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The Shortest Trip: On Going for a Walk

A walk is, in a sense, the smallest sort of journey we can ever undertake. It stands in relation to a typical holiday as a bonsai tree does to a forest. But even if it is only an eight minute interlude around the block or a few moments in a nearby park, a walk is already a journey in which many of the grander themes of travel are present. The need to go for a walk begins from the same place as the longing to take off to another country: with a desire to restart our minds. We sometimes cannot work it all out by staying rooted in one place. We have stared at the screen too long, we have been bumping into the same inner obstacles without progress, we have grown claustrophobic with ourselves. That is why we need the sight of the three oak trees and two robins by the river or the maelstrom of the high street, where we linger outside a grocer’s shop and wonder (inconclusively, yet again) what a yam might taste like. The better part of our minds has a habit of getting exhausted and sterile. It is scared as well. Some of the most profound thoughts we need to grapple with have a potentially disturbing character. An inner censor tends to kick in and blocks the progress we were starting to make towards ideas that – though important and interesting – also presented marked threats to short-term peace.

While we walk, the mind is no longer on guard. We’re not supposed to be doing much inside our heads; we’re mainly occupied with following a path around a pond or checking out a row of shops. The ideas that have been half-forming at the back of our minds, ideas about what the true purpose of our lives might be and what we should do next, keep up their steady inward pressure – but now there is a lot less to stop them reaching full consciousness. We’re not meant to be thinking and so – at last – we can think freely and courageously.

The rhythmic motion of an easy stride helps to separate us from the ruts of our current preoccupations and allows us to wander more freely though neglected regions of our inner landscape. Themes we’d lost touch with – childhood, an odd dream we had recently, a friend we haven’t seen for years, a big task we had always told ourselves we’d undertake – float into attention. In physical terms, we’re hardly going any distance at all, but we’re crossing acres of mental territory.

A short while later, we’re back at the office or at home once again. No one has missed us, or perhaps even noticed that we’ve been out. Yet we are subtly different: a slightly more complete, more visionary, courageous and imaginative version of the person we knew how to be – before we wisely went out journeying.

Words: Alain De Botton (http://alaindebotton.com/)

Photo: Sharjeel Jamal

Love

In love, we are liable to be, by instinct, ferocious sulkers. It’s not a terribly nice thing to own up to but the impulse is quasi-universal. Behind the sulk lies a deeply interesting, problematic and almost touching conviction. The sulker is gripped by the idea that being properly loved means being perfectly understood by someone else.

Sulking builds on some occasional and wonderful moments of childhood – typically repeated in the opening days of love – when we have the astonishing experience of being intuitively grasped by someone else in small and large areas. When we sulk, we’re silently referring to this beautiful notion and insisting that our partner live up to it – which they naturally cannot. We wanted to tell them about our day, but they went on about the plumber. They went out and bought the wrong kind of ironing board without asking us; they were deep in conversation when we were ready to leave the party. All these errors we may punish with deep sulks.

Ungracious though a sulk can seem, it is in fact a deeply hopeful expression of love because when we sulk, we are assuming that the other person has an almost magical insight into our minds. This is sweet but – in the long-term – very dangerous. We should never hold it against our partners that they need to have our intentions and feelings explained to them very patiently and without aggression. The real sign of love is not magical insight; it is the willingness to explain and to listen calmly.

Words: Alain De Botton (http://alaindebotton.com/)

Photo: Sharjeel Jamal

Inner Voices

In our minds, we all have inner voices. They talk to us as we try to achieve things or deal with our lives. Sometimes they are kind, but often they are punitive: telling us we’re stupid or worthless or that we deserve every misfortune that comes our way.

An inner voice was always once an outer voice that we have – imperceptibly – made our own. Perhaps we’ve absorbed the tone of a harassed or angry parent; the menacing threats of an elder sibling keen to put us down, the contempt of a schoolyard bully or the words of a teacher who seemed impossible to please. We take in these voices because at certain key moments in the past, they sounded so compelling and irresistible. The dominant figures of our individual histories repeated their messages over and over until they got lodged in our own way of thinking – sometimes to our great cost. 

The ideal inner voice doesn’t pretend that everything we do is wonderful. Rather, it is like the voice of an ideal friend. These figures can recognize when we have done something unwise, but they are 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; the hope is that we can learn to be better judges of ourselves.

Instead of promoting a self-flagellating critical internal commentary, a good friend represents a calm, constructive way of addressing failings. Culture has a role to play here. If our surrounding culture is broadcasting voices that are at once realistic and supportive, complex and morally perceptive, it will be a great deal easier for us to adopt this manner internally as we comment on the trickier parts of our own lives. External generous wisdom can take up residence in the place it is most needed: our private running conversation with ourselves.

Words: Alain De Botton (http://alaindebotton.com/)

Photo: Sharjeel Jamal

Loneliness

Loneliness is the fundamental condition of humankind, a fact heavily denied by Romantic culture, which promises us that there are in fact a few people who will fully be able to understand us – a fairy tale that causes us untold difficulty. A high degree of loneliness is an inexorable part of being a sensitive, intelligent human. It’s a built-in feature of a complex existence. We must all die alone, which really means, that our pain is for us alone to endure. Others can throw us words of encouragement, but in every life, we are out on the ocean drowning in the swell and others, even the nice ones, are standing on the shore, waving good-naturedly.

It is deeply unlikely that we will ever find someone on exactly the same page of the soul as us: we will long for utter congruity, but there will be constant dissonance because we appeared on the earth at different times, are the product of different experiences and are not made of quite the same fabric. The problem is sure to get worse, the more thoughtful and perceptive we are. There will simply be less people like us around. Acute loneliness is a specially punitive tax we have to pay to atone for a certain complexity of mind.

At an exasperated moment, near the end of his life, the German writer Goethe, who appeared to have had a lot of friends, exploded bitterly: ‘No one has ever properly understood me, I have never fully understood anyone; and no one understands anyone else.’ It was a helpful outburst from such a great man. It isn’t our fault: a degree of distance and mutual incomprehension isn’t a sign that life has gone wrong. It’s what we should expect from the very start. And when we do, benefits may flow. The history of art is the record of people who couldn’t find anyone in the vicinity to talk to. We can take up the coded offer of intimacy in the words of a Roman poet who died in 10BC or the lyrics of a singer who described just our blues in a recording from Nashville in 1963.Loneliness makes us more capable of true intimacy if ever better opportunities do come along. It heightens the conversations we have with ourselves, it gives us a character. We don’t repeat what everyone else thinks. We develop a point of view. We might be isolated for now, but we’ll be capable of far closer, more interesting bonds with anyone we do eventually locate.

Loneliness renders us elegant and strangely alluring. It suggests there’s more about us to understand than the normal patterns of social intercourse can accommodate – which is something to take pride in it. A sense of isolation truly is – as we suspect but usually prevent ourselves from feeling from fear of arrogance – a sign of depth. When we admit our loneliness, we are signing up to a club that includes the people we know from the paintings of Edward Hopper, the poems of Baudelaire and the songs of Leonard Cohen. Lonely, we enter a long and grand tradition; we find ourselves (surprisingly) in great company.

Words: Alain De Botton (http://alaindebotton.com/)

Photo: Sharjeel Jamal

Childhood

They reach up and take your hand. You become so gentle – and a little shy. The psychological distance is so great. They are so dependent, they know so little. They are inviting you into their world where a knitted rabbit or a plastic fire-truck are vastly important, where money, work and death are only vague, mysterious, distant rumours; where a zip is fascinating and writing one’s name is a mystical achievement requiring immense concentration (and a tongue firmly gripped between the teeth). Their trusting gesture undoes time: you are holding hands with a small person you have often forgotten, but who needs all your kindness and has so much to teach you about who you are – your own childhood self.

Words: Alain De Botton (http://alaindebotton.com/)

Photo: Sharjeel Jamal

Nationalism

To many people, nationalism sounds suspicious; dangerously close to jingoism and racism. But the desire to feel proud of one’s community is a natural and noble impulse. We just need sophisticated ways of directing our urge for pride. Collective pride is so important because there is never enough to be proud of in a single life. Nationalism takes the pressure off all of us to be individually extremely accomplished and admirable. It lightens the oppressive responsibility we’d otherwise feel to ensure that our own lives could always be stellar and heroic; that’s why patriotism invariably proves especially appealing to those who have the narrowest opportunities.

In an ideal, utopian society, nationalism would be a powerful sentiment, but it would be focused on things that don’t normally figure, at the moment, in national anthems or patriotic speeches. In the future, the nationalist might love their country for things such as: the general elegance and harmony of cities; the way that you don’t have to be rich to live in a gracious neighbourhood; the low divorce rate brought about not by sullen resignation but because of the collective investment in the stages leading up to marriage and the sophisticated support provided by the state when things get tricky in families. People would be proud that in their nation, they consume a lot of elderflower cordial rather alcohol; have a public honours system that lavishly rewards displays of wisdom, that the richest person in the country is a psychoanalyst and that they have a global reputation for being tactful.

What we worry about isn’t, in truth, pride in a country but vanity about things that aren’t truly admirable. The solution to Nationalism isn’t to abolish it (which in any case isn’t a viable option) but to create in a society things of which wise people could rightly be immensely proud.

Words: Alain De Botton (http://alaindebotton.com/)

Photo: Sharjeel Jamal

Hello!

Meet Serena! I usually stumble upon inspiration and common sense in the daily life and there is no greater source of inspiration for me than my daughter. Maybe because she embodies so much of what I am not. Her naive point of view shows me what it means to be truly free, not yet restricted by the constraints of her own thoughts she perceives it all with curiosity and wonderment. Often influencing me to unlearn the many assumptions I have absorbed over the years because through her infancy of consciousness I see how at times wisdom lies not in acquiring more of it but in getting rid of it, in letting go of all of the acquired assumptions and having the courage to go beyond the conditioning and molding of time.

This is Lelo! I am in the process of training her, it annoys me that every time she makes a bowel movement I have to get excited and express a feeling of great enthusiasm (the pathetic situations I get myself in to)! It also annoys me that she has no control over her emotions, she just wants to jump on, sniff and lick everything and everyone. But for every fault I find in her I can find a similar criticization in my own behavior. I constantly jump at every little feeling and emotion, letting it always get the best of me until I find myself suffocating on my leash of limitations. Much like Seneca’s comparison of humans to dogs on a leash, being led by the necessities of life in a range of directions, the more I pull against what is necessary the more I strangle myself. So, many of my hardships are the outcome of my failure to understand the fundamental difference between what I can change and what I can’t. What I have influence over and what I do not. As Epictetus wrote, “The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control.”

When these curiosities into my perceived personal identity become overpowering, I usually find a sense that I am not alone in my mental hardships through the work of those I intend on sharing here. Because if it takes the personal sting out of what is happening to me and helps me confront my fragilities and vulnerabilities, maybe it can do the same for you. For now I leave you with the words of David Hume from A Treatise of Human Nature: “when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception.”