Chapter 3.Self-Knowledge: Behaviours


The Need for a Cry

One of the wisest things about young children is that they have no shame or compunction whatsoever about bursting into tears, perhaps because they have a more accurate and less pride-filled sense of their place in the world: they know they are extremely small beings in a hostile and unpredictable realm, that they can’t control much of what is happening around them, that their powers of understanding are limited and that there is a great deal to feel distressed, melancholy and confused about. Why not then, on a fairly regular basis, sometimes for only a few moments at a time, collapse into some highly salutary sobs at the sheer scale of the sorrow of being alive?

Unfortunately, such wisdom tends to get lost as we age. We get taught to avoid being, at all costs, that most apparently repugnant (and yet in fact deeply philosophical) of creatures: the cry-baby. We start to associate maturity with a suggestion of invulnerability and competence. We imagine it may be sensible to imply that we are unfailingly strong and in command of what is going on.

But this is, of course, the height of danger and bravado. Realising one can no longer cope is an integral part of true endurance. We are in our essence and should always strive to remain cry-babies, that is, people who intimately remember their susceptibility to hurt and grief. Moments of losing courage belong to a brave life. If we do not allow ourselves frequent occasions to bend, we will be at great risk of one day fatefully snapping. 

We labour under the misapprehension that the only thing that could justify tears would be one clear and unambiguous catastrophe. But that is to forget how many miniscule elements go wrong every hour, how much supposedly ‘small things’ can impact us and how extremely heavy they may end up feeling in a bewilderingly short time.

When the impulse to cry strikes us, we should be grown-up enough to consider ceding to it as we knew how to in the sagacity of our fourth or fifth years. We might repair to a quiet room, put the duvet over our heads and give way to unrestrained torrents at the horribleness of it all. We easily forget how much energy we normally have to expend fending off despair; now at last we can properly allow despondency to have its way. No thought should be too dark any more: we are obviously no good. Everyone is evidently extremely mean. It’s naturally far too much. Our life is – undoubtedly – meaningless and ruined. If the session is to work, we need to touch the very bottom and make ourselves at home there; we need to give our sense of catastrophe its fullest claims. 

Then, if we have properly done our work, at a point in the misery, some idea – however – minor will at last enter our minds and make a tentative case for the other side: we’ll remember that it would be quite pleasant and possible to have a very hot bath, that someone once stroked our hair kindly, that we have one and half good friends on the planet and an interesting book still to read – and we’ll know that the worst of the storm is over.

Our societies do us an injustice in promoting either sentimental jollity or outright terror. What life actually demands is a judicious mix of stoicism, gallows humour and plentiful sobbing. Despite our adult powers of reasoning, the needs of childhood constantly thrum within us. We are never far from craving to be held and reassured, as we might have been decades ago by a sympathetic adult, most likely a parent, who made us feel physically protected, kissed our forehead, looked at us with benevolence and tenderness and perhaps said not very much other than, very quietly, ‘of course’. To be in need (as it were) of mummy is to risk ridicule, especially when we are a couple of meters tall and in a position of responsibility. Yet to understand and accept one’s younger longings in fact belongs to the essence of genuine adulthood. There is in truth no maturity without an adequate negotiation with the infantile and no such thing as a proper grown-up who does not frequently yearn to be comforted like a toddler.

In sensible households, we should all have signs, a bit like the sort they have in hotels, that we can hang on our doors and announce to passers by that we are spending a few minutes inside doing something essential to our humanity and inherently connected to our capacity to live like a grown-up: sobbing like a lost child.

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