It’s a rather simple question that quickly
gets to the core of someone’s sense of well-being
and legitimacy: did your childhood leave you
feeling that you were – on balance – OK as
you were, or did you somewhere along the way
derive an impression that you needed to be
extraordinary in order to deserve a place
on the earth? And, to raise an associated
question: are you therefore now relaxed about
your status – or else either a manic overachiever
or filled with shame at your so-called mediocrity?
Around twenty percent of us will be in the
uncomfortable cohort, alternately refusing
to believe that anything could ever be enough
or cursing ourselves as ‘failures’ (by
which we in essence mean that we have not
managed to beat insane statistical odds).
At school, we probably worked very hard, not
because we were drawn to the topics, but because
we felt compelled for reasons that were – at
the time – not entirely clear; we just knew
we had to come close at the top of the class
and revise every evening. We may not be exceptional
right now, but we are seldom without an acute
sense of pressure to be so.
In childhood, the story might have gone like
this. A parent needed us to be special – by
virtue of intelligence, looks or popularity
- in order to shore up a floundering sense
of their own self. The child needed to achieve
and could not, therefore, just be; their own
motives and tastes were not to be part of
the picture. The parent was – privately – in
pain, unable to value themselves, battling
an unnamed depression, furious with the course
of their own lives, perhaps covertly tortured
by their spouse. And the child’s mission,
for which there was no option but to volunteer,
was to make it all somehow better.
It seems odd to look at achievement through
this lens, not as the thing the newspapers
tell us it is, but – very often – as a species
of mental illness. Those who put up the skyscrapers,
write the bestselling books, perform on stage,
or make partner may, in fact, be the unwell
ones. Whereas the characters who – without
agony – can bear an ordinary life, the so-called
contented ‘mediocrities’, may in fact
be the emotional superstars, the aristocrats
of the spirit, the captains of the heart.
The world divides into the privileged who
can be ordinary and the damned compelled to
The best possible outcome for the latter is
to have a breakdown. Suddenly, after years
of achievement, they can – if they are lucky
- no longer get out bed. They fall into a
profound depression. They develop all-consuming
social anxiety. They refuse to eat. They babble
incoherently. They in some way poke a very
large stick in the wheels of day-to-day life
and are allowed to stay home for a while.
A breakdown is not merely a random piece of
madness or malfunction, it can be a very real
– albeit inarticulate and inconvenient – bid
for health. It is an attempt by one part of
our minds to force the other into a process
of growth, self-understanding and self-development
which it has hitherto been too cowed to undertake.
If we can put it paradoxically, it is an attempt
to jumpstart a process of getting well, properly
well, through a stage of falling very ill.
In an apparently ill state, we might cleverly
be seeking to destroy all the building blocks
of our previous driven yet unhappy careers.
We may be trying to reduce our commitments
and our outgoings. We may be trying to throw
off the cruel absurdity of others’ expectations.
Our societies – that are often unwell at a
collective and not just an individual level
- are predictably lacking in inspiring images
of good enough ordinary lives. They tend to
associate these with being a loser. We imagine
that a quiet life is something that only a
failed person without options would ever seek.
We relentlessly identify goodness with being
at the centre, in the metropolis, on the stage.
We don’t like autumn mellowness or the peace
that comes once we are past the meridian of
our hopes. But there is, of course, no center,
or rather the centre is oneself.
Occasionally an artist will make things that
bring such bathetic wisdom home. Here is Montaigne,
capturing the point in the third volume of
his Essays, written a few years before his
death towards the end of the sixteenth century:
“Storming a breach, conducting an embassy,
ruling a nation are glittering deeds. Rebuking,
laughing, buying, selling, loving, hating
and living together gently and justly with
your household – and with yourself – not getting
slack nor belying yourself, is something more
remarkable, more rare and more difficult.
Whatever people may say, such secluded lives
sustain in that way duties which are at least
as hard and as tense as those of other lives.”
In the late 1650s, the Dutch artist Johannes
Vermeer painted a picture called The Little
Street, that continues to challenge our value
system to this day.
Perhaps success might – after all – be nothing
more than a quiet afternoon with the children,
at home, in a modest street. You catch a similar
point in certain stories by Chekhov or Raymond
Carver, in Bob Dylan’s Time out of Mind,
in Thomas Jones’s study of A Wall in Naples
(1782) and in the films of Eric Rohmer, in
particular Le Rayon Vert (1982).
Most movies, adverts, songs and articles,
however, do not tend to go this way, they
continually explain to us the appeal of other
things: sports cars, tropical island holidays,
fame, an exalted destiny, first-class air
travel and being very busy. The attractions
are sometimes perfectly real. But the cumulative
effect is to instill in us the idea that our
own lives must be close to worthless.
And yet there may be immense skill, joy and
nobility involved in what we are up to: in
bringing up a child to be reasonably independent
and balanced; in maintaining a good-enough
relationship with a partner over many years
despite areas of extreme difficulty; in keeping
a home in reasonable order; in getting a lot
of early nights; in doing a not very exciting
or well-paid job responsibly and cheerfully;
in listening properly to other people and,
in general, in not succumbing to madness or
rage at the paradox and compromises involved
in being alive.
There is already a treasury to appreciate
in our circumstances when we learn to see
these without prejudice or self-hatred. As
we may discover once we are beyond others’
expectations, life’s true luxuries might
comprise nothing more or less than simplicity,
quiet, friendship based on vulnerability,
creativity without an audience, love without
too much hope or despair, hot baths and dried
and dark chocolate.
The School of Life is coming to New York from the 4th to the 6th of October for a three-day conference.
Where you’ll have the chance to meet other like-minded individuals and embark on a journey of genuine self-discovery and self-transformation. We hope to see you there.