This week was remarkable because I attended a book event with two of my all-time favorite authors—Ann Patchett and Barbara Kingsolver. The photo shows Ann on the left and Barbara on the right. We were celebrating the release of Ann’s new book Commonwealth—her first novel in over 5 years and absolutely worth the wait.
Fortunately my husband is as passionate about books as I am and after lugging dozens of boxes of books from one small apartment to another during our school years we both agreed that the first amendment we would make to our new house would be to build enormous bookcases to make a proper home for our beloved books.
Our carpenter refused to build them into the wall, claiming that too many of her creations had been destroyed after their owners—despite their best intentions—ended up moving away. Well, 18 years later we’re still in the same house with no plans to move. Happily, the bookshelves are also still there, and they continue to be my favorite spot in our house.
I can look at my favorite books on the shelves and be transported immediately to the time when I first read them. I can remember the experiences they left me with so clearly. And when I re-read them, I discover even more. Not just in the book: I commonly discover more in myself than was there before.
I’ve learned that there is never any trouble that an hour’s worth of reading can’t help. Each time your mind races or your emotions sink and you feel bad about yourself, try to do what I do: Slow down, breathe, and pick up a good book.
Before you continue reading, I’d like you to sit quietly for a few seconds. Take in a full breath, let it fill your lungs, and then release it slowly. Repeat this simple breathing exercise and include the words from my favorite meditation:
Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know this is a wonderful moment.~ Thich Nhat Hahn
I try to remember this little meditation practice when I feel challenged, tired and inadequate.
The 12th-century poet Rumi said each of us is trying to hide the same secret from each other. It isn’t anything malicious—we’re just hiding the mere fact of our flawed humanness. Rumi called it the “Open Secret.”
I know that I expend too much energy feeling less-than-adequate and I expend even more of it trying to remind myself that I am just fine exactly the way I am. For me—and probably for you, as well—a lot of my feelings of inadequacy stems from a sense that other folks have it more together than I do.
But I do it to myself, too: I recently shared with a friend the things I do that contribute to my feeling inadequate: I compare myself to others (and I always come up short), I struggle to celebrate others’ successes (they’ve got friends and family who will do that, right?), and I daydream about being “saved” (my forthcoming children’s book will be wildly successfully—with no marketing effort on my part, or I’ll receive a large inheritance from a long-lost relative—even though I have none, or I’ll win the Powerball – which I don’t play).
Yet I suspect that even the people who seem to be living out what I would call the “perfect” life probably have an Open Secret, too. And while the friend who let me catalogue my self-sabotage strategies didn’t say that she has the same weaknesses, she accepted them without judgment. And it felt good to share them.
But within a short time I found myself once more comparing myself to the more-together-than-thou in my life. And once more having trouble accepting my own foibles as right and necessary. Why is that?
This difficulty is especially mysterious to me because I’m not all that interested in sugar-sweet, sun-filled stories anyway.
In fact, all of my favorite stories are pretty bleak and don’t end particularly well. (I loved Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road.) And yet in every one of the stories I get the most out of, love for others—and true connection with them—bring meaning and solace. My favorite tales are about hope and hopelessness; home and exile; joy and sorrow.
Great writers are supremely gifted at creating characters who wrestle with great challenges and experience a more profound sense of meaning and joy because of them. If you are feeling alienated, or anxious, or full of grief—or if the despair of the world is weighing heavy on your heart—look no further than any number of classic stories to help you find light in the darkness.
Think of the Lord of the Rings. It’s the ultimate story of strangers creating community, sharing a difficult journey, helping each other to achieve success against all odds—and ultimately learning though adversity to savor the passing moments of their ordinary lives.
Getting to the space where you can do that, of course, may mean making peace with the darkness first. To do this, I take a page from another of my favorite novels: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. In this book the protagonist, faced with a rough patch in his life, is told by a wise man that he must “sit at the bottom of the well” for a while—he must face his difficulties and, for a while at least, not strive against them, but seek to understand the lessons they offer.
I have taken this so much to heart that most of my friends know that “sitting at the bottom of the well” is my way of saying that after a tough day, or week, or month I am going to my quiet place in order to discover what I am supposed to learn.
Here are the questions that usually present themselves to me: Is there someone I need to forgive? Is there something I would like to say that would improve upon the silence? Am I longing for more? What can I do in this moment – what one small thing – to show appreciation for my precious life?
And then, after taking some time to walk in the darkness, I take a deep breath and know that the darkness is also a part of the journey. I let it lead me back up to the light, where I always find my authenticity, power and joy.