How to Be Your Own Best Friend was recommended to me by my Mom. When she recommended it to me she wrote: “I know, it sounds corny and it will take you about 20 minutes to read, but it got me through some tough times when I was a teen and before I met your Dad.”
I have little experience with books that would be labeled ‘self-help’ or ‘personal psychology.’ Lately, of course, I’ve been reading a few books that attempt to offer general advice and answers to people in various situations. But this book, in its format and content, aims not to elucidate grand themes or life lessons but instead to reveal the essential ways we choose to view our situations and ourselves.
The book is written by two psychologists who also happen to be husband and wife. The question and answer format gives the book’s main voice a relentless feel in conveying its message. I wouldn’t say there is a unifying theme in this book. This is what distinguishes it in fact, that there is no ‘message’ per se in this book. (It has no oversimplified advice to sell (no pseudo-mantra for Oprah to promote (no cliché’ system to eventually drive it out of date (thus drive it out of print.)))) This is the beauty of the book: that is searches for ways to break down the modes of thought that fail to lead us out of sorrow. It reminds us that it is often our natural inclination to feel sorrow and we must address our selves at the core: “We build our worldviews half asleep and let them, like tinted lenses, color our lives (pg. 49).
If I were to describe this book in terms of what I will most take from it, it would be that it now sits on my shelf able to be picked up and read as a little reminder. Neil Simon said of this book: “If I’m gloomy, I read it twice a day with a glass of water.” I will certainly use it much the same way. My copy is completely dog-eared with twenty or so passages underlined. Much of the book did not speak to my experience, but several passages described ways in which I’ve viewed things around me but had never been able to describe.
“But too often people cling to unpleasant feelings; they even court them. Without fully realizing what they are doing, they actually bring them about. They do things that make them feel bad and they say, “I couldn’t help myself (pg. 25)”
“There’s . . . a hidden payoff in continuing to suffer. For one thing, it’s familiar; we’re very comfortable with it. It gives us a sense of security to keep on in the same old self-defeating ways, letting one bad action lead to another. We know what to expect. It makes our world comprehensible, predictable, in some sense manageable.” (pg. 46)
In many ways, in the seven years since my Dad had cancer and died, it’s been the last five that have been the greatest struggle. The theme of these years has been attempts, both small and drastic, to break the comfortable habit of suffering. At first I was horrified by tragedy, but later I embraced it as I began to sense, consciously or subconsciously, that the tragedy had come to comprise a significant part of my identity. Being happy meant destroying the self that I had become; being happy felt like betraying the tragedy itself and my identity my Dad’s being and my family’s essence, which was at that time only tragedy. And I went into difficult situations in all aspects of my life simply to make my self feel passionate, all the while knowing deep down, that like a narcotic, it would never equal the passion and tragedy of what I had gone through, of that first tragedy and sorrow. Clinging to many pointless struggles and pains for these years created a sense of purpose for me, an ultimately misguided purpose dependent upon meaningless and unnecessary struggles that are only the faintest echoes of the original, unspeakably painful struggle itself.
Of course, the way we attempt to liberate ourselves from aspects of that identity can be equally difficult. With the hope and change of a new and growing identity come the tendency to want to solidify the new by desecrating or depreciating or insulting the past and the previous identity. But even when we break free of times of sorrow and pain or regret, which we may have come to see in our new struggle as transcended weakness, we can’t ignore the fact that these sorrows and sores are as much a living part of who we are as our new self: “We should grow not by turning against our earlier self but by building on its strengths (pg. 67).” If we pretend our new self is our only self, then we ignore our full identity. Each of us is capable of memory and the memory is the vessel we posses to carry our past selves. The memory can understand the difference between who we are now and what we once were allowing recollection to understand and appreciate our past without becoming it. The memory is essential to the human mind because without it we’d have no growth or transcendence.
And so, again, what’s best about How to Be Your Own Best Friend is that it does not offer a program or a way of life. It offers advice on how to be ‘happy’ in simple ways. It aims to calm the reader’s mind without numbing it; illuminates without deluding. I will surely read it again in the future in just the same state as I write about it: sitting, looking at the snow falling out the window, drinking a big glass of water.