Poet Stevie Smith wrote this now-famous poem after recognising the metaphorical potential in the story of a man who drowned while desperately gesticulating for help. Tragically, his friends could see him the whole time – they just assumed he was merely waving at them.
What strikes me about this poem, other than its power, is how Smith describes the misunderstood man as having always loved “larking” – fooling or kidding around. He always seemed fine. Many people seem fine.
Now we do, and should, often take people at face value. Insisting all the time that someone tells you how they really are can spoil the atmosphere quicker than a parent at a prom party. Interrogation has never been a substitute for just letting people talk.
But what of those leading lives, if not of clinical depression, then of a kind of emptiness or despair behind the smiling facade?
When the water looks calm from a distance
Apparently Stevie Smith herself was genuinely bipolar. Many people struggle with low self-esteem and other emotional difficulties while doing their best (not surprisingly, in a competitive world) to cover that up. Others are secretly traumatized, grieving, chronically worried, or depressed – and it may not always be obvious. We can help people seek help and feel okay about that, or help them ourselves if we find they are really suffering.
But here I want to talk about the more general conditions of modern life that may make us all more prone to inner desperation. The sea of life can be rough, and many of us struggle quietly while working painfully hard to appear as though we don’t.
Stoicism is one thing, and many people don’t want to appear miserable or desperate to their friends or loved ones, perhaps partly through pride and sometimes through consideration. No one likes to be a ‘downer’. Keeping up appearances, like most things in life, isn’t all bad.
But notions of ‘weakness’ or a misplaced sense of needing to live up to one’s reputation of being the life and soul of the party or the one who’s always there for others may prevent us from showing the world who we really are. And that’s a problem… the world, I mean.
Buoyancy needs balance
If there’s any truth – and I suspect there is – to the idea that many of us are, in fact, busy drowning while everyone around us seems to be happily splashing about, then what are we drowning in? What is causing people to ‘drown’ or to desperately tread water, all the while praying for rescue? What might be wrong with our world?
We know rates of depression have skyrocketed in modern times,2 but I don’t think we should go around assuming people are drowning when there’s a very good chance they are not. People who are genuinely learning to swim don’t need overzealous pool attendants trying to rescue them (to risk wearing out Smith’s apt metaphor!).
There is already enough pathologizing of the human condition without mollycoddling young people into thinking swimming is something to be feared.
But I’m suggesting that the current may be flowing against all of us in some ways.
We all have our lies to lead
Part of the sea that we swim on is made of exaggeration. We live in a world that encourages it. Think about it.
We’re encouraged to exaggerate people’s shortcomings as well as their virtues, because that’s the stuff good stories are made from. Exaggerated headlines dominate the media while the nuanced truth, if it gets any kind of look in at all, is edited out as insufficiently stimulating. The widespread tendency to be fast asleep to our own shortcomings yet wide awake to the shortcomings of others takes us, of course, miles away from real kindness.
We’re fed a diet of exaggeration. Simplification is a kind of exaggeration, a skewing of reality. Even cynicism, that last refuge of the disappointed romantic, is formed and maintained by negative exaggeration. And part of us knows this. An exaggeration can even go so far as to become, in effect if not intention, a lie. And living a lie for too long can make us feel bereft, almost as if something has died inside.
If we try to live up to our own exaggerations about ourselves then we fall into the trap of what used to be called ‘keeping up appearances’. On the other end of the spectrum, if we exaggerate our deficits, we have low self-esteem. If we exaggerate the deficits of others, we can become bitter and brittle.
In the UK ‘keeping up appearances’ (apart from being a beloved TV show) was traditionally seen as a middle-class preoccupation. The ‘toffs’ of the aristocracy and the working classes had more in common, because neither cared so much what others thought of them (I am, of course, stereotyping here for the sake of exaggeration!).
‘Proper’ language, etiquette, ‘respectable’ behaviour and attitudes, and a general sense of propriety seemed to rise with the middle classes in the early 20th century. Some were privately disgusted with the working classes for not rising up against the upper classes as they were ‘supposed’ to do!
In modern times, having the right cutlery or furniture may have been replaced by having the right opinions – but it’s all still keeping up appearances, caving to the pressure to turn yourself into a cookie cut-out of the ‘type’ of person you are ‘supposed’ to be.
All this equates to a lot of exhausting thrashing about in the sea. But actually, the swimming metaphor breaks down a bit at this point.
The dangers of living on the surface
Somewhat confusingly, just living on the surface can make us sink into the depths… of despair. (If I’m not careful this metaphor will stretch so far it will snap!)
The problem is, we exaggerate appearances because they are the easiest things to fake.3 And thanks to technological progress, we can all directly develop and keep up appearances to thousands of people at a time. We can cast our nets wider than ever for approval (or disapproval if that’s your bag!).
Not what am I, but how do I seem.
If you’re thinking that’s not necessarily a bad thing, you’ve got a point. Some approval swapping is great. It forges and can deepen friendships. I’m all for it, and I particularly love it on the rare occasions people laugh at my jokes.
The problems arise when the maintenance of appearance becomes all we are about. It’s then that we risk drowning, I suspect.
We are not just surface-dwelling creatures. There is a deeper side to us all.
Living life at the surface (“Am I okay in other people’s eyes? Am I ‘enough‘?”) and never venturing to look deeper ultimately makes us feel dead inside.
But the problem is that part of our need to exaggerate, to appear rather than to be, comes from the nature of the ‘ocean’ itself.
Born to consume?
It sometimes seems as though the world wants to reduce us to a bloated bag of appetites. Be like this! Look like that! Own what others have! Be seen to do the right thing!
But this inflammation of want might not just be commercial.
Groupthink is a form of consumption. We consume popular opinions and attitudes merely because they are ‘sold’ to us. Other people have them, so we should too!
But as we sacrifice our own opinions for those of others, part of us begins to drown. Perhaps to be true to ourselves we need to be able to think about situations from more than one side, to reflect on life and make up our own minds – if we still have them.
Blindly consuming attitudes or cynical worldviews (or ice cream!) can wear us out. The more we fill up, the emptier we become.
Adhering to blind consensus can begin the drowning process. Being too desperate to seem rather than to be can do the rest.
The worship of dead things
It seems that we have to worship something, even if it is not a deity. I am fairly sure that we are hardwired for religiosity.
We may worship celebrities or shopping, atheism or some political doctrine, or even some abstract idea of happiness. But to follow and believe in the infallibility of that which is fallible can lead us astray in life. We are ‘let down’ or shocked when doctrines or people we had imbued with quasi-religious infallibility don’t behave as we expect. Yet we don’t always use these times as opportunities to examine the reasonableness of our own expectations.
Building our values around, even worshipping, illusory ‘deities’ will lead to self-deceit and bitterness.
But what if it is possible to genuinely develop? To become realized, to reach a stage of consciousness that cannot be bought or sold, that cannot be reduced by words – or even properly described by them?
If we are here for a purpose (above and beyond seeming to be a certain thing, or merely consuming) then perhaps the quiet desperation of life is, sometimes, a reflection of a failure to develop in this way. Like a grub trying but unable (or too distracted) to become the butterfly it’s really meant to be.
Of course, you don’t have to buy into that idea (in fact, don’t – it’s just a thought!). We could also look at it through a more optimistic lens: perhaps this desperation reflects the first stirrings of development. Necessity is, after all, the mother of (self-)creation.
Either way, rather than just displaying to one another, we need something more I think.
The power of authentic kindness
We need to be kind and to give generously of our time where we can, without letting these basic parts of what it means to be human become just something else to show off or exaggerate.
In fact, signalling virtue hubristically may be a way of immediately extinguishing it. Being virtuous is worlds apart from appearing virtuous. Thinking I’m great for doing good actually makes me less great.
Spiritual systems have long recognized this vital distinction, to the point where some groups throughout history – the Malamatiyya, for example – have even purposefully attracted ridicule or disdain as a way to become rather than merely to seem.
Listening to people in our lives, helping them meet their needs (the ‘raft’ or ‘ship’ that keeps them afloat), and developing our own sense of who we are – not who we are supposed to be – can help us all negotiate the seas of life.
We can also ask for help when we need it, before we reach the drowning stage, and remember that sometimes we can help others by letting them help us.
We are, after all, all in this together.