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Chapter 4: self: Calm

In Praise of the Quiet Life

A quiet life sounds like an option that only the defeated would ever be inclined to praise. Our age is overwhelmingly alive to the benefits of active, dynamic, ‘noisy’ ways of living. If someone offered us a bigger salary for a job elsewhere, we’d move. If someone showed us a route to fame, we’d take it. If someone invited us to a party, we’d go. These seem like pure, unambiguous gains. Lauding a quiet life has some of the eccentricity of praising rain.

It’s hard for most of us to contemplate any potential in the idea because the defenders of quiet lives have tended to come from the most implausible sections of the community: slackers, hippies, the work-shy, the fired…; people who seem like they have never had a choice about how to arrange their affairs. A quiet life seems like something imposed upon them by their own ineptitude. It is a pitiable consolation prize.

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And yet, when we examine matters closely, busy lives turn out to have certain strikingly high incidental costs that we are nevertheless collectively committed to ignoring. Visible success brings us up against the envy and competitiveness of strangers. We become plausible targets for disappointment and spite; it can seem like it may be our fault that certain others have not succeeded. Winning higher status makes us increasingly sensitive to its loss; we start to note every possible new snub. A slight decrease in sales, attention or adulation can feel like a catastrophe. Our health suffers. We fall prey to scared, paranoid thoughts; we see possible plots everywhere, and we may not be wrong. The threat of vindictive scandal haunts us. Alongside our privileges, we grow impoverished in curious ways. We have very limited control over our time.

We may be able to shut down a factory in India and our every word is listened to with trembling respect within the organisation, but what we absolutely cannot do is admit that we are also extremely tired and just want to spend the afternoon reading on the sofa. We can no longer express our more spontaneous, imaginative, vulnerable sides. Our words are so consequential, we have to be guarded at all times; others are looking to us for guidance and authority. Along the way, we grow strangers to those who love us outside of our wealth and status – while depending ever more on the fickle attention of those for whom we are our achievements alone. Our children see ever less of us. Our spouses grow bitter. We may own the wealth of continents; but it has been ten years at least since we last had the chance to do nothing for a day.

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The most famous cultural figure in the history of the West was very interested in the benefits that can attend quiet lives. In Mark 6: 8-9, Jesus tells his disciples ‘to take nothing for their journey except a staff – no bread, no bag, no money in their belts – but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics.’ Christianity opens up vital space in our imaginations by making a distinction between two kinds of poverty: what it terms voluntary poverty on the one hand and involuntary poverty on the other. We are at this point in history so deeply fixated on the idea that poverty must always be involuntary and therefore the result of lack of talent and indigence, we can’t even imagine that it might be the result of an intelligent and skilled person’s free choice based on a rational evaluation of costs and benefits. It might sincerely be possible for someone to decide not to take the better paid job, not to publish another book, not to seek high office – and to do so not because they had no chance, but because – having surveyed the externalities involved – they chose not to fight for them.

One of the central moments in Christian history came in 1204 when a wealthy young man we know today as St Francis of Assisi willingly renounced his worldly goods, of which he had quite a few (a couple of houses, a farm and a ship at least). He did so not through any external compulsion. He just felt they would interfere with other things he really wanted rather more of: a chance to contemplate Jesus’s teachings, to honour the creator of the earth, to admire the flowers and the trees – and to help the poorest in society.

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He did have other options: St Francis of Assisi renounces worldly goods, painting attributed to Giotto di Bondone 

Chinese culture has also been reverent towards the yinshi (recluse), someone who chooses to leave behind the busy political and commercial world and live more simply, usually up the side of a mountain – in a hut. The tradition begins in the 4th century AD, when a high-ranking government official named Tao Yuanming surrendered his position at court and moved to the countryside to farm the land, make wine, and write. In his poem, ‘On Drinking Wine’, he recounts the riches that poverty have brought him:

Plucking chrysanthemums from the eastern hedge

I gaze into the distance at the southern mountain.

The mountain air is refreshing at sunset

As the flocking birds are returning home.

In such things we find true meaning,

But when I try to explain, I can’t find the words.

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Tao Yuanming taking time to smell flowers – by Chen Hongshou (1598-1652)

Portraits of Tao Yuanming became a major theme in Chinese art and literature. His hut near Mount Lushan (‘Hut Mountain’) gave others encouragement to see the advantages of cheaper, simpler dwellings. A number of poets of the Tang dynasty went through periods of seclusion. Bai Juyi (772-846) wrote a poem lovingly describing the hut he’d bought himself on the edge of a forest, listing its plain and natural materials (a thatched roof with ‘stone steps, cassia pillars, and a fence of plaited bamboo’). The poet Du Fu, living in Chengdu in the Sichuan province, wrote a poem titled ‘My Thatched Hut Ruined by the Autumn Wind’. It wasn’t a lament, more a celebration of the freedom that came with living so simply, a storm might blow over your house.

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Reconstruction of Du Fu’s hut at Chengdu

There are for many of us plenty of options to take up certain career paths that carry high prestige with them. We could have something deeply impressive to answer those who ask us what we do. But this does not necessarily mean we must or should follow these possibilities. When we come to know the true price some careers exact, we may slowly realise we are not willing to pay for the ensuing envy, fear, deceit and anxiety. Our days are limited on the earth. We may – for the sake of true riches – willingly, and with no loss of dignity, opt to become a little poorer and more obscure.

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