Desperate times call for desperate pleasures. And it’s safe to assume none of us, however long we’ve lived, will have survived or even imagined a time quite so desperate as this.
Forbidden the pub, the shops, the chance to hug your mum on Mother’s Day; the chance to buy bread or paracetamol; any hope of earning a living, if you’re self-employed: desperate. I’ve gone from having four different jobs, driving all across the country seven days a week chasing money and idiots, to lying in bed most of the day, wondering whether that crack in the ceiling is getting any bigger or if my eyes are going wonky, and how long it takes bed sores to appear.
The middle of the night is worst, when the worst fear fairies won’t leave my brain be; they swoop in screeching like harpies, howling that I’ll never be able to pay my bills, my muscles will atrophy, there’s nothing for dinner, my husband will now never get the medical attention he needs, my son will dissolve in a puddle of solitary, self-pitying despair, everyone I love will die, and wait – is that a tickle in my throat? Do my cheeks feel unusually warm? Great, now I’ll die too. At least then the worry will stop.
Humans hate being out of control, unless it’s the carefully controlled kind, rollercoasters, horror films and bungee jumps, which let us play with the idea of fear. We assume that to find contentment we must bend the world to our will, make it behave as we prefer. We try to change the external to match our desires, make more money, get a better job, find the right partner, get more twitter followers, hunt down loo roll, whatever. But the Stoics wrote that we can only find contentment by changing our internal world. And right now, while the external one spirals into madness, it might do us no harm to try that.
Your primary desire, they say, should be not to become frustrated by harbouring desires you won’t be able to fulfil. Your other desires should conform to this desire, and if they don’t, you should abandon them. If I choose to want to hug my mum and pay my bills and have spag bol for tea and drink cider in a pub garden, I’m going to be disappointed. I must learn to want what I’m going to get. This sounds so trite as to be risible, yet it’s the secret of happiness, and what on earth’s trite about that?
There’s a glass of water beside me. Big deal. But imagine I were so ill I couldn’t move my arm to reach it, or lost the ability to swallow. Or indeed, didn’t have access to clean running water. Suddenly that glass of water would become the most desirable object in the universe, precious beyond all else, even mum hugs. So I’m grateful for the water and the muscles that can make use of it. And of course I have so much more for which I should be profoundly thankful. I have a warm home and loving family, a tin of kidney beans still in the cupboard, two furry cats I can wipe my bum on.
Also, help others. I’m no saint. I’m a horrible human being. But when you stop thinking about yourself so much you promptly calm down, feel happier, healthier, more connected. There’s a reason suicide rates drop so dramatically during wars and other huge crises. People suddenly feel part of a community, something bigger than themselves and their own private misery. This makes them happier. Relax and let it happen to you. You can always find someone to help, whatever state you’re in yourself. Yes, you can. Send an encouraging message, post a dirty joke, smile and thank the man behind the till in Aldi’s. He’s having a rotten day too.
Desperate times call for desperate pleasures. These then are mine, and until the pubs open, they’ll do.
See you on the other side.