by Jane Macarthur
It has surprised me that, even in my late thirties, and even though I don’t have kids, much of my year is still shaped by the academic calendar. I work as a secretary in a bank, am retraining to be a psychotherapist, and I sing in a choir. While the bank operates year-round, most of the senior corporate bigwigs take long summer holidays with their families. In my office, August is a dead month: there are barely any meetings to organise, flights to book or intranet articles to write. The phones hardly ring. It is eerily quiet, and the much-craved novelty of having vastly increased time to look at social media wore off – as usual – after only a few minutes. My psychotherapy training course wrapped up at the beginning of July and starts again in late September. And after weeks of rehearsal culminated in an intense weekend’s singing at the end of June – a chamber choir concert one Saturday night and a massive performance of Mahler’s 8th Symphony on the Sunday – I now have no further Monday choir practices until the autumn.
In the space of a week, I went from a pulsating diary (full workdays followed by evenings of choir, college lectures, personal therapy and socialising) to intense, deafening quietness. In the midst of the maelstrom, I had been ravenous for this space. Now I am desperate for it to end.
I do not berate myself for not being a monk on a mountainside; choir, work, college – these are necessary and worthwhile ways to spend my time. I believe that it is ok to live in an apartment in a big city, ok to earn a salary, ok to spend some of that salary on superficial things like restaurant meals, ok to be out most evenings. It is all ok – as long as I can be without these things and still feel at peace. If I need them to be happy, then I am addicted, and that’s not good.
This past month, I’ve felt the symptoms of cold turkey. No choir, no college, far too much time to ruminate during my nine-to-five, many friends away on vacation or tied up in knots looking after their young children on their school holidays… Oh how quickly I felt the snake of depression slither back under my door. Recently I have woken up teeming with anxiety at 4am. I lie alone desperate to self-soothe, but the brutal and familiar devastation always emerges: my life just hasn’t turned out the way I wanted. I try to distract myself with grateful thoughts but it is too early and too dark, and all the ways I have failed to reach my potential loom too large. By the time my alarm goes off at 7, I am exhausted and the struggle to get out of bed and face another mediocre, silent day is sometimes too much for me. I didn’t make it to work today.
An inability to be still is endemic in our privileged society. Blaise Pascal observed that “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Four centuries after he wrote that, millions of us complain about our too-busy lives but do almost anything to avoid things slowing down. What’s changed for me in recent years is the ability to observe what I’m doing: these days, I can see that my own obsessive busy-ness is a palpable sign that I am not happy with who I am.
It’s now early August. I am halfway through this surprisingly difficult summer hiatus, and this week I turned a year older, which has given me yet more cause to take stock. It has not been hard to find the lessons that this experience has offered. The rest of the year, my many occupations distract me from my existential struggles, but the fights continue, even when I’m not watching the battlefield. Instead of rushing to distract myself, I know that this summer – this excruciating, violent, boring summer – is a valuable gift. I must use this time to be mindful, to look at my ongoing self-loathing and unconquerable dissatisfaction with gentleness and acceptance. This is a rare opportunity to try not to rail against reality, and instead to find some peace with what is. I have four weeks left. Wish me luck.