Chapter 3.Self-Knowledge: Mood


Of Course We Mess Up!

Maybe you’ve crashed again – and you’re in the dark familiar place. As ever, one mess-up reminds you of all the fiascos you’ve generated in the past and, more broadly, of your fundamental idiocy and – beyond that – the doubtful nature of your entire existence. 

The next steps from here are well known: retreat, despair, flagellation, feeling yet smaller, ever greater doubt and deeper self-loathing. You have mined this cavern expertly over the years. Maybe – before this latest mini catastrophe – you’d been feeling a bit stronger, you’d come to expect a little more of life. As if! This is a return to reality; you are back now where you assume you belong, the sad subterranean place from which you should have never have sought to escape.

But what about if, this time, just for once, as a mad experiment in living (and with little left to lose), you tried a different route, you chose a fresh approach to despair, you chose to argue with it using a strange weapon moulded out of an attitude of radical melancholy and defiant vulnerability. 

What if you told yourself a few sharply different things. For a start, how on earth were you to know? How are any of us meant to lead the unblemished lives we cruelly assume it’s our responsibility to lead when we possess so little of the information, about ourselves and the conditions of life, that are required? Why do we keep feeling surprised and angry that we fail around love and work, friendship and family given that we have so few of the tools necessary to live with any semblance of wisdom? The schools don’t work, the books don’t know and our minds are desperately intermittent ambiguous and misfiring organs. The point is not whether or not we will mess up but just how badly and in what area. Failure is the ineluctable norm.

But there are options to how we tell the story of each new reversal. We might thread these into a narrative of continuous gloom, or we might assemble them into a more compassionate and imaginative (and sometimes warmly funny) tale. Sometimes failure might just be a mishap rather than a sign that we don’t deserve to live. A rejection might not have to be a harbinger of unlimited doom. It is open to us to arrange the very same facts into another kind story.

Nor should we torture ourselves thinking that others wouldn’t have made our mistakes. They didn’t come from the same place as we did. We had our own distinctive histories that made us particularly predisposed to blindness and weakness in particular areas. 

What is sure is that none of us is ever beyond regular encounters with total stupidity. We should accept our idiocy with grace. We need only think ahead to old age to lose any remaining brittle attachment to dignity. In a little while, sure enough, we’ll once again be as helpless as an infant but a good deal less sympathetic, with prostate issues and an adult bib. The best wisdom we’re capable of involves never losing sight of our own ridiculousness – in a kind way.

Naturally, the reality of our inner lives can feel unusually desperate to us. But that’s only because we don’t know the lives of others in sufficient detail. If we did, we’d find all the same longing, compromise, misery and awkwardness. We aren’t uniquely awful; we just know ourselves unusually well. 

What we need is the darkest kind of celebration, a politely giant fuck you to the universe for the way we have wound up as bits of semicoherent, semi-conscious suffering biological matter pinned to a spinning rock near a fading star without a clue of how to conduct ourselves meaningfully. All who can recognise the miserable facts with dark humour are our natural friends, to whom we should turn and share bleakly funny jokes as we head to the gallows and the ultimate catastrophe that awaits us all. 

We may be experts at beating ourselves up, but this is a banal sport we’ve triumphed at for too long. Let’s try explore the forgotten glamour of giving ourselves a break and, once in a while, of turning towards light, reassurance, and a bit of compassionate cosiness.

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