Two books that nearly cured me


The subject of how to help family and friends who are enduring life’s unpleasant surprises came up at lunch with friends. We have reached ages at which we had all thought we were through with having to deal with those surprises life has a habit of dumping in our laps, that we had survived it all and could sit on the beach and let the tide take all those surprises out to sea. And drown them.
No such luck.
Grown children and grandchildren produce situations and problems we old-timers are thought to know something about, ways to handle them. In a variation of the lyrics from the song If I Were a Rich Man from Fiddler on the Roof, when you’re old they think you really know. Friends and spouses of friends become terminally ill. Tragedies abound, and as Phillip Roth put it in his novel Exit Ghost, we are all rank amateurs at dealing with most of them, especially death.
At two major crossroads in my life I was nearly cured by two books which I still read once a year, two books which I have given copies of to family, friends, and co-workers for more than thirty years. I say nearly cured because I know my extended family will scoff at any assertion of complete cure.
My guess is that I have given away over a hundred copies of the two books. My hope was always that the books I gave away would help the recipients as much as they helped me. And as I write those words a familiar tingle runs down my spine, the kind of tingle that I get when I start thinking: And who am I to be giving anyone books with the hope that they will help them confront life’s slings and arrows?
But I persist.
Persistence can be a virtue. A few years ago I drove to a new shopping center in North Raleigh to purchase two more copies of the books to give away to a friend. The book store was larger than the House of Books in St. Petersburg, and when I asked the young woman at the information desk where the self-help section was she replied: “If I told you it would defeat the purpose.”
“Very good,” I told her. “How long have you waited to use that one?”
“A long time,” she said. “I’m not sure where I heard or read it, but I wrote it down and hoped one day someone would ask me that question.”
I persisted. And she ordered my copies when I discovered none were on the shelves in the self-help section.
The first book is The Road Less Travelled, by M. Scott Peck, M.D. Fans of Robert Frost will recognize the title of one of Frost’s most beloved poems. My first copy of this wonderful book was given to me by Pete Hampton, the best of friends for many years until his death, way too soon, in an auto accident in 1984. The subtitle of the book is A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values, and Spiritual Growth. The book is informed by Dr. Peck’s years of experience as a practicing psychiatrist. The entire book has influenced me greatly; I was hooked by the first seventy or so pages.
In his opening chapter, Dr. Peck’s opening line, he states that life is difficult; that once we understand and accept that statement, that truth, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters. Once we accept that truth we can cease complaining about our problems as though life was supposed to be easy, that somehow the problems we confront only come our way and not to others. When we accept that life is difficult we can freely admit life’s problems do not bedevil only our country, our family, our people, us, me.
The skill we must have to deal with life’s problems, the tools we need, as Dr. Peck puts it, are found in the techniques of discipline. “Without discipline we can solve nothing. With only some discipline we can solve only some problems. With total discipline we can solve all problems.” Solving problems is painful but necessary. Most of us try very hard to avoid problems, sometimes even seeking prescription drugs to help us ignore them. Here is a startling conclusion Dr. Peck reaches early in Chapter 1: “This tendency to avoid problems and the emotional suffering inherent in them is the primary basis of all human mental illness.”
The tools, the techniques of discipline are: 1) delaying gratification, 2) acceptance of responsibility, 3) dedication to the truth, and 4) balancing.
One of several examples of delaying gratification in the book concerns a former patient of Dr. Peck’s, a young financial analyst who complained about her tendency to procrastinate in her job. During her consultations it became clear that on a typical day she would begin by spending her first hour on the tasks she liked handling and the rest of the day on the tasks she did not like. He suggested that she reverse the order – spend the first hour on the objectionable work and the rest of the day on the work she liked to do. “It seemed to me…that one hour of pain followed by six of pleasure was preferable to one hour of pleasure followed by six of pain.”
And so delaying gratification is a scheduling matter. Handle the painful things first. Get it over with. “It is the only decent way to live.”
Note that adolescents who do not learn how to get the hard parts over with tend to become the problem kids in school. Their performance in school is poor simply because they do not work, they skip classes or entire days of school based on a snap decision to avoid the work school involves – the play now, pay later approach; a lifestyle based on impulse.
The second technique of discipline is acceptance of responsibility. We can’t solve a problem if we don’t admit to ourselves that a problem is ours. Another of several examples in the book concerned a woman, the wife of a young military serviceman stationed on the island of Okinawa. She cut her wrist lightly with a razor blade and was referred to Dr. Peck for counseling. She said she wanted to kill herself because she couldn’t stand living on the island. When asked why life was so terrible on Okinawa she said she had no friends, that she lived where nobody spoke English. When asked why she didn’t drive over to where the American wives were to make friends she said her husband took the car to work. When asked why she didn’t drive her husband to work so she could have the car during the day she said their car had a stick-shift. When asked why she didn’t learn to drive a stick-shift she said: “On these roads? You must be crazy.”
Clearly this young woman could not accept any responsibility for her problem.
The third technique of discipline is dedication to the truth. If we learn to stick to the truth we see reality and not falsehood and illusions. Dr. Peck describes our view of reality as a map we use to “…negotiate the terrain of life.” If our map is accurate, we can get where we want to go. We are lost if our map is wrong, old, outdated. The world is in a constant state of change, and so our map needs to be redrawn from time to time.
Dr. Peck describes a young patient whose map was out of date. Disappointed time after time by his parents’ broken promises, he came to adulthood with a map that misinformed him about reality. His outdated map told him not to trust anyone, not his wife nor his friends and co-workers. He mistakenly transferred his parents’ failures to his relationships long after he was no longer dependent on his parents.
An important anecdote from the book neatly illustrates further the degree to which Dr. Peck’s young patient was using an outdated map. After several schedule adjustments and accommodations on Dr. Peck’s part, the young man proposed that he would call late on Monday afternoons to confirm whether he could make a Monday evening appointment. When Dr. Peck said he was unwilling to set aside Monday evenings on the chance that the patient would be able to come, the patient said that Doctor Peck was being unreasonably rigid and cared nothing for him and therefore could not be trusted. Doctor Peck: “It was on this basis that our attempt to work together was terminated, with me as another landmark on his old map.”
The fourth technique of discipline is balancing. In this section Dr. Peck describes balancing as “…the discipline that gives us flexibility.” Using anger as an example, the discussion notes the reasons for anger and the analysis that goes into our use of anger. “To function successfully in our complex world it is necessary for us to possess the capacity not only to express our anger but also to know when not to express it.”
In another example drawn from experience with a patient, Dr. Peck describes a young woman who was amazed to learn the differences between men she should not associate with at all, men she could spend time with but not invite to her bedroom, and men she could allow into her bedroom. Before therapy she had operated with an unbalanced approach by which she either let all men into her bedroom or no men into her life at all, “…bouncing between degrading promiscuity and arid isolation.”
This brief summary is wholly inadequate to the task Dr. Peck set for himself with his wonderful book, which is why I bought and gave away so many copies to family and friends I thought would be helped by his wisdom. The reader will simply have to get his or her own copy for the complete story.
The second book is Transitions, by William Bridges, PhD. My worn copy includes two subtitles on the front cover: Making Sense of Life’s Changes and Strategies for coping with the difficult, painful, and confusing times in your life.
While Dr. Bridges’ book is also one I read annually, has been no less a help to me, and is a another I have given to a few dozen people over the years, it is more difficult for me to summarize. The difficulty may lie in the nature of the subject; that is, transitions involve endings, and many endings are very unpleasant.
Transitions contains two parts, an epilogue, notes, and an index. Parts I and II each contain three chapters. The book is chock full of literary references and practical examples from Dr. Bridges’ experience as a consultant on human development and the originator of transitions seminars.
Transitions is a wonderful gift to those who have experienced change in their lives; namely, all of us. Changing careers, marriages, neighborhoods, cities, and so on – all changes most of us handle poorly and in many instances don’t know we handled them poorly. Dr. Bridges has given us methods to understand and deal with change and at the same time learn about ourselves.
In Part I, The Need for Change, the book describes Americans as having always been in transition. Our early ancestors began with migration, taking a trip to a new land, a new continent. But letting go of an old situation is the norm in nature. It’s nature’s routine to exhibit down time and bustling transformations, times when everything just slows down and time when “…the eggshell cracks, the branch blossoms, the tadpole’s tail shrinks away, the leaf falls, the bird molts, the hibernation begins.” Although the signs are not as obvious for humans, the cycles of transition are the same. “They are key times in the natural process of self-renewal.”
Dr. Bridges describes those cycles as the transition process in Part II: “…1) an ending, followed by 2) a time of confusion and distress, leading to 3) a new beginning….” The second of those cycles is also referred to as the “Neutral Zone,” the often bewildering period between the ending and the new beginning. What makes this book so valuable, among other things, is how Dr. Bridges teaches the art of using the Neutral Zone productively, in a way that can help heal the damage that an ending has caused before attempting to move on to a beginning before one is truly ready for that beginning.
Transitions covers the process and makes sense of it all.
In one early example, Dr. Bridges describes a young woman who came to his seminar on transitions for help with her newborn son. “I’m not sending him off to college,” she said, “just trying to get used to having him.” And so she presented the seminar with a request to forget endings and focus on beginnings, turning the natural progression of the cycles backwards and leaving out the Neutral Zone. Once she realized what she had done, realized that she had left a part of her life behind, she lamented: “How come nobody talks about that? They congratulate you on your new life, but I have to mourn the old life alone.” She and the others in the seminar discovered that every transition, whether to something for better (e.g., promotion) or for worse (e.g., divorce), begins with an ending.
A good place for an ending, with the hope that the reader will consider these wonderful books for help if and when need be. They are timeless gifts from two gifted authors.

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