The Comfort Book is Haig’s life raft: it’s a collection of notes, lists, and stories written over a span of several years that originally served as gentle reminders to Haig’s future self that things are not always as dark as they may seem. Incorporating a diverse array of sources from across the world, history, science, and his own experiences, Haig offers warmth and reassurance, reminding us to slow down and appreciate the beauty and unpredictability of existence.
Imagine yourself as a baby. You would look at that baby and think they lacked nothing. That baby came complete. Their value was innate from their first breath. Their value did not depend on external things like wealth or appearance or politics or popularity. It was the infinite value of a human life. And that value stays with us, even as it becomes easier to forget it. We stay precisely as alive and precisely as human as we were the day we were born. The only thing we need is to exist. And to hope.
You Are the Goal
You don't have to continually improve yourself to love yourself. Love is not something you deserve only if you reach a goal. The world is a world of pressure but don't let it squeeze your self-compassion. You were born worthy of love and you remain worthy of love. Be kind to yourself.
Nothing is stronger than a small hope that doesn't give up.
A thing my dad said once when we were lost in a forest
Once upon a time, my father and I got lost in a forest in France. I must have been about twelve or thirteen. Anyway, it was before the era when most people owned a mobile phone. We were on vacation the rural, landlocked, basic kind of middle-class vacation I didn't really understand. It was in the Loire Valley, and we had gone for a run. About half an hour in, my dad realized the truth. "Oh, it seems that we're lost." We walked around and around in circles, trying to find the path, but with no luck. My dad asked two men-poachers-for directions and they sent us the wrong way. I could tell my dad was starting to panic, even as he was trying to hide it from me. We had been in the forest for hours now and both knew my mom would be in a state of absolute terror. At school, I had just been told the Bible story of the Israelites who had died in the wilderness and I found it easy to imagine that would be our fate too. "If we keep going in a straight line we'll get out of here," my dad said.
And he was right. Eventually we heard the sound of cars and reached a main road. We were eleven miles from the village where we had started off, but at least we had signposts now. We were clear of the trees. And I often think of that strategy, when I am totally lost-literally or metaphorically. I thought of it when I was in the middle of a breakdown. When I was living in a panic attack punctuated only by depression, when my heart pounded rapidly with fear, when I hardly knew who I was and didn't know how I could carry on living. If we keep going in a straight line we'll get out of here. Walking one foot in front of the other, in the same direction, will always get you further than running around in circles. It's about the determination to keep walking forward.
It's okay to be broken.
It's okay to wear the scars of experience.
It's okay to be a mess.
It's okay to be the teacup with a chip in it. That's the one with a story.
It's okay to be sentimental and whimsical and cry bittersweet tears at songs and movies you aren't supposed to love.
It's okay to like what you like.
It's okay to like things for literally no other reason than because you like them and not because they are cool or clever or popular.
It's okay to let people find you. You don't have to spread yourself so thin you become invisible. You don't have to always be the person reaching out. You can sometimes allow yourself to be reached. As the great writer Anne Lamott puts it: "Lighthouses don't go running all over an island for boats to save; they just stand there shining."
It's okay not to make the most of every chunk of time.
It's okay to be who you are.
Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher, thought that if we are distressed about something external, "the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment."
I love this, but also know from experience that finding that power can be near impossible at times. We can't just click our fingers and be rid of, say, grief, or the stress of work, or health worries. When we are lost in the forest, our fear might not be directly caused by the forest, or our being lost in said forest, but while we are actively lost in the forest it very much feels like the source of our fear is being lost in the forest.
But it is helpful to remember that our perspective is our world. And our external circumstances don't need to change in order for our perspective to change. And the forests we find ourselves in are metaphorical, and sometimes we are unable to escape them, but with a change of perspective we can live among the trees.
Nothing either good or bad
When Hamlet tells his old university buddies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that "there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so" he doesn't mean this in a positive way. Shakespeare's prince is in a foul and depressed mood, but with reason. He is talking about Denmark, and indeed the whole world, being a prison. For him, Denmark really is a physical and psychological prison. But he is also aware that perspective plays a part in this. And that the world and Denmark aren't intrinsically bad. They are bad from his perspective. They are bad because he thinks they are.
External events are neutral. They only gain positive or negative value the moment they enter our mind. It is ultimately up to us how we greet these things. It's not always easy, sure, but there is a comfort in knowing it is possible to view any single thing in multiple ways. It also empowers us, because we aren't at the mercy of the world we can never control, we are at the mercy of a mind we can, potentially, with effort and determination, begin to alter and expand. Our mind might make prisons, but it also gives us keys.
Change is real
We turn keys all the time. Or rather: time turns keys all the time. Because time means change.
And change is the nature of life. The reason to hope.
Neuroplasticity refers to the way our brains change their structure according to the things we experience. None of us are the same people we were ten years ago. When we feel or experience terrible things, it is useful to remember that nothing lasts. Perspective shifts. We become different versions of ourselves. The hardest question I have ever been asked is: "How do I stay alive for other people if I have no one?" The answer is that you stay alive for other versions of you. For the people you will meet, yes, sure, but also the people you will be.
To be is to let go
Self-forgiveness makes the world better. You don't become a good person by believing you are a bad one.
Hope is a beautiful thing to find in art or stories or music. It is often a surprise moment, like in The Shawshank Redemption when the poster of Raquel Welch is pulled off the wall in Andy's prison cell. Or in The Sound of Music when Captain von Trapp switches from repressed widower to singing father in the space of a single scene.
It is often subtle, but you know it when you feel it. Like when "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" effortlessly goes up a whole octave within the word "somewhere," jumping clean over seven natural keys-an actual musical rainbow-before landing on the eighth. Hope always involves a soaring and a reaching. Hope flies. The thing with feathers, as Emily Dickinson said.
People often imagine it is hard to feel hopeful when times are hard, yet I tend to think the opposite. Or at least, hope is the thing we most want to cling on to in periods of despair or worry. I think that it's no coincidence that "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," one of the most bittersweet yet hopeful songs in the world, a song that has topped polls as the greatest song of the twentieth century, was written by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg for The Wizard of Oz in one of the bleakest years in human history: 1939. Harold wrote the music, while Yip penned the words. Harold and Yip themselves were no strangers to suffering. Yip had seen the horrors of the First World War and was left bankrupt following the crash of 1929. As for Harold, who would become known for his hopeful octave-leaping, he was born with a twin brother who sadly died in infancy. Aged sixteen, Harold fled his Jewish Orthodox parents and went to pursue a modern musical path. And let's not forget these were two Jewish musicians writing arguably the most hopeful song ever written, all while Adolf Hitler was triggering war and antisemitism was on the rise.
To feel hope you don't need to be in a great situation. You just need to understand that things will change. Hope is available for all. You don't need to deny the reality of the present in order to have hope, you just need to know the future is uncertain, and that life contains light as well as dark. We can have our feet right here where we are, while our minds can hear another octave, right over the rainbow. We can be half inside the present, half inside the future. Half in Kansas, half in Oz.
Songs that comfort me-a playlist
(These aren't all comforting lyrically, or comforting in a logical way, but they all comfort me through the direct or indirect magic only music can muster. You will have different ones. But I thought I'd share some of mine.)
O-o-h Child-The Five Stairsteps
Here Comes the Sun-The Beatles
Dear Theodosia-Hamilton soundtrack
Don't Worry Baby-The Beach Boys
Somewhere Over the Rainbow-Judy Garland
A Change Is Gonna Come-Sam Cooke
The People-Common ft. Dwele
The Boys of Summer-Don Henley
Secret Garden-Bruce Springsteen
You Make It Easy-Air
True Faith-New Order
If You Leave-OMD
Swim Good-Frank Ocean
Steppin' Out-Joe Jackson
"Pas de deux" from The Nutcracker-Tchaikovsky (not a song, obviously, but an epic bittersweet comfort)
If I Could Change Your Mind-HAIM
Space Cowboy-Kacey Musgraves
Hounds of Love-either the Kate Bush or Futureheads version
Enjoy the Silence-Depeche Mode
I Won't Let You Down-Ph.D.
Just Like Heaven-The Cure
Promised Land-Joe Smooth
In order to get over a problem it helps to look at it. You can't climb a mountain that you pretend isn't there.
When you feel low, it is important to bear in mind that thoughts inspired by those feelings are not external, objective facts. For instance, when I was twenty-four I was convinced I would never see my twenty-fifth birthday. I knew for certain that I wouldn't be able to survive for weeks or months with the mental pain I was suddenly encountering. And yet here I am, aged forty-five, writing this paragraph. Depression lies. And while the feelings themselves were real, the things they led me to believe were resolutely not.
Because I didn't really understand how I fell into suicidal depression, I imagined I would never find my way out. I didn't realize that there is something bigger than depression, and that thing is time. Time disproves the lies depression tells. Time showed me that the things depression imagined for me were fallacies, not prophecies.
That doesn't mean time dissolves all mental health issues. But it does mean our attitudes and approaches to our own mind change and often improve via sticking around long enough to gain the perspective despair and fear refuse to give.
People talk of peaks and troughs in relation to mental health. Hills and valleys. And such topographical metaphors make sense. You can definitely feel the steep descents and uphill struggles in life. But it is important to remember the bottom of the valley never has the clearest view. And that sometimes all you need to do in order to rise up again is to keep moving forward.
We are always bigger than the pain we feel. Always. The pain is not total. When you say "I am in pain," there is the pain and there is the I but the I is always bigger than the pain. Because the I is there even without the pain, while the pain is only there as a product of that I. And that I will survive and go on to feel other things.
I used to struggle with understanding this. I used to think I was the pain. I didn't always think of depression as an experience. I thought of it as something I was. Even as I walked away from a cliff-edge in Spain. Even as I flew back to my parents' house and told my loved ones I was going to be okay. I called myself a depressive. I rarely said "I have depression" or "I am currently experiencing depression" because I imagined the depression was the sum of who I was. I was mistaking the film on the screen with the cinema itself. I thought there would only ever be one film playing for all eternity, on rotation. A Nightmare on Haig Street. (Sorry.) I didn't realize there would one day be showings of The Sound of Music and It's a Wonderful Life.
The trouble was that I had a very binary view of things. I thought you were either well or ill, sane or insane, and once I was diagnosed with depression I felt I had been exiled to a new land, like Napoleon, and that there would be no escape back to the world I had known.
And in one sense I was right. I never really went back. I went forward. Because that is what happens, whether we try for it or not, we move forward, through time, simply by staying alive. And slowly our experiences change. I, for instance, discovered little moments of happiness or humor within despair. I realized things weren't always one thing or another thing. They were sometimes both.
And as soon as we notice all that space inside us we have a new perspective. Yes, there is room for a lot of pain, but there is room for other things too. And indeed, pain might be a total asshole, but it can inadvertently show us how much space we have inside. It can even expand that space. And enable us to experience the equivalent quantity of joy or hope or love or contentment at some future point in time.
Excerpted from The Comfort Book by Matt Haig. Copyright © 2021 by Matt Haig. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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