Notes on a Nervous Planet III


Realize the world is not as violent as it feels. Many writers on this subject – such as the famed cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker – have pointed out that, despite all its horrors, society is less violent than it used to be. ‘There is definitely still violence,’ says the historian Yuval Noah Harari. ‘I live in the Middle East so I know this perfectly well. But, comparatively, there is less violence than ever before in history. Today more people die from eating too much than from human violence, which is really an amazing achievement.’


Edith Wharton believed the cure for loneliness  wasn’t always to have company, but to find a way to be happy with your own company. Not to be antisocial, but not to be scared of your own unaccompanied presence.

She thought the cure to misery was to ‘decorate one’s inner house so richly that one is content there, glad to welcome anyone who wants to come and stay, but happy all the same when one is inevitably alone’.


The detective of despair

I think the world is always going to be a mess. And I am always going to be a mess. Maybe you’re a mess, too. But – and this bit is everything for me – I believe it’s possible to be a happy mess. Or, at least, a less miserable mess. A mess who can cope.

‘In all chaos there is a cosmos,’ said Carl Jung, ‘in all disorder a secret order.’

Mess is actually okay. (…) The problem is not that the world is a mess, but that we expect it to be otherwise. We are given the idea that we have control. That we can go anywhere and be anything. That, because of free will in a world of choice, we should be able to choose not just where to go online or what to watch on TV or which recipe to follow of the billion online recipes, but also what to feel. And so when we don’t feel what we want or expect to feel, it becomes confusing and disheartening. Why can’t I be happy when I have so much choice? And why do I feel sad and worried when I don’t really have anything to be sad and worried about?


It makes sense that shopping centres aren’t easy places to be in. A shopping centre is a deliberately stimulating environment, designed not to calm or comfort, but merely to get us to spend money. And as anxiety is often a trigger for consumption, feeling calm and satisfied would probably work against the shopping centre’s best interests. Calmness and satisfaction – in the agenda of the shopping centre – are destinations we reach by purchasing. Not places already there.


As with living in Ibiza, or in a religious cult, it is hard to see the things we may have problems with if everyone has the same problems. If everyone is spending hour after hour on their phones, scrolling through texts and timelines, then that becomes normal behavior. If everyone is getting out of bed too early to work 12-hour days in jobs they hate, then why question it? If everyone is worrying about their looks, then worrying about our looks is what we should be doing. If everyone is maxing out their credit cards to pay for things they don’t really need, then it can’t be a problem. If the whole planet is having a kind of collective breakdown, then unhealthy behavior fits right in. When normality becomes madness, the only way to find sanity is by daring to be different. Or daring to be the you that exists beyond all the physical clutter and mind debris of modern existence.


A paradox

There’s a paradox about modern hi-tech consumer societies. They seem to encourage individualism while not encouraging us – actually forbidding us – to think as individuals. They discourage us from standing back from their distractions, like serious addicts have to if they want their life back, and asking: what am I doing? And why do I keep doing it if it doesn’t make me happy? In a weird way, this is easier if you choose a socially unacceptable compulsion like heroin addiction than if you have a socially acceptable one like compulsive dieting or tweeting or shopping or working. If the madness is collective and the illness is cultural it can be hard to diagnose, let alone treat.

Even when the tide of society is pulling us in one direction it has to be possible – if that direction makes and keeps us unhappy – to learn how to swim another way. To swim towards the truth of ourselves, a truth our distractions might be hiding. Our very lives might depend on it.


‘How many young college graduates have taken demanding jobs in high-powered firms, vowing that they will work hard to earn money that will enable them to retire and pursue their real interests when they are thirty-five? But by the time they reach that age, they have large mortgages, children to school, houses in the suburbs that necessitate at least two cars per family, and a sense that life is not worth living without really good wine and expensive holidays abroad. What are they supposed to do, go back to digging up roots? No, they double their efforts and keep slaving away.’

—Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2011)


‘I want to say, in all seriousness, that a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organised diminution of work.’

—Bertrand Russell, In Praise of Idleness (1932)


Source: Matt Haig – Notes on a Nervous Planet

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