How to Work Well

John Ruskin, self-portrait

There are few things more delightful than being guided from one good book to another. In The Craftsman author Richard Sennett quotes extensively from 19th-century English artist, critic, and social philosopher John Ruskin. Curious, I downloaded Ruskin’s Two Paths (free on Kindle) which is the source of this beautiful advice:

Above all, see that your work is easily and happily done, else it will never make anybody else happy; but while you thus give the rein to all your impulses, see that those impulses be headed and centred by one noble impulse; and let that be Love – triple love – for the art which you practice, the creation in which you move, and the creatures to whom you minister.

Unexamined Pain

Back to James Baldwin and Another Country:

Most people had not lived… through any of their terrible events. They had simply been stunned by the hammer. They passed their lives thereafter in a kind of limbo of denied and unexamined pain.

"Sorrow" - Vincent Van Gogh

Denied and unexamined pain seems to be the actual, if not explicitly stated, goal of our culture. Unhappiness is pathologised to the point of absurdity and you can get hardcore pharmaceuticals for everything from shyness to fear of flying. And that’s before dipping into the thousand other heavily marketed strategies for divorcing ourselves from sensitivity to genuine emotion. Books and magazines tell us how to overcome our negative thoughts, put the past behind us, discover our fitter, happier, more productive inner self. Surgeons offer us the body of our dreams and make-up counter assistants show us how to brighten tired eyes and exaggerate forced smiles. And then there’s shopping: the ultimate antidote to what ails us; the chance to purchase joy with rectangles of flexible plastic.

Examining pain is socially suspect. Acknowledging that there are some things beyond the reach of the power of positive thinking or retail therapy is sacrilege. Yet if we don’t ask, how can we understand? I suspect Baldwin was familiar with this passage from Montaigne:

The effect of an affliction, when extreme, must of necessity be to turn the whole soul and hinder its freedom of action; so it happens that, when alarmed by a piece of very bad news, we are seized, paralysed, and as it were crippled in our movements, until the soul, after melting into tears and lamentations, appears to disengage and unravel itself, and become more at ease and free to act.

Tears and lamentations are not just a symptom of sadness; they are an essential part of the process of working through the hammer-blows. Without them, our souls stay frozen and crippled, chained to a solid block of silence. Nevertheless, we are reluctant to weep and rend our garments. In part because there is no socially acceptable way to do so; and, perhaps, because we are afraid we won’t know when to stop. The lifetime habit of silence, suppression, smiling and saying “fine” when people ask “how are you?” makes us afraid to let go. Afraid to open a Pandora’s box. The cultural imperative to be happy reinforces this neurosis, and causes us to nurture a strange selfishness. We think, innocently, that our trauma is unique. We feel condemned as freaks for feeling it at all. Locked up tight, we scorn our hurt and that of others. How can we grieve for anyone else if we will not grieve for ourselves?