“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way”. This quote from the celebrated American writer E.L.Doctorow conveys a universal truth about life, that we have no idea what is coming next but that it needn’t deplete us to the point that we become paralysed by anxiety. Furthermore, the “fog” is sometimes of our own making.
Just this week I have had two encounters with people questioning some long established friendships. When people have been a part of our life for a long time we imagine that they will always be so but it is not just distance traveled which makes for closeness. Even as we walk together we are constantly changing, and as we change we do so in different ways and at different paces, and this puts pressure on our relationships. No wonder we often feel close to people we’ve known for only a short time. It is in the growing together, the willingness to adapt, the compromise between you and me which sustains a fulfilling connection. Like a train track it can weave this way and that but the rails must stay the same distance apart, held in place by the “sleepers” of common interest and shared values. When the rails move in different directions it is because the sleepers have disappeared.
The faltering of a friendship causes us anxiety, creates fog in the headlights, and sometimes we try to adapt, try to see what is wrong with us which has caused the split. Maybe it is easiest to set aside our own expectations and needs in order to preserve the familiar but it is in the veering away from our own truths that, ironically, we find the most anxiety, right in the place we imagined we would stem it. We cannot be content being someone other than who we are and to try and be so is to create the fog we would so much like to avoid.
From time to time I become aware of a layering, a multitude of expectations and requirements piling upon me. There is not always a simple way to detach or reduce them and I, like so many others, can feel the grisly hand of anxiety taking a grip of me. When this happens we instinctively want to run, we want to break free and hide, we want to make ourselves so small that we cannot be found, yet none of this is possible. Most effective and, paradoxically, wholly counter intuitive, is to avoid the resistance, accept the anxiety and to try and step away from oneself to look at what is really happening.
If I fear disappointment or disapproval from my children it pulls me down into an anxious state like nothing else. Sometimes the emotional impact is laughably disproportionate to the apparent origination of the feeling. Stepping away and viewing myself from a distance I can ask myself a question. “Graham, when in the past did you feel anxiety like this?” I will drift back effortlessly to my own childhood and remember myself worrying about the constant rows, the frightening silences, the lack of emotional warmth. I remember myself in the kitchen one evening, the volley of unkind words hurled back and forth between my mother and father. I remember my mother threatening, not for the first or last time, to leave and, as an eight year old, I had no concept that this might be an empty threat, something not of her but of the model she was bringing here in order to fight this battle, to garner a result which she would never be able to deliver. Neither did I have any concept of the idea that I might actually survive the split of the family. I remember that anxiety, the anxiety borne of imaging a life without my mother, living with my father and his eloquence and artistic appreciation coupled with a complete ignorance of how to boil an egg (we would have dined appallingly but would have managed record completion times on The Telegraph crossword). I remember that anxiety which, at eight, probably felt like a threat to my very existence. I remember the power of the anxiety which came from feeling disappointment at my invisibility and wondering if anyone even noticed that I was in the room. When I fear that I may have upset my own children it triggers that, something much deeper in the origins of my own sadness. It pulls from experience from far back in time and, quite suddenly, I am crushed beneath the rubble of old anxieties. This too, is a fog not fallen from the outside but from within me. It may not be in my control to stop it but I have the ability to understand where it comes from and therefore detach it from the present and put it back into the past.
The American Indians have a way of describing how we start to spiral away from the core of our spirit as soon as we arrive from the womb. Immediately and constantly making decisions about who we need to be in order to get fed, to be cuddled, to stay safe. We are not necessarily remaining within ourselves but rather stepping outside to be a version of us that we believe will be most palatable to those who we think can have the biggest influence on our happiness. We bring the fog in, rolling ominously across the dunes of our own existence.
Sometimes we avoid truth and honesty because we fear the impact it will have on the future. Perhaps whoever penned Donald Trump’s wife’s speech this week decided that to draw from the words of Michelle Obama might bring a credibility and gravitas to Trump which Melania’s own words might not. When we become who we think we need to be we do so because we think we might have more chance of influencing events which have not yet occurred. This too creates an anxiety because, even if we manage to contort ourselves into such a position that we get what we want, underneath we know it isn’t real, it was borne from falsehood, it can only be sustained by inordinate amounts of effort. This too is a wearisome fog all of our own.
The big conceit is held where we are most likely to apportion the blame for our anxieties. It is in the world around us that we feel most exposed, most open to the worst excesses of danger and darkness, but it is really the danger and darkness within us that adds most of the fuel to the fire. An unwillingness to accept ourselves and maybe an ignorance of understanding ourselves means that we are forever living with someone we feel unhappy with. Imagine that in an intimate relationship. Imagine spending every day with someone you didn’t love, someone who irritated you, someone who you felt relieved to be away from, someone whose advances made your flesh creep. This is how we live when we will not accept ourselves. If this is not a perfect atmosphere in which anxiety can thrive then I cannot think what is, and it creates a fog as thick as any.
So, however full of “fog” our lives are there is never a need to stop moving because some fog never lifts. It is the fog of our own making which we could do with dispersing and, in that regard, perhaps Oscar Wilde made the point most eloquently. “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken”.