This week things have made me happy, including Happy, a book I think I pick up at least once every couple of years and re-read in one enormous gulping go. I’ve also been thinking quite a lot about my autism, so there’s some of that in here too.
There is at the heart of this anger a pang of existential melancholy: we play only peripheral parts in the lives of our friends.Derren Brown, Happy
I read this on Monday, having had a fairly rough week of back and forth with an old friend. I am comfortable, I think, with where I’ve left it, but this quote nonetheless hit me very hard indeed. It struck me that the hardest readjustment in the world is to go from lovers to friends, because you have to reckon with this truth: that the person who thought about you daily now thinks of you only in the periphery of their lives.
I think this is probably true of the transition of all relationships: whether that’s as we move from a child to an adult; from a lover to a friend; or from a tight-knit team to a group of friends who stay in touch via Whatsapp. There is a sudden deep existential melancholy that you are not the respective centre of each other’s universes any more.
Happy is a user-friendly guide to Stoicism, and every time I read it I’m somewhat comforted to find a philosophy that seems to align neatly with an aspirational hope to live in a certain way. It has helped me to realise that I don’t want more money or more responsibility at the moment, but instead to live comfortably and to do interesting things. And such interesting things! Even in the last week I’ve made some proposals that I hope will lead to something. A little push, that’s all I think it needs; a little push and the rest will follow naturally. This job, that consumes my life, makes me happiest where I get to spark change. More of that. Always more of that.
This week has been a further week of making neat: of tying off loose ends; of making sure people know not to email me any more after a certain date; of writing down what I’m doing. As with the end of anything, there’s a certain sadness. There’s also – and I’m proud to say I introduced this word to a group of senior stakeholders – a sense of FOMO. The work I do (and have always been lucky enough to do) is interesting. It almost stings my pride to know that, like the lives of my friends, the work will carry on without me. It’ll be different, but it won’t stop. The centre of its universe is not me.
But then that means the centre of my universe isn’t it, either. If I am peripheral to the work then I will probably be happier if it is also peripheral to me. A weight on me, or a driver that pushes me, but never the centre.
There are another two weeks of this role left. I’m not yet sure how much I can talk about the work I’ll be doing there – the policies I’ll be writing are going to be boring but quite sensitive, like a poet, and so it’ll likely be even vaguer or possibly just non-existent. At the end of the fortnight there probably won’t be the normal ceremonies of closing down work, but I’m going to prepare a leaving speech anyway in case there’s a surprise virtual party. I accept that this is an element of my strangeness: that unknowns are impossible to deal with and certain emotional situations have to be dealt with by performing. Abed, a character in the comedy Community, is someone I wildly identify with in this space. Being spontaneously, authentically me is a total mindfuck, but being authentically “guy who’s heartbroken to be leaving but excited to start something new” is a performance I can pull together fairly quickly from spare bits of communicated emotion I’ve experienced in the past.
See, I don’t generally know how I feel in the moment, but I know what people expect, so I do that. I feel things later when I’ve processed them, but if you’ve ever had an interaction with me and thought “Huh, that was weirdly polished” it may have been a collection of quotes from a TV series you’ve not seen because I can’t bear your disappointment at my non-reaction.
I don’t think I’ve ever written that before. I think I’ve written it because I am quite tired of all the energy that goes into masking, and so that hopefully someone reads this and recognises this feeling in themselves.
Or, if you know me, and you see me gearing up to perform “elated” and you love me you can check in and make sure it’s really me. Just be ready to deal with your own disappointment.
I recommend, before you do that, you read Happy.