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Self-Knowledge • Mood
It’s sometimes remarkably hard to tell other people how we really feel; it may even be tricky for us to get clear about our own moods. So mostly, if people ask how we are, we’ll just say, ‘Fine’ – while of course knowing we’ve only provided a sharp abbreviation of all that’s actually going on in our minds.
This is a tool to help us over our vagueness: small essays that crisply define twenty moods that we can all recognise but that we sometimes have a hard time pinning down and explaining.
We unexpectedly catch sight of ourselves in a mirror and, in an instant, are thrown into despair: the odd nose, the unsatisfactory hair, the sickening skin tone, but most of all, the only too familiar, deeply gormless needy expression.
It feels at such moments as if every worst fear about us must be true. All our efforts to run away from our monster selves have failed. A hideous spectre is, for our brief time on the planet, truly whom we are fated to be.
Crucially, feeling ugly is entirely independent of what anyone actually looks like. There are beauties who are sickened by their looks and grizzled munchkins breezily at ease with themselves.
There are always an infinite number of reasons to find oneself pleasant or hideous, clever or idiotic: so what decides the matter is never in the end the judgement of our eyes, but the condition of our souls.
It is the inner mood that guides our gaze in its assessment of the face in the mirror and that projects onto our features the atmosphere of selfishness, sleaziness and furtiveness we feel inside. Therefore, we don’t, when we are sad, ever really need a new set of clothes or a haircut. We require – to put it naively and grandly – to be looked at through the eyes of love, by someone whose generous assessment can rescue us from the depredations of self-hatred.
It is all the more unfortunate that – precisely when we feel disgusting – it can be so hard to ask another for their help. We hate ourselves too much to dare to hope that anyone else might like us. We may even, in response to kind enquiries, simply attempt to prove our dislikable nature through monosyllabic avoidant grunts.
We need – in our curdled state – for someone else to explain our condition to the world, to make the case that we are lost and ashamed, not monstrous or mean. We may need (for a time at least) to let someone else’s generous words do the work.
For too long, we’ve been slothful and indigent. But now, there’s a crispness and purpose in the air, and we’re ready for action. We’re determined not to let doubts or complexities overwhelm us. We want to see tangible results. We’re tired of being dreamers and shirkers.
Our practical mood is briskly impatient with perfectionism. We’re not focused on how things could be, or might be, or what we’d do if money and time were of no concern. A lot of our previous procrastination was born out of fear: we didn’t dare to make a start, in case we messed things up and let our ideals down. But now we’re prepared to deal with the world as it actually is, and accept the constraints reality imposes. Compromise doesn’t sound like a bad word, it’s a necessary, mature strategy for achieving results.
It might look as if we’re a touch soulless, as if we can’t comprehend the poetry or complexity of existence. This wouldn’t be a time to play us a sonata or read us a passage of philosophy. But what we’d like people to grasp is that we may have come to this clear, energetic mood via quite a hard road. We know all about the temptations of idleness; we recognise perfectly well the allure of meandering reverie. We know from the inside how endless speculation, perfectionism, and wishing things were different are the enemies of getting things done. We’re not determined to find realistic solutions because we’re bland or shallow but because we’ve got so much intimate experience of aimless drifting. Now – after an age – we’re at last ready to get down to work.
We’re not actually crying at the moment – but the tears are far closer to the surface than they normally would be. A whole host of relatively minor things threatens to set us off. Strangely, they aren’t the grim things we might associate with crying; they’re things that feel especially beautiful, tender or pure.
We might feel our eyes moistening at the sight of some delicate flowers breaking through the hard earth after a long winter; or a parent and young child chatting animatedly together in a cafe (the kid is talking about a penguin in a book); or a friend who greets us in an unusually warm way or a moment in a film when a moralistic father makes up with his wayward son.
The source of our weepiness is located in the place where the troubles of life collide with what is still kind and good in the world.
The loveliness we see (in a film, in a park, in a book) makes the actual ugliness of day-to-day life all the more vivid. We want to cry at poignant reminders of a kind of paradise that’s ever more elusive, at what we crave for and have been exiled from.
If we were to consider the unusual project of trying to create a robot that could feel weepy, we should have to do something apparently rather cruel: we would have to ensure that this robot knew about suffering, that it was able to hate itself and feel loss and confusion; for it is against this kind of background of pain that beautiful scenes become deeply important, rather than merely nice. Our weepiness is telling us something key: that our lives are tougher than they used to be when we were little, and that our longing for uncomplicated niceness and goodness is correspondingly all the more intense.
When we are weepy, we don’t need to be cheered up or told to feel grateful for the good things we still have. Ideally, we’d like the sorrow in us to meet the sorrow in another person. It sounds odd but we’d perhaps like to weep quietly for a bit with someone else who understands.
It’s very different from a mere desire to have sex. The mood is far less specific and more all-encompassing. When we’re under its sway, we’re alive to the sensual nature of almost anything: a ripe lemon, a luxuriant oak tree, the sound of a courtyard fountain, an expanse of cashmere, the dashboard of a sports car….
In such a mood, we’re responsive to a promiscuous range of details about our fellow humans: the way one person stands, the slope of another’s cheek, a wrist, the hint of an elbow in a sleeve, a calm, intelligent voice, someone’s shoes that seem to suggest a veiled desire. We want to be wicked – in a playful way. We feel wanton, mischievous, naughty. We love the warmth of a summer’s night or the way our skin feels fresh and tender after a shower. We notice a gentle wind, the luxuriance of a garden, the winking of distant lights across a bay. We want to dance to the throb of a rhythmic base.
The mood can feel threatening to those who depend on us. They could think we wanted to abandon a current relationship or start a new one. If we tried to say what we were feeling, we’d risk being misunderstood in serious ways.
We could here usefully appeal to the Ancient Greek idea of eros. This was interpreted as a universal life force that could be found across a range of natural phenomena: in the waves sensuously lapping a rock; in the evening sun turning a hill top pink, in the budding of spring flowers – or, more conventionally, in the fluttering of a loose garment caressing a knee. Furthermore, for the Greeks, recognition of the power of eros was independent of, and not a threat to, the other commitments of our lives.
When we are in a sensual mood, we don’t narrowly want to jump into bed, we’re aware of how every living thing depends on processes of reproduction whose tremor and echo is in us and in nature all around us. Our sensuous mood is a homage to the forces that have given life to everything we cherish.
Melancholy is not rage or bitterness, it is a noble species of sadness that arises when we are open to the fact that life is inherently difficult for everyone and that suffering and disappointment are at the heart of human experience.
Melancholy links pain with wisdom and beauty. It springs from a rightful awareness of the tragic structure of every life. We can, in melancholy states, understand without fury or sentimentality, that no one truly understands anyone else, that loneliness is universal and that every life has its full measure of shame and sorrow. The melancholy know that many of the things we most want are in tragic conflict: to feel secure, and yet to be free; to have money and yet not to have to be beholden to others. To be in close knit communities and yet not to be stifled by the expectations and demands of society. To travel and explore the world and yet to put down deep roots. To fulfil the demands of our appetites for food, exploration and sloth – and yet stay thin, sober, faithful and fit.
The wisdom of the melancholy attitude (as opposed to the bitter or angry one) lies in the understanding that we have not been singled out, that our suffering belongs to humanity in general. Melancholy is marked by an impersonal take on suffering. It is filled with pity for the human condition.
There are melancholy landscapes and melancholy pieces of music, melancholy poems and melancholy times of day. In them, we find echoes of our own griefs, returned back to us without some of the personal associations that, when they first struck us, made them particularly agonising.
The more melancholy a culture can be, the less its individual members need to be persecuted by their own failures, lost illusions and regrets.
Melancholy – when it can be shared – is the beginning of friendship.
We know we’re slightly exaggerating but it feels good, even necessary, to indulge in the mood. Under its sway, we feel powerfully how unfair everything is, how singled-out we are, how mean people have been and how beautifully good and kind we remain.
Self-pity is at base an important achievement. Imagine what things would be like if we couldn’t pity ourselves. If you think of a parent comforting a child, they are in effect teaching the child how to look after themselves. Gradually we learn to internalise this parental attitude and come to be able to feel sorry for ourselves when no one else will. It’s not necessarily entirely rational, but it’s a coping mechanism, a first protective shell which we develop in order to be able to manage some of the immense disappointments and frustrations that life throws at us.
The path out of self-pity involves expanding outwards from our own case. We come to realise that our sufferings take place within a broad context of human unhappiness. Far from meaning that our suffering doesn’t matter, it’s rather that all suffering matters and so we can unite into a giant collective, who might – when they have time to look up from their own sorrows – feel pity for one another. Suffering doesn’t have to isolate, it can also bring us together.
We have not been singled out. Indeed, when we look back from this higher place, we don’t have to find self-pity so strange or deplorable. This primitive defence mechanism – blaming others and exaggerating one’s woes – is itself deserving of a degree of compassion: it is itself worthy of pity.
It is, of course, a horribly harsh word – but we should learn to accept the mood, forgive ourselves for it and make it our own. Though we are taught to associate maturity with independence, sometimes, it is deeply natural to long to know in reassuring and forceful tones that we are still needed by our lover.
The requirement to hear that we are wanted never goes away – nor does the dread of rejection. Within our deep psyches, acceptance is never a given; there can always be new threats to love’s integrity. The trigger of insecurity can be apparently miniscule. Perhaps the other has been away at work for unusual amounts of time; or they were pretty animated talking to a stranger at a party; or it’s been awhile since sex took place. Perhaps they weren’t very warm with us when we walked into the kitchen. Or they’ve been rather silent for the last half an hour.
Even after years with someone, there can be a hurdle of fear about asking for proof that we are wanted – but with a horrible, added complication: we now assume that any such anxiety couldn’t possibly exist. This makes it very difficult to recognise our insecure feelings, especially if they have been triggered by a so-called ‘small’ matter, let alone communicate them to others in ways that would stand a chance of obtaining the understanding and sympathy we crave.
We are never through with the requirement for acceptance. This isn’t a curse limited to the weak and the inadequate. Insecurity is a sign of well-being; it means we haven’t allowed ourselves to take other people for granted. It means we remain realistic enough to see that things could genuinely turn out badly – and are invested enough to care. We should create room for regular moments, perhaps as often as every few hours, when we can feel unembarrassed and legitimate about asking for confirmation. ‘I really need you; do you still want me?’ should be the most normal of enquiries. We should eradicate the damning and macho associations that hover around the word ‘neediness’ – and recognise the mood for what it is: a sign of maturity and health.
In this mood, we’re aware of all that there might be to be sickened by and sorrowful about in our behaviour. Most of the time, we tend to brush away our more self-incriminating thoughts with vigour. When we face accusations from others, we angrily defend ourselves: it wasn’t our fault; we weren’t to blame; it’s nothing to do with us. But now, we’re more ready to admit that in many ways we have behaved appallingly and with great stupidity.
We can admit that we’ve made many blunders. There are people we’ve hurt: there were kindly messages we didn’t reply to. There are friendships that we let slip for no big reason. There are secrets we’ve betrayed; people we’ve made fun of and belittled. We’ve done some fairly disgusting things and made fools of ourselves.
Often, the mood goes too far. We’re beating ourselves up for no good reason. We are far harsher on ourselves that we would be around a friend. We seem to be channelling the memory of figures from childhood who didn’t think well of us and whom we could never please. We start to insult ourselves: ‘You little weasel,’ we might whisper internally. The self-hatred becomes a grim addiction, distracting us from the task of atoning and maturing.
Self-flagellation serves no purpose, but a touch of guilt has its mature uses. Under its sway, we deal an important blow to the risks of excessive self-righteousness. What makes people disappointing is not so much that they make mistakes, but that they refuse to acknowledge them with grace.
In a guilty state, we own up to our fallibility and take our place in the universal community of sinners. We realise how awful we can be – and in the process, ensure we’ll be less so in the future.
The standard habit of the mind is to take careful note of what’s not right in our lives and obsess about all that is missing.
But in a new mood, perhaps after a lot of longing and turmoil, we pause and notice some of what has – remarkably – not gone wrong. The house is looking beautiful at the moment. We’re in pretty good health, all things considered. The afternoon sun is deeply reassuring. Sometimes the children are kind. Our partner is – at points – very generous. It’s been quite mild lately. Yesterday, we were happy all evening. We’re quite enjoying our work at the moment.
Gratitude is a mood that grows with age. It is extremely rare properly to delight in flowers or a quiet evening at home, a cup of tea or a walk in the woods when one is under twenty-two. There are so many larger, grander things to be concerned about: romantic love, career fulfillment and political change.
However, it is rare to be left entirely indifferent by smaller things in time. Gradually, almost all one’s earlier, larger aspirations take a hit, perhaps a very large hit. 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, ‘little things’ start to seem somewhat different; 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. We appreciate the slice of toast, the friendly encounter, the long hot bath, the spring morning – and properly keep in mind how much worse it could, and probably will one day, be.
It doesn’t happen often; we spend most of our lives principally concerned with ourselves, our survival and our own success, narrowly defined. However, at rare moments, we start to think of other people in a more imaginative way. Rather than criticise and attack, we feel free to love randomly and generously. We perceive that the appropriate response to humanity is not fear, cynicism or aggression, but always sympathy. The world reveals itself as quite different: a place of suffering and misguided effort, full of people striving to be heard and lashing out against others, but also a place of tenderness and longing, beauty and touching vulnerability.
From this point of view, status is nothing, possessions don’t matter, grievances lose their urgency. If certain people could encounter us at this point, they might be amazed at our transformation and at our newfound warmth and empathy.
We have the will to look beyond the outwardly unappealing surface of others – in search of the tender, interesting, scared and anxious person inside. Normally, if someone has hurt us we see them as horrible; the thought they might themselves be hurting inside feels very weird. If a person looks odd, we find it extremely difficult to recognise that there might well be many touching things about them deep down. But in a mood of universal love, we might take an unappealing-looking person and try to imagine them as young a child, unselfconsciously playing on their bedroom floor. We might try to picture their mother, not long after their birth, holding them in her arms, overcome by passionate love for this new little life. Or perhaps, drunk and passed out, ignoring their desperate cries. We might see a furious person in a restaurant violently complaining that the tomato sauce is on the wrong place on their plate – but rather than condemn and feel superior, we might try to construct a story of how this individual had come to be so impossible, and how powerless they must feel in a world where something (and not what they are ostensibly complaining about) has frustrated them to the core.
Feelings of universal love are rare, but we should let them remind us of a deeply surprising and important lesson: that with sufficient imagination, we could potentially see the loveable sides of pretty much anyone.
Anxiety is a fundamental and endlessly recurring 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. Because we can imagine so much more than we have and live in ambitious mediatised societies where envy and restlessness are a constant. 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.
We should be more careful when pursuing things we imagine will spare us anxiety. We can head to them by all means, but for other reasons than fantasies of calm – and with a little less vigour and a little more scepticism. We will still be anxious when we finally have the house, the love affair and the right income.
We should at all points 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. Even the tycoon and the couple in love are suffering. We’ve collectively failed to admit to ourselves how much it is customary to panic.
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 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…’
Anxiety deserves greater dignity: It is not a sign of degeneracy. It is a kind of masterpiece of insight: a justifiable expression of our mysterious participation in a disordered, uncertain world.
It’s the sort of mood where we might spend a lot of time staring out of the window – apparently doing nothing, but in fact, working a lot of things out.
We tend to reproach ourselves for staring dreamily out of the window. You are supposed to be working, or studying, or ticking off things on your to-do list. It can seem almost the definition of wasted time.
But the point of dreamily gazing out of the window is, paradoxically, not to find out what is going on outside. It is, rather, an exercise in discovering the contents of our own minds. It’s easy to imagine we know what we think, what we feel and what’s going on in our heads. But we rarely do entirely. There’s a huge amount of what makes us who we are that circulates unexplored and unused. Its potential lies untapped. It is shy and doesn’t emerge under the pressure of direct questioning.
If we do it right, dreamily staring out the window offers a way for us to listen out for the quieter suggestions and perspectives of our deeper selves. Plato suggested a metaphor for the mind: our ideas are like birds fluttering around in the aviary of our brains. But in order for the birds to settle, Plato understood that we needed periods of purpose-free calm.
A dreamy mood offers such an opportunity. As we daydream, we see the world going on: a patch of weeds is holding its own against the wind; a grey tower block looms through the drizzle. But we don’t need to respond; we have no overarching intentions, and so the more tentative parts of ourselves have a chance to be heard, like the sound of church bells in the city once the traffic has died down at night.
The potential of daydreaming isn’t recognised by societies obsessed with productivity. But some of our greatest insights come when we stop trying to be purposeful and instead respect the creative potential of reverie. Daydreaming is a strategic rebellion against the excessive demands of immediate (but ultimately insignificant) pressures – in favour of the diffuse, but very serious, search for the wisdom of the unexplored deep self.
A variety of situations can kick off the mood. Maybe we’ve just been out in the garden at night, looked up and seen the immensity of the night sky. Or we’ve been reading a history book about life on the planet many thousands of years ago. Or we’ve been watching a programme about the glaciers of Antarctica.
We’ve had an experience of vastness (of space, age, time) beyond calculation or comprehension and have been made to feel desperately small. In most of life, a sense of our smallness is experienced as a humiliation (when it happens, for example, at the hands of a professional enemy or a concierge). But now the impression of smallness has an oddly uplifting and profoundly redemptive effect.
We are granted an impression of our complete nullity and insignificance in the grander scheme which relieves us from an often oppressive sense of the seriousness of our ambitions and desires. We welcome being put back in our place and not having to take ourselves quite so seriously, not least because the agent doing so is as noble and awe-inspiring as a ten-thousand-year-old ice sheet or a volcano on the surface of Mars.
Things that have up until now been looming so large in our minds (what’s gone wrong with the Singapore office, a colleague’s cold behaviour, the disagreement about patio furniture) is cut perfectly down in size. Local, immediate sorrows are reduced; none of our troubles, disappointments or hopes have very much significance for a time. Everything that happens to us, or that we do, is of no consequence whatever from the point of view of the universe. We are granted a perspective within which our own concerns are mercifully irrelevant.
Our reversals matter less as well. We become more alive to the impersonal, implacable forces that erode all aspects of nature and, hence, all our lives. Our plans will, like the cliffs under the pressure of the raging oceans, collapse and fail. Our griefs are universal and unavoidable. The intense burden of the unfairness of existence is reduced.
In a certain mood, though our body is rooted in the present, our mind has gone elsewhere. It is tempted by the vast claims of the past and uses incidents in the here and now only to turn towards what happened long ago.
It seems we have forgotten almost nothing that we ever lived through. An inner photographer has taken shots of pretty much everything we experienced: the bay near Athens we went to when we must have been around six years old; the cellar in the old house before we moved; the light on the gardens outside our room at university.
In nostalgic moods, we wander through the archive of our minds, taking in both the beauty and the pain – and enjoying both in equal measure. The griefs no longer have the power to harm us. We almost long for their intensity. We remember what it was like when they told us the relationship was over, the little restaurant where it happened, the tears and the final hug…
We realise that it is all still there and we find ourselves travelling back through images and scenes we had not suspected had survived with such clarity. Some memories are more pleasant. We are seven again. It is a Saturday morning, the sun is shining through the bedroom curtains; the wallpaper has big pink and blue flowers. We are waiting for everyone to wake up and are on the floor, designing a game on a large sheet of paper. The mood is serene and focused and filled with hope. Or, we are in New York for the first time. We must be thirty. It is an intensely warm, almost tropical evening and we wander the streets of Lower Manhattan; we can recall the pavements, the restaurants, the shape of the buildings.
In the full range of our memories we’re bigger than we suppose. At some point or other across our lives we’ve met so much – and though it has receded deep into the cavities of the mind, it can re-emerge with the right meditative nostalgic frame of mind.
We aren’t just mildly, casually intrigued by someone. We aren’t quite in love either. We have a crush; we are (without anything sinister in the term) a little obsessed.
We want to tell everyone we meet (if only it didn’t sound quite so silly). We want to explain where we came across them, what we discussed, the small details about them. Simply talking about the desired person alleviates our anxious desire. Our minds constantly circle the idea of the beloved: how clever, kind and witty they seem to be, how our lives might unfold together (already we’ve married them and had many children – though we may not yet even have gone on a date or so much as addressed a word to them).
Our obsession represents in pure and perfect form the dynamics of a romantic philosophy: the explosive interaction of limited knowledge, outward obstacles to further discovery – and boundless hope.
The cynical voice wants to declare that these enthusiastic imaginings at the conference or on the train, in the street or in the supermarket, are just delusional. But the error of our obsession is more subtle, it lies in how easily we move from spotting a range of genuinely fine traits of character to settling on a recklessly naive romantic conclusion: that the other across the train aisle or pavement constitutes a complete answer to our inner needs.
We should enjoy our obsessive moods. To obsess well is to realise that the lovely person we sketch in our heads is our creation: a creation that says more about us, than about them. But what it says about us is important. The obsession gives us access to our own ideals. We may not really be getting to know another person properly, but we are growing our insight into who we really are.
Because our culture places such a high value on sociability, it can be deeply awkward to have to explain how much – at certain points – we need to be alone.
We may try to pass off our desire as something work-related: people generally understand a need to finish off a project. But in truth, it’s a far less respectable and more profound desire that is driving us on: unless we are alone, we are at risk of forgetting who we are.
We, the ones who are asphyxiated without periods by ourselves, take other people very seriously – perhaps more seriously than those in the uncomplicated ranks of the endlessly gregarious. We listen closely to stories, we give ourselves to others, we respond with emotion and empathy. But as a result, we cannot keep swimming in company indefinitely.
At a certain point, we have had enough of conversations that take us away from our own thought processes, enough of external demands that stop us heeding our inner tremors, enough of the pressure for superficial cheerfulness that denies the legitimacy of our latent inner melancholy – and enough of robust common-sense that flattens our peculiarities and less well-charted appetites.
We need to be alone because life among other people unfolds too quickly. The pace is relentless: the jokes, the insights, the excitements. There can sometimes be enough in five minutes of social life to take up an hour of analysis. It is a quirk of our minds that not every emotion that impacts us is at once fully acknowledged, understood or even – as it were – truly felt. After time among others, there are a myriad of sensations that exist in an ‘unprocessed’ form within us. Perhaps an idea that someone raised made us anxious, prompting inchoate impulses for changes in our lives. Perhaps an anecdote sparked off an envious ambition that is worth decoding and listening to in order to grow. Maybe someone subtly fired an aggressive dart at us, and we haven’t had the chance to realise we are hurt. We need some quiet time to console ourselves by formulating an explanation of where the nastiness might have come from. We are more vulnerable and tender-skinned than we’re encouraged to imagine.
By retreating into ourselves, it looks as if we are the enemies of others, but our solitary moments are in reality a homage to the richness of social existence. Unless we’ve had time alone, we can’t be who we would like to be around our fellow humans. We won’t have original opinions. We won’t have lively and authentic perspectives. We’ll be – in the wrong way – a bit like everyone else.
We’re drawn to solitude not because we despise humanity but because we are properly responsive to what the company of others entails. Extensive stretches of being alone may in reality be a precondition for knowing how to be a better friend and a properly attentive companion.
IN A SULK
It is, of course, not entirely mature. We’ve been silent for quite a while now. They’ve tried to ask a number of times what was wrong and we just shook our head blithely and said (rather unconvincingly) ‘Nothing!’
Sulking combines intense anger with an intense desire not to communicate what one is angry about. One both desperately needs to be understood and yet is utterly committed to not explaining oneself plainly. Having to explain oneself is indeed the central problem: if our partner or friend requires an explanation, then this is proof they are not worthy of having anything explained to them. Which brings one to the odd privilege of being the recipient of a sulk: one only gets into a sulk with people whom one feels should understand, that is, people one respects. It is one of the stranger gifts of love.
At some level, the structure of the sulk reveals a debt to earliest childhood. We didn’t have to explain back then. Others saw through our tears, our inarticulacy, our confusions: they found the explanations when we didn’t have the ability to verbalise. That was the greatest kindness – and we miss it.
The most articulate person may simply not want to explain themselves in the confines of a relationship or close friendship; it seems like a betrayal of that romantic dream of being understood without needing to utter a word.
Even in a very successful relationship, there is only a tiny amount that a lover should ever be expected to know of their beloved without it having been explained in language. We shouldn’t get furious when our lovers don’t guess right. Rather than bolting our mouths and retreating into the comforting silence of a sulk, we should have the courage – always – to try to explain. We should never hold it against people for not understanding bits of our psyches we haven’t had the courage to talk them through.
Envy has been so taboo for so long – at least two thousand years – that some of us are tempted to claim that we ‘never feel envy’. Such a pronouncement isn’t psychologically possible. Envy is a fundamental mood for all of us. And yet maybe the trick isn’t simply to suffer from it, but to learn from it.
Envy matters because it can provide us with a host of insights into our potential, our passions and our interests. Every time we envy someone, we are encountering a clue as to who we deep down really want to be – and in part probably could be. We don’t envy everyone. We envy those who we feel have what we deserve, what we are interested in – and what we could perhaps one day attain. Every person we envy contains suggestions as to our future possible selves.
The real problem isn’t that we feel envy, but that we envy in such unexamined and fruitless ways. For a start, we feel deeply embarrassed by our envy, and so tend to hide the emotion from our conscious selves. Secondly, we don’t have faith that there is anything to be learnt from envy, and so we hope the mood will pass, like a vicious fever.
And thirdly, we start to envy certain individuals in their entirety, when in fact, if we took a moment to analyse their lives calmly, we would realise that it was only a small part of what they had done that really resonated with, and could guide, our own next steps. It might not be the whole of the restaurant entrepreneur’s life we wanted, but really just their skill at building up institutions. Or we might not truly want to be a potter, yet we might need a little more of the playfulness on display in the work of one example we read about in a supplement.
The more we drill into our envy, the less attached we need to be to the actual lives of the particular people who triggered it.
The qualities we admire don’t just belong to very specific, very attractive locations we discovered them in. These qualities can be pursued in lesser, weaker (but still real) doses in countless other places, opening up the possibility of creating many smaller, more manageable and more realistic versions of the lives we admire.
There are few more shameful confessions to make than that we are in a lonely mood. The basic assumption is that no respectable person could ever feel isolated – unless they had just moved country or been widowed. Yet in truth, a high degree of loneliness is an inexorable part of being a sensitive, intelligent human. It’s a built-in feature of a complex existence.
It takes a lot of energy to listen to another person and enter sympathetically into their experiences. We should not blame others for their failure to focus on who we are. They may want to meet us, but we should accept the energy with which they will keep the topic of their own lives at the centre of the conversation.
It is deeply unlikely that we will ever find someone on exactly the same page of the soul as us: we will long for utter congruity, but there will be constant dissonance because we appeared on the earth at different times, are the product of different families and experiences and are just not made of quite the same fabric. So they won’t be thinking just the same as us on coming out of the cinema. And looking out at the night sky, just when we want them to say something highbrow and beautiful, they will perhaps be remembering a painfully banal and untimely detail from an area of domestic life (or vice versa). It is – almost – comic.
Once we accept loneliness, we can get creative: we can start to send out messages in a bottle: we can sing, write poetry, produce books and blogs, activities stemming from the realisation that people around us won’t ever fully get us but that others – separated across time and space – might just.
Loneliness makes us more capable of true intimacy if ever better opportunities do come along. It heightens the conversations we have with ourselves, it gives us a character. We don’t repeat what everyone else thinks. We develop a point of view. We might be isolated for now, but we’ll be capable of far closer, more interesting bonds with anyone we do eventually locate.
Loneliness is simply a price we may have to pay for holding on to a sincere, ambitious view of what companionship must and could be.
We know we’ve done something not very nice – and possibly really quite bad. We might try to brush off the sense that it’s our fault. We like to tell ourselves that we’ve done nothing wrong – and that others are making a fuss about nothing. But now we’re in a more candid mood, we can see that we have in fact let another person down or given them very reasonable grounds for disliking us and being angry. We’re accepting a picture of ourselves in which, very sadly, we have to admit that we can be difficult, even awful, to be around.
The immediate result of our shame is a certain shiftiness. We’re acutely aware we’ve got something to hide. We make an exaggerated pretence that all is well; we nervously laugh off any prying questions; accusations make us bristle – precisely because we know they are true. Our shame makes us furtive, brittle, anxious and cold.
And yet, in reality, we’d like to confess, apologise and own up – but it’s hard to unburden ourselves, because we fear others’ critical reaction. We don’t need to be told we’re an idiot or horrible, selfish or irresponsible; we’re deeply conscious of this already. We’d only be hearing from others the kinds of things we’re already very used to telling ourselves.
What we’re ideally looking for is what, in religious terms, used to be called absolution: forgiveness that’s tied to our own genuine appreciation of the wrong we’ve done. In a perfect world, if we owned up cleanly, they would relent; if we admitted our sorrow and shame, they’d put aside their contempt and indignation.
Being forgiven doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter what we did. We simply secretly wish that our woe at what we’ve done could be properly appreciated and could then set us on the path to redemption. In short, and with utter sincerity, we’re so sorry.