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On approaching life sideways
Lessons on 'How to Live' from Montaigne + Sarah Bakewell
I’m fifty-one years old and I’m still learning, every day — and I mean every single day — how to live. Sometimes, I feel like a beginner at this every bit as much as I did when I was very young, going all the way back to my teenage years, when the world often felt very strange and scary and new.
A friend of mine once told me about a conversation he had with his grandmother. Every day, she said, you go through life feeling the same way. You’re the same person, not much has changed; you are as you were when you were 16, 26, 36, 46, and so on. And then, one day you walk in the bathroom and look in the mirror, and there’s a different face staring back at you, one with lines and wrinkles you never noticed before — and you wonder, “when did this happen?”
This was all on my mind when I visited a bookstore near me last week and stumbled across a copy of Sarah Bakewell’s 2010 book How to Live, tucked into the end of a long shelf of paperbacks. I’d never heard of either the author or this particular book before, but the opening graphs grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.
Bakewell is a British writer who (I would later learn) is best known for her books and essays on writers, adventurers and philosophers throughout the ages. As she says on her website, “I live mostly in London, and enjoy the usual glamorous writer’s life: putting a comma in, taking it out, putting it back in again, and eventually deleting the whole sentence.” But even if her body doesn’t travel much, the places her mind goes are amazing.
Reading her book, you feel as if you’re joined at the hip with the iconic essayist Michel de Montaigne, living life alongside him in 16th-century France. You feel his anxieties about his career (as a magistrate and mayor in Bordeaux) and the self-doubt he carries around about, well, almost everything — thanks to him writing it all down, wrestling openly with it on the page in his collection now famously known as the Essays.
In Bakewell’s telling, especially the chapter devoted to what she calls “little tricks” — the habits of mind we ought to try to cultivate to help us navigate the inevitable rocks and shoals of life — we in the 21st century may have it all wrong on some big, important things.
The one thing I have in mind, however, is something I’ve felt differently about at different times in my life: how to confront difficulty, be it unwelcome thoughts, emotions or people. In our era, we absorb the idea that we should confront these head-on; that to ignore them or to bury them deep down only leads to more pain and difficulty later on, when they inevitably bubble up again.
For a long time, I shared this view. If someone I knew had wronged me, I’d work myself into a mental lather about how to discuss it with them, how to confront it. Or, even more likely, bide my time as my mind simmered with resentment, building whatever initial (and maybe unintended) slight had occurred into something much bigger by the time I was finally willing to talk about it.
Montaigne’s writing, four and a half centuries ago, tells us this was as much on the minds of he and his contemporaries as ours, and that he didn’t have a solution for it either. Which, perhaps, meant there was no solution at all and the best advice, he writes, is this: “Don’t bother your head about it.”
What does that mean? It’s hard to simply forget things, Montaigne concedes — especially when the pain is acute and you’re focused on whatever (or whoever) is causing you pain. But distraction, bit by bit, can help. “A painful notion takes hold of me; I find it quicker to change it than to subdue it,” he writes in one of his essays. “I substitute a contrary one for it, or, if I cannot, at all events a different one. Variation always solaces, dissolves, and dissipates. If I cannot combat it, I escape it; and in fleeing I dodge, I am tricky.”
Montaigne came up with this approach serendipitously, Bakewell tells us, when he was trying to comfort a woman he knew back in the 1560s, whose husband had recently died:
He first considered the more usual philosophical methods: reminding her that nothing can be gained from lamentation, or persuading her that she might never have met her husband anyway. But he settled on a different trick: “very gently deflecting our talk and diverting it bit by bit to subjects nearby, then a little more remote.” The widow seemed to pay little attention at first, but in the end the other subjects caught her interest. Thus, without her realizing what was happening, he wrote, “I imperceptibly stole away from her this painful thought and kept her in good spirits and entirely soothed for as long as I was there.” He admitted that this did not go to the root of her grief, but it got her through an immediate crisis, and presumably allowed time to begin its own natural work.
This way of distracting, she writes, is a way of coming at problems sideways rather than head-on. Confrontation, she adds, keeps us focused on the source of pain; distraction can, if we let it, lead our minds away from pain, even if only for a moment, and give ourselves a chance to catch our breath and see in a different way.
I had a huge “a-ha!” moment as I read this part, if only because I’m aware (like you, no doubt) of the difficult season so many of us have been through this past year. It’s been a time that has divided families, partners, parents from children and vice-versa, and our communities at large. It can be hard not to focus on all of that, even (or maybe especially) at this time of year, when families re-gather after months apart.
The temptation, when we feel triggered, can be to tell someone how we “really” feel; to confront whatever divides you from another person. I’ve been on both the giving and receiving ends of this, and it has almost never resulted in a good outcome.
But, when I’m not so gripped by own emotions and have the presence of mind to see moments of tension coming, sometimes I can follow Bakewell’s advice: “anyone can make life easier for themselves by turning down the beam of their reason slightly.”
Instead of trying to hash out the bad in our lives, Montaigne, as Bakewell captures him, implores us to add more of what’s good:
Nature has its own rhythms. Distraction works well precisely because it accords with how humans are made: “Our thoughts are always elsewhere.” It is only natural for us to lose focus, to slip away from both pains and pleasures, “barely brushing the crust” of them. All we need to do is let ourselves be as we are.
Really wise words, I think, and ones I hope help you as much as they’ve helped me. As always, keep in touch and let me know how your running and life are going — I hope you have a wonderful holiday this weekend, and enjoy some well-deserved time off.
See you in the new year! 🎄