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Notes on a Nervous Planet IV

matt

Space

In terms of shaping our own future, spaces are key. We need to make sure there are spaces to be free. To be ourselves. Literal spaces, psychological spaces.

Increasingly, our towns and cities are places which want us there primarily as consumers, rather than people. Which makes it all the more important that we value those threatened spaces where economically irrelevant being is still allowed. Forests, parks, state-funded museums and galleries, libraries.

Libraries, for instance, are wonderful places currently at risk. Many people in power dismiss them as irrelevant in the age of the internet. This really misses the point. Many libraries are using the internet in innovative ways, enabling access to books and the internet itself. And besides, libraries aren’t just about books. They are one of the few public spaces we have left which don’t like our wallets more than us.

But there are other spaces which are threatened, too.

Non-physical spaces. Spaces of time. Digital spaces. Some online companies increasingly want to infringe on our selfhood, seeing us as less of a human being and more as an organism full of data to be mined, or sold on.

There are spaces in the day and week that are being continually devoured in the name of work or other responsibilities.

There are even spaces of the mind that are under threat. The space to think freely, or at least calmly, seems to be harder to find. Which might explain the rise not only in anxiety disorders but also of counterbalancing habits such as yoga and meditation.

People are craving not just physical space but the space to be mentally free. A space from unwanted distracted thoughts that clutter our heads like pop-up advertising of the mind in an already frantic world. And that space is still there to be found. It’s just that we can’t rely on it. We have to consciously seek it out. We might have to set time to read or do some yoga or have a long bath or cook a favorite meal or go for a walk. We might have to switch our phone off. We might have to close the laptop. We might have to unplug ourselves, to find a kind of stripped-back acoustic version of us.

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For me, reading was never an antisocial activity. It was deeply social. It was the most profound kind of socializing there was. A deep connection to the imagination of another human being. A way to connect without the many filters society normally demands.

So often, reading is seen as important because of its social value. It is tied to education and the economy and so on. But that misses the whole point of reading.

Reading isn’t important because it helps to get you a job. It’s important because it gives you room to exist beyond the reality you’re given. It is how humans merge. How minds connect. Dreams. Empathy. Understanding. Escape.

Reading is love in action.

It doesn’t need to be books. But we do need to find that space.

(…)To be comfortable with yourself, to know yourself, requires creating some inner space where you can find yourself, away from a world that often encourages you to lose yourself.

We need to carve out a place in time for ourselves, whether it is via books or meditation or appreciating the view out of a window. A place where we are not craving, or yearning, or working, or worrying, or over-thinking. A place where we might not even be hoping. A place where we are set to neutral. Where we can just breathe, just be, just bathe in the simple animal contentment of being, and not crave anything except what we already have: life itself.

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The world affects us, but it isn’t quite us. There is a space inside us that is independent to what we see and where we are. This means we can feel pain amid external beauty and peace. But the flipside is that we can feel calm in a world of fear. We can cultivate a calmness inside us, one that lives and grows, and gets us through.

There is a cliché about reading. That there are as many books as there are readers. Meaning every reader has their own take on a book. Five people could sit down and read, say, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin and have five totally different legitimate responses. It isn’t really about what you read, but how you read it. The writer might start a story but they need a reader for it to come alive, and it never comes alive the same way twice. The story is never just the words. It is also the reading of them. And that is the variable. That is where the magic lives. All a writer can do is provide a match, and hopefully a dry one. The reader has to strike the flame into being.

The world is like that, too. There are as many worlds as there are inhabitants. The world exists in you. Your experience of the world isn’t this objective unchangeable thing called ‘The World’. No. Your experience of the world is your interaction with it, your interpretation of it. To a certain degree we all make our own worlds. We read it in our own way. But also: we can, to a degree, choose what to read. We have to work out what about the world makes us feel sad or scared or confused or ill or calm or happy.

We have to find, within all those billions of human worlds, the one we want to live on. The one that, without us imagining it, would never arrive.

And, likewise, we have to understand that however it might influence them, the world is not our feelings. We can feel calm in a hospital, or in pain on a Spanish clifftop.

We can contradict ourselves. We can contradict the world. We can sometimes even do the impossible. We can live when death seems inevitable. And we can hope after we knew hope had gone.

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Everything special about humans – our capacity for love and art and friendship and stories and all the rest – is not a product of modern life, it is a product of being a human. And so, while we can’t disentangle ourselves from the transient and frantic stress of modern life, we can place an ear next to our human self (or soul, if you’d rather) and listen to the quiet stillness of being. And realize that we don’t need to distract ourselves from ourselves.

Everything we need is right here. Everything we are is enough. We don’t need the bigger boat to deal with the invisible sharks around us. We are the bigger boat. The brain, as Emily Dickinson put it, is bigger than the sky. And by noticing how modern life makes us feel, by allowing that reality and by being broad-minded enough to change when change is healthy, we can engage with this beautiful world without being worried it will steal who we are.

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Source: Matt Haig – Notes on a Nervous Planet

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Notes on a Nervous Planet III

matt

Realize the world is not as violent as it feels. Many writers on this subject – such as the famed cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker – have pointed out that, despite all its horrors, society is less violent than it used to be. ‘There is definitely still violence,’ says the historian Yuval Noah Harari. ‘I live in the Middle East so I know this perfectly well. But, comparatively, there is less violence than ever before in history. Today more people die from eating too much than from human violence, which is really an amazing achievement.’

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Edith Wharton believed the cure for loneliness  wasn’t always to have company, but to find a way to be happy with your own company. Not to be antisocial, but not to be scared of your own unaccompanied presence.

She thought the cure to misery was to ‘decorate one’s inner house so richly that one is content there, glad to welcome anyone who wants to come and stay, but happy all the same when one is inevitably alone’.

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The detective of despair

I think the world is always going to be a mess. And I am always going to be a mess. Maybe you’re a mess, too. But – and this bit is everything for me – I believe it’s possible to be a happy mess. Or, at least, a less miserable mess. A mess who can cope.

‘In all chaos there is a cosmos,’ said Carl Jung, ‘in all disorder a secret order.’

Mess is actually okay. (…) The problem is not that the world is a mess, but that we expect it to be otherwise. We are given the idea that we have control. That we can go anywhere and be anything. That, because of free will in a world of choice, we should be able to choose not just where to go online or what to watch on TV or which recipe to follow of the billion online recipes, but also what to feel. And so when we don’t feel what we want or expect to feel, it becomes confusing and disheartening. Why can’t I be happy when I have so much choice? And why do I feel sad and worried when I don’t really have anything to be sad and worried about?

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It makes sense that shopping centres aren’t easy places to be in. A shopping centre is a deliberately stimulating environment, designed not to calm or comfort, but merely to get us to spend money. And as anxiety is often a trigger for consumption, feeling calm and satisfied would probably work against the shopping centre’s best interests. Calmness and satisfaction – in the agenda of the shopping centre – are destinations we reach by purchasing. Not places already there.

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As with living in Ibiza, or in a religious cult, it is hard to see the things we may have problems with if everyone has the same problems. If everyone is spending hour after hour on their phones, scrolling through texts and timelines, then that becomes normal behavior. If everyone is getting out of bed too early to work 12-hour days in jobs they hate, then why question it? If everyone is worrying about their looks, then worrying about our looks is what we should be doing. If everyone is maxing out their credit cards to pay for things they don’t really need, then it can’t be a problem. If the whole planet is having a kind of collective breakdown, then unhealthy behavior fits right in. When normality becomes madness, the only way to find sanity is by daring to be different. Or daring to be the you that exists beyond all the physical clutter and mind debris of modern existence.

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A paradox

There’s a paradox about modern hi-tech consumer societies. They seem to encourage individualism while not encouraging us – actually forbidding us – to think as individuals. They discourage us from standing back from their distractions, like serious addicts have to if they want their life back, and asking: what am I doing? And why do I keep doing it if it doesn’t make me happy? In a weird way, this is easier if you choose a socially unacceptable compulsion like heroin addiction than if you have a socially acceptable one like compulsive dieting or tweeting or shopping or working. If the madness is collective and the illness is cultural it can be hard to diagnose, let alone treat.

Even when the tide of society is pulling us in one direction it has to be possible – if that direction makes and keeps us unhappy – to learn how to swim another way. To swim towards the truth of ourselves, a truth our distractions might be hiding. Our very lives might depend on it.

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‘How many young college graduates have taken demanding jobs in high-powered firms, vowing that they will work hard to earn money that will enable them to retire and pursue their real interests when they are thirty-five? But by the time they reach that age, they have large mortgages, children to school, houses in the suburbs that necessitate at least two cars per family, and a sense that life is not worth living without really good wine and expensive holidays abroad. What are they supposed to do, go back to digging up roots? No, they double their efforts and keep slaving away.’

—Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2011)

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‘I want to say, in all seriousness, that a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organised diminution of work.’

—Bertrand Russell, In Praise of Idleness (1932)

economy

Source: Matt Haig – Notes on a Nervous Planet

Notes on a Nervous Planet II

matt

How to stay sane on the internet: a list of utopian commandments I rarely follow, because they are so damn difficult

1.Practise abstinence. Social media abstinence, especially. Resist whatever unhealthy excesses you feel drawn towards. Strengthen those muscles of restraint.

2.Don’t type symptoms into Google unless you want to spend seven hours convinced you will be dead before dinner.

3.Remember no one really cares what you look like. They care what they look like. You are the only person in the world to have worried about your face.

4.Understand that what seems real might not be. When the novelist William Gibson first imagined the idea of what he coined ‘cyberspace’ in 1982’s ‘Burning Chrome’, he pictured it as a ‘consensual hallucination’. I find this description useful when I am getting too caught up in technology. When it is affecting my non-digital life. The whole internet is one step removed from the physical world. The most powerful aspects of the internet are mirrors of the offline world, but replications of the external world aren’t the actual external world. It is the real internet, but that’s all it can be. Yes, you can make real friends on there. But non-digital reality is still a useful test for that friendship. As soon as you step away from the internet – for a minute, an hour, a day, a week – it is surprising how quickly it disappears from your mind.

5.Understand people are more than a social media post. Think how many conflicting thoughts you have in a day. Think of the different contradictory positions you have held in your life. Respond to online opinions but never let one rushed opinion define a whole human being. ‘Every one of us,’ said the physicist Carl Sagan, ‘is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.’

6.Don’t hate-follow people. This has been my promise to myself since New Year’s Day, 2018, and so far it is working. Hate-following doesn’t give your righteous anger a focus. It fuels it. In a weird way, it also reinforces your echo chamber by making you feel like the only other opinions are extreme ones. Do not seek out stuff that makes you unhappy. Do not measure your own worth against other people. Do not seek to define yourself against. Define what you are for. And browse accordingly.

7.Don’t play the ratings game. The internet loves ratings, whether it is reviews on Amazon and TripAdvisor and Rotten Tomatoes, or the ratings of photos and updates and tweets. Likes, favourites, retweets. Ignore it. Ratings are no sign of worth. Never judge yourself on them. To be liked by everyone you would have to be the blandest person ever. William Shakespeare is arguably the greatest writer of all time. He has a mediocre 3.7 average on Goodreads.

8.Don’t spend your life worrying about what you are missing out on. Not to be Buddhist about it – okay, to be a little Buddhist about it – life isn’t about being pleased with what you are doing, but about what you are being.

9.Never delay a meal, or sleep, for the sake of the internet.

10.Stay human. Resist the algorithms. Don’t be steered towards being a caricature of yourself. Switch off the pop-up ads. Step out of your echo chamber. Don’t let anonymity turn you into someone you would be ashamed to be offline. Be a mystery, not a demographic. Be someone a computer could never quite know. Keep empathy alive. Break patterns. Resist robotic tendencies. Stay human.

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Be careful who you pretend to be

KURT VONNEGUT said, decades before anyone had an Instagram account, that ‘we are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful who we pretend to be’. This seems especially true for the social media age. We have always presented ourselves to the world – chosen which band T-shirt to wear and which words to say and which body parts to shave – but on social media the act of presenting is heightened a stage further. We are eternally one step removed from our online selves. We become walking merchandise. Our profiles are Star Wars figures of ourselves.

A picture of a pipe is not a pipe, as Magritte told us. There is a permanent gap between the signifier and the thing signified. An online profile of your best friend is not your best friend. A status update about a day in the park is not a day in the park. And the desire have always presented ourselves to the world – chosen which band T-shirt to wear and which words to say and which body parts to shave – but on social media the act of presenting is heightened a stage further. We are eternally one step removed from our online selves. We become walking merchandise. Our profiles are Star Wars figures of ourselves.

A picture of a pipe is not a pipe, as Magritte told us. There is a permanent gap between the signifier and the thing signified. An online profile of your best friend is not your best friend. A status update about a day in the park is not a day in the park. And the desire to tell the world about how happy you are, is not how happy you are.

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Make ourselves see what we pretend to know. Remind ourselves that we are an animal united as a species existing on this tender blue speck in space, the only planet that we know of containing life. Bathe in the corny sentimental miracle of that. Define ourselves by the freakish luck of not only being alive, but being aware of that. That we are here, right now, on the most beautiful planet we’ll ever know. A planet where we can breathe and live and fall in love and eat peanut butter on toast and say hello to dogs and dance to music and read Bonjour Tristesse and binge-watch TV dramas and notice the sunlight accentuated by hard shadow on a building and feel the wind and the rain on our tender skin and look after each other and lose ourselves in daydreams and night dreams and dissolve into the sweet mystery of ourselves.

alan watts

Source: Matt Haig – Notes on a Nervous Planet

 

Notes on a Nervous Planet I

matt

Life is beautiful (but)

LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL. Even modern life. Maybe even especially modern life. We are saturated with a billion kinds of transient magic. We can pick up a device and contact people a whole hemisphere away. We can, when choosing a holiday, look at the reviews of people who stayed in our desired hotel last week. We can look at satellite images of every road in Timbuktu. When we are ill, we can go to the doctor and get antibiotics for illnesses that could once have killed us. We can go to a supermarket and buy dragon fruit from Vietnam and wine from Chile. If a politician says or does something we disagree with, it has never been easier to voice that disagreement. We can access more information, more films, more books, more everything, than ever before.

When, back in the 1990s, Microsoft’s slogan asked, ‘Where do you want to go today?’ it was a rhetorical question. In the digital age, the answer is everywhere. Anxiety, to quote the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, may be the ‘dizziness of freedom’, but all this freedom of choice really is a miracle.

But while choice is infinite, our lives have time spans. We can’t live every life. We can’t watch every film or read every book or visit every single place on this sweet earth. Rather than being blocked by it, we need to edit the choice in front of us. We need to find out what is good for us, and leave the rest. We don’t need another world. Everything we need is here, if we give up thinking we need everything.

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An excess of everything

THERE IS, IN the current world, an excess of everything.

Think of just one single category of thing.

Think, say, of the thing you are holding – a book.

There are a lot of books. You have, for whatever reason, chosen to read this one, for which I sincerely thank you. But while you are reading this book you might also be painfully aware that you aren’t reading other books. And I don’t want to stress you out too much but there are a lot of other books. The website Mental Floss, relying heavily on data from Google, calculated there were – at a conservative estimate – 134,021,533 books in existence, but that was halfway through 2016. There are many millions more now. And anyway, 134,021,533 is still, technically, a lot.

It wasn’t always like this.

We didn’t always have so many books, and there was an obvious reason. Before printing presses books had to be made by hand, written on surfaces of clay, papyrus, wax or parchment.

Even after the printing press was invented there wasn’t that much stuff to read. A book club in England in the early 16th century would have struggled as there were only around 40 different books published a year, according to figures from the British Library. An avid reader could therefore quite easily keep up with every book that was published.

‘So, what are ye all reading?’ a hypothetical member of the hypothetical book club would ask.

‘Whatever there is, Cedric,’ would be the reply.

However, the situation changed quite quickly. By the year 1600 there were around 400 different titles being published per year in England – a tenfold increase on the previous century.

Although it is said that the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was the last person who read everything, this is a technical impossibility as he died in 1834, when there were already millions of books in existence. However, what is interesting is that people of the time could believe it was possible to read everything. No one could believe such a thing now.

We all know that, even if we break the world record for speed reading, the number of books we read will only ever be a minuscule fraction of the books in existence. We are drowning in books just as we are drowning in TV shows. And yet we can only read one book – and watch one TV show – at a time. We have multiplied everything, but we are still individual selves. There is only one of us. And we are all smaller than an internet. To enjoy life, we might have to stop thinking about what we will never be able to read and watch and say and do, and start to think of how to enjoy the world within our boundaries. To live on a human scale. To focus on the few things we can do, rather than the millions of things we can’t. To not crave parallel lives. To find a smaller mathematics. To be a proud and singular one. An indivisible prime.

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The problem, clearly, isn’t that we have a shortage of time. It’s more that we have an overload of everything else.

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challenge

Source: Matt Haig – Notes on a Nervous Planet

Cum sa opresti timpul

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Poate de atat e nevoie ca sa iubesti pe cineva. Sa gasesti un mister fericit pe care sa vrei sa-l dezlegi pentru totdeauna.

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Si, asa cum iti ia numai o clipa sa mori, tot atat iti ia ca sa traiesti. Inchizi ochii si lasi fiecare teama inutila sa se risipeasca. Apoi, in aceasta noua stare, eliberat de spaima, te intrebi: cine sunt eu? Daca as putea trai fara indoiala, ce-as face? Daca as putea fi bun fara sa ma tem ca voi fi distrus iar? Daca as putea iubi fara sa ma tem ca voi fi ranit? Daca as putea gusta dulceata zilei de azi fara sa ma gandesc ca maine voi duce dorul acestui gust? Daca as putea sa nu-mi mai fie frica de trecerea timpului si de faptul ca oamenii il pot fura? Da. Ce-as face? De cine mi-ar pasa? Ce lupte as duce? Pe ce drumuri as alege sa pasesc? Ce bucurii mi-as permite? Ce mistere interne as rezolva? Pe scurt, cum as trai?

Sursa: Matt Haig – Cum sa opresti timpul

Reasons to Stay Alive

Reasons To Stay Alive

So what, you have a label? ‘Depressive’. Everyone would have a label if they asked the right professional.

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There is this idea that you either read to escape or you read to find yourself. I don’t really see the difference. We find ourselves through the process of escaping. It is not where we are, but where we want to go, and all that. ‘Is there no way out of the mind?’ Sylvia Path famously asked. I had been interested in this question (what it meant, what the answers might be) ever since I had come across it as a teenager in a book of quotations. If there is a way out, a way that isn’t death itself, then the exit route is through words. But rather than leave the mind entirely, words help us leave a mind, and give us the building blocks to build another one, similar but better, nearby to the old one but with firmer foundations, and very often a better view.

 ‘The object of art is to give life a shape,’ said Shakespeare. And my life – and my mess of a mind – needed shape. I had ‘lost the plot’. There was no linear narrative of me. There was just mess and chaos. So yes, I loved external narratives for the hope they offered. Films. TV dramas. And most of all, books. They were, in and of themselves, reasons to stay alive. Every book written is the product of a human mind in a particular state. Add all the books together and you get the end sum of humanity. Every time I read a great book I felt I was reading a kind of map, a treasure map, and the treasure I was being directed to was in actual fact myself. But each map was incomplete, and I would only locate the treasure if I read all the books, and so the process of finding my best self was an endless quest. And books themselves seemed to me to reflect this idea. Which is why the plot of every book ever can be boiled down to ‘someone is looking for something’.

One cliché attached to bookish people is that they are lonely, but for me books were my way out of being lonely. If you are the type of person who thinks too much about stuff then there is nothing lonelier in the world than being surrounded by a load of people on a different wavelength.

In my deepest state of depression, I had felt stuck. I felt trapped in quicksand (as a kid that had been my most common nightmare). Books were about movement. They were about quests and journeys. Beginnings and middles and ends, even if not in that order. They were about new chapters. And leaving old ones behind.

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THE WORLD IS increasingly designed to depress us. Happiness isn’t very good for the economy. If we were happy with what we had, why would we need more? How do you sell an anti-ageing moisturiser? You make someone worry about ageing. How do you get people to vote for a political party? You make them worry about immigration. How do you get them to buy insurance? By making them worry about everything. How do you get them to have plastic surgery? By highlighting their physical flaws. How do you get them to watch a TV show? By making them worry about missing out. How do you get them to buy a new smartphone? By making them feel like they are being left behind.

To be calm becomes a kind of revolutionary act. To be happy with your own non-upgraded existence. To be comfortable with our messy, human selves, would not be good for business.

Yet we have no other world to live in. And actually, when we really look closely, the world of stuff and advertising is not really life. Life is the other stuff.

 Life is what is left when you take all that crap away, or at least ignore it for a while. Life is the people who love you. No one will ever choose to stay alive for an iPhone. It’s the people we reach via the iPhone that matter.

And once we begin to recover, and to live again, we do so with new eyes. Things become clearer, and we are aware of things we weren’t aware of before.

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‘Put your ear down next to your soul and listen hard.’

—Anne Sexton

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You need to feel life’s terror to feel its wonder.

And I feel it today, actually, right now, on what could seem like quite a grey, overcast afternoon. I feel the sheer unfathomable marvel that is this strange life we have, here on earth, the seven billion of us, clustered in our towns and cities on this pale blue dot of a planet, spending our allotted 30,000 days as best we can, in glorious insignificance.

I like to feel the force of that miracle. I like to burrow deep into this life, and explore it through the magic of words and the magic of human beings (and the magic of peanut butter sandwiches). And I am glad to feel every tumultuous second of it, and glad for the fact that when I walk into the vast room with all the Tintorettos in it in the National Gallery my skin literally tingles, and my heart palpitates, and I am glad for the synesthesia that means when I read Emily Dickinson or Mark Twain my mind feels actual warmth from those old American words.

Feeling.

That is what it is about.

People place so much value on thought, but feeling is as essential. I want to read books that make me laugh and cry and fear and hope and punch the air in triumph. I want a book to hug me or grab me by the scruff of my neck. I don’t even mind if it punches me in the gut. Because we are here to feel.

I want life.

I want to read it and write it and feel it and live it.

I want, for as much of the time as possible in this blink-of-an-eye existence we have, to feel all that can be felt.

Source: Matt Haig – Reasons to Stay Alive