Turning off the news churn provides the space to think, learn and write. Photo: Getty
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Is it possible to live a modern contemplative life?

It has taken years of patient self reflection to realise that my obsessive reading of the news was eroding my well being.

My biggest project in life so far has been the systematic elimination of my crippling anxiety. After quitting a high stress job and stepping away from family pressures, I found that the constant feeling of stress, exhaustion and ache had largely abated. I longed for a complete banishment of that anxiety, and in my search for solutions, I discovered a dark reservoir within myself, contaminating my thoughts; the fear of missing out.

The whimsical acronym, FOMO, conceals a serious problem, say psychologists. With so much of our lives embedded in our ever-changing social media feeds, we are increasingly afraid of being out of touch, of missing out on our friends’ lives, of losing our cool, our edge. That fear goes to our very core of human consciousness, playing into our inbuilt survival drives. In some people, the mental health consequences of FOMO can lead to anxiety and depression; a recent University of Essex study observed that “those whose psychological needs were deprived – particularly those needs for competence, autonomy and relatedness” – were likely to have a higher level of FOMO.

A child of the Nineties, I’ve grown up with this fear, as social media has gradually taken over so much of our private and public lives. Humans have always strived and hoped for freedom, success and connectedness, but social media’s active colonisation of these desires leaves us little choice except to take part in it. In a handful of years, much of ordinary life has moved to its pages, and its scrolling format favours immediacy over depth. It is no longer enough to do good work, or to raise a family well. In art, an artist must be present and visible online, constantly commenting. A politician who works tirelessly can be destroyed by one inadvertent tweet. A mother can be judged on each minute detail of the appearance and behaviour of her children, and on every aspect of her parenting. Many jobs require a social media presence, and employers increasingly police employees’ accounts while demanding expressions of corporate loyalty online. Social media supercharges the quiet desperation of capitalist life; FOMO is encouraged, and enforced.

For me, FOMO was a culture and a way of life. As a teenage girl, I joined protests against poverty and racism in my small, Midwestern city. Part of the culture of protest was a communal obligation to bear witness; I came of age in the era of the 1999 Seattle anti-WTO protests and Indymedia, the agile, innovative activist-led news service that covered global protest from the ground. I submerged myself in the churning, constant horror of the world, increasing my exposure every time digital media expanded its reach and scope. As we got to grips with globalisation, my fellow activists and I believed in the links between all causes; without a coherent strategy to build a movement for change, we would rush from protest to meeting to fundraiser, never getting more than a superficial understanding of any one issue. The fear of missing out, the relentless pressure to embrace the entirety of the world’s struggles, fostered a group identity. A little city unto ourselves, we all consumed the same media, attended the same meetings, and discussed the same issues. This gave us a sense of purpose and utility, even as our organising failed to stop war and austerity. I took it all in, but I, and many others, paid the price in sleepless nights and blunted skills.

It has taken years of patient self reflection to realise that my obsessive reading of the news was eroding my well being; I had to learn that caring for myself properly, in mind and body, was at least as important as partaking in a mummer’s show of ritual protest. Only when I took a step back from activist culture, pop culture and the twenty four hour news cycle did I find that I had something new to say. I no longer fear missing out, I embrace it.

Today, in the house I share with my husband, we have no television and no radio. The sounds of our days are the chinks of hammers at the nearby building site, the cackle of two magpies chatting from their respective trees, and the buzz of badly tuned motorbikes passing by. As nature and humanity move all around us, my husband and I work on our respective books, sometimes not talking for hours.

My seclusion continues online. My internet is no longer an overwhelming torrent; it comes pre-filtered through my social media and a few online communities. These communities function like a scientist’s isolation box – I can put my hands into the thick gloves, and carefully examine the stories as they come in. When I read of the murder of Michael Brown by Ferguson police, I also read the words of the people protesting on the ground. When I learn of the Islamic State beheadings, it is from anti-colonialists, not hawks for war, and because of my safety protocols, there is no chance I will stumble upon the awful, dehumanising footage.

I fell into this modern version of a contemplative life not because I am aiming to be some sort of admirable, cloistered ascetic, but because it is the healthiest option. My anxiety disorder affects my ability to focus, and caused me trouble in school, university and the world of work. Therapy, medication, and meditation did little to help, and over the years my anxiety ratcheted up slowly, until I lay awake most nights, with a racing heart and aching stomach. It became a kind of torture, and to stop the pain, I would give up anything, including a respectable job, and aspirations for a mainstream, admirable future. Finally, I had to give up the fear of missing out, of disconnection, and I found a kind of peace. I crave more and more of that peace, and I’ve learned to be strict with myself about making choices that enhance it. I can’t afford to give a damn about missing a scoop or not being invited to a party.

Turning off the news churn has given me the space to think, learn and write; as I emerge from the depths of anxiety and depression, I find that I am able to read and understand a complex book, and to absorb and integrate new ideas, possibly for the first time in my life. Now that I have the calmness and focus to learn, I have reengaged with politics, as a student of sorts. In the past year I’ve shed my identity as an old-school class warrior, slowly learning to apply the concepts of intersectionality to the world, and take a smaller, defined place in the ranks fighting for an effective social justice movement.

Even as I have let go of FOMO, I have found new ways to interact online, and have discovered that there is plenty of real depth and connection there, if one knows where to look. My university is still my screen; the course material, and the teaching, is a collective virtual conversation. My course is social justice; I watch and learn as activists in every struggle, from antiracism to the fight for the rights of sex workers, are creating safe spaces, and actively promoting the dismantling of privilege in their work; led by the oppressed, they are literally creating the structure of a practical solidarity. For all its distraction and its pressure, the Internet still has much to teach me. That I have access to this “university,” and the time and resources to study within it, is the result of my immense privilege. I am one of the lucky few, but I reject useless guilt. Only systemic change can dismantle privilege, and those who have it should use it with awareness, as a tool for change. Seen in this light, my peace is a tool I can use to increase my capabilities.

My peace, my embrace of missing out, is still imperfect. When I see a story that I wish I had written, I still get a little jealous and a little anxious. I wonder if I am an impostor, and think that if I were truly competent I would have had the story first. But the solution here, again, is to let go, and remember the benefits of my approach. Instead of spending a morning chasing after a scoop, I might have learned a new concept, provided support to a friend, thrashed out a theory with an expert halfway across the world, or nurtured my relationship with my husband. Instead of joining a chorus of comment, I contribute less frequently, but with a fresh perspective.

Most of the time, I remember that I no longer hate myself, and that neither social media nor the movement owns me. My choices are valid because they are mine, not because they conform to some imagined standard for activists. And even though I am privileged, and even though my work for change takes a quieter, more thoughtful form now, I deserve my happiness, and to take part in the world on my own terms. Because the happier I am, the more I will have to offer, as an activist, and as a person.

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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