Gentle reader: How are you coping as 2020 grinds on? What is helping you through all this? What is keeping you whole?
At the risk of mixing metaphors, no year is ever a walk in the park or, indeed, a picnic. 2020 has been even less park or picnic than any year I can recall. Life is always a litany of stresses and strains. Life in 2020 has seen these stresses and strains go into overdrive for so many people. The most important thing is that you make it through as best you can.
Stay whole. Stay whole as best you can, in heart, in body and in mind. If there is anything at all that is helping you through this year, stick with it and celebrate it. If there is anything that you need to change, change it.
Your anxiety is your quality of life
In times of stress and strain, your mind can play terrible tricks on you. Your mind doesn’t always do all it should to help you stay whole. Anxiety has done awful things to me this year. I suspect that this is true for a great many of us.*
Naval Ravikant goes deep on the topic of anxiety in his October 2020 appearance on the Tim Ferriss podcast**. Ferriss asks Naval about the thinking behind his recent thought-provoking tweet on anxiety:
“Imagine how effective you would be if you weren’t anxious all the time.”
Anxiety can make you ineffective. But anxiety is not necessarily all bad, Naval argues. There is an argument to be made that anxiety is just there. Indeed, anxiety can sometimes breed success.*** How good or bad our experience of anxiety is comes down to how we perceive it and how we react to it.
Anxiety is just the mind talking out loud in a voice only you can hear. I love how Naval characterises anxiety:
“It’s this crazy roommate living inside your mind who’s always chattering, never shuts up and you can’t control these thoughts.”
You have no say in who this “roommate” is. You have no choice but to be in this relationship. But you do have a choice in how you deal with what they have to say. I was struck by Naval’s argument that your anxiety – and, more precisely, how you co-exist with that anxiety – is your quality of life. Naval says:
“The quality of your thoughts, those conversations you’re having in your head all the time. That is your world. That is the world you live in. That’s the worldview you have. That’s a lens you see through, and that’s going to determine the quality of your life more than anything else. And if you want to see what the quality of your life actually is, put down the drink, put down the computer, put down the smartphone, put down the book, put down the headphones, just sit by yourself, doing nothing. And then you will know what the quality of your life actually is because that’s what you’re always running away from.”
To resolve what is unresolved
At its worst, anxiety can feel like viewing the world through a shattered window. The relationship with the voice inside your head, with your inner monologue, can be unharmonious. But you can turn this situation around. Harmony is there to be found. It starts by taking the time to listen to what this voice is trying to tell you. There is always a message there, even if it is distorted by the detritus that builds up over time. Naval notes that the negative aspects of anxiety can be fuelled and worsened by failing to silence our minds long enough to hear what is really going on. He says:
“It’s your unexamined life that is causing the problems. And you can examine it in multiple ways.”
He mentions therapy, meditation and reading as ways to examine and to get to the source of anxiety. The most important step is to see “what’s actually in your mind that your mind wants to tell you, and what you need to resolve that is unresolved.”
There is always a truth at the root of this metaphorical roommate’s ramblings. By getting to this truth, the action you need to take should become clear. It might not be a course of action that is easy or that you like the sound of. True meditation should always hold the potential to be destructive, Naval argues. It could well unlock insights that inspire you to change core aspects of your life. This is not a one-off exercise. You will need to confront what your mind is trying to tell you over and over again throughout your life. Naval says:
“There’s nothing out there that will make you happy forever. So you have to take responsibility for guiding yourself in such a way that your mental state ends up where you want it.”
A distant memory
Your mind can also play beautiful tricks on you.
The older you get – well, the older I get, more specifically (perhaps it’s true for everyone?) – the more the events of the distant past can sometimes feel like they happened to someone else. How could I have done so much in just one life? How could I have come all this way? But it’s all me. It’s all you. It’s all each of us.
Time and the mind will always keep playing this trick. One day the stresses and strains of today will be a distant memory.
Stay whole. You are a bag of skin and bones and beautiful, unique thoughts and feelings. Just like everyone else. The continuity of your life is the most important thing.
The most important thing is to stay whole. To keep it together. Whatever gets you through is the right thing to do.
** This is Naval’s second appearance on the Tim Ferriss Show. His first chat with Ferriss (in 2015) was one of the greatest podcasts there has ever been (you can read more of my thoughts on it in Take yourself out of the story). At start of their latest chinwag, they talk about why sequels always disappoint. That would make this the Empire Strikes Back or Godfather Part II of podcasts – the sequel that does not disappointment. As always with Naval (and particularly with his chats with his close friend Ferriss), this conversation is an overdose of inspirational, intelligent and ingenious insight. On first listen, the points I have drawn out here were what spoke to me most (or perhaps were what I most needed to hear at that moment?). I will be listening again, closely, over and over. Also highly recommended is Naval’s March 2020 chat with Scott Adams (which I wrote about in Ready to imagine another world).
*** Here are Naval’s words on how anxiety can drive success:
“Anxiety comes from fear and it’s also a motivator. It makes you get off your butt. And one of the ways to make the anxiety go away, at least until the next piece of anxiety comes along, is to go do something about it.”
- The wonderful photograph of a handstanding skeleton was taken by my great friend Charlie Eastabrook on her recent visit to the Sculpture Park in Churt, Surrey. My thanks to Charlie for her kind permission to use this picture here.
- Naval Ravikant via Wikimedia Commons.
- Shattered via Wikimedia Commons.