It’s Saturday and I’m at Walmart picking up my groceries. I get a cart with a busted wheel so things are already bad when I get to the deli.
Behind the counter is a young brother with big ears that stick out underneath his tight blue hair net. I think those ears are supposed to go inside but that must hurt him too bad. I never seen him before but his badge says “Avery” which I like cause it’s where I keep my pigeons at home.
The deli has powerful lights that make all of the food real bright. The ham and salami blaze like fire, and the turkey breast slices are like white spotlights that make my eyes hurt. I can still taste the joint I smoked this morning. I wanna get my meat and get out of here.
There are people everywhere waiting for their tickets to be called. I twist my bad cart up to the ticket machine and tear off a ticket but I get three instead of one, so I smash the machine with my fist. I say sorry to the people standing around but the motherfuckers are all staring at the floor like I’m a stone cold killer. It makes me furious because I ain’t that guy anymore. But I drop my head and count to ten like my therapist told me.
When I finish counting I see a blonde lady with a bob haircut and a snotty toddler standing in front of the sausages being all herky jerky. She’s angry about there being no hot dogs and wants to speak to the manager. Avery says the manager is out sick. She pounds her little white fist against the bright glass and I step in and say she should be respectful to the young man with the big ears because it ain’t his fault there’s no hot dogs. She tells me to mind my business which she shouldn’t do because the last person who told me to mind my business was that limey Julius Francis who I knocked out in under four minutes. I bare my teeth at her and take a bite out of a nearby basket and spit it onto her feet. Then I tell the bitch I will eat her child if she doesn’t start being nice. I regret this right away. She shrieks and runs away so I back up, squeeze my eyes shut and count to ten again.
When I open my eyes people are staring at me so I know I better get out quickly before somebody calls the cops. There’s nobody at the counter so I ask Avery for 2 pounds of pink jumbo shrimp and he snatches a handful and dumps them on the scale which shows 2.7 pounds. He asks if that’s ok even though he knows it ain’t ok and I tell him I will gut him like a fish unless he puts 0.7 pounds of shrimp back. I say sorry and he nods his head like a robot. I ask for a pound of the olive tapenade and when he’s done he puts the spoon back into the herbed walnut potato salad even though three millions Americans got nut allergies. I say “listen brother, three million Americans got nut allergies and you’re gonna give some motherfucker a big swollen face like I did to motherfuckers in the 90s.” He says sorry and I say it’s ok and that he should be more careful.
Then I bend my bad cart towards the meat area and ask for a pound of the sticky honey-glazed ham that is sparkling under the bright lights. That’s when I see a new meat between the chicken and turkey, like a little brown chicken but with longer legs all tied up. The label says “pigeon.”
My mouth drops open and my hands turn into fists. I glare at that dirty motherfucker Avery and beads of sweat appear on his forehead. I tell him those pigeons ain’t done nothing to nobody and he says he loves pigeons and it wasn’t up to him to sell them at the deli. I close my eyes and count to ten and can feel my fists uncurling. Avery seems like a good kid so I tell him about Cus, Kevin, and Frank — my three favourite pigeons at home. They’re the best pigeons in the neighbourhood and he says he’d love to meet them. I say that’s ok but I’m still disgusted about the pigeons for sale and wanna talk to his manager next week, and if I ever find a Walmart pigeon-catcher near my property I will put that motherfucker in a body bag.
I tell him to come by my place tomorrow to see my pigeons and smoke some weed if that’s his thing. I grow the best weed in America. He grins and tells me he will see me tomorrow. I bump the kid’s fist and say sorry for my temper again and he says it’s ok because it must be hard being Mike Tyson. He’s a smart kid and I tell him it’s real hard being Mike Tyson but I try my best. I grab my honey-glazed ham and bump fists with the kid again. I can’t wait to show him my pigeons tomorrow.
Her apartment’s doorbell rang. She walked over to it and pushed the “answer call” button.
There was a moment’s pause, then a commanding Bavarian voice: “I haff your delicious vings. Please open ze door so I can deliver zem to you.”
“Hi — you can just leave them in the hallway, I’ll come down and get them.”
“I’m sorry but we must now deliver zem to ze door. New policy.”
She stopped for a second. She hadn’t heard about this change, but with so many food services jostling for customers, it didn’t seem unreasonable. And it was difficult to challenge such confidence.
“Okay, it’s the second floor, apartment twelve.”
She walked to the door to make sure the safety latch was on. The wings should easily fit through the gap anyway.
The delivery driver knocked on the door — donk donk donk donk. Four solid hits. She cautiously twisted the lock, opened the door, and let out a gasp.
Standing in front of her was a tiny man with a massive head. He couldn’t have been any taller than five feet, but his head was a thick block of meat and bone that looked like it had been stolen from a heavyweight boxer. Atop his colossal bonce was a black baseball cap that said “Bratwurst For Life,” with two piercing blue eyes underneath, a wide-bridged nose equipped with cavernous nostrils, and bulbous lips that glistened in the hallway’s lights. He definitely wasn’t a dwarf, but he also wouldn’t look out of place at a dwarf convention. He wore a shiny UberEats jacket that was too big, and the hand that clutched her food was a bitty pink claw that was starting to turn white. He seemed confused.
“Hi, thanks for bringing it up,” she said, composing herself. She stuck her hand through the door’s gap as the man’s eyes followed it.
“Ze gap is too small,” he said, the bass of his voice rumbling through the apartment below. It seemed safe to open the door. She was pretty sure she could overpower what amounted to a loud child if she needed to. She removed the latch and swung it open.
“Sank you,” the man said. “Now, before ve exchange ze vings, I vant you to know I vaited for over thirty-five minutes for zem. It took a long time.”
“Oh, I’m sorry about that.”
“Sank you.” He raised a claw to the crown of his cap and readjusted it. “Given ze troubles, I thought you might repay me vith a drink. I haff finished work for ze night and vud enjoy talking vith you.”
“Oh, I’m sorry but I have a boyfriend.”
He sucked his fat lips into his mouth and bit down on them.
“But I vaited for thirty-five minutes.”
“I’m sorry about that, but it isn’t my fault. You seem… nice. But I can’t invite strange men inside my apartment for drinks.”
“You sink I am strange.”
“Not strange — I just don’t know you.”
“You sink I am small.”
She stifled a snigger. “Well no… you just can’t come in.”
“I am big where it counts.”
She burst out laughing, and an unfortunate fleck of spit landed on his shiny jacket. He looked at it sadly.
“But I haff provided for you,” he said.
“I paid for this food.”
“I gathered zis chicken with my own hans.”
“You collected this food from a restaurant.”
“I vill always provide for you. Look at ze vings I haff brought tonight. I can bring many more vings.”
“Will I have to pay for those too?”
“I’m sorry please give me my food.”
He looked down at the bag, sighed, and handed it to her.
“It is because I am small.”
He stared at her for a moment longer, heaved his oversized backpack onto his shoulders, and walked towards the elevator. She could just about see his legs underneath the backpack, diddling along like a centipede’s.
“I’m sorry,” she called.
He turned, his head emerging from behind the backpack like a slab of swinging beef.
The accident happened three months ago now. We were testing a new way to improve the DNA of humans, a touchy subject I know, but one with profound implications. Nobody would volunteer for our experiment, so I decided to do it myself.
That’s when I accidentally added dog DNA to my genome.
It was a stupid mistake. Someone labelled the tubes incorrectly, so instead of injecting the genes of somebody who has never suffered from the common cold, an amazing circumstance I’m sure you’ll agree, I received a dose of Pippin — an award-winning dachshund in the prime of his life.
Things have been tough since then. My desire to please has skyrocketed, and I find myself bringing people gifts of every shape and size. I saw half a tennis ball on the street and fantasized about how happy it would make my wife. I came upon a dead pigeon and thought it would be something my boss would really appreciate. I could roll in it too — double win. I bought my son his shoes even though we weren’t going anywhere.
Then I noticed my eating habits had changed. My wife asked me to get boneless chicken thighs for dinner, but I just couldn’t bring myself to buy them. I justified the purchase by showing how much cheaper it is to buy bone-in thighs, but what I really wanted was to crunch down on that entire packet right there and then, fully raw. When dinner was prepared that night, we sat down in front of the TV to eat, and I found myself shuffling to the floor and eating with the plate resting on my knees. That was uncomfortable, so why not just put the plate on the floor? It seemed so right. When that happened, and the crispy garlic-baked thighs stared at me in their naked glory, I put my face to the place and ate like it was my last meal.
My wife was horrified, but we were interrupted by the doorbell, and in my panic to see who it was, I stepped into my dinner and ran towards the door with a gravy-dipped sole, leaving patches of sticky brown in the hallway that I intended to clean up rightafter. I also shouted while this happened — a combination of excitement and nerves intended to welcome or frighten the person at the door, depending on who it was. It turned out to be our friendly neighbour Bill, who was more than ruffled when I leapt into his arms and licked his face.
Before the accident, shitting was uneventful. But now it’s like a goddamn ritual. I make an excuse to my wife about brushing my teeth or something and skulk upstairs guiltily. When the door is closed I sniff the entire perimeter of the bathroom three times, before finally squatting awkwardly over the bowl until my calves are burning and the shit is expelled. I wipe reluctantly, boot the bowl four times for good measure, and then run away from the ungodly stench without flushing. It takes a lot of effort to go back and pull the handle. And my wife always asks about the banging.
Work has gotten tough too. I’ve completely forgotten how to shake someone’s hand. A new team member held out his hand and I put my hand directly on top of it. The poor man didn’t know what to do, and the situation was made worse by my expectant look. There’s been other gaffes at work. Last week the air con broke in the cafeteria, and people had to leave because my panting was putting them off their food. When I’m not embarrassing myself at lunch, I find myself harassing my female colleagues because I can literallysmell when they’re in heat.
Things have become harder with my son—I can no longer play catch with him. I desperately want him to throw the ball to me but cannot bear to give it back to him after he does. To do so seems like the most stupid thing in the world, and it’s only after I think I’ve gotten bored with the ball and drop it that the sneaky son of a bitch gets it back. I make this mistake repeatedly.
I guess things aren’t all that bad. I used to dislike a lot of people, but now I love everyone, especially my family. They’re the best goddamn thing in the world, and I hope they get used to the new me. I promised my wife I’d leave her socks alone, and that we can go back to missionary position if she insists. But only if she agrees to stop calling me a bad boy during sex. Nobody needs that.
Every morning, somewhere between the hours of 5 and 6 a.m., my melatonin levels have decreased enough to alert my body to wake up. I open a cautious eye and recall the day of the week. If it’s the weekend, I feel a sense of peace, tinged with an impulse to get up and seize the day with dog walks, books, documentaries, and boxing. It’s almost a feeling of excitement, which sounds weird because I tend to do the same things every weekend, I just really enjoy doing them.
Things are different if it’s a weekday. I open a cautious eye, recall the day of the week, and am disappointed to learn that an 8-hour workday is ahead in which I have to produce thousands of well-researched, well-written, and somewhat entertaining words for my employer. This isn’t a strong feeling. I don’t wrench myself out of bed, hug my schnauzer a little too tight and then weep uncontrollably in the shower. I’m just slightly ruffled by the magnitude of my responsibilities as an employee, which creates a vivid contrast with my weekend mood and nags at me like a hellish mother-in-law.
The problem is confidence, which is weird because I’m good at my job. I know it’s arrogant to say so, but there’s no denying the consistent nods of approval from my boss, which I bathe in like an unapologetic wage whore. But deep in my soul a battle is being fought—an eternal tug-of-war where confidence is pitted against doubt, with my consciousness somewhere in the middle. Troves of spoken or unspoken compliments cannot energise my confidence enough to tug the rope to a decisive and permanent win. My doubt always has just enough energy to stay in the game, and when I’m faced with a challenging piece of work, it looms before me like a fire-breathing Titan, threatening to scorch me with trepidation. So despite proving my abilities before every setting sun, a torrent of verbs, nouns, and adjectives in my wake, I’m doomed to feel slightly apprehensive the next work day, like a perpetual slave to my personality or brain chemistry or whatever the hell it is that constitutes me.
This battle between confidence and doubt appears to be an eternal face-off between two very different portions of my brain: the prefrontal cortex—which makes rational arguments and is about the size of a tennis ball—and the amygdala—which makes me fearful and anxious, and is about 200 times smaller. The prefrontal cortex is like a wise and rickety anthropologist who likes to watch what’s happening and then describe it in the most accurate and rational way possible. It witnesses my achievements and calmly tells me about them, which gives me confidence. The amygdala is like Joseph Stalin on a bad day. It sees danger everywhere, and so when I’m faced with a project that stretches my abilities, accompanied by the scant possibility that I might balls it up beyond reckoning, it releases such a torrent of neurochemicals that my confidence is temporarily battered, and I find myself gnawing at my nails like a troubled beaver. I try to tell myself that I’ve accomplished similar jobs in the past, but there’s no longer any place for rationality; no voice for my prefrontal cortex. It’s been silenced by its nemesis the amygdala, which heaves it into a gulag and spends the next fifteen minutes admiring its moustache.
This cerebrum war has been going on since I was about ten years old, and I assume it won’t cease until I croak, or find some hairbrained solution to the problem. Maybe Buddhist enlightenment is the answer—how do the saffron-clad Tibetan baldies earn their keep? It’s clear how I’m creating value for my employer, but I struggle to understand how a hall filled with silent monks results in vegetables, meats, and repaired roof tiles. I doubt they’re vexed by the idea of fucking up so badly that they’re defrocked and tipped over the mountain. Or maybe they’re just like the rest of us? This trifling anxiety is probably more normal than I realise, and most people are a bit worried they’ll arrive at the office to find their abilities stolen overnight, damned to a month of calamitous cockups that lead to the dole queue—a place where you’re forever tarnished, like you’ve been dipped in the Bog of Eternal Stench.
My fragile confidence could also be a light case of imposter syndrome, where I tell myself that I’m competent but don’t really believe it, and even single-handedly reaching the moon wouldn’t wrench me out of the illusion. But I don’t feel like an intellectual phony, and am well aware that my achievements are a result of hard work, until my erratic amygdala gets going, when every confidence-boosting belief goes up in smoke. Once that happens, no amount of logic can set my head straight, and there’s only one thing for it: put my head down and tackle the challenge head on, in spite of my dismay.
I’ve slowly learned how to handle my nervous side, but it doesn’t stop me from envying carefree people who seem unburdened from worry and charge about like fearless heroes. Then I consider the other end of the scale—the people who need trained animals to stop them bashing their own heads—and realise that being somewhere in the middle isn’t so bad. Perspective has a way of washing the shit out of your eyes. At least I have a functioning amygdala, even if it’s slightly overzealous. My shaky confidence is a quirk of my personality—a neurotic kink that I’ll likely never iron out, which like every other negative thing in my life, would have a lot less sting if it was embraced with open arms (even reluctant ones). Striving for the “perfect” emotional life is starting to feel awfully dull, like scrolling through Netflix for half an hour and still not being able to find anything to watch. The dents and scrapes and kinks are here to stay, snagging my confidence from time to time, but never enough to prevent a quick recovery. I say yes to the whole lot.
At some point during my 3rd year of secondary school, our class tutor Mr Roles came into the room with a suspicious glint in his eye and announced that we would be getting a new student. Mr Roles had round hobbit-like features, mousy-coloured hair, and a voice that you couldn’t call quite high-pitched, but sounded like somebody had left an elastic band wrapped around his larynx. He was a decent bloke who rarely unleashed his fury unless circumstances required it.
Mr Roles declared that our new student would fit right into our class; that he was tall and skinny and at about the same academic level as the rest of us. He opened the door to the teacher’s office where the student was supposedly waiting, and produced a plank of wood.
“This is Plank,” Mr Roles said, “and I want everyone to make him feel welcome.”
I laughed out loud, and was the only one that did. Mr Roles seemed happy enough.
The school in question was Eaglesfield in southeast London’s borough of Woolwich—a large five-building secondary school for boys that seemed gargantuan at the time. There was the original two-story classic redbrick building that sat in the middle of the grounds, with pleasant white paint-chipped windows, one of which was smashed during a lesson by a student who decided that his wrist would be the best thing to open it with. This was the most handsome building of the five. It contained classrooms for languages, maths, and art, and the headmaster’s office—Mr McCarthy, a broad and sturdy man who was imposing as his position dictates. He addressed us on our first day like a general addresses his soldiers, and if I were ever called to his office for punishment, I imagined he’d just look at me for five minutes while I withered like candy floss in a stream. I was acutely aware of the location of his office for this reason, and amazed some years later when a fellow student claimed to have remotely hacked into his computer, laughing at the potential wrath of such a commanding fellow. Bullshit in hindsight.
This building is where I had French lessons, run by the most pitiful teacher in the school—Mrs Paterson, or “Edna” to the students. Choosing teaching as a career was surely the worst decision of her life. She didn’t seem to have a single attribute that makes a good teacher—being engaging, enthusiastic, patient, able to command respect, and most importantly, having the grit to handle 30 little bastards who wanted to make her life hell. When she turned her back to write something on the chalkboard, someone yelled “EDNA!” at the top of their lungs, or made a random noise like “BARP” or “MNEEH” or some other vocal abomination that made her whip around like a furious owl, eyes scanning the room for the culprit she could never find. Or if the boys felt like mixing it up a bit, they’ll scrunch up paper and throw it at her. The poor woman must have been miserable—I hear she cried on more than one occasion. Hopefully it got to the point where she pursued a different career or found a nicer school. Or maybe deep down she really did have the qualities and determination to be a good teacher, and that her reputation at Eaglesfield was like a curse that doomed her every step.
The other large building in the school was perched on a hill about 50 metres away, and was a four-story mass of concrete and glass that towered over the grounds, some nightmare of modernity that threatened to engulf all that was classical and beautiful. This is where I was taught English, Geography, History (three of my favourite subjects), Religious Education, and some other subjects I can’t recall. It’s also where lunch was served, and was home to Mr Roles and Plank, in a top-floor corner classroom with excellent views across the borough of Greenwich. This same classroom is where I was taught geography by Mr Walton, a scrawny and cheerful Yorkshireman who for some reason always had a cut down the middle of his upper lip that looked horribly sore. At the start of every class he’d say “bums on seats fellas, bums on seats,” like a hypnotising incantation that somehow compelled us to sit down. He was a great teacher—friendly, charismatic, and one of the few I remember fondly. In fact, the Geography department seemed to be made up of some of the best Eaglesfield School teachers—a group of three or four men (Mr Roles included) who taught us about countries and cities and volcanoes and earned the respect of every one of us. They congregated in the office where Plank lived—a sacred place that you had to knock to gain entry to. On the same level a few doors down was the office of Mr O’Sullivan, a history teacher and head of our year, who after sending a certain Indian boy there for detention, was unfortunate enough to return and find him masturbating furiously in his chair, as though detention was a real thrill. I suppose porn was a lot harder to come by in those days.
At the other end of this building was an outside staircase and balcony that went up to the first floor, and when it snowed, this was the place where boys went to battle. It was pandemonium. Two battalions of students formed—one who took position on the balcony, and one that took position on the grass opposite. They pelted each other as though their lives depended on it, and it was during such a time that I was hit squarely in the testicles with a gloriously-aimed snowball, which sent me crashing to the ground like a demolished building, with flurries of snowballs continuing to batter me. I haven’t experienced pain like it since—top marks to the boy who threw it. This rear end of the school was also home to the main playground, which being on a hill (like most of the school), sloped steeply upwards, prompting the school’s designers to install 45 degree concrete slopes topped with grabbing bars, which in today’s world, would require a helmet and the signing of a release form to take on. Maybe those designers foresaw the molly-coddling culture that would infect parenting and teaching, and decided to fight against it by showing kids that a broken collarbone isn’t the worst thing in the world. We darted up and down those slopes like Sisyphus himself, bruised and battered, but never defeated.
This building is also where English was taught, another subject for which I have fond memories. One of my teachers was the beguiling Miss Woods—a gorgeous blonde who I assume every straight boy and male teacher daydreamed about. Sometimes, when she had a skirt on, she sat on the cabinets at the front of the class and put her feet on a nearby desk, and every boy put a knuckle in his mouth. I irritated her once because I pointed out a spelling mistake on the chalkboard, an ungodly taboo when dealing with an English teacher, especially when coming from a teenage wretch trying to be a smartarse. I fear our romantic destiny was derailed at that point. This building also contained the formidable Mr Keith—a wiry mathematics teacher with a grey crew-cut who looked like he’d walked straight off a military base. He believed that severity was the best way to command a pupil’s respect, and if it had been ten years earlier, I’ve no doubt he would have taken pleasure in caning us. Though he never taught me, there were stories of him pelting students with chalkboard rubbers if they were caught daydreaming, an action long out of practice in the teaching world, but still considered fair game by this nightmare of a man. His eyes bulged so much that he could probably glare through walls, and if there’s one teacher that people will remember from that school, it’s him. Terror has a knack of staying with you.
The PE (Physical Education) building was connected to this second building and looked different still—a redbrick of a different tone, but with far fewer windows and none of them pleasant. It housed a swimming pool (a rarity for schools in the borough), a basketball court, and the necessary washrooms and classrooms where the men could be separated from the boys. One of the boys in my year had a monumental mishap during a swimming lesson, the front of his pants bulging in a way that didn’t go down well with a class full of semi-naked boys—perhaps the poor lad was daydreaming about Miss Woods? His solution was to jump headfirst into the deep end where his passion could be extinguished.
Adjacent to the PE building were four or five tennis courts, and next to them a mammoth grass field that made up the bottom area of the school’s grounds. This is where hundreds of boys descended for lunch, booting footballs past makeshift goals made of school bags, and launching two-footed tackles at each other without worrying about a referee or VAR.
The PE teachers were three guys who were less like teachers and more like fun uncles. There was Mr Smyrk who I never once saw smirking, Mr Fischer who looked like a Charlton Athletic player called John Robinson, and Mr Haines who wore glasses and looked like a 30-year old Harry Potter. They were blokes in the classic sense of the word—constantly pissing about, digging each other’s ribs, and lovingly shoving you onto a football field covered with winter ice. They were our chaperones when we went to France for a skiing trip in the winter of 1999, and because the legal age of drinking was 16 in that wonderful country, they turned a blind eye to the inevitable boozing that went on. On the final night of our trip, they assembled a mock court where each of us were charged with a crime, and given a punishment for the evening like ten push ups whenever we swore, or not being allowed to talk to girls without our tongues being out. Through our 16-year old eyes, they couldn’t have been any cooler.
The fourth building was nestled between the PE block and the original building, with a footbridge connecting their upper floors. It was dedicated to science. I can’t for the life of me remember what it looked like, but it was probably ugly. We had our GCSE exams in this building, and during the biology exam, our teacher shiftily whispered the correct answer to me *diaphragm*, which I assume was a desperate attempt to save a failing school that closed a few years later. Over in the chemistry lab, a fiendish little shit called Philip decided to douse a chemical in water to see what would happen, and the lab started to fill up with a noxious purple smoke that definitely didn’t belong in the lungs of teenage boys. I’m not sure why, but the substitute teacher kept us trapped inside for five minutes before some of the bigger students got bored and heaved her out of the way.
The science building had two levels, with an open staircase in the middle of the building that had a balcony to drop things onto people’s heads—empty coke bottles, Opal Fruits, chewed Bubbaloos, pencils, backpacks, or whatever else was at hand. Somebody decided to do this with a full bottle of water, and instead of getting an unsuspecting boy, they instead walloped our Scottish chemistry teacher with it, who came into the class ten minutes later, wrote “I am not a victim” on the board, then burst into tears and fled. I felt dreadful despite being a bystander.
I also studied physics in the science building, run by Mr Porter—a stout male teacher with brown hair, a commanding voice, and a knack for explaining his horribly complicated subject. One day, when teaching us about Newton’s forces using a pellet gun and target, my still-good friend Scott looked down the barrel as he was about to shoot, and the look on Mr Porter’s face said “what have I done to deserve this.” When we had our final Physics exam that year, one of the teachers wrote “Fizz-icks (very hard science)” on the whiteboard, which showed the mandatory sense of humour for being a successful teacher at Eaglesfield.
The fifth and final building was the smallest—a one-story cube of concrete that was home to design and technology (DT—formerly known as woodwork). It was here that we fumbled about with wood and metal and glue and tried not to chop our fingers off with high-powered mechanical equipment. On this topic, one of my classmates got distracted while chiselling a piece of wood with a fixed circular saw, put the tip of his finger into the saw’s side, then screamed like a banshee and flicked his hand about which temporarily turned the room into a Tarantino film set. I can still see the blood splattered across the faces of my classmates, and the look of horror on the teacher’s face as he beheld the flattened tip of the boy’s newly-squared digit. Being a teacher at that school must have felt like trying to educate a flock of insolent sheep who are anxious to run off the nearest cliff. When we weren’t busy maiming ourselves, we’d twist open every available Pritt Stick and launch them into the ceiling. And when there were no more Pritt Sticks, we’d stick our chewing gum onto the end of our pencils and do the same. The room ended up looking like one of Indiana Jones’ temples.
So those were the five buildings of Eaglesfield Secondary School in London (there may have been some other buildings I’ve forgotten), and just a few of the antics that I personally remember. The school was a force to be reckoned with. The borough in which it lived—Woolwich—certainly wasn’t the most dangerous in London, but it was up there. Many of the kids who went to Eaglesfield were from poor homes, where life was tougher than it should have been. I was fortunate enough to come from a stable, comfortable home (thanks mum and dad) which unfortunately doesn’t prepare you for a lion’s den in which a large portion of the kids prowled about with teeth and claws that they’d happily sink into you. So I’d try to make myself as small as possible to avoid being mauled, and while the strategy worked, it also forged bitter resentment towards my bigger, stronger, and more violent peers, especially when they used their dominance to jump the lunch queue and leave me with the saddest jacket potato in England. I guess this is only fair given how well-fed I was at home.
Once, a group of the biggest and roughest scallywags in our year planned a coordinated attack on the local shop. It wasn’t a complicated plan—they just used their collective strength to storm the shop, grabbed as many sweets and drinks as they could, and then left. I went along to watch, and after the last boy came running out the door with a carton of Pepsis, the Indian shop owner appeared in the doorway looking utterly wretched, helpless to stem the attack on his precious supplies. This shameful event was brought up by our year’s head teacher at the next assembly, but I have no idea if anyone got into trouble for it, or whether punishment would have done anything at all to prevent future crime.
So Eaglesfield brimmed with rough and ready bastards, but I had my group of friends to help me through. There were five of us, and the leader was John—a stocky blonde kid who always had too much gel in his hair and kicked a football the way a mule would kick his greatest enemy. I once asked him how he walloped the leather so mightily, and he said “I been playing football since I was three innit.” As the naturally bigger kid, John was the one that everyone in our group wanted to please, as though his bulk could offer us some protection against the torrent of potential violence that surrounded us. He was like a small albino bull that was cute but somehow threatening.
My best friend in the group was Steve. His dad was in the military, so he lived on a military housing estate in the depths of Woolwich, a place that I visited once and never wanted to visit again. He had a broad face and a smile that seemed to wrap around the entire bottom half of his head, and he could jump onto the tall science tables in a single leap, something I assume his dad taught him in some kind of military bonding exercise. When the school arranged a paintball trip for our class, Steve was the one who captured the flag by crawling through the mud undetected, like a WW2 soldier squelching through a boggy French field. I stayed in the safety of a tower and shot anyone who approached him. Steve was a legend—one of the few kids at school who I could really talk to, and I hope that he felt the same way about me. He messaged me a few years after school wanting to catch up, but for some reason we never got around to organising it, and I assume there’s now 15,000 kilometres between us.
Then there was Ricky, a painfully skinny blonde lad who had translucent skin and looked like the ghost of Mr Burns. Ricky and I were never that close, maybe because early in our friendship we agreed to a no-holds barred insult match in which we wrote horrible things about each other and then read them. I remember him welling up at my contribution, and I felt terrible about it but for some reason didn’t apologise. This probably bolstered his conviction when this same group of friends bullied me for about six months straight and suddenly stopped, which felt like a torturer who yells “surprise,” points out the candid cameras, and then gives you a warm hug; a nightmarish alternative universe where Jeremy Beadle is a nasty little bastard with two tiny hands. Those months remain the most miserable of my life, and I wonder what kind of person I’d be today if they’d gone on for longer. But I don’t resent them for it. We were all just stupid kids who didn’t know any better.
Deano was the final friend in our group—a gangly black kid whose teeth looked like they’d been slung into his gums by a medieval catapult. Not a single one of his gnashers had agreed to go in the same direction, and Dean was clearly abashed by these circumstances, sporting braces for years before they finally resigned themselves to two coherent rows. Dean made up for his unfortunate choppers by being an all-round nice guy. He spoke in a soft, polite way that endeared me to him, and when he laughed it was the most tremendous cackle I’ve ever heard that didn’t come from a witch. And fuck me, he could run. Playing It with him was like trying to catch a firework—the boy could change direction in a way that defied physics, leaving you in a cloud of dust that echoed with mocking laughter. He might have made a fine rugby player, and in fact our school had a famous rugby past that had all-but died by the time I arrived there, succumbing to the popularity of football. Dean is the only person in this group that I’m friends with on Facebook, and if by chance he ever stumbles on this, I hope he doesn’t take offence at what I’ve written because he remains a lovely bloke.
Between the five of us, we managed to get through the formidable Eaglesfield School in Woolwich, and on reflection, I have some good memories of the place. Many of the kids who went there give it a bad rap, but it wasn’t that awful a place to get an education. Three-quarters of the teachers seemed to be good at their jobs, and genuinely tried to educate us well, they just happened to be teaching a lot of kids from poor backgrounds, many of them worn down by unfortunate circumstances and rebelling in the only way they knew how. Put those teachers in a school with rich kids, and they’d have been working with putty instead of steel, but they grafted and toiled and kept their sense of humour despite the immensity of the challenge, and for that I salute them.
I made new friends in my final sixth form year at Eaglesfield, and am still close with most of them. The school closed a couple of years after I left, but quickly re-opened its doors as Shooters Hill Sixth Form College—a place that seems to be having more success than its predecessor. It would have been a shame to close a school with such great facilities, and I’m glad that the spirit of Eaglesfield lives on in its classrooms and halls, like a menace waiting for a chance to trip you up in the hallway, bustle you to the back of the lunch queue, or launch a snowball directly at your testicles.
Many of us feel we’re not good enough. We suffer from a pervasive sense of inadequacy that compels us to chase after glittering goods, shiny platinum cards, and nods of respect, to dampen the voice that repeatedly declares our deficiency.
It doesn’t work, of course. The unworthiness that we feel is in our bones, and no amount of fame or fortune can expel it. On the contrary, we can spend a lifetime slipping and straining for greatness, and when we examine our soul after finally achieving the thing that should have rocketed us to bliss, are horrified to discover that we feel exactly the same as before. Unworthiness is nourishment for our inner demons. It’s their primary food source, and as they gorge themselves again and again, their bellies expand and their voices rise to a deafening pitch, blocking out all else.
In Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance, she offers us a solution. Tara is a lifelong Buddhist and therapist, and in her sweeping experience of Buddhism and psychology, believes that the only way for us to escape the “trance of unworthiness” is with a pure and thorough acceptance of our experience—what she calls radical acceptance. For Tara, our emotional pain cannot be healed by striving for more. It’s healed by an unadulterated acceptance of our moment to moment experience.
The idea is rooted in Buddhist philosophy. Sankhara-dukkha is the “basic unsatisfactoriness pervading all existence,” with a sense that things never measure up to our expectations.1 The problem is caused by our desire for something better than our current experience, and this addictive striving for the remarkable blinds us to the incredible richness of the present moment. When we’re able to accept each moment exactly as it is, no matter how painful it may be, we relieve ourselves of unnecessary suffering and become participants in our own lives. We’re no longer frustrated spectators existing solely in our own heads. Or as D.H Lawrence put it, we’ve gone from great uprooted trees with our roots in the air, to planting ourselves in the universe again. In Dante’s Inferno, he expressed the idea in a different way, with the way out of hell lying at its very center. Henry Thoreau wrote “dwell as near as possible to the channel in which your life flows,” and The Beatles wrote “when you find yourself in times of trouble, mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be.” They’re all saying the same thing: embrace every experience with acceptance, and you’ll be free from suffering.
“Radical Acceptance reverses our habit of living at war with experiences that are unfamiliar, frightening, or intense. It is the necessary antidote to years of neglecting ourselves, years of judging and treating ourselves harshly, years of rejecting this moment’s experience. Radical Acceptance is the willingness to experience our life as it is. A moment of Radical Acceptance is a moment of genuine freedom.”
Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance
Fighting painful emotions is like fighting rain clouds—sometimes the sky darkens, and there’s nothing you can about it. Pain isn’t wrong, and reacting to it in this way strengthens our sense of unworthiness, and keeps our life small. As Buddhist Haruki Murakami once said, “pain is inevitable, but suffering optional.”
“Rather than trying to vanquish waves of emotion and rid ourselves of an inherently impure self, we turn around and embrace this life in all its realness—broken, messy, mysterious, and vibrantly alive. By cultivating an unconditional and accepting presence, we are no longer battling against ourselves, keeping our wild and imperfect self in a cage of judgment and mistrust. Instead, we are discovering the freedom of becoming authentic and fully alive.”
Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance
Anyone familiar with Nietzsche’s philosophy will recognise this. It echoes his concept of amor fati—the idea that you should love your fate, whatever it throws at you.
“My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary—but love it.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals / Ecce Homo
The concept of radical acceptance can be found in Stoic philosophy too:
“Lead me, O Zeus, and thou, O Destiny. The way that I am bid by you to go: To follow I am ready. If I choose not, I make myself a wretch; and still must follow.”
You cannot avoid all pain, and by trying to, you’re creating more pain for yourself. This idea has echoed throughout history, with the Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Jainists, existentialists, stoics, and god knows how many other thinkers coming to the same conclusion. Tara is just one of many proponents, but has written her book with such skill and clarity that it deserves to sit on the same shelf as the greats. And while the point did feel a little laboured by the end of the book, the importance of the message crushes any small criticisms that I have.
“The boundary to what we can accept is the boundary to our freedom.”
Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance
So how do we practice radical acceptance? There’s two parts—mindfulness, and compassion. We need mindfulness to pause and recognise what we’re feeling from moment to moment, and we need compassion to sympathise with it. It sounds simple, and while most of us want a fix quick for our emotional pain, radical acceptance isn’t something that happens overnight. It takes years of practice through meditation, reflection, and the techniques outlined in the book, which include pausing, naming and saying “yes” to our emotions, listening to our bodies, leaning into fear, widening the lens, offering forgiveness, and having the courage to be vulnerable. But if we commit ourselves wholeheartedly to these practices, the result is a profound sense of peace, contentment, and love.
I’ll admit, I usually find this type of thing a little nauseating. Radical Acceptance was a book filled with this kind of spiritual talk, but because I agree with the author’s message, and the Buddhist philosophy from which it springs, I believed every mushy word. Maybe it’s time we stop listening to the relentless hostility of our internal critic, and start believing that we really are worthy, lovable, and deserving? Maybe it’s time to be brave and face our suffering head on, turn our attention to the vice around our heart, the swell of our throat, and the stiffness in our shoulders. Has ignoring them ever worked? By practising mindfulness and compassion, we learn to recognise and experience everything that arises within us, and rather than labelling them good or bad, we approach them with compassionate friendliness, and allow them to be exactly as they are. It seems a powerful practice with the potential to change our lives dramatically, which sound like the hollow words of a self-improvement guru, but in this instance, might actually work. It offers the prospect of changing from a “bundle of tense muscles defending our existence,” to being able to “walk on, one step at a time,” with a “freedom and peace beyond all imagining.”
“You nights of anguish. Why didn’t I kneel more deeply to accept you, Inconsolable sisters, and, surrendering, lose myself, in your loosened hair. How we squander our hours of pain, How we gaze beyond them into the bitter duration To see if they have an end. Though they are really Seasons of us, our winter…”
Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies and The Sonnets to Orpheus
Each chapter of Radical Acceptance ends with one or more guided meditations, which help to practice the techniques suggested throughout the book. Many of them are long and contain multiple instructions, so I found them difficult to follow, but Tara has hundreds of free meditations that can be accessed through her website, or the handy Insight Timer app. I found these to be much more valuable.
“We may spend our lives seeking something that is actually right inside us, and could be found if we would only stop and deepen our attention.”
Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance
In Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach explores an ancient and powerful idea, expressed by numerous people throughout history—we can forgo suffering, if we accept our moment to moment experience. The book was easy to read, contained priceless practical advice, stories that will probably make you cry, and satisfaction beyond measure.
“Those who will not slip beneath the still surface on the well of grief turning downward through its black water to the place we cannot breath will never know the source from which we drink, the secret water, cold and clear, nor find in the darkness glimmering, the small round coins, thrown by those who wished for something else.”
While reading something on Wikipedia’s app the other day, I noticed a little box in the top right corner with the number 173 in it. Curious, I clicked on it, and was presented with 173 Wikipedia pages that I’d viewed since installing the app.
I casually flicked through them—Jake LaMotta, the Regency Era, Troy Newman, Somebody Feed Phil—and wondered how much information I could remember from them. I chose the Regency Era and tried to recall its defining characteristic—nope. I tried to remember why Troy Newman was famous enough to have his own Wikipedia page—no chance. As I went through the pages and tried to recall information about them, I realised just how absent my online brain had been while reading the pages, and how little effort I make to remember information on the internet.
Having been an internet user for a quarter of a century, my online brain is no longer just a squelching orb of jello in my head, but also a million miles of copper cable, connecting billions of computers with trillions of ideas. My knowledge has transformed from the physical to the technological, where I no longer need to slip and strain to learn something, but just need to conjure the right keywords. The internet has become an informational crutch, which if swatted away, would send me plummeting into a confused fog with only my paltry knowledge to guide me.
But what’s wrong with using the internet as a transactive extension of my brain? Why bother going through the arduous process of learning something when it can be instantly accessed online? There’s a few good reasons.
First, we need knowledge to think critically. For example, we cannot watch a single documentary on nutrition and expect to be experts. As with most subjects, nutrition has incredible nuance and depth that can only be accessed through sustained focus and a motivation to learn. Unless you put in the hours to learn about the core ideas of nutrition, you can’t confidently claim that saturated fat is the main reason for your jiggly arse. When the internet replaces your brain as the go-to storage method, you no longer have the knowledge to think critically, or the ability to make fruitful judgments. On the critical thinking scale, you’re less Socrates and more Flat Earther.
“Having information stored in your memory is what enables you to think critically.”
Second, we need knowledge to think analytically—to solve problems. This involves identifying the problems themselves, extracting key information from our memories, and developing creative solutions. You can’t identify problems if you can’t recognise them, you can’t extract key information you don’t remember, and you certainly can’t develop a solution to something you have no clue about. You can use the internet for this process, but it’s like wallowing in a puddle instead of plunging into the ocean. Without knowledge, you don’t have the neurological depth to solve problems effectively. The more we rely on the internet for information, the more stupid we become.
Third, we need knowledge to accelerate learning. Learning something new requires the use of your working memory, which can quickly become overwhelmed. But if you already have knowledge of similar subjects, you can pull this information from your long-term memory, reducing the cognitive load on your working memory, and making learning the new thing easier. Someone who has a basic foundation of psychology will be able to learn the ideas of criminology much more quickly, because despite being different fields, the two concepts deal with how people think, feel, and behave. By understanding the core ideas of psychology, the burden on your working memory is lightened, allowing you to absorb and analyse the new information more easily. If you make the internet a permanent informational crutch, you damage your ability to learn.
For me, online reading has become a way to satisfy my idle curiosity, nothing more. When I read a book, I delve into thousands of words that cover a single coherent topic, some of which consolidates in my brain. When I read online, I skim a few articles and cherry-pick the information that seems the most interesting, most of which instantly leaves me.
In the aftermath of the Capitol Building being stormed by fanatical, violent Trump supporters—an act not seen since the British breach over 200 years ago—empathising with them seems impossible. How can a sane, ethical person put themselves in the shoes of someone so batty and immoral; so dangerously flammable; so maddeningly illogical? And should we even bother?
America has never been so divided. Before the internet, extreme political views were spread through pamphlets, newspapers, radio and television shows, and the occasional book. Today, we can access them wherever we go. They’re the subtle lie in a humorous meme, shared by your racist cousin on Facebook; the insidious idea whispered into a podcast microphone by a radical influencer; the two-minute video that uses a simple data trick to convince people that global warming is a natural phenomenon. Before the internet, someone with these ideas needed to invest time and money to make themselves heard. Today, they can create a YouTube account in 30 seconds and step up to the tallest soapbox in history. The result is fanatical partisanship, political polarisation, and the election of someone clearly unfit for the job.
The formidable canyon between left and right must be narrowed, and it cannot be achieved with hostility, no matter how good it may feel. While we may never agree with a Trump fanatic, we can at least recognise the reasons why they’ve formed their political views, most of which are outside their control. This simple act of empathy can help to soften our animosity towards them, make conversation easier, and help to dilute the toxic polarisation that is poisoning the country.
It’s impossible to map the entire evolution of a Trump fanatic’s political views, but we can identify the strongest influences. The main determiners of personality, character, and behaviour are our genes, and the environment that we grow up in, i.e. our nature and nurture.
First, let’s talk about nature. Every single person receives 50% of their genes from each parent, which defines their susceptibility to disease, their physical characteristics, and most of their personality.1 We may inherit genes that bless us with a svelte outline, a sharp brain, and an inclination to hug everyone that we meet, or we may inherit genes that curse us with a turkey neck, a gullible mind, and an appetite for throwing molotovs at our political adversaries. Either way, we don’t get to choose, which means we can’t be held entirely accountable for our personality. Some people are just made from a blueprint with “Arsehole” stamped across the top.
Next, there’s nurture. As babies and children, we’re the most helpless species on the planet, counting on our parents to protect us, shelter us, feed us, and educate us. Some parents do wonderful jobs that help to create happy, confident children. Some do the best they can, creating children a little more cautious and anxious. Others are unfit to be parents, botching the job so badly that their kids turn into frightened, confused, and hopelessly angry adults. Again, a child doesn’t get to choose its parents, so can’t be held accountable for the quality of its upbringing. Some children are just raised by arseholes.
We also encounter thousands of people in our childhood, each one with the power to improve or subvert our character. There’s the uncle who shoots pool like a god; the smooth schoolyard friend who teaches us how to talk to girls, and the teacher whose explanation of black holes inspires us to become physicists. There’s also the brother who got a little too handsy; the hungover dentist who bungled a tooth extraction, and the local gang who hardened us with collective strength. Every experience helps to shape our personality in one way or another, and we cannot dictate how they’ll go.
Then there’s the cultural aspect of nurture—a powerful force that forges our most potent beliefs, including momentous forces such as religion, media, local customs, and the ideas of the community. Pluck a baby from Florida’s Big Bend and place it in the care of Californian parents, and it probably won’t end up as a Trump fanatic. It’s unlikely to give two figs about guns, same-sex marriage, or the rights of foetuses. Such beliefs are absorbed from our local culture, and when that culture changes, so do we. Again, something that we have no say over. Combine a horrible environment with genes that favour neuroticism, low agreeableness, and low openness, and you have the perfect storm for a Trump fanatic.
Everyone chooses their actions. The violent Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol Building are fully accountable for what they did, but not for the powerful causes that shoved them in that direction—their nature and nurture.
With their genes, upbringing, and environment, you may have draped yourself in the colours of the confederacy, placed a MAGA hat atop your head, and stormed the country’s most sacred democratic building. With their genes, upbringing, and environment, you may have turned out the same.
Put the word “routine” into a thesaurus, and you’ll be presented with dreary synonyms such as unremarkable, plain, and conventional. You might personally conjure adjectives such as ordinary, monotonous, and tedious, and happen to be someone who considers routine as appealing as a turd baguette.
And yet, routine could also be a synonym for human existence. We’re obliged to repeat the same processes day in day out, whether it’s the repetitive tasks of our job, emptying the infernal dishwasher, or mindlessly scrolling through Netflix like a member of the undead. Often, we complete our routines wishing we were doing something else; that some excitement might snatch us away before our final brain cell dissolves with a sad whimper.
In Jim Jarmusch’s 2016 film Paterson, we witness an unconventional character who thinks and behaves in the opposite way. Paterson is a bus driver in the city of Paterson, New Jersey. He wakes up around 6:15am without the need of an alarm clock, kisses his wife Laura, eats cheerios, walks to work, drives his bus, eats dinner, walks their dog Marvin, has a beer at the local bar, and then goes home to sleep. You may consider Paterson’s existence to be a Sisyphean hell if not for his kindness, his calm demeanour, his enviable relationship with his wife, and the poetry he writes in the quiet moments of the day.
For Paterson, routine isn’t stifling banality to be avoided at all costs, but a wellspring of beauty and creativity. As he quietly eats his cheerios, he picks up a box of blue-tip matches from his kitchen counter, and inspects them closely. Few of us would pay much attention to something as trivial as a box of matches, but as someone who rejects face value, Paterson is able to suffuse them with charm, inspiring a love poem for his wife that talks of “sober and furious and stubbornly ready” matches that are ready to burst into flame, lighting the cigarette of the woman he loves. As he drives his bus, he smiles as school kids talk about the arrest of Hurricane Carter in a Paterson bar, as blue-collar workers reveal their supposed romantic exploits, and as teenagers talk about an Italian anarchist who published his seditious thoughts in his own Paterson paper. As he sits in the same spot at the same bar with the same drink, a fresh round each day, he watches, listens, and chats with the bar’s owner and its patrons, giving every little thing his full attention. He “looks down at his glass and feels glad,” and is only able to do so because of his deliberate absorption in his own life; his embracing of his own routine.
Paterson doesn’t appear to have aspirations of luxurious, far-flung holidays; of rubbing shoulders with dolphins or sea-turtles or celebrities with bulging buttocks. He doesn’t seem troubled by the privacy of his poetry, confined to its “secret notebook” rather than rocketing him to fame. His willingness to engage with his day-to-day experiences provide him with a satiating richness that dispels the need for something “better,” destroying the pervasive idea that life should be grander, more exciting and more spectacular—a dizzying blast of sound, colour, and aroma that fills us until we burst. Far from being a torturous bore, Paterson’s routines are a goldmine of novel curiosities that he can access because he chooses to be fully involved. His unwavering attention gives him perhaps the greatest gift of all—the idea that life isn’t just enough, but more than enough.
Routine forces us to learn. When we go through the same task enough times, it shifts from consciousness to unconsciousness, and becomes entrenched in our long-term memory. We no longer have to think about the necessary steps, allowing us to switch our attention to the world around us, to discover its charms. Like Paterson, we can become absorbed in our city and merge with it—one living, breathing metropolis, exploding with run-of-the-mill spectacle, witnessed by many, but examined by few.
When routine becomes automatic, our conscious mind is unleashed upon the world; a mental state that we can experience as boredom or fascination, depending on our level of engagement. With the attention dial turned up, routine can be transformed from a pointless and punishing bore to a captivating venture, flush with meaning. Like the Japanese man who inadvertently encourages Paterson to write again after his dog eats his treasured notebook, we might find ourselves saying “a-ha!” at the ordinary and commonplace. And when we regularly recognise beauty in the things that most people would call banal, we too might become poets.
When you’re listening to a song, do you skip the middle part because you’re desperate to hear the end? Or when you’re eating a meal, do you wolf it down because you can’t wait to reach the final bite?
Me neither. It’s sacrificing the joy of the experience. Living with the end in mind. But according to British philosopher Alan Watts, this is exactly how many of us live.
In 1951, while Watts was teaching comparative philosophy and psychology in San Francisco, he published a short 150 page book called The Wisdom of Insecurity, which was a distillation of his philosophical views up until that point. As a lifelong lover of Eastern philosophy, Watts’s views are heavily influenced by Taoism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, which he eventually helped to popularise in the west, and which form the essence of his wonderful little book.
According to Watts, many of us fail to live in the present moment. We’re constantly focusing on future goals or ruminating about the past, at the expense of the only thing that actually exists—this moment, right now. When we forgo the present moment to brood on a long-dead past, or an ethereal future that doesn’t yet exist, we miss the splendour of the world in front of us. We live with our eyes closed, our ears and noses blocked, our touch numbed, and our taste dulled. The plans that we obsessively make for ourselves are useless, because when they finally arrive, we’re not experiencing them because we’re busy making new plans. As long as we continue to live inside our own heads, always planning and hoping for something better, we’re mere spectators; sitting in the bleachers while our life is played out in front of us, lacking the courage to join the game.
“Tomorrow and plans for tomorrow can have no significance at all unless you are in full contact with the reality of the present, since it is in the present and only in the present that you live. There is no other reality than present reality, so that, even if one were to live for endless ages, to live for the future would be to miss the point everlastingly.”
Humanity’s obsession with forward-thinking has cheapened the present moment—the only thing that actually exists. To use another of Watts’s genius analogies: it’s like eating the menu instead of the meal. We obsess over concepts, ideas, and plans that we think will make us happy, while forgoing the very thing that will make us happy: the real world.
“If happiness always depends on something expected in the future, we are chasing a will-o’-the-wisp that ever eludes our grasp, until the future, and ourselves, vanish into the abyss of death.”
For Watts, our obsession with the future comes from our sense of insecurity. We know that the universe constantly changes; that nothing lasts forever, including ourselves. And it terrifies us. So to gain a morsel of control, and to make our future feel a little more secure, we plan, plan, plan, desperately trying to stifle a truth that we cannot bear to hear: you have little control, and one day, you’re going to die.
It’s futile, of course. And as with many of life’s troubles, the answer is devilishly simple yet difficult in practice—acceptance. You cannot make yourself secure in a world that is based on insecurity and change. So there’s nothing for you to do but accept your inevitable death, and then start paying attention.
“To put is still more plainly: the desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing. To hold your breath is to lose your breath. A society based on the quest for security is nothing but a breath-retention contest in which everyone is as taut as a drum and as purple as a beet.”
At its core, The Wisdom of Insecurity is a book about mindfulness, which is a dime a dozen these days. But Watts is a wordsmith of such exceptional class, that when I chance on such a writer, the ubiquity of the subject no longer bores me into a lull, but instead hypnotises me, having been explained with captivating vigour and lucidity. This is the only book that I’ve finished and then restarted immediately. It was that good.
Watts teaches us about mindfulness in a way that few other people can, and the result is 150-pages of fascinating, funny, and enriching philosophy.