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Self-Knowledge • Emotional Skills
1. We have unfortunate tendencies to look at agitation as something quasi-physical, as a bodily emanation and therefore as best addressed via physical mechanisms: baths, teas or walks.
2. But agitation is always a mental phenomenon, it is a result of ideas – and a calm mindset therefore relies on having to hand a raft of calming ideas that can be called upon at moments of panic.
3. What follow are some of our favourite calming ideas.
CONTENTS: Key Calming Ideas
– The Importance of Pessimism
– Pessimistic Resilience
– Itemising Anxieties
– Budgeting for ‘small’ problems
– Accepting the limits of Free Will
– Nature and Calm
– History and Calm
– Other People are different
– Intentionality and Agitation
– Others as Children
– Acceptance and Anxiety
The Importance of Pessimism
1. Our lives are powerfully affected by a special quirk of the human mind, to which we rarely pay much attention. We are creatures deeply marked by our expectations. We go around with mental pictures, lodged in our brains, of how things are supposed to go. We may hardly even notice we’ve got such phantasms. But expectations have an enormous impact on how we respond to what happens to us. They are always framing the way we interpret the events in our lives. It’s according to the tenor of our expectations that we will deem moments in our lives to be either enchanting or (more likely) profoundly mediocre and unfair.
2. What drives us to fury are affronts to our expectations. There are plenty of things that don’t turn out as we’d like but don’t make us livid either. When a problem has been factored into our expectations, calm is never endangered. We may be sad, but we aren’t screaming. Yet, when we can’t find the car keys (they’re always by the door, in the little drawer beneath the gloves) or our partner does not welcome us warmly after a trip, the reaction may be very different. Here we are suffering from expectations. We are enraged because somewhere in our minds, we have a perilous faith in a world in which car keys simply never go astray and partners show no vengeance when they have been abandoned for a few days. Every one of our hopes, so innocently and mysteriously formed, opens us up to a vast terrain of agitation.
3. Strangely, even when we’ve had pretty disappointing experiences, we usually don’t lose faith in our expectations. Hope triumphs over experience. We console ourselves with an apparently reasonable thought: the reason why something didn’t work out this time had nothing to do with expectations. It was just that we were momentarily and unusually unlucky. Rather than adjust our ideas of what existence is like, we shift our hopes to the future.
4. A solution to our distress and agitation lies in a curious area: with a philosophy of pessimism. It’s an odd and unappealing thought. Pessimism sounds unattractive. It’s associated with failure, it’s usually what gets in the way of better things. But when it comes to our dealings with the world, expectations are reckless enemies of serenity. Pessimism is the royal route to calm.
– What are some of the things that make you angry.
– Tease out of every angry situation an implicit optimistic thesis about life. Frame your answers as: I believe in a world in which…
I.e. I believe in a world in which… I am understood by my family… I don’t get caught in traffic… I am not frustrated by bureaucracy…
– Imagine redrawing your picture of the world.
5. One of the great theorists of agitation is the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca. He insisted that anger is always the result of certain rationally-held ideas; if we can only change the ideas, we will change our propensity to anger. And in the Senecan view, what makes us angry are dangerously optimistic ideas about what the world and other people are like.
6. How badly we react to frustration is critically determined by what we think of as normal. Our frustrations are tempered by what we understand we can expect from the world, by our experience of what it is normal to hope for. We aren’t overwhelmed by anger whenever we are denied something we desire, only when we believe ourselves entitled to obtain it. Our greatest furies spring from events which violate our sense of the ground-rules of existence.
7. Because we are agitated most by what we do not expect, we must teach ourselves to expect everything. As Seneca put it: “Nothing ought to be unexpected by us. Our minds should be sent forward in advance to meet all the problems, and we should consider, not what is wont to happen, but what can happen.”
8. He chided his readers for their hazy optimism as regards the future. They would be wiser to reflect on how open we are to disaster at all times: “We never anticipate evils before they actually arrive… So many funerals pass our doors, yet we never dwell on death. So many deaths are untimely, yet we make plans for our own infants… No promise has been given you for this night – no, I have suggested too long a respite – no promise has been given even for this hour.” There is dangerous innocence in the expectation of a future formed on the basis of probability. Any accident to which a human has been subject, however rare, however distant in time, is a possibility we must ready ourselves for.
9. Because habit risks seducing us into sentimental somnolence, Seneca entreated us to spare a little time each day to think of everything that could go wrong. We do not know what will happen next: we must expect something. In the early morning, we should undertake what Seneca termed a praemeditatio, a meditation in advance on all the sorrows of mind and body to which the goddess may subsequently subject us.
A Senecan Praemeditatio:
[The wise] will start each day with the thought… Fortune gives us nothing which we can really own. Nothing, whether public or private, is stable; the destinies of men, no less than those of cities, are in a whirl. Whatever structure has been reared by a long sequence of years, at the cost of great toil and through the great kindness of the gods, is scattered and dispersed in a single day. No, he who has said ‘a day’ has granted too long a postponement to swift misfortune; an hour, an instant of time, suffices for the overthrow of empires.
How often have cities in Asia, how often in Achaia, been laid low by a single shock of earthquake. How many towns in Syria, how many in Macedonia, have been swallowed up. How often has this kind of devastation laid Cyprus in ruins. We live in the middle of things which have all been destined to die. Mortal have you been born, to mortals have you given birth. Reckon on everything, expect everything.
– Make up your own Praemeditatio. What are some of the things you should prepare for?
1. At many points we are surrounded by situations which might either go right or go wrong. And we are taught that the best way to deal with the uncertainty is to proceed as if things might go right. This is – so the thesis goes – the best way to ensure that they will in fact go right.
2. But this approach places us very much at the mercy of events. It is brittle at moments when life doesn’t go our way. And while we wait to find out, it means we are often oscillating between hope and terror of what will happen if things go wrong.
3. There is a better method: which is to make ourselves fully at home with the worst scenarios and see that they are, in their own way, survivable. So rather than fearing bankruptcy, we should ask ourselves how it would be possible to survive bankruptcy. Rather than fearing cancer, we should acclimatise ourselves to how we could cope even if it was diagnosed. Rather than fearing death from afar, we should see that it too we would come to terms with.
4. Instead of letting fears creep up on us, we should defy them to do their worst and see that we could negotiate even with the great terrors: disgrace, poverty, disease… They aren’t desirable of course, but they can be mastered and this is what we should put a high degree of mental effort into. We should move from dimly being terrorised by spectres to asking ourselves on a regular basis and head on: How could I deal with x or y trauma or catastrophe? We should train ourselves for the worst – and see that the worst could be endured.
– List 5 of the greatest fears
– Imagine how these could be survived.
5. To return to Seneca and the Stoics: in February 63, Seneca’s friend Lucilius, a civil servant working in Sicily, learned of a lawsuit against him which threatened to end his career and disgrace his name forever. Seneca wrote to him as follows: ‘You may expect that I will advise you to picture a happy outcome, and to rest in the allurements of hope, but I am going to conduct you to peace of mind through another route’ – which culminated in the advice: ‘If you wish to put off all worry, assume that what you fear may happen is certainly going to happen.’
6. Seneca wagered that once we look rationally at what will occur if events turn against us, we will almost certainly find that the underlying problems are more manageable than our anxious imaginings suggest. Lucilius had grounds for sadness, but not hysteria: ‘If you lose this case, can anything more severe happen to you than being sent into exile or led to prison? ‘I may become a poor man’; I shall then be one among many. ‘I may be exiled’; I shall then regard myself as though I had been born in the place to which I’ll be sent. ‘They may put me in chains.’ What then? Am I free from bonds now?’ Prison and exile were bad, but – the linchpin of the argument – not as bad as the desperate Lucilius might have feared before scrutinising the anxiety.
7. The way to practice calm resilience is to rehearse how one might cope with the most awful things one might imagine. Seneca devised an exercise for people afraid of going bankrupt. It wasn’t his way to talk about how improbable this was. They were counselled to spend a few days sleeping on the kitchen floor, drinking water from the dog bowl, eating stale bread. The anxious wealthy would, Seneca promised, soon come to an important realisation: ‘Is this really the condition that I feared?’ …Endure [this poverty] for three or four days at a time, sometimes for more…. and I assure you…you will understand that a man’s peace of mind does not depend upon Fortune.”
1. Plato once usefully compared the mind to an aviary, in which our thoughts are like birds restlessly flapping around their enclosure, and occasionally alighting on a perch. What is helpful in this metaphor in this context is that if one doesn’t know the contents of an aviary, it is possible to imagine that there are many more birds flying around than there in fact are, and to be more alarmed by their flapping, speed and noise. Philosophy is an attempt to itemise the ‘birds’ in one’s mind, so as to be less surprised and frightened by them. Even if we cannot remove certain anxieties, knowing exactly what they are and listing them systematically is a source of enormous relief.
2. It is therefore imperative regularly to list one’s anxieties: to find a quiet moment to convert a vague feeling – I am anxious – into a specific list: I am anxious about these x points…
3. We have developed a technique in this regard that we call Philosophical Meditation:
Budgeting for ‘Small’ Problems
1. Many of our anxieties are caused by a lack of readiness; by being surprised by complexities we had not budgeted for. We assume that far too many things are easier than they in fact are – then get cross and unduly agitated when they show their true face.
2. One way of putting it is that many of our actual problems lack prestige in our own eyes. When a problem has high prestige, we are ready to expend energy and time trying to resolve it. This has often happened around large scientific questions. It was entirely understood that mapping the human genome would be enormously difficult – as well as hugely beneficial. It is taken for granted that developing a commercially viable driverless car is a monstrously difficult puzzle, but one worth devoting great resources to. This respect leads to an unexpected but crucial consequence. We take our time – and we don’t panic around the challenges, because we understand the difficulty of what we are attempting to do. We are a lot calmer around prestigious problems. It’s problems that feel trivial or silly and yet that nevertheless take up sections of our lives that drive us to heightened states of agitation.
3. We typically associate panic with the presence of a difficult task or an urgent demand. But what actually causes panic is a difficulty that hasn’t been budgeted for or a demand that one has not trained or prepared to meet. The road to calmer dealings with existence isn’t necessarily about removing points of contention. It’s rather about assuming we will encounter them and learning to devote a lot of time and thought to them. We would be calmer if we could make certain of our problems more prestigious in our own eyes.
4. It is precisely because of our failure to deem certain problems ‘serious’ that we can end up particularly enraged by them. It can be the ‘small’ aspects of life that threaten our calm more than the larger ones.
5. For example, many of the difficulties of modern couples and families can in part be blamed on the way prestige is distributed. Couples are not only besieged by practical demands at every hour, they are also inclined to think of these demands as pretty much humiliating, banal and meaningless, and are therefore likely to be averse to investigating them at length or offering pity or praise to one another, or themselves, just for enduring them. The word ‘prestige’ sounds wholly inappropriate when applied to the school run and the laundry because we have been perniciously trained to think of this quality as naturally belonging elsewhere, in high politics or scientific research, the movies or fashion. We seem unwilling to allow for the possibility that the glory of our species may lie not only in the launch of satellites, the founding of companies and the manufacture of miraculously thin semi-conductors, but also in an ability – even if it is widely distributed among billions – calmly to spoon yogurt into small mouths, find missing socks, clean toilets, deal with tantrums and wipe congealed things off tables. Here too, there are trials worthy not of condemnation or sarcastic ridicule but also of a degree of prestige, so that they may be endured with greater sympathy and fortitude. We should aim for a range of goals in this area:
– Increase patience: when we accept that an issue is intricate and serious we are willing to be patient around it. If our partner doesn’t have much insight into scuba diving or the origins of the First World War we don’t throw up our hands in contemptuous despair. We take it for granted that these are matters on which a perfectly reasonable and decent person could be confused or ignorant.
– Make upset reasonable: if one’s partner gets very agitated about which brand of olive oil to buy or how many sheets of toilet paper it is reasonable for one person to use in a day, it’s easy to mock them and make them look ridiculous. But raising the prestige of the domestic means accepting that such details are matters on which a sane and sensible person could have strong feelings.
– Make disagreement legitimate: on many complicated issues it’s going to make a lot of sense that there is more than one initially pretty plausible way of seeing them. After all, we accept that there might be more than one sensible approach to running a commercial aquarium or performing root canal surgery.
6. We might typically associate panic with the presence of a difficult task or an urgent demand. But that’s not quite right. What actually causes panic is a difficulty that hasn’t been budgeted for or a demand that one has not trained or prepared to meet. The road to calm has a lot to do with assuming that challenges are going to happen and that they will inevitably require quite a lot of time and thought to address.
Accepting the Limits of Free Will
1. One of the great debates within philosophy concerns the extent to which we have free will and the extent to which our lives are determined. The final answer to this can never be precisely known, but what is obvious is that our agitations and anger are almost always the result of an excessive allegiance to a misplaced idea of free will. It is the notion that we could have made things otherwise which aggravates our bitterness. Our confidence in our capacity to change our destinies – though in many ways at the root of our progress and initiative – is also responsible for the lion’s share of our fury.
2. In order to temper our trust in our own free will, Seneca and the Stoics had a powerful image with which to evoke our condition as creatures at times able to effect change – and yet never far from being subject to immensely powerful external necessities. We are like dogs who have been tied to an unpredictable cart. Our leash is long enough to give us a degree of leeway, but is not long enough to allow us to wander wherever we please. The metaphor had been formulated by the Stoic philosophers Zeno and Chrysippus, and reported by the Roman Bishop Hippolytus: “When a dog is tied to a cart, if it wants to follow, it is pulled and follows, making its spontaneous act coincide with necessity. But if the dog does not follow, it will be compelled in any case. So it is with men too: even if they don’t want to, they will be compelled to follow what is destined.” A dog will naturally hope to go wherever it pleases. But as Zeno’s and Chrysippus’s metaphor implies, if it cannot, then it is better for the animal to betrotting behind the cart rather than dragged and strangled by it. Though the dog’s first impulse may be to fight against the sudden swerve of the cart in an awful direction, his sorrows will only be compounded by his resistance. It is better to head in a bad direction without a pain in the neck than to be dragged and strangled. As Seneca put it: “An animal, struggling against the noose, tightens it… there is no yoke so tight that it will not hurt the animal less if it pulls with it than if it fights against it. The one alleviation for overwhelming evils is to endure and bow to necessity.”
3. To reflect that we too are never without a leash around our neck helps to reduce the violence of our mutiny against events which veer away from our intentions. The wise will learn to identify what is necessary and follow it at once, rather than exhaust themselves in protest. When a wise man is told that his suitcase has been lost in transit, he will resign himself at once to the fact. Seneca reported how the founder of Stoicism had behaved upon the loss of his possessions: ‘When Zeno received news of a shipwreck and heard that all his luggage had been sunk, he said, ‘Fortune bids me to be a less encumbered philosopher.”
4. It may sound like a recipe for passivity and quietude, encouragement to resign ourselves to frustrations that might have been overcome. It could leave us without the heart to build even a diminutive aqueduct like that in Bornègre, in a valley a few kilometres north of the Pont du Gard, a modest seventeen metres long and four metres high. But Seneca’s point is more subtle. It is no less unreasonable to accept something as necessary when it isn’t as to rebel against something when it is. We can as easily go astray by accepting the unnecessary and denying the possible, as by denying the necessary and wishing for the impossible. It is for reason to make the distinction.
5. Whatever the similarities between ourselves and a dog on a leash, we have a critical advantage: we have reason and the dog doesn’t. So the animal does not at first grasp that he is even tied to a leash, nor understand the connection between the swerves of the cart and the pain in his neck. He will be confused by the changes in direction, it will be hard for him to remember the history of the zig-zagging, and he will therefore suffer constant painful jolts. But reason enables us to theorise with accuracy about the path of the cart, which offers us a chance, unique among living beings, to increase our sense of freedom by ensuring a good slack between ourselves and necessity. Reason allows us to calculate when our wishes are in irrevocable conflict with reality, and then bids us to submit ourselves willingly, rather than angrily or bitterly, to necessities. We may be powerless to alter certain events, but we remain free to choose our attitude towards them, and it is in our spontaneous acceptance of necessity that we can find our distinctive freedom.
Nature and Calm
1. It cannot be a coincidence that Seneca, the Stoics, and many of the calmest philosophers and thinkers of all times have been interested in the consoling and calming power of nature, especially in its most impressive, monumental moments.
2. This is perhaps because in mighty natural phenomena lie reminders of all that we are powerless to change, of all that we must accept. Glaciers, volcanoes, earthquakes and hurricanes stand as impressive symbols of what exceeds us. In the human world, we grow to believe that we may always alter our destinies, and hope and worry accordingly. It is apparent from the heedless pounding of the oceans or the flight of comets across the night sky that there are forces entirely indifferent to our desires. The indifference is not nature’s alone; humans can wield equally blind powers over their fellows, but it is nature which gives us a most elegant lesson in the necessities to which we are subject. As Seneca wrote: “Winter brings on cold weather; and we must shiver. Summer returns, with its heat; and we must sweat. Unseasonable weather upsets the health; and we must fall ill. In certain places we may meet with wild beasts, or with men who are more destructive than any beasts…. And we cannot change this order of things… it is to this law [of Nature] that our souls must adjust themselves, this they should follow, this they should obey… That which you cannot reform, it is best to endure.”
3. Sometimes we respond quite negatively to encounters with things that are much larger and more powerful than ourselves. It’s a feeling that can strike us when we are alone in a new city, trying to negotiate a vast railway terminal or the huge underground system at rush hour and we sense that no one knows anything about us or cares in the least for our confusions. The scale of the place forces upon us the unwelcome fact that we don’t matter very much in the greater scheme and that the things that are of great concern to us don’t figure much at all in the minds of others. It’s a potentially crushing, lonely experience that intensifies anxiety and agitation.
4. But there’s another way an encounter with the large scale can affect us – and calm us down. Heading back to the airport after a series of frustrating meetings, the sunset behind the mountains is magnificent: tiers of clouds are bathed in gold and purple, huge slanting beams of light cut across the urban landscape. To record the feeling without implying anything mystical, it seems as if one’s attention is being drawn up into the radiant gap between the clouds and the hills, and that one is for a moment merging with the cosmos. Normally the sky isn’t a major focus of attention, but now it’s mesmerising. For a while it doesn’t seem to matter so much what happened in the meeting or the fact that the contract will – maddeningly – have to be renegotiated by the Paris team. It’s strangely calming and comforting to be absorbed in the contemplation of something vastly bigger than oneself.
5. Artists and Philosophers have given this feeling a name: the Sublime. We experience this sensation of the Sublime whenever we are hugely impressed by something that seems much much larger and more powerful than we are. It overwhelms us with its grandeur while also being offered a vivid sense of our own relative littleness. At this moment, nature seems to be sending us a humbling message: the incidents of our lives are not terribly important in the scheme of things. And yet, strangely, rather than being distressing this sensation can be immensely comforting and calming.
6. The sublime is calming because it counteracts a persistent and very normal source of distress in our lives. Our minds naturally focus on what is immediately before us. We instinctively get deeply engaged with whatever happens to be close to us in space and time. And we have a proportionally less intense, more detached relationship to things that feel very far off. It’s not a surprising arrangement. Very often what’s immediately present is more relevant to our survival than what happened five years ago or might happen much later in our lives. Our minds are geared to fleeing a snake or staving off hunger. Translated into the terms of modern life, it means that last night’s squabble over flecks of toothpaste on the bathroom mirror and the work deadline of Tuesday morning feel hugely agitating – though in terms of the overall meaning of a relationship, career or of a whole life they are in fact pretty minor incidents. The problem is, our minds are structured so as to give maximum attention to what is happening now. Whereas to actually see the importance of anything we have to situate it in a much larger frame of reference. In the bigger picture, the squabble and the deadline really might not be so crucial.
7. What the Sublime does is – very unusually – foreground our engagement with the larger horizons of existence. Instead of looking at this or that detail (which therefore seem very big, because they dominate the current moment) we’ve got an experience in which the specific details of our lives are seen as proportionally much smaller and therefore as posing a far less significant threat to us. Things that have up to now been looming large in our minds (what’s gone wrong with the Singapore office, the fact that a colleague behaved coldly, the disagreement about patio furniture) tend to get cut down in size. The Sublime drags us away from the minor details which normally – and inevitably – occupy our attention and makes us concentrate on what is truly major. Local, immediate irritants are reduced, for a while, in their power to bother us.
8. The painful comparison of our own situation with that of others whom we feel are more fortunate is an unfortunately reliable source of psychological distress. It tends to make us feel irritated with ourselves – if only we pushed ourselves harder, didn’t make so many blunders and could overcome our laziness we’d perhaps be able to raise ourselves to their level. Or we get more and more annoyed by the external obstacles that seem to stand in our way. The encounter with the Sublime is helpful here too because it doesn’t just make oneself look comparatively small. It undercuts the gradations of human status and makes them – at least for a time – look relatively fairly unimpressive too. Next to the mighty canyon or ocean, even the king or CEO do not seem so mighty.
9. The sight of the dry expanses of the Arizona desert offer a philosophy of calm embodied in matter: the way it suggests as if year by year little will change; a few more stones will crumble from the meso; a few plants will eke out an existence; the same pattern of light and shadow will be endlessly repeated. There is a stark separation from human concerns and priorities. And this separation applies to everyone equally. The spaces of the desert are indifferent not to me in particular but to humanity in general. Caring about having a larger office or being worried that one’s car has a small scratch over the left rear wheel or that the sofa is looking a bit moth-eaten doesn’t make much sense against an enormity of time and space. The differences in accomplishments, standing and possessions between people don’t feel especially exciting or impressive, when considered from the emotional state that the desert promotes. Here the desert seems to be trying to convince us of a number of things that usefully correct and balance out our standard ways of thinking. Here little things seem hardly worth getting bothered or upset about. There’s no urgency. Things happen on the scale of centuries. Today and tomorrow are essentially the same. Your existence is a small temporary thing. You will die and it will be as if you had never been.
10. It could sound demeaning. But these are generous sentiments for we otherwise so easily exaggerate our own importance. We are truly minute and entirely dispensable. The world would trundle on much the same without us. The Sublime does not humble us by exalting others – instead it gives a sense of the lesser status of all of wretched humanity. Traditionally, another of the major sources of the consoling perspective of the Sublime has been the sight of the sky at night. People would look up from the troubled surface of the earth and find consolation in their impression of the rational, beautiful order of the heavens. The Ancient Greeks and Romans for instance linked their divinities to the lights they saw in the night sky, which we now know to be planets and which we continue to call by the name they worshiped them by: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and the rest.
11. It is a line of thought that has persisted in one version or another for a very long time. In the late 18th century, for instance, the German Philosopher Immanuel Kant thought the the sight of ‘the starry heavens above’ was the most Sublime spectacle in nature and that contemplation of this transcendent sight could hugely assist us in coping with the travails of everyday life. Although Kant was interested in the developing science of astronomy, he still saw the stars as serving a major psychological purpose. Unfortunately, since then, the advances in astrophysics have become increasingly embarrassed around this aspect of the stars. It would seem deeply odd today if in a science class there were a special section not on the fact that Aldebaran is a orange-red giant star of spectral and luminosity type K5 III and that it is currently losing mass at a rate of (1–1.6) × 10−11 M⊙ yr−1 with a velocity of 30 km s−1 but rather on the ways in which the sight of stars can help us manage our emotional lives and relations with our families – even though knowing how to cope better with anxiety is in most lives a more urgent and important task than steering one’s space rocket around the galaxies. Although we’ve made vast scientific progress since Kant’s time, we haven’t properly explored the potential of space as a source of wisdom, as opposed to a puzzle for astrophysicists to unpick.
12. On an evening walk you look up and see the the planets Venus and Jupiter shining in the darkening sky. If the dusk deepens you might see some stars – Andromeda, Aries and many others. It’s a hint of the unimaginable extensions of space across the solar system, the galaxy, the cosmos. They were there, quietly revolving, their light streaming down as spotted hyenas warily eyed a stone-age village; and as Julius Caesar’s triremes set out after midnight to cross the channel and see the cliffs of England at dawn. The sight has a calming effect because none of our troubles, disappointments or hopes have any relevance. Everything that happens to us, or that we do, is of no consequence whatever from the point of view of the universe.
13. And though we know that the moon is a lifeless accumulation of galactic debris we might make a point of watching it emerge – as a representative of an entirely different perspective within which our own concerns are mercifully irrelevant.
History and Calm
1. It is easy to feel that what is happening now in our societies is of unparalleled awfulness. This is very much what the news industry constantly wants us to believe. Exaggeration of our present depravity is a basic drive of the modern media.
2. So it pays to look back in time and to see that what is happening now is only the latest layer being added to an immense accumulation of human events, the thinnest layer of bark on the bulk of a billion-year-old tree of troubles. We can use history as an antidote to anxiety and panic. And we might do this, for instance, by turning to the writings of the ancient Roman historian Suetonius.
3. Born towards the end of the first century AD, Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus worked for many years at the top levels of the Imperial administration, rising to the position of chief secretary to the Emperor Hadrian. He was the first historian to try to give a fairly accurate portrait of what the rulers of the Empire were actually like. In The Twelve Caesars he provides a fair summary of their achievements from Julius Caesar down to Domitian – who reigned until 96 AD, by which point Suetonius himself was in his twenties. He then records insider views on what these people had actually been like to work for and how they had behaved in private. He had access to the archives and was personal friends with many of those who had served in senior positions.
In the book Suetonius quietly catalogues the follies and crimes of the first twelve men to rule the western world. Amongst them:
Julius Caesar: ‘Caesar paid immense bribes to have himself elected as Pontifex maximus’ (Head of the state religion).
Caligula: ‘Many people were branded or sent down the mines or thrown to the wild beasts or confined in narrow cages where 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.’ ‘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.’”
Nero: ‘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.’
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.’
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 – and about horrific events, reading him can leave one feeling remarkably serene. One might flick through the pages sitting at an airport, crunching an apple and sublimating the frustration of a delayed plane. Or perhaps tucked up in bed, after a fierce row with one’s partner. The experience could be strangely relaxing. It seems paradoxical, because Suetonius is ostensibly merely providing us with a record of some deeply disreputable actions. And yet the effect is to leave us feeling more comfortable and more relaxed, less pent up about one’s own day-to-day issues or resentful about one’s humiliations.
4. One reason the study of history can help us be calmer, is that it tends to be a narrative of resilience. Suetonius writes of earthquakes, plagues, wars, riots, rebellions, conspiracies, betrayals, coups and mass slaughter. Considered on its own it seems to be the record of a society that is utterly corrupt and incompetent, that is so rotten, its total 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.
5. Very strangely, as it turns out, these are not the annals of a society that is falling apart. They are the stories of genuinely awful things that 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 usual for things to go rather badly. In this respect, reading ancient history generates the opposite emotions to scanning today’s news. The news machine is based on the idea of getting us agitated. News is always trying to tell us that something entirely new and very alarming is occurring: there’s a wholly original health risk, international conflict, threat to global stability or risk to the economy. Whereas Suetonius would be deeply unperturbed. The news has been much worse before and things were, in the end, OK. People behaving very badly is a normal state of affairs. It was ever thus: there have always been disappointing leaders and greedy magnates. 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 perversity or chaos. Suetonius would never be shocked by modern scandal because he’d heard so much worse before. By reading him we enter unconsciously into his less agitated and more Stoic reactions.
6. On a grand scale, this explains why grandparents typically have a calmer approach to bringing up children than parents do. The grandparents have a more accurate grasp of how normal – and therefore less alarming – many problems are. Their calm is based on two key bits of knowledge. They know that whatever is done, one’s children will turn out very far from perfect – and therefore the intensely agitating worry that one might be making a mistake is usually a bit misplaced. But they also grasp that even when things go a bit wrong, children will generally cope well enough. Their sense of danger and their sense of hope have both been made more accurate by experience. History encourages the less panicky sides of ourselves.
7. In the 18th century, Edward Gibbon wrote a monumental study entitled The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He was deeply influenced by Suetonius and came to the view that ‘History is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortune of mankind.’ He starts out by evoking the power, security and massive extent of the Roman Empire in its period of greatest strength. Across seven volumes, he then describes error, disaster, collapse and failure on the largest possible scale – and, in so doing, he discovers a further source of tranquility.
It took many centuries for Rome to fall and Gibbon covers a vast sweep of events, and he movingly notes that most events however huge they seem at the time ‘leave a faint impression on the page of history.’ Everything gets forgotten. The same will happen to us – and to our troubles. The way of ordering things which seems so essential and important to us will eventually become bizarre and outmoded. History functions as a corrective. It gains its power because it balances out the more self-centred of our preoccupations. It restores us when the present seems as if it is all that there is.
8. Gibbon himself was a remarkably sedate and dispassionate figure, who spent much of his life sitting quietly at his desk able to cope admirably with the tribulations of his life – he got on badly with his father, he was unable to marry the person he wanted to, he suffered for years from a swollen testicle. He was calm not despite recounting the horrors of the past and the evidence that everything comes eventually to ruin – but because he knew and loved the past so well.
Other People are Different
1. In a wiser world than our own, we would regularly remind ourselves of the various reasons why that vast and troubling category – other people – simply cannot reliably live up to the expectations we may have formed.
2. It sounds strange to place the thought so simply but other people are simply not extensions of us. They feel things differently, want different things at different times and never exactly speak our language. We are, at heart, desperately and painfully alone.
3. Much that matters to us will not be in synch with others. Despite our hopes, other people will not get tired at the same time as us, want to eat the same things, like the same songs, have the same aesthetic preferences, the same attitude to money and the same idea about Christmas. For babies, there is a long and strange set of discoveries about the real separate existence of the mother. At first it seems to the child that the mother is perfectly aligned with it. But gradually there’s a realisation that the mother is someone else: that she might be sad, when the child is feeling jolly. Or tired, when the child is ready to jump up and down on the bed for ten minutes. We have similarly basic discoveries to make of other people. They are not extensions of us.
4. This was a set of insights associated first and foremost with the Viennese psychoanalyst Melanie Klein. Klein suggested that newborns cannot really grasp that people around it are in fact people, with their own alternative reality and independent points of view. In the early weeks, the mother is not even ‘a mother’ to her child, she is just a pair of breasts which appear and disappear with unpredictable and painful randomness. In relation to this mother, all the infant experiences are moments of intense pain and then, for reasons it can’t understand, moments of equally intense pleasure. When the breast is there and the milk flows, a primordial calm and satisfaction descends upon the infant: it is suffused with feelings of well-being, gratitude and tenderness (feelings that will, in adulthood, be strongly associated with being in love, a moment where breasts continue to play a notable role for many). But when the breast is desired and yet for whatever reason it is missing, then the infant is thrown into unfathomable panic: it feels starving, enraged, terrified and vengeful.
5. This, thought Klein, leads the infant to adopt a primitive defence mechanism against what would otherwise be intolerable anxiety. It ‘splits’ the mother into two very different breasts: a ‘good breast’ and a ‘bad breast’. The bad breast is hated with a passion; the infant wants to bite, wound and destroy this object of unholy frustration. But the good breast is revered with an equally thorough though more benign intensity.
6. With time, in healthy development, this ‘split’ heals. The child will gradually perceive that there is in truth no entirely good and no entirely bad breast, both belong to a mother who is a perplexing mixture of the positive and the negative: a source of pleasure and frustration, joy and suffering. The child (for, by now, we are talking of someone aged around 4 years old) discovers a key idea in Kleinian psychoanalysis: the concept of ambivalence. To be able to feel ambivalent about someone is, for Kleinians, an enormous psychological achievement and the first marker on the path to genuine maturity.
7. But it isn’t inevitable or assured. The grey area is hard to reach. Only slowly can a healthy child grasp the crucial distinction between intention and effect, between what a mother may have wanted for it and what the child might have felt at her hands nevertheless. While no sane mother would ever want to frustrate and scare her own child, this child might nevertheless have been badly hurt and confused by her. These complicated psychological realisations belong to what Klein called ‘the depressive position,’ a moment of soberness and melancholy when the growing child takes on board (unconsciously) the idea that reality is more complicated and less morally neat than it had ever previously imagined: the mother (or other people generally) cannot be neatly blamed for every setback; almost nothing is totally pure or totally evil, things are a perplexing, thought-provoking mixture of the good and bad…
8. Unfortunately, in Klein’s analysis, not everyone makes it to the depressive position, for some get stuck in a mode of primitive splitting she termed (somewhat dauntingly) the ‘paranoid-schizoid position’. For many years, even into adulthood, these cursed people will find themselves unable to tolerate the slightest ambivalence: keen to preserve their sense of their own innocence, they must either hate or love. They must seek scapegoats or idealise. In relationships, they tend to fall violently in love and then – at the inevitable moment when a lover in some way disappoints them – switch abruptly and become incapable of feeling anything anymore. These unfortunates are likely to move from candidate to candidate, always seeking a vision of complete satisfaction, which is repeatedly violated by an unwitting error on the lover’s part.
9. We don’t have to believe in the literal truth of Klein’s theory to see that it has value for us as an unusual but useful representation of maturity. The impulse to reduce people into what they can do for us (give us milk, make us money, keep us happy), rather than what they are in and of themselves (a multifaceted being with their own often elusive centre of gravity), can be painfully observed in emotional life generally. With Klein’s help, we learn that coming to terms with the ambivalent nature of all relationships belongs to the business of growing up (a task we’re never quite done with) – and is likely to leave us a little sad, if not for a time quite simply depressed.
10. Any upbringing will be imperfect in important ways. The atmosphere of home might have been too strict or too lax; too focused on money or not adequately on top of finances. It might have been emotionally smothering or a bit distant and detached. Family life might have been relentlessly gregarious or limited by lack of confidence. Getting from being a baby to a reasonably functional adult is never a flawless process. We are all, in diverse ways, damaged and insane. The child might have learned to keep its true thoughts and feelings very much to itself and to tread very carefully around fragile parents; and in later life this person may still be rather secretive and cagey in their own relationships. The characteristic was acquired to deal with a childhood situation, but such patterns get deeply embedded and keep on going. Our adaptations to the troubles of our past make us all maddening prospects in the present.
11. The error we’re always tempted to make is to see defects as special to those around us. We get to know their irritating, and disappointing sides – and draw the conclusion that we’ve been especially unlucky. We’ve become involved with people who seemed lovely on the surface but have revealed themselves strangely disturbed and defective. So we look around for new people to be involved with. Our expectations are continually renewed. We blame everything but our hopes.
12. And yet, the reasons why other people are disappointing are universal. The problems may take on a local character, but everyone would have them to a significant extent. We don’t need to know the specific eccentricities we would find in a stranger. But you can be sure there will be some – and that they will, at points, be pretty serious. The only people we can think of as normal are those we don’t yet know very well.
Intentionality and Agitation
1. One of the most fundamental paths to calm is the power to hold on, even in very challenging situations, to a distinction between what someone does – and what they meant to do.
2. In law, the difference is enshrined in the contrasting concepts of murder and manslaughter. The result may be the same; the body is inert in a pool of blood. But we collectively feel it makes a huge difference what the perpetrator’s intentions were.
3. We care about intentions for a very good reason: because if it was deliberate, then the perpetrator will be an ongoing and renewable source of danger from whom the community must be protected. But if it was accidental, then the perpetrator will be inclined to deep apology and restitution, which renders punishment and rage far less necessary. Picture yourself in a restaurant where the waiter has spilt a glass of wine on your (new) laptop. The damage is severe and your rage starts to mount. But whether this was an accident or a willing strategy is key to an appropriate response. A concerted desire to spill signals that the waiter needs to be confronted head on. You may have to take radical, defensive steps: like shouting at them or calling for help. But if it was an accident, then the person isn’t your enemy. There’s no need to swear at them. In fact, it makes a lot of sense to be forgiving and kindly, because benevolence will imminently be heading your way.
4. Motives are, therefore, crucial. But unfortunately, we’re seldom very good at perceiving what motives happen to be involved in the incidents that hurt us. We are easily and wildly mistaken. We see intention where there was none and escalate and confront when no strenuous or agitated responses are warranted.
5. Part of the reason why we jump so readily to dark conclusions and see plots to insult and harm us is a rather poignant psychological phenomenon: self-hatred. The less we like ourselves, the more we appear in our own eyes as really rather plausible targets for mockery and harm. Why would a drill have started up outside, just as we were settling down to work? Why is the room service breakfast not arriving, even though we will have to be in a meeting very soon? Why would the phone operator be taking so long to find our details? Because there is – logically enough – a plot against us. Because we are appropriate targets for these kinds of things, because we are the sort of people against whom disruptive drilling is legitimately likely to be directed: it’s what we deserve.
When we carry an excess of self-disgust around with us, operating just below the radar of conscious awareness, we’ll constantly seek confirmation from the wider world that we really are the worthless people we take ourselves to be. The expectation is almost always set in childhood, where someone close to us is likely to have left us feeling dirty and culpable – and as a result, we now travel through society assuming the worst, not because it is necessarily true (or pleasant) to do so, but because it feels familiar; and because we are the prisoners of past patterns we haven’t yet understood.
Others as Children
1. Small children sometimes behave in stunningly unfair ways: they scream at the person who is looking after them, angrily push away a bowl of animal pasta, throw away something you have just fetched for them. But we rarely feel personally agitated or wounded by their behaviour. And the reason is that we don’t assign a negative motive or mean intention to a small person. We reach around for the most benevolent interpretations. We don’t think they are doing it in order to upset us. We probably think that they are getting a bit tired, or their gums are sore or they are upset by the arrival of a younger sibling. We’ve got a large repertoire of alternative explanations ready in our heads – and none of these lead us to panic or get terribly agitated.
2. This is the reverse of what tends to happen around adults. Here we imagine that people have deliberately got us in their sights. If someone edges in front of us in the airport queue, it’s natural to suppose they have sized us up and reasoned that they can safely take advantage of us. They probably relish the thought of causing us a little distress. But if we employed the infant model of interpretation, our first assumption would be quite different: maybe they didn’t sleep well last night and are too exhausted to think straight; maybe they’ve got a sore knee; maybe they are doing the equivalent of testing the boundaries of parental tolerance: is jumping in front of someone in the queue playing the same role as peeing in the garden? Seen from such a point of view, the adult’s behaviour doesn’t magically become nice or acceptable. But the level of agitation is kept safely low. It’s very touching that we live in a world where we have learnt to be so kind to children: it would be even nicer if we learnt to be a little more generous towards the childlike parts of one another.
3. The French philosopher Émile-Auguste Chartier (know as Alain), was said to be the finest teacher in France in the first half of the 20th century. And he developed a formula for calming himself and his pupils down in the face of irritating people. ‘Never say that people are evil,’ he wrote, ‘You just need to look for the pin.’ What he meant was: look for the source of the agony that drives a person to behave in appalling ways. The calming thought is to imagine that they are suffering off-stage, in some area we cannot see. To be mature is to learn to imagine this zone of pain, in spite of the lack of much available evidence. They may not look as if they were maddened by an inner psychological ailment: they may look chirpy and full of themselves. But the ‘pin’ simply must be there – or they would not be causing us harm.
4. Alain was drawing on one of the great techniques of literary fiction: the ability to take us into the mind of a character, perhaps a very unglamorous or initially off-putting figure, and show us the powerful – but unexpected – things that are going on in their mind. It was a move a novelist like Dostoevsky was deeply excited by: he’d take the kinds of characters that his readers would normally dismiss with a shudder – an outcast, a criminal, a gambler – and describe the complex depths of their inner lives, their capacity for remorse, their hopes, their powers of sensitive perception.
5. This move – the accurate, corrective, reimagining of the inner lives of others – is relevant far outside the realm of literary fiction. It’s a piece of empathetic reflection we constantly need to perform with ourselves and with others. We need to imagine the turmoil, disappointment, worry and sadness in people who may outwardly appear merely aggressive. We need to aim compassion in an unexpected place: at those who annoy us most. To grow calmer, we must move from fear to pity.
Forgiveness: Others are ‘Bad’ from Pain
1. Injuries at the hands of others will happen to us all the time: a small jabbing comment, a joke at our expense amidst a group of old friends, a line of sarcasm, a sneering assessment, a provocative comment on the internet. We may believe that it is natural evil rearing its head. But we should hold on to a truth as basic as it is inviolable: other people have been nasty because they are in pain. The only reason they have hurt us is because they are – somewhere deep inside – hurting themselves. They have been catty and derogatory and foul because they are not well. However outwardly confident they may look, however virile and robust they may appear, their actions are all the evidence we need that they cannot in truth be in a good place. No one solid would ever need to do this.
2. The thought is empowering because nastiness so readily humiliates and reduces us. It turns us into the small damaged party. Without meaning to, we begin to imagine our bully as potent and even somehow impressive. Their vindictiveness demeans us. But the psychological explanation of evil at once reverses the power dynamic. It is you, who has no need to belittle, who is in fact the larger, steelier, more forceful party; you – who feels so defenceless – who is all along actually in power.
3. The thought restores justice. It promises that the guilty party has – after all – been punished along the way. You might not have been able to right the scales personally (they left the room already or kept the conversation flowing too fast for you to protest – and in any case, you’re not the sort to make a fuss). But a kind of punishment has been delivered cosmically already somewhere behind the scenes; their suffering, of which their need to inflict suffering on others is simply incontrovertible evidence, is all you need to know that they have been served their just desserts. You move from being a victim of crime to being an audience to an abstract form of justice. They may not be apologising to you, but they haven’t escaped freely either; their sulphur is proof they are paying a heavy price.
4. This is not merely a pleasant story. A person who feels at ease with themselves can have no need to distress others. We don’t have the energy to be cruel unless, and until, we are in inner torment.
5. Along the way, the theory gives hints at how we might – when we have recovered from the blow – deal with those who dealt it. The temptation is to get stern and cruel back, but the only way to diminish the vicious cycle of hate is – of course – to address its origins, which lie in suffering. There is no point punching back. We must – as the old prophets always told us – learn to look upon our enemies with sorrow, pity and, when we can manage it, a forgiving kind of love.
You have not been singled out: ‘Bureaucracy’
1. We grow up at the centre of a responsive world. Parents massively re-organise their lives so as to accommodate the needs of a new baby. They spend ages selecting just the right presents at birthdays and Christmas and blame themselves if the gifts fail to delight. Account is taken of a child’s mood and physical state: if they’re tired we’ll go home; if they’re hungry we’ll eat. One of the ambiguous achievements of good parenting is that the child comes to assume that the other people really can be alert to their needs. It’s not always that we’ll get just what we want, but that our genuine needs, properly stated, will meet with recognition and understanding.
2. But inevitably we will often run up against the rigid indifference of the wider world. A parking ticket won’t be waived because you are in a hurry and need to pop into the corner shop to buy a lemon for stuffing the chicken for dinner. The tax office won’t say, we understand, you’ve been a bit stressed recently and so why don’t you just return your details when you can, we know how it is: if you’ve been arguing with your partner and it saps your energy for form-filling. Citing these kinds of needs and troubles make perfect sense in intimate relationships. We’re often quite good at making allowances for friends, family, neighbours – and, of course, for children. We can be flexible when we want. But these attitudes stop applying when we cross the boundary from personal dealings to the zone that could be broadly summed up as ‘bureaucracy.’
3. Bureaucracy is a reliable, ever fertile source of agitation in our lives. You’re calling the phone company to change your payment plan. They want to know your online account number, which you’ve forgotten. But you do have your password, your address, your mother’s maiden name and information about your first pet (a Collie-Kelpie cross called Pipi, with a love of chewing carpets). Unfortunately, this won’t suffice. The service person doesn’t doubt your identity; you both know it would be bizarre for an impostor to attempt to use your credit card to reduce the payment on your phone connection. If they’d stolen your card why would they be carefully saving a small amount of money each month, and they’d have to have stolen your phone as well and not bothered to change the number. It’s maddening. But without the particular account number you can’t proceed. It doesn’t matter what the operator wants because if the number isn’t entered, the system won’t make the changes. Human sympathy doesn’t count for much in the face of the purely technical demand for a string of digits.
4. It’s maddening not just because it is time consuming and inconvenient. It sets off fundamental alarm bells. It’s bringing one into a situation where compassion, understanding and human connections don’t have the power to solve problems. Where ‘who you are’ (i.e. a pretty decent, honest, well-meaning individual) doesn’t matter.
5. Or you arrive at the airline check-in kiosk just a couple of minutes after the flight has officially closed. You know the flight hasn’t started boarding, they haven’t even called passengers to the gate. A friend who arrived ten minutes ago and is on the same flight is actually standing next to you. You’ve only got a small bit of hand luggage; the plane isn’t full (you friend was offered a choice of eats). But you can’t get a boarding pass, because there’s a rule that says when the flight is closed, it’s closed. You won’t be able to get home in time to read your daughter a bedtime story.
6. The deeper stress – which gets added to the sheer inconvenience of having to wait for the next plane – is that the details of your needs count for nothing against the purely formal requirements of an administrative system. Something that’s humanly crucial – the warmth of your family life – can carry no weight here; you can’t plead about the lonely child or about how you’ve missed them; the machine (or the over-burdened member of staff you pour out your troubles to) cannot put things right.
7. The evolution of bureaucracy hasn’t been an accident. In a traditional society power is personal – and the relationships to the people is intimate. The clan chief knows and is related to the governed. So the idea of being understood is always there as a hope (however it might have been frustrated in practice): there’s the sense that if you sway this individual they can do what they think is fitting and appropriate: they can decide for themselves what to do. Or it could be hugely unfair – the opportunities for favouritism, nepotism, bribery are endless.
8. Bureaucracy, on the whole, is a necessary component of a good enough society. This was the point articulated by the German sociologist Max Weber at the very end of the 19th century. Weber saw that modern government and industry operate on a large scale. And they attain a higher degree of efficiency and fairness by instituting systematic process and standard rules that set up ‘correct’ ways of doing things. Officials and employees are required to apply the rules in an impartial and accurate way. And standing back we know why this is so. It is to avoid favouritism and to avoid complicated special pleading that would massively clog up the system. This leads of course to a conflict with the specific contours of the individual case.
9. The apparent unresponsiveness is not brought about by a deliberate desire to ignore people’s particular situations. It’s an unfortunate but largely unavoidable by-product of good and reasonable intentions. One’s specific needs are being ignored in the broad interests of fairness, keeping costs down and keeping a big, complex undertaking going. We get agitated when we find ourselves at the intersection of our own particular needs and the average, usual case that the system is designed to get good at dealing with. It’s not – as our panic reactions sometimes suggest – that bureaucracy is out to get us or that those who manage it are soulless robots. The explanation is strangely banal. It’s that the price of an overall drive to efficiency is that some small percentage of cases will becomes horribly entangled for what look like tiny reasons. And every so often we will find ourselves at just such a point.
10. The desperation we sometimes feel around bureaucracy is part of a larger fact about the hardness and indifference of the external world. At key points your needs, no matter how worthy, get nowhere: a hotel won’t put you up because you are really longing to visit the city or could really do with a few days on a lounger by a pool. You can’t get moved to the front of the supermarket checkout queue because you are feeling bored; the shop won’t give you a pair of trousers because they suit you perfectly; the restaurant won’t feed you because you are hungry. Or, no matter how urgent some bit of work might be, your laptop has trouble communicating with the printer – you just get the message ‘cannot locate printer’. And nothing you do seem to make any difference. Our private concerns – however intense and reasonable and good – on their own count for nothing in face of the impersonal forces of commerce, technology and nature. We won’t be cut any slack.
11. The calming move sees such unfortunate incidents as inevitable, rather than as avoidable, affronts. They are unavoidable in the way that in the past the journey from Edinburgh to London could not be accomplished in less than a week, no matter how urgent the mission. The vision of the world made that time frame seem not shocking or disappointing or maddening, but completely necessary. One’s irritation and hope would be focused on the margins: one might fervently hope to arrive in 167 hours and start to get very edgy if after 171 hours one is still somewhere in East Anglia.
12. If we assume from the start that quite often technology will be baffling (because it is still in some respects in its own stage-coach era) then its failures will appear less offensive. If we take it for granted that banks, utility companies, airlines and governments will be significantly inefficient 5% of the time, we will understand that every so often our dealings with them will get tangled. The foundation of such calm is understanding. Our wider vision of the world and of history frames our sense of what is likely to happen and why. We move from irritating explanations – the company doesn’t care, tech people are idiots – to less inflammatory and more accurate ones: the pursuit of efficiency will inevitably produce a certain number of maddening cases that don’t fit the rule; the development of new technology will, inevitably, fall short of its most impressive versions in a significant number of ways.
13. Being calm does not mean one thinks the situation is nice or agreeable or interesting. It just means that one is adding to the difficulties by fuming and seething to no good effect. Which, stated in the abstract, sound like a very small development. But which, when we recall the times of soul-churning rage reveals itself as a huge, and deeply benign, achievement. It is our wider vision of the world that makes the difference between inconvenience and high-level consternation.
Acceptance of Anxiety
1. It would be nice to think that it would be possible to eventually achieve deep and permanent calm. But this hope can itself become a source of agitation. Setting our sights on a very appealing – but actually unreachable – goal leads to frustration and disappointment. The greater the investment in the ideal of unruffled peace of mind the more upsetting any failure of poise becomes. It’s painful of course but there’s also a comic side to the clash between hope and what actually tends to happen: the yoga master who has spent years pursuing serenity in an isolated monastery setting off to demonstrate their poise to the world and getting stressed and deranged at the airport when their luggage fails to appear on the carousel. It isn’t their suffering that’s funny. We’re laughing with relief at the reminder that getting agitated isn’t simply a personal failing of our own, it’s a universal and unavoidable part of the human condition.
2. We should never seek the total elimination of anxiety. Indeed, to do so can become a source of agitation in itself. Knowing we cannot always be calm belongs to the attempt to be calm. We carry too many sources of stubborn agitation inside us. Beyond any specific thing we happen to be worrying about, looked at over time, a stern conclusion is inescapable: we simply are often anxious, to our core, in the very basic make-up of our being.
3. Consider that quintessence of anxiety: the panic attack. You’re on a plane on the tarmac and it’s time to shut the doors. Suddenly, the insanity strikes you. You’ll be in a highly explosive sealed aluminium tube, breathing recycled kerosene-infused air, for the next six-and-a-half hours, with no way of getting off or out. The pilot may be exhausted or inwardly distressed. Air traffic control at any of the 40 waymarks along the journey may get momentarily distracted. You’ll be streaming 5 miles above the surface of the planet. No one else seems remotely sensitive to what any of this implies – they’re chatting and reading magazines – but for you, it’s the beginning of a kind of hell. You are on the verge of giving way to what we currently know as a panic attack.
4. Or you’re walking up the narrow stairs to a party in a top floor apartment. It’s the birthday of a friend of a friend and you can hear the sound of voices and bass through the door. This is customarily described as fun – but you’re overwhelmingly conscious that you’ll hardly know anyone, that you’ll have to explain who you are and what you do to complete, busy and not necessarily overly sympathetic strangers and that if you want to be alone and unobserved for a while, the bathroom is liable to have a line of seven drunken people outside it. Once again, the descent into panic begins.
5. Or you wake up at three thirty in the morning, the house is quiet. Outside an owl is hooting. The papers from work are by your bed. You’ll be at the conference in just a few hours. And promptly, the strangeness of it all, of being alive, of being you, of leading your sort of life, of no longer being the child you once were, of having one day to die, hits you. Your heart starts racing, your palms begin to sweat; you give way to panic.
6. Panic attacks are commonly interpreted, by society at large but also by their confused, guilty or shamed sufferers, as an illness close to madness: the result of a mysterious chemically-based flaw in the brain that severs us from reality and normalcy. The suggested treatment is therefore medical, involving forceful attempts to dampen and anaesthetise parts of the misfiring mind.
7. Yet, such an interpretation – however kind in its intentions – depends on a prior, and not necessarily unassailable or wise assumption: that the normal response to the conditions of existence should and must be measured calm. However, when we look imaginatively at what is actually going on in our minds as anxiety mounts, we have to conclude that we are at such points acutely sensitive to what are a host of genuinely worrying things. Our anxiety may be unhelpful and socially problematic. But it is not, for that matter, necessarily unfounded or delusional – a thought that can spare us, if not panic itself, at least the secondary debilitating concern that we have lost our minds.
8. The root cause of an anxiety attack is something both troublesome and intensely accurate and beautiful-in-origin: sensitivity. Our thoughts may be very disturbing but they are not unreasonable or devilish. In our hellish moments, we’re picking up on some fundamental aspects of the human condition that we otherwise brutishly keep at bay in a world that insists on cheerful blitheness as the default mode. Flying truly is a properly implausible activity filled with genuine dangers which it takes a resolutely leaden mind not to notice. The average party does require us to present a radically simplified, inauthentic self to a succession of indifferent strangers. It is deeply odd that human beings (who once roamed the savannas) should congregate in deafening cuboid chambers, sucking small quantities of fermented fruit juice from transparent containers, while inside their brains unknown and possibly dark thoughts may circulate. It might not take much for these shadowy characters to gang up and assault us.
9. The very same sensitivity that lies behind our attacks is also and rightly at the heart of some of the most prestigious moments of culture. The same sense of the oddity of being alive – the weirdness of people, the uncertain brevity of life, the overwhelming vastness of the world of which we occupy such a minute portion, the bizarre condition of being a self-conscious creature, an animal that can turn its mental gaze inwards and track each moment and hold the years in comparison – has repeatedly been shared by the world’s most acclaimed artists, philosophers and poets.
10. In her great novel Middlemarch, the 19th-century English writer George Eliot, a deeply self-aware but also painfully self-conscious and anxious figure, reflected on what it would be like if we were truly sensitive, open to the world and felt the implications of everything (she was describing herself): ‘If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.’
11. It is, as Eliot recognises, both a privilege and a profound nightmare to be correctly attuned to reality, to hear that grass growing and that squirrel’s heart beating – and, also, by implication, to sense the judgement in the social encounter, the threat of the plane engine, the latent violence in the stranger’s stare, the enclosed nature of the meeting room. We might well, as she sometimes did, long for a little more ‘well-wadded stupidity’ to block it all out.
12. Nevertheless, Eliot’s lines offer us a way to reinterpret our anxiety with greater dignity and benevolence. It is not a sign of degeneracy. It is not the result of not seeing reality, but of not being able to put it out of one’s mind. It is – though difficult – a kind of masterpiece of insight, like a vision of a saint, where rare things not often heard or seen come into consciousness. It emerges from a dose of clarity that is (currently) too powerful for us to cope with – but isn’t for that matter wrong. We panic because we rightly feel how thin the veneer of civilisation is, how mysterious other people are, how improbable it is that we exist at all, how everything that seems to matter now will eventually be annihilated, how random many of the turnings of our lives are, how prey we are to accident; how ultimately surprising it is that our thoughts and feeling as tethered to vulnerable, tender packets of flesh and bone. Anxiety is simply insight that we haven’t yet found a productive use for, that hasn’t yet made its way into art or philosophy. It’s a mad world that insists that the anxious are the ones who have lost their minds.
13. Of course we sometimes panic. The greater question is why we ever believed we might not – and came to associate normality with robustness. Our panic attacks aren’t drawing us further from reality, they are an insistent tug back to it. We are in such a hurry to see anxiety as sick, we fail to notice its phosphorescent health. There might be fewer such attacks if a degree of alarm were more generally factored in as a legitimate, constant response to the oddity of flying, going to parties or more widely, of being alive.
14. We should never exacerbate our suffering by trying to push our disquiet aggressively away. Our lack of calm isn’t deplorable or a sign of weakness. It is simply the justifiable expression of our mysterious participation in a disordered, uncertain world.
15. Though we may focus day-to-day on this or that particular worry creating static in our minds, what we are really up against is anxiety as a permanent feature of life, something irrevocable, existential, dogged – and responsible for ruining a dominant share of our brief time on earth. Tortured by anxiety, we naturally fall prey to powerful fantasies about what might – finally – bring us calm. At certain points, especially in the north, the fantasies latch on to travel. On a sunny island, at last, there would be peace: under the clear blue sky, on the island eleven-and-a-half hours from here, seven time zones away, with the warm water lapping at our feet, and with access to a seaside villa on pontoons, with Egyptian cotton sheets and a refreshing breeze. It is just a matter of holding on for a few more months – and parting with an extraordinary sum. Or perhaps we would be calm if the house could be as we really want it: with everything in its place, no more clutter, pristine walls, ample cupboards, stripped oak, limestone, recessed lighting and a bank of new appliances. Or perhaps we will be calm when one day we reach the right place in the company, or the novel is sold, or the film is made or our shares are worth $5 bn – and we can walk into a room of strangers and they will know at once. Or (and this one we keep a little more to ourselves), there might be calm if we had the right sort of person in our lives, someone who could properly understand us, a creature with whom it wouldn’t be so difficult, who would be kind and playfully sympathetic, who would have thoughtful, compassionate eyes and in whose arms we could lie in peace, almost like a child – though not quite. Travel, Beauty, Status and Love: the four great contemporary ideals around which our fantasies of calm collect and which taken together are responsible for the lion’s share of the frenzied activities of the modern economy: its airports, long-haul jets and resort hotels; its overheated property markets, furniture companies and unscrupulous building contractors; its networking events, status-driven media and competitive business deals; its bewitching actors, soaring love songs and busy divorce lawyers.
16. Yet despite the promises and the passion expended in the pursuit of these goals, none of them will work. There will be anxiety at the beach, in the pristine home, after the sale of the company, and in the arms of anyone we will ever seduce, however often we try.
Anxiety is our fundamental state for well-founded reasons:
– Because we are intensely vulnerable physical beings, a complicated network of fragile organs all biding their time before eventually letting us down catastrophically at a moment of their own choosing.
– Because we have insufficient information upon which to make most major life decisions: we are steering more or less blind.
– Because we can imagine so much more than we have and live in mobile-driven, mediatised societies where envy and restlessness will be a constant.
– Because we are the descendants of the great worriers of the species, the others having been trampled and torn apart by wild animals, and because we still carry in our bones – into the calm of the suburbs – the terrors of the savannah.
– Because the progress of our careers and of our finances play themselves out within the tough-minded, competitive, destructive, random workings of an uncontained capitalist engine.
– Because we rely for our self-esteem and sense of comfort on the love of people we cannot control and whose needs and hopes will never align seamlessly with our own.
All of which is not to say that there aren’t better and worse ways to approach our condition.
17. The single most important move is acceptance. There is no need – on top of everything else – to be anxious that we are anxious. The mood is no sign that our lives have gone wrong, merely that we are alive. A calm life isn’t one that’s always perfectly serene. It is one where we are committed to calming down more readily, where we strive for more realistic expectations; where we can understand better why certain problems are occurring, we can be more adept at finding a consoling perspective. The progress is painfully limited and imperfect – but it is genuine.
18. The more calm matters to us, the more we will be aware of all the very many times when we have been less calm than we might have been. We’ll be sensitive to our own painfully frequent bouts of irritation and upset. It can feel laughably hypocritical. Surely a genuine devotion to calm would mean ongoing serenity? But this isn’t really a fair judgment to make, because being calm all the time isn’t a viable option. What counts is the commitment one is making to the idea of being calmer. You can count legitimately as a lover of calm when you ardently want to be calm, not when you succeed at being calm on all occasions. However frequent the lapses, the devotion counts as real.
19. Furthermore, it’s a psychological law that those who are most attracted to calm will also – in all probability – be especially irritable and by nature prone to particularly high levels of anxiety. We’ve got a mistaken picture of what the lover of calm looks like; we assume them to be among the most tranquil of the species. We’re working with the highly misleading background assumption that the lover of something is the person who is really good at it. But the person who loves something is the one who is hugely aware of how much they lack it. And, therefore, of how much they need it.
20. We should spare ourselves the burden of loneliness. We are far from the only ones with this problem. Everyone is more anxious than they are inclined to tell us. We’ve collectively failed to admit to ourselves what we are truly like.
21. We must learn to laugh about our anxieties – laughter being the exuberant expression of relief when a hitherto private agony is given a well-crafted social formulation in a joke. We can laugh about the terrors of having a body, about the absurd scale of our ambitions, and about how easily we lose perspective on everything. We should hug; not the forced intimacy or oppressive bonhomie of most modern hugs, but the melancholy sympathetic way Botticelli’s angels do it, having come down to earth to offer comfort to humans for the brute facts of earthly existence.
We must suffer alone. But we can at least hold out our arms to our similarly tortured, fractured, and above all else, anxious neighbours, as if to say, in the kindest way possible: ‘I know…’