Faith and its absence

Like Kipling, I inhabit a godless universe, but I was brought up mildly Christian (Church of Ireland!), in so far as I accompanied my parents to their modestly attended church every Sunday and went to Sunday School where I and one or two other kids seemed to spend all our time colouring in pictures of smiley, round-faced Jesuses entering Jerusalems on donkeys.

My parents didn’t have religious upbringings themselves, and had joined the church as much to gain access to a welcoming community as to express a commitment to God. This may explain why we didn’t pray or say grace, and didn’t talk about God much. We didn’t ask, “what would Jesus do?” or say “God willing” when making plans, or cross ourselves when we passed a church. Although there were Bibles in the house, nobody read them apart from mum, who did bible study courses. I never opened one and the only Christian skill I learnt was to fall asleep the minute anyone entered a pulpit.

Dad would discuss the existence of God and the possibility of an afterlife, touching on Pascal’s wager and the limitations of human cognition, but was curiously silent on his own beliefs; mum would admit to a personal faith, but almost with an embarrassed defiance, like someone admitting to playing D&D when they were younger and asking what was wrong with that.

I guess I wasn’t trained or raised in Christian thought. My parents didn’t inculcate Christian certainties and theories and so I never had a crisis of faith; I wasn’t angry and I didn’t actively renounce God, so it wasn’t liberating. It simply dawned on me, in my late teens, that I wasn’t living as a Christian. Lapsed, rather than apostate, my habits and my ways of thinking were humanist rather than religious. I didn’t bear God in mind; I didn’t factor the spiritual in.

But perhaps some Christian-y (Christian-ish?) sorts of thinking persisted, handed down from earlier generations and preserved by my parents’ cultural nostalgia: classical oppositions and definitions, perhaps – ways of thinking about what was worth praise and what should be viewed with suspicion: a vague sense of cosmic disapproval: not actual beliefs, more shapes of thought.

This left me without psychological resilience. In my view, here we all were, tiny and defenceless creatures lost in a vast, vast and utterly uncaring universe, equipped for our protection only with the Protestant work ethic but without the God part, apart from the judge-y-ness, hoping that we could construct our own defences, formulate our own purposes, because nobody was coming to save us. If you don’t work you die.

Mr Kipling’s exceedingly good stories

Rudyard Kipling was held in high regard, in our house, when I was a child. In a classic example of white privilege, we could ignore his imperialism and racism and concentrate on his many qualities as a writer.

It’s no excuse to point out that he was a product of his time. Some of his contemporaries managed to be far less reactionary and intemperate, and we could’ve chosen them to venerate (George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells were both socialists, I think.) Actually, we did love E. Nesbit, and she was a Fabian!

But Kipling is undeniably the better artist. He’s a fantastic short story writer: compassionate and insightful, concerned with describing his version of the human condition through lived experience. That’s the condition of the white, male human, living in isolation, unsupported by a nurturing community.

This may explain why they’re so bleak in outlook, something you might not expect from the creator of The Jungle Book. Kipling is also completely irreligious – I can’t remember a single pious statement in any of his works – so there is no governing purpose or logic to his world. They are surprisingly existentialist tales.

His stories thus have that sense of being somehow unresolved. This is common to many great stories, because it makes them resonant. In Kipling’s oeuvre, a nasty situation arises, a predicament; an experience, usually due to the unpleasantness of people. This situation ends and the characters usually survive and may go on to a slightly less threatening existence, but what’s been revealed to you is the way the world is. These are the sorts of things that happen. This is what people do to each other, or themselves, but they seem driven to do it, and most of them are treated with sympathy. Lessons are learnt, but there’s no sense that justice has been done and the world has been set to rights. It’s the same sentiment as Auden expresses in The Shield of Achilles: “that girls are raped, that two boys knife a third/ were axioms to him”. It’s a merciless, pointless, godless universe. Good things happen, but they’re wrested from the darkness by sheer bloody hard work.

One of Kipling’s attractive qualities is his disdain for the writer as a visionary of elevated status. He’s dismissive of his own craft. He celebrates, instead, the working man: minor colonial civil servants, junior officers and soldiers, and he includes them in the readership he addresses. His writing is accessible – conversational and unpretentious, presumably for this reason. He’d started his working life as a journalist, after all, one of only two English staff on the Civil and Military Gazette in Lahore.

What he admired was hard work for a good end: appropriate, given his gloomy outlook: we have to look after ourselves and each other in a dangerous world. Is he responding to a post-Mutiny sense of vulnerability, under the gaze of so many alien, possibly hostile and resentful Indian eyes?

In his early books this meant working yourself to death protecting and nurturing the Indian population, largely from itself. (His “white man’s burden”.) His first book, Plain Tales From the Hills (1888) contains the story of Strickland, Kipling’s ideal colonial officer, who has dedicated himself wholly to knowing and understanding India and the Indians so he can manage them without going native. Another story describes a British engineer who becomes an alcoholic and almost goes mad after four years completely alone in rural India. (“Alone” means without British company, here.) The whole of “Pig” is based on the awful paperwork, and the office politics, colonial civil servants had to involve themselves in. In another, William the Conqueror, (from The Day’s Work, 1898) he tells of a budding romance between a colonial officer and an English woman whose paths cross only very occasionally, because they are racing around Madras saving thousands of people from famine. “On the City Wall” from Soldiers Three (1889?) celebrates the feats of British administrators and soldiers trying (successfully) to thwart a riot between Muslims and Hindus.

Emulating his heroes, Kipling thought writers should treat their writing as a job. Gyles Brandereth, in Have You Eaten Grandma? (2018), quotes Kipling’s advice on becoming a writer, “Only, Write! Write! Write! And – WORK!” (p.280) His (only partially successful) novel The Light that Failed (1890) charts the tragedy of a young artist who is prevented from working by misfortune and malign intent. He is killed by a stray bullet on the edge of a battlefield (I think), but his presence there is pretty much an act of suicide as he has gone blind. Being unable to work, and without the love of the woman he loves, he has nothing to live for.

Kipling’s dark and pessimistic tales and poems, his message of the unrecognised nobility of work, appealed to my morose old dad. He used to wander around the house reciting (or intoning) Kipling’s poetry. He was particularly fond of The Gods of the Copybook Headings, a poem that played off the Edwardian practice of making school children copy out austere sayings to practice their handwriting. In Kipling’s hands these become the unforgiving creed of a pitiless universe. Our favourite line was probably, “And the gods of the copybook headings said: ‘If you don’t work you die’”.

This stayed with me. It’s not just the dour injunction to unrelenting work, it’s the anxiety that underlies it. The awful consequences of taking your eye off the ball, of being idle: ‘If you don’t work you die’”.

Ye shall know them by their fruits

So, I needed to earn my place in society through my industry. A weak sense of self meant I needed create the worth I couldn’t simply manifest. I wanted to help people, to be active and useful, to make life better in a tangible, measurable way, even if it was just to run errands.

It was as if I hoped a celestial record could be kept of my good deeds, and in some cosmic audit I could demonstrate my worth by pointing to what I’d done. I felt morally, and thus spiritually, and thus existentially, insubstantial and I hoped I could embody and enact myself by sheer hard work.

As a child or teenager, I might have demanded gratitude for this, almost as a birth-right. As a teenager, I demanded to be heard, as if my words could flesh me out. Now, I just wanted recognition that I’d been of service. I was always hovering on the outskirts frantic to be of use.

“A very important source of the close social integration in an egalitarian community is the sense of self-realization we can get when we successfully meet others’ needs…It comes, of course, from our need to feel valued by others. We gain a sense of being valued when we do things which others appreciate. The best way of ensuring that we remained included in the co-operative hunting and gathering group and reducing the risk of being cast out, ostracized, and preyed upon, was to do things which people appreciated.” (Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, 2010, London: Penguin, p209)

Freaking Out

I suspect that, far below the level of consciousness, I feel I’m essentially rubbish. I’m not wicked; I’m no Satanic Majesty, I just have a slightly substandard essence or spirit. I assume I mildly degrade other people’s experience of life, by putting pressure on the resources we all share and being unable to offer anything valuable in return. By filling up conversations with my tedious waffle I wasn’t giving others a chance to make more interesting and edifying contributions. I’m slightly sooty. I leave dirty finger-marks on everything I touch, smearing it, if not actually befouling it. My motivations are base and embarrassing; my will is weak.

Of course, I’m overstating this for literary and dramatic effect. I’m not a troubled soul; like most (or all) people, I have slightly defective mental circuitry. But there’s no point in writing this blog if I don’t try to make it engaging, and making sense of things means distilling and concentrating ideas and feelings that are, at first, perceived as minor parts of a complex chemistry. Consciousness is not made up of pure, elemental blocks of separate cognition, but is a swirling mixture of sensory data, emotions and thought, so I’m not writhing in self-hating misery all the time. In fact, I’m relatively happy, I think. These assumptions don’t direct my immediate reactions to events. They don’t even mean I lack confidence. It’s just that they underlie my approach to the world. They are fundamental to my sense of self.

I felt I couldn’t justify all I consumed – the food I ate; the space I occupied, even the carbon dioxide I exhaled. As I became more and more concerned with impending climate apocalypse, I became super-aware of the scale and plurality of the human population of this planet. Abundantly supplied supermarket shelves made me imagine the millions of tons of produce that the poor, exhausted earth was having to supply us with each day. (was this because I’d worked in the developing world where a single jar of mayonnaise, imported at great expense, was a source of great joy?) I saw thousands and thousands of wet mouths, biting and chewing and slobbering on and on, the tons and tons of food waste abandoned to rot, fruitlessly, in landfill. How could the land endlessly supply us with all this? And all I did was contribute to that strain.

As the Brexit debate hotted up, encouraging hostility towards foreigners, I used to joke that, if Britain was really becoming overcrowded, we should bring in a Social Utility test. Anyone who failed it, of any background, could be deported. I wondered if this was what the Brexiteers feared: that they knew they were useless bastards and worried they’d be supplanted by more useful, harder working foreigners.

I’d be on the first flight out, of course.

All this came to a head in the terrible drought. You will remember me telling you about this: how we’d just laid a beautiful, luxuriant lawn over the root-snarled, impoverished soil of our new garden; how we were told that we’d need to water it, just until the first time it rained “properly”, how it never rained, for weeks and weeks and months and months. Nothing. The sky remained resolutely dry. Twice a day I paced pathetically backwards and forwards over the yellowing lawn with a leaky watering can of perished plastic, and a small, dainty, pink one chosen by my daughter, trying to introduce just a little moisture to the grass as it dried and died, shrivelling back to expose the chequerboard of turf squares beneath. Trees started to sacrifice their top branches, which would go suddenly yellow in contrast to the dirty olive-khaki that remained in the lower canopy.

Coming from the Republic of Ireland, such dryness, in a country as familiar as Britain, was beyond my experience. You’ll remember how, waiting, tensely, day after day, I began to lose my emotional and logical bearings, how I became hysterical. This drought seemed unprecedented, so had we passed some fundamental climate threshold? Perhaps it would never rain again. I imagined long lines of refugees, like the exodus from Paris in 1940; people dying of thirst on the roadside; people eating each other; desperately trying to moisten my children’s lips with a little thickening blood drawn from my own veins.

The rustle of night breezes began to resemble to me the patter of raindrops on the eaves. I’d spring out of bed and peer out to see if the light from the street was flecked and distressed with drizzle, but no – it was still smooth and hard; the hopeful shine on the tarmac wasn’t wetness, just reflected neon.

We were all so small and insignificant in the face of this huge, blank, pitiless negation. No one can make it rain. I needed to protect my babies but there was nothing I could do. I lacked Jo’s resilience and resourcefulness. Perhaps, then, the best thing would be if Jo tried to protect the children while I lessened the strain I placed on the world and at the same time give up this suffocating anxiety. I used to imagine creeping out in the cool of the night, lying on the lawn and opening my veins to let my 9 pints of blood nourish the grasses. I feared the pain, but I longed for the relief.

It was only a thought, just a thought. Not an intention. I had these thoughts in spasms, not constantly and not all at once. I was fine, really, just being a little histrionic. I was making a mountain out of a molehill.

But I’ve told you all this before.

Something Nasty in the Woodshed

Let us… (Lettuce! God’s gift to anorexics: lots of eating; no calories at all…) (Sorry. Digression.) … go back down the rickety stairs of analysis into the basement-darkness of my primitive thinking.

“Even when we are carrying a lighted candle, we see shadows standing on the dark walls…The cellar is buried madness.” (Gaston Blanchard, The Poetics of Space, 1994, Beacon Press, pp18-20, quoted in Adam Nicolson, The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters, 2015, London: William Collins, p.134)

Therapy is mostly about bringing the known into the light, into focus: defining and articulating it. Jamie and I kept returning to an idea that Philip and I had dealt with before I entered Ascot House: my desire to prove my worth by the service I render to others. If it existed, the tarot card that would represent my self-concept would be “The Servant”.

Like tarot cards, The Servant has several interpretations, but they all orbit around one assumption: value needs to be enacted – Ye shall know them by their fruits (Matthew 7:15) – but I have no inherent worth or purpose. I am an emptiness embodied; a puff of smoke.

Most of us are probably afflicted by this thought, at least occasionally, but some are much more effective than others at compensating for it by making themselves useful. When my friend dropped out of university in a welter of booze, weed, late mornings, missed deadlines and bewildered directionless days, his dad asked him if he was “just a tube for turning good food into shite”. I remain hugely impressed by the thrilling, devastating power of this dismissal, its poetic savagery. I have taken it for my own.

“I was transformed into a hole…”

“I was transformed into a hole, a void of some kind, and my every endeavour, every effort, was bent to stopping, filling and silencing this bottomless, evermore clamorous void. I had eyes for that alone, my entire intellect could serve that alone, my every act was directed to that.” (Imre Kertes, Fateless, p.162, 2017, Vintage: London)

(I’m repurposing here, not claiming equivalence, of course!)


You’d think you’d recognise any named condition that was afflicting you, once you knew what its symptoms were. They ought to form a distinctive signature. That’s how it works when you’re thinking about other people: You identify symptoms; your initial thoughts are mutable, but they get bedded in as you gossip about them, seeking out evidence that confirms your theory. The neural pathways are reinforced; your tentative speculations become accepted fact.

Humans are equipped with “concept of mind” – an ability to recognise that other people are real, thinking individuals with all the profound depth of experience and sense of self that we have ourselves. To fit them all into our minds, though, we have to reduce them to short-hand notes, to a few salient characteristics, at least when we’re not talking to them directly. Other people’s afflictions, therefore, seem bloody obvious, their defining characteristic; their wierdnesses become their heraldic insignia.

In your own head, though, the growth of a condition is screened by a welter of random thoughts and observations, all demanding attention. Psychological habits and/or physiological symptoms creep through your mind like weeds colonising an old rubbish dump: not unobserved, but unobtrusive. They’re weak, easy to root out if you could be bothered, but you miss their significance. They send out runners unnoticed, slowly strangling off other concerns, until, one day, you realise your whole life is dominated by one obsessive mono-culture. You try to tackle it in one part of your psyche, but it’s still flourishing in another, ready to spread out again.

We are beguiled by the rest of our behaviours carrying on as normal, despite the development of small idiosyncrasies in eating or exercise or sleep patterns or energy levels. Or mood or attitude. It all seems perfectly normal. Night falls, you go to bed; the alarm gets you up. You go to work. You work you socialise you gossip. You go home; you clean you cook. Weekends arrive: again and again and again – like normal. Everything’s normal. Surely a chronic, a life-altering, perhaps fatal, condition would be obvious, would announce itself with trumpets!

But it doesn’t.

When I developed Grave’s Disease, an auto-immune hyperthyroid condition, in my late 20s, I didn’t bother to go to the doctor for a couple of YEARS, despite manifesting quite striking symptoms: chronic insomnia, a heart-rate of 120 while sleeping (Jo took my pulse), a body temperature so high that, on frosty mornings, I would stand, gratefully, in the back yard with wisps of steam curling off my shoulder-blades. I was constantly hungry and weighed 8 ½ stone, despite a diet of Pizza and cheesecake. (This must be significant to my present condition.)

Similarly, when I became anorexic, it was just a little discrepancy between calories input and calories burned, a little mathematical hiccup, which would correct itself soon enough, given my (and the whole nation’s) taste for pizza and cheesecake. Modern life is corrupting: calories creep up on you. It wasn’t worth bothering the GP about. (I’ve never liked pestering doctors. Say the word “doctor” and a certain junior doctor skips into my mind, down a staircase to meet me…)