The Best Way to Face Difficult Times – Free Ebook

The arguments for approaching life in a grave,
serious and unsmiling mood are overwhelming:

we are clearly a profoundly wicked species,
we continually perpetrate monstrous suffering

on one another, our greed and viciousness
know no bounds, our minds are fickle and largely

out of control, no one gets through existence
unscathed and everyday is bad until – eventually

– the worst of all happens. The only people
one could imagine smiling through this kind

of horror show would be the still-too innocent
or the actively deluded.

And yet, one of the odder-sounding conclusions
we might reach, after having had our fill

of every kind of awfulness, is that there
might still be a way to live light-heartedly

amidst catastrophe, not because we don’t
know – about the unjustified pain, the miserable

errors and the imperfection of everything
– but precisely because we do; because we

know it all so so well and have had enough
of ruminating on despair, a stance of defiance

towards difficulty that draws its energy from
full and over-intimate acquaintance with it.

This is the laughter that comes not when one
has never really cried but when one has cried

for years, when every pretty hope has been
trampled on, when one has made some properly

dreadful mistakes and been repaid amply for
them – and when one has fully considered

ending it all, but then decided – at the
last moment – to keep going, not because

of anything one can expect of oneself, not
because one holds on to any standard belief

in a good life, but because – amidst the
shitshow – one can’t help but notice that

the sky is a delightful azure blue, that there’s
a Bach cello concerto to listen to and that

there’s a sweet four year old holding on
to her mother’s hand asking how ducks sleep

at night. And so despite everything, the loneliness,
the shame, the compromise, the self-hatred

and the sure knowledge that the agony isn’t
over yet, one turns to the light and says

a big rebellious obstinate joyful yes to the
universe (which naturally doesn’t give a

Sometimes well-meaning people try to get others

to cheer up by by telling them that they are
beautiful, that they deserve good things and

that they have a share of the divine in them.
Bless such efforts and those for whom they

work, but for the rest of us, there might
be another way, this based not on sentimental

bromides but on staring down the darkness
and refusing to let it terrify us. We might

build ourselves up by accepting with grace
that, naturally and non-negotiably, we are

total idiots, others are mostly horrid and
almost nothing ever really comes right…

and yet we’re going to keep at it anyway.
We become the sort of people who understand

that rearranging the deckchairs on the titanic
would not have been a waste of time, because

of how nice the band would have sounded and
how much time there really was, all things,

considered, before the icy waters started
to lap at one’s black tie trousers and how

crucial it was to let those last joyful notes
ring out in the clear arctic night.

What lies behind this light-hearted approach
isn’t naivety, it’s the lightness that

comes from registering every kind of heaviness
and transcending it. We can pick up on what’s

distinctive in this attitude by comparing
two masterpieces of art, one by Velazquez,

painted in 1632, depicting the most sorrowful
moment in the Christian history of the world,

the other by made in 1979 by Monty Python,
showing us the crucifixion of a non-descript

everyman with a truculent determination not
to bemoan his fate unduly.

Velazquez is classically tragic, but Monty
Python’s closing song brazenly tackles the

business of dying on a cross and plays it
for laughs: ‘Life’s a piece of shit, when

you look at it’. Instead of plunging us
further into feelings of sorrow, the mood

is mocking and utterly committed to refusing
gloom: ‘Always look on the bright side of

life… purse your lips and give a whistle’.
This strategy of defiance insists on squaring

up to the grimness, and then asserting control
over it through mordant dryness. In the Middle

Ages, a tradition arose of condemned people
on the scaffold turning to the crowd and making

a witticism about their situation. Commenting
on this gallows humour, Freud recounted a

man being led out to be hung at dawn saying,
‘Well, the day is certainly starting well.’

One aristocrat in the French Revolution, on
being ushered up to the guillotine (then a

brand-new high-tech killing machine), looked
up at its complicated workings and asked,

‘Are you sure this is safe?’ Rather than
being slowly gnawed at by sideways glances

at the truth, the gallows humorist insists
that they will not be silenced by it, they

roll their sleeves up, grab it tenaciously
and remove its sting through comedy.

True light-heartedness begins with an appreciation
of one’s utter cosmic unimportance and nullity:

nothing we have ever done, said or thought
matters in any way. It’s only the monstrous

illusions of our ego which give us an impression
that we count, and then torture us that we

don’t count enough. Furthermore, no one
will ever particularly understand us or love

us properly – and that isn’t a personal
curse, but an iron-clad fact of nature we

would do well to stop kicking against and
to be constantly disappointed by. Everything

we deeply want either will not happen or will
be unsatisfying when it does. We must stop

crying as if any of it really mattered or
there ever was another way. We must pity ourselves

and then change tack. The tragic view is obvious.
Being miserable is the default. Everything

makes very little sense. Now let’s surprise
ourselves with a little irresponsible laughter,

the kind it can take a lifetime of sorrow
to perfect.

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