Book Club: first, we make the beast beautiful

 “cruel irony #1 – The curious nature of anxiety is such that it defies its own diagnosis and treatment.

The first of sixteen “cruel ironies” of anxiety that Sarah Wilson points out in her debut novel first, we make the beast beautiful – a memoir, self-help book, a new take on anxiety and living with the beast. But throughout the raw, witty prose, we discover alongside Wilson that perhaps this condition isn’t actually such a Beast, after-all. Perhaps it is a side-effect of human (and animal) intelligence, one that does, in fact, form an integral part society and survival.

Wilson’s writing gets to the nitty-gritty of living with anxiety. Dissecting scientific research, philosophical thinking and powerful personal anecdotes – often humorous, sometimes intensely emotional – we begin to unravel the complexities of the condition. The Beast is humanised, and reframed as a spiritual journey rather than a disorder must be medicated and supressed.

I’m not really one for self-help books, especially not those that insist on a series of meta-missions and ideologies. But this book has a way of extending beyond that preachy “how to achieve perfect happiness” mindset – ironically, through its lack of insisting upon happiness as our end goal.

At the core is Wilson’s own story. And it is not the idealised, perfect, Insta-worthy fantasy you might think. Instead she details the inner workings of her own mind; the incredible highs and lows, the bipolar diagnosis, career-induced breakdowns and her decision to leave her picture-perfect city life behind and immerse herself in nature.

Wilson says she wrote the book in an effort to start a new conversation about anxiety and make the reader feel less isolated and more informed. She insists that the lesson we must learn in life is just to be. It’s not preachy, but rather informative, intelligent and occaisionally on the verge of self-deprecating. Through this process, The Beast becomes a part of our being rather than an all-consuming parasite that needs to be defeated.

Virginia Woolf once wrote, “What is the meaning of life? That was all – a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years, the great revelation had never come.” And this perhaps summarises our quest for the something else that Wilson continually references, an ideal that we keep chasing but can never fully reach. And perhaps this is what creates and incubates our anxious tendencies. The pressure from society to further our careers by working beyond the 9 to 5 grind but also securing the fairytale family behind a white picket fence and making every aspect and moment of our lives Instagrammable. These impossible expectations blossom into doubt, nervousness and eventually panic, slowly intertwining and kneading themselves through one another in our minds. They become the voices in our head that we can never seem to quiet.

In the novel’s first few pages we learn from His Holiness, the Dalai Lama himself, that we should not channel our energy into quietening the anxiety, but rather sit with ourselves and let the knot in our minds unravel itself. And in the end, the novel comes full circle. I found myself laughing at the ironic side-effects, nodding in empathy through each anxious spiral and shaking my head at the profound impact our own minds have upon themselves. Through this whole process I found myself coming to a certain agreement with my own version of The Beast.

“Do the anxiety. Then leave it there. This is our challenge.”

That is our purpose.

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