The life of the well-to-do is less enviable than it outwardly seems. The fashionable world is full of what he calls ‘cringing’ – ‘You worry over your least action; you cannot be authentic in your grief or your joy.’ In high society, it is always paramount to consider how any opinion will be judged by the other members of the social beehive; envy is widespread; and there is constant anxiety around losing status – which takes the satisfaction out of prosperity: ‘without a peaceful mind, palaces and fine houses mean nothing.’
Chomei’s aim isn’t to disparage the rich: ‘I am simply comparing my past, worldly life with my present one’ – and the balance of pleasures and contentment is distinctly in favour of the latter. Chomei bolsters his hold on the truth: what he’s missing isn’t worth regretting.
Chomei is just one hut dweller; but there have been many. The ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes (early 400s – 323 BC) lived for years in a barrel, or perhaps a very large ceramic pot, in the marketplace of the wealthy city of Corinth. On one occasion he was visited by the Emperor, Alexander the Great.
Alexander approached and asked if Diogenes wanted or needed anything. ‘Yes’ replied the philosopher, ‘move a little to the side, you are blocking the sunlight.’ Many onlookers mocked him for missing his opportunity for riches, but the Emperor was reported to have remarked: ‘Truly, if I were not Alexander, I wish I were Diogenes.’
In more recent times, in 1846, around the age of 30, the American writer Henry David Thoreau – a graduate of Harvard and heir to a prosperous pencil manufacturing business – moved into a wooden cabin by the side of a small lake in Massachusetts, where he would spend the next two years. It was marginally bigger than Chomei’s modest home and more stoutly constructed and better equipped, having the luxury of a fire-pace and a writing desk. But the moral Thoreau drew was almost identical: to those who are inwardly free, there are riches enough available in a hut.
In 1881 Friedrich Nietzsche spent the summer months living in a single, small room, which he rented in a house in the Engadine Valley in Switzerland.
He saw almost no-one, went for long walks in the mountains and stuck to a plain diet. It was far from hideous, but it was very much more basic than the standard of accommodation that, at the time, a distinguished professor – which Nietzsche had been up to this point – would have been expected to enjoy, But he did and he came back for several months almost every year for the rest of the decade.
In the winter of 1913-14, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein – who at the time was extremely wealthy – designed and had built for himself a small hut on a isolated hillside overlooking a fjord in Norway.
He was to spend much of this time there over the next two decades, until the deteriorating political condition of Europe made it impossible. In 1936 he wrote to a friend: ‘I do believe that it was the right thing for me to come here, thank God. I can’t imagine that I could have worked anywhere as I do here. It’s the quiet and, perhaps, the wonderful scenery; I mean, its quiet seriousness.’
What these cabin and hut dwelling people have to teach us isn’t that we ourselves should go off and inhabit miniscule cabins or live in a single small room. Rather, they are showing that it’s possible to live in a materially minimal condition, while being good humoured, ambitious and in search of true fulfilment. They are dismantling our fear that material modesty has to mean degradation and squalour. We can, if we embrace their ideas, live more simply anywhere, including a hut. And in the meantime, we can afford not to be so afraid.
For most of history, societies have equated good lives with active outward noisy ones: lives spent spearing enemies in battle, sacrificing oneself heroically in the name of God, achieving high office and fame, amassing riches and honours and becoming known for artistic and scientific breakthroughs. To this, the modern age has added its own demands. A good active life should involve commercial success, a wide circle of friends, frequent foreign travel, close knowledge of a number of cities, awareness of leading ideas in art and technology, a sense of fashion, viewership of recent drama series and, almost inevitably, a twice weekly high intensity workout.
It has always seemed odd to argue for something else, what one might call a quiet life, a life where one lives outside of an expensive urban center, where one works to satisfy material needs and intellectual curiosity but without frenzy or emotional craving, where one might only intermittently check the news, rarely travel very far, almost never go out in the evenings, stay in touch with just a few friends, spend a lot of time in nature, exercise by going for walks, eat simply (mainly fruit and vegetables), seldom buy anything expensive, disregard most new books – and strive always to be in bed by ten.
The modern world makes sure that we know at all times just how much we might be missing. It is a culture in which intense and painful doses of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) are almost inevitable. We hear of defined centres where the most exciting things must be happening. At one time it was New York, for a few years it was Berlin, in the coming years, it will (perhaps) be Auckland. There are books that have to be read, and films that must be seen. There are people we should be visiting and opportunities that we must not pass up. It can feel like a privilege, until we become aware that it is a coercion.
Art has tracked and nurtured our noisy enthusiasms. Traditionally, most works have displayed the exploits of brave aristocrats, usually in battle, and the dramatic and self-abnegating feats of religious figures. There were strong jawed men on horseback and haughty ladies in profile, saints ascending to heaven and Biblical heroes defending virtue against satan.
Yet as the world became ever noisier, a minority tradition emerged with a new mission in mind: opening our eyes to the unexpected charms of ordinary, modest lives. The pioneers were the artists of the 17th century Dutch republic. In the canvases of Johannes Vermeer or Pieter de Hooch, there are no military processions or divine annunciations, there is something far braver and more redemptive: people like us, doing the simple important normal things, sweeping the yard, putting away the laundry, checking the kids’ hair for knits and getting supper ready.
Pieter de Hooch, A mother delousing a child’s hair, 1658
It was the genius of the Dutch artists to demonstrate that there might be as much opportunity for bravery, good sense and kindness in a kitchen or a yard as there might be on a battlefield or in a royal palace. They have been joined in subsequent centuries by artists comparably interested in the everyday: the quiet interiors of Wilhelm Hammershoi, the gardens of Erasmus Engert, the unassuming moments captured in the photographs of Jessica Todd Harper.
Erasmus Engert, A Garden in Vienna, 1828
Jessica Todd Harper, Becky in the Den, 2003
Defenders of quiet lives know that there are, of course, some genuinely special things going on in the world, but they do not let the obvious signs of glamour be their guide to these. The novel they might really need to read is almost certainly not currently winning prizes or in the bestseller lists. It may have been written two hundred years ago and be available mostly in second hand editions. They know that what is precious can be jumbled up with uncomplicated and straightforward things. Great intelligence may not be accompanied by academic qualifications. A deep conversation can be had with a relative who likes watching snooker on television and has stopped dying their hair. The defenders of quiet lives are themselves scared of missing out but they have a rather different list of things they are afraid of not enjoying: their children growing up, empty days without commitments, truly getting to know their parents, the sky at dusk, long baths, early mornings in the kitchen with the cat.
The quiet understand how much can be drawn out of a single experience, if one takes the time to turn it over in one’s mind. A trip taken ten years ago isn’t really over. So much of it remains unattended in memory: the light on the first morning by the harbour, the little museum with the geraniums in the courtyard, the tomato salad by the forest… Nothing ever disappears, it’s just waiting for the outer world to still before yielding its riches. We would need to experience so much less if we knew how to draw appropriate value from what we had already done and seen. Our impulse for constant movement may at heart be a confession of an inability to process. We feel the need for so many new experiences because we have been so poor at absorbing the ones we have had.
Were we to be good travellers, we would know how to treat a walk to the shops as its own kind of precious adventure. We might grow a little more like curious four year olds who constantly stop, every few paces, to take in a new and extraordinary sight: a weed growing between two bricks, an oddly shaped cloud with a silvery tail, a contrail between two warehouses, a dog looking pensively at a bunch of daffodils, a piece of graffiti on a lampost, a fishmonger’s window with Dover soles and John Dorys resting on ice. It is rare to pay any of this attention when one has larger ambitions in view. But the quiet know that, contrary to all expectations, this may in fact be the center of existence, life is not elsewhere, this is what one would miss were it to have to come an end soon.
The quiet are not simply quiet out of appreciation, they are also quiet out of caution. They understand the toll that noisy lives surreptitiously exact, they know – perhaps better than those who still maintain crowded diaries – how prone we are to exhaustion, over-stimulation and collapse. They may even have lived through a breakdown themselves, when a few too many responsibilities and excitements, late nights and emotional dramas inducted them brutally into how fragile our hold on reason can be. They are living quietly to guard against folly and paranoia, anxiety and despair. They appreciate how much unglamorous routines and night after night by themselves or one or two very close friends protects them against the return of delirium.
It is easy to measure how much money we are making. It’s much harder to notice how much calm we lose in the process. We don’t keep a close eye on the true price of our noisy lives; we don’t properly add up what the trip to another country on business might have done to our levels of serenity and creativity or to our relationship with those who matter. We don’t notice how agitated every newspaper article makes us feel and how dispiriting every encounter with a false friend can prove. We’re like early scientists handling uranium without awareness of the dangers. We don’t notice what a shock to our sensitive minds it is to step into a room full of raucous acquaintances and to try to make small talk for a few hours. This is an experience it might take a month of quiet evenings to heal. We don’t understand that insomnia is our minds’ revenge for all the thoughts we have carefully managed not to have in the day and our anxiety is a bid for us to pay heed to our neglected sensitivity.
Good parents have a handle on the dangers of over-exhaustion in young children. They know that after some bright lights and dancing, jokes and games, it will be time for a nap. They know the tell-tale signs of tetchiness and a catastrophizing mindset. We take no comparable care with our equally fragile temperaments. Modern society has few visible adults reminding us that it might be enough now; it remains up to us to make the superhuman efforts required to put ourselves to bed.
An ordinary life is heroic because ordinary-sounding things are never actually ordinary or in any way easy to manage. There is immense skill and true nobility involved in bringing up a child to be reasonably independent and balanced; maintaining a good-enough relationship with a partner over many years despite areas of extreme difficulty; keeping a home in reasonable order; doing a not very exciting or well-paid job responsibly and cheerfully; listening properly to another person and, in general, not succumbing to madness or rage at the paradox and compromises involved in being alive.
We have probably already had enough excitements for many lifetimes. We have seen enough people, gone to enough places, bought enough things. We need to stop the forces of the world from continuing to draw us away from our true home. There is no center, there is no party to which we haven’t been invited. There is just us, here, now, somewhere on the pale blue dot, doing our best, surrounded by unobtrusive beauty, with a too-often unknown need to rejoin the silence and reopen our minds to vastness – and, along the way, to start going to bed far earlier.
At times, perhaps without quite knowing why, we slip into a resolutely ‘lazy’ mood. We’re simply not able to write anything new or can’t face setting up more meetings. We don’t want to clean the fridge or go out to befriend prospective clients. All we have an appetite for, it seems, is to loll on the sofa and maybe dip randomly into a book, wander down to the shops and buy a packet of biscuits or spend an hour or so soaking in the bath. We might, at an extreme, merely want to sit by the window and stare at the clouds. For a long time.
In such states of mind, we’re rapidly liable to be stigmatized as profoundly (and incorrigibly) ‘lazy’ by friends or – more painfully – by our own conscience. Laziness feels like a sin against the bustling activity of modernity; it seems to bar us from living successfully or from thinking in any way well of ourselves. But, to consider the matter from another perspective, it might be that at points the real threat to our happiness and self-development lies not in our failure to be busy, but in the very opposite scenario: in our inability to be ‘lazy’ enough.
Outwardly idling does not have to mean that we are neglecting to be fruitful. It may look to the world as if we are accomplishing nothing at all but, below the surface, a lot may be going on that’s both important and in its own way very arduous. When we’re busy with routines and administration, we’re focused on those elements that sit at the front of our minds: we’re executing plans rather than reflecting on their value and ultimate purpose. But it is to the deeper, less accessible zones of our inner lives that we have to turn in order to understand the foundations of our problems and arrive at decisions and conclusions that can govern our overall path. Yet these only emerge – shyly and tentatively – when we are feeling brave enough to distance ourselves from immediate demands; when we can stare at clouds and do so-called nothing all afternoon while in fact wrestling with our most profound dilemmas.
We need to distinguish between emotional and practical hard work. Someone who looks extremely active, whose diary is filled from morning till night, who is always running to answer messages and meet clients may appear the opposite of lazy. But secretly, there may be a lot of avoidance going on beneath the outward frenzy. Busy people evade a different order of undertaking. They are practically a hive of activity, yet they don’t get round to working out their real feelings about their work. They constantly delay the investigation of their own direction. They are lazy when it comes to understanding particular emotions about a partner or friend. They go to every conference, but don’t get around to thinking what their work means to them; they catch up regularly with colleagues but don’t consider what the point of money might be. Their busy-ness is in fact a subtle but powerful form of distraction.
Our minds are in general a great deal readier to execute than to reflect. They can be rendered deeply uncomfortable by so-called large questions: What am I really trying to do? What do I actually enjoy and who am I trying to please? How would I feel if what I’m currently doing comes right? What will I regret in a decade’s time? By contrast, the easy bit can be the running around, the never pausing to ask why, the repeatedly ensuring that there isn’t a moment to have doubts or feel sad or searching. Business can mask a vicious form of laziness.
Our lives might be a lot more balanced if we learnt re-allocated prestige, pulling it away from those with a full diary and towards those wise enough to allow for some afternoons of reflection. We should think that there is courage not just in travelling the world, but also in daring to sit at home with one’s thoughts for a while, risking encounters with certain anxiety-inducing or melancholy but also highly necessary ideas. Without the shield of busy-ness, we might bump into the realisation that our relationship has reached an impasse, that our work no longer answers to any higher purpose or that we feel furious with a family member who is subtly exploiting our patience. The heroically hard worker isn’t necessarily the one in the business lounge of the international airport, it might be the person gazing without expression out of the window, and occasionally writing down one or two ideas on a pad of paper.
The point of ‘doing nothing’ is to clean up our inner lives. There is so much that happens to us every day, so many excitements, regrets, suggestions and emotions that we should – if we are living consciously – spend at least an hour a day processing events. Most of us manage – at best – a few minutes – and thereby let the marrow of life escape us. We do so not because we are forgetful or bad, but because our societies protect us from our responsibilities to ourselves through their cult of activity. We are granted every excuse not to undertake the truly difficult labour of leading more conscious, more searching and more intensely felt lives.
The next time we feel extremely lazy, we should imagine that perhaps a deep part of us is preparing to give birth to a big thought. As with a pregnancy, there is no point hurrying the process. We need to lie still and let the idea gestate – sure that it may one day prove its worth. We may need to risk being accused of gross laziness in order one day to put in motion projects and initiatives we can feel proud of.
In 1905, the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto noticed a detail about the peas in his garden: 20% of the pea pods seemed to be responsible for yielding 80% of the peas. This struck Pareto because his research into economic productivity had concurrently shown him that 20% of Italians were responsible for generating 80% of the nation’s wealth – a figure that later matched what he found to be true in France, Germany and the Netherlands. The surprisingly widespread applicability of the principle led to the coining of what we now know as the Pareto distribution, or more casually, the 80/20 rule, which can be observed throughout economics and business – and states that 80% of effects will come from 20% of causes (for example, in a publishing house, 20% of books will generate 80% of profits; or in banking, 80% of profits will come from 20% of clients and so on).
However salient the 80/20 rule might be in the economic (or horticultural) realm, we remain reluctant to apply it to the area where it might truly help us most: our personal lives. Here too we constantly see a principle akin to the Pareto distribution, namely that 80% of positive elements can be traced back to 20% of causes. Or, to put it more negatively but perhaps more legibly, 80% of all inputs are likely to be partly or to a substantial degree sub-optimal. Only 20% of anything will be worth the candle.
The reason why we might need to get this principle clear in our minds is that we live – in practical terms – as if quite the opposite might be the case. We continually proceed under the assumption that most of what we will meet with will be pleasant, formative, cheering and redemptive – and that we should budget for disappointment in only a small and exceptional number of cases. And then, invariably, when the opposite emerges, when we encounter some of the repetitively frustrating and appallingly imperfect nature of existence, we howl with frustration, bitterness and surprise.
To proceed with greater statistical verve and therefore more grace, appreciation and calm, we would be wise to embed the Pareto 80/20 rule firmly in our world view at the dawn of every new day. Some of its principles will look like this:
– Most parts of every city will be ugly, dispiriting and an insult to our longing for order and optimism.
– Most conversations with most people will leave us feeling misunderstood and desolate.
– Most sexual opportunities will not come off.
– Most projects will go wrong.
– Most governments will be corrupt and unimaginative.
– Most of our natural habitats will be destroyed
– Most days will be sad.
– Most marriages will be intolerable.
– Most glances in the mirror will be a catastrophe.
– Most interactions with our children will be maddening.
– Most books are terrible.
– Most of life will be a waste of time.
Such is the true applicability of the Pareto principle. Far from being a recipe for gloom, heeding to it will guarantee that we will not so regularly collide with one of the sharp edges of reality. Of course, our work is for the most part wrong; of course our love lives are unhappy; naturally most of the sex we’ve had has been regrettable, inevitably most people are a waste of our time. Demagogues, advertisers and pedlars of sentimental bromides will constantly urge us to hold out for more – or incite us to get furious that we haven’t yet been given it. We should turn away from their aggravating counsel. We have not been singled out for unusual punishment; our lives are following a course that can be observed as much in the operations of a widget factory as in the fertility of plants or the profitability of nations. We need not question our relationships, our employments or our membership of the species. Most of it is no good – and that is exactly as it should be.
But this disgusting truth, once digested, only makes the rare 20% all the more worthy of reverence: those few friends who do open up properly, those occasional nights when it works out, those family members who are undefended and interesting, those days when we feel strong and purposeful. These aren’t anything like the norm, and nor were they ever meant to be. They are the succulent morsels of the otherwise ineluctably thin harvest we must subsist on – and therefore the bits that we must treasure and draw hope from before darkness returns.
Without us perhaps quite noticing, much of what we place our hopes in will be ready for us in a very a long time indeed, in months or even decades from now (if ever): the successful completion of a novel, a sufficient sum of money to buy a house or begin a new career, the discovery of a suitable partner, a move to another country. In the list of our most intensely-felt hopes, few entries stand to come to fruition this season or next, let alone by tonight.
But occasionally, life places us in a situation where our normal long-range hopeful way of thinking grows impossible. You’ve had a car accident; a very bad one. For weeks, it seemed like you might not make it at all, now you’re out of a coma and back home, but you still have multiple broken bones, serious bruises and constant migraines. It’s unclear from here when you’ll be going back to work – or whether you ever will. When someone asks how things are, one answer seem to fit above all: we’re taking it one day at a time.
Or imagine that a person is 89, mentally agile but very slow on their feet and often in pain. They had a fall last month and their left knee is badly arthritic. Yesterday they did some gardening. Today they may go to the shops for the first time in a while. You ask their carer how they are: we’re taking it one day at a time.
Or you’re a new parent. It was a very difficult birth, the baby had jaundice and required a blood transfusion – and now, finally, mother and child are home. The baby cries a lot in the night and has to take some medicines that aggravate the stomach, but last night was good enough and hopefully today, if the weather holds, there’s a chance of taking a trip to the park, to see the daffodils. How is it all going? We’re taking it one day at a time.
These may be extreme scenarios and a natural impulse is to hope that we will never encounter them – but they contain valuable teachings for anyone with a tendency to ignore their own advantages, that is, for all of us. One-day-at-a-time-thinking reminds us that, in many cases, our greatest enemy is that otherwise critical nectar: hope and the perplexing emotion it tends to bring with it, impatience. By limiting our horizons to tonight, we are girding ourselves for the long haul and remembering that an improvement may best be achieved when we manage not to await it too ardently. Our most productive mood may be a quiet melancholy, with which we can ward off the temptations of rage or mania and fully imbibe the moderate steadfastness required to do fiddly things: write a book, bring up a child, repair a marriage or work through a mental breakdown.
Taking it day by day means reducing the degree of control we expect to be able to bring to bear on the uncertain future. It means recognising that we have no serious capacity to exercise our will on a span of years and should not therefore disdain a chance to secure one or two minor wins in the hours ahead of us. We should – from a new perspective – count ourselves immensely grateful if, by nightfall, there have been no further arguments and no more seizures, if the rain has let off and we have found one or two interesting pages to read.
As life as a whole grows more complicated, we can remember to unclench and smile a little along the way, rather than jealously husbanding our reserves of joy for a finale somewhere in the nebulous distance. Given the scale of what we are up against, knowing that perfection may never occur, and that far worse may be coming our way, we can stoop to accept with fresh gratitude a few of the minor gifts that are already within our grasp.
We might look with fresh energy at a cloud, a duck, a butterfly or a flower. At twenty-two, we might scoff at the suggestion – for there seem so many larger, grander things to hope for than these evanescent manifestations of nature: romantic love, career fulfillment or political change. But with time, almost all one’s more revolutionary aspirations tend to take a hit, perhaps a very large one. One encounters some of the intractable problems of intimate relationships. One suffers the gap between one’s professional hopes and the available realities. One has a chance to observe how slowly and fitfully the world ever alters in a positive direction. One is fully inducted to the extent of human wickedness and folly – and to one’s own eccentricity, selfishness and madness. And so natural beauty may take on a different hue; no longer a petty distraction from a mighty destiny, no longer an insult to ambition, but a genuine pleasure amidst a litany of troubles, an invitation to bracket anxieties and keep self-criticism at bay, a small resting place for hope in a sea of disappointment; a proper consolation – for which one is finally ready, on an afternoon walk, to be appropriately grateful.
Vincent Van Gogh was admitted to the Saint-Paul mental asylum in Saint-Remy in southern France in May of 1889, having lost his mind and tried to sever his ear. At the start of his stay, he mostly lay in bed in the dark. After a few months, he grew a little stronger and was able to go out into the garden. And it was here that he noticed, in a legendary act of concentrated aesthetic absorption, the gnarled roots of a southern pine, the blossom on an apple tree, a caterpillar on its way across a leaf and – most famously – the bloom of a succession of purple irises. In his hands these became like the totemic symbols of a new religion oriented towards a celebration of the transcendent beauty of the everyday.
Vincent Van Gogh, Still Life: Vase with Irises Against a Yellow Background, May 1890
His Vase with Irises is no sentimental study of a common flower: it is the work of a pivotal figure in Western culture struggling to make it to the end of the day without doing himself in – and clinging on, very tightly indeed, with the hands of a genius, to a reason to live.
It’s normal enough to hold out for all that we want. Why would we celebrate hobbling, when we wish to run? Why accept friendship, when we crave passion? But if we reach the end of the day and no one has died, no further limbs have broken, a few lines have been written and one or two encouraging and pleasant things have been said, then that is already an achievement worthy of a place at the altar of sanity. How natural and tempting to put one’s faith in the bountifulness of the years, but how much wiser it might be be to bring all one’s faculties of appreciation and love to bear on that most modest and most easily-dismissed of increments: the day already in hand.
The word spirituality has a capacity to divide people like few others. For some, it’s an innately beautiful touchstone, the designator of a special kind of experience that is so valuable, it is best left reverentially unexplored and pure, lest one disturb its ethereal mysteries with the cold hand of reason. For others, it’s nonsensical bunkum of appeal only to adolescent dreamers, the underemployed and the weak minded.
But precisely because ‘spiritual experiences’ are so often either worshiped or derided, it pays to try to submit them to dispassionate and sober examination, not in order a priori to crush them or honour them, but so as to make them more intelligible, to friend and foe alike. Whatever our suspicions, spiritual moments are capable of being pinned down, split into their constituent elements and assessed with due regard. One should – and can – get respectfully rational about spirituality.
BEYOND THE EGO
‘Spiritual moments’ belong to a mood that most of us will only ever irregularly and perhaps haphazardly access, a mood in which practical concerns are, for a time, kept entirely at bay and we accede to a slightly unnerving yet also thrillingly oblique perspective on existence. During these moments, the ordinary world and its pressures are kept at a distance from us. Perhaps it’s very early morning or late at night. We might be driving down a deserted motorway or looking down at the earth from a plane tracing its way across Greenland. It might be high summer or a deep-winter evening. We don’t have to be anywhere or do anything, there are no immediate threats or passions and we are liberated to consider the world from a new and unfamiliar angle.
The essential element is that we are able to look ‘beyond the ego’. Our customary state is – more than we are generally even aware – to be heavily invested in ourselves: we aggressively defend our interests, we strive for esteem, we obsess about our pleasures. It is exhausting and pretty much all consuming.
But in a spiritual moment, maybe helped along by the sound of flowing water or the call of a distant owl, the habitual struggle ceases, we are freed from our customary egoistic vigilance and we can do a properly extraordinary thing: look at life as if we were not ourselves, as if we were a roaming eye that could inhabit the perspective of anyone or anything else, a foreigner or a child, a crab on a seashore or cloud on the hazy horizon. In our spiritual state, the ‘I’, the vessel that we are usually supremely and exhaustively loyal to, ceases to be our primary responsibility. We can take our leave and become a roaming vagabond promiscuous thing, a visitor of other mentalities and modalities, as concerned with all that is not us as we are normally obsessed by what is.
A NEW SENSITIVITY
As a result, a range of emotions that we would typically feel only in relation to us can be experienced around other elements too. We might feel the pain of someone we hardly know; or be gratified by the success of a stranger. We could take pride in a beauty or intelligence to which we were wholly unconnected. We can be imaginative participants in the entire cosmic drama.
There might, in all this, be a particular emphasis on love. That could sound odd, because we’re used to thinking of love in a very particular context, that of the circumscribed affection that one person might have for a very accomplished and desirable other.
But understood spiritually, love involves a care and concern for anything at all. We might find ourselves loving – that is, appreciating and delighting, understanding and sympathising – with a family of dung beetles or a moss covered tundra, someone else’s child or the birth of a faraway star. An intensity of enthusiasm that we usually restrict to only one other nearby ego is now distributed more erratically and generously across the entire universe and all its life forms.
Spiritually-minded people might at this point say that they can feel the presence of God inside them. This may be a particularly enraging remark for atheists, but it is more explicable than it sounds. What they may be trying to say is that, in certain states, they are able to experience some of the generosity, nobility of feeling, and selflessness traditionally associated with the divine. It isn’t that they promptly imagine themselves as bearded men on clouds, it means that the objectivity and tenderness we might ascribe to a divine force now seems, momentarily, to be within their grasp.
Spiritual moods may usher in especially anxiety-free states. No longer so closely wedded to ourselves, we can cease to worry overly about what might happen to our puny and vulnerable selves in the always uncertain future. We may be readier to give up on some of our ego-driven, jealously guarded and pedantically-held goals. We may never get to quite where we want to go, but we are readier to bob on the eddies of life, content to let events buffet us as they may. We make our peace with the laws of entropy. We may never be properly loved or appropriately appreciated. We’ll die – and that will be just fine.
And yet at the same time, a particular gaiety might descend on us, for a huge amount of our energy is normally directed towards nursing our ego’s wounds and coping with what we deep down suspect is the utter indifference of others. But that no longer seems like a spectre we have to ward off and we can start to raise our eyes and notice life in a way we never otherwise do. Our invisibility and meaninglessness is a given we now joyfully accept, rather than angrily or fearfully rage against. We don’t quake in fear we might not be a somebody, we delight and embrace the full knowledge of our eternal nullity – and delight that, right now, the blossom looks truly enchanting in the field opposite.
We cannot persist at a spiritually elevated plane at all times, there will inevitably be bills to be paid and children to be picked up. But the claims of the ordinary world do not invalidate or mock our occasional access to a more elevated and disinterested zone. Spirituality has perhaps for too long been abandoned to its more overzealous defenders who have done it a disservice. It deserves to be explored most particularly by those who are by instinct most suspicious of it. A spiritual experience is neither ineffable nor absurd; the term refers rather to a deeply sustaining interval of relief from the burdens and blindness of being us.
It is, in many way, the quintessential minor social mishap. We’re at a party surrounded by interesting people upon whom we’d like to make a good impression. We’ve been talking about an aspect of our work or describing a small restaurant in Vietnam where we had lunch on a recent trip. Overall, it’s going well. But we also earlier took a decision to have a tomato juice and, as we turn to say something to the person on our immediate right, now manage to tip the whole content of our glass over ourselves.
Everyone looks at us with a mixture of surprise, pity and, perhaps, barely veiled contempt. We desperately try to dab ourselves, but it’s obviously hopeless. There’s a huge sprawling red patch across our light blue front and whatever we say or do now won’t change a thing. Our identity will be fixed for the rest of the evening and possibly, in these people’s eyes, for the rest of our lives. We are the nitwit who started an anecdote and ended up with what looks like a murder on their clothes. We are a buffoon. It’s a great party but it’s time to go to bed – and possibly never to leave home again.
At such moments of potential humiliation, the socially skilled person is armed with two intertwined consoling thoughts, one about themselves, the other about people in general. What helps them to remain calm and good-natured is that they have accepted, long ago, in less anguished circumstances, way before the glass tipped over them, that they are an idiot. They are an idiot now, they have been an idiot in the past, and they will be an idiot always. They are an idiot who spills drinks, who says the wrong things, who trips on unexpected steps, who turns off their computer by mistake, who loses hotel room keys, who gets in a muddle around dates and places, who underestimates how long journeys will take and who tries to tell jokes but reveals the punchline too soon.
It’s extremely annoying, but it is not surprising and nor is it in an affront to a carefully constructed ego or a heightened sense of dignity. The wise person lacks the furious, flustered, offended response of the haughty person brought low by their own momentary clumsiness – because they never had expectations of their own nobility to start with. Moments of idiocy do not shatter a pristine feeling of competence; they just confirm that they are fundamentally rather broken and imperfect, a thought that they have come to terms with from the outset, with grace and a touch of humour. The spilt tomato juice is not teaching the wise person anything they didn’t know, it’s merely confirming an essentially asinine nature that they have never overlooked for even an hour.
What helps to cushion the blow of this potentially harsh idea, and drain it of any self-persecutory dimension, is the knowledge that – fortunately – everyone else is an idiot too. The clumsy person’s folly isn’t a special curse, it’s a universal feature of the human condition. The juice-spiller is only cretinous because everyone else is – in some way or another – a total fool as well. Those who are present might look poised just now but they must logically all have done many exceedingly ridiculous things on a constant basis. At various unknown times in the past, they’ve been utterly daft: they’ve made embarrassing noises; their voices came out at an odd high pitch; they’ve stood on the tail of their hosts’ dog; they’ve discovered too late there’s no toilet paper in the bathroom; they’ve forgotten their own name… Understanding the ubiquity of all this, the wise respond benevolently to the human comedy. They are implicit followers of Montaigne and his vital reminder: “to learn that we have said or done a stupid thing is nothing, we must learn a more ample and important lesson: that we are but blockheads… On the highest throne in the world, we are seated, still, upon our arses”.
The wise person escapes the worst ravages of social embarrassment by owning their mishaps with modesty. They tease themselves a long time before anyone else has a chance to do it for them. They are not terrified that a mocking impression of their character will form in the minds of their audiences, because they assume from the beginning that a bit of gentle mockery is what they deserve. The person who accepts that they are a bit of a fool need never fear that the world will one day discover they are such a thing – and humiliate them for it. Through their timely and mature reconciliation with their own mediocrity, they manage to win over all those who might otherwise be tempted to humble them – and end up charming the world, despite a very large stain down their front.