I’ve been reading Lessons in Stoicism by John Sellars, subtitled What Ancient Philosophers Teach Us About How To Live. Romans including Seneca, Greek-born Epictetus (he was a slave) and Marcus Aurelius were sort of early Gwyneth Paltrows. But instead of telling us that buying things and physical health make us happy, they believed that way madness lies. We can’t control whether we are sacked, cheated on or get cancer. But we can control how we deal with hardship.
Now, I don’t normally read philosophy, though I have many books on the subject, left behind, along with skin cells, when my husband moved out. I’m more of A Stable For Jill, Jill Has Two Ponies, Jill Enjoys Her Ponies kinda gal. But I think old Seneca was right when he wrote: ‘By the time we are ready to start living, our lives are almost over. We pursue things of little value, wander aimlessly through life with no clear focus.’
You see! That’s what I did. Spent decades being unhappy, shoring up the unhappiness with buying things. Mooning after men who didn’t know I existed. Trying to please relatives and help friends. Worrying what people thought of me. Every decision I made was about making myself more attractive: is the house in the right area, is the guest bedroom lovely?
Is the car flashy enough? But even when I had the lovely things, I had no control over how the people in my environment behaved. My ex-husband would go out in my car for the evening, without me, to pick up women; his image was spoiled rather when he had to phone to ask how to switch the headlights on. My sister Lyn came to stay in my mini mansion and complained about the stairs, the cold.
When you read this, I will have just had another birthday. And although I have nothing at the grand age of 61, apart from three collies, two of whom are very chewy, what the book on Stoics has taught me is that those of us who have faced adversity are strong. Same as a lovely young man who tested my DNA (for a feature on whether I’m to inherit not money but arthritis, addiction and dementia from my parents) told me: people who have had mental problems, money problems, got divorced or are bereaved are like hardy plants, or cacti, unlike those who grow up in a greenhouse, when the first sign of frost fells them.
I wish in my 20s I’d been selfish, pushed myself forward. Instead, I trained others, edited them, stayed late, took the blame for their mistakes. I remember once, on a daily paper, a young writer filed a terrible interview with a very famous novelist. My editor-in-chief was apoplectic. I told her, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll call the novelist, redo the interview.’ Which I did. I stayed up all night, turned it around, and the editor was thrilled. The uppity young writer didn’t even say thank you. I emailed her years later, to ask if she would read my new book and give me a line for my jacket. ‘I’ve made it a rule never to do these things,’ she said. ‘Devalues my brand.’
I bumped into another famous writer at a party recently. I went over. This woman (award-winning) would submit her transcribed tape for me to unravel and massage into a coherent piece. She blanked me!
David happened to be at my side, and he looked shocked. ‘Blimey,’ he said. ‘What did you do to her?’
‘I made her look good.’
Anyway. I’ve made up with David. He emailed to say, ‘I’m so miserable without you.’ I’ve invited him for the weekend and done a Waitrose shop. I don’t care if my editor says I’m repetitive. This is MY LIFE. I have never, ever put my life first: it was always work, work, work. Thinking again of Seneca, why did I waste 11 years making others shine? Why
did I get up at 4am to work on a daily paper giving lazy little upstarts a leg up? No one remembers I did that. It was all for nothing, really – the war zones, the earthquakes, the dying elephants – as I have nothing to show for it. Just no fingerprints, as mine have been worn away by writing a million words a year, which means every time I fly into the US I’m frogmarched to a side room, asked why I have no prints, and why I went to Pakistan.
I saw Yesterday yesterday: the film about a world without the Beatles. When the hero went to visit John Lennon I was sobbing. John would have been so much happier without his stellar career. I would be, too.