The Philosophers’ Guide to Calm, Part 2
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. Yesterday, we considered the first three, and here is the next instalment in our three-part guide to a calmer life:
Four: We don’t know what we are bothered about
Sunday evening, in the kitchen. Your partner asks you how the week ahead is looking for you. It sounds like a completely innocent question. But it sets your teeth on edge, you roll your eyes. You get sarcastic. Why do they want to know? It’s a moment of deep irritation. You are anything but calm. You try to keep a lid on it, but you are ready to scream. And then it gets worse. They start to get upset and point out that you are being mean and difficult. Why the hell are you SO hard to live with? You are always grumpy. The simplest question sets you off.
Or you are driving home, minding your own business and someone cuts in front of you. It was definitely not a very nice thing to do, but – in fact – no harm has been done. Yet you feel very stressed. You were fine until that happened and now you are deeply agitated. You hate the other driver. You have to restrain yourself from deliberately colliding with them or winding down the window and starting to scream at them.
We don’t like admitting it but quite often we don’t really know what it is that has caused us to get so agitated. It can feel like an insult: you are upset and you don’t know why. But really it is a helpful thought. Finding out the real cause is the key to bringing relief: unanalysed frustration is the root cause of rage.
Because we are short of time and distracted by many demands, we don’t often pay attention to the onset of anxieties. We therefore let them mushroom into anger or depression.
Half an hour later you will get enraged – about something else
To return to our feuding couple: scanning back, it turns out that earlier you had gone to put a plate in the dishwasher and found that your partner had (yet again) dumped the cups and glasses in anyhow. It offended your sense of order. It felt sloppy. But you didn’t say anything. You bottled it up: why make a fuss about a ‘small thing’.
But it is this annoyance with a small thing which fuels your rage when they ask how next week is looking. So, in order to calm down, there’s not much point in debating the rights and wrongs of asking about the diary. You have to go back in time and understand the dishwasher problem.
Or with the irritation on the road, you might need to locate the source of the trouble in something that happened in the morning.
You envy him – and want to kill the motorist who barged in
You had been rushing out the door, almost late for work. Your younger neighbour who works in advertising has a new car – and a cute girlfriend. He doesn’t seem to be in a hurry. Everything about his life is better than yours. You would have to change jobs, go to the gym, throw out all your clothes, get a hair transplant in order to begin to emulate him. You envy him.
The cutting-in incident driving home was really an extension of this trouble with the neighbour. It’s not that someone is gaining a few yards on you on the road – but someone is showing you that your life is worthless. The distress isn’t really about the other motorist – it’s about your neighbour.
The way to calm is through analysis. We need to spend time on self-knowledge. We have to try to isolate the genuine cause, which can then be addressed. You might just have to accept that your partner will never be more than a very mediocre dishwasher stacker, and resign yourself to wasting 37 seconds to reposition a few pieces of crockery. It’s very slightly annoying – but not enough to ruin an evening.
Or you can think through the envy that the sight of a new car provokes. Really it does not matter too much. If you recognise the moment and address it, its power over you is greatly reduced. The pursuit of calm isn’t about making every single moment of existence perfectly tranquil. What we want to do is prevent some little things becoming huge causes of agitation. And the path to this is to constantly take apart moods of anxiety in order to pinpoint their real causes.
Five: Capitalism and False Glamour
It is inbuilt in Capitalism that the best things in life cannot be the free ones. On the contrary, Capitalism is keen to tell us things which are inexpensive cannot be much good and that everything worth having costs a lot of money – more than you have.
This is a profound cause of lack of calm in our lives. It means that we are continually agitated by the worry that we can’t afford the things that will make us happy. It’s a very understandable anxiety. But it is unhelpful – and based on a falsehood. We need to remind ourselves – on a regular basis – that inexpensive, simple things may often have much more to offer us. Ideally, a large part of modern culture would support us in that calming endeavour. But, for the moment, it is something we have to do for ourselves, with the assistance of some impressive allies.
This beautiful bowl is telling us a helpful thing: that things that are precious in their meaning and visual appeal needn’t be financially precious – and this is very good news in a world where hardly anyone has lots of money. It is one strand of how we can deal better with consumerism, disrupting the linear relationship between expense and goodness.
Though this particular bowl is in an art gallery – and would cost a fortune to buy – it’s not much different (and certainly no better) than one we might pick up cheaply in Ikea.
One of the heroes of appreciating the real worth of simple, inexpensive things is the 18th-century French painter Jean-Siméon Chardin.
Everything here is simple and modest. And wonderful. Someone preserved the apricots last autumn. It didn’t cost much to do that – at least not in financial terms; what it took was care and patience. The wine glass on the left wasn’t expensive – but the design is just right. The cup is pretty, and adds a cheerful touch of colour. Most junk shops have a few quite like it. The package on the right has been tied with style, but brown paper and string won’t break the bank. The knife is second hand; it’s got a nice handle.
The Chinese bowl and the painting are helpful correctives to the pressure of glamour – which tries to push us in the opposite direction, making us feel we can’t love our lives unless we are doing the fashionable, expensive thing.
The media is constantly defining the good life in a way that makes it inaccessible to most people. This is extremely unhelpful and untrue, for it turns out that – more wisely considered – many lovely things are, in fact, within our reach. A capacity for appreciation, not money, is the key to a certain kind of calm.
See also: Part 1, Part 3