To find well-being
Pundits everywhere compete to drown us in worry. We should worry that as the world accelerates in complexity and information, it is ever more fractured and anguished. I received a diagnosis of cancer last year; if I were to listen to the broadcasts, the conscientious thing to do would be to worry more intensely. Gratefully, on occasion something or someone calms us down and returns us to sanity.
I have a few books in my library that demonstrate there is no value in things being complicated when they can be made simple. They are for me a type of secular scripture. Here is one that explains 20th-century physics using no maths above fifth grade. With a few household items — a slit of paper, a torch, a rubber band — the mysteries of space, time, and gravity are revealed.
When I peek into the underlying wholeness of things, I am invited not to worry. I wanted to articulate a path to well-being that would, in its articulation, provide a visceral experience of what it is pointing to. According to Socrates, we are at every moment seeking the good.
I wanted to deliver the teaching on well-being clearly, with brevity, and avoid jargon. For me, writing without jargon is a process of saying, then unsaying, then resaying an idea that won’t sit still. A word calls for more words to pin it down. This continues until past bedtime, and there the complicated words lie, unsaid and untruthful. By contrast, images have a forthrightness and stability all their own.
I discovered that images may sometimes travel a less complicated path than words to the heart of understanding. The images preserve the simplicity in the teaching. When pictures and words are sparse, the reader fills in the blanks. I think of the clever joke, wherein the patient looks up from the ink blots to ask: “Who is Mr Rorschach, and why does he paint all these pictures of my parents fighting?” Of course, the world is itself a Rorschach upon which we cast our fantastic stories.
Words were revered in my family’s home. Those who were deemed to write or read well were true athletes. Those who excelled were demigods. As a child, I lumbered through a sentence, battling for word recognition, scanning for the full stop that brought me relief.
On occasions, an immortal would join the family for a meal. The household would prepare for the fun by shooting themselves and each other out of cannons. I remember sitting in my pyjamas at the table with Vladimir Nabokov, half expecting a halo around his head as he munched on green salad.
I accepted but could not fathom this hierarchy, this racket I had been born into. I declared my hatred for books and then strove to disguise my stupidity with intelligence. It is an irony that in writing a book on well-being that teaches us to transcend the judgments about who we should be, the judgments’ grip is still felt; and while writing a book for grown-ups, I wrote one a young person with a reading disorder might enjoy. ‘The Well of Being’ by Jean-Pierre Weill is published in hardback on November 5 (Bluebird, £20)