Every now and then, in the course of this disquieting year, a book landed on my desk bearing a classic self-help title – something about kicking ass, winning at life, getting everything you’d ever dreamed of – and I felt a twinge of pity for the author, for being so out of step with the times. This doesn’t feel like an era of ass-kicking or dream-realising. Instead, it’s an era typified by the genre I’ve come to think of as Coping.
Mindfulness, in its popular form, is Coping. So, too, are hygge, lagom, and whatever other Scandinavian word someone just decided is the secret to happiness: they’re about turning toward the domestic and appreciating what you’ve got.
Psychology books with “fuck” in the title – on which I’d politely request a moratorium – are a different way of Coping: dealing with life’s problems by telling them to get screwed. So is “self-care”, which involves reading tips on the internet about how not to go crazy spending all day on the internet. We seem to have given up trying to win at life; these days, we will settle for getting by.
This gets criticised on political grounds: if the reasons we’re so overwhelmed and anxious are social and economic, people shouldn’t be encouraged to retreat from the world, or find ways to live with a bad system; they should fight it. “The parlance of reassurance is a flourishing industry,” wrote Miya Tokumitsu in The Baffler. “An array of Virgils to suit various tastes stands ready to talk us through the many circles of neoliberal capitalism.” Even sneakier than regular self-help – which stands accused of blinding people to structural injustice – the Coping genre lets you acknowledge the awfulness of the world and still not do anything about it.
While true so far as it goes, this overlooks the fact that people have always been Coping. The Roman philosopher Boethius wrote The Consolation Of Philosophy while in jail, awaiting execution. He had lots to cope with, but swathes of philosophy and literature share the same consolatory goal. Of course they do. When you are human – with a finite life and abilities, but a mind capable of infinite wants and plans, plus an awareness of your own mortality – life can only ever be a matter of Coping.
Yet much misery arises from the fantasy that things might be otherwise. Half the anxiety of having “too much to do” stems from not seeing that there will always be too much to do – so you can stop struggling to get on top of it all. And as the writer Sam Harris notes, we make various everyday problems worse with our implicit indignation that we must deal with them at all – as if we imagined we might one day get to live a problem-free life. Christian Bobin, a French poet, describes an epiphany: “I was peeling a red apple from the garden when I suddenly understood that life would only ever give me a series of wonderfully insoluble problems. With that thought, an ocean of profound peace entered my heart.” There’s much that people shouldn’t have to cope with, and that we should fight. But Coping per se? That’s just life. Problems are all there is. I hope this Christmas brings you some lovely ones.
We chronically relegate joy to some other time or place. Contentment (1999) by Robert Johnson and Jerry Ruhl is a brief and bracing book about finding meaning here and now.