The School of Life: An Emotional Education - by Alain de Botton
I like how he criticized Romanticism as a poison to love relationships. I like how he normalizes the suffering. The suggestions about how to live a happy life at the end of the book are priceless.
Here are some text that I highlighted in the book:
We are as clever with our machines and technologies as we are simple-minded in the management of our emotions.
We are referring to their ability to introspect and communicate, to read the moods of others, to relate with patience, charity, and imagination to the less edifying moments of those around them. The emotionally intelligent person knows that love is a skill, not a feeling, and will require trust, vulnerability, generosity, humor, sexual understanding, and selective resignation. The emotionally intelligent person awards themselves the time to determine what gives their working life meaning and has the confidence and tenacity to try to find an accommodation between their inner priorities and the demands of the world. The emotionally intelligent person knows how to hope and be grateful, while remaining steadfast before the essentially tragic structure of existence. The emotionally intelligent person knows that they will only ever be mentally healthy in a few areas and at certain moments, but is committed to fathoming their inadequacies and warning others of them in good time, with apology and charm.
if we were to show up at any college humanities department in urgent search of purpose and meaning, or were to break down in a museum gallery in a quest for forgiveness or charity, we would be swiftly removed and possibly handed over to psychiatric authorities.
It would nowadays sound comic or a touch mad for an adult to say proudly, “I’m twenty-five and a half” or “forty-one and three-quarters”—because, without particularly noticing, we’ve drifted away from the notion that adults, too, are capable of evolutions.
Our memories are sieves, not robust buckets.
What seemed a convincing call to action at 8 a.m. will be nothing more than a dim recollection by midday and an indecipherable contrail in our cloudy minds by evening. Our enthusiasms and resolutions can be counted upon to fade like the stars at dawn. Nothing much sticks.
They proposed that we suffer from akrasia, commonly translated as “weakness of will,” a habit of not listening to what we accept should be heard and a failure to act upon what we know is right.
There are two solutions to these fragilities of mind that a successful emotional education must draw upon: The first is art; the second is ritual.
Christianity, for example, devoted so much attention to art (architecture, music, painting, etc.) not because it cared for beauty per se, but because it understood the power of beauty to persuade us into particular patterns of thought and habits of the heart.
ideas, however noble, tend to require a little help from beauty.
Our problem isn’t just that we are in the habit of shirking important ideas. We are also prone to forget them immediately even if we have in theory given them our assent. For this, humanity invented ritual. Ritual can be defined as the structured repetition of important concepts, made resonant through the help of formal pageantry and ceremony. Ritual takes thoughts that are known but unattended and renders them active and vivid once more in our distracted minds. Unlike standard modern education, ritual doesn’t aim to teach us anything new; it wants to lend compelling form to what we believe we already know. It wants to turn our theoretical allegiances into habits.
Not coincidentally, it is also religions that have been especially active in the design and propagation of rituals. It is they that have created occasions at which to tug our minds back to honoring the seasons, remembering the dead, looking inside ourselves, focusing on the passage of time, empathizing with strangers, forgiving transgressions, or apologizing for misdeeds. They have put dates in our diaries to take our minds back to our most sincere commitments.
A good “school” shouldn’t tell us only things we’ve never heard of before; it should be deeply interested in rehearsing all that is theoretically known yet practically forgotten.
We have been driven to collective rage through the apparently generous yet in reality devastating idea that it might be within our natural remit to be completely and enduringly happy.
Buddhism described life itself as a vale of suffering; the Greeks insisted on the tragic structure of every human project; Christianity interpreted each of us as being marked by a divine curse.
There can wisely be no “solutions,” no self-help, of a kind that removes problems altogether. What we can aim for, at best, is consolation—a word tellingly lacking in glamour. To believe in consolation means giving up on cures; it means accepting that life is a hospice rather than a hospital, but one we’d like to render as comfortable, as interesting, and as kind as possible. A philosophy of consolation directs us to two important salves: understanding and companionship. Or grasping what our problem is, and knowing that we are not alone with it. Understanding does not magically remove the pain, but it has the power to reduce a range of secondary aggravations and fears. At least we know what is racking us and why. Our worst fears are held in check, and tears may be turned into bitter knowledge. It helps immensely too to know that we are in company. Despite the upbeat tone of society in general, there is solace in the discovery that everyone else is, in private, of course as bewildered and regretful as we are. This is not Schadenfreude, simply profound relief that we are not the only ones.
In the circumstances, it makes no sense to aim for sanity; we should fix instead on the goal of achieving a wise, knowledgeable, and self-possessed relationship with our manifold insanities, or what can be termed “sane insanity.”
It is not a disorder that needs to be cured; it is a tender-hearted, calm, dispassionate acknowledgment of how much agony we will inevitably have to travel through. Modern society’s mania is to emphasize buoyancy and cheerfulness. It wishes either to medicalize melancholy states—and therefore “solve” them—or to deny their legitimacy altogether.
The task of culture is to turn rage and forced jollity into melancholy. The more melancholy a culture can be, the less its individual members need to be persecuted by their own failures, lost illusions, and regrets.
Yet despite their so-called obviousness, simple-sounding emotional dynamics are aggressively capable of ruining extended periods of our lives. Three decades devoted to the unhappy pursuit of wealth and status may turn out to be driven by nothing more or less than a forgotten desire to secure the attention of a distracted parent more interested in an older sibling.
Much of what destroys our lives can be attributed to emotions that our conscious selves haven’t found a way to understand or to address in time. It is logical that Socrates should have boiled down the entire wisdom of philosophy to one simple command: “Know yourself.”
Yet he also added, “I am wise not because I know, but because I know I don’t know.”
The more closely we introspect, the more we start to appreciate the range of tricks our minds play on us—and therefore the more we appreciate the extent to which we will continually misjudge situations and the feelings they provoke. A successful search for self-knowledge may furnish us not with a set of newly mined rock-solid certainties, but with an admission of how little we do—and ever can—properly know ourselves.
Maturity involves accepting with good grace that we are all—like marionettes[ ˌmɛriəˈnɛt 提线木偶]—manipulated by the past. And, when we can manage it, it may also require that we develop our capacity to judge and act in the ambiguous here and now with somewhat greater fairness and neutrality.
We necessarily take what the big people around us say as an inviolable truth; we can’t help but exaggerate our parents’ role on the planet.
- We can brush so little of it off. We are without a skin. If a parent shouts at us, the foundations of the earth tremble. We can’t tell that some of the harsh words weren’t perhaps entirely meant, or had their origins in a tricky day at work, or were the reverberations of the adult’s own childhood. It simply feels as if an all-powerful, all-knowing giant has decided, for certain good (if as yet unknown) reasons that we are to be annihilated. | əˈnaɪəˌleɪt | destroy
There is no evidence anywhere in the child’s grasp that arguments are a normal part of relationships, and that a couple may be entirely committed to a lifelong union and at the same time forcefully express a wish that the other might go to hell.
Children can’t go elsewhere. They have no extended social network. Even when things are going right, childhood is a gentle open prison.
Everyone around us may have been trying to do their best and yet we end up now, as adults, nursing certain major hurts that ensure that we are so much less than we might be.
We are obsessively eager around sex or painfully wary and nervous in the face of our own erotic impulses.
The truth is likely to be more hopeful—though, in the short term, a great deal more uncomfortable. We are a certain way because we were knocked off a more fulfilling trajectory years ago. In the face of a viciously competitive parent, we took refuge in underachievement. Having lived around a parent disgusted by the body, sex became frightening. Surrounded by material unreliability, we had to overachieve in relation to money and social prestige. Hurt by a dismissive parent, we fell into patterns of emotional avoidance. A volatile parent pushed us toward our present meekness. Early over-protectiveness inspired timidity and, around any complex situation, panic. A continually busy, inattentive parent was the catalyst for a personality marked by exhausting attention-seeking behavior.
We are living the wide-open present through the narrow drama of the past.
We make our lives tougher than they should be because we insist on thinking of people, ourselves and others, as inept and mean rather than, as is almost invariably the case, primarily the victims of what we have all in some ways traveled through: an immensely tricky early history.
We don’t only have a lot to hide; we are liars of genius. It is part of the human tragedy that we are natural self-deceivers. Our techniques are multiple and close to invisible: ■ We get addicted. Not necessarily to heroin or whisky, but to everyday innocuous activities that attract no alarm or suspicion. We are hooked on checking the news or tidying the house, exercising or taking on fresh projects at work. It can look to the world as if we are just being productive, but the clue to our compulsiveness lies in our motives. We are checking the news to keep the news from ourselves at bay; we are working on a project as an alternative to working on our psyches. What properly indicates addiction is not what someone is doing, but their way of doing it, and in particular their desire to avoid any encounter with certain sides of themselves. We are addicts whenever we develop a manic reliance on something—anything—to keep our darker and more unsettling feelings at bay.
We say that all humans are terrible and every activity compromised, so that the specific causes of our pain do not attract scrutiny and shame.
We bury our personal stories beneath an avalanche of expertise.
A defense of emotional honesty has nothing to do with high-minded morality. It is ultimately cautionary and egoistic. We need to tell ourselves a little more of the truth because we pay too high a price for our concealments. We cut ourselves off from possibilities of growth. We shut out large portions of our minds and end up uncreative, tetchy, and defensive, while others around us have to suffer our irritability, gloom, manufactured cheerfulness, or defensive rationalizations.
■ In an emotionally healthy childhood, someone will put themselves profoundly at our service.
They kept the chaos and noise at bay and cut the world up into manageable pieces for us.
The so-called narcissist is simply a benighted soul who has not had a chance to be inordinately and unreasonably admired and cared for at the start.
■ In an emotionally healthy childhood, the child can see that the good carer isn’t either entirely good or wholly bad and so isn’t worthy of either idealization or denigration [ ˌdɛnəˈɡreɪʃ(ə)n unfairly criticizing ]. den·i·gra·tion ˌdɛnəˈɡreɪʃ(ə)n
They will have a realistic sense of what can be expected of life alongside another flawed, good enough human.
Self-love is the quality that determines how much we can be friends with ourselves and, day to day, remain on our own side.
How ready are we to listen when valuable lessons come in painful guises?
When other people upset us, do we feel we have the right to communicate or must we slam doors and fall silent?
We know that we would not last long in society if a stream of our uncensored inner data ever leaked out of our minds.
In every social interaction, we sensibly ensure that there remains a large and secure divide between what we say and what is truly going on inside our minds. The exception can be psychotherapy.
We may, for example, start to sense how a feeling of rivalry with a parent led us to retire early from workplace challenges in order to hold on to their love, as well as seeing, perhaps for the first time, that the logic of our self-sabotage no longer holds. Or we might perceive the way an attitude of aggressive cynicism, which restricts our personalities and our friendships, might have had its origins in a parent who let us down at a time when we couldn’t contain our vulnerability, and thereby turned us into people who try at every juncture to disappoint themselves early and definitively rather than risk allowing the world to turn down our hopes at a time of its own choosing.
It insists on a crucial difference between broadly recognizing that we were shy as a child and reexperiencing, in its full intensity, what it was like to feel cowed, ignored, and in constant danger of being rebuffed or mocked; the difference between knowing, in an abstract way, that our mother wasn’t much focused on us when we were little and reconnecting with the desolate feelings we had when we tried to share certain of our needs with her. Therapy builds on the idea of a return to live feelings. It’s only when we’re properly in touch with our feelings that we can correct them with the help of our more mature faculties and thereby address the real troubles of our adult lives. Oddly (and interestingly) this means intellectual people can have a particularly tricky time in therapy. They get interested in the ideas. But they don’t so easily recreate and exhibit the pains and distresses of their earlier, less sophisticated selves, though it’s actually these parts of who we all are that need to be encountered, listened to, and—perhaps for the first time—comforted and reassured.
Somewhere in our minds, removed from the day to day, there sit judges. They watch what we do, study how we perform, examine the effect we have on others, track our successes and failures—and then, eventually, they pass verdicts. These determine our levels of confidence and self-compassion; they lend us a sense of whether we are worthwhile beings or, conversely, should not really exist. The judges are in charge of our self-esteem.
The origin of the voice of the inner judge is simple to trace: It is an internalization of the voices of people who were once outside us.
A good internal voice is rather like (and just as important as) a genuinely decent judge: someone who can separate good from bad but who will always be merciful, fair, accurate in understanding what’s going on, and interested in helping us deal with our problems. It’s not that we should stop judging ourselves; rather that we should learn to be better judges of ourselves.
When things don’t go as we want, we can ask ourselves what a benevolent fair judge would say, and then actively rehearse to ourselves the words of consolation they would most likely have offered (we’ll tend to know immediately).
We need to become better friends to ourselves.
But there is value in the concept because of the extent to which we know how to treat our own friends with a sympathy and imagination that we don’t apply to ourselves. If a friend is in trouble our first instinct is rarely to tell them that they are fundamentally a failure.
The hopefulness lies in the fact that we already possess the relevant skills of friendship, it’s just that we haven’t as yet directed them to the person who probably needs them most: ourselves.
In the face of challenges, we can imaginatively enquire what the therapist would say now.
We realize that what we had believed to be our inherent personality was really just a position we had crouched into in order to deal with a prevailing atmosphere. And having taken a measure of the true present situation, we may accept that there could, after all, be other, sufficiently safe ways for us to be.
Instead of just resenting another person’s criticism, we might explain why we believe they have been unjust to us. If we are upset by our partner, we don’t need to accuse them of being evil and slam doors. We’ll know to explain how (perhaps strangely) sensitive we are and how much reassurance we need to feel secure in their affection. Instead of trying to pretend that nothing is ever our fault, we can offer a candid explanation of one or two of our (unfortunate) limitations.
The people who caused our primal wounds almost invariably didn’t mean to do so; they were themselves hurt and struggling to endure.
In “philosophical meditation,” instead of being prompted to sidestep our worries and ambitons, we are directed to set aside time to untangle, examine, and confront them.
Key to the practice is regularly to turn over three large questions. The first asks what we might be anxious about right now.
We can refuse to let our concerns covertly nag at us and look at them squarely until we are no longer cowed. We can turn a jumble of worries into that most calming, and intellectually noble, of documents: a list.
A philosophical meditation moves on to a second enquiry: What am I upset about right now? This may sound oddly presumptuous, because we frequently have no particular sense of having been upset by anything. Our self-image leans toward the well defended. But almost certainly we are somewhere being too brave for our own good. We are almost invariably carrying around with us pulses of regret, loss, envy, vulnerability, and sorrow.
We are mental athletes at shrugging such things off, but there is a cost to our stoicism.
What we call depression is in fact sadness and anger that have for too long not been paid the attention they deserve.
But during a philosophical meditation we can throw off our customary, reckless bravery and let our sadness take its natural, due shape.
The third question to consider within a philosophical meditation is: What am I ambitious and excited about right now?
A daily period of philosophical meditation does not so much dissolve problems as create an occasion during which the mind can order and understand itself.
Many things that we might assume to be uniquely odd or disconcertingly strange about us are in reality wholly ubiquitous, though rarely spoken of in the reserved and cautious public sphere.
We are, each one of us, far more compulsive, anxious, sexual, tender, mean, generous, playful, thoughtful, dazed, and at sea than we are encouraged to accept.
we know through immediate experience what is going on inside us, but can only know about others from what they choose to tell us—which will almost always be a very edited version of the truth.
Traditionally, boys were not allowed to acknowledge that they felt like crying and girls weren’t allowed to entertain certain kinds of ambitions.
We must reduce the shame and danger of confession.
We’re experts at surrendering to the demands of the external world, living up to what is expected of us and getting on with the priorities defined by others around us.
Until suddenly, one day, much to everyone’s surprise (including our own), we break.
A breakdown is not merely a random piece of madness or malfunction; it is a very real—albeit very inarticulate—bid for health and self-knowledge.
If we can put it paradoxically, it is an attempt to jump-start a process of getting well—properly well—through a stage of falling very ill.
A breakdown isn’t just a pain, though it is that too of course; it is an extraordinary opportunity to learn.
A good mental physician tries hard to listen to rather than censor the illness. They detect within its oddities a plea for more time for ourselves, for a closer relationship, for a more honest, fulfilled way of being, for acceptance for who we really are sexually. That is why we started to drink, or to become reclusive, or to grow entirely paranoid or manically seductive.
A crisis represents an appetite for growth that hasn’t found another way of expressing itself.
We’re behaving oddly, no doubt, but beneath the agitation we are on a hidden yet logical search for health.
It belongs, in the most acute and panicked way, to the search for self-knowledge.
Our societies are very interested in winners, but don’t really know what to do about losers—of which there are always, by definition, a far greater number.
Suicide rates climb exponentially once societies become modern and start to hold people profoundly responsible for their biographies. Meritocracies turn failure from a misfortune to an unbudgeable verdict on one’s nature. We trust that the world is more or less just, and that, the odd exception aside, people will secure roughly what they deserve. Those who are condemned and broken did something wrong; those who succeeded worked hard and were good. The status of a person has to be a more or less reliable indicator of their effort and decency.
failure is not reserved simply for the evil.
- ridicule and loathing. The real purpose of tragedy is not to teach us to be kind to fictional creations; it is to encourage us to apply a complex lens to the travails of all those around us and, crucially at points, to ourselves. rid·i·cule | ˈrɪdɪˌkjul |
People are bad, always, because they are in difficulty.
Contented people have no need to hurt others.
It isn’t us who must be pitiful but our attacker who feels such a need to crush us. One has to feel very small in order to belittle.
- [Reminds me of a bully] We have not been able to punish them, but the universe has in a sense, and the clearest evidence for the sentence lies in the unhappiness that is powering their attacks. They have not got away with injuring us; their punishment lies in the pain they must be enduring in order to have such an urgent need to lash out. We, who have no wish to hurt, are in fact the stronger party; we, who have no wish to diminish others, are truly powerful. We can move from helpless victims to imaginative witnesses of justice. This may sound overly convenient, but it is also plainly true. We are not beyond improvement, of course, but people simply never need to harm others if they are not first tormented themselves. Reminds me of 王琦
Diplomacy is the art of advancing an idea or a cause without unnecessarily inflaming passions or unleashing a catastrophe.
Knowing the intensity of the craving for respect, diplomats—though they may not always be able to agree with others—take the trouble to show that they have bothered to see how things look through foreign eyes.
Another trait of the diplomat is to be serene in the face of obviously bad behavior: a sudden loss of temper, a wild accusation, a very mean remark. They don’t take it personally, even when they may be the target of rage. They reach instinctively for reasonable explanations and have clearly in their minds the better moments of a currently frantic but essentially lovable person.
The person who bangs a fist on the table or announces extravagant opinions is most likely to be simply rather worried, frightened, hungry, or just very enthusiastic: conditions that should rightly invite sympathy rather than disgust.
they wait till it has the best chance of being heard.
When a harshly unfair criticism is launched at them, they might nod in partial agreement and declare that they’ve often said such things to themselves.
Diplomacy seeks to teach us how many good things can still be accomplished when we make some necessary accommodations with the crooked, sometimes touching, and hugely unreliable material of human nature.
We want our friends to be nice, but appreciate our lovers as a touch dangerous.
(I am human, I consider nothing human alien to me).
The gift of being interesting is neither exclusive nor reliant on exceptional talent; it requires only honesty and focus. The person we call interesting is in essence someone alive to what we all deeply want from social intercourse:
There is a particular way of discussing oneself that, however long it goes on for, never fails to win friends, reassure audiences, comfort couples, bring solace to the single, and buy the goodwill of enemies: the confession of vulnerability.
We put so much effort into being perfect. But the irony is that it’s failure that charms, because others so need to hear external evidence of problems with which we are all too lonely: how un-normal our sex lives are; how arduous our careers are proving; how unsatisfactory our family can be; how worried we are pretty much all the time.
The possibility of friendship between people therefore frequently hangs in the balance because both sides are, privately, waiting for a sign from the other as to whether or not they are liked before they dare to show (or even register) any enthusiasm of their own.
We can dare to persuade them to see us in a positive light, chiefly by showing a great deal of evidence that we see them in a positive light.
Friendships cannot develop until one side takes a risk and shows they are ready to like even when there’s as yet no evidence that they are liked back. We have to realize that whether or not the other person likes us is going to depend on what we do, not—mystically—what we by nature “are,” and that we have the agency to do rather a lot of things.
It is sad enough when two people dislike each other. It is even sadder when two people fail to connect because both parties defensively but falsely guess that the other doesn’t like them—and yet, out of low self-worth, takes no risk to alter the situation. We should stop worrying quite so much whether or not people like us, and make that far more interesting and socially useful move: concentrate on showing that we like them.
True adulthood begins with a firmer hold on the notion that the solid and dignified person will, behind the scenes, almost certainly be craving something quite ordinary—something as unelevated and as human as a hug, a cry, or a glass of milk.
Friendship degenerates into a socialized egoism.
(without being able to put a finger on exactly what’s wrong);
All the time they are egging the other to go deeper into issues. They love saying, “Tell me more about …”; “I was fascinated when you said …”; “Why did that happen, do you think?” or “How did you feel about that?” The good listener takes it for granted that they will encounter vagueness in the conversation of others. But they don’t condemn, rush, or get impatient, because they see vagueness as a universal and highly significant trouble of the mind that it is the task of a true friend to help with. “Go on.”
The good listener is always looking to take the speaker back to their last reasonable idea, saying, “Yes, yes, but you were saying just a moment ago …” or “So, ultimately, what do you think it was about?” The good listener is, paradoxically, a skilled interrupter. But they don’t, as most people do, interrupt to intrude their own ideas; they interrupt to help the other get back to their original, more sincere yet elusive concerns.
They give the impression that they recognize and accept human folly; they don’t flinch when we mention our terrors and desires. They reassure us they’re not going to shred our dignity.
creative endeavor is pretty much always painful, compromised and slow; any job, however appealing on paper, will be irksome in many of its details; children will always resent their parents, however well intentioned and kindly the adults may try to be.
The problem with our world is that it does not stop emphasizing that success, calm, happiness, and fulfillment could, somehow, one day be ours. And in this way it never ceases to torture us.
We aren’t overwhelmed by anger whenever we are frustrated; only when we first believed ourselves entitled to a particular satisfaction and then did not receive it.
And yet we too often have the wrong rules. We shout when we lose the house keys because we somehow believe in a world in which belongings never go astray. We lose our temper at being misunderstood by our partner because something has convinced us that we are not irredeemably alone.
There is no need—on top of everything else—to be anxious that we are anxious.
We should at all points spare ourselves the burden of loneliness. We are far from the only ones to be suffering. Everyone is more anxious than they are inclined to tell us. Even the tycoon and the couple in love are in pain. We have collectively failed to admit to ourselves how much anxiety is our default state.
Anxiety deserves greater dignity. It is not a sign of degeneracy, rather a kind of masterpiece of insight: a justifiable expression of our mysterious participation in a disordered, uncertain world.
The point of staring out of a window is, paradoxically, not to find out what is going on outside. It is, rather, an exercise in discovering the contents of our own minds.
- But some of our greatest insights come when we stop trying to be purposeful and instead respect the creative potential of reverie. Window daydreaming is a strategic rebellion against the excessive demands of immediate, but in the end insignificant, pressures in favor of the diffuse, but very serious, search for the wisdom of the unexplored deep self. rev·er·ie | ˈrɛv(ə)ri |
The sight has a calming effect because none of our troubles, disappointments, or hopes have any relevance. Whatever happens to us, whatever we do, is of no consequence from the point of view of the universe.
Romanticism has thereby turned infrequent sex and adultery from the problems they always were into the catastrophes they now are.
■ Romanticism has proposed that true love must mean an end to all loneliness. The right partner will, it promises us, understand us entirely, possibly without our needing to speak very much; they will intuit our souls.
■ Romanticism believes that choosing a partner is a matter of surrendering to feelings rather than evaluating practical considerations. For most of recorded history, people had fallen into relationships and married for dynastic, status, or financial reasons. It was certainly not expected that, on top of everything else, one should love one’s partner. But for Romanticism, a sound couple should be pulled together by an overwhelming instinct and will know in their hearts—after a few pleasant weeks and some extraordinary sensations in bed—that they have found their destiny.
■ Romanticism believes that true love should involve delighting in a lover’s every facet, that it is synonymous with accepting everything about someone.
“You’re going to have to change” is a last-ditch threat and “Love me for who I am” the most noble of cries.
We can also state at this point that Romanticism has been a disaster for love. It is an intellectual and spiritual movement that has had a devastating impact on the ability of ordinary people to lead successful emotional lives. Our strongest cultural voices have, to our huge cost, given us a very unhelpful script to apply to a hugely tricky task. We have been told, among other things, that: ■ we should meet a person of extraordinary inner and outer beauty and immediately feel a special attraction to them, and they to us; ■ we should have highly satisfying sex, not only at the start, but for ever more; ■ we should never be attracted to anyone else; ■ we should understand one another intuitively; ■ we don’t need an education in love (we may need to train to become a pilot or a brain surgeon, but not a lover—we will pick that up along the way, by following our feelings); ■ we should have no secrets and spend constant time together (work shouldn’t get in the way); ■ we should raise a family without any loss of sexual or emotional intensity;
■ our lover must be our soulmate, best friend, co-parent, co-chauffeur, accountant, household manager, and spiritual guide.
- Knowing the history invites another, more useful idea: We were set an incredibly hard task by our culture, which then had the temerity to present it as easy. te·mer·i·ty | təˈmɛrədi |
We need to replace the Romantic template with a psychologically mature vision of love we might call Classical, which encourages in us a range of unfamiliar but hopefully effective attitudes: ■ that it is normal that love and sex do not always belong together; ■ that discussing money early on, up front, in a serious way is not a betrayal of love; ■ that realizing that we are rather flawed, and our partner is too, is of huge benefit to a couple in increasing the amount of tolerance and generosity in circulation; ■ that we will never find everything in another person, nor they in us, not because of some unique incapacity, but because of the basic operations of human nature; ■ that we need to make immense and often rather artificial-sounding efforts to understand one another because intuition will never be enough; ■ that practicalities matter—so, for example, there is special dignity around the topics of laundry and domestic management.
For instance, maybe we had a rather irate parent who often raised their voice. We loved them, but reacted by feeling that when they were angry we must be guilty. We got timid and humble. Now if a partner (to whom we are magnetically drawn) gets cross, we respond as squashed, browbeaten children: We sulk, we assume it’s our fault, we feel got at and yet deserving of criticism.
We are, all of us, hellish. We don’t need to be thinking of anyone in particular to know this is true for everyone. We have all, in one way or another, been inadequately parented, have a panoply of unfortunate psychological traits, are beset by bad habits, are anxious, jealous, ill-tempered, and vain. We are necessarily going to bring an awesome amount of trouble into someone else’s life.
This is because the success or failure of a relationship doesn’t hinge on whether the other is deeply flawed—they are. What matters is how we interpret their failings; how we understand the reasons why they have previously been and will again in the future be very difficult to be with.
We are ready for relationships not when we have encountered perfection, but when we have grown willing to give flaws the charitable interpretations they deserve.
But one of the odder features of relationships is that, in truth, the fear of rejection never ends. It continues, even in quite sane people, on a daily basis, with frequently difficult consequences—chiefly because we refuse to pay it sufficient attention and aren’t trained to spot its counter-intuitive symptoms in others. We haven’t found a winning way to keep admitting just how much reassurance we need. Acceptance is never a given; reciprocity is never assured.
Instead of requesting reassurance endearingly and laying out our longing with charm, we have tendencies to mask our needs beneath some tricky behaviors guaranteed to frustrate our ultimate aims.
We get very angry rather than admit, with serenity, that we’re worried.
Anything rather than ask the question that so much disturbs us: Do you still care? And yet, if this harsh, graceless behavior could be truly understood for what it is, it would be revealed not as rejection or indifference, but as a strangely distorted, yet very real, plea for tenderness.
It’s very touching that we live in a world where we have learned to be so kind to children; it would be even nicer if we learned to be a little more generous toward the childlike parts of one another.
The therapeutic benefit is the observation that we are generally very good at loving children. Our ability to continue to keep calm around children is founded on the fact that we take it for granted that they are not able to explain what is really bothering them. We deduce the real cause of their sorrow from amid the external symptoms of rage, because we grasp that little children have very limited abilities to diagnose and communicate their own problems.
The problem with adults is that they look misleadingly adult, so the need for an accurate, corrective reimagining of their inner lives is more unexpected. We need to force ourselves to picture the turmoil, disappointment, worry, and sheer confusion in people who may outwardly appear merely aggressive.
But we draw the wrong conclusion from such sweet moments: the idea that loving someone must always mean accepting them in every area, that love is in essence unconditional approval.
Loving someone is not an odd chemical phenomenon indescribable in words. It just means being awed by another for all the sorts of things about them that truly are right and accomplished.
what it means to deepen love is to want to teach—and to be ready to be taught. Two people should see a relationship as a constant opportunity to improve and be improved. When lovers teach each other uncomfortable truths, they are not abandoning the spirit of love. They are trying to do something very true to genuine love, which is to make their partners more worthy of admiration. We should stop feeling guilty for simply wanting to change our partners and we should never resent our partners for simply wanting to change us. Both these projects are, in theory, highly legitimate; even necessary. The desire to put one’s lover right is, in fact, utterly loyal to the essential task of love. Unfortunately, under the sway of Romantic ideology, most of us end up being terrible teachers and equally terrible students. That’s because we rebel against the effort necessary to translate criticism into sensible-sounding lessons and the humility required to hear these lessons as caring attempts to address the more troublesome aspects of our personalities. Instead, in the student role, at the first sign that the other is adopting a pedagogical tone, we tend to assume that we are being attacked and betrayed, and therefore close our ears to the instruction, reacting with sarcasm and aggression to our “teacher.” Correspondingly, when there is something we would like to teach, so unsure are we that we’re going to be heard (we develop experience of how these things usually go) or that we have the right to speak, our lessons tend to be expressed in a tone of hysterical annoyance.
The good teacher knows that timing is critical to successful instruction. We tend automatically to try to teach a lesson the moment the problem arises, rather than when it is most likely to be attended to (which might be several days later).
The defensive have no trust in the benevolence of teachers. There is in their deep minds no distinction between a comment on their behavior and a criticism of their right to exist. Defensiveness raises the cost of disagreement—and thereby dialog—intolerably.
When teaching and learning fail, we enter the realm of nagging. Nagging is the dispiriting, unpleasant, counterproductive but wholly understandable and poignant version of the noble ambition to improve a lover.
The solution to nagging isn’t to give up trying to get others to do what we want. Rather, it is to recognize that persuasion always needs to be couched in terms that make intuitive sense to those we want to alter.
Affairs begin long before there is anyone to have an affair with.
A number of qualities are required to ensure that a couple know how to argue well. There is, first and foremost, the need for each party to be able to pinpoint sources of discomfort in themselves early and accurately: to know how to recognize what they are unhappy about and what they need in order to flourish in the couple.
that it is better to spoil a few evenings than ruin a marriage.
One has to feel quite grown up inside not to be offended by one’s own more childlike appetites for reassurance and comfort. It is an achievement to know how to be strong about one’s vulnerability. One may have said, rather too many times, from behind a slammed door, in a defensive tone, “No, nothing is wrong whatsoever. Go away”, when secretly longing to be comforted and understood like a weepy, upset child.
And then, suddenly, in the context of an affair, everything changes. We can be unlaced and carefree. Our tongue, normally carefully shielded and used to form vowel sounds and break down toast or the morning cereal, is given permission to enter another person’s mouth. We are no longer just the one who makes problems around the in-laws and doesn’t pull their weight around the house or the finances; instead we are someone whose very essence has, via the flesh, been witnessed and endorsed. What we may be doing is slipping off another’s top or inviting them to release our trousers, but what all this means is that another human has—exceptionally—chosen to find us worthy. For so-called cheats (who will most likely have to pay a very heavy price indeed for going to bed with another person), sex can have remarkably little to do with “sex”. It is an activity continuous with a range of non-physical needs for tenderness, acceptance, care and companionship. It is an attempt, negotiated through the body but focused on the satisfactions of the psyche, to make up for a longstanding painfully severed emotional connection with a primary partner.
But people don’t have affairs because they are able to meet attractive others; they have affairs because they feel emotionally disconnected from their partners. The best way to stop their being tempted to sleep with someone else is not, therefore, to reduce their opportunities for contact; it is to leave them free to wander the world while ensuring that they feel heard by and are reconciled with their partners. It is emotional closeness, not curfews, that guarantees the integrity of couples. At a practical level, the route to closeness requires us to ensure that the two main sources of distance, resentment and loneliness, are correctly identified and regularly purged.
I sometimes feel frustrated with you when …
I’d love you to realize that you hurt me when …
There is no such thing as a hurt that is too small to matter when emotional closeness is at stake.
One of the hardest things for you to understand about me is …
We must never be furious with our beloveds for not grasping facets of our identity we haven’t yet properly managed to share with them.
What I’d love you to appreciate about me is …
Where I’m unfulfilled in my life …
The longing for an affair can arise from a sense that the world more generally has not heard us, that we have been abandoned with career anxieties, or lag behind our peers in terms of achievement and assets.
I would love it if you could understand that sometimes I want … What I wish I could change about me and sex is … What I wish I could change about you and sex is …
but they could at least help to diagnose and repair the feelings of resentful distance or erotic loneliness that are the hidden drivers of the desire to wander off with someone else. We should dare to spend less time banning our partners from having lunch with strangers or traveling alone, and more time ensuring that they feel understood for their flaws and confusions, and appreciated for their virtues.
An average couple will have between thirty and fifty significant arguments a year,
We miss out on a chance to improve because we take ourselves to be the mad exceptions.
We argue badly and regularly principally because we lack an education in how to teach others who we are. Beneath the surface of almost every argument lies a forlorn attempt by two people to get the other to see, acknowledge, and respond to their emotional reality and sense of justice. Beyond the invective is a longing that our partner should witness, understand, and endorse some crucial element of our own experience. The tragedy of every sorry argument is that it is constructed around a horrific mismatch between the message we so badly want to send (“I need you to love me, know me, agree with me”) and the manner in which we are able to deliver it (with impatient accusations, sulks, put-downs, sarcasm, exaggerated gesticulations, and forceful “fuck you”s).
We will be reminded once more that love is a skill, not an emotion.
napkin—all of these may be emerging from the repeated frustrated attempt to transmit a single intimate truth: I feel you don’t respect my intelligence.
Irritability is anger that lacks self-knowledge.
help each other evolve into the best versions of ourselves.
The critic is correct, but they are unable to “win” because there are no prizes in love for correctly discerning the flaws of our partners other than self-satisfied loneliness. For paradoxically, by attacking a partner with clinical energy, we reduce our chances of ever reaching the real goal: the evolution of the person we have to live with.
People don’t change when they are gruffly told what’s wrong with them; they change when they feel sufficiently supported to undertake the change they—almost always—already know is due.
We are trying to shatter their spirits because we are afraid of being lonely.
Knowing how to spot the phenomenon should lead us, when we are the ones cheerily baking or whistling a tune, to remember that the person attempting to ruin our mood isn’t perhaps just nasty (though they are a bit of that too); they are, childishly but sincerely, worried that our happiness may come at their expense and are, through their remorseless negativity, in a garbled and maddening way begging us for reassurance.
We shouldn’t invariably hold it against someone that they behave in a stricken way; it isn’t (probably) a sign that they are mad or horrible. Rather, as we should have the grace to recall, it is just that they love and depend on us very much.
We pick a fight with them over nothing much, but what we are in effect saying is: Save me, redeem me, make sense of my pain, love me even though I have failed.
In the circumstances, the deployment of an overly logical stance may come across not as an act of kindness, but as a species of disguised impatience.
It’s not that we actually want our partner to stop being reasonable; we want them to apply their intelligence to the task of sensitive reassurance.
Then again, it could be that the application of excessive logic isn’t an accident or a form of stupidity. It might be an act of revenge.
“Why are you being so rational when I’m in pain?”,
We feel compelled to fight by proxy about anything we can lay our hands on—the laundry detergent and the walk to the park, the money for the dentist and the course of the nation’s politics—all because we so badly need to be held and to hold, to penetrate or to be penetrated.
The absence of sex matters so much because sex itself is the supreme conciliator and salve of all conflict, ill feeling, loneliness, and lack of interest.
The chances of a perfectly admirable human walking the earth are nonexistent.
we can be assured that unfortunate tendencies exist in us all and will make everyone much less than perfect and, at moments, extremely hard to live with.
Every human can be guaranteed to frustrate, anger, annoy, madden, and disappoint us—and we will (without any malice) do the same to them. There can be no end to our sense of emptiness and incompleteness.
Choosing whom to commit ourselves to is therefore merely a case of identifying a specific kind of dissatisfaction we can bear rather than an occasion to escape from grief altogether.
What prevents us from loosening our grip on love is simply a lack of knowledge.
It isn’t their charms that are keeping us magnetized; it is our lack of knowledge of their flaws.
Passion can never withstand too much exposure to the full reality of another person. The unbounded admiration on which it is founded is destroyed by the knowledge that a properly shared life inevitably brings.
In a position of longing for a new person when we are constrained within an existing relationship, we must beware too of the “incumbent problem”: the vast but often overlooked and unfair advantage that all new people, and also cities and jobs, have over existing—or, as we put it, incumbent—ones. The beautiful person glimpsed briefly in the street, the city visited for a few days, the job we read about in a couple of tantalizing paragraphs in a magazine all tend to seem immediately and definitively superior to our current partner, our long-established home, and our committed workplace and can inspire us to sudden and (in retrospect sometimes) regrettable divorces, relocations, and resignations.
Domestic preoccupation isn’t really a sign of the death of love. It’s what awaits us when love has succeeded. We will only be reconciled to the reality of love when we can accept without rancor the genuine dignity of the ironing board.
The parent knew absolutely what was required in relation to basic physical and emotional requirements. Our partner is stumbling in the dark around needs that are immensely subtle, far from obvious, and very complicated to fulfill.
Secondly, none of it was reciprocal. Our parents were intensely focused on caring for us, but they knew and wholly accepted that we wouldn’t engage with their needs. They didn’t for a minute imagine that they could take their troubles to us or expect us to nurture them. They didn’t need us to ask them about their day. Our responsibility was blissfully simple: All we had to do to please them was to exist.
The source of our present sorrow is not, therefore, a special failing on the part of our adult lovers. They are not tragically inept or uniquely selfish. It’s rather that we’re judging our adult experiences against a very different kind of childhood love. We are sorrowful not because we have landed up with the wrong person but because we have, sadly, been forced to grow up.
Many relationships begin with a deeply misleading but beguiling sense that we can tell a partner everything.
Love can seem founded on the idea of an absence of secrecy.
But in order to be kind, and in order to sustain love, it ultimately becomes necessary to keep a great many thoughts out of sight.
Keeping secrets can seem like a betrayal of the relationship. At the same time, the complete truth eventually appears to place the union in mortal danger.
We are so impressed by honesty, we have forgotten the virtues of politeness, this word defined not as a cynical withholding of important information for the sake of harm, but as a dedication to not rubbing someone else up against the true, hurtful aspects of our nature.
It is ultimately no great sign of kindness to insist on showing someone our entire selves at all times.
The lover who does not tolerate secrets, who in the name of “being honest” divulges information so wounding it cannot be forgotten, is no friend of love. Just as no parent should ever tell a child the whole truth, so we should accept the ongoing need to edit our full reality.
It may be kinder, wiser, and perhaps more in the true spirit of love to pretend one simply didn’t notice.
We reserve some of our deepest scorn for couples who stay together out of compromise; those who are making a show of unanimity, but who we know are, deep down, not fully happy.
The capacity to compromise is not always the weakness it is described as being. It can involve a mature, realistic admission that there may—in certain situations—simply be no ideal options. And, conversely, an inability to compromise does not always have to be the courageous and visionary position it is held to be by our impatient and perfectionist ideology. It may just be a slightly rigid, proud, and cruel delusion. Mocking people who compromise is, of course, emotionally very handy. It localizes a problem that it’s normal to want to disavow. It pins to a few scapegoat couples what we are all terrified about in our relationships: that a degree of sadness may just be an intrinsic and unavoidable part of them.
Couples who compromise may in reality not be the enemies of love; they may be at the vanguard of understanding what lasting relationships truly demand.
It is to our lovers that we direct blame for everything that has gone wrong in our lives; we expect them to know everything we mean without bothering to explain it; their minor errors and misunderstandings occasion our sulks and rage.
By comparison, in friendship—the supposedly worthless and inferior state whose mention should crush us at the end of a date—we bring our highest and noblest virtues. Here we are patient, encouraging, tolerant, funny, and, most of all, kind.
We are, in the company of our friends, our best selves.
The whole rationale of marriage is to function as a prison that it is very hard and very embarrassing for two people to get out of.
The essence of marriage is to tie our hands, to frustrate our wills, to put high and costly obstacles in the way of splitting up, and sometimes to force two unhappy people to stay in each other’s company for longer than either of them would wish.
Marriage is a giant inhibitor of impulse set up by our conscience to keep our libidinous, naive, desiring selves in check.
To marry is to recognize that we require structure to insulate us from our urges. It is to lock ourselves up willingly, because we acknowledge the benefits of the long-term: the wisdom of the morning after the storm.
It is an arrangement that protects us from what we desire and yet know, in our more reasonable moments, that we don’t truly need or want.
It is too easy to seem kind and normal when we keep starting new relationships. The truth about us, on the basis of which self-improvement can begin, only becomes clear over time. Chances of development can increase hugely when we stay put and don’t succumb to the temptation to run away to people who will falsely reassure us that there’s nothing too wrong with us.
Tethering ourselves to our partner, via the public institution of marriage, makes our unavoidable fluctuations of feeling have less power to destroy a relationship, one that we know, in calmer moments, is supremely important to us. The point of marriage is to be usefully unpleasant—at least at crucial times. Together we embrace a set of limitations on one kind of freedom, the freedom to run away, so as to protect and strengthen another kind, the shared ability to mature and create something of lasting value, the pains of which are aligned to our better selves.
The good child has been deprived of one of the central ingredients of a properly privileged upbringing: the experience of other people witnessing and surviving their mischief.
Grown up, the good child typically has particular problems around sex.
Almost everything interesting, worth doing or important will meet with a degree of opposition.
It involves accepting that not everything that makes us happy will please others or be honored as especially “nice,” but it can be important to explore and hold on to it nevertheless.
The desire to be good is one of the loveliest things in the world, but in order to have a genuinely good life, we may sometimes need to be (by the standards of the good child) fruitfully and bravely bad.
live at peace with the inevitable nature of our ridiculousness. We are idiots now, we have been idiots in the past, and we will be idiots again in the future—and that is OK. There aren’t any other available options for human beings.
We would become free to give things a go by accepting that failure and idiocy were the norm.
The road to greater confidence begins with a ritual of telling oneself solemnly every morning, before embarking on the challenges of the day, that one is a muttonhead, a cretin, a dumbbell, and an imbecile. One or two more acts of folly should, thereafter, not feel so catastrophic after all.
Faced with hurdles, we often leave the possibility of success to others, because we don’t seem to ourselves to be anything like the sorts of people who win. When we approach the idea of acquiring responsibility or prestige, we quickly become convinced that we are “impostors,” like an actor in the role of a pilot, wearing the uniform and delivering authoritative cabin announcements while being incapable of starting the engines.
We feel like impostors not because we are uniquely flawed, but because we can’t imagine how equally flawed the elite must necessarily also be underneath their polished surfaces.
We start out in life with a very strong impression that competent and admirable people are really not like us at all.
We know ourselves from the inside, but others only from the outside. We’re constantly aware of all our anxieties and doubts from within, yet all we know of others is what they happen to do and tell us—a far narrower and more edited source of information. We are very often left to conclude that we must be at the more freakish, revolting end of human nature. But really we’re just failing to imagine that others are every bit as fragile and strange as we are.
The solution to the impostor syndrome lies in making a leap of faith and trusting that others’ minds work basically in much the same way as our own. Everyone is probably as anxious, uncertain, and wayward as we are.
One of the tasks that works of art should ideally accomplish is to take us more reliably into the minds of people we are intimidated by and show us the more average, muddled, and fretful experiences unfolding inside.
At another point in his Essays, Montaigne playfully informed his readers in plain French that “Kings and philosophers shit and so do ladies.”
Whenever we encounter a stranger, we’re not really encountering such a person, we’re encountering someone who is—in spite of surface evidence to the contrary—in basic ways very much like us, and therefore nothing fundamental stands between us and the possibility of responsibility, success, and fulfillment.
The desire for fame has its roots in the experience of neglect and injury. No one would want to be famous who hadn’t also, somewhere in the past, been made to feel extremely insignificant.
That’s why we dream that one day the world will pay attention. When we’re famous, our parents will have to admire us too (which throws up an insight into one of the great signs of good parenting: that a child has no desire to be famous).
What is common to all dreams of fame is that being known to strangers will often be the solution to a hurt. It presents itself as the answer to a deep need to be appreciated and treated decently by other people.
Fame makes people more, not less, vulnerable, because it leaves them open to unlimited judgment.
Needless to say, a hurt celebrity won’t be eligible for sympathy. The very concept of a deserving celebrity is a joke, about as moving for the average person as the sadness of a tyrant. To sum up, fame really just means that someone gets noticed a great deal, not that they are more intensely understood, appreciated, or loved.
The aim that lay behind the desire for fame remains important. One does still want to be appreciated and understood. But the wise person accepts that celebrity does not actually provide these things. Appreciation and understanding are only available through individuals one knows and cares about, not via groups of a thousand or a million strangers. There is no short cut to friendship—which is what the famous person is in effect seeking.
They want to be famous because they do not feel respected, because citizens have forgotten how to accord one another the degree of civility, appreciation, and decency that everyone craves and deserves. The desire for fame is a sign that an ordinary life has ceased to be good enough.
A healthy society will give up on the understandable but erroneous belief that fame might guarantee that truly valuable goal: the kindness of strangers.
The big economic reason why we can’t explore our potential as we might is that it is hugely more productive for us not to do so. In The Wealth of Nations (1776), the Scottish economist and philosopher Adam Smith first explained how what he termed the “division of labor” was at the heart of the increased productivity of capitalism. Smith zeroed in on the dazzling efficiency that could be achieved in pin manufacturing, if everyone focused on one narrow task (and stopped, as it were, exploring their Whitman-esque “multitudes”):
Every occupation weakens or reinforces aspects of our nature.
The psychology inculcated by work doesn’t neatly stay at work; it colors the whole of who we end up being.
Compared to the play of childhood, we’re all leading fatally restricted lives. There is no easy cure. As Adam Smith argued, the causes don’t lie in some personal error we’re making. It’s a limitation forced upon us by the greater logic of a competitive market economy.
But it is also a reminder that this sense of being unfulfilled will accompany us in whatever job we choose: We can’t overcome it by switching jobs. No one job can ever be enough.
In love and work, life requires us to be specialists even though we are by nature equally suited for wide-ranging exploration.
We may with a certain melancholic pride remove the job search engine from our bookmarks and cancel our subscription to a dating site in due recognition of the fact that, whatever we do, parts of our potential will have to go undeveloped and have to die without ever having had the chance to come to full maturity—for the sake of the benefits of focus and specialization.
The one way to generate wealth, argued Mandeville, was to ensure high demand for absurd and unnecessary things.
Rather than condemn recreational expenditure, as Christian moralists had done, Mandeville celebrated them for their consequences. As his subtitle put it, it was a case of “Private Vices, Public Benefits.”
But the crucial hope for the future is that we will not forever need to be making money from exploitative or vain consumer appetites; that we will also learn to generate sizeable profits from helping people—as consumers and producers—in the truly important and ambitious aspects of their lives. The reform of capitalism hinges on an odd-sounding but critical task: the conception of an economy focused around higher needs.
If the proverbial Martian were to attempt to guess what human beings required in order to be satisfied by scanning lists of the top corporations in the leading wealthy countries, they would guess that Homo sapiens had immense requirements for food, warmth, shelter, credit, insurance, missiles, packets of data, strips of cotton or wool to wrap around their limbs, and, of course, a lot of ketchup. This, the world’s stock markets seem to tell us, is what human satisfaction is made up of.
Abraham Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs.
Business has helped us to be warm, safe, and distracted. It has been markedly indifferent to our flourishing.
The advertisement understands our deepest hopes around our children. It is moving because what it depicts is so hard to find in real life. We are often brought to tears not so much by what is horrible as by what is beautiful but out of reach.
Adverts wouldn’t work if they didn’t operate with a very good understanding of what our real needs are; what we truly require to be happy. Their emotional pull is based on knowing us eerily well. As they recognize, we are creatures who hunger for good family relationships, connections with others, a sense of freedom and joy, a promise of self-development, dignity, calm, and the feeling that we are respected. Yet, armed with this knowledge, they—and the corporations who bankroll them—unwittingly play a cruel trick on us, for while they excite us with reminders of our buried longings, they cannot do anything sincere about satisfying them. The objects adverts send us off to buy fall far short of the hopes that they have aroused. Calvin Klein makes lovely cologne. Patek Philippe’s watches are extremely reliable and beautiful agents of timekeeping. But these items cannot by themselves help us secure the psychological possessions our unconscious believed were on offer.
Advertising has at least done us the great service of hinting at the future shape of the economy; it already trades in all the right ingredients. The challenge now is to narrow the gap between the fantasies being offered and what we truly spend our lives doing and our money buying.
This greater sympathy would not be a replacement for political action, it would be its precondition; the sentiment upon which a material change in the lives of the victims of inequality would be founded. An artist like Netscher isn’t changing how much the low-paid earn; he is changing how the low-paid are judged.
Politeness is a lid that we place upon our real selves to suppress the truths that could free us.
Not being ourselves is the kindest thing we can do to someone we claim to love. To give others an uncensored view of our emotions, with their minute-by-minute vagaries and compulsions, is sheer laziness or cruelty. We cannot possibly be good and entirely honest, nor should we try. Strategic inauthenticity is the mark of a kindly soul.
We don’t think we hate cheap things, but we frequently behave as if we do.
The pineapple itself has not changed; it is our attitude to it that has.
When we have to pay a lot for something nice, we appreciate it to the full. Yet as its price in the market falls, passion has a habit of fading away.
In principle, industrialization was supposed to undo these connections. The price would fall and widespread happiness would follow. High-quality objects would enter the mass market, excellence would be democratized. However, despite the greatness of these efforts, instead of making wonderful experiences universally available, industrialization has inadvertently produced a different result: It has seemed to rob certain experiences of their loveliness, interest and worth.
It’s not that we refuse to buy inexpensive or cheap things. It’s just that getting excited over cheap things has come to seem a little bizarre. How do we reverse this? The answer lies in a slightly unexpected area: the mind of a four-year-old.
We have been looking at prices the wrong way. We have fetishized them as tokens of intrinsic value; we have allowed them to set how much excitement we are allowed to have in given areas, how much joy is to be mined in particular places. But prices were never meant to be like this: We are breathing too much life into them and thereby dulling too many of our responses to the inexpensive world.
survived the curiosity of birds and spiders,
There are two ways to get richer: One is to make more money and the second is to discover that more of the things we could love are already to hand (thanks to the miracles of the Industrial Revolution).
Such pessimism is also a corrective to prevailing sentimentality. It provides an acknowledgment that we are inherently flawed creatures, incapable of lasting happiness, beset by troubling sexual desires, obsessed by status, vulnerable to appalling accidents, and always—slowly—dying.
because God is always with us. In their way, religions addressed a universal problem: They recognized the powerful need to be intimately known and appreciated and admitted frankly that this need could not realistically ever be met by other people.
But the legacy of Romanticism has been an epidemic of loneliness, as we are repeatedly brought up against the truth: the radical inability of any one other person to wholly grasp who we truly are.
Yet there remains, besides the promises of love and religion, one other—and more solid—resource with which to address our loneliness: culture.
What we are at heart looking for in friendship is not necessarily someone we can touch and see in front of us, but a person who shares, and can help us develop, our sensibility and values, someone to whom we can turn and look for a sign that they too feel what we have felt, that they are attracted, amused, and repulsed by similar things. And, strangely, it appears that certain imaginary friends drawn from culture can end up feeling more real and in that sense more present to us than any of our real-life acquaintances, even if they have been dead a few centuries and lived on another continent. We can feel honored to count them among our best friends.
The arts provide a miraculous mechanism whereby a total stranger can offer us many of the things that lie at the core of friendship. And when we find these art friends, we are unpicking the experience of loneliness. We’re finding intimacy at a distance.
Confronted by the many failings of our real-life communities, culture gives us the option of assembling a tribe for ourselves, drawing their members across the widest ranges of time and space, blending some living friends with some dead authors, architects, musicians and composers, painters and poets.
High ambitions are noble and important, but there’s also a point when they become the sources of terrible trouble and unnecessary panic.
Winnicott’s crucial insight was that the parents’ agony was coming from a particular place: excessive hope. Their despair was a consequence of a cruel and counterproductive perfectionism. To help them reduce this, Winnicott developed a charming phrase: “the good enough parent.” No child, he insisted, needs an ideal parent. They just need an OK, pretty decent, usually well-intentioned, sometimes grumpy but basically reasonable father or mother. Winnicott wasn’t saying this because he liked to settle for second best, but because he knew the toll exacted by perfectionism, and realized that in order to remain more or less sane (which is a very big ambition already) we have to learn not to hate ourselves for failing to be what no ordinary human being ever really is anyway.
The concept of “good enough” was invented as an escape from dangerous ideals. It began in relation to parenthood, but it can be applied across life more generally, especially around work and love.
It takes a great deal of bravery and skill to keep even a very ordinary life going. To persevere through the challenges of love, work, and children is quietly heroic. We should perhaps more often sometimes step back in order to acknowledge in a non-starry-eyed but very real way that our lives are good enough—and that this is, in itself, already a very impressive achievement.
GRATITUDE The standard habit of the mind is to take careful note of what’s not right in our lives and obsess about all that is missing.
properly keep in mind how much worse it could, and probably will one day, be.
To teach us how to be wise is the underlying central purpose of philosophy.
Wisdom can be said to comprise twelve ingredients.
Realism Knowing that something difficult is being attempted doesn’t rob the wise of ambition, but it makes them more steadfast, calmer, and less prone to panic about the problems that will invariably come their way. The wise rarely expect anything to be wholly easy or to go entirely well.
Appreciation It isn’t that they are sentimental and naive; in fact, precisely the opposite. Because they have seen how hard things can get, they know how to draw the full value from the peaceful and the sweet—whenever and wherever these arise.
Folly The wise are unsurprised by the ongoing coexistence of deep immaturity and perversity alongside quite adult qualities like intelligence and morality. They know that we are barely evolved apes. Aware that at least half of life is irrational, they try, wherever possible, to budget for madness and are slow to panic when it (reliably) rears its head.
Humor The wise take the business of laughing at themselves seriously.
They laugh from the constant collisions between the noble way they’d like things to be and the demented way they in fact often turn out.
Politeness They are therefore extremely reticent about telling others too frankly what they think. They have a sense of how seldom it is useful to get censorious with others. They want, above all, things to be nice in social settings, even if this means they are not totally authentic. So they will sit with someone of an opposite political persuasion and not try to convert them; they will hold their tongue with someone who seems to be announcing a wrong-headed plan for reforming the country, educating their child, or directing their personal life. They’ll be aware of how differently things can look through the eyes of others and will search more for what people have in common than for what separates them.
Forgiveness The wise know that most hurt is not intentional but a by-product of the constant collision of blind competing egos in a world of scarce resources.
The wise are therefore slow to anger and judge. They don’t leap to the worst conclusions about what is going on in the minds of others. They will be readier to overlook a hurt from a proper sense of how difficult every life is, harboring as it does so many frustrated ambitions, disappointments, and longings.
The wise are generous as to the reasons why people might not be nice. They feel less persecuted by the aggression and meanness of others, because they have a sense of the place of hurt these feelings come from.
Resilience The wise person sees the advantages of all of these, but also knows that they may—before too long, at a time of fate’s choosing—have to draw the borders right back and find contentment within a more confined space.
Envy The winners aren’t all noble and good. The wise appreciate the role of luck and don’t curse themselves overly at those junctures where they have evidently not had as much of it as they would have liked.
Success and Failure They may want to win as much as the next person, but they are aware of how many fundamentals will remain unchanged, whatever the outcome.
The wise see the continuities between the two categories overemphasized by modern consumer capitalism: success and failure.
Regrets We will make some extremely large and utterly uncorrectable errors in a number of areas. Perfectionism is a wicked illusion. Regret is unavoidable.
We are all, where it counts, steering almost blind.
Calm They are not afraid of having a somewhat boring time. Things could, and will again, be so much worse.
And, finally, of course, the wise know that it will never be possible to be wise every hour, let alone every day, of their lives.
- THE SCHOOL OF LIFE is a global organisation helping people lead more fulfilled lives.