The Philosophers' Guide to Calm, part 3

Nowadays, almost all of us wish we could be calmer. It's one of the distinctive longings of the modern age. Across history, people have tended to seek out adventure and excitement. But most of us have had a bit too much of that now. The desire to be more tranquil and focused is the new, ever more urgent priority.

In our view, there are eight basic causes of agitation - and the path to greater calm involves attempting to consider each one systematically and returning to it on a regular basis. Here is the final instalment in our three-part guide to a calmer life:

Six: The Promotion of Kindness

Fear of humiliation is a fundamental cause of anxiety. And it is based on our assumptions of how other people will react to us in difficult situations. The worry - of course - is that they will be harsh and mean. Our failings and imperfections will be met with mockery or indifference.

© Rebecca Naden/PA Archive/Press Association Images

He won't salute you unless you have the right luggage

A lot of our agitation stems from the fear of the nastiness of others. So a world in which people are nicer is going to be helpful in a very particular way: it will reduce the fear of failure and humiliation.

This realisation takes some of the weight off ourselves. Anxiety about appearance need not be vanity - and hence something that we should berate ourselves for. In fact it is usually caused by the readiness of others to judge on appearances. Worries about status are not the product of our own shallow and crude materialism. They are the logical response to the way in which decent treatment is unfairly handed out.

People who might belittle you for actually unimportant reasons are, themselves, fraught with insecurity. They threaten to attack because they are so fearful that others will mock them. The promotion of kindness lessens the level of fear of others which circulates in society.

Seven: Perspective in Space

We naturally exaggerate our own importance. The incidents of our own lives loom very large in our view of the world. Yet, really, we are minute and entirely dispensable. The world would trundle on much the same without us. It is very helpful to be reduced, from time to time, in our own eyes because this calms the urgent, disturbing (and very normal) sense that it really, really matters what we do.

© Ben Birchall/PA Archive/Press Association Images

On an evening walk you look up and see the the planets Venus and Jupiter shining in the darkening sky. If the dusk deepens you might see some stars - Aldebaran, Andromeda, Aries and many others. It's a hint of the unimaginable extensions of space across the solar system, the galaxy, the cosmos. The sight has a calming effect. Because none of our troubles, disappointments or hopes have any relevance. Everything that happens to us, or that we do, is of no consequence whatever from the point of view of the universe. For a little while our own lives seem unimportant. But it is not a personal affront. The same applies to everyone: it is levelling, humbling.

A related benefit can be drawn from the contemplation of life going on in places far from where we are. If you don't happen to live in the vicinity, you might be soothed by news from Puerto Montt in Chile.

© REX/Image Broker

Puerto Montt

It lies on the Pacific coast, a two hour flight south of the capital, Santiago. It has a population of 155,000. The weather is mild all year round, though it occasionally freezes in winter. The salmon breeding industry has not been doing well there in recent years. The local soccer team, Deportes, plays in the national Segunda División (they finished seventh last season). There's a large Unimarc shopping centre near the bus terminal. A bayside restaurant, La Kosina Folkbar, has an excellent reputation for fish and steak.

The menu today at La Kosina Folkbar

And the people of Puerto Montt, of course, might benefit from contemplating the minor, daily events of the South London suburb of Norwood, or Newark in Delaware, or the Nerima district of Tokyo.

© Rex

A soothing image - for the residents of Puerto Montt

It is, essentially, a reminder that life can be lived perfectly well in ways that are quite different from our own. The resentments, longings and ambitions which agitate our days might have very little meaning elsewhere. The totems of local status become ridiculous when seen on a global scale. Sending one's children to Kambala High School obsesses some parents in Sydney, but has zero cachet in Patagonia. A resident of Glasgow might fret for years paying a big mortgage for the privilege of living in Milngavie. Yet, from a distance, this suburb has no status at all.

We need to be reminded of how little weight our concerns would have when seen from almost anywhere else, for the kindly reason of reducing our anxiety and helping us feel a little calmer about our lives.

Eight: Perspective in Time

© Simon Knott

While the tower of this church in the tiny village of Helmingham was being built, Columbus reached the Caribbean. Stone masons climbed ladders to shape the upper windows while Leonardo da Vinci was experimenting with flying vehicles. Carpenters fitted the beams on the roof as Granada, the last Muslim stronghold in Spain, fell. To spend time there is to be reminded - in a very touching and helpful way - of how tiny our existence is in the larger fabric of history.

Just as the expanses of space and geography offer a valuable perspective that takes us out of our local preoccupations, so too the encounter with things that are very old can have a moderating, tranquilising effect.

We should regularly seek out places that speak to us of the extended passage of time. But it's not enough merely to be in the place. It's important to actively consider the scale of history, to make oneself think of how much has happened, of how the world has changed. And from there, one is better placed to return to the unavoidable demands of the present.

Distressing levels of agitation are normal. The pursuit of calm is not a way of avoiding engagement with the challenging and difficult parts of existence. An ideal society would systematically calm us down by installing the eight strategies we have discussed over the past few days. Until then, we have to take responsibility for ourselves.

See also: Part 1, Part 2


The School of Life