A stressed-out mind in a stressed-out world
Even modern life. Maybe even especially modern life. We are saturated with a billion kinds of transient magic. We can pick up a device and contact people a whole hemisphere away. We can, when choosing a holiday, look at the reviews of people who stayed in our desired hotel last week. We can look at satellite images of every road in Timbuktu. When we are ill, we can go to the doctor and get antibiotics for illnesses that could once have killed us. We can go to a supermarket and buy dragon fruit from Vietnam and wine from Chile. If a politician says or does something we disagree with, it has never been easier to voice that disagreement. We can access more information, more films, more books, more everything, than ever before.
When, back in the 1990s, Microsoft’s slogan asked, ‘Where do you want to go today?’ it was a rhetorical question. In the digital age, the answer is everywhere. Anxiety, to quote the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, may be the ‘dizziness of freedom’, but all this freedom of choice really is a miracle.
But while choice is infinite, our lives have time spans. We can’t live every life. We can’t watch every film or read every book or visit every single place on this sweet earth. Rather than being blocked by it, we need to edit the choice in front of us. We need to find out what is good for us, and leave the rest. We don’t need another world. Everything we need is here, if we give up thinking we need everything.
William Shakespeare was not a robot. Emily Dickinson was not a robot. Neither was Aristotle. Or Euclid. Or Picasso. Or Mary Shelley (though she would be writing about them). Everyone you have ever loved and cared for was not a robot. Humans are amazing to other humans. And we are humans.
2.We are mysterious. We don’t know why we are here. We have to craft our own meaning. A robot is designed for tasks or a set of tasks. We have been here for thousands of generations and we are still seeking answers. The mystery is tantalising.
3.Your not-so-distant ancestors wrote poems and acted courageously in wars and fell in love and danced and gazed wistfully at sunsets. A future sentient robot’s ancestors will be a self-service checkout and a faulty vacuum cleaner.
4.This list actually has only four things. Just to confuse the robots. Though I did ask some online friends why humans are better than robots, and they said all kinds of stuff: ‘self-deprecating humour’, ‘love’, ‘soft skin and orgasms’, ‘wonder’, ‘empathy’. And maybe a robot could one day develop these things, but right now it is a good reminder that humans are pretty special.
A feeling is not your face
NEVER IN HUMAN history have so many products and services been available to make ourselves achieve the goal of looking more young and attractive.
Day creams, night creams, neck creams, hand creams, exfoliators, spray tans, mascaras, anti-age serums, cellulite creams, face masks, concealers, shaving creams, beard trimmers, foundations, lipsticks, home waxing kits, recovery oils, pore correctors, eyeliners, Botox, manicures, pedicures, microdermabrasion (a strange cross between modern exfoliation and medieval torture, by the sound of it), mud baths, seaweed wraps and full-blown plastic surgery.
Yet, despite all our new methods and tricks to look better, a lot of us remain unhappy with our looks. The largest global study of its kind, conducted by research group GfK and published in Time magazine back in 2015, suggested that millions of people were not satisfied with how they look. In Japan, for instance, 38 per cent of people were found to be seriously unhappy about their appearance. The interesting thing about the survey was that it showed that how you feel about your looks is surprisingly far more determined by the nation in which you live than by, say, your gender. In fact, all over the world, levels of anxiety about how you look are moving towards being as high in men as they are in women.
‘In nature,’ wrote Alice Walker, ‘nothing is perfect and everything is perfect. Trees can be contorted, bent in weird ways, and they’re still beautiful.’ Our bodies will never be as firm and symmetrical and ageless as those of bionic sex robots, so we need quite quickly to learn how to be happy with not having society’s unrealistic version of the ‘best’ body, and a bit happier with having our body, as it is, not least because being unhappy with our body doesn’t make us look any better. It just makes us feel a lot worse. We are infinitely better than the most perfect-looking bionic sex robots. We are humans. Let’s not be ashamed to look like them.
Notes on time
WE DIDN’T ALWAYS have clocks. For most of human history the concept of, say, ‘a quarter to five’ or ‘four forty-five’ would have been meaningless.
No one has ever found a Neolithic cave painting of someone waking up stressed because they slept through their alarm and missed their nine o’clock management meeting. Once upon a time, there were really just two times. Day and night. Light and dark. Awake and asleep. Of course, there were other times, too. There were meal times and hunting times and times to fight and times to relax and times to play and times to kiss, but these times weren’t dictated artificially by clocks and their numbers and endless partitions.
We are too aware of numerical time and not aware enough of natural time. People for thousands of years may have woken up at seven in the morning. The difference with these last few centuries is that now we are waking up because it is seven in the morning. We go to school or college or work at a certain time of day, not because that feels the most natural time to do so, but because that is the time that has been given to us. We have handed over our instincts to the hands of a clock. Increasingly, we serve time rather than time serving us. We fret about time. We wonder where time has gone. We are obsessed with time.
THE THING IS, we should have more time than ever. I mean, think about it. Life expectancy has more than doubled for people living in the developed world during the last century. And not only that, we have more time-saving devices and technologies than ever before existed.
Emails are faster than letters. Electric heaters are faster than fires. Washing machines are speedier than handwashing over a sink or a river. Once laborious processes like waiting for your hair to dry or travelling ten miles or boiling water or searching through data now take next to no time at all. We have time- and effort-saving things like tractors and cars and washing machines and production lines and microwave ovens.
And yet, for a lot of our lives we feel rushed off our feet. We say things like ‘I’d love to read more/learn a musical instrument/go to the gym/do some charity work/cook my own meals/grow strawberries/see my old school friends/ train for a marathon . . . if only I had the time.’
Feeling you have no time doesn’t mean you have no time.
Feeling you are ugly doesn’t mean you are ugly.
Feeling anxious doesn’t mean you need to be anxious.
Feeling you haven’t achieved enough doesn’t mean you haven’t achieved enough.
Feeling you lack things doesn’t make you less complete.
Everything you are is enough
- It’s okay.
- Even if it isn’t okay, if it’s a thing you can’t control, don’t try to control it.
- You feel misunderstood. Everyone is misunderstood. Don’t worry about other people understanding you. Aim to understand yourself. Nothing else will matter after that.
- Accept yourself. If you can’t be happy as yourself, at least accept yourself as you are right now. You can’t change yourself if you don’t know yourself.
- Never be cool. Never try to be cool. Never worry what the cool people think. Head for the warm people. Life is warmth. You’ll be cool when you’re dead.
- Find a good book. And sit down and read it. There will be times in your life when you’ll feel lost and confused. The way back to yourself is through reading. I want you to remember that. The more you read, the more you will know how to find your way through those difficult times.
- Don’t fix yourself down. Don’t be blinded by the connotations of your name, gender, nationality, sexuality or Facebook profile. Be more than data to be harvested. ‘When I let go of what I am,’ said the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, ‘I become what I might be.’
- 8 .Slow down. Also Lao Tzu: ‘Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.’
- Enjoy the internet. Don’t use it when you aren’t enjoying it. (Nothing has sounded so easy and been so hard.)
- Remember that many people feel like you. You can even go online and find them. This is one of the most therapeutic aspects of the social media age. You can find an echo of your pain. You can find someone who will understand.