A Therapeutic Journey - by Alain de Botton


A Therapeutic Journey - by Alain de Botton

Read: 2024-01-19

Recommend: 10/10

There are many quotes that I love about this book. Here are just a few of them:

  1. “To complain in love is a noble and honorable skill”. It reminds me of the weekly family hour when my wife and I would talk about how we annoyed each other in the previous week.

  2. “All that we need is the love of a few friends or even just one special person and we can survive.” I can survive if some people hate me.

  3. “freedom from the pressure to be normal, ambitious, or optimistic” There are more aspects of freedom besides political freedom.

  4. “rehearsing notions of self-love, self-forgiveness, kindness, and self-acceptance on a daily basis.” That is why we have so much suffering since we don’t rehearse these frequently enough.

  5. “1. Before every anxiety-inducing date or speech, we should mutter to ourselves, like a talismanic prayer, that the Milky Way is 100,000 light years across and that the most distant known galaxy is GN-z11, 32 billion light years from the restaurant or conference center.” Don’t worry!


Here are some text that I highlighted in the book:

  1. Our illness is trying to draw attention to our problems, but it can only do so inarticulately, by throwing up coarse and vague symptoms. It knows how to signal that we are worried and sad, but it can’t tell us what about and why.

  2. There is an art to being ill—and to daring at last to listen to what our pain is trying to tell us.

  3. A healthy mind combines an appropriate suspicion of certain people with a fundamental trust in humanity. It can take an intelligent risk with a stranger. It doesn’t extrapolate from life’s worst moments in order to destroy the possibility of connection.

  4. Every bad thing we have ever said or done reverberates and cripples our self-esteem. We are unable to assign correct proportions to anything: A drawer that doesn’t open feels like a conclusive sign that we are doomed; a slightly unfriendly remark by an acquaintance becomes proof that we shouldn’t exist. We can’t grade our worries and focus in on the few that might truly deserve concern.

  5. Art is a weapon against despair. It is a tool with which to alleviate a sense of crushing isolation and uniqueness. It provides common ground where the sadness in me can, with dignity and intelligence, meet the sadness in you.

  6. We need not feel ashamed, the photograph suggests, that we are in despair; it is an inevitable part of being alive.

  7. We cause ourselves a lot of pain by pretending to be competent, all-knowing, proficient adults long after we should, ideally, have called for help. We suffer a bitter rejection in love, but tell ourselves and our acquaintances that we never cared. We hear some wounding rumors about us but refuse to stoop to our opponents’ level. We find we can’t sleep at night and are exhausted and anxious in the day, but continue to insist that stepping aside for a break is only for weaklings.

  8. It is a sign of the supreme wisdom of small children that they have no shame or compunction about bursting into tears.

  9. But moments of losing courage belong to a brave life. If we do not allow ourselves frequent occasions to bend, we will be at far greater risk of one day fatefully snapping.

  10. 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 a half good friends on the planet and an interesting book still to read—and we’ll know that the worst of the storm may be ebbing.

  11. When we say that someone has fallen mentally ill, what we are frequently indicating is the loss of long-established reasons to remain alive. And so the task ahead is to make a series of interventions, as imaginative as they are kind, that could—somehow—return the unfortunate sufferer to a feeling of the value of their own survival.

  12. One of the great impediments to understanding our lives properly is our automatic assumption that we already do so.

  13. To be liberated from the past, we need to mourn it, and for this to occur, we need to get in touch with what it actually felt like. We need to sense, in a way we may not have done for decades, the pain of our sister being preferred to us or the devastation of being maltreated in the study on a Saturday morning.

  14. Only when we have returned afresh to our suffering and known it in our bones will it ever promise to leave us alone.

  15. Then, disengaged from the ordinary static, we should circle the matter and ask ourselves with unusual guilelessness: What is coming up for me here? Holding the partner, work challenge, invitation, or disagreement patiently in mind, we should whisper to ourselves: What do I really think? What is the real issue? What is truly going on? What is actually at stake?

  16. What have I looked at but never seen?

  17. One of the stranger aspects of feeling anxious is that we can be both suffering and markedly uninclined or unable to acknowledge that we are in fact so.

  18. We are sometimes like a high-powered aeroplane that can be grounded because a small screw is missing.

  19. What am I really worried about right now?

  20. Why is this thing so worrying?

  21. What could I tell myself to make this less bad?

  22. sentence: I feel compassion for myself because . . .

  23. All that is required is a weary, dutiful realization that the principal way to overcome our history is to address it. We should try to remember not out of nostalgia, but in order to be able to forget, once and for all.

  24. Spoilt people are those who were denied love, not those who had their fill of it.

  25. They don’t need to instil terror; they have the self-confidence to be ignored or overlooked brusquely when a child’s development requires it.

  26. The good parent is tender: Of course teddy’s lost eye doesn’t matter in the broad run of things, but the child’s world is small and minor things loom large in it. Good parents therefore have the patience to respond to the child’s minor crises and delights from a sure sense that maturity will emerge through precisely targeted indulgence.

  27. In a choice between thinking that we might be bad ourselves or accepting that a parent was the disappointing and cruel one, self-hatred tends to win most of the time. It is, in the end, less devastating to deem ourselves ungrateful and awful than to imagine that we were brought up by small-minded mediocrities who were too ill or troubled to care.

  28. We might go so far as to say that anyone who has ever suffered from mental illness and who recovers will do so—whether they consciously realize it or not—because of an experience of love. And, by extension, no one has ever fallen gravely mentally ill without, somewhere along the line, having suffered from a severe deficit of love. Love turns out to be the guiding strand running through the onset of, and recovery from, our worst episodes of unwellness.

  29. The temptation can be to rush in and give an answer full of blustering, impatient confidence. Of course it will be fine! Nonsense, there’s no tiger! And so on. But the properly loving response is to take the worry as seriously as its progenitor does and address it head on, without scoffing or denying the scale of the concern. We might get out a pad of paper and a pen and run through all the many anxieties. It doesn’t matter if this is the first or the fifteenth time we have done so. Love gives us the patience to enter imaginatively into the other’s worried mind and to try to settle it by sensible examination of what there might be to fear.

  30. Both we and our carer may be deep into adulthood, but if their tenderness heals us, it is likely to be because, in covert ways, what they are doing through their ministrations is repairing a deficit of early love. They will be reparenting our broken child selves.

  31. One of the cruellest aspects of mental illness is that it strips us of our ability to believe that other people might be suffering in the way we are. We aren’t being wilfully egocentric or arrogant; we are condemned by our illness to a feeling that we are uniquely pitiful, uniquely unacceptable, uniquely awful. The central legacy of mental illness, and a major contributor to our suicidal impulses, is a feeling of exceptionalism.

  32. This is especially tragic because the best cure for mental illness is company. Our disease denies us access to precisely what we most need in order to get better.

  33. It should be so easy to reach out, to share the burden, to lend a comforting hand, to swap stories—and it would be so life-giving. But no fellowship seems possible in this insular hell. Sadness has wrapped each sufferer up in a pitiless sense of their own singularity.

  34. We will start to heal when we realize that we are in fact always extremely close to someone who is as wretched as we are. We should therefore be able to reach out to a similarly broken neighbor and lament in unison.

  35. We tend to be imprisoned by a set of stories and judgments that we repeat to ourselves without even noticing how partial, and usually unfair, they are to us, and how open they might be to being questioned and nuanced. For example, we may tell ourselves: Respectable people don’t have those sorts of sexual urges, or Good jobs are always unenjoyable, or No really good person would ever want to leave this kind of relationship, or, more bluntly and definitively, You are an ugly failure.

  36. But speaking these arguments aloud to an outsider can help us to see their absurdity and cruelty—and ultimately break their unwarranted spell over us.

  37. To be mentally ill is to be swamped by secretions of fear, self-hatred, and despair that, like surging seawater through a pumping station control desk, knock out all our higher faculties, all our normal ability to sensibly distinguish one thing from another, to find perspective, to weigh arguments judiciously, to see the wood for the trees, to correctly assess danger, to plan realistically for the future, to determine risks and opportunities, and, most importantly, to be kind and generous to ourselves.

  38. Mental illness—which doesn’t present itself as an illness to us of course, it’s far too clever for that—frequently leads us to worry incessantly about the future:

  39. We should be disloyal to those who brought us up in an atmosphere of fear in order to save what remains of life from always appearing doom-laden. We may be trying to stay close to them by continuing to panic alongside them, but we owe it to ourselves to break the circle of worry and to make our future different from the past by remembering, localizing, and mourning what belonged to yesterday even as it pretends to be about tomorrow.

  40. Returning to health can involve learning to go back to the child we once were, seeing ourselves in all our early helplessness and confusion, and bringing ourselves the benefit of adult compassion and insight.

  41. Japanese photographer Chino Otsuka, who, in a project called “Imagine Finding Me,” located old pictures of herself in a variety of childhood settings and then inserted her current self next to the child she once was.

  42. The priority is therefore to go back and, just like Otsuka in her project, stand beside our younger selves in all their difficulties.

  43. Our lost sad child is still inside us and won’t let us rest until we have been able to witness and appease them.

  44. We will be very lucky if we find this therapeutic figure at once, but the eventual prize should make even the longest search worthwhile.

  45. modernity has insisted that everyone—whatever their background or families of origin—should be capable of realizing the most stellar feats. No longer should anything—education, background, race, creed—stand in the way of ambition.

  46. It is one thing to promise us all a chance of success, it is another to hint—as our era constantly does—that a modest destiny is essentially unacceptable. While praising lives of outsized accomplishment, our era has thrown a shadow over the ordinary lives that most of us will by necessity continue to lead. The norm has ceased to be enough. We cannot be average without at the same time having to think of ourselves as being what our age resents above all else: losers.

  47. Though this too may sound like an advance, it carries a nasty sting in its tail, for if one is committed to believing in an order of things whereby those who achieve success invariably deserve to do so, then one is simultaneously signing on to a vision of existence in which those who fail must, with equal fairness, be deserving of their fate. In a meritocracy, an element of justice enters into the distribution of punishment as well as rewards. The burden of personal responsibility grows exponentially and explains why this age has seen a corresponding increase in rates of suicide, since the blame for a life that has gone awry can only reside narrowly within each of us.

  48. We are condemned to perpetual inadequacy in a radically unequal world of self-declared equals.

  49. Pessimism has been recategorized as a disease.

  50. So seriously does our age take itself that it doesn’t cease talking of its own melodramas and triumphs with a mesmerizing and maddening intensity. We have surrounded ourselves by gadgets that give us minute-by-minute insights into the perturbed and excited minds of billions of others—and that along the way deny us all necessary access to stillness, distance, and perspective, let alone time for self-knowledge and reflection. We grow convinced of the unerring importance of everything in the near term and can set nothing in its broader context. We pass our own mental perturbations on to one another under the guise of keeping ourselves “informed.” The media spreads our madness virally and without respite. We come under pressure to know at all times “what is going on,” without realizing how much we have abandoned ourselves to an enervating collective frenzy at the cost of our serenity and self-possession.

  51. ongoing lack of drama.

  52. We can accept the truth of an extraordinary redemptive idea that the modern age cannot tolerate: that it might be possible to fail in the eyes of the world and yet to remain valuable and deserving of love.

  53. If there is one generalization we can hazard about those who end up mentally unwell, we could say that they are masters at being very nasty to themselves.

  54. The way we treat ourselves is an internalization of the way others once treated us, either directly in the sense of how they spoke to us or indirectly in the sense of how they behaved around us, which could have included ignoring us or openly displaying a preference for someone else.

  55. It’s one of the more unexpected features of mental life that what manifests itself as “anxiety” is really, at heart, a form of intense self-suspicion.

  56. People who commit suicide aren’t those for whom a few things have gone very wrong; they are people who have encountered some otherwise survivable reversals against a background of fierce self-hatred. It is the self-hatred that will end up killing them, not the apparent subjects of their panic and sorrow.

  57. As ever, salvation comes through self-awareness. There is nothing inevitable about self-hatred.

  58. Our survival depends on a swift mastery of the varied arts of self-compassion.

  59. A particularly unfortunate consequence of mental illness is its power to close us off from the world, from its beauty, its interest, and its power to distract us from ourselves.

  60. It is artists who may best stimulate our appetite for observing the world through the evidence of their own heightened sensitivities.

  61. Indeed, it is against the backdrop of our difficulties that beauty becomes not just pleasing but moving—a reminder of our true home, to which we so long to return.

  62. Yinzhen was known to have been a deeply pious and serious man, but he evidently retained a secure hold on life’s real priorities, nudging us to recalibrate our own hierarchy of importance in the direction of the overlooked beauty of the everyday. If an emperor can do this, then we—for all our afflictions—can too.

  63. As Friedrich Nietzsche knew, “When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago.” We go mad from tiredness long before we notice the role that exhaustion is playing in stealing our sanity.

  64. Whenever we sense our spirits sinking and folly and anxiety pressing in on us, we should abandon all endeavors and head to the bedroom. We should be as proud of our regimented sleep patterns as we are of a neat house or a flourishing career.

  65. Understanding our vulnerability, we should never take seriously any worry that suddenly appears extremely pressing after ten in the evening. What we panic about in the early hours should automatically be discounted. No large conversation or argument should ever be undertaken past nine o’clock.

  66. It may look as if we should keep trying to fight our demons. In fact, we need to sidestep them with a nap.

  67. There remain plenty of reasons to live. We simply may not be able to see them until we have allowed ourselves the privilege of a weepy nap or a long night’s sleep.

  68. All of us have come from warm, watery encasements and, when mental troubles strike, we should immediately head back into the bath to be held, as the womb once did, in a tight aquatic embrace. Hot water is a symbol of love and care. It allows us to let down our guard and, as at so few other moments, to be at once defenseless and safe, naked yet cozy.

  69. The news media serves two essential constituencies: people who are running nations and businesses; and people whose lives are a little too quiet, a little too undramatic, and a little too serene for their own tastes.

  70. We owe it to ourselves to become willingly more ignorant of what is going on in our highly disturbed and disturbing media.

  71. Despite the pressure to “stay informed” and know “what is going on,” our real responsibilities lie elsewhere: in not knowing a great many things in order to keep faith with life itself.

  72. We don’t need to titillate ourselves with the thought that the world might boil or be rocked by a nuclear accident or that a new disease might ravage us. Let someone else keep an eye on the bigger picture, calling us only when the crisis is at the door; for now, leave us to fight our inner world-shaking struggles in a corner of a quiet, sunlit room.

  73. once we cease to crowd out our own reality; the glare of honesty will save us.

  74. The expectation that our life should be well, that we should be forever free of anxiety and despair, paranoia and loneliness, is both understandable in its ambition and confidence and yet quietly tormenting.

  75. we should take steps to make ourselves at home in the darkness.

  76. Our relationships may never go right, certain family members will always resent us, particular enemies will never come over to our side, we cannot correct mistakes in our career, there will invariably be doubters and outright sadists. But none of this should surprise us and we should not let undue innocence aggravate our mood. We should explore the unbudgeable sadness on sunny mornings, when our reasoning faculties are lively and calming, instead of letting matters unnerve us in 3 a.m. confrontations when we are too groggy and worn down to know what to answer our demons.

  77. Yet at the core of recovery from mental illness is the continually bewildering realization that our minds are, at key moments, objectively extremely unreliable and illogical. And, to compound the problem, they give us no sign at all that they might be any such things. They insist on their reasonableness even while they are behaving in what we can only much later deduce, with great patience and effort, is a foolish, harmful, or demented way. We have a grave enemy and deceiver right between our ears.

  78. Recovering mental health depends on doing something utterly counter-intuitive: doubting our first thoughts on pretty much all topics through an appreciation of our innate biases, how they are structured and where they come from. We should put a large distance between ourselves and any impulse that washes over us.

  79. At given moments, especially when we are tired, we should realize that we are not capable of thinking correctly and should therefore stop thinking altogether rather than mangle our conclusions any further. We should hold on to the idea that when we are especially distressed and upset, we will have lost our hold on the fragile thread of reason.

  80. There will be certain ideas that enter consciousness with which, politely, we should just refuse to engage—because we have done so too many times before and know they are futile and disconnected from anything real.

  81. We’ll be on the road to recovery and sanity when we see that one way to be properly reasonable is to appreciate how much of the time we aren’t able to be so. We aren’t disrespecting ourselves; we’re properly honoring our complex histories and the congenitally flawed thinking patterns they have unwittingly led us to.

  82. However impressed we may be by beauty and flawless achievement, what we should truly love is vulnerability. We begin to love, rather than merely admire, when others no longer have to exhibit perfection to seem worthy. Simultaneously, the people we should put our faith in are those who do not recoil from us in our frightened or hesitant moments, those who don’t just want to clap at us and be awed by our triumphs. They are those who can be moved by our crises, who are on hand in the dark hours, who will still be around when the rest of the world is jeering.

  83. “Love me for who I am” is the fateful rallying cry of all lovers headed for disaster. It is in reality a monstrously unfair—though entirely understandable—demand to be loved just as we are, with our panoply of faults, compulsions, neuroses, and immaturities. But with a modicum of self-awareness and honesty, we should only ever expect to be loved for who we hope to be, for who we are at our best moments, for the good that lies in us in a latent and not-yet-realized state.

  84. The spirit of true love should require that whenever there is feedback, we turn gratefully to our partner and ask for more, that we continuously search to access a better version of ourselves, that we see love as a classroom in which our lover can teach us one or two things about who we should become—rather than as a burrow in which our existing errors can be sentimentally endorsed and encouraged.

  85. True love is resilient. It is not destroyed by a detail but only ever by the way that a detail can’t be acknowledged or processed.

  86. Defensiveness can be outgrown. We can learn to measure in our hearts the difference between a complaint and an existential rejection.

  87. We could frame the attempt to listen to criticism without fury or hurt as belonging to one of life’s mightiest challenges—alongside sporting excellence or business success. Eventually, with a lot of effort, we would hope to reach the stage when a partner could point out with tact and humanity that we had bad breath or that our shoes didn’t match our sweater and, rather than reacting as we have grown up to do, we could simply turn to them, smile benignly and say what flawed humans should always respond with when another member of the species deigns to help them to grow into a better version of themselves: Thank you.

  88. To be vulnerable is to dare to take off the usual cloak of normality and sensibleness with which we navigate the world and, for once, to show someone who we really are, with all the fragility and unusualness implied.

  89. It’s a hugely complicated step to confess—especially in front of someone we fundamentally want to impress and secure the affection of that there are basic ways in which we fall short of what a sane adult is meant to be like.

  90. it’s only on the basis of mutual disclosure of susceptibility that a true bond can be built. We may admire paragons of strength and stoicism; we can never properly love them.

  91. Honest, vibrant love is an encounter between two vulnerable children who otherwise do a very good job of masquerading as adults.

  92. we become stronger by learning to speak the language of weakness. By letting our hurt, mentally fragile selves into the relationship, we open the way to a more nuanced, fruitful, creative, and accurate way of being an adult.

  93. What we find much harder to do is to forgive someone who appears to be behaving suboptimally on purpose, who seems to have made an active choice to mess things up,

  94. True love cannot be directed solely toward those who are admirable and virtuous. It has to soften our judgments in relation to people who are at points undeniably maddening and plainly wrong.

  95. Perhaps their rivalrous feelings toward a sibling have reached a pitch.

  96. all good lovers are in a way good psychotherapists: that is, the success of modern romantic relationships critically depends on the degree to which both partners can, at crucial moments, adopt a therapeutic attitude toward the other’s compulsions, blind spots, rages, and eccentricities.

  97. When relationships start, enthusiasm for our partners tends to be at a pitch.

  98. But this early phase of powerful admiration and longing rarely lasts. A few years in, our partner may still be an administrative whizz, a stylish dancer, a good cook, a knowledgeable thinker, a fixed favorite of our mother, or a superlative vet—and yet we now find it hard to feel or express too much wonderment. A sullenness has taken hold of us that does not lift. There is, somewhere deep inside us, a gigantic, stubborn “but . . .”

  99. It is, they say, typical to neglect what is always around.

  100. If we stop admiring, it is not because we are ever really bored or because it is “normal” to take someone for granted; it is chiefly only because we are, at some level, furious. Anger creeps into love and destroys admiration. We cease to delight because we unknowingly grow entangled in various forms of unprocessed annoyance. We can’t cheer them on because, somewhere deep inside, we are inhibited by trace memories of certain let-downs, large and small, of which they have been guilty without their knowing.

  101. Yet it is not the simple fact of being let down that counts very much; the true problem is created when there hasn’t been an opportunity to process our disappointment. Irritation is only toxic when it hasn’t been extensively and thoughtfully aired.

  102. With great unfairness to our partner, we may have forgotten to admit to our own sensitivities even as we developed a steady burden of resentment against their unknowing offenses.

  103. To refind our instinctive enthusiasm for our partner, we need to accurately locate our suppressed distress. We have to allow ourselves to be legitimately upset about certain things that have saddened us and then raise them—for as long as we need to—in a way that lets us feel acknowledged and valued. Because anger inflicts an ever-increasing toll the longer it is left unaddressed, a good couple should allow for regular occasions when each person can—without encountering opposition—ask the other to listen to incidents, large or small, in which they felt let down of late. There might be an evening a week left free for this form of “processing.”

  104. Wiser couples know that nothing should ever be too small to cover at length, for what is ultimately at stake in a marathon conversation about a single word or a minuscule event in the hallway can be the fate of the entire relationship. These lovers are in this sense like wise parents who, when a child is sorrowful, are patient enough to enter into the imaginative realm of the child and take the time to find out just how upsetting it was that there was a loud bang in the street or that one of Nounou’s eyes came off.

  105. To complain in love is a noble and honorable skill very far removed from the category of whininess with which it is sometimes confused. The irony of well-targeted and quickly raised complaints is that their function is entirely positive. Honesty is a love-preserving mechanism that keeps alive all that is impressive and delightful about our partner in our eyes. By regularly voicing our small sorrows and minor irritations, we are scraping the barnacles off the keel of our relationship and thereby ensuring that we will sail on with continued joy and admiration into an authentic and unresentful future.

  106. “reflective listening.”

  107. What psychotherapy realizes is that, in our agony, what we desire more than anything, more than we usually even understand, is companionship: for someone else to know that we are suffering and to feel a measure of our pain more or less as we experience it. We yearn to feel that another person appreciates the scale of our despair and the magnitude of our sense of injustice, while at the same time being deeply suspicious of, and alert to, anyone who might too hastily be trying to make our distress go away. “Answers” and “solutions”—because they seek to remove a problem at speed—may in our panicky moments seem indistinguishable from being asked to shut up and talk about something else.

  108. What we need to do instead is to paraphrase what our ailing companion has said, to build sentences that repeat back to them the essence of the difficulty they have expressed but in different words. This form of precis deftly signals two things: first, that we have precisely grasped what they have gone through, and second, that we have been doing more than listening passively. We haven’t dumbly and distractedly echoed their exact language, as a recording device would; we’ve taken the trouble to find a fresh set of words for the same story. Their woes have passed, and been sympathetically filtered, through the distinctive channels of our own minds.

  109. We become sentimental—that is, addicted to airbrushing away the uncomfortable aspects of reality, out of fear, not deafness.

  110. Feelings get less strong, not stronger, once they’ve been acknowledged. It is a move of exemplary generosity and maturity to let someone be sad and desperate around us without falling for the cruel temptation of saying something cheerful.

  111. A central way to disarm the danger of suffocating others with reality is therefore to resist the urge to tell them what we suspect is wrong with them. Whatever the provocation and however late the hour, we must never sink to giving out overly direct diagnoses or grand summaries of their condition.

  112. It is here that we should have recourse to one of the most emotionally compelling formulations in the psychotherapist’s vocabulary: “I wonder . . .”

  113. We don’t want anyone to be too certain about our situation, especially those things that might be decisively true but are very hard to take on board. We need the gentlest words to help us come to terms with the most arduous insights.

  114. As therapy sees it, the chief difficulty is not to identify someone’s problem but to help them see, feel, and accept it.

  115. Likewise, a skilled lover will know that pride and misplaced bravery might frequently lead their partner into diversionary behaviors and stories that mask their actual feelings. After returning from a lunch with their mother, they might turn the bitter relationship they have with her into a succession of humorous anecdotes involving the old lady and the waiter. But a tender lover schooled by therapy might add a small rejoinder: “It sounds like she still manages to hurt you every time you see her. It can’t be easy.” We would then, as the partner, perceive that we had landed on that most special of beings: someone—like the best sort of therapist and the most enticing of lovers—who knows us better than we know ourselves.

  116. Therapy knows that there are few loving mothers who do not, at points, wish their babies dead. And few respectful, affectionate children who do not fantasize that their parents might be annihilated, if only for a while. It knows, too, that it’s wholly normal to love someone and fantasize about having sex with someone else; or to completely forget why we ever committed to a partner only to recover the thread of our story a few hours later. Therapy is unbothered by the strangeness of our disloyal and entangled feelings. It knows that we are all a good deal stranger than we’re allowed to admit and it lets us be as unconventional as is helpful without judging or taking fright.

  117. Many people, after they’ve been in a relationship for some time, will privately admit that they are in many ways frustrated and disappointed by the person they’ve chosen to share their lives with. If pressed for details, they will have no difficulty coming up with a list of complaints about their partner:

  118. I need you to accept—often and readily—the possibility that you might be at fault, without this feeling to you like the end of the world. You have to allow that I can have a legitimate criticism and still love you. I need you to be undefensive. I need you to own up to what you are embarrassed or awkward about in yourself. I need you to know how to access the younger parts of you without terror. I need you to be able to be vulnerable around me. I need you to respond warmly, gently, and compassionately to the fragile parts of who I am; to listen to, and understand, my sorrows. We need a union of mutual tenderness. I need you to have a complex, nuanced picture of me and to understand the emotional burdens I’m carrying, even though I wish I weren’t, from the past. You have to see me with something like the generosity associated with therapy. I need you to regularly air your disappointments and irritations with me—and for me to do the same with you—so that the currents of affection between us can remain warm and our capacity for admiration intense.

  119. But there’s another scenario in which we understand that we are separating not because our relationship has gone badly but precisely because it has gone well. It is ending because it has succeeded. Rather than breaking up with feelings of hurt, bitterness, regret, and guilt, we’re parting with a sense of mutual gratitude and joint accomplishment.

  120. the only motive for the relationship is to ensure that we are not alone—which is never, when we reflect on it, really a good enough reason to monopolize someone else’s life.

  121. We can avoid feeling devastated by a breakup knowing that there are still so many other ways in which we need to develop. We may have learned so much but we’re still far from complete. It’s just that the lessons we now have to take on board are going to come from someone else—or from the always profoundly educative experience of being on our own for a while.

  122. Religions knew what art was for. It had nothing to do with remembering dates or understanding techniques. It was for crying with and imploring. It was for kneeling down in a solemn hall in front of, so that Vishnu or Guanyin, Mary or Nivaranaviskhambhin could hear what was tearing us apart:

  123. We may no longer believe in gods very much, but this doesn’t mean that art has abandoned its capacity to console and rescue us.

  124. qualities. Like so much else that we are surrounded by, we see it without noticing it. It belongs to a vast category of things which we rely on without for an instant stopping to wonder at, or deriving any satisfaction from, them. We are—for the most part—wholly blind.

  125. we might in turn learn to draw pleasure from thoroughly unprestigious things.

  126. We can survive and in distinctive ways thrive through a disciplined focus on the smaller elements around us that lie more reliably within our command and that offer us pleasure without exacting envy or punishing effort. We can nourish ourselves on the sight of flowers, on the smell of freshly baked bread, on an evening writing our diary, or on a walk around the park. We can take pleasure in an apricot, in a hot bath, in some flowering weeds—and, not least, in our own set of pillows that have so often and so generously, in the wake of our disappointments, received our tears.

  127. We might once have wanted to tame and educate the entire world, to have millions of people agree with us and gain the adulation of strangers. But such plans are inherently unstable and open to being destroyed by envy and vanity. We should gain security from knowing how much a devotion to home can shore up our moods if our wider surroundings grow hostile.

  128. It told us that waving flags at rallies or sounding important at meetings was all well and good, but that the true battles were really elsewhere, in the trials of ordinary existence, and that what counted as a proper victory was an ability to remain calm in the face of provocation, not to despair, not to give way to bitterness, to vanquish paranoia, to decode our own mind and to pay due attention to passing moments of grace.

  129. Tonight, we might—once more—choose to stay in, do some reading, finish patching a hole in a cardigan, try a new place for the armchair, and be intensely grateful that we have overcome the wish to live too much in the minds of strangers.

  130. For Buddhism, humans are perpetually at risk of forgetting their true irrelevant position within the natural world. We overlook our powerlessness and unimportance in the universal order. This amnesia isn’t a helpful illusion; it is responsible for much of our frustration, anger, and vain self-assertion. We rage at events because we cannot see the necessities we are up against.

  131. We are fated to have to take seriously ambitions and desires that make no sense in the wider scheme. We have to live knowing that most of what we do is in a cosmic sense ridiculous. Our lives are no more profound than those of an earthworm and almost as fragile. In so far as we can ever recover a little meaning, it is by ceasing to worry so much about ourselves and identifying instead with planetary reality—even to the point where we might contemplate our own mortality with a degree of resigned equanimity, fully and generously appreciating our absurdity—and using it as a springboard to kindness, art, and the right kind of sadness.

  132. Agony is baked into the human condition. We are suffering not by coincidence but by necessity.

  133. Yet not only are we sad, we are isolated and lonely with our sadness, because the official narrative is remorselessly upbeat, insisting that we can find the right partner, that work can deliver satisfaction, that destinies are fair, and that there is no inherent reason for us to lament our state. However, we don’t deserve—on top of everything else—to be forced to grin. We should be allowed to weep without being hectored into positivity. Our true overlooked right is not, after all, the right to happiness; it is the right to be miserable.

  134. The paintings lend us the courage to cut ourselves free from our unhealthy attachments, to say goodbye to concerns for status, to shun the pursuit of public esteem, to dismiss false friends who do us nothing but underhand harm, to accept the terror of disgrace, to reconcile ourselves to our own company, and to pursue connections with just a very few honest souls who have known struggles and been rendered kind by them.

  135. Occasionally, after a lot of grays, she goes for a pink, as if to hell with reserve, why not surrender to sweetness and take a risk with innocence? She’s giving us a hug and inviting us to come to the window to watch a new day with her through her frame.

  136. It is a superior form of intelligence to know the limits of intelligence; part of good thinking involves knowing when to stop thinking.

  137. Great artists have always remembered to celebrate the real reasons to keep living.

  138. So much of our upset stems from being belittled by a world that refuses to accord us the respect and recognition we know should be our due. One way to appease our bruised sense of importance is to be made to feel small with definitive and magisterial force by something obviously mightier than any human. Our sense that we have been overlooked and treated badly by our fellow citizens can be subsumed by an impression of how petty and insignificant all our society’s endeavors are next to the indomitable forces of nature, of which the peaks, created 60 million years ago by the titanic rippling of the Earth’s crust in the continental collision, are an especially impressive symbol.

  139. They are not scholars or monks but, through the good fortune of their biological makeup, have already reached the state of benign indifference and serene acceptance of fate that the wisest of humans struggle to attain after a lifetime of devoted effort.

  140. So then flowers were no longer an insult to ambition, but a genuine pleasure amid a litany of troubles, a small resting place for hope in a turbulent sea of disappointment.

  141. Curiosity has really been trying to do is to help our marriages, calm our anger with our colleagues, appease our disappointments, and bolster our capacities for calm and perspective. No one can look at any of the images it has sent back without a sense of awe that at once relativizes everything petty and regrettable that agitates and demeans us day to day.

  142. Like all great artists, and with comparable technical ingenuity, Curiosity has attempted to help us change our lives, away from superficiality and bitterness toward goodness, wisdom, and truth.

  143. The freedom that we can, in certain parts of the world, now take for granted—the right to own property, to express negative opinions about the government, and to live without fear of arbitrary arrest—is the result of five hundred years of fearless effort on the part of the defenders of liberty.

  144. we can nowadays lob sarcastic remarks at our mediocre rulers and look at the security forces without fear.

  145. Were we to draw up a charter of what we can call psychological freedom, we might need to include some of the following constituents: freedom from fear of judgment freedom from the weight of public opinion freedom from society’s ideas of normality freedom from society’s definitions of a good relationship freedom from standard beliefs about status freedom from expected consumption patterns freedom from fashionable opinions freedom from the pressure to be normal, ambitious, or optimistic

  146. great writers are ultimately simply those who know how to speak with special honesty about the panic and sadness of an ordinary life.

  147. We should dare to investigate the terrifying scenario so as to drain it of its strangeness and stop apprehending it only through the corners of our eyes in shame.

  148. We don’t actually ever need the whole of society to love us. We don’t have to have everyone on our side. Let the Robert Greenes of this world—and their many successors in newspapers, living rooms, and social media down the ages—say their very worst and nastiest things and be done with them. All that we need is the love of a few friends or even just one special person and we can survive.

  149. There are so many jealous people and we are prone to make mistakes that they can use to bring us down. What we must therefore try to do is cultivate—and look forward to leaning on—the affection and regard of sympathetic companions. Others may be scoffing, others may sneer every time our name comes up in conversation, but we will be secure. We will be somewhere far from the gossipy and plague-ridden city, living quietly with those who properly know us and for whom we won’t need to do anything more to deserve a place in their hearts.

  150. We may well fail, but we don’t need to fear it will be hell—and so we can afford to approach challenges with a little more freedom and light-heartedness. The cleverest and most humane writer who ever lived knew as much; in our panic we should trust him.

  151. Although we say that time is precious, our actions reveal our real priorities: We devote a huge portion of our conscious existence to making and trying to accumulate money. We tend to have a highly concrete and detailed sense of accounting around finances, while time invisibly slips away.

  152. “I play music, I sing alone, simply for my own fulfillment.”

  153. His activities were self-directed: He did them simply because he found them enjoyable, not because anyone had asked him or because they were expected of a civilized individual. And he had this luxury only because he had disregarded the nexus of money and the pursuit of status which is so closely connected to it.

  154. half-terrifying, half-consoling fact that our existence and all our pleasures and troubles are fleeting.


  156. Chomei continually reminded himself that a “worldly” life—which in his early and middle years he knew intimately—carries a heavy load of limitations, defects, and sorrows. The life of the well-to-do is less enviable than it outwardly seems. The fashionable world is full of what he called “cringing”: “You worry over your least action; you cannot be authentic in your grief or your joy.” In high society, it is always paramount to consider how any opinion will be judged by the other members of the social beehive. Envy is widespread and there is perpetual anxiety around losing status—which takes the satisfaction out of prosperity: “without a peaceful mind, palaces and fine houses mean nothing.”

  157. The point here is definitely not to learn to dance like an expert but to remember that dancing badly is something we might actually want to do and, equally importantly, something that we already know how to do—

  158. Dancing has been valued for allowing us to transcend our individuality and for inducing us to merge into a larger, more welcoming, and more redemptive whole.

  159. the whole point of redemptive, consoling, cathartic communal dancing is a chance to look like total, thoroughgoing idiots, the bigger the better, in the company of hundreds of other equally and generously publicly idiotic fellow humans.

  160. We should lose command of our normal rational pilot selves, abandon our arms to the harmonies, throw away our belief in a “right” way to dance or indeed to live, build the intensity of our movements to a frenzy, gyrate our heads to empty them of their absurd worries, forget our jobs, qualifications, status, achievements, plans, hopes, and fears—and merge with the universe or at least its more immediate representatives, our fellow new mad friends, before whom the disclosure of idiocy will be total.

  161. We need to relearn the neglected art of politely, on necessary occasions, being a pain.

  162. They overlook, because their childhoods encouraged them to, that anger can also be a fertilizer from which something a lot less bitter and a lot more alive can emerge.

  163. Do you have enemies? That’s simply the fate of anyone who has done anything worthwhile or launched any new idea. It’s a necessary fog that clings to anything that shines. Fame must have enemies, as light must have gnats. Don’t worry about it; just have contempt. Keep your spirit serene and your life lucid. Never give your enemies the satisfaction of thinking that they’ve been able to cause you grief or pain. Stay happy, cheerful, contemptuous and firm.

  164. Those who can’t lay down boundaries have invariably not, in their early lives, had their own boundaries respected.

  165. three powerful anxieties bedevil the boundary-less person: if I speak up, they will hate me if I speak up, I will become a target for retribution if I speak up, I will feel like a horrible person

  166. just as we can say no and still be kind, so another can have harmed us and yet remain, in their essence, good.

  167. We all have very similar and very able minds. Where geniuses differ is in their more confident inclinations to study them properly.

  168. we forget that boredom has many important things to teach us. It is, at its best, a confused, inarticulate but genuine signal from a deep part of our minds that something is very wrong.

  169. Increased knowledge has undermined our intellectual self-confidence.

  170. The normal way we set about trying to extend our lives is by striving to add more years to them—usually by eating more couscous and broccoli, going to bed early, and running in the rain. But this approach may turn out to be quixotic, not only because Death can’t reliably be warded off with kale, but at a deeper level because the best way to lengthen a life is not by attempting to stick more years on to its tail.

  171. The aim should be to densify time rather than to try to extract one or two more years from the grip of Death.

  172. The difference in pace is not mysterious but has to do with novelty. The more our days are filled with new, unpredictable, and challenging experiences, the longer they will feel. And, conversely, the more one day is exactly like another, the faster it will pass by in a blur. Childhood ends up feeling so long because it is the cauldron of novelty; because its most ordinary days are packed with extraordinary discoveries and sensations.

  173. time runs away from us without mercy.

  174. in fact it should really involve seeing familiar things with new eyes.

  175. The pioneers at making life feel longer in the way that counts are not dieticians but artists. At its best, art is a tool that reminds us of how little we have fathomed and noticed. It reintroduces us to ordinary things and reopens our eyes to a latent beauty and interest in precisely those areas we had ceased to bother with.

  176. We might live to be a thousand years old and still complain that it had all rushed by too fast. We should be aiming to lead lives that feel long because we manage to imbue them with the right sort of open-hearted appreciation and unsnobbish receptivity,

  177. We don’t need to add years; we need to densify the time we have left by ensuring that every day is lived consciously—and we can do this via a maneuver as simple as it is momentous: by starting to notice all that we have as yet only seen.

  178. Five times over the last 500 million years life has more or less had to begin again from scratch.

  179. Nixon is then, for us, not just a famously bad person but a version of our own flawed selves. Nixon’s failings were played out on the largest scale; our own disasters are more modest and local, but we too have—very often—been the shamefully guilty party.

  180. All the great people of today will eventually be forgotten. Their graves will be lost, the entire culture which gave them their prominence and rich rewards will disappear, and archaeologists will one day strive to decipher the identities of people we now find it unimaginable not to know.

  181. It’s an oddly comforting thought. The distinctions and achievements which seem to matter so much in life will eventually lose their meaning and an ultimate equality of neglect will unite everyone. It won’t matter who was the chief and who the pauper.

  182. The priest was pursuing what one might term a strategy of voluntary exile from the current preoccupations of his society.

  183. We start to be free when we can dare to become—in selected areas wilfully ignorant, when we no longer have to know the names of certain musicians that everyone esteems, when we don’t feel compelled to read particular books that have won prizes, when we are left cold by vacation destinations, clothes, foods, exercise regimes, political scandals, and ideas that are dominant, when we can stay home rather than attend parties with people we dislike—and when we can hear of a celebrity and genuinely wonder who they might be.

  184. Buddhism cannily understood that most humor arises from the omnipresent gap between our hopes and the available reality. We laugh not because things are happy but precisely because we have been helped to recognize that they are so damnably and incorrigibly sad.

  185. The secular West has traditionally relegated comedy to the realm of “entertainment”; it is “just” for laughs. Buddhism has been more ambitious. It understood that trying to elicit laughter can be the most effective means of prompting people to confront their pain and isolation. It isn’t a diversion from so-called serious things but rather the most graceful and kindly way of helping us to acknowledge and make our peace with them.

  186. What did Voltaire mean with his gardening advice? That we must keep a good distance between ourselves and the world, because taking too close an interest in politics or public opinion is a fast route to aggravation and danger.

  187. We should never tie our personal moods to the condition of a whole nation or people in general, or we would have to weep continuously. We need to live in our own small plots, not the heads of strangers. At the same time, because our minds are prey to anxiety and despair, we need to keep ourselves busy. We need a project. It shouldn’t be too large or dependent on many. The project should send us to sleep every night weary but satisfied.

  188. We should give up on trying to cultivate the whole of humanity; we should ignore things at a national or international scale. Take just a few acres and make those your focus.

  189. What we are truly being invited to see in the firefly is not an insect but a version of ourselves. We too are tiny against the darkness, we too have no option but to put on a desperate light show in the hope of enticing possible partners, and we too won’t last very long: Fireflies all die within three weeks.

  190. allocated a few brief moments in which to dance and give off a burst of light against the darkness of an always largely impenetrable universe that is already 13.8 billion years old.

  191. We too would have marveled at that long neck and admired the bright patterning and strange gait. But somewhere along the line, we stopped wondering—about giraffes and pretty much everything else as well. The world became familiar and then stale.

  192. As Hinduism sees it, our real purpose is to be done with life for ever. That is the true summit of existence. Hinduism reverses the Western equation: The sinful and blinkered are forced to live for ever, while the righteous and awakened are privileged enough to be able to die.

  193. Once we have let go of our ego like this, we may have a few more years left to live, but we can be sure that—eventually—we will not need to keep returning. Constant rebirth is the fate of those who cleave too tightly to their own selves. By contrast, those who have learned to surrender can at their demise merge with the universe and will never need to suffer the indignities of individual life again.

  194. Amid the graves, there is at least room for sympathy; there is space for thoughtfulness and tenderness. No one mentions an IPO. Whatever their wealth, everyone slips into a similar-sized coffin. The most famous and awe-inspiring are reliably forgotten within two generations and each corpse however large its last tax return—is quickly gnawed at by similar armies of undiscriminating worms.

  195. we should probably surrender our absurd and painful sense of the seriousness and importance of all that we are and do.

  196. The things that loom so large and are so painful and agitating in our own picture of our lives will leave almost no trace.

  197. But no animal on earth whose original habitat has altered as radically as ours has survived while evolving as little as we have. We are doing well enough, but we should be forgiving when aspects of our historically evolved constitutions interact awkwardly with distinctive features of modernity. We are, at points, like a fennec forced to live in Hampshire, an African elephant trying to make its way in Baden-Württemberg, or a tropical rock lobster making a go of it in the waters off Antarctica.

  198. Genetic evolution moves a lot less quickly than human history, making relics of much about our minds and bodies. It should be no wonder that we often eat too much, watch porn all day, develop backache, tremble at the thought of sharks, and get statistics entirely wrong. Narrowly speaking, it isn’t our fault. It’s just that a lot of who we are and what we want made a lot more sense in a world that no longer exists.

  199. Astronomy is the true friend of the melancholy mind, NASA and ESA its presiding deities. Through our immersion in space, our alienated perspectives can be confirmed and returned to us with dignity. We are allowed to anchor our disengagement with the human drama to the sides of passing meteorites or the moons of Jupiter.

  200. Our insignificance can be framed within the context of the 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars in the observable universe.

  201. They are a tool with which to take the sting out of our nagging sense of unimportance, our frustration at our modest achievements and our feelings of isolation.

  202. The best consolation for our sadness at how little ever works out is to cheer ourselves with the thought that the average stable lifespan of a star is only 8 billion years and that our sun has already burned for just under half of that. Soon enough, this middle-aged star’s increased brightness will cause our oceans to evaporate. It will then run out of hydrogen and become a giant red star, expanding as far as Mars and absorbing the whole of our planet, including the atoms of everyone and everything that is annoying us so much today.

  203. Before every anxiety-inducing date or speech, we should mutter to ourselves, like a talismanic prayer, that the Milky Way is 100,000 light years across and that the most distant known galaxy is GN-z11, 32 billion light years from the restaurant or conference center.

  204. Certainly things are lifeless, cold, and in suspension. But this is not the end of the story. Earth is like this not as a destination but as a phase. The deadness is a prelude to new life; the fallow period is a guarantor of fecund days to come. All living organisms need to recharge themselves: old leaves have to give way, tired limbs must rest. The dance and ferment could not go on. It may look as if nothing at all is happening, as though this is a trance without purpose. Yet, deep underground, at this very moment, nutrients are being gathered, the groundwork for future ebullience and dynamism is being laid down, another summer is very slowly collecting its strength.

  205. We should make our peace with our own midwinters and lean on nature’s wise accommodation to strengthen us in our pursuit of serenity and patience.

  206. We should be aware of the special price we have to pay when we allow ourselves to declare the battle over, when we announce to ourselves and to friends that we are well again—and then recognize that we have actually been hasty and naive and need to return to the front once more. It can feel especially bitter to have to crouch low again when we felt we now had the right to stand tall. But it’s better to adopt a stance of ongoing, permanent readiness than submit to cycles of hope followed by panic.

  207. we are inclined to destroy everything that is good about our lives and alienate those who want to care for us.

  208. Our minds don’t just need good lessons, they need to learn good habits: that is, they need to fashion routines in which helpful rituals, activities, and ideas are repeated until they become second nature. Like someone learning a new language, we need to go over certain points again and again, rehearsing notions of self-love, self-forgiveness, kindness, and self-acceptance on a daily basis. Things are so slow because we aren’t just trying to acquire intellectual concepts—something that might need only a minute—we’re trying to alter our personalities. It will be a life’s work.

  209. And there are thoughts we should be ruthless in chasing out: about how some people are doing so much better than us, about how inadequate and pitiful we are, about what a disappointment we have turned out to be. The latter aren’t even “thoughts,” they have no content to speak of, they cannot teach us anything new. They are really just instruments of torture and symptoms of a difficult past.

  210. A decent social life isn’t, for the mentally fragile, a luxury or a form of entertainment. It is a resource to help us to stay alive. We need people to balance our minds when we are slipping. We need friends who will soothe our fears and not accuse us of self-indulgence or self-pity for the amount of time our illness has sequestered. It will help immensely if they have struggles of their own and if we can therefore meet as equal fellow ailing humans, as opposed to hierarchically separated doctors and patients.

  211. Love is ultimately what will get us through—not romantic love but sympathy, tolerance, and patience. We’ll need to watch our tendencies to turn down love from an innate sense of unworthiness.

  212. We are not fully well, but we are on the mend and that, for now, is very much good enough.

  213. What looked like a pure waste of time was in fact our own personal education.