Stephen King or a Stiff Drink?

>> Thursday, March 20, 2008

Lately, I could use a stiff drink -- the kind of liquid satisfaction that comes from a book that promises to deliver life-changing enlightenment and eternal happiness, all from the convenience of my living room.

As you may remember, I quit Self Help Books about a year ago. However, I recently discovered a new form of self help book and I must admit it has caused me to fall off the wagon with a thud. This new kind of self help book is more subtle. It doesn’t hit me over the head with a title like “Be Happy Now.” It doesn’t make overt promises. There are no charts or to-do lists.

It is the self-help memoir.

These are stories about people who have helped themselves out of whatever rut they were in and are happy to retell their adventures along the way. The not-so-obvious promise is that by reading this book, maybe I can do what they did, learn the lessons they learned, and then improve my life accordingly. I’ve read these kinds of books before, but never lumped them into the same category as “Self Help” because, hey -- they’re memoirs, right? Right?

Not really -- at least not for me; not if the one reading it has the intention of obtaining Self Help. Then it becomes a little like the alcoholic who claims not to drink, but then sucks down a bottle of vanilla extract. Instead of enjoying the book for what it was intended to do -- to be an enjoyable read that may deliver a few personal insights along the way -- I tend to exploit the book for my own personal gain.

Recently I read Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. This is a really great book which I won’t review here except to add that it’s a fascinating story of how she turned her life around. Needless to say, I devoured this book, examining each and every word and phrase for an ANSWER to my discontent. I came away with a few words of wisdom, such as:

- Recognize yourself as a friend
- Practice unconditional love of self
- See another’s anger as an expression of their fear

And so on...

All great stuff. All valuable. Her story is very uplifting -- unless you’re a Self Help Book addict like myself. As usual, I felt like crap after reading it which is my pattern after reading a Self Help book. Because when all is said and done, my life is pretty much the same as when I began. I still get frustrated at the long commute to work. I still feel overwhelmed by the demands of my job and my family. I still get angry. I still get sad. I am bothered by it all. Therefore, I reason that I’m a failure for not managing to generate contentment through her words.

But then I got to thinking. In her book, Elizabeth’s life changed in the midst of her divorce and then further when she took several months off to travel around the world to discover herself. To finance her travel, she managed to get an advance on the book she would write about her experience. Pretty sweet. Then, in another Self Help memoir I’ve read, the Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, Tolle’s path to enlightenment began after nearly committing suicide.

Wait a minute. Does this mean I have to nearly kill myself or completely throw my life upside down in order to attain enlightenment? Do I have to spend several months in an Ashram? Leave my family? Lose a close friend or relative? Get into a disfiguring accident?

‘Cuz that’s not gonna happen. Not if I can help it. No. In fact, Hell no.

Now I’m starting to see why reading these books isn’t doing me much good, especially if my intention is to follow their example to gain some sort of enlightenment. It’s frustrating to read stories about people whose lives change after some catastrophic event. I mean, that’s easy. People confront death in some fashion and boom! their perspective changes. Whose wouldn’t?

But what about the rest of us trudging through our daily lives? Is all that drama really necessary? Because I don’t plan to go anywhere, or do anything, except what I’m doing. I don’t want to have a near-death experience. I don’t want any of my friends or family members to die. I’m not going to quit my job on a whim. I want to find contentment right here, in my life, with my family, while doing the dishes. I want to find enlightenment in a pile of dirty laundry or during a long commute home from work. In other words, I want to do it the hard way.

Really, is that so much to ask?

A few weeks ago I had a dream. In the dream I was an enormous bird about the size of a small prop plane with a vast wing-span. I was flying somewhere between two mountain ranges in Alaska. An icy river flowed below. It was cold. Very cold. I, this great flying beast, was also very, very cold. But it didn’t bother me. I felt the cold, but I wasn’t bothered by it and I was happy.

Normally, I fight coldness on a daily basis. I keep a space heater in my cubicle at work. I bring extra sweaters and jackets wherever I go. My fingers are always cold. I am always bothered by the cold. But not in this dream. In the dream I was just as cold -- extremely, bone-chillingly cold -- but I didn’t mind.

This is what I want from life. I want to experience its ups and downs, the long commutes, the piles of never-ending laundry, the constant demands of my family, the overwhelming responsibilities -- but I don’t want to be bothered by it anymore. I want to see it all, experience it all, from the icy waters and sharp rocks to stressful mornings and screaming children. But I don’t want to be bothered by it anymore.

To me, that’s enlightenment.

I don’t think I’m going to find that in a book, folks. And I really (really) need to stop trying. A few days ago I started reading Anne Lamott’s Grace Eventually. Of course it’s a good book. Of course she makes me smile with her truth and honesty and humility. But my intentions are all wrong. She's writing about faith, and because of that I’m reading it to find an ANSWER. So I think, for now, I’m going to put it away until I can just read it with the crazy intention of having fun. Instead, I think I’ll read something way more useful like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Or Fodor’s Guide to Maui.

Or maybe, just a good Stephen King book.


Dating Trooper - Dating is Warfare March 20, 2008 at 11:45 AM  

I feel a little guilty since I recommended both the Gilbert and Tolle books to you!

But I think you are missing something big here - these people are (or actually were) a HELL OF A LOT more f*cked up than you or I could even imagine being. That is why Tolle almost offed himself, and Gilbert behaved so drastically and illogically for most of her young adult life. You or I are nowhere near that unstable or down deep in the crazy.Since we have so much less of a distance to climb "up" out of a bad place, our transformations will seem so much less drastic. The point is, we should feel LUCKY that we aren't like them.

We can however benefit from the fact that they are articulate people who were lucky enough to find salvation and relay their story to the rest of us. But all in all, we are pretty darn healthy, functional people. Trust me, my mom's a shrink and in comparison to her average client - you are a high-functioning success story!

debawriter March 20, 2008 at 9:20 PM  

I'm right where you are...and I just keep telling myself to trust the process. Be OK where you are right now because there is a reason for it.

I kept comparing my journey to other people's and getting frustrated b/c I'm not experiencing the same "a-ha!" they do...

It's hard to effect change in my life...or just change my perspective.

BUT, you are searching and you are on the path. Just stay on it, and all will be as it should be.



Rima March 21, 2008 at 5:46 PM  

Your readers are very wise, as are you. I like your definition of enlightenment. To not be bothered by it all - that is what I strive for, too. And I have a long, long, way to go.

On the topic of self help books - I haven't given them up yet as you have, but one thing that strikes me about them is that, no matter how much they resonate with me as I'm reading them, I seem to never be able to remember the specific points later on in order to put them into practice. I guess I'm a slow learner that way.

Michele March 23, 2008 at 6:31 PM  

You and I are so much alike when it comes to this topic. I read your blog post and thought ... after almost every sentence ... I'm just like that. Yes, that's exactly how I feel and so on. I realized recently, I think last week, that I'm constantly waiting for something to happen to make my life better. But instead of good things happening, I keep getting hit with some really yucky things. And I'm overlooking the really good things that are already going on in my life. So I'm trying really hard to live in the moment these days. Instead of dreading the nightly ritual of getting Zoe into bed ... each grueling step of it, I'm trying to just focus on it moment by moment and smile at the funny stuff, etc. I know it sounds simple but it really does seem to be helping me. Maybe we should get together and write our own darn self help book : )

Dawn March 24, 2008 at 9:48 AM  

Right now, I think I'd take a good stiff drink but I love a great Stephen King book. I recently read one of his written under another name, can't think of the author's name he used, but the title was "Blaze" and the book was awesome. I couldn't put it down, I highly recommend it.

Bookdiva March 24, 2008 at 11:04 AM  

"Eat Love Pray" annoyed me so much because I cannot imagine for the life of me why she didn't just stay in Italy!

Speaking of Stephen King and self-help memoirs, I recommend his book "On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft," which is amazing. I don't read horror and have never read a King book, and yet, I read this book and have a lot of respect for him as a result.

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