Half a glass is better than none

I read this article in the Guardian by Oliver Burkeman, author of Antidote, a rebuttal of all those cheery self help books that are released every year. He postulates that we should embrace our failures and all that makes us stronger, and favors a more stoical view of life.

I remember an episode of the TV sitcom Rosanne that made me laugh out loud (TV rarely does that). Jackie, Rosanne’s angsty sister, was packing up and moving out on yet another loser boyfriend. When she reached the bookshelf she said, “Anyone with that many self help books is obviously in trouble.” (or words to that effect) giving the impression they are the boyfriend’s books, then she asks Rosanne, “Should I take them with me, or leave ’em here?” There was a period of my life when every second book was a self help book.

Did I really believe I would find all the answers in those books? I think I did, or maybe I thought that there was one book, like the Holy Grail of self help books, that really would ‘change my life.’ The trouble with reading a lot of one genre is that after a while you start to see more clearly the ‘tropes’, the oft repeated phrases and cliches and repetitions. Then it gets meaningless.

This is actually a good thing, because you start to think for yourself, and self help books make a nice bonfire. Burkeman talks about the Stoics – to me it sounds like Buddhism, where you accept that it is your desires that make you unhappy. Clinging to a hoped for outcome, trying to change other people instead of accepting them the way they are, valuing things and possessions more than experiences – these are the ways you become trapped in Samsara, the material world, and never become enlightened, or ‘awakened’ to the truth – that everything around us is fleeting, insubstantial and impermanent and only the ‘middle way’ offers contentment.

The Secret, as the latest manifestation of extreme positivism is called, was very popular for a while, and there are still many people who swear by it. They tend to be the same kind of people who write web pages about making millions of dollars by writing emails (“I’m writing this in my pajamas in an exclusive villa in the South of France – if i can do it you can too, and for just a few hundred dollars, I can show you how.”)

The Secret holds that you can get anything you want by visualising it, down to the very last detail. This is important, because if you aren’t perfectly clear and detailed, the Universe won’t know exactly what you want and you could end up with any old thing.

Well I figured if the universe was that smart, it should know what I want – except that using the word ‘want’ is a no no because it is a ‘negative’ word, and negative words mean you are telling the universe you like being poor, or something… Actually, I always found that it was wise to expect the unexpected. If I visualised everything turning out OK, it wouldn’t, and if I feared the worst, exactly the opposite happened. Then I actually got the hang of it and realised that it didn’t matter either way,what will be will be, and I am not the centre of the universe after all, and it isn’t always about me. Quite often it’s someone else’s story, and I should just mind my own beeswax.

I think you have to get old to figure out the secret of happiness, which is a bit of a bummer. The loss of ego, the overcoming the need for perfect outcomes, and just not giving a damn about what anyone thinks of you anymore, are all great liberators. What didn’t kill you made you stronger.