I’ve long been suspicious of confident people. People who glide into a room as if freshly oiled, their gaze level, their thoughts scrubbed and shaved and camera-ready. I look for the tell, the quiver, or moment when their voice accidentally goes French. Only when I find it, that ungrouted crack, can I relax into their moment. And if not? I forget to listen so stuck am I on obsessing over their ability to be comfortable when they are, like all of us, sitting on a pin cushion while a sniper stalks them from the street.
I’m particularly impressed (baffled, scared) by those who thrive when a camera is on them. Who thrive, rather than (as I do) disintegrate, internal organs collapsing into a rich mulch that coats their bowels and throat, their face falling, too, giving the impression that they are entirely without gorm and perhaps also a bit on fire. I battle with this, though only slightly, with limp wrists.
When you write opinion pieces in a newspaper, whether that opinion is a sharp-cornered essay on the climate crisis or a pleasant ramble through the sandwich aisle of Tesco (both valid, both very, very valid) you are inevitably invited to discuss and debate these opinions once more, on TV or radio, usually alongside somebody who believes the opposite. Which for me always sounds like a very precise kind of hell; one that draws on a person’s extra-specific anxieties and presses down neatly on their fury. The idea of it – the sweaty hour before going on air, the hearing of one’s own strangled voice, thick, wet and furry, the realisation that you’ve got the proportions of the debate dangerously off, that you either care far too much about the opinion you’re sharing and would possibly die for it or that actually you’ve, oh dear, missed the point – the idea of it makes my breathing go funny.
So I felt a surge of gratitude last week when, after his first show as a new presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Amol Rajan tweeted about the nerves he’d felt the night before. He said he’d suffered a “full-on panic attack” at 10pm the night before, working himself up “into a frenzy” and “catastrophising” about his first shift. He drank three rums. In “the depths of my self-inflicted horror,” he said, he downloaded sleep apps, which “intensified the doom spilling through my head”.
I’d assumed, in my simple two-plus-two way, that people who choose jobs like this found it easy, even enjoyed the thrill. I’m heartened to discover that they, too, feel frightened, their confidence an illusion. And I’m delighted that the shame associated with nervousness, a trait we’re expected to grow out of, has subsided enough for it to be discussed so openly. It’s no coincidence stage fright and its shivering sisters are being talked about now, at a time when even the most confident-seeming people are feeling nervous about re-entering the world.
The pandemic has helped clarify concepts that previously felt abstract. “Nervousness”, we see now, is not just a childish affectation but a rational reaction to situations that feel dangerous, a feeling experienced by many, and often. Similarly, we are being forced to reconsider the idea of “hope”. Rather than a simple heart-fluttering optimism, hope has been revealed to be both necessary and a bit of a slog. A decision, made daily upon waking, to seek out good news and drag ourselves towards it using our nails, our knees, whatever clawed instrument we have to hand. It prevents us from sinking so deep into the porridge of modern life that we no longer have the energy to look ahead.
“Touch” is another one, taken for granted by so many of us until March 2020, now heavy with importance as we realise how we crumble when it’s taken away. And also, “being together”. We are relearning how to listen to each other, the skill having drained away after months alone. Now that we have become accustomed to meeting in “rooms” online rather than rooms side by side, the limits of how we communicate when not together are clear and terrible. We watch our own faces instead of theirs, fixating on the bizarre way our mouth moves, our resting pitch face. The conversation stutters if we interrupt, relying on somebody perky to steer it back on track. There is no sense of mood, no witchery to tell us if our jokes are landing or if the tone has changed. We fail to connect, and we try again and fail again.
Sometimes in the past, I’ve done the thing that scared me. The public speaking, the radio recording, and sometimes the result did not warrant the pain. You’re not meant to say that, I know, except it’s true, so. But occasionally it’s been worth it. When I stayed awake all night worried I wouldn’t hear my alarm in the morning, and pushed myself to walk through gritted air, repeating phrases in my head until they melted into limericks, and shook broken voiced in front of a room, it was OK. It was good, it was a cleansing rush, a feeling of vastness, a rare moment of lovely stillness. It must be what confidence feels like: bright, but brief.