The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


It’s impossible to watch Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire dance without feeling a little jaunty. In the screwball comedy Carefree, Rogers plays a radio star who enjoys her independence so much that she keeps dodging setting a date for her wedding. Eventually, her fiancé dispatches her to a psychiatrist, Astaire, who hypnotizes her and feeds her whipped cream and cucumbers to bring on revealing dreams. Naturally, she ends up falling for him instead.

It’s a ridiculous plot. But watching the pair of them whirling and tapping, joking and whistling because they’re in love, raises a grin even on the stoniest days.

Feeling free is blissful and audacious. Other people and their requirements suddenly matter very little. Obligations float away. There’s a sensation of lightness, of daring. The chance of adventure! Sometimes it’s rebellious, a tongue poked out at the boring world of prescribed bedtimes and sensible eating. Sometimes it comes with a little warning, even a threat. This is why, in Britain, Chelsea FC supporters show off their nonchalance to unnerve their opposition, and chant this (to the tune of “Lord of the Dance”):

Carefree, wherever we may be

We are the famous CFC

And we don’t care

Whoever you may be

’Cause we are the famous CFC.

So it’s always deflating when a little voice starts whining in your ear. What if you fall? Or can’t get home? What if your negligence leaves a trail of hurt feelings behind?

For the novelist D. H. Lawrence, not caring was a skill worth cultivating. In his essay “Insouciance,” he recalls a hot afternoon spent sitting on a balcony in Spain. He is pleasurably, idly absorbed in watching two men mow the green grass: “Slush! slush! sound the scythe-strokes.” But then two women pipe up on the balcony next to him, talking of international politics. “They care!” he laments. “They are simply eaten up with caring. They are so busy caring about Fascism or Leagues of Nations […] that they never know where they are.”

For Lawrence, nonchalance was a revolutionary gesture. A protest against the alienation of the modern, technologized world, and a return to the natural rhythms of life. So he urged his readers to pay attention to the small things, the ephemera—the feeling of sun on one’s face, the precise shade of blue of a man’s trousers, the sound of scythes—rather than always rushing off into abstract thoughts and political arguments.

In this respect, Lawrence anticipates today’s much-vaunted mindfulness techniques, which are less a question of ignoring the petty distractions of daily life than tuning in to them more purposefully. Whether a passing truck is making the windows rattle, or you can hear your teenagers arguing upstairs, paying attention to noise both inside and out can help life’s pressures temporarily recede. And then, later, once you’ve had a chance to breathe, go outside, swing your legs, or dance like Fred and Ginger.

Because that, my friend, might just be how the revolution begins.