Matt Haig On Holding On To Hope In The Face Of Uncertainty

With ‘Freedom Day’ delayed and many of us struggling with the ongoing uncertainty, best-selling author and prominent mental health commentator Matt Haig sees a way forward.

Lockdown street art

by Grazia |

Words have healing powers. The right words, at the right time, can save someone’s life.

I can remember, in the middle of suicidal despair, flicking through a dictionary of quotations my gran had bought me. One quote in particular stood out, from the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke: ‘Let everything happen to you. Beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.’

I can’t begin to tell you how mind-blowing this was for me at that time. You see, the reason I was suicidal wasn’t just because I was going through unfathomable mental turmoil, but also because I didn’t think I would ever be able to escape its grip. I had no real understanding of how I became ill, and so I had no idea where the exit door was. I felt I would be this way forever. And yet, every second of the day I was trying to fight it. And here in front of me was this incredible quote about acceptance. Let everything happen to you.

Sure, it was just a series of words. But then, what was therapy if not a series of words? I know it is fashionable to be snobby about inspirational quotes, but when your mind is on fire a short line that helps you reframe things can be a tonic you can actually absorb. Beauty and terror. Just keep going.

A lot has been happening to us in this pandemic era. More terror than beauty, sometimes. More than a year of uncertainty, lockdowns, rising death figures, health anxiety, bereavements, PTSD following severe illness, economic strife, school and workplace upheavals and unprecedented curbs on social freedoms have had a clear and understandable impact on our mental health. One survey from Mind reported that more than half of all adults (60%) and more than two in three young people (68%) reported a general worsening of their mental health in the pandemic era. Covid has been a mental health asteroid that has shaken pretty much all of us in some way. And as mental health provision and infrastructure was underfunded and far from perfect to begin with, this really is a crisis on top of a crisis.

Of course, we are not all equally impacted. We haven’t all contracted Covid-19, lost our jobs, mourned loved ones. And yet, as the majority of us have had our mental health negatively impacted, it has never been easier for anyone to fall into a spiral of despair and a sense of powerlessness.

So how do we hold on to hope, amid so much uncertainty? Well, if you think about it, hope is all about uncertainty. Hope is about the possibility things will change, and it lives in the dark as much as the light. ‘Somewhere over the rainbow’ was being sung in cinemas across the world in 1939 as Hitler invaded Poland. And though no set of words is going to solve the mental health crisis, writing can offer us at least some comfort amid the chaos.

Last year, I read more than usual. I read the American writer Anne Lamott. ‘Hope,’ she wrote, ‘begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.’ I liked that. Because however dark a night can be, it can never stop the dawn.

I also read the Buddhist writer Pema Chodron, who wrote one of the most brilliant summations of the human experience. ‘To be fully alive, fully human and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest.’ And it feels like that. This era feels like we have been thrown out of the nest. And although we don’t have the ability to fly, we have each other. And we reach each other via language.

Words, in short, aren’t just therapy. They can be our wings.

Matt Haig’s ‘The Comfort Book’ is published on 6 July (£16.99, Canongate)

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