Home > The Comfort Book(9)

The Comfort Book(9)
Author: Matt Haig

   The goldsaddle goatfish is a beautiful golden fish—similar in size and behavior to a red mullet—vulnerable to numerous larger predators, including humans, within the waters around Hawaii. Local divers around the region have recently begun to notice a striking and much larger fish, of an identical yellow-gold color, swimming in the same sea. When divers swim right next to this big fish it stops being a big fish altogether, breaking up into eight or so standard-sized goldsaddle goatfish. It appears that the fish swim extremely close together, in a perfect fish-shaped pattern, when they feel threatened. Another one of the million examples in nature of how we living creatures shed our vulnerability when we join together and swim as one.

   Humans, too, can be saved by each other. Each year’s human rights struggles, catastrophes, or pandemics are examples of how people pull together in a crisis. How neighbors turn to neighbors. Friends to friends. Allies to allies. We have each other. Togetherness is a rule of nature.




   You don’t have to be positive. You don’t have to feel guilty about fear or sadness or anger. You don’t stop the rain by telling it to stop. Sometimes you just have to let it pour, let it soak you to your skin. It never rains forever. And know that, however wet you get, you are not the rain. You are not the bad feelings in your head. You are the person experiencing the storm. The storm may knock you off your feet. But you will stand again. Hold on.



Truth and courage and Karl Heinrich Ulrichs

   “Be yourself” is perhaps the most common life advice on the planet, yet it is not always easy—or even possible—to follow. Imagine your own gender identity or sexual orientation being met with stigma and criminalisation. Imagine, for instance, being a teenage boy in Germany in the 1830s and realizing, without a single doubt, that you were attracted solely to males. Maybe you would try to hide or suppress it, or deny it. It is unlikely you would tell your family. And indeed Karl Heinrich Ulrichs waited until 1862, when he was in his late thirties, before telling his parents he was an Urning (a term he himself coined, derived from Plato’s Symposium) and attracted to men. Once he had taken that step, he took another, bigger one. He began to write about the need for sexual reform. At first he did this anonymously, but soon he did so under his own name. His writings advocating for a scientific understanding of homosexuality continually brought him trouble with the law, and yet he kept writing. He stood in front of the Congress of German Jurists in Munich and demanded the repeal of anti-homosexual laws even as he was shouted down.

   Now recognized as a groundbreaking figure in the history of gay rights, Ulrichs had no easy life. His message and campaigning and even his very identity was met with fiery opposition. His books were banned and confiscated by police in Saxony and Berlin and throughout Prussia. Yet his spirit remained unwavering, and not confined to the subject of gay rights either (he was once imprisoned for opposing Prussian rule after the annexation of Hanover). Later his health faltered, so he moved south to Italy, where it improved and where he kept writing and publishing his work at his own expense.

   His legacy today is immense. Professor Robert Beachy has referred to him as the first person to publicly “come out.” There are streets named after him across Germany. The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender & Intersex Law Association now has an award in his name.

   Though the personal cost for Ulrichs was huge, it is clear he had no regrets about being himself. He didn’t need to wait for the vindication of the future to realize he had done the right thing in standing up for people marginalized and punished for being themselves. “Until my dying day,” he wrote, nearing the end of his life, “I will look back with pride that I found the courage to come face-to-face in battle against the specter that for time immemorial has been injecting poison into me and into men of my nature. Many have been driven to suicide because all their happiness in life was tainted. Indeed, I am proud that I found the courage to deal the initial blow to the hydra of public contempt.”

   It is important to remember that while in our century there remain people ready to stigmatize and criminalize identities and beliefs they don’t understand, there are also people like Ulrichs, ready to stand up and be themselves at whatever personal cost. And that is a deep inspiration—indeed a deep comfort—to everyone who has felt stigmatized or marginalized or like their truth is at odds with their time.



Scroll your mind

   Social media can be a gallery of lives you aren’t living. Of diets you aren’t following. Of parties you’re not attending. Of vacations you’re not on. Of fun you’re not having. So, cut yourself a break and scroll your mind instead. Scroll your consciousness for reasons to be grateful to be you. The only fear of missing out that matters is the fear of missing out on yourself.




   Even though I have largely recovered from depression, the door is never quite closed, always slightly ajar. I sometimes feel it, light like the ghost of a breeze, very much there. Unseen, but felt. I accept this now but it took time. The binary system of illness and wellness I used to believe in meant you were either one or the other. This was dangerous, because it meant that whenever I began to feel a tiny bit ill again, I would become deeply anxious and depressed that I was back to being properly ill. It would become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I would become ill because I believed I was.

   The reality of health, and particularly mental health, is often ambiguous. It is not quite one thing or another. We have a thousand labels for different mild to severe conditions, but reality isn’t a simple jar we can stick a label on, to say this is what it is, and it will never change. And nor is mental health something we can clear up once and for all, but rather something we always have to attend to, like a garden that needs nurturing, for as long as we live.

   Accepting this is both discomforting and comforting. It is discomforting because it means we have to accept that bad feelings and memories can return, and it is comforting because we know that if they do we will be ready for them, and accepting of what they are, transient and changing.

   We can move against the current of life, and forever meet resistance, or we can let our thoughts flow, and become the free uncertain river.



Good sad

   Do you ever get a kind of gentle sadness that almost feels good? Like a nostalgia for a lost past or a stolen future that is mournful but also reminds you that life is capable of such warm things? And that you were there to witness them?

   ( I do.)



Jaws and Nietzsche and death and life

   We exist, then we cease to exist. It is okay to feel fear about this. In fact, it might be preferable. As the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker wrote: “To live fully is to live with an awareness of the rumble of terror that underlies everything.” Fear is not something to be ashamed of. But fear of death is another fear of the future, another fear of the abstract that takes us away from the present, so the answer to our fear is here, and it is now, and it is real.

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