Whoever decided that we should describe our sense of wonder as “childlike”? I’ve been working hard for my wonder lately. My anxiety has come back in full force, and with it my various efforts at relearning how to inhabit myself again.
I’ve been using the Wim Hof breathing method (if you’re not familiar, Hof is a sort of forcefully inspirational Dutchman who is able to withstand freezing temperatures). As part of his method, each morning I deliberately hyperventilate more than seems reasonable, then I breathe out and hold my breath, and, as my heart slows, feel for a few minutes like I am lying at the bottom of a beautiful rock pool. Then I breathe in again, and feel such a calm wave of euphoria travelling up the length of my spine and into my head that I find myself smiling. I repeat this three times. Then I get in a cold shower.
I am honestly annoyed by how well it is working for me. I find the hyperventilating part of my morning irritating at best, and at worst it leaves me confusingly tearful. I couldn’t say why I resent having to breathe so much, but I do. Still, you can’t argue with the results when you find yourself actively wanting to make the shower the coldest it can be. “The cold is strong, but I am stronger!” I think to myself, with extreme earnestness, because Hof has told me to – and because it is too cold to be embarrassed – and I feel undeniably better. It is doing wonders for my mental health, but it is ridiculous that I have to keep doing it every day.
It’s the same with yoga – which I’ve been trying to engage with properly for the first time. I am not good at it. But when I sit on my mat and put on a YouTube video, a kindly woman called Adriene tells me I’ve already done the hardest part by showing up today. This is not true, because I often find what follows frustratingly difficult. I didn’t think I’d have to work quite this hard at not giving up.
But I’m not giving up, inept though I am at moving myself into positions that Adriene makes look effortless on screen. I’m not sure what is cause and what is effect, but the less anxious I feel, the more I notice that I’m experiencing real moments of wonder in the everyday. The pink and gold edges of clouds at sunset stop me in my tracks. I can find a much-played song in my headphones almost indecently exciting. On a morning walk, I pass through a familiar gate and let out a gasp of astonishment to find the bare branches of the treeline covered with thousands of starlings.
There is little about this experience of wonder that is childlike to me. It is normal for children to take enjoyment for granted. I think there is something altogether more poignant about the wonder that comes to us later in our lives. It seems instinctively true that the more experience we have of the world – not less – the more deeply we feel what is truly miraculous. Even if it’s a sense that at times we have to cultivate for ourselves – actually, especially if we’ve had to cultivate it for ourselves.
There is, however, a limit to the human powers of forbearance. No amount of yoga, meditation or special breathing is going to lessen my enragement at the way corporate accounts talk to me on social media.
I didn’t like it when clothing brands started offering me “fits for the win”. Or when they began sending me push notifications saying, “We see you scrollin!” as if this kind of passive-aggressive surveillance capitalism would seem more innocuous for being flippant about itself. You expect this kind of behaviour from Asos, though. I liked it less when Ordnance Survey tried to upsell me picnic blankets by emailing me the heart eyes emoji.
I had thought we’d reached the nadir a few months ago when the Royal Mint tweeted its announcement of the first King Charles coin via an Elf on the Shelf meme. But His Majesty’s Treasury has set the bar even lower with its tweets about the Spring Budget, in which they mocked up a spurious WhatsApp leak of policy announcements and invited us to “share the scoop”. “Oi!” replied the Twitter account for the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, with a pair of side eyes and “#awks”.
I could take to the streets in protest against this sassification of authority. For which the Home Office would presumably announce a dispersal order by tweeting: “Nooo don’t protest you’re so sexy aha” with an emoji of a policeman.
This article appears in the 29 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special