The year is right in front of us now, striding out in the open, like Bigfoot bursting out of the foliage and into the snow. It is probably more afraid of us than we are of it. At New Year I rode my bike around Wellington's south coast and I swear the sky had some new kinds of grey in it, or maybe they were just the old greys but in new clouds. And then a bad wind came blasting through, for days, like the wind had a muscular new chief executive shouting orders from inside a reinforced blimp. I have to confess that when I think of the year ahead, I feel mostly trepidation.
On the first day back at work I opened the diary I'd bought in December. I like a fresh diary. I like its gentle but firm hand. Then I froze, pen hovering. The first page of this diary invited me to sign a declaration. It would read: "I, Ashleigh Young, am committed to turning my dreams into reality and taking action on the things that matter most and help me grow as a person." I had made a mistake. I'd thought I'd bought an ordinary diary for an ordinary human being but this was a diary for the kind of person who plans to upload their consciousness to the Cloud when they die so that they can live forever. It was a goal-making diary, its pages lousy with motivational quotes and life-planning charts. Each week was assigned an affirmation. "I am fearless and not afraid to take risks." "Manifest your future. If you run into a wall, don't turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it." (Michael Jordan said that. In terms of walls, he had some advantages over the rest of us.)
I should have burnt it immediately but I had no matches and the diary affected me strangely. It was like a person with crazy eyes who sometimes comes out with something wise, so you start wondering which of you is really the crazy one? Maybe the diary had come into my life for a reason. The bit that got at me the most was this quote: "Remember: Great things are never achieved from your comfort zone." I took a few photos of the diary, ridiculed it on Twitter then looked out my window, feeling uneasy. In the distance, a harnessed man dangled from the top of a building, achieving things.
Of course, the diary was talking about risk-taking and fearlessness in one's personal life. It was also rabidly individualistic. But I thought about how this vernacular spills into the ways we engage with politics, global news, catastrophe – how we're encouraged to be always immersed, always fighting and somehow both despairing but taking positive action at the same time. It's important to stay informed, even if reading the news feels like stepping into the quicksand we read about as children and never imagined would come true. It's important to be challenged and confronted and made uncomfortable. But lately it felt like all I had was the discomfort. When I read the news I wished I could access limitless compassion instead of dread. One day I was scrolling Twitter when a photo of a dead kangaroo appeared in the stream and I felt a stab of despair.
Since then I'd been looking for ways not only to comfort myself, but to cocoon myself – to cover myself in protective layers before re-emerging. A long, familiar walk was a kind of cocoon. So was a phone call with a friend, not reading the news for a day, the last few minutes of a bus ride with a seat to myself by the window, and a book in which the writer says, plainly, "In this essay I will discuss ..." Almost anything could be a cocoon if you let its peace envelop you. But this was also the place where nothing was achieved. Was I retreating into comfort too often, selfishly disengaging just when I needed to engage most? Was it in fact necessary to know the details of awful things in order to be compelled to act?
The harnessed man on the building had hauled himself back up. A few others joined him and they all strolled around on the roof together. Maybe it was more necessary to know your own threshold. Full disclosure – I'm feeling anxious as I write this column, because I might get in trouble for encouraging people to step back, momentarily, from the howling cycle (and because the diary is still sitting on the desk in front of me, unburned). But a person cannot always be climbing walls. Sometimes a person needs to cocoon themselves. When you're feeling sad and ragged from too much world, despair is more likely to get in, and despair is the opposite of hope.