Why We All Need More Space

Image by BONNINSTUDIO / Stocksy

These days, it feels like almost everybody is dealing with some form of overwhelming stress or anxiety. How did we get here? In his book Notes on a Nervous Planet, released in paperback this week, Matt Haig explores the psychological consequences of our modern, rapidly progressing world. It's easy to try to blame the lightning-speed advancement of technology and our deep cultural embrace of social media, but in reality, most people would never want to give up the ease and connection the digital age has given us. Instead, in this excerpt, Haig points to what we're all really starved for these days: more space.

In terms of shaping our own future, spaces are key. We need to make sure there are spaces to be free. To be ourselves. Literal spaces, psychological spaces.

Increasingly, our towns and cities are places that want us there primarily as consumers rather than people, which makes it all the more important that we value those threatened spaces where economically irrelevant being is still allowed. Forests, parks, state-funded museums and galleries, libraries.

Libraries, for instance, are wonderful places currently at risk. Many people in power dismiss them as irrelevant in the age of the internet. This really misses the point. Many libraries are using the internet in innovative ways, enabling access to books and the internet itself. And besides, libraries aren't just about books. They are one of the few public spaces we have left that don't like our wallets more than us.

But there are other spaces that are threatened, too.

Nonphysical spaces. Spaces of time. Digital spaces. Some online companies increasingly want to infringe on our selfhood, seeing us as less of a human being and more as an organism full of data to be mined, or sold on.

There are spaces in the day and week that are being continually devoured in the name of work or other responsibilities.

There are even spaces of the mind that are under threat. The space to think freely, or at least calmly, seems to be harder to find. Which might explain the rise not only in anxiety disorders but also of counterbalancing habits such as yoga and meditation.

People are craving not just physical space but the space to be mentally free. A space from unwanted distracted thoughts that clutter our heads like pop-up advertising of the mind in an already frantic world. And that space is still there to be found. It's just that we can't rely on it. We have to consciously seek it out. We might have to set time to read or do some yoga or have a long bath or cook a favorite meal or go for a walk. We might have to switch our phone off. We might have to close the laptop. We might have to unplug ourselves, to find a kind of stripped-back acoustic version of us.

Fiction is freedom.

Books might be one way to recover some space. Stories. Fiction.

When I was 11, friendless, struggling to fit in at school, I read The Outsiders and Rumble Fish and Tex by S.E. Hinton, and I suddenly had friends again. Her books were friends. The characters were friends. And real ones, too, because they helped me out. Just as at other times Winnie-the-Pooh and Scout Finch and Pip and Bonjour Tristesse’s Cécile were friends. And the stories they inhabited could be places I could hide inside. And feel safe.

In a world that can get to be too much, a world where we are running out of mind space, fictional worlds are essential. They can be an escape from reality, yes, but not an escape from truth. Quite the opposite. In the "real" world, I used to struggle with fitting in. The codes you had to follow. The lies you had to tell. The laughs you had to fake. Fiction felt not like an escape from truth but a release into it. Even if it was a truth with monsters or talking bears, there was always some kind of truth there. A truth that could keep you sane, or at least keep you you.

For me, reading was never an anti-social activity. It was deeply social. It was the most profound kind of socializing there was. A deep connection to the imagination of another human being. A way to connect without the many filters society normally demands.

So often, reading is seen as important because of its social value. It is tied to education and the economy and so on. But that misses the whole point of reading.

Reading isn't important because it helps to get you a job. It's important because it gives you room to exist beyond the reality you're given. It is how humans merge. How minds connect. Dreams. Empathy. Understanding. Escape.

Reading is love in action.

Notes on a Nervous Planet Book

Image by mbg Creative x Penguin Random House / contributer

It doesn't need to be books. But we do need to find that space.

We are frequently encouraged to want the most extreme and exciting experiences. To act on a heady impulse for action. To "Just Do It" as Nike always used to bark at us, like a self-help drill instructor. As if the very point of life is found via winning a gold medal or climbing Mount Everest or headlining Glastonbury or having a full-body orgasm while sky-diving over Niagara Falls. And I used to feel the same. I used to want to lose myself in the most intense experiences, as if life was simply a tequila to be slammed. But most of life can't be lived like this. To have a chance of lasting happiness, you have to calm down. You have to just be it as well as just do it.

We crowd our lives with activity because in the West we often feel happiness and satisfaction are achieved by acquisition, by "seizing" the day, or by going out and "grabbing" life by the horns. We might sometimes do better to replace life as something to be grabbed at, or reached for, with something we already have. If we clear out the mental clutter, we can surely enjoy it more.

The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh writes in The Art of Power that while "many people think excitement is happiness," actually "when you are excited you are not peaceful. True happiness is based on peace."

Personally, I wouldn't want a life of total neutral inner peace. I'd want to occasionally experience some wild intensity and exhilaration. That is part of me. But I crave that peace and acceptance more than ever.

To be comfortable with yourself, to know yourself, requires creating some inner space where you can find yourself, away from a world that often encourages you to lose yourself.

We need to carve out a place in time for ourselves, whether it is via books or meditation or appreciating the view out of a window. A place where we are not craving, or yearning, or working, or worrying, or overthinking. A place where we might not even be hoping. A place where we are set to neutral. Where we can just breathe, just be, just bathe in the simple animal contentment of being, and not crave anything except what we already have: life itself.

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Aim.

To feel every moment, to ignore tomorrow, to unlearn all the worries and regrets and fear caused by the concept of time. To be able to walk around and think of nothing but the walking. To lie in bed, not asleep, and not worry about sleep. But just be there, in sweet horizontal happiness, unflustered by past and future concerns.

From Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Matt Haig.

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