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Calm: Serenity


For Those Who (Privately) Aspire to Become More Reclusive

For most of history, societies have equated good lives with active outward noisy ones: lives spent spearing enemies in battle, sacrificing oneself heroically in the name of God, achieving high office and fame, amassing riches and honours and becoming known for artistic and scientific breakthroughs. To this, the modern age has added its own demands. A good active life should involve commercial success, a wide circle of friends, frequent foreign travel, close knowledge of a number of cities, awareness of leading ideas in art and technology, a sense of fashion, viewership of recent drama series and, almost inevitably, a twice weekly high intensity workout.

It has always seemed odd to argue for something else, what one might call a quiet life, a life where one lives outside of an expensive urban center, where one works to satisfy material needs and intellectual curiosity but without frenzy or emotional craving, where one might only intermittently check the news, rarely travel very far, almost never go out in the evenings, stay in touch with just a few friends, spend a lot of time in nature, exercise by going for walks, eat simply (mainly fruit and vegetables), seldom buy anything expensive, disregard most new books – and strive always to be in bed by ten.

The modern world makes sure that we know at all times just how much we might be missing. It is a culture in which intense and painful doses of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) are almost inevitable. We hear of defined centres where the most exciting things must be happening. At one time it was New York, for a few years it was Berlin, in the coming years, it will (perhaps) be Auckland. There are books that have to be read, and films that must be seen. There are people we should be visiting and opportunities that we must not pass up. It can feel like a privilege, until we become aware that it is a coercion.

Art has tracked and nurtured our noisy enthusiasms. Traditionally, most works have displayed the exploits of brave aristocrats, usually in battle, and the dramatic and self-abnegating feats of religious figures. There were strong jawed men on horseback and haughty ladies in profile, saints ascending to heaven and Biblical heroes defending virtue against satan.

Yet as the world became ever noisier, a minority tradition emerged with a new mission in mind: opening our eyes to the unexpected charms of ordinary, modest lives. The pioneers were the artists of the 17th century Dutch republic. In the canvases of Johannes Vermeer or Pieter de Hooch, there are no military processions or divine annunciations, there is something far braver and more redemptive: people like us, doing the simple important normal things, sweeping the yard, putting away the laundry, checking the kids’ hair for knits and getting supper ready.

Pieter de Hooch, A mother delousing a child’s hair, 1658

It was the genius of the Dutch artists to demonstrate that there might be as much opportunity for bravery, good sense and kindness in a kitchen or a yard as there might be on a battlefield or in a royal palace. They have been joined in subsequent centuries by artists comparably interested in the everyday: the quiet interiors of Wilhelm Hammershoi, the gardens of Erasmus Engert, the unassuming moments captured in the photographs of Jessica Todd Harper.

Erasmus Engert, A Garden in Vienna, 1828

Jessica Todd Harper, Becky in the Den, 2003

Defenders of quiet lives know that there are, of course, some genuinely special things going on in the world, but they do not let the obvious signs of glamour be their guide to these. The novel they might really need to read is almost certainly not currently winning prizes or in the bestseller lists. It may have been written two hundred years ago and be available mostly in second hand editions. They know that what is precious can be jumbled up with uncomplicated and straightforward things. Great intelligence may not be accompanied by academic qualifications. A deep conversation can be had with a relative who likes watching snooker on television and has stopped dying their hair. The defenders of quiet lives are themselves scared of missing out but they have a rather different list of things they are afraid of not enjoying: their children growing up, empty days without commitments, truly getting to know their parents, the sky at dusk, long baths, early mornings in the kitchen with the cat.

The quiet understand how much can be drawn out of a single experience, if one takes the time to turn it over in one’s mind. A trip taken ten years ago isn’t really over. So much of it remains unattended in memory: the light on the first morning by the harbour, the little museum with the geraniums in the courtyard, the tomato salad by the forest… Nothing ever disappears, it’s just waiting for the outer world to still before yielding its riches. We would need to experience so much less if we knew how to draw appropriate value from what we had already done and seen. Our impulse for constant movement may at heart be a confession of an inability to process. We feel the need for so many new experiences because we have been so poor at absorbing the ones we have had. 

Were we to be good travellers, we would know how to treat a walk to the shops as its own kind of precious adventure. We might grow a little more like curious four year olds who constantly stop, every few paces, to take in a new and extraordinary sight: a weed growing between two bricks, an oddly shaped cloud with a silvery tail, a contrail between two warehouses, a dog looking pensively at a bunch of daffodils, a piece of graffiti on a lampost, a fishmonger’s window with Dover soles and John Dorys resting on ice. It is rare to pay any of this attention when one has larger ambitions in view. But the quiet know that, contrary to all expectations, this may in fact be the center of existence, life is not elsewhere, this is what one would miss were it to have to come an end soon.

The quiet are not simply quiet out of appreciation, they are also quiet out of caution. They understand the toll that noisy lives surreptitiously exact, they know – perhaps better than those who still maintain crowded diaries – how prone we are to exhaustion, over-stimulation and collapse. They may even have lived through a breakdown themselves, when a few too many responsibilities and excitements, late nights and emotional dramas inducted them brutally into how fragile our hold on reason can be. They are living quietly to guard against folly and paranoia, anxiety and despair. They appreciate how much unglamorous routines and night after night by themselves or one or two very close friends protects them against the return of delirium.

It is easy to measure how much money we are making. It’s much harder to notice how much calm we lose in the process. We don’t keep a close eye on the true price of our noisy lives; we don’t properly add up what the trip to another country on business might have done to our levels of serenity and creativity or to our relationship with those who matter. We don’t notice how agitated every newspaper article makes us feel and how dispiriting every encounter with a false friend can prove. We’re like early scientists handling uranium without awareness of the dangers. We don’t notice what a shock to our sensitive minds it is to step into a room full of raucous acquaintances and to try to make small talk for a few hours. This is an experience it might take a month of quiet evenings to heal. We don’t understand that insomnia is our minds’ revenge for all the thoughts we have carefully managed not to have in the day and our anxiety is a bid for us to pay heed to our neglected sensitivity.

Good parents have a handle on the dangers of over-exhaustion in young children. They know that after some bright lights and dancing, jokes and games, it will be time for a nap. They know the tell-tale signs of tetchiness and a catastrophizing mindset. We take no comparable care with our equally fragile temperaments. Modern society has few visible adults reminding us that it might be enough now; it remains up to us to make the superhuman efforts required to put ourselves to bed.

An ordinary life is heroic because ordinary-sounding things are never actually ordinary or in any way easy to manage. There is immense skill and true nobility involved in bringing up a child to be reasonably independent and balanced; maintaining a good-enough relationship with a partner over many years despite areas of extreme difficulty; keeping a home in reasonable order; doing a not very exciting or well-paid job responsibly and cheerfully; listening properly to another person and, in general, not succumbing to madness or rage at the paradox and compromises involved in being alive.

We have probably already had enough excitements for many lifetimes. We have seen enough people, gone to enough places, bought enough things. We need to stop the forces of the world from continuing to draw us away from our true home. There is no center, there is no party to which we haven’t been invited. There is just us, here, now, somewhere on the pale blue dot, doing our best, surrounded by unobtrusive beauty, with a too-often unknown need to rejoin the silence and reopen our minds to vastness – and, along the way, to start going to bed far earlier.

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