Today, like most days, you are anxious. It is there in the background, always present, sometimes more to the fore, sometimes less so, but never truly banished – at least not for longer than an evening. The anxiety appears to be about some very particular things: the party where you won’t know many people, the complicated trip you have to take to some unfamiliar hotels, the direction of your career, the drilling outside, the email problem, the claustrophobic interior of the plane, your digestive system…
But considered from a broader perspective, the problem for us is larger, more damning and a great deal more fundamental. Beyond any specific thing we happen to be worrying about, looked at over time, a greater conclusion is inescapable: we simply are anxious, to our core, in the very basic make-up of our being. Though we may focus day-to-day on this or that particular worry creating static in our minds, what we are really up against is anxiety as a permanent feature of life, something irrevocable, existential, dogged – and responsible for ruining a dominant share of our brief time on earth.
Tortured by anxiety, we naturally fall prey to powerful fantasies about what might – finally – bring us calm. At certain points, especially in the north, the fantasies latch on to travel.
Here, at last, there would be peace: under the clear blue sky, on the island eleven-and-a-half hours from here, seven time zones away, with the warm water lapping at our feet, and with access to a seaside villa on pontoons, with Egyptian cotton sheets and a refreshing breeze. It is just a matter of holding on for a few more months – and parting with an extraordinary sum.
Or perhaps we would be calm if the house could be as we really want it: with everything in its place, no more clutter, pristine walls, ample cupboards, stripped oak, limestone, recessed lighting and a bank of new appliances.
Or perhaps we will be calm when one day we reach the right place in the company, or the novel is sold, or the film is made or our shares are worth $5bn – and we can walk into a room of strangers and they will know at once.
Or there might be calm if we had the right sort of person in our lives, someone who could properly understand us, a creature with whom it wouldn’t be so difficult, who would be kind and playfully sympathetic, who would have thoughtful, compassionate eyes and in whose arms we could lie in peace, almost like a child – though not quite.
Travel, Beauty, Status and Love: the four great contemporary ideals around which our fantasies of calm collect and which taken together are responsible for the lion’s share of the frenzied activities of the modern economy: its airports, long-haul jets and resort hotels; its overheated property markets, furniture companies and unscrupulous building contractors; its networking events, status-driven media and competitive business deals; its bewitching actors, soaring love songs and busy divorce lawyers.
Yet despite the promises and the passion expended in the pursuit of these goals, none of them will work. There will be anxiety at the beach, in the pristine home, after the sale of the company, and in the arms of anyone we will ever seduce, however often we try.
Anxiety is our fundamental state for well-founded reasons:
– Because we are intensely vulnerable physical beings, a complicated network of fragile organs all biding their time before eventually letting us down catastrophically at a moment of their own choosing.
– Because we have insufficient information upon which to make most major life decisions: we are steering more or less blind.
– Because we can imagine so much more than we have and live in mobile-driven, mediatised societies where envy and restlessness will be a constant.
– Because we are the descendants of the great worriers of the species, the others having been trampled and torn apart by wild animals, and because we still carry in our bones – into the calm of the suburbs – the terrors of the savannah.
– Because visible objects and locations, oak tables and beaches, can only symbolise calm to our eyes rather than instill it in our psyches
– Because the progress of our careers and of our finances play themselves out within the tough-minded, competitive, destructive, random workings of an uncontained capitalist engine
– Because we rely for our self-esteem and sense of comfort on the love of people we cannot control and whose needs and hopes will never align seamlessly with our own
All of which is not to say that there aren’t better and worse ways to approach our condition.
The single most important move is acceptance. There is no need – on top of everything else – to be anxious that we are anxious. The mood is no sign that our lives have gone wrong, merely that we are alive. We should be more careful when pursuing things we imagine will spare us anxiety. We can pursue them by all means, but for other reasons than fantasies of calm – and with a little less vigour and a little more scepticism.
We should spare ourselves the burden of loneliness. We are far from the only ones with this problem. Everyone is more anxious than they are inclined to tell us. Even the tycoon and the couple in love are suffering. We’ve collectively failed to admit to ourselves what we are truly like.
We must learn to laugh about our anxieties – laughter being the exuberant expression of relief when a hitherto private agony is given a well-crafted social formulation in a joke. We can laugh about the terrors of having a body, about the absurd scale of our ambitions, and about how easily we lose perspective on everything.
We should hug; not the forced intimacy or oppressive bonhomie of most modern hugs, but the melancholy sympathetic way Botticelli’s angels do it, having come down to earth to offer comfort to humans for the brute facts of earthly existence:
We must suffer alone. But we can at least hold out our arms to our similarly tortured, fractured, and above all else, anxious neighbours, as if to say, in the kindest way possible: ‘I know…’