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 be remarkable.
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.
虽难以言喻 不好处理 但却是实在的健康诉求
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 coward 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.
“攻关 管理使馆 治理国家都是光辉业绩
Rebuking, laughing, buying, selling, loving, hating
笑骂 买卖 爱恨
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.
是更非凡 更珍贵 更难做到的事情
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,
然而 大部分的电影 广告 歌曲和文章
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
名望 崇高的使命 头等舱旅行
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:
然而 我们所做的可能是欢乐和高尚的 需要技巧的：
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 fruits, walnuts and a little bit of dark chocolate.
热水浴 干果 核桃和一点黑巧克力
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.
It’s a rather simple question that quickly gets to the core