For most of our lives, we’re hard at work:
we’re up till midnight in the library studying
for a degree, we’re learning a trade, building
a business, writing a book. We have hardly
a moment to ourselves. We don’t even ask
whether we are fulfilled, it’s simply obvious
that this is the bit that has to hurt. We
fall asleep counting the weeks until the end.
And then, finally, one day, slightly unexpectedly,
the end arrives. Through slow and steady toil,
we have achieved what we had been seeking
for years: the book is done, the business
is sold, the degree certificate is on the
wall. People around us cheer and lay on a
party; we might even take a holiday.
And that is when, for those of us in the melancholy
camp, a supreme unease is liable to descend.
The beach is beautiful, the sky is flawless,
there is a scent of lemon in the air from
the orchard. We have nothing unpleasant to
do. We can read, loll, play and dawdle. Why
then are we so flat, disoriented and perhaps
slightly tearful? Why are we so scared?
The mind works in deceptive ways. In order
to generate the momentum required to induce
us to finish any task, this mind pretends
that once the work is done, it will finally
be content, it will accept reality as it is.
It will cease its restless, persecutory questions,
it won’t throw up random unease or guilty
supposions. It will be on our side.
But whether by intent or coincidence, our
mind isn’t in any way well suited to honouring
such promises. It turns out to be vehemently
opposed to, and endangered by, states of calm
and relaxation. It can manage them, at best,
for a day or so. And then, with cold rigour,
it will be on its way again with worries and
questions. It will ask us once more to account
for ourselves, to ask what the point of us
is, to doubt whether we are worthy or decent,
to question what right we have to be.
Once hard work ends, there is nothing to stop
our melancholy minds from leading us to the
edge of an abyss we had been able to resist
so long as our heads were down. We start to
feel that no achievement will ever in fact
be enough, that nothing we do can last or
make a difference, that little is as good
as it should be, that we are tainted by a
primordial guilt at being alive and a sense
of not having paid our dues, that others around
us are far more noble and able than we will
ever be, that the blue sky is oppressive and
frightening in its innocence – and that
‘doing nothing’ is the hardest thing we
have ever attempted to do.
It is as though deep down, the melancholy
mind knows that the ultimate fate of the planet
is to be absorbed by the sun in seven and
a half billion years and that everything is
therefore vain and futile against a cosmological
sense of time and space. We know that we are
puny and irrelevant apparitions; we haven’t
been so much busy as protected from despair
by the use of deadlines, punishing schedules,
work trips and late night conference calls.
But now, with the achievement secured, there
is no defence left against the might of existential
terror. It is just us and, in the firmament
above, the light of a billion billion dying
stars. There are no more 8.30am meetings,
no more revision notes, no more chapter deadlines
to distract us from our metaphysical irrelevance.
We should be kinder on ourselves. Rather than
putting ourselves through the infinitely demanding
process of idling (as though a nervous, adrenaline
we should be self-compassionate enough to keep setting
ourselves one slightly irrelevant but well
camouflaged challenge after another – and
do our very best to pretend that these matter
inordinately and that there should be no sizeable
gaps between them.
Our work exists to protect us from a brutal
sense of despair and angst. We should make
sure we never stop having tasks to do – and
never make that most reckless of all moves,
‘retire’ or embark on that next most reckless
step, taking a long holiday.
How to think more effectively is a book about how to optimize our minds so that they can more regularly and generously produce the short of insights and ideas we need to fulfill our potential and achieve the contentment we deserve.