Chapter 3.Self-Knowledge: Fulfilment


Small Acts of Liberation

It’s not necessarily a well-flagged problem: we tend to situate the risks to our happiness elsewhere – but for a proportion of us, the greatest obstacle to our flourishing lies in a high and persistent degree of inhibition. We are, in a range of areas, painfully hesitant about saying what we deeply want, appreciating where we are talented and pursuing our objectives in the world with a decent amount of tenacity, strategy and courage. It can look as if we might be simply well-mannered and quiet but we are something more pernicious and self-harming: ashamed of what we seek and, in the largest sense, of who we are.

Part of the reason we stay meek for too long is that we imagine a more forthright life in unhelpfully dramatic terms. We picture it involving radical large-scale moves and major upsets of people we care about, and therefore understandably withdraw from the prospect of unleashing offence and chaos. But this isn’t what directness invariably has to mean. We could come to view the business of speaking up in more modest terms, as an evolution rather than a revolution; and go in for a few confidence-building measures that nevertheless stand a chance of slowly wearing away at our unhelpful timidity.

We might consider a range of everyday moves that point the way to a more liberated way of living.

1. Taking pleasure in our accomplishments

The timid tend to live – paradoxically – in terror of being accused of boasting. So whatever they have accomplished, they take great care to hide. If something has gone well, they publicly put it down to luck and privately assume that far worse is soon to come. But there might be an opportunity, every now and then, to acknowledge what has been a success. One might try, on occasion, to stop putting oneself down and open up about a success one has been involved in. It could feel as dangerous as shoplifting, yet there might be genuine benefit in taking the measure of, and a little pride in, one’s strengths and virtues.

2. Walk into rather than away from a fear

We are used to taking our fears as reliable alarm bells. If we don’t want to go to the party, it must be because gatherings are dangerous. If we don’t want to start a new initiative, it must be because the risk is untenable. But some alarms may be going off for no good reason at all, simply because we’ve grown up feeling suspicious of ourselves. Fear, which is in principle there to help us take care of our interests, may be shielding us from being properly alive. We might – at selected points – need to hear an alarm, ignore it completely and walk on.

3. Cause problems for someone else

Our impulse is always to accommodate other people. We laugh at their jokes, go along with their plans and try never to ruffle their feathers. But inside, we may also be very angry, have a legitimate grievance and something important we need to say or do that bucks the trend. And therefore, we could at moments radically inconvenience someone, not to be bloody minded, but because there is an important principle at stake which we don’t this time want to give up on. We might learn the subtle art of being, where it really counts, a pain.

4. Flirt

To be inhibited is to assume that it would be unwelcome and a little shocking to show anyone else that we liked them and might be likeable in turn. We would never dare to pay compliments or allow ourselves to be overt in our enthusiasms. After all, other people always have partners; we’re never their type and we’re anyway a bit disgusting. Except that none of that may be remotely true. There is a loneliness in almost everyone that we may be able to provide a hugely fitting answer to.

5. Stay in bed a bit longer

We are terrified of being deemed lazy and defend ourselves against feelings of unworthiness through heroic work schedules and iron self-discipline. It feels more bearable to be permanently busy and in pain. But we might dare to push against our masochism and try, in a minor way, to try out something we’ve never dared: a bit of insurrection. We might go home early or take a morning off, we might accept that a bit of self-indulgence, a bit of not-caring-what-they-will-say, belongs within the economy of any well-lived life.

6. Treat yourself

Part of our innate shame is likely to manifest itself in an inner austerity. It might always feel better to sidestep pleasure but we might, in the name of mental health, throw the habit of a lifetime away and sometimes, without guilt, simply daydream for a few hours, buy ourselves an expensive piece of clothing (preferably in a bold colour) or step into a bakery and ask for a large slice of blueberry cake or a Portuguese custard tart (or two).

7. You are (a bit) amazing

You are – whatever your flaws, which we’ve heard quite enough about already – part of cosmic creation, an extraordinarily original and vibrant witness to the universe, partaking of the same sort of biological matter that wrote Paradise Lost and sent rockets to Jupiter – and possessed of your own unique moments of lyricism, insight and brilliance. 

A deeply heretical set of thoughts rears its head: perhaps you deserve to be here. Perhaps you are not inherently shameful. Perhaps you are allowed love and, every now and then, to be loved in return. Perhaps you can be at ease with who you are, with what you want and with all the mistakes and embarrassments you have (like all of us) generated. Perhaps no one would complain if you took a few baby steps to freedom.

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