On thorns, mindfulness and mockery

Writing to Luneau de Boisjermain on 21 October 1769, Voltaire reflects on the difficulties faced by writers in eighteenth-century France, citing the example of the attempts made by his enemies to cause trouble for him with the royal authorities, before observing with admirable calm and poise: ‘Life is full of such thorns, and I know of no better remedy for them than cultivating one’s garden.’ [1] He moves nimbly between green-fingered metaphors, echoing as he does so the conclusion to Candide, his famous short story published a decade earlier. The letter and the short story share a concern with the here and now, with enjoying the present, with worrying less about the things outside one’s control, such as other people and the future.

This is of a piece with Voltaire’s critique of institutionalised religion and metaphysics. Life in the here and now matters more than whatever life there might be in the hereafter, as he suggests to the marquise Du Deffand on 13 October 1759: ‘I urge you to enjoy, as much as you can, life, which is a slight thing, without fearing death, which is nothing at all.’ [2] And in his Chinese Letters (Lettres chinoises, 1776) he presents Emperor Kangxi as the very model of right thinking in questioning the religious orthodoxy of the Jesuit missionaries: ‘The emperor is surprised to see you so obstinately committed to your ideas. Why are you so preoccupied with a world that you are yet to enter? Enjoy the here and now. All your efforts make no difference to your God. Is he not powerful enough to make his own justice without you interfering?’ [3]

Whatever the specifically religious implications, Voltaire’s call to enjoy the here and now is one that is worth attending to again, especially for those of us who find ourselves living and working in cultures of constant competition, ceaseless striving and restless dissatisfaction. The invitation open to us is to single-task, as it were, not to multitask; to think about what really matters to us here and now; and to avoid getting stuck in the past or worrying about the future, focusing instead on the moment-to-moment experience. This approach is now often referred to as mindfulness, which is all about paying attention deliberately, in the present moment and in a non-judgemental way. Wherever, whenever and however people practise such mindfulness, it demonstrably helps them to become more aware of the way they think and feel about their experiences, whether good or bad, and it is proven to help people manage stressful situations and to stay mentally healthy.

This call to pay attention to the present moment is particularly timely as today is the start of the Mental Health Foundation’s sixteenth annual Mental Health Awareness Week, which this year is focusing on mindfulness; and this in turn coincides with the second week of the Take Time Out campaign at King’s College London, the aim of which is to promote student wellbeing during the exam period. Of course, there are many different ways of maintaining one’s mental health – mindfulness is just one of them – so the last word goes to Voltaire, who has another suggestion to make when he writes to Charles Jean François Hénault on 20 June 1760: ‘I make a point of mocking everything, of laughing at everything; this rule of life is very good for your health.’ [4]

 

[1] ‘La vie est hérissée de ces épines, et je n’y sais d’autre remède que de cultiver son jardin.’

[2] ‘Je vous exhorte à jouir, autant que vous pourrez, de la vie qui est peu de chose, sans craindre la mort qui n’est rien.’

[3] ‘L’empereur est surpris de vous voir si entêtés de vos idées. Pourquoi vous occuper si fort d’un monde où vous n’êtes pas encore? Jouissez du temps présent. Votre Dieu se met bien en peine de vos soins! N’est-il pas assez puissant pour se faire justice sans que vous vous en mêliez?’

[4] ‘Je prends le parti de me moquer de tout, de rire de tout; ce régime est très bon pour la santé.’

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