One of my favourite episodes of the UK TV series Black Books is the one where Manny swallows The Little Book of Calm and starts to espouse words of peaceful wisdom to all and sundry while walking around in hospital robes looking like Jesus. To a woman giving birth, he suggests, "When you're feeling under pressure, do something different: roll up your sleeves or eat an orange."
I was reminded of the episode after reading Sarah Wilson’s column in Sunday Life over the weekend. Wilson, a Gen-X former magazine editor and host of MasterChef, is on an earnest quest “to make life more meaningful, happier, sweeter”.
Her latest revelation comes care of “a bunch of nice 22-year-old blokes in Ramones T-shirts” who tell her “these days it’s cool to be calm”. “Back in my day,” she writes, “it was cool to be stressed…the difference is that these kids choose calm. In saying they’re calm, they become calm… Calm is a state of mind that’s cultivatable.”
If you’re a highly-strung, neurotic type, you probably find this sort of talk infuriating. Like being calm is just SO easy. Who has the freakin’ time to be calm when there are deadlines and budgets to meet, status updates to upload, meetings to attend and reports to be filed? If you are calm, then you are probably not very important. Ignorance IS bliss. Oftentimes, a gentle demeanour is also mistaken for passivity or being a push-over, which no post-feminist in her right mind would have herself accused of.
But in all my encounters – inside the workplace and out – I’ve found it’s the calm people who clearly have it sussed. They’re emotionally mature enough to realize that being in a constant state of panic sucks for your health and for everyone around you. It’s selfish to pollute the world – online and offline – with negativity, vitriol and bad energy simply because you’re unhappy with your lot or wired that way. There are better ways to assert yourself in the public domain than coming across all Gordon Ramsay.
Inner peace is something I have to strive for everyday. I was practically born anxious. I put it down to being a chronic asthmatic since the age of 2 – near-death experiences and all that – and my parents’ hyper-anxiety (strangely, they’re both totally chilled now, but this has served to make me aware of how important it is to retain peace in the home for the sake of the kids’ mental health).
Obviously, my anxiety has manifested itself in a number of highly destructive ways. Like an eating disorder! I have also attempted to shop bad feelings away. But as I become less of an insane person, I’ve begun to lust after that peaceful feeling like a Paddlepop on a hot day. I desire it more than new shoes.
Retaining a rational, positive outlook isn’t easy – the world practically conspires against us to steal our peace – but peaceful people are much more pleasant to be around. And I’m more likely to follow their Tweets. Dinner with Perez Hilton, Rachel Zoe or Kevin Rudd (when he's on an expletive-charged bender) would leave me feeling nervous and tense; dinner with the Dalai Lama, Audrey Hepburn or Barack Obama would presumably have the opposite effect.
Similarly, some magazines, blogs and other media stifle my thoughts (mostly of the glossip genre), while others inspire, encourage and enable. We become what we consume, so I'm now more aware of how exposure to certain media affects my soul. Junk food in; junk food out. "For the mouth speaks of that which fills the heart." (Matthew 12: 34)
So, I guess we have a choice to make, between being a soothing presence and a stressful one. I’m easily overwhelmed by anxiety if I’m sleep-deprived, calorie deprived, spiritually deprived and emotionally deprived, so keeping these areas in balance is a priority if I’m to keep my peace. I also feel guilty about a lot of things, so learning to just do my best and let go of the rest has been a vital lesson. Trying to control everything is a fruitless pursuit (on that note, there's a card stuck to my MacBook which reads: "Don't worry! Just take on step at a time... The Lord will guide you always. Isaiah 58:11"). Procrastination is also a calm-killer, so the Nike "just do it" mantra is helpful, particularly when it comes to paying bills and replying to emails.
Last week I felt pangs of guilt and anxiety for not updating the blog because my MacBook went flat (up the creek without a power cable). And, you know what? The world didn't end! Amazing. Last night I read the story of Jesus rebuking the storm in the boat with his disciples (Mark 4: 35-41). He slept through most of it while his disciples flailed about fearing for their lives. When they woke him, he got up and said, “Peace, be still!” and calm came across the ocean. “Why are you so fearful?” he asked his disciples. “How is it that you have no faith?”
From that I deduce that a) Jesus was one cool customer in the face of a crisis; and that b) Fear will destroy us if we let it get a grip in our lives, so taking comfort in faith, rather than the whimsical suggestions in books such as The Little Book of Calm (i.e. "Caress the back of your hand"; "Pretend it's Saturday") or even the wisdom of peacekeepers in Ramones t-shirts, is more solid ground to stand on.
Girl With a Satchel