I will do a full author spotlight on Matt Haig, particularly regarding his fictional works, where I will get into further details about my strange connection to this author, and my fascination with his work. I did want to tackle his non-fiction/memoir/self-help book independently. I will say that this blog entry is less a book review and more of a personal interaction with this work. I mostly jotted down notes of the portions of this book I enjoyed, and found striking in a way. It’s more of a ‘personal reading log.’ I would recommend this book for times when you are in a depressive state, but I think the first time you read it, I would ideally recommend this at a time when you are out of a depressive episode, and then use it as a guide to return to when it hits. I also saw this image often on Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram, and I always found it wonderful, but I had no idea it was taken out of this book.
This work is Haig’s account of his lowest point in life when he was brought down by a mixture of Anxiety, Depression, and all other physical and psychological effects they bring.
“We humans love to compartmentalize things. We love to divide our education system into separate subjects, just as we love to divide our shared planet into nations, and our books into separate genres. But the reality is that things are blurred. Just as being good at mathematics often means someone is good at physics, so having depression means it probably comes with other things. Anxieties, maybe some phobias, a pinch of OCD…”
Haig’s lowest point happened in Spain where he wanted to kill himself and he describes in detail the pressures and negative thoughts enveloping his days for months to follow, and the ways in which his parents and girlfriend supported him through this. He writes about the ways our awareness of death can often be both an anxiety-inducer and a life ‘activator’ and the paradoxical relationship between depression and happiness:
“It is a hard thing to accept, that death and decay and everything bad leads to everything good, but I for one believe it…that’s the odd thing about depression and anxiety. It acts like an intense fear of happiness, even as you yourself consciously want that happiness more than anything.”
What I particularly enjoyed about this work was the way Haig introduces us to his relationship to books, literature, authors (both dead and alive, both depressed and not) and often quotes another writer associating it with his immediate feeling or concern. The way he talks about books made me highlight uncontrollably:
“There is this idea that you either read to escape or you read to find yourself. I don’t really see the difference. We find ourselves through the process of escaping…So yes, I loved external narratives for the hope they offered…most of all, books. They were, in and of themselves, reasons to stay alive. Every book written is the product of a human mind in a particular state. Add all the books together and you get the end sum of humanity. Every time I read a great book I felt I was reading a kind of map, a treasure map, and the treasure I was being directed to was in actual fact myself. But each map was incomplete, and I would only locate the treasure if I read all the books, and so the process of finding my best self was an endless quest…. the plot of every book can be boiled down to ‘someone is looking for something.’”
Haig also urges us (or challenges us in order to be happy) to:
“Read a book without thinking about finishing it. Just read it. Enjoy every word, sentence, and paragraph. Don’t wish for it to end, or for it to never end.”
A secondary point of focus of Haig is the observation on how we view the mind as separate from the body, and how in reality the two are highly connected. He looks at the psychological symptoms and physical symptoms of a mental illness and notes that there are much more on the physical side. He describes his relationship to running, meditation, and yoga and throughout this work returns to how important physical movement, physical nourishment, and physical forms of self-care influence the mental state.
Haig examines our relationship to ‘greats’ in literary and artistic history who have killed themselves. I know I am certainly one of those. But Haig takes a different approach. He urges us to admire and look up to people who certainly have depression but get out, putting aside Woolf, Plath, Sexton, Wallace, Hemingway, Van Gogh, and look at a much longer list of people who made it out. He even mentions the great long list that he keeps on hand of depressed celebrities who did make it out. There are also greats like Linocln and Churchill who overcame great depression and thrived on the lessons learned from the experience. Haig writes that maybe biographies of Lincoln and Churchill shouldn’t say that they thrived “despite” having depression, rather that they should say they thrived “because” of it.
There are moments in the book where Haig will mention something a famous writer says and in a way responds back to it with his own take. Here are two examples:
“Anais Nin called anxiety ‘love’s greatest killer,’ but fortunately, the reverse is also true. Love is anxiety’s greatest killer…forcing yourself to see the world through love’s gaze can be healthy. Love is an attitude to life. It can save us.
As Schopenhauer said, ‘we forfeit three-fourths of ourselves in order to be like other people,’ then love—at its best—is a way to reclaim those lost parts of ourselves.”
I particularly enjoyed his thoughts on time and time anxiety. This has certainly been a fixation of mine in the past I found some of his lines on time to be quite powerful. He writes:
“I was as obsessed with time as some people are about money. It was the only weapon I had…We feel an urgency to get on because time is short. Pain lengthens time…pain forces us to be aware of it…turning life into a desperate race for more stuff is only going to shorten it…in terms of how it feels.”
The whole book is also filled with advice from Haig and reminders that happiness will return, even when you are in a depressive state feeling shrouded in hopelessness:
Hate is a pointless emotion. Hate is the lack of imagination
Be around trees
we find infinity in ourselves, and the space we need to survive.
The key thing about life on Earth is Change. Cars rust, paper yellows, caterpillars become butterflies, depression lifts.
Accept. Don’t fight things, feel them. Tension is about opposition, relaxation is about letting go.
You will one day experience joy that matches this pain…you will stare down at a baby’s face as she lies asleep in your lap…you will eat delicious foods…there are books you haven’t read yet that will enrich you, films you will watch while eating extra-large buckets of popcorn, and you will dance and laugh and have sex and go for runs by the river and have late-night conversation and laugh until it hurts. Life is waiting for you…hang on in there if you can. Life is always worth it.
Lastly, as I was reading this book I took note of every quotation by other writers that Haig brought into this work that I enjoyed and each gave me pause. I jotted most of them down here to look at from time to time.
Quotations from other people scattered through the book that I really enjoyed:
“The wound is the place where the light enters you.” –Rumi
“is there no way out of the mind”- Plath
“The object of art is to give life a shape” – Shakespeare
“That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet.” Emily Dickinson
“I know why logs spit. I know what it is to be consumed.”-Winston Churchill
“it did what all ads are supposed to do: create an anxiety relievable by purchase.”- David Foster Wallace (on Advertising).
“Time crumbles things”- Aristotle
“The sea is only the embodiment of a supernatural and wonderful existence. It is nothing but love and emotion; it is the Living Infinite.” – Jules Verne
“The lotus flower…grows in mud at the bottom of a pool but rises above the murky water and blooms in the clear air, pure, and beautiful.” – Buddhist Teaching
I recently read Zadie Smith’s Feel Free essay collection, and re-read several times the essay and film review of The Social Network: “Generation Why,” which was published in the New York Review of Books back in 2010. I found similarities between her essay and Jonathan Franzen’s essay/speech “Liking is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts,” which was published in the New York Times a year later (2011), though they both reach for different points. Franzen’s essay is now in the collection Farther Away. They are both linked if you are interested in reading them, though I will be summarizing them, and quoting what I considered valuable in them before I share my experience.
Smith looks at the ways in which 2.0 kids (Millennials, and Gen Y) have been making a new world by having alternate personalities, and alternate versions of themselves in social networks. Her concerns are directed at the strength of our connections, and the fullness of the person we choose to share with others. She writes:
“Connection is the goal. The quality of that connection, the quality of the information that passes through it, the quality of the relationship that connection permits—none of this is important. That a lot of social networking software explicitly encourages people to make weak, superficial connections with each other… ‘You have to be somebody,’ Lanier writes, ‘before you can share yourself.’ But to Zuckerberg sharing your choices with everybody (and doing what they do) is being somebody.”
To Smith there is a sort of façade that one should feel and behave like a mini-celebrity with ‘fans’ when one hasn’t quite become a full person, nor is one sharing their full and real, three-dimensional selves, or circulating concrete ideas. She writes:
“..here in the Anglo-American world we race ahead with technology and hope the ideas will look after themselves…If you love a medium made of software, there’s a danger that you will become entrapped in someone else’s recent careless thoughts. Struggle against that!”
In a NYPL interview following this piece she says that what is lost with the use of this interface is that we become performative in our interactions with others rather than relational.
“The relationship is one way, and you are voyeuristic about other people’s lives… real life is relational, you have to deal with real people. You have to look at people in the eye.”
Smith is both hopeful and self-aware. She agrees that “no generation is more stupid than the one before” and that it will be interesting to watch young people work their way out of this situation.
What got my attention in her analysis of our generation was an observation of people interacting with someone’s Facebook wall after that person had recently passed away, in somewhat simplistic, street-talk. Smith reminds herself that perhaps this person feels the same way as she would, but simply doesn’t have the education or language to express it.
“But another part of me has a darker, more frightening thought. Do they genuinely believe, because the girl’s wall is still up, that she is still, in some sense, alive? What’s the difference, after all, if all your contact was virtual?”
I’ve seen this happen myself and I’ve been an active participant in it. Immediately after the death of someone you’re looking for people to relate to, a form of mouring community, and seeing people post on someone’s wall immediately after it happens is somewhat reassuring, especially when both friends and family don’t always live in the vicinity. However, after several months or years, seeing people continue to post seems somewhat performative like you’re showing others how you continue to grieve. To me, sharing these inner feelings is reasonable, and a part of being human. But I can see that it’s complicated. Smith writes: what’s inside of me is none of your business; and I think this attitude is something we all admire: people who can think and act this way, but find it equally difficult to follow up on it ourselves, and actually stop our hands from typing every little thought, feeling, or frustration. But Smith too shares inner feelings in her long novels. I do it on this platform. Just because hers are disguised as fiction doesn’t make them particularly private. What Facebook does, and what I think Smith is actually disagreeing with is making the trivial important. “Jamie got a haircut today….250 likes.” Not only is the trivial important, it is more valued than a work-hard achievement at times. On my feed I’ve seen a haircut, or a hamburger picture receiving more attention and likes than someone getting their Ph.D diploma, at which point it makes you feel compared. Everything is always one up against the other. He/she/they have more fans, more friends, more support. These ‘likes’ in numbers give a numerical value making it look objectively (and feel subjectively) the haircut was clearly more important today—which can make the-person-working-somewhat-harder-for-longer-periods-on-something’s achievement seem illaudable or unworthy of the respect of one’s peers. These become moments of comparison as the timeline quite literally puts one above the other, and next to each other.
Jonathan Franzen looks at Facebook as an anesthetic. Temporarily feeling numbed into not feeling, or tricking oneself into feeling happy from people’s immediate reactions. He writes:
“The prospect of pain generally, the pain of loss, of breakup, of death, is what makes it so tempting to avoid love and stay safely in the world of liking…And yet pain hurts but it doesn’t kill. When you consider the alternative — an anesthetized dream of self-sufficiency, abetted by technology — pain emerges as the natural product and natural indicator of being alive in a resistant world. To go through a life painlessly is to have not lived. Even just to say to yourself, “Oh, I’ll get to that love and pain stuff later, maybe in my 30s” is to consign yourself to 10 years of merely taking up space on the planet and burning up its resources. Of being (and I mean this in the most damning sense of the word) a consumer.”
Franzen’s solution to handling this fear, instead of anesthetizing it like ‘a patient etherized upon a table,’ is to surrender yourself to something real. He writes:
“my love of birds became a portal to an important, less self-centered part of myself that I’d never even known existed. Instead of continuing to drift forward through my life as a global citizen, liking and disliking and withholding my commitment for some later date, I was forced to confront a self that I had to either straight-up accept or flat-out reject.”
Both writers seem to narrow in on the fear of “not being liked.” Above I mentioned how a lack of ‘likes’ can make one feel somewhat inadequate or lacking approval—or on the reverse, quite happy/popular on days the reactions and feedback is favourable. Yes, at its bottom line it is a fear of not being liked, but outside of social media, isn’t everything we do in the real world, day to day, for one form of social approval? How many people don’t become doctors, lawyers, and professors for the social respect attributed to those jobs?
“For our self-conscious generation (and in this, I and Zuckerberg, and everyone raised on TV in the Eighties and Nineties, share a single soul), not being liked is as bad as it gets. Intolerable to be thought of badly for a minute, even for a moment.”
“But if you consider this in human terms, and you imagine a person defined by a desperation to be liked, what do you see? You see a person without integrity, without a center. In more pathological cases, you see a narcissist — a person who can’t tolerate the tarnishing of his or her self-image that not being liked represents, and who therefore either withdraws from human contact or goes to extreme, integrity-sacrificing lengths to be likable…to love a specific person, and to identify with his or her struggles and joys as if they were your own, you have to surrender some of your self.”
Real life is messy. This two-dimensional world is too cleaned up. Moments of eye contact are irrelevant, your full, whole-rounded person doesn’t come through, you’re afraid of being disliked on a constant basis, thus giving you anxiety, and you constantly compare someone’s highlight reel to your ‘behind-the-scenes’ moments.
I’ve been on Facebook since 2006 (has it been 12 years?) I remember when it first came out and we were just adjusting to the shift from MSN messenger not quite getting the difference between the MSN status (the immediate feeling), and the FB status: an opinion. I remember being terrified when the switch to the “timeline” happened back in 2011 because I had my life laid out in such a way that my past self, my teenage self, was archived in an easily accessible way for the new people to see the old me—a person I no longer liked, a person I no longer wanted to be, and a person I didn’t want others (new people in my life) to have a chance to see. I can hear people say the same responses they give to NSA intrusions: what do you have to hide? Nothing. I’m just not that person anymore, and I don’t want her here. Moments of “this was you five years ago” as I stare at my screen horrified. Moments I’d rather not remember. Facebook picks the numerically important (by likes), or random picture to remind you of a time, when realistically, that wasn’t an important moment to you, nor something you want to recall right now. While I encountered the feelings both Smith and Franzen discuss, there were so many other layers to them.
My first frustration is from the people involved. Facebook to me isn’t made of people with whom I have things in common or share similar interests. Rather it’s made up of the people I happened to live near in high school, accidentally got paired to be near in university, and extended family I happen to have. On that forum, I feel like I am constantly at a high school reunion or at the family gathering. People fighting, disagreeing, bragging, and everything in between. There are moments of mourning, and moments of celebration, and moments of tagging each other in memes and gifs that show ‘dogs who know exactly how you feel about pizza.’ I watched SO MANY movies where Gen X and Y’s ‘biggest obstacle’ was to go to their high school reunion or a family gathering with extended family. On Facebook we live that every single moment. Every day is a high school reunion. I’ve read psych articles highlighting the stress most people have before a high school reunion because it brings back all of your high school self’s insecurities. My bottom line here is that Facebook is filled with people I don’t hang out with, people who don’t share my interests, and people who I don’t necessarily talk to through this forum. It feels like gossip. Did you hear, did you see? Detective work beings. John and Jane had pictures together, now they’re all gone. John deleted them. What happened? Are you going on a date with so-and-so? Let’s ‘creep’ his Facebook and see what we can dig. A reductionist understanding of his top likes, top pictures, etc. It all seemed “fine” until I tried looking at my Facebook the same way. I hardly have any pictures on Facebook with my best friends, my close family, or my real interests. I was mortified by the idea that someone might judge me by the information they find, and the pictures they see.
Thinking this through a few years ago, I decided to be that person who shares little happiness-es often, rather than only the big accomplishments, to remind people there are little reasons to smile. Such as: I found a penny. There’s an apple shape on my apple. I met a squirrel outside, gave it seeds, and now we’re friends. They shouldn’t name condoms Trojan since they lost because the enemy intruded through the wall—literally the opposite of what you want.
After a while I began to feel annoying and above all: I started to make the trivial things more important and I started to feel performative. Like I’m some sort of clown who owes people a smile, entertainment, or humour. You don’t want to make anyone feel sad because you achieved something big, so you focus on the small. Then you complain for making the trivial take priority and become more important. There’s just no winning.
I also (and this is funny) found myself at work (in “the real world”) needing instant feedback from my boss and co-workers. Did you like my assignment? How would you say you reacted to it? What would your immediate commentary be? What GIF would you assign it? Not to mention that mindless clicking of the ‘f’ button has led me to waste countless hours liking pictures of books, and taking time from actual reading.
Then there are the failures in life where you feel like you owe people (a large amount of people) an explanation. I’ve seen countless people explain their choices as if they owed it to us (as Smith puts it: their fans). It only takes one ugly breakup to want all digital traces erased.
And the last thing is this: have you ever met a completely new person with no digital trace? Or no social media? Because I did, and they are fascinating! The Ron Swanson type. I feel like Jane Goodall. It’s so intriguing getting to know someone based on what you see, actually see—and actually communicate. I want to become that person.
I don’t hate Facebook, but I hate my relationship to it. If I can adjust that, then maybe I can go back. But for now, I’m going to pretend that Instagram and probably everything else is not owned by Facebook. I’m okay with it existing, I’m okay with what it has become and could be, but for now, I don’t like how it makes me feel, and my personal relationship to it. It’s something I have to work on. Maybe for a while I’ll try the Franzen method and say it out loud: I don’t care about being liked! I’ll try to find something real and alive to give part of my self to.