Maybe Princess Elsa had a point. I’m reading an interesting book just now: The Antidote – Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, by Oliver Burkeman. It’s a distillation of different theorists from ancient philosophers like the Stoics and the Buddha, and modern philosophers like Alan Watt and Eckhart Tolle. It also includes research by psychologists like Brene Brown. One of the key arguments of the book is that our relentless modern pursuit of happiness, mainly by allowing only positive thinking and elimination of all negative thought, is actually causing us more anxiety and unhappiness.
The reality is, that the only constants of life are change, uncertainty and our inevitable demise; fighting against that all the time brings too much stress. Goal setting may also fuck us up as much as our mums and dads, to paraphrase one poet. For example, amateur climbers who died on Everest, knowing that they should have turned back due to conditions etc, but became fixated on the goal of getting to the top. They call it summit fever.
Sounds depressing? Burkeman does not suggest that we should go around thinking about death all the time, although some ancient philosophers did believe that the only way to realise how precious life is, is to do exactly that. Nor does he suggest that we should not strive to achieve anything. It’s more about learning to accept our failures, our vulnerability and our inability to control life and being comfortable with that. This is more likely to bring us happiness than the things that we strive for. I draw here on two of my favourite philosophers, Calvin and Hobbes:
The other main thread is that most of our fears are usually never as bad as we imagine when they are realised. That it is actually when we have ‘crashed’ and feel that we no longer have anything to lose, that we are in a place where we no longer fear trying the things we have dreamt about, but put off for so long. The only way is up, I guess. There’s a great story where he was given a test to challenge his own fears of humiliation and embarrassment. He had to travel on a crowded London tube and shout out the names of the stations before the automatic announcement, assuming that people would think he was crazy. His stomach was churning in fear. He started off by croaking ‘Chancery Lane’ and ‘Holborn’ in a near whisper, but quickly realised that people were so uninterested, or self-involved that they didn’t care. By the time he got to Oxford St, he was shouting out in excited pride. As Elsa says:
‘It’s funny how some distance makes everything seems small
And the fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all.’
Of course, sometimes people’s worst fears are realised and they are terrible e.g. the death of a child, wars etc but the theory goes that being versed in this approach of acceptance, helps us deal with the worst of pains. Perhaps I am not doing this justice.There is too much to summarise here and I haven’t finished the book yet but it is making me think.
I like these arguments. Frankly, people who are positive all the fucking time do my head in. Being Scottish and innately sarcastic like many of my countryfolk, I don’t necessarily come across too many of them, but when I do, I wonder how they get through life with such naivety. I like that this book makes me feel less of a killjoy when I need to grit my teeth and hold back the rage when I see so much of the so-called motivational and self-help stuff out there. No-one is calling the Buddha a miserable bastard are they? I struggle with too much planning and I don’t have a five year plan. Sure I have dreams, but I can’t always be arsed to do all the work I am supposed to do to ‘make it happen’.
Why I am writing about this? Well, I like talking about things that interest me. And I think there is logic here that applies to my training, fears about the Spartan Race and life in general. Whatever happens between now and July, I cannot control. I might break a leg two weeks before (not deliberately Dr Freud!), or have flu, or a sick kid in hospital. There will be training days where I feel like shit and not do my best. There will be mornings where I just cannot get up early. And I may never be able to swing across the monkey bars. So what? What’s the worst that can happen?
The rest of the time, I will show up and sweat with the best of them. And if I don’t know how my life will turn out, that’s okay. I will show up and sweat through that too (I am in my early forties and it seems sadly inevitable these days). I’ll borrow from C&H again:
Until next time,