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The Comfort Book(4)
Author: Matt Haig

   Language gives us the power to voice our experience, to reconnect with the world, and to change our own and other people’s lives.

   “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you,” wrote Angelou. Silence is pain. But it is a pain with an exit route. When we can’t speak, we can write. When we can’t write, we can read. When we can’t read, we can listen. Words are seeds. Language is a way back to life. And it is sometimes the most vital comfort we have.



The power of why

   One thing I have been asked a few times is this: “Does writing about bad experiences make you feel worse?”

   I understand why people ask the question, but for me the answer is a profound “No.”

   I discovered this years ago. When I was very ill, at the lowest of the low, when I could hardly speak, I wrote down what I was feeling. One day I wrote down the words “invisible weight.” Another day I wrote “I wish I could claw into my head and take out the part of my brain that makes me feel like this.” There were even darker things I put down. But writing down darkness didn’t make me feel dark. I already felt dark. Writing things down brought that inner darkness into external light.

   Nowadays, I sometimes write about what I want. The key to this is honesty. Be brutally, humiliatingly honest. I recommend this.

   For instance, you could write “I want a six-pack.”

   And seeing that wish on the page might automatically make you realize something about it. It might make you feel silly for having it. You might already be awakening another part of you that helps you diminish the craving. But either way, it is good to ask a single-word question after it. “Why?” Why do I want a six-pack? Then to be entirely honest in your answer. “I want to look good.” And again: “Why?” “For myself.” And then you might stare at that answer for a while and feel you weren’t being entirely honest. So you add: “To impress other people.” And then, like some incessant Socrates, ask it again: “Why?” “Because I want their approval.” “Why?” “Because I want to belong.” “Why?” And you can keep going, deeper and deeper, through the tunnel of whys, until you reach the light of realization. And the realization may be that wanting the six-pack wasn’t really about the six-pack. It wasn’t about your body. It wasn’t even about health or strength or fitness. It was about something else entirely. Something that wouldn’t be fundamentally addressed or solved by gaining the six-pack.

   Writing, then, is a kind of seeing. A way to see your insecurities more clearly. A way to shine a light on doubts and dreams and realize what they are actually about. It can dissolve a whole puddle of worries in the bright light of truth.



The gaps of life

   If you take objects out of a room, one by one, two things will happen. The first is obvious. You will miss some of the things you have taken away. The second is that you will notice the things that remain more than ever. Your attention will focus. You will be more likely to read the books that are left on the shelves. You will appreciate the remaining chairs more. And if there is a chess board, you are more likely to play chess. When things are taken from us, the stuff that remains has more value. It rises not only in visibility but also intensity. What we lose in breadth we gain in depth.



A few don’ts

   Don’t envy things you wouldn’t actually want.

   Don’t absorb criticism from people you wouldn’t go to for advice.

   Don’t fear missing parties you would probably want to leave.

   Don’t worry about fitting in. Be your own tribe.

   Don’t argue with people who will never understand you.

   Don’t believe anyone has it all figured out.

   Don’t imagine there is an amount of money or success or fame that could insulate you from pain.

   Don’t think there is a type of face or job or relationship that safeguards happiness.

   Don’t say yes to things you wish you had the confidence to say no to.

   Don’t worry if you do.




   Other people matter. But there is no point becoming someone else in order to find friends. In order to find the people who like you, it is first necessary to be you.



Purple saxifrage

   The hardiest plant in the world is the purple saxifrage. It has delicate-looking flowers, with purple petals that seem as though they might blow away in the wind, yet it thrives in the Arctic. The flowers survive by clustering together, low to the ground, offering each other shelter against the hardest conditions on earth.




   We all have an impact on each other. We are all connected in so many seen and unseen ways. Which possibly explains why one of the simplest and quickest routes to happiness seems to be to make someone else happy. The reason to be selfless is selfish. Nothing makes ourselves feel better than not thinking of our selves.



A thing I discovered recently

   I love stillness. Slowness. When nothing is happening. The blueness of the sky. Inhaling clear air. Birdsong over traffic. Lone footsteps. Spring flowers blooming with defiance. I used to think the quiet patches felt dead. Now they feel more alive. Like leaning over and listening to the earth’s heartbeat.




   Forward momentum is great. But we also need sideways momentum. For instance, I just sat down and ate a pear. I have no idea what the future holds but I am very grateful that I am alive and able to sit on a sofa and eat a pear.




   Continually looking for the meaning of life is like looking for the meaning of toast. It is sometimes better just to eat the toast.




   Cooking can be therapeutic. But personally I find the most therapeutic kind of cooking to be the kind where there is no actual cooking . Where the recipe is so simple it is just a case of bringing all the ingredients together and mixing them up. A kind of get-together for food. A literal mash-up. And the thing I enjoy non-cooking the most is hummus. Hummus is in and of itself a comforting food, which is probably why—when it eventually got noticed beyond the Middle East—it took off very quickly. I don’t know what it is about hummus that is so comforting. Yotam Ottolenghi talks of the “emotive power” of hummus and how, within the Middle East, it sparks serious rivalries. It feels, somehow, more than a food. It is the default dip. Culinary oxygen. I struggle to imagine a world without it. Well, I can. But it would be a slightly sadder world. I have been making my own variants for years but only recently hit upon my favorite formula.

   As for ingredients, take two tins of chickpeas, a massive scoop of tahini, garlic (quantity-wise err on the side of incaution), a few glugs of olive oil, the juice of one lemon, some water for texture, and a generous sprinkle each of cumin, cayenne, and salt. Blend the lot. Serve with more cumin and oil. Take some bread, preferably warm and fresh. An olive roll, pita, whatever. Tear, and dunk, and enjoy.

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