Regular readers will be well aware of my deep and profound attraction to Stoicism. Having such a deeply held – not to say profound – philosophical doctrine to live by means that I can swan through life with ease. It doesn’t always work: witness that time I swore at bottles of brandy in East Horsley (last month) or that time I collapsed and had to go to hospital after drinking for 30 hours straight (this month) or that time I ground my teeth down to nubs through stress, and then tried to counteract that stress by chainsmoking in the toilet at work (this month/every month).
But my world isn’t always this glamorous. Neither, I imagine, is most people’s. Recently though, and in line with my deep and profound connection with the Stoics, I’ve been practicing something called negative visualisation. Sounds shit, doesn’t it? Well it isn’t, it’s shitting brilliant. According to William B Irvine, author of A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, “The practice of negative visualization is a powerful antidote to a phenomenon that will otherwise deprive us of much of the happiness we could be enjoying: negative visualization prevents us from taking for granted the world around us and the people in it.”
This I like. And I like William B Irvine and his work. “When parting from a friend,” he says, “I might make a mental note that this could conceivably be the last time that I see him.” He goes on, “Once I’ve made that mental note I decide that the best thing to do would be to kill that friend, thus reflecting the idea that I’ve built in my head. After killing my friend, I feel excellent.” He doesn’t really say that last bit. But what he does say is interesting: “Stoics don’t advocate that we dwell on bad things but that we contemplate them, a subtle but important difference. As the result of negatively visualizing, we might find ourselves taking delight that we still possess the things that only moments before we took for granted, including our job, our spouse [fat chance, Bill], our health [fatter chance, Bill] – indeed our very existence.”
I’ve been trying out this business of negative visualization and – for a while at least – it’s changed the way I look at this beautiful world. As I got into the lift at work earlier I thought, “This could be the last time I get in this lift, or any lift. Aren’t lifts something: the mechanism’s pretty special but it’s astounding how we, as a species, managed to create such a thing that is synthesized from stuff that’s been lying around on this planet for billions of years before we got here. How extraordinary.” I enjoy my ride in the lift more than usual. Then, when I get out of the lift I bump into a work colleague. “This could be the last time I see you”, I think, “Isn’t your skin nice and firm. Your hair’s not too shabby either. If this is going to be the last time I see you, perhaps I should try and kiss you.”
“Why are you looking at me like that?” Says my work colleague.
“I’m just trying out some new stuff.” I say.
And then I’m off in a cloud of cigarette smoke to the Halifax in Mayfair to pay a stinking credit card bill. This being Mayfair, everyone’s taking out huge amounts of money in fifty pound notes and acting like they own the place, which they probably do. I begin to hate them all. This could be the last time I begin to hate them all, I think to myself, so let’s really hate them all. After hating them all for a while – and I don’t really hate them, I just want to be them – I’m called up to the counter by a woman who looks like she needs some sort of medication and she tells me that she can’t tell me what the minimum payment is on my credit card and then looks at me as if to say but whatever it is, you probably can’t pay it.
I leave in a bit of a huff, but I don’t think anyone notices. This could be the last time I leave somewhere in a bit of a huff without anyone really noticing, I think. I could phone up and pay the stinking credit card bill, but after a brief internal wrangle I decide that my credit card bill can take a hike. I’ve had enough of paying my credit card bill, I think, my credit card bill can go and fuck itself, I think, I wonder what William B Irvine would think if he could see me now, I think.
After so much excitement I come back to my office (via the lift – not as special as it seemed a few minutes earlier) and think about pitching. For some time now I’ve wanted to pitch this feature idea where I get to shadow a team of private detectives for a week. I’ve been offered generous access, I can be one of the team as we follow people around London recording them and eavesdropping as they go shopping or go to bars, I can even take photos. It’s the only feature I’ve ever really wanted to write and so my pitch has to sing. This could be the last pitch you ever write, I think, make it as good as you can.
Yet twenty minutes later I’m still staring at a blank screen and I think: You can’t write the fucker can you – you’re the Eric Bristow of pitching. And, for the first time in a long time, I realise I’m right.
Someone who may or may not be about to get into a lift, earlier.