One Quote to Make You Question Everything
As a teenager, I’d always felt “wrong” for being so anxious and unhappy — I saw these feelings as a sign of my failure to fit in, and as long as I felt them, I thought I would never be the well-adjusted person I so wanted to be. If only I could just be like everyone else. If only I wasn’t so uncomfortable. Again and again, I tried to change myself into the kind of person who would never feel uncomfortable: someone with thick (and perfect) skin; someone whose body looked like those in magazines; someone who always knew how to talk back; someone who knew a bit more than everyone else.
Of course, none of these attempts worked, and even when I did achieve some success in my mission to be like everyone else, I didn’t feel enjoyment, per se — just relief because I felt less vulnerable to criticism.
And then I met Lucie. She drove (and often lived in) a battered voltswagon estate, seemed to live from one adventure to the next, gave all her precious things away, and was so openhearted and unashamed of her life choices that just being around her made me realise there was another way to live. She never let me apologise for myself (which was my go-to defence mechanism), and when I asked her (in that earnest teenage way) how I could be more like her, she told me the best thing I could do was stop trying to change myself.
“But I hate being so anxious!” I said, thinking — surely that’s a good thing to change.
Lucie shook her head: “Anxiety is like your antennae — you’re feeling out the world. Why would you want to be less sensitive?”
She fished about in one of the cardboard banana crates where she stored her books, in the back of her travelling van, and pulled out an old diary. On a slip of paper stashed at the back, she’d written a quote which she handed to me.
Here it is:
It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society. — Jiddu Krishnamurti
What the Indian philosopher and thinker Krishnamurti tells me here, is that unhappiness, discomfort, and angst aren’t embarrassing symptoms of failure — but instead the promising beginnings of resistance to living the wrong kind of life.
Krishnamurti also reminds me that what is happening in my body and mind is very literal: I am constantly reacting to what I put into it, what I see and hear, who I spend time with — I’m a barometer moving in small and large ways according to the external weather. Knowing this doesn’t leave me feeling helpless — like a victim. Instead I feel empowered by the wealth of information I can gather about the world and myself, just by tuning into my sensations. My body is the one and only instrument of my being — and in my experience, trying to be “well adjusted to a profoundly sick society” has always taken a physical toll on me since it demands I lose sensitivity to what’s really going on inside me.
We are constantly being hijacked by desires which aren’t ours — so attaining them will never truly fulfil us. Trying to do so is also making us unwell. Conforming to ideas of what society expects us to look like can lead to overexercise, under-eating, unnecessary medical procedures, or simply an enormous, relentless sense of pressure. Conforming to ideas of what career and educational and relationship success look like brings chronic stress. Cognitive dissonance is never just ‘cognitive’ — the body kicks back.
If we are finally tuning into our unease, this is a good thing — it means we’re beginning to understand that what is happening within us is linked to what is happening without. No person is an island. And once we start understanding this, we learn to honour our own idiosyncratic bodies, which have their own particular needs and requirements. In doing so, we become more and more resistant to being lied to. You have to know what you want and need before you can assert your desires and lay claim to a richer and more meaningful life.
One of the curious outcomes of accepting my social anxiety, and those feelings of not fitting in, is that I started to relax a lot more. I felt empowered because I finally understood that my feelings have a function: they are telling how to live and how not to live. Social situations stopped feeling like punishing trials. I stopped wondering what everyone was thinking about me, and I started being more curious about other people — and about what was going on around me. And because I started listening to — and honouring — my instincts, I stopped trying to please people; I stopped spending time with those who weren’t good for me; I stopped deriving my self-worth from allowing others to exploit me, and as a result I made room for a lot more goodness and love in my life.