Chapter 3.Self-Knowledge: Mood


On Living in a More Light-Hearted Way

The arguments for approaching life in a grave, serious and unsmiling mood are overwhelming: we are clearly a profoundly wicked species, we continually perpetrate monstrous suffering on one another, our greed and viciousness know no bounds, our minds are fickle and largely out of control, no one gets through existence unscathed and everyday is bad until – eventually – the worst of all happens. The only people one could imagine smiling through this kind of horror show would be the still-too innocent or the actively deluded.

And yet, one of the odder-sounding conclusions we might reach, after having had our fill of every kind of awfulness, is that there might still be a way to live light-heartedly amidst catastrophe, not because we don’t know – about the unjustified pain, the miserable errors and the imperfection of everything – but precisely because we do; because we know it all so so well and have had enough of ruminating on despair, a stance of defiance towards difficulty that draws its energy from full and over-intimate acquaintance with it. 

This is the laughter that comes not when one has never really cried but when one has cried for years, when every pretty hope has been trampled on, when one has made some properly dreadful mistakes and been repaid amply for them – and when one has fully considered ending it all, but then decided – at the last moment – to keep going, not because of anything one can expect of oneself, not because one holds on to any standard belief in a good life, but because – amidst the shitshow – one can’t help but notice that the sky is a delightful azure blue, that there’s a Bach cello concerto to listen to and that there’s a sweet four year old holding on to her mother’s hand asking how ducks sleep at night. And so despite everything, the loneliness, the shame, the compromise, the self-hatred and the sure knowledge that the agony isn’t over yet, one turns to the light and says a big rebellious obstinate joyful yes to the universe (which naturally doesn’t give a damn).

Sometimes well-meaning people try to get others to cheer up by by telling them that they are beautiful, that they deserve good things and that they have a share of the divine in them. Bless such efforts and those for whom they work, but for the rest of us, there might be another way, this based not on sentimental bromides but on staring down the darkness and refusing to let it terrify us. We might build ourselves up by accepting with grace that, naturally and non-negotiably, we are total idiots, others are mostly horrid and almost nothing ever really comes right… and yet we’re going to keep at it anyway. We become the sort of people who understand that rearranging the deckchairs on the titanic would not have been a waste of time, because of how nice the band would have sounded and how much time there really was, all things, considered, before the icy waters started to lap at one’s black tie trousers and how crucial it was to let those last joyful notes ring out in the clear arctic night.

What lies behind this light-hearted approach isn’t naivety, it’s the lightness that comes from registering every kind of heaviness and transcending it. We can pick up on what’s distinctive in this attitude by comparing two masterpieces of art, one by Velazquez, painted in 1632, depicting the most sorrowful moment in the Christian history of the world, the other by made in 1979 by Monty Python, showing us the crucifixion of a non-descript everyman with a truculent determination not to bemoan his fate unduly.

Velazquez is classically tragic, but Monty Python’s closing song brazenly tackles the business of dying on a cross and plays it for laughs: ‘Life’s a piece of shit, when you look at it’. Instead of plunging us further into feelings of sorrow, the mood is mocking and utterly committed to refusing gloom: ‘Always look on the bright side of life… purse your lips and give a whistle’.

This strategy of defiance insists on squaring up to the grimness, and then asserting control over it through mordant dryness. In the Middle Ages, a tradition arose of condemned people on the scaffold turning to the crowd and making a witticism about their situation. Commenting on this gallows humour, Freud recounted a man being led out to be hung at dawn saying, ‘Well, the day is certainly starting well.’ One aristocrat in the French Revolution, on being ushered up to the guillotine (then a brand-new high-tech killing machine), looked up at its complicated workings and asked, ‘Are you sure this is safe?’ Rather than being slowly gnawed at by sideways glances at the truth, the gallows humorist insists that they will not be silenced by it, they roll their sleeves up, grab it tenaciously and remove its sting through comedy. 

True light-heartedness begins with an appreciation of one’s utter cosmic unimportance and nullity: nothing we have ever done, said or thought matters in any way. It’s only the monstrous illusions of our ego which give us an impression that we count, and then torture us that we don’t count enough. Furthermore, no one will ever particularly understand us or love us properly – and that isn’t a personal curse, but an iron-clad fact of nature we would do well to stop kicking against and to be constantly disappointed by. Everything we deeply want either will not happen or will be unsatisfying when it does. We must stop crying as if any of it really mattered or there ever was another way. We must pity ourselves and then change tack. The tragic view is obvious. Being miserable is the default. Everything makes very little sense. Now let’s surprise ourselves with a little irresponsible laughter, the kind it can take a lifetime of sorrow to perfect.

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