This I Believe
I believe in self-help books. From The Road Less Traveled to The Dance of Anger to The Courage to Teach to Full Catastrophe Living to The Secret, texts like these have reminded me to be kind, encouraged me to forgive, taught me to understand others, transformed me from the ordinary, and transformed me again. Sometimes the books “worked” for just an hour, but sometimes they’ve led me to better understand Ernest Beckner’s statement that: “The irony of man’s condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive.”
I’ve heard people say that self-help books are just a marketing game. If any of them worked, the theory goes, there wouldn’t be a need for yet another batch of them. But these skeptics are missing the point, I think. Lives are not ours to be fixed once—they don’t usually break down like a car with a flat tire. A car really cannot go forward with a flat. But people can live their whole lives with flat tires and blown gaskets. They are not stopped from living, although they are stopped from going forward toward wisdom.
My maternal grandmother suffered terribly as a child and young woman. She came from a large family of Polish immigrants in New Hampshire. She left school to work at a button factory as a teenager. She was responsible for her younger brother, who died in her care of some sort of infection. My mother said she always felt responsible for that death. Later, in the 1940s, her husband’s submarine was captured by the Japanese. He died just two months before the war was over in a prisoner-of-war camp. For years, she didn’t know if he was living or dead. She had to place my mother in a “home” so she could resume work when money got low.
When I knew her as a child, Grandma Bunn was unable to open the door without a sock on her hand for fear of germs. Later, her fears developed into full-scale agoraphobia. She was terrified by the world. I believe she’d given up hope that the universe was a benevolent place. I am certainly not suggesting that self-help books could have saved her. Her problems were deeper than I’ll ever know. But, I do believe that she could have benefited from the infusion of hope that comes from a book that says, “Things can be better for you! And here’s how!”
With my grandma, her pain was just hers. Her life’s journey was never made meaningful to her through reflecting on how her troubles were like other people’s. And the stuggles she endured were not wisdom giving. We will all endure struggles. But will they make us stronger? Will we come to see our time on earth through something other than the lenses of shame and fear?
My second pregnancy ended in stillbirth on July 11, 2000. My husband and I had joked that it was “our responsibility to have a millennium baby.” What child wouldn’t want to be born in ’00! But our light-hearted project came to a tragic end that day in July, when doctors injected my uterus with some sort of poison to kill a baby who had no chance of survival and then to induce labor. Grief entered my life’s journey that day like a parade. I was so sad. So afraid. So lost. I woke up again and again at night to make sure my two-year-old daughter was still breathing. I withdrew to my bed to cry and cry.
But this grief was life giving to me in the end. It made me consider my spiritual beliefs. I became part of a teacher retreat series that taught me much about meditation and trust. I read and wrote and read some more with a seeker’s beginner mind. And somehow, I came out through the other side of this experience a better, I might even say, wiser, person. The loss of my baby girl, Sophia, taught me about forgiveness and the importance of letting go of judgment of both myself and others.
Self help books represent hope for me. They are my healthy “pick-me-up” among so many other not-so-healthy choices. And although I teach literary texts in English classes for a living at a community college, I encourage others not to sneer at these sometimes less-than-profound texts. They have their place on my book shelf along with Shakespeare and Faulkner, who have also given me insight into life.
With that said, I encourage you to remember to breathe, to meditate, to smile, to walk, to forgive, to laugh, to try something new. None of these things will “fixed” all of your problems—they are not meant to. But often times, simple instructions help when you feel like giving up. And remember, as Anais Nin wrote, “People living deeply have no fear of death.”
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.