The world, as many of us are well aware, is in a state of utter chaos. We can easily imagine the Byzantines having a similar conversation as the Visigoths sacked Rome, or Aztec citizens observing to each other as the Conquistadors pillaged Tenochtitlan. This has likely been the conversation held by all people throughout all of recorded history. Yet, what makes this particular observation so salient, is the extensive and intensive creep of this chaos throughout almost all of our lives. Climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, environmental degradation, corporate control; we are mired in problems with seemingly no way out.
The common complaint when anybody says that there is something wrong with this or that is ‘what shall we do about it’? We demand answers. Or, more to the point, we demand someone to tell us what to do.
Maybe not an answer, but here is a suggestion.
When almost every single realm of life has become an appendage of the very chaos we seek to dispel, the single radical act left to any of us is simply…to do nothing.
But this is a very peculiar type of nothingness. This is not nothing as inertia or mechanical repetition, but ‘nothing’ as a severe and (as much as we can) complete break from the system of chaos as it stands that we support with the small choices we make every day.
There are so many types of nothing we could engage in. A good one for starters is, turn off the TV (and stop letting corporate advisors tell you how to think). After that, you can stop purchasing new phones and new clothes and new toys every week (and contributing to the pollution of the planet). You can even stop buying plastic (and adding to the poisoning of animals and ecosystems).
Doing nothing is not so much doing nothing as it is stopping what you are currently doing; in doing so, you open up a negative space of freedom where finally something new can actually appear. Geoffrey Bezos would go broke if we stopped purchasing things off Amazon, and the Earth would stand a better chance of surviving if we stopped using plastic. The negative field is ripe with possibilities. Instead of purchasing all your food from stores you could try your hand at growing something on your own; no longer using plastic will encourage you to consume differently and arguably, more ethically.
The single radical act left to us in a world that has been almost complete enlisted into the service of chaos is to do nothing. The withdrawal of support for a system that is utterly chaotic is perhaps the most radical thing we can do. The power in this is not that it is a guide or blueprint for what comes after. Nobody can predict that. But, it opens up a space where imagining and perhaps implementing a different, less chaotic world becomes possible.
There are people in our lives whom we remain friends with for no other apparent reason than we have been friends with them for such a long time. They have woven the inextricable threads of friendship throughout time; pulling at those threads could result in the entire tapestry falling apart.
The tone might suggest that we remain intimate with old friends for the pragmatic (and very unfriendly) reason that it would simply be too difficult or uncomfortable to end the relationship now after considering how far you have grown apart.
But there is another reason for keeping contact with old friends. They grant us a vantage point into a version of ourselves that we no longer are. Within the friendship is a time capsule of memories that reveal a life lived and a vista of the previous person we were.
Again, this sounds like keeping someone around because of the memories we shared and not because of genuine friendly love. And, to an extent, this retort is correct, yet there is value in being able to reminisce, not only because it reveals who you used to be, but because it also reveals the reason you became (and remain) friends in the first place.
It can be a scary prospect to tell someone that despite all the good times (and bad) you shared, you are no longer compatible. But you live, not for others, but for yourself. If you cannot be true to your feelings, the friendship disintegrates into a farce of false feelings and manufactured kindness. It will have all the embellishments of friendship without any of the substance. It is far kinder and ironically, more friendly, to tell someone it is over than to pretend that it isn’t.
There comes a time where we must take stock of our own lives; ponder, consider and reflect on who we were and who we now are. People are not tools; one should not simply have a friend because they are useful or gratifying. We grow and we change; as do others. Much like our wardrobe or study, our friendships should be free of clutter and unnecessary items. Old friendships can be beautiful recordings of who we were and instructions on how we can be better in the future; but they can also be sources of conflict, dismay and disappointment. It is up to us to decide and act accordingly.
From a very young age, we adopt what can be called a comparative mindset. As children, we compare our grades with our classmates, or compare our parents’ treatment with our siblings. In adulthood, we define our sense of wealth with those around us, from the cars we drive to the clothes we wear; or, we understand how well we are doing in life with our peers. The implicit problem in all this, which is by no means a revelation, is that we fail to look at ourselves as we are. We become, in the words of Krishnamurti, ‘second hand people’.
David Bohm grasps the essential problem in his insightful collection of essays titled On Dialogue. Comparison does not just change what we think, but also how we think. If the content of thought is explicit,then its structure is implicit. A metaphorical equivalent would be the difference between the water and the current of a stream. Water is the content, but the current is the structure, always guiding and shaping the content, yet operating unseen. In seeing how difficult it is to even think about life except through comparison, we see the extent of how the implicit structure of thought operates. For instance, if we cannot think about what it means to be successful, to be rich, to be smart, or to be strong without comparing it to other people, it gives us an indication of just how conditioned our thinking is.
The danger of thought structured by comparative thinking is that your personality becomes second-hand (I am smart because he is dumb, I am happy because my car is more expensive than his); experiences become echoes (the sunrise yesterday was more vibrant, the rain last night was more soothing); and people lose their dignity (you are dumb because I am smarter, you are unworthy because we were both born poor but I became rich). In short, life becomes derivative, experiences become shadows, and people become insubstantial.
This comparative mindset empties the world of so much joy. ‘You say this is better than that; you compare yourself with somebody who is more beautiful, who is more clever’, writes Krishnamurti in his altogether heartfelt and moving collection of talks On Love & Loneliness.
Comparative judgment makes the mind dull; it does not sharpen the mind, it does not make the mind comprehensive, inclusive, because, when you are all the time comparing, what has happened? You see the sunset, and you immediately compare that sunset with the previous sunset.
When we compare, we do not see the utter uniqueness and singularity of life. By comparing, we dull the vitality of experiences by reducing it as another number in a sequence.
When you are comparing, you are really not looking at the sunset which is there, but you are looking at it in order to compare it with something else. So comparison prevents you from looking fully.
By comparing, we are not looking fully because we only see something in relation to something else. Everything becomes an echo, a reflection, or a repetition.
To really look at the sunset, there must be no comparison; to really look at you, I must not compare you with someone else.
This is the unparalleled majesty of love. When we truly love someone, we do not see them in comparison with other people. This is why the disgruntled lovers’ remark that they are not as beautiful as previous partners, or they are not smart or rich enough entirely misses the point. In love, there is no comparison. The beloved is uniquely, irreducibly themselves. To see with lovers’ eyes is to see freshly, to see without comparison. As Krishnamurti says, ‘when I look at you without comparing, I am only concerned with you, not with someone else’. In this radical act, dignity is restored.
The inherent danger in comparison is that it stops us from seeing things for what they are, whether it be a sunset, a partner, or even ourselves. After a lifetime of conditioning it is hard to think differently, but if we are to see things justly and accord the respect each moment deserves, we must look anew, with fresh eyes, and see things for what they are on their own terms, and not in comparison with something else.
The paradox of melancholy lies in how the seeds of sadness sit latent (and ever ready to germinate) within happiness. Just as life implies death and pleasure implies pain, happiness implies sadness. It is the foresight that this momentary (and precarious) lofty feeling will soon (all too soon) descend back to the pits of despair which constitutes a feeling of melancholy.
While basically anything can prompt melancholy, one particular situation will always provide fertile soil for this most paradoxical of feeling: parties.
You might have been a bit hesitant to go, but after some careful and considered cajoling by friends, they convinced you to come along to the party. As the music pumps and the drinks are poured, you find yourself (surprisingly) having quite a good time. But then, you are suddenly struck by a feeling, perhaps the same feeling that caused your anxiety about going to the party in the first place. You begin feeling melancholic.
Although you are now surrounded by friends and immersed in the bonhomie of the party, you realise just how joyless and lonely your day to day existence is. You begin to see that while you’re having fun tonight; the other 99% of your week is devoted to mind-numbing drudgery and minutia. This moment is effervescent, bubbly, but soon to pop (any moment now) and all that will remain are the still waters of everyday life.
You want to feel good like this all the time, but you know you can’t. The very knowledge of your somewhat miserable life outside of the party is the very thing stopping you from enjoying the party. So, not only do you feel melancholic, but (adding insult to injury) you begin feeling disappointed in yourself, because you now have a slither of happiness within your grasp that only you are stopping yourself from enjoying.
There is another type of melancholy that typically arises at parties. If the first is melancholy because life beyond the party is seen as lacking, the second type arises when life within the party is seen as lacking.
At the party (but one can easily substitute a bar, club, pub or festival), one will be surrounded by all types of people having a stupendous time. The lights are low, alcohol is being passed freely; and banter and laughter fill the room.
The idea of sociability at work here is that people relate to each other best when they are close together, in a good mood, and maybe, just a little bit drunk. But the melancholic sees through this pretence. Or rather, they see artifice and the beauty of constructed situations as pretence, as fakery and mimicry. The cheeriness and superficial banter are not seen as invitations to pretend – in the tradition of the Italian carnivale – but rather, are seen as indications of the emptiness that lies within most social occasions. The melancholic – perhaps more than other people – sees that real connection requires more than false smile and the conscious effort to be funny and friendly.
The melancholic grasps in the joyful atmosphere of parties what is truly lacking: intimacy. Melancholy, if anything, is moral witnessing to the disparity between how things are, and how we would like them to be.
While the world around us emphasises buoyancy and joyfulness, melancholy alerts us to the inescapable fact that life is inextricably entwined with pain, suffering, and loneliness.
Melancholy, viewed in a more philosophical light, is not a problem at all; for melancholy is at its heart a realisation, a revelation, and a prompt from the deep recesses of our soul to deal with the way we are living. It is a call from the beyond to take stock of our life, and a suggestion to begin living it differently.
It is both a blessing and a curse that we are not privy to the private tortures, turmoils and torments which afflict the souls of those we pass by. We have enough problems of our own that we would hardly be able to shoulder the burdens of others. However, while this fact frees us, it also puts us in an incredibly ambiguous position because it means we do not know just how close someone is to jumping off the metaphorical (or literal) edge.
We should all be a little nicer because we simply have no way of knowing what those around us are going through. The telemarketer who calls at irritating hours might just have been abused by the previous ten people who answered; but they are only trying to feed their children. The teenager who says, yet again on a hot day, that the ice-cream machine at McDonald’s is not working, was herself just screamed at by the previous ten customers and her parents are currently contemplating divorce. Your colleague who was extremely curt and made you feel like an imbecile has just lost her father. If only we knew these private tortures, we would be a little more understanding and much less likely to react in irritation or frustration.
We should, therefore, be charitable in our interpretations when people are rude to us or fail to give us what we want. There is always a reason. We should be able to look back at times where we felt misunderstood: if only they knew what we were going through, they would understand why we were so rude or unfair in our responses or reactions. What we might need is just a healthy dose of imagination.
Those who are rude suffer from a severe under-appreciation of just how powerful they are. They suffer from a misunderstanding of just how much of an impact their words and actions have on those around them. They might think that they themselves are quite deplorable and pathetic while those around them are so strong and powerful, so their words cannot possibly have any effect on them; but they do.
We simply do not know what anyone is going through at any moment. Rather than giving us license to speak and act however we want, this should prompt us to be more cautious and respectful to those around us and to treat them with the same consideration we hope, in our own moments of weakness or strife, they would treat us.
You might not be able to be great, but you can be good; you may not be able to save everyone, but you can save yourself. This is the central message found at the end of Voltaire’s inspired 1759 text Candide.
It is not for nothing that the subtitle of this work was Or, Optimism, because Voltaire was seeking to undermine the conviction – prevalent at his time, but no less so today – that things can ever be perfect. The world, like the humans who inhabit it, will always be absurd, contradictory, flawed and messy; the best we can hope for is to try to live well and be good, however insignificant our acts may be.
While in Constantinople, the three protagonists of the book (Pangloss, Candide, and Martin) hear that two Viziers and the Mufti had been strangled and several of their friends had been impaled. As they leave the court, they come across an old farmer sitting under an Orange tree near his farm.
Pangloss, who was as inquisitive as he was argumentative, asked the old man what was the name of the strangled Mufti.
“I do not know,” answered the worthy man, “and I have not known the name of any Mufti, nor of any Vizier. I am entirely ignorant of the event you mention; I presume in general that they who meddle with the administration of public affairs die sometimes miserably, and that they deserve it; but I never trouble my head about what is transacting at Constantinople; I content myself with sending there for sale the fruits of the garden which I cultivate.”
The old farmer understood a noble truth: his life was not grand, but its simplicity taught him to be humble; he was not in a position of power, but this protected him from vice and wickedness; he was not wealthy, but his twenty acres which he worked protected him from want. The farmer did not try to change the world around him, he merely tried to find a place for himself in the world as it was; and for that he achieved peace and protection ‘from three great evils – weariness, vice, and want’.
Unlike the garden I cultivate with care and affection, Voltaire was being more metaphorical when he said ‘we must cultivate our own garden’. In one sense, he was saying that we must keep ourselves busy. ‘Idle hands do the devil’s work’. But, he was also sharing with us his belief that we need to keep a separation between ourselves and the world. We must be careful not to get too caught up in the trials and tribulations of what is going on around us because, most likely, there is nothing we will be able to do to change it. If we pin our thoughts according to public opinion and feelings upon what is going on in the world, we will be liable to develop a schizophrenic mind and to cry constantly.
Voltaire was not telling us to be pessimistic or to give up, but instead, to looks at the world clearly and with good judgement, and be optimistic about the things you can change, and to not be caught up in the things you can’t.
We lash out because we haven’t been listened to, not because we’ve been listened to too much.
At the end of the day, sometimes what we really need is not for someone to agree with us, or to give us advice, but simply to hear us; to validate our feelings, to recognise our inner turmoil, and to say in the glimmer in their eye or the slight curl of their lips, that they hear us.
It is often the case that when we pour our hearts out to someone, they miss the point. We may be complaining about how hard we are finding life, and they respond by telling us just how good we have it. Or, we may be relaying an inner turmoil we are experiencing, and they try to give us advice on how to deal with it. It is all well and good, and often comes from a place of love. But, sometimes what we really need, the only thing we need, is for our feelings to be recognised, and through this, for someone to agree that what we feel is real.
This is part of the power of a good psychologist or friend. They won’t tell us what we should do, but rather, will listen and affirm what we are feeling. They will tell us, without passing judgement or providing advice, that how we feel is indeed valid. Sometimes, that’s all we need: someone outside of ourselves to say that it really is understandable why we feel the way we do.
The hidden danger in feelings that go unrecognised is they do not go away. They may fade from conscious perception, but do not disappear. They leave traces, scars on the psyche that must be attended to if they are to properly heal. Sometimes people cannot do this for themselves, and having someone else validate and accept certain feelings and thoughts is a safe and reassuring way to let them come to the surface, be dealt with, and to ultimately, allow the process of healing to begin.
At the heart of really hearing someone is: validation, compassion and acceptance; sometimes, the very things the speaker cannot grant themselves. This ‘emotional nectar’ as Allain De Botton calls it, is crucial in affirming thoughts and feelings that someone may be too meek or unwilling to accept themselves. When we are falling apart and life becomes too much, sometimes the most powerful remedy is simply another person who can look you in the eyes and say (with words or without them) ‘I hear you’ and give you a big hug.
Some winning phrases might include:
- Wow, the way [x] made you felt must have been really…
- It must feel terrible the way that…
- That sounds really rough. What do you think you should do?
- I can hear how you’re feeling, you must want to…
- Are you feeling really…
- I understand how you feel, if [x] happened to me I would…
These simple reflective sentences don’t diminish or ignore what is said. They are not empty verbal cues. They are, rather, prompts to help recognise and validate feelings and encourage their elaboration; that is, to create a space where the person speaking, feels like they can keep talking because they are finally being heard. And at the end of the day, that is maybe all we really need.
To a significant extent, many of us do not know what we really want. Sometimes we think we know – maybe a girlfriend, lots of money, or something as simple as some new shoes – but upon attainment, the pleasures are momentary, and when they fade we are even more disillusioned than before. We then proceed to tell ourselves that it was merely the wrong girl, or insufficient money, in what Carl Jung would call lying to the heart with the head. There is, quite often and at the very least, a gulf between what we think we want and what we actually want.
You might say you want a partner. You find one and in the beginning, things are great. Your want has been fulfilled. But then, certain feelings begin creeping up on you. The initial feelings of lust and wonder begin to fade, and you start thinking to yourself that this person isn’t right for you. But perhaps what is really going on is that what you really wanted (even if you cannot realise this yourself) was to love yourself, and you simply used another person as a substitute. Of course your feelings would fade and an inner suspicion of unfulfillment would arise because, you thought you wanted one thing, but you really wanted another.
Maybe you tell yourself you want a nice car. You’ve been looking at a few for a long time. $20,000. It is a steep price to pay, but you tell yourself it is worth it. After buying it, you drive it everywhere, keen to show it off to those you know. But after a while, the joy begins to fade. Why is this? Perhaps because it was never about the car in the first place. Perhaps you grew up feeling poor, never lived in a luxurious home, and your parents sometimes struggled making ends meet. What you wanted wasn’t a car, but to escape the feeling of inner poverty that besieges you every time you seen a Mercedes drive past or a commercial for the new BMW; which is to say, often.
The proliferation of all types of goods and services that consumer capitalism affords us might be worse at satisfying our wants than confusing them. With the clever use of advertising, we associate being trendy with buying the latest clothes, or being refined by purchasing nice watches, or transcending our feeling of poverty by taking out a loan for a fancy car. We trick ourselves into believing these commodities will grant a magical power to remedy us of our deep-seated feelings of angst, inferiority, or disappointment, only to soon find that they don’t…and never can. They are, as Zygmunt Bauman points out in Consuming Life ‘incommensurate’, your feelings of inferiority or angst, while momentarily mitigated by a new purchase, will never be fully satisfied because what you really want will never be found in a new watch or a fancy car.
This is precisely the problem that befalls celebrities, especially music artists who will sing about how they now have money and fame but still feel empty inside. They, like us, mistook one thing for another. They thought that the money and fame would bring them the security, love, and warmth that they needed, but really all it ended up giving them was fake-friends, empty houses, and the incessant demand to be someone they’re not.
Of course, perhaps like the man in the painting by Itzhak Richter, you do just want a glass of wine (or a car or a watch). But the real issue is mistaking psychological wants for material ones. Only by listening to ourselves and paying attention to the deeper parts of our psyche will we come across the fundamental realisation that there are very few things we actually want: we want love, compassion, reassurance; to feel secure, to feel wanted, and to feel that we are worthy. Seeking these qualities in objects will only disillusion us further.
To come into contact with what is most important, we need to be able, perhaps for the first time, to listen to ourselves. Only then will we be able to journey into new lands and discover ways to give ourselves what we really want.