A Trifecta of Soul Balms: Three Books for Autumn in the Pandemic
Are you getting nervous about the fall? I am. Perhaps like me, you are sensing in autumn’s imminence an apprehension among those of us in the northern hemisphere who have enjoyed relative freedom during the pandemic so far. Covid came on in the spring and has surged over the summer months when it has been comfortable to spend a lot of time outside. Already fatigued by the virus, we wonder – privately to ourselves, or out loud to friends in our search for a pod – whether we will feel even more constrained, exhausted, sad, claustrophobic, isolated, or anxious when we move indoors as the seasons cycle into fall and winter. If this resonates with you, I have three book suggestions. You might begin by declaring,
Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything
This volume of three essays by psychotherapist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl was only recently published in English for the first time (Beacon Press, 2020). Delivered as a lecture series in 1946 mere months after Frankl was liberated from his final of four concentration camps (Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Kaufering and Türkheim), Yes to Life is based on the original manuscript for what became Frankl’s now-world-famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning. In his fascinating introduction, Daniel Goleman (who coined the term “emotional intelligence”) distills Frankl’s “yes to life” approach down to a stark choice faced iconically by concentration camp prisoners:
Despite the cruelty visited on prisoners by the guards, the beatings, torture, and constant threat of death, there was one part of their lives that remained free: their own minds. The hopes, imagination, and dreams of prisoners were up to them, despite their awful circumstances. This inner ability was real human freedom; people are prepared to starve, [Frankl] saw, “if starvation has a purpose or meaning.”
It may sound like tough reading (i.e. “why would I intentionally go there when I’m already down?”), but I found Yes to Life offers a healthy model for optimistic perspectivising on darkness and difficulty. The three essays – “On the Meaning and Value of Life I,” “On the Meaning and Value of Life II,” and “Experimentum Crucis” – explore in robust detail Frankl’s philosophies of humanity, suffering and meaning-making by analyzing topics like concentration camp dynamics and examining concepts like “fate” in ways that are so intellectually subtle and emotionally perceptive that they are inspiring. In the first essay, Frankl writes:
In general, of course, it is not advisable to create difficulties for oneself [unlike the challenges that athletes, for example, pose to themselves for the sake of cultivating skill]; in general, suffering as a result of misfortune is only meaningful if this misfortune has come about through fate, and is thus unavoidable and inescapable….Fate, in other words, what happens to us, can certainly be shaped, in one way or another. “There is no predicament that cannot be ennobled either by an achievement or an endurance,” said Goethe. Either we change our fate, if possible, or we willingly accept it, if necessary [author’s emphasis]. In either case we can experience nothing but inner growth through such misfortune. And now we understand what Holderlin means when he writes: “If I step onto my misfortune, I stand higher.”
And when you are afraid in the midst of your misfortune, you might become a burst of light by “turning fear into fire,” like African-American activist and writer Audre Lorde (1934-1992):
“A Burst of Light” from the forthcoming Selected Works of Audre Lorde
This collection of twelve essays and 60 poems by “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” Audre Lorde, scheduled to be released by Norton next week, is edited by the contemporary thought leader on race and gender Roxane Gay.
I was first introduced to “A Burst of Light”in Maria Popova’s infinitely enriching Brain Pickings blog, in which Popova amply showcases Lorde’s luminous courage. After her second cancer diagnosis, for which she refuses treatment, Lorde writes in a series of diary entries, as quoted by Popova:
Dear goddess! Face-up again against the renewal of vows. Do not let me die a coward, mother. Nor forget how to sing. Nor forget song is a part of mourning as light is a part of sun….
I am listening to what fear teaches. I will never be gone. I am a scar, a report from the frontlines, a talisman, a resurrection. A rough place on the chin of complacency….
When I’m open, I’m also less despairing. The more clearly I see what I’m up against, the more able I am to fight this process going on in my body that they’re calling liver cancer. And I am determined to fight it even when I am not sure of the terms of the battle nor the face of victory. I just know I must not surrender my body to others unless I completely understand and agree with what they think should be done to it. I’ve got to look at all of my options carefully, even the ones I find distasteful. I know I can broaden the definition of winning to the point where I can’t lose….
We all have to die at least once. Making that death useful would be winning for me. I wasn’t supposed to exist anyway, not in any meaningful way in this fucked-up whiteboys’ world.
When any of us chooses to rest in presence/ground of being/grace for as many moments in our existence as we are able – moments we do not distract ourselves from, or sleepwalk through – we allow ourselves to awaken. There can be a peculiar delight in attention to aspects of our life and purpose which are much vaster than ourselves that arises in the way Lorde describes:
I want to live the rest of my life, however long or short, with as much sweetness as I can decently manage, loving all the people I love, and doing as much as I can of the work I still have to do. I am going to write fire until it comes out my ears, my eyes, my noseholes — everywhere. Until it’s every breath I breathe. I’m going to go out like a fucking meteor!
And speaking of sweetness and meteors, the third recommended reading in this trifecta of soul balms is:
The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World
The most thoroughly wondrous and reassuring of psychic salves, The Book of Joy (Avery, 2016), chronicles a five-day conversation on the nature of joy – as well as its obstacles and pillars – between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
On the occasion of the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday, two of the world’s most inclusive (and heroic) spiritual leaders met in Dharamsala, India for a lengthy visit. The Dalai Lama has lived in exile since his harrowing escape from Tibet in the uprising of 1959, and Archbishop Tutu survived South Africa’s violence and oppression before chairing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the 1990’s. As the book jacket describes the pair, “[d]espite their hardships – or, as they would say, because of them – they are two of the most joyful people on the planet.”
They gladly share the open “secret” to happiness, which is that it is already ever-present within us. Happiness is accessible in our own minds and hearts when we are able to respond to things that occur in our lives with what the Dalai Lama calls “mental immunity:”
Mental immunity is just learning to avoid the destructive emotions and to develop the positive ones. First, we must understand the mind – there are so many different states of mind – the diverse thoughts and emotions we experience on a daily basis. Some of these thoughts and emotions are harmful, even toxic, while others are healthy and healing. The former disturb our mind and cause much metal pain. The latter bring us true joyfulness…When we understand this reality, it is much easier to deal with the mind and to take preventive measures.
This teaching is what Frankl and Lorde also tell us: we suffer when we resist impermanence and try to control that which is beyond controlling. And the ability to release ourselves from these sources of suffering is something anyone can learn how to do.
One of my favorite aspects of the book, which I loved in its entirety, is a 40-page guide to “Joy Practices” tucked into the back of it. If you are interested in starting or expanding your box of tools for developing mental immunity, this section of The Book of Joy is full of appealing, gentle and accessible techniques. Not coincidentally, embedded within them are lots of beautiful coaching questions.
“F” is for Four more balms worth considering, each related to the trifecta:
- The Choice: Embrace the Possible by Dr. Edith Eva Eger (Scribner, 2017). Dr. Eger, now in her 90’s, was a mentee of Frankl’s and also a Holocaust survivor and psychotherapist. She has a new book coming out called The Gift and is appearing at Resiliency 2020, a free live-streaming international webinar on September 10.
- “The Other Side of the Pandemic,” an interview of angel Kyodo williams, African-American Zen priest and co-author of Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love and Liberation, on Dan Harris’s “10% Happier” podcast.
- This lovely and inviting Inside Transformational Leadership interview with the late Kathleen Dowling Singh: “The Grace in Aging: Awaken as You Grow Older”.
- The following excerpt from “A Great Wagon” by the thirteenth-century Sufi Muslim scholar and theologian Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī:
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.