The Book Club

A Selection of Self-Help Books

Dear Jeff,

What struck me immediately about these three bestsellers is what they are not about. They’re not about some of the recently popular themes of the self-help genre: making money; enhancing your sex life; vanquishing your rivals; getting rid of toxic parents, spouses, or boyfriends. We must really live in contented times if these are the books people are reading to improve their lives. The Art of Happiness, by the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler, M.D. (but really by Cutler, who says in an interview he’s not sure the Tibetan leader even read the manuscript), is obviously explicitly about Buddhism, even if it is not terribly instructive in the basic tenets of the religion. And both Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff … And It’s All Small Stuff, and One Day My Soul Just Opened Up make reference to Eastern philosophy of a watered-down sort.

To varying degrees all three books share some underlying messages. One is, accept your life as it is now (from Don’t Sweat: “We tend to believe that if we were somewhere else–on vacation, with another partner, in a different career, a different home, a different circumstance–somehow we would be happier and more content. We wouldn’t!”). Another is, you’ve got to attend to your inner state before you can help anyone else (from One Day: “Life wants us to be aware of ourselves so we can make the necessary adjustments in order to live more harmoniously”). And finally, we must feel compassion for our enemies (from The Art: “In fact, the enemy is the necessary condition for practicing patience … we can consider our enemy as a great teacher, and revere them for giving us this precious opportunity to practice patience”). I’m curious, Jeff, as to whether you came away with the same set of lessons–and what enemies you are now revering.

The way Cutler dealt with the whole issue of “enemies” was something that bothered me about his book. The Dalai Lama has some real enemies–he has been a refugee his adult life because Chinese occupiers are destroying his people and banishing his religion. Cutler, after listening to the Dalai Lama tell how he has trained himself to feel compassion for the Chinese (and Jeff, I’d like to get your reaction to the implications of Buddhist philosophy in the face of monsters), goes out and tries to apply His Holiness’ teaching. He finds his opportunity on a long airplane ride when he is forced to sit next to a very annoying woman who got the aisle seat that he coveted. Now that’s suffering! And although the book acknowledges tragedy and pain will come into every life, it’s real focus seemed to be on how to radiate Dalai Lama-like equanimity in the face of all of life’s little annoyances.

Don’t Sweat is explicitly about little annoyances–as the subtitle explains (is that why the book itself is little and annoying?). Of course there is plenty of good advice in it about just letting things pass, holding your tongue, etc. But I kept getting riled up about the bland passivity it advocates. Carlson does not seem to recognize that people can be more than nasty or rude, they can be downright dangerous–and then where do his little lessons fit in? In one of the few acknowledgements that it perhaps is not “all small stuff,” he writes, “Can we learn to find the holiness in seemingly ugly circumstances–difficult life lessons, a family tragedy, or a struggle for life?” Well, yes! assures Carlson, and once we do, “a feeling of peace emerges.” Gee, that was easy.

Cutler, the dissatisfied psychiatrist, takes a few jabs at that old Prince of Darkness, Sigmund Freud. He disapprovingly cites one of Freud’s observations, “One feels inclined to say that the intention that man should be ‘happy’ is not included in the plan of ‘Creation.’ ” I found that to be one of the most bracing lines in the book. Cutler also disagrees with Freud’s belief that aggression is an instinctive drive. “The tide appears to be turning on this profoundly pessimistic view of humanity, coming closer to the Dalai Lama’s view of our underlying nature as gentle and compassionate,” he observes. Hey, before you know it we may arrive at the End of History.

I’ve run of out space to deal with Iyanla Vanzant, who seems to be less an author than a persona. I found her book to be excruciating to read. But really what she’s selling is her life story. Here’s the daughter of poor unwed parents, who was herself a teen-age unwed mother, then battered wife, and rape victim, a broke, angry woman who transformed herself into a best-selling author and friend of Oprah. I can understand people buying her book and not so much learning from it as using her as a touchstone for what someone can do with her life.

I look forward to hearing from what I’m sure is a happier, more soulful, and definitely less sweaty you, Jeff.

Emily