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The Antidote

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The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking

Oliver Burkeman

Faber & Faber

I read this book twice.  I like to do that, with choices for the book club, when I can make the time.  I read it once, pretty quickly, at the beginning of the month, when I first bought it.  Then I read it again, a bit more slowly and thoughtfully, in the week before the book club meeting.

I don’t think there has been a book that everyone else seemed to be reading and talking about and taking seriously that offended me as deeply as The Secret offended me.  I didn’t even read The Secret, but I don’t think I needed to read it to be profoundly angry about its central principle- that a person can manifest any good thing into her life by thinking about it in the right way.  The truth is that life isn’t always good.  Sometimes, life is randomly shitty.  A lot of the things that make life randomly shitty are entirely out of our control.

Yes, there are many ways in which I can make life better though my own power.  I can choose to eat reasonably and exercise regularly, which does wonders for my mood and my level of resilience.  I can choose to be kind to the people I encounter.  I can break my work up into small, manageable chunks.  I can pet the cat.  There are many things I can do that make my life better.

But there are also a lot of things that are out of my control, and wishing won’t change them.  Eating reasonably and exercising regularly won’t keep me from getting cancer, or a brain tumor – hell, they won’t even reliably keep me from getting a cold.  I can do my job as simply and competently as possible, but that won’t guarantee that I won’t be laid off when the budget at my school gets cut.  Like most people, I’m just a few months of work away from really abject poverty.

The Secret is offensive because it implies its opposite.  If people can get all they ever dreamed of by manifesting it through their thoughts, then that means that people who fail to get the things they dreamed of are to blame, for not manifesting their thoughts correctly.  It’s the kind of thinking that allows certain people who think of themselves as decent and good to blame poor people for their poverty – after all, if they had done the right things, they wouldn’t be poor.  It’s a way of thinking that has nothing to do with reality and everything to do with convincing oneself that you have the power to keep really terrible things from happening to you.

Which is all well and good as long as nothing really bad is happening to you, and for many middle-class Americans, that’s generally true.  But then when something really bad does happen, they are left without any inner resources with which to cope.

Burkeman is exploring some of the other philosophies with which people live their lives, philosophies which accept that life can be really crappy sometimes, and work with that.  He talks to people who have developed strategies for living with life’s uncertainty and pain, for living with the possibility of disaster and the certainty of death, and he explores the idea that giving up on the pursuit of happiness and just getting shit done can, ultimately, make a person happier.

I have a lot of sympathy with that point of view.  And I always enjoy reading books by people who think the same things I think.  Doesn’t everyone?

Guide to the Good LifeI’m not sure that this book, in itself, is going to change anyone’s life, though.  It skims the surface of several different schools of thought, without, in my opinion, giving enough depth to really adopt one of the philosophies it describes in a meaningful way.  It might make a good starting point, but it would be a much better starting point if it ended with a good list of recommended reading about the schools of thought it explores.  William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy covered some of the same territory, but did it in a way that was much more intentional- it’s a book that is really intended to help a person learn how to develop a useful philosophy and make it work in practical ways.  If you ask me, after you read The Antidote, if you find yourself saying, ‘That was a good idea, but I’m not sure what to do with it,’ you should read Irvine’s book next.

Maybe I’ll bring A Guide to the Good Life with me to book club, as an illustration when I say that.  Or maybe I’ll just sit in a back corner and listen quietly while other people talk.  I always seem to talk either too much or not at all.  39 years old, and I’m still trying to learn how to talk just enough.  Oh, well.  At least I don’t have a brain tumor today.

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Written by Contented Reader

January 4, 2013 at 3:20 pm

Posted in Reviews

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