Chapter 5.Calm: Serenity


Swearing in the Woods

We’re tempted to swear (even if only under our breath) at a myriad of moments in the course of our daily lives: when the car ahead of us stalls just as the lights turn; when our partner is twenty-six minutes late (already) though they promised that this time they’d be punctual; when we’re just settling down in a cafe to do some work and realise we’ve forgotten to charge the laptop; when there’s a particularly wrong-headed article in the newspaper… 

But in a curious – and important – way our ire is misdirected. We’re maddened by a specific detail when the real cause of our frustration is in reality much grander and more general. It is essence the human condition – the metaphysics of life – that distresses us so much and with which we are constantly colliding in small ways and large. We are fated never to be far from fury and sadness:

– 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: we are steering more or less blind. 

– Because we can imagine so much more than we have and live in mobile-driven, mediatised societies where envy and restlessness are a constant. 

– Because the progress of our careers and of our finances play themselves out within the tough-minded, competitive, destructive, random workings of an uncontained capitalist engine.

– Because we rely for our self-esteem and sense of comfort on the love of people we cannot control and whose needs and hopes will never align seamlessly with our own.

– Because we are burdened by the traumas and difficulties of complex personal histories which unconsciously distort all our reactions to current situations 

– And because we are subject to the random workings of fate, which have no connection whatever to justice or happiness.

The 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer labelled such issues the ‘metaphysical torments’ of being human; he likened them to ‘design faults’ in the original construction of the human animal, a creature seemingly expressly designed by nature to suffer and lament without end. But Schopenhauer urged us not to feel miserable about this or that irritant, not to obsess over the stupidity of one particular spouse or one specific colleague, one government or one nation. We were instead to focus outwards from our own travails and more rightly curse the whole basis of existence and the very structure of cosmic reality. 

As Schopenhauer’s great hero, the ancient Roman sage Seneca asked: ‘Why cry over parts of life? The whole of existence calls for tears.’ He could, with even greater relevance, have said: ‘Why swear at a specific irritant, when it’s the whole of life that needs to be told to fuck off.’ 

Persuaded by the importance of acknowledging metaphysical misery head on, we should – at an appointed time, with a few fellow suffering humans in tow – ritualise our insight. We should head off into the woods, out of earshot of more respectable company and there perform a highly cathartic exercise. We should lift our heads to the sky, take a deep breath, fly high over the memories of every wrong that’s ever been done to us, every mistake we’ve ever made, every romantic hope that’s ever been dashed, all that went awry in our childhood and education and every ridiculous thing we’ve ever said and done – and should gather all this into a mighty feeling of non-specific rage with whose help we should then shout as loudly as we can: 

Fuck you, existence, you bastard-cunt! 

Fuck you, human nature;

Fuck the fucking cosmos; 

Fuck the Big fucking Bang. 

Fuck you time and your fucking sadism

Fuck you nature that makes us all shits and fucking fools.

Fuck fucking that’s meant to be so fucking great and fucks up our whole fucking lives 

Fuck the fact that we’ll get fucking old, unless we fucking die fucking first; 

Fuck self-consciousness that drives us fucking mad; 

Fuck God who must be fucking deranged to make this fucking shithole

– and who doesn’t fucking exist any fucking way. 

Fuck me, fuck you, fuck everyone. 

Fuck, fuck, fuck!

We’re all so fucking fucked. *

N.B. This choral ode gains hugely in poignancy if one refrains, in day to day life, from employing impolite language. 

It doesn’t literally have to be a forest that we go into for this session of cosmic swearing – but it is the ideal symbolic location. To the classical, ancient Roman imagination, the woods and forests represented the opposite of the city. In the city, there were law-courts, shops, elegant houses, fine temples, schools, baths; beyond the walls of the Empire, in the wild woodlands of Germany, fearsome tribes enacted mysterious and primitive ceremonies. They would congregate around special trees and howl at the stars, cut weird symbols into the trunks and make sacrifices to their savage gods. The Romans believed that one could only ever be on a single side of this divide: either one was a citizen of the Empire, at home in the city. Or one was a Barbarian, crouching in the dark clearings of the primaeval forest. But for us, it may be necessary to be – in effect – creatures of both worlds. We need the artificial refinements of the city but we also need to commune with our uncivilized selves – that is, with the parts of who we are that are crushed and dismayed by the demands of ordered, careful, rational existence and need occasionally to let out an unrestrained fearsome howl. 

It’s not enough to do this exercise only once. Our animal nature is governed – as in so many respects – by a cycle of rising tension and a growing need for release. After a cursing session, we can return from the woods calm and satiated; for a time, we can look with tender indulgence on the follies of our partner and co-workers, we can be gentle, relaxed and generous at the little inconveniences of bureaucracy and government. But then the sap of anger will rise once more: the moron from accounts will intervene at length in a meeting, a parent will trap us in an unwelcome commitment, our partner won’t concede a point… And soon enough, it will be time to return to the woods once more and lend our pain another fucking chance to echo through the pine trees and get out of our stupid fucking lives for a time.

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