By Sonya Rehman
With the onset of the new year, I’ve decided I’m going to devour atleast two books a month. Frittering away the hours on social media makes me feel numb and dumb. Currently, I’m reading two books simultaneously: the first is a work of fiction, A Strangeness In My Mind by Orhan Pamuk, and the other is a psychology book called The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz.
While the former is rich, descriptive and engaging, it’s a fat, fat book (over 500 pages) – yet, halfway through, and I feel a difference in my own writing, I’m more relaxed, I can think clearly. Reading has that effect, the more you read, the more you expose yourself to different authors, the better you write and the faster you find your own ‘voice’ (writing style).
The latter book (listed above) was something I picked up because I was feeling very indulgent. I was browsing the psychology aisle at Kinokuniya for thirty minutes when I picked it up. While the cover was utterly depressing (a grey/beige colour tone featuring a bed and two pillows), the book’s title caught my eye: The Examined Life – How We Lose and Find Ourselves.
Having been translated into more than twenty languages, I now understand why the book has been such a success. For one, for an intensely heavy topic such as psychology, Grosz’s book is a very easy read. In it, the author, a psychoanalyst, pens fascinating observations from a career spanning over two decades. There are numerous examples of his patients (identities changed to protect their privacy) as well, examples which will stun you and make you question your own demons, thought and behavioural patterns.
I’m on page 133 right now, on a chapter which talks about how disastrous success can be to an individual. I don’t want to give too much away, but one paragraph in particular, in this chapter, leapt out at me. The author writes:
“To psychoanalysts, Styron’s problem is not unfamiliar: there are many men and women who work hard to attain a goal, achieve success, and then suddenly, cataclysmically, fall apart. What are the unconscious forces that cause us to sabotage ourselves – sometimes even in the tiniest of ways – when we’ve achieved a success?”
The paragraph made me recall a conversation I had a few weeks ago with my childhood best friend about career burnouts. While my friend has always been a high-achiever ever since she was a kid, I was a bit of a late bloomer, however both of us went on to have very successful careers. But now in our 30s, I realized both of us felt like rudderless, anchor-less little ships shoved around in choppy waters.
“What are your dreams?”, I wrote to her in an email one day when I was feeling particularly lost, “Have you thought about what you want, long-term? I feel whatever dreams I had, I got. Not tooting my own horn, got them thanks to luck, but I’ve realized I have zero dreams now – aren’t goals important, to work towards? To make life worth living?”
Another chapter in the book was rather fascinating: on how we deal with imminent danger.
In it, Grosz writes about how a woman reacted to 9/11 when the first plane struck the north tower of the World Trade Centre. Immediately fleeing for the exit, Marissa Panigrosso (who was on the 98th floor of the south tower) realized that her colleagues brushed off the explosion and went about their work as if nothing had happened: one stayed on the phone, while others went into a meeting. That day, none of her co-workers survived.
“After twenty-five years as a psychoanalyst, I can’t say that this surprises me. We resist change. Committing ourselves to a small change, even one that is unmistakably in our best interest, is often more frightening than ignoring a dangerous situation.”
Reading the chapter took me back to when the fire alarm went off at work once. Whether or not it was a false alarm, I was on my feet, ready to make a dash for the stairs. I must’ve been the only one who looked so traumatized and panic-stricken. For a minute there was complete silence on our floor. But barely a minute had passed when everyone carried on as if nothing had happened. At that moment I caught my colleague’s eye – she was looking at me with a smile on her face. We burst out laughing. She must have thought I was stark-raving mad. I did too. Why did I react like that? Was I being overly paranoid? Or was everyone else just being lackadaisical about something which could have been a serious threat?
“We are vehemently faithful to our own view of the world, our story” Grosz states in his book, “We want to know what new story we’re stepping into before we exit the old one. We don’t want an exit if we don’t know exactly where it is going to take us, even – or perhaps especially – in an emergency.”
A fascinating, fascinating book indeed, which urges the reader to look within and strive for new beginnings within an old path.
With over 20 fresh, sweet-smelling books for me to complete this year, let’s hope I can mow through each title before 2017.
Some words of wisdom from the lady, below, who tells it like it is: