The school of life
James: welcome. Our guest is a bestselling author, philosopher and the founder and chairman of ‘the school of life.’
He’s someone who, whenever I listen to him, makes me think about the world differently. He is the brilliant Alain de Botton with quite an optimistic take on what we’re going through.
Alain: In a way, it’s a silver lining rather than optimism. One of the great things about this time is we are rediscovering one another. Most of the time we are so busy we have such a front: all of us pretending to be this and that.
I’m loving the new vulnerability.
I’ve had so many conversations with people who were just able to be human in a way that very often they’re not the rest of the time. It’s such a gift, when a friend calls you up and they say how are you doing, if you’re able to just take them into the reality of your life, that is such a present that you’re giving them.
So many of us think I’m unusual, I’m so strange, other people are all having a great life, they’re having a great time but this is a time when there’s no more FOMO. There’s no fear of missing out, during the pandemic.
There’s no great party somewhere else. It’s all of us fragile, suffering, vulnerable humans trying to hold it together with, you know, sometimes frightening moments. In a way, the kind of pretenses of the normal world that we’ve put up and suffer from have kind of gone.
A lot of people say to me things like I’m feeling anxious, is it going to be okay? I always say if you really want to calm something down don’t always stress everything is going to be great and terrific. Look at some of the darkness in the face.
In the face
The stoic philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome were fantastic because rather than saying the bad stuff won’t happen they chose a different view—look at the bad stuff and see that it can be survived. We are all of us much stronger than we think. We always think: imagine if I couldn’t go out; imagine if this happened; or, that happened.
We’re in the middle of a crisis and broadly speaking, touchwood, most of us are still coping. Even if we’re not coping, not coping’s okay—it will make us stronger by revealing we don’t have to be perfect. These are not perfect days but we’re okay.
The brave face
James: I heard you’ve said that the brave face could be the biggest villain of this.
Alain: The brave face has always been a problem. Men have had it worse than women in this regard. It’s this idea that, in order to be a decent human being, you have to be an unafraid human being.
Most of us feel so weird because we have access to our own thoughts and fears and fragilities. We can only guess what’s going in other people’s minds, from what they tell us generally and they edit the information heavily. A lot of us think we’re weird because what’s going on in my head doesn’t seem to echo what’s seemingly going on in somebody else’s head.
We’re full of self-doubt, regret, shame but also we have longings for love. We want to be generous towards other people but life is stranger than we’re allowed to admit that it is and the great works of art, comedy, songs, they’re always able to stretch our idea of what is normal. Think of the best movies, they’re able to show what it’s like to be a parent to be in love, to go on a journey and they give us a real picture. Yet, so often we live inside these images—let’s use the crisis to be more honest about what it’s like to be human.
Life is always an emergency. You don’t need a plague to be reminded we’re all suffering, we’re all afraid, we’re all going to die at some point.
Keeping those things right at the center of our compass helps us to maybe focus on the essentials. It’s so easy to get distracted, to imagine that others’ lives are shiny and perfect, they’re not.