Summary: A More Exciting Life By The School of Life
Summary: A More Exciting Life By The School of Life

Summary: A More Exciting Life By The School of Life

Learning to lie less often

Our image of liars is so negative, our sense of their motives so dark, our presumption of their primal sinfulness so unyielding, it is no wonder that we generally deny the possibility that we might be liars ourselves.

However, it would be much more honest, and more liberating, to accept that we spend a lot of our lives lying in one way or another, and to grow sympathetic to and curious about the reasons why we do. We tend to focus on the delinquent or semi-criminal aspects of lying – as though deceitfulness always happens in relation to a schoolteacher, an angry father, a gang or the police – and so miss out on its more subtle, everyday psychological varieties in which we, the law-abiding, careful, ostensibly moral majority, are enmeshed.


Leaning into vulnerability

For many of us, whenever we feel scared, sad, anxious or lonely, the last thing we would think of doing is sharing our distress; a confession threatens to make an already difficult situation untenable. We assume that our best chance of defending ourselves and recovering our self-possession is to say nothing. When we are sad at a gathering of friends, we smile. When we are terrified before a speech, we try to change the subject. When we’re asked how we’re coping, we say, ‘Very well indeed, thank you.’ We aren’t deliberately out to deceive; we are practising the only manoeuvre we know and trust in response to our vulnerability.

What we fear above all is judgement. We are social creatures who have come to equate being accepted with appearing poised. We assume that we could not explain what is really going on inside us and survive unblemished. In our eyes, the price of safety is the maintenance of a permanent semblance of composure.

However, there might be an alternative to this punishing and isolating philosophy: rather than insisting on our well-being at moments of fear, sadness, anxiety and loneliness, we might actually reveal that things aren’t perfect for us; that we’re pretty scared right now; that we’re finding it hard to talk to people or maintain faith in the future; that we feel anxious and in need of company.



One of the reasons why our lives are harder than they might be is that most of us do not have a firm handle on the art of mature self-assertion; that is, the ability to put forward our interests in a way that seems credible, dignified, serene and effective. Daily we are confronted by challenges to our positions that require us to find a voice: a partner who subtly denies us affection; a colleague who malignly undermines our proposals; a parent who treads on our aspirations.

In response, we tend to behave in two equally unfortunate ways:1. We say nothing. After all, who are we to speak; why would anyone listen; how dare we? None of which stops us hating and cursing inside. We bottle up the toxins until they have built up a head of steam, then let rip a tirade of insults, florid accusations and sulphurous vindictiveness that, at a stroke, destroys the credibility of anything we might be trying to convey and ensures that we can be put in a box labelled ‘tyrannical and unhinged’.

We should see the challenge of mastering assertion as one of the great psychological hurdles. To learn how to assert oneself steadily and graciously might be ranked as a feat no less worthy of celebration (and much more useful) than climbing a mountain or making a fortune.

We should assert ourselves not because it will always work. Indeed, a bit of pessimism can be handy; when we know that people might not understand us, we no longer feel so desperate that they must. We should assert ourselves irrespective of results because it will lend us an important sense of our own agency and strength – and we’ll twitch less.


Dealing with depression

Sad people can, without difficulty, tell us what is troubling them. They are sad that their pet died, or that they lost their job, or that their friends are unkind. The depressed person is not capable of doing this. They may be tearful, but they cannot conclusively identify what has drained life of meaning for them: they simply say it has no meaning per se. They aren’t depressed about X or Y as one might be sad about X or Y. They are simply depressed.

For depressives, realising what they are concretely upset about would be too devastating. Therefore, they unconsciously choose to remain dead to everything as opposed to very distraught about something. Depression is sadness that has forgotten its true causes – forgotten because remembering may generate overwhelming, untenable feelings of pain and loss.

What might these true causes be? Perhaps that we have married the wrong person, or that our sexuality isn’t what we once believed, or that we are furious with a parent for their lack of care in childhood. In order to preserve a fragile peace of mind, one then ‘chooses’ (although that may sound more willed than it is in reality) to be depressed rather than to have a realisation. We pick unceasing numbness as protection against dreadful insight.

What people in depression need above all is a chance to arrive at insight. For this, they will tend to need a supportive and patient listener. They may also benefit from temporary use of medication, if used appropriately, to lift their mood just enough so that they can endure a conversation. However, the assumption is not that brain chemistry is where the problem either begins or ends; the despair is caused by an undigested, unknown and unresolved trauma. Far from needing to be taken through reasons to trust that life is beautiful, depressives must be allowed to feel and to remember specific damage, and to be granted a fundamental sense of the legitimacy of their emotions. They need to be allowed to be angry, and for the anger to settle on the right, awkward targets.


Learning to lay down boundaries

One of the reasons why our lives might be less than they could be is that we have missed out on an awkward-sounding but critical art, whose absence we may never even have noticed: that of laying down boundaries.

Those who can successfully lay down boundaries will tell their small child that, even though they love them very much, once this game is over, Mummy or Daddy is not going to play another round and it will be time to go upstairs for hair washing, and biting or kicking is not the answer, as we’ve discussed before. The good boundary-builder will wait until everyone is well rested to tell their partner that, although they appreciate them taking the initiative in many areas, when it comes to their own family, they want to be left in charge, and therefore don’t think it was right for the partner to call up their mother-in-law without warning in order to arrange the forthcoming holidays. At work, the boundaried manager will tell their new hire that, although they want to be supportive where possible, it simply is not their role to complete schedules or manage budgets for others.

However, because most of us have not been educated in this byway of emotional maturity, the boundaries are either non-existent or else get thrown up in a jerky and destructive manner; as the technical language has it, we are either too compliant or too rigid. Therefore, Mummy or Daddy might never say that they’ve had enough of the game and, even when wilting, will play on late into the night, ensuring that their child will be exhausted and cross the next day.

An alternative response to building boundaries is the habit of throwing up walls topped with razor wire ringed by machine gun turrets, or a tendency to become swiftly and gratingly defensive. The manically defensive person too is labouring under a set of unfortunate misapprehensions: • Everyone is trying to hurt them. • No one will listen unless they hit back with immense force. • Their needs can never truly be met.

However, the alternative to lacking boundaries is not violent defensiveness. We should not let boundary building be undermined by its most zealous practitioners; there is always a means to make a sound case without reaching for a weapon.


Overcoming the pressure to be exceptional

It’s a simple question that 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 derive the impression that you needed to be extraordinary in order to deserve a place on Earth? To raise an associated question: are you now relaxed about your status, or else a manic overachiever – or filled with shame at your so-called mediocrity?

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. Conversely, the characters who, without agony, can bear an ordinary life, the so-called contented ‘mediocrities’, may 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 who are compelled to be remarkable.

Our societies – which 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 centre; or rather, the centre is oneself.

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.