One of the central tenets of the Western worldview is that one should always be engaged in some kind of outward task. Thus, the Westerner structures his time – including, sometimes, even his leisure time – as a series of discrete programmed activities which he must submit to in order to tick off from an actual or virtual list. One needs only to observe the expression on his face as he ploughs through yet another family outing, yet another cultural event, or yet another gruelling exercise routine to realise that his aim in life is not so much to live in the present moment as it is to work down a never-ending list. If one asks him how he is doing, he is most likely to respond with an artificial smile, and something along the lines of, ‘Fine, thank you – very busy of course!’ In many cases, he is not fine at all, but confused, exhausted, and fundamentally unhappy. In contrast, most people living in a country such as Kenya in Africa do not share in the Western worldview that it is noble or worthwhile to spend all of one’s time rushing around from one task to the next. When Westerners go to Kenya and do as they are wont to do, they are met with peels of laughter and cries of ‘mzungu’, which is Swahili for ‘Westerner’. The literal translation of ‘mzungu’ is ‘one who moves around’, ‘to go round and round’, or ‘to turn around in circles’.
The 20th century psychoanalyst Melanie Klein called it the manic defence: the tendency, when presented with uncomfortable thoughts or feelings, to distract the conscious mind either with a flurry of activity or with the opposite thoughts or feelings. A general example of the manic defence is the person who spends all of his time rushing around from one task to the next like the mzungu; other, more specific, examples include the socialite who attends one event after another, the small and dependent boy who charges around declaiming that he is Superman, and the sexually inadequate adolescent who laughs ‘like a maniac’ at the slightest intimation of sex. It is important to distinguish this sort of ‘manic laughter’ from the more mature laughter that arises from suddenly revealing or emphasising the ridiculous or absurd aspects of an anxiety-provoking person, event, or situation. Such mature laughter enables a person to see a problem in a more accurate and less threatening context, and so to diffuse the anxiety that it gives rise to. All that is required to make a person laugh is to tell him the truth in the guise of a joke or a tease; drop the pretence, however, and the effect is entirely different.
In short, laughter can be used both to reveal the truth or – as in the case of the manic defence – to conceal it or to block it out. Indeed, the essence of the manic defence is to prevent feelings of helplessness and despair from entering the conscious mind by occupying it with opposite feelings of euphoria, purposeful activity, and omnipotent control. This is no doubt why people feel driven not only to mark but also to celebrate such depressing things as entering the workforce (graduation), getting ever older (birthdays), and even – more recently – death and dying (‘Halloween’). The manic defence may also take on more subtle forms, such as creating a commotion over something trivial; filling every ‘spare moment’ with reading, study, or on the phone to a friend; spending several months preparing for Christmas or some civic or sporting event; seeking out status or ‘celebrity’ so as to be a ‘somebody’ rather than a ‘nobody’ like everybody else; entering into baseless friendships and relationships; even, sometimes, getting married and having children.
In Virginia Woolf’s novel of 1925, Mrs Dalloway, one of several ways in which Clarissa Dalloway prevents herself from thinking about her life is by planning unneeded events and then preoccupying herself with their prerequisites – ‘always giving parties to cover the silence’. Everyone uses the manic defence, but some people use it to such an extent that they find it difficult to cope with even short periods of unstructured time, such as holidays, weekends, and long-distance travel, which at least explains why airport shops are so profitable. As Oscar Wilde put it, ‘To do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world, the most difficult and the most intellectual.’
Adapted from The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide