I am trying something new. It is not a fad diet, although I could do with one – after twenty minutes in the gym, I look more flustered and out of breath than Boris Johnson totting up the cost of his children’s school shoes. It isn’t mindfulness, or sweeping my hair to the left rather than the right, or attending accordion lessons. No. It is a small, almost imperceptible change. I am doing things gently.
What does it even mean to be gentle today? In a world where those who shout the loudest or shove the hardest get served first? Empty vessels, ringing out. Who would want to be seen as anything other than titanic and unshakeable, to be thought weak? But this is the common misconception about gentleness, that it is feeble or gullible, that it stares back at you, trustingly, with mooncalf eyes, while you empty its bank account. Gentleness is linked with kindness, of course, but I wouldn’t say I am being any more kind than usual – how kind I usually am is a matter of opinion and not one I am willing to venture here. But I am going about my day much more gently than usual because if I have learned anything over the past forever, it’s that while aggression, anger, and the flexing of power can push your further if you want it, it’s very exhausting. By the time you’re enjoying the spoils of your testosterone-fuelled turbo-smash to the front of the queue, you barely have the energy to enjoy it. It’s also ageing. Cast your eye across the benches of House of Commons or around the boardroom of any multinational if you want to see the wages of blind ambition.
I started small, with my actions, by which I mean my actual physical actions. Rather than wrenching open cupboard doors, I open and shut them carefully. Same with any door, really. There is something more satisfying about the purposeful click of a cab door as you close it – still with all your strength behind it, but restrained, channelled correctly, with not a kilowatt wasted. Doors in and out of shops or houses too, how satisfying to leave somewhere so definitively, rather than flounce. I have, over the years, tended to favour the dramatic and was an Olympic-level door slammer in my teens, so this was quite a big change of behaviour for me. But now, as the decades roll by and my bones creak in recognition, I see the true power in closing a door with just the right amount of force. A door that slams shut and makes the wall shake gives everything away – you are angry, they have won. Slammed doors are harder to reopen and walk back through, reconciliation starts off on a jagged edge. A door closed gently, but confidently, conveys your disappointment, still, but shows you are in control. When you close a door behind you calmly, the ensuing silence is deafening, and whomever you closed it on will want to open it again and come after you all the sooner. A lighter touch leads to a lighter heart, I have found.
I have tried to stop hurrying everywhere, I’m attempting to walk more gracefully. I am tired of arriving everywhere anxious, and with a spritz of perspiration peppering my hairline. I look up, and around me, as I go. I have a little more time now. I don’t look down at my shoes anymore, or get cross with my feet for not being fast enough. Gloves go on and off gently, with care, fastening the press stud with a satisfying snap – it sounds different. Coat is buttoned up methodically, no more marrying the wrong button with the wrong hole – let’s pause here for the obvious double-entendre, shall we?
Zips are pulled up and down slowly, no longer cutting through the air with that unnecessary urgency, or snagging because of my impatience. I don’t cram my hat on anymore, I place it on my head like it’s a flower crown so beloved of blond people you meet at festivals, with trust funds and soft hands, whose parents live off buy-to-let mortgage coin and take too much sugar in their tea because they can afford the dentistry.
I’ve not aced it entirely, I must say. I am a heavy, loud typist and the irony of magicking up soothing imagery while I slam away at my keyboard like I hate it isn’t lost on me. And you should see me when I look for something I have lost – a green hat yesterday, for example – I am a whirlwind, a Tasmanian devil casting aside piles of clean laundry and bags for life like my arms are scythes. Speaking gently, too, still evades me somewhat. I’m direct, acerbic; almost everything I say, no matter how innocuous, comes out like Bette Davis spitting out mouthwash. And yet despite how I sound, I am but a honeybee: I only sting when absolutely necessary.
Why am I doing this? Maybe it’s because things matter less. I don’t mean this in a nihilistic way, or depressively. I just mean that usually, nine times out of ten, the stress and the anxiety and the hurry and the bother don’t get you where you need to be any faster, or make you feel any better. I used to like to get things done, fast, and would be furious if I missed my target or things didn’t work out as I expected. Now I have learned how little control we have over most of what we do, I am harnessing the limited powers I do have and using them for good, on myself. The world is terrible, and frightening, and so maybe this is worth a try, for my own sake, if nothing else. Is it working? Not sure yet. I’m getting there. I am lucky too, I guess, that this gentle approach is an option for me. For many – far too many – that’s taken away from them. In a world like ours, sometimes the fight is all you have, it keeps you going.
I have flashes of impatience, or despair when yet another person slams into me in Westfield because my existence meant nothing to them, but instead of getting annoyed, I just smile to myself and carry on. My aggression wouldn’t solve anything, it would be an even bigger delay to my progress. I can still get animated and angry if need be, but not over things that really don’t matter. There is a time and a place for force, for drive, and fury – and they are all the more shocking and effective when they’re not the default, when they come out of nowhere. Sharks emerging from the otherwise glass-calm water, to take a bite. I haven’t lost my taste for a fight, but until I need to, gently does it, (almost) every time.
That said, don’t push me: this kitty’s got claws.
Fans of my work or, more importantly, my hair can, if they wish, throw me a couple of quid on my Ko-fi account. No obligation, no commitment, no need to make awkward chit-chat the morning after. Just if you feel like it.
I originally sent this out in my newsletter, a not-that-regular-tbh email called The truth about everything*. Sometimes I put them online too, sometimes I don’t; I’m just SO random. Anyway, if you fancy handing over your data, you can subscribe at tinyletter.com/theguyliner