Coping: How to survive life, love, death, depression and all the rest

A new weekly column about dealing with all of life’s wonder and awkwardness

Adulthood happens when you finally recognise that you’re not the only one who doesn’t have the faintest clue what you are doing. In our solitary moments of personal crisis – mine always occur late at night or on the loo – we fear that people will find out how scared or incapable we are in certain situations.

It starts early. During the social and physical anarchy of adolescence, weakness is like blood to a shiver of sharks. Whether we are benignly stumped by the awkward friction we feel between the world and ourselves, or barbed with rage, we tend to feel disgusted by our own confusion. Most of us shuffle quietly and greasily through the discomfort without any great external fuss. We get better at hiding it, but not necessarily at managing it.

The point is this: I’ve never met a person who is comfortable with themselves. I’ve met people who are happy about aspects of themselves, and delighted to share those aspects with the world: their body, their intellect, their humour. But I’ve never met a person who is, to use a rather wanky philosophical phrase, existentially comfortable. I am not, either.

My mother’s death

A few weeks ago, my mother died of pancreatic cancer. She was 58. There was no history of it in her family. Now I live in the aftermath. I loved her entirely, and still do. The problem is that, now, the love I feel goes out of me and into nothing. It has no destination any more, because she is gone.

My life doesn’t look or feel the way it did a year ago, and all my previously irrational childhood and adolescent fears – that I might lose my only parent and greatest friend in some unjust or awful way – are no longer irrational, because I have lost her.

My relationship with her was the defining one of my life, and now I must cope with the world and my life in the knowledge that I feel smaller, and the world feels bigger and more frightening, than ever before.

But this column isn’t about my mother. It’s about coping – coping with the knowledge that trying to rebuild my life after her death feels in a way like leaving her behind, but having to do it anyway. It is about surviving all of life’s wonder and awkwardness, whether you are trying to overcome a tragedy or not.

In my teens, I started reading philosophy, and those first pages set in motion a fascination that still compels me 13 years later. I’ve pursued the subject to PhD level not because I’m interested in the deepest questions about the world and human beings (although I am), but because I want to understand basic things.

I’m not sure how life is “done”, or how to keep up with its often unreasonable demands. I’m less sure now than ever before.

Etymologically, “philosophy” means “love of wisdom”. I think it’s probably more accurate to describe it as the philosopher Nigel Warburton recently did, casually, in a tweet as “love of inquiry”.

If you think philosophy is useless or archaic, and attempt to explain why you think that’s the case, then you’re using philosophy and will consequently look rather silly. It is the undercurrent to what we think, what we know and what it even means to “know” something. So it’s incredibly useful for lofty arguments about whether the State should legislate for school places for non-Catholic children, or which economic theory is best, or whether socialists or classical liberals have the superior ideology with which to build a society.

Thinking and talking about these issues is important and fulfilling, but they aren’t what I’m panicking about at 2am when I can’t sleep, while I’m consumed by thoughts of what I should have said to such and such a person, or whether I’m living a good life, or who I am without my mother.

I want to know why we sometimes stay quiet when we know we should not, how to manage grief, and love, and that nagging discomfort we all feel. I want to know how to react in difficult scenarios, how to be open-minded and what to do when I don’t know what to do.

Good philosophy isn’t limited to old white men who would spin in their graves at the thought of some Irish woman using their lofty ideas to subsist through a boring work meeting, although there is much to learn from them. It can be found in the most surprising places: in literature, in conversations, in a podcast. I’ll be finding it and putting it to good use when I’m here every week, coping.

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