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Note: The following are excerpts from The Comfort Book by Matt Haig.
It is a strange paradox, that many of the clearest, most comforting life lessons are learned while we are at our lowest. But then we never think about food more than when we are hungry and we never think about life rafts more than when we are thrown overboard.
"Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition." - James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room
Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher, thought that if we are distressed about something external, “the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
External events are neutral. They only gain positive or negative value the moment they enter our minds. It is ultimately up to us how we greet these things. It’s not always easy, sure, but there is a comfort in knowing it is possible to view any single thing in multiple ways. It also empowers us, because we aren’t at the mercy of the world we can never control, we are at the mercy of a mind we can, potentially, with effort and determination, begin to alter and expand. Our mind might make prisons, but it also gives us keys.
Because I didn’t really understand how I fell into suicidal depression, I imagined I would never find my way out. I didn’t realize that there is something bigger than depression, and that thing is time. Time disproves the lies depression tells. Time showed me that the things depression imagined for me were fallacies, not prophecies.
That doesn’t mean time dissolves all mental health issues. But it does mean our attitudes and approaches to our own mind change and often improve via sticking around long enough to gain the perspective despair and fear refuse to give.
Letters to a Young Poet — Rainer Maria Rilke
Poems — Emily Dickinson
Henry David Thoreau’s journal
When Things Fall Apart — Pema Chödrön
The House at Pooh Corner — A. A. Milne
Bird by Bird — Anne Lamott
Meditations — Marcus Aurelius
Tao Te Ching — Laozi
Serious Concerns — Wendy Cope
Dream Work — Mary Oliver
The moment we try and turn a thought into words we place it into a shared world. This shared world we call “language.” Once we take our personal unseen experiences and make them seen, we help others, and even ourselves, to understand what we are going through. What we say aloud can never quite capture what we feel inside, but that is almost the point.
Words don’t capture, they release.
Language gives us the power to voice our experience, to reconnect with the world, and to change our own and other people’s lives.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you,” wrote Angelou. Silence is pain. But it is a pain with an exit route. When we can’t speak, we can write. When we can’t write, we can read. When we can’t read, we can listen. Words are seeds. Language is a way back to life. And it is sometimes the most vital comfort we have.
Writing, then, is a kind of seeing. A way to see your insecurities more clearly. A way to shine a light on doubts and dreams and realize what they are actually about. It can dissolve a whole puddle of worries in the bright light of truth.
Don’t envy things you wouldn’t actually want.
Don’t absorb criticism from people you wouldn’t go to for advice.
Don’t fear missing parties you would probably want to leave.
Don’t worry about fitting in. Be your own tribe.
Don’t argue with people who will never understand you.
Don’t believe anyone has it all figured out.
Don’t imagine there is an amount of money or success or fame that could insulate you from pain.
Don’t think there is a type of face or job or relationship that safeguards happiness.
Don’t say yes to things you wish you had the confidence to say no to.
Don’t worry if you do
We all have an impact on each other. We are all connected in so many seen and unseen ways. Which possibly explains why one of the simplest and quickest routes to happiness seems to be to make someone else happy. The reason to be selfless is selfish. Nothing makes ourselves feel better than not thinking of our selves.
Forward momentum is great. But we also need sideways momentum. For instance, I just sat down and ate a pear. I have no idea what the future holds but I am very grateful that I am alive and able to sit on a sofa and eat a pear.
Continually looking for the meaning of life is like looking for the meaning of toast. It is sometimes better just to eat the toast.
a ladder to climb
a puzzle to solve
a key to find
a destination to reach
a problem to fix
“Life is understood backward; but it must be lived forward” - Søren Kierkegaard
"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 . . . but love it." - Friedrich Nietzsche
Sometimes when we have a decision to make, we feel we need to be fast. Indeed, the word “decisive” is often used as a synonym of fast. But when we find ourselves at a crossroads it is often better to stop, wait a while at the lights and check the map. After all, movement isn’t progress if we are heading in the wrong direction.
Happiness occurs when you forget who you’re expected to be. And what you’re expected to do. Happiness is an accident of self-acceptance. It’s the warm breeze you feel when you open the door to who you are.
"When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us." - Helen Keller, We Bereaved
Experience one beautiful thing a day. However small. However trivial. Read a poem. Play a favorite song. Laugh with a friend. Gaze at the sky just before the sun’s final tumble toward night. Watch a classic movie. Eat a slice of lemon drizzle cake. Whatever. Just give yourself one simple reminder that the world is full of wonders. Even if we are at a point in life where we can’t appreciate things, it sometimes helps to remember there are things in this world to enjoy, when we are ready.
"Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. Now, you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend." - Bruce Lee
For me, the flow of life is about accepting things as part of something bigger. Accepting every molecule of water as part of the river. This comforts me when I have moments of torment or suffering.
Pain is selfish. It demands full attention. But each moment is part of a totality. Each moment is a brush stroke in a painting—let’s say a painting of a river—which, when we stand back, can be rather beautiful. I have had moments of pain so strong I wanted everything to end. But standing back, they’re just shadows accentuating light.
"No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man." - Heraclitus
Wanting to be someone you aren’t.
Wishing you could undo a past that can’t be undone.
Taking out your hurt on people who didn’t cause your hurt.
Trying to distract yourself from pain by doing something that creates more pain.
Being unable to forgive yourself.
Waiting for people to understand you when they don’t even understand themselves.
Imagining happiness is the place you reach when you get everything done.
Trying to control things in a universe characterized by unpredictability.
Avoiding painful memories by resisting a contented present.
The belief that you have to be happy.
"Your problem is how you are going to spend this one and precious life you have been issued. Whether you’re going to spend it trying to look good and creating the illusion that you have power over circumstances, or whether you are going to taste it, enjoy it and find out the truth about who you are." - Anne Lamott, Berkeley commencement address
Courage, as Maya Angelou put it, is the most important of the virtues because “without courage we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency.” Courage is essential for us to look at ourselves without shying away. And, of course, if we make it entirely forbidden to be problematic, we are never going to admit to or address or fix our own flaws with honesty.
We need open light to grow. Virtue isn’t something we gain simply by pointing to bad things outside ourselves and making ourselves feel good by contrast. True virtue is something we achieve by looking inward, to our own motives and flaws and cravings, and addressing those sticky and difficult and contradictory parts of ourselves.
Your self-worth is not found inside the minds of other people.
Much of gossip is envy in disguise. Much of self-doubt is conformity in disguise. “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent,” said Eleanor Roosevelt. Breathe into you. Step out of the shade. Be you in the wide open. The only success that matters is the success of being who you are. Fitting in is fine. But never try and fit in if this fitting-in means becoming something you are not. Become you. Become the person no one else is. If people don’t like you, let them not like you. Not every fruit has to be an apple. It is too exhausting to spend this existence as someone else. If you are a pomegranate, be a pomegranate. Sure, there are probably more people who don’t like pomegranates than people who don’t like apples, but for those of us who like pomegranates they are what we like best.
My all-time favorite philosopher is Epictetus. Like Marcus Aurelius, he was a Stoic who lived in Ancient Rome. Unlike Marcus Aurelius, he wasn’t an emperor. In fact, he was about as far away from an emperor as you can get.
He had a tough life. Born into slavery almost two thousand years ago, his name literally meant “acquired.” He spent all his youth as a slave, though he was allowed to study Stoic philosophy. He was also physically disabled—possibly due to his leg being broken by his master. He spent most of his life in physical pain.
Epictetus eventually became a free man, for reasons that aren’t clear, and began to teach philosophy, but even then he lived very simply, with few possessions, and lived alone for much of his life. Records show that in his old age he adopted a child of a friend and raised that child with a woman whom Epictetus may or may not have married.
Epictetus was a very modern philosopher in some ways. His worldview is probably best summed up by his statement “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react that matters.” It is a philosophy that has been credited with helping people in tough circumstances, from prisoners of war to people experiencing depression. The psychologist Albert Ellis, one of the originators of cognitive behavioral therapy, cites this Epictetus quote as influencing his entire therapeutic approach: “Man is disturbed not by things, but by the views he takes of them.”
Epictetus reminds us that when we tie our happiness to external things, we are essentially giving up the idea of self-control and placing our well-being on forces outside of ourselves. Whatever it is—earnings, relationships, wanting a family, a Lamborghini, winning the lottery, going viral on social media—“Just keep in mind: the more we value things outside our control, the less control we have.” And of course, even when we get the things we think we want, the impact is often beyond our prediction—see, for instance, the studies into how winning the lottery often has a negative impact on the winner’s happiness.
The comfort of Epictetus is the deepest comfort there is. It isn’t the reassurance of believing great things will happen to us, it is that of knowing that even in pain or sadness or confinement, the mind has power to choose its response to the events in our lives. Even the very biggest things. Pain, loss, grief, death. “I cannot escape death,” he said, “but at least I can escape the fear of it.” Epictetus, in short, gives us control in an uncontrollable world. The control of accepting a lack of control. The control of response.
Loneliness isn’t an absence of company. Loneliness is felt when we are lost. But we can be lost right in the middle of a crowd. There is nothing lonelier than being with people who aren’t on your wavelength. The cure for loneliness isn’t more people. The cure for loneliness is understanding who we are.
As Tara Brach put it: “Perhaps the biggest tragedy in our lives is that freedom is possible, yet we can pass our years trapped in the same old patterns . . . We may want to love other people without holding back, to feel authentic, to breathe in the beauty around us, to dance and sing. Yet each day we listen to inner voices that keep our life small.”
You don’t always have to do stuff. Or achieve stuff. You don’t have to spend your free time productively. You don’t have to be doing Tai Chi and DIY and bread-making. Sometimes you can just be and feel things and get through and eat chips and survive, and that is more than enough.
Forgiving other people is great practice for forgiving yourself when the time comes.
Introversion is not something you fix via extroversion. You fix it by seeing it as something not to be fixed. Let introversion exist. Allow journeys inward as well as outward.
You don’t need to be busy. You don’t need to justify your existence in terms of productivity. Rest is an essential part of survival. An essential part of us. An essential part of being the animals we are. When a dog lies in the sun I imagine it does it without guilt, because as far as I can tell dogs seem more in tune with their own needs. As I grow older, I think that resting might actually be the main point of life. To sit down passively, inside or outside, and merely absorb things—the tick of a clock, a cloud passing by, the distant hum of traffic, a bird singing—can feel like an end in itself.
The only way, ultimately, to deal with uncertainty is to accept uncertainty. Because we can’t escape it. However we choose to timetable our days and our calendars, uncertainty still remains. This is a stubbornly uncertain world, and we have to deal with that.
The moments of deepest pain in my life were also the moments I learned the most about myself.
My anxiety feels very much a symptom of modern life. At its deepest, years ago, I began to notice that it was always at its most acute when I was doing something that would have been entirely alien to our cave-people ancestors. Walking in a crowded shopping center. Listening to loud techno music. Wandering under the artificial light of a supermarket. Sitting for too long in front of a TV or computer screen. Eating a bag of tortilla chips at one in the morning. Stressful emails. City centers. Packed trains. Online squabbles. Modern mental overload.
It is no coincidence that the things that comfort me when I am super-frazzled, the things that calm and soothe me, tend to be things that reconnect me to my natural self. So, for instance, going to bed shortly after it gets dark rather than staying up till one a.m. to watch eleven episodes of a TV show one after the other. Or walking in nature with our dog. Or cooking real food with real ingredients. Or being with loved ones. Or switching from the sofa to physical activity. Or planting some herbs. Or swimming in the sea. Or staring at the sky. Or running in the fresh air rather than on the treadmill.
Numbers are addictive, because they enable us to measure and compare and quantify while also making us feel there could always be more. And numbers—and comparisons—are everywhere. Social media followers. Body measurements. Income brackets. Age. Weight. Online rankings. Click counts. Unit sales. Likes. Shares. Step counts. Sleep counts. Word counts. Test scores. House prices. Budget reports. Stock market valuations. Numbers, numbers, numbers. And the numbers get in. They make us compare. We compare to other people and we compare to ourselves. We don’t necessarily do it in a negative way. We might want the best for other people. For our friends and our family. But far too often numbers are involved. I think the numbers get to us. Every value is numerical. We become finite and measurable and of variable value. We lose our sense of infinity. Of life itself. Where numbers exist, measurements exist. And measurements limit us. Because measurements take us from an infinite perspective into a finite perspective. Only finite things can be measured, after all.
In Buddhism there is the concept of mettā, or maitrī, meaning benevolence or “loving-kindness.” Mettā is about accepting yourself as you are. There is no intent to change you, but rather an acceptance of yourself and all things as change.
As Pema Chödrön explains in When Things Fall Apart, what makes this concept radical is that there is no attempt to become a better person. It is about “giving up control altogether and letting concepts and ideals fall apart. This starts with realizing that whatever occurs is neither the beginning nor the end.” Once that happens, you can see that whatever you are feeling is within the normal human range and has been felt by humans since the beginning of our history. “Thoughts, emotions, moods, and memories come and they go, and basic nowness is always here.”
Learn more about The Comfort Book on Amazon.
Buy The Comfort Book: Print | Kindle | Audiobook
If you enjoyed this summary, please consider buying me a coffee to caffeinate my reading sessions.