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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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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