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|Written by Beatrice Bonnet|
|Wednesday, 31 December 2008 19:00|
Am I the only person who does this? Confronted with a situation that I just can't face – say, a great date turned major embarrassment, or a high-profile project teetering on the brink of collapse – I go to the source, the place where all true forms of knowledge converge: the Self-Help section at Chapters.
Now, some people don't share my positive opinion of that section. It is, in fact, quite important to be in a state of near-breakdown to go there because otherwise the happy couples picking up books and laughing at them can be really off-putting. But when you are really focused, the only person you notice is the really twitchy character eyeing you as he sits down uncomfortably close by - and even that doesn't bother you so much.
What matters is the beautiful, orderly, multi-coloured expanse of possibilities. Books of all shapes and sizes, created just to help you. Sure, it's also a daunting array: you know there will be many non-starters. But somewhere in there, there have to be some answers. And while you are looking, there is a nice wooden chair to sit in – comfortable enough to spend several hours, but spartan enough to give you that disciplined, focused feeling.
So you begin. And the going is tough: silly collections of personality tests (you know you shouldn't even have picked that one up), show-off books by psychologists who just want to demonstrate how cleverly they can manipulate the latest jargon, extremely dense books which are no doubt settling important points in the great canon of psychological knowledge – but are incomprehensible to those who don't already know everything else in that canon.
And then there are those dangerous books, the ones that are both accessible and insightful, but tackle something essentially irrelevant to your situation. They are like a little sprinkle of rain to the parched earth of your mind, offering such lucid explanations that you devour dozens of pages eagerly – only to realized that you have been led further into the desert.
There is a moment of despondence when you put the book down and sit in your chair and just gaze out over that field of undulating colour. You think maybe there is really nothing in there, nothing to help you. But that is just too depressing a thought, so you give it one more try. You gingerly pick out another few titles. And, for me, the first time that I undertook this exercise, it was just at that point that I found The Book.
I reached for it, at the outset, more out of a desire for comic relief than anything else. Even in my gloomy state, it caused me a little smile: the lurid black and yellow spine, the ridiculously corny cover picture of a girl-next-door smiling at a crew-cut boy, chatting over french fries and a milk-shake, and of course the title – Dating for Dummies.
I glanced around to make sure that no one was looking at me handling this incredibly embarrassing book. There didn't seem to be, so I flipped it open – and found what I was looking for: headings like 'Five ways to put a hideous date in perspective,' chapters called, 'Your Date Hates You,' and 'You Hate Your Date.' Some of it was silly and corny, but all of it was on topic -- and some of it was right on and addressed the exact things that were driving me crazy, like: "why are my nerves a jangled mess after spending just a few hours of yesterday evening with some guy I shouldn't even care about?" I won't bore you with the reasons, but the book offered answers – enough, anyway, to get my own thinking process kick-started again.
I would have thought that this was just some sort of a fluke, but then it happened again. This time I was despondent over troubles at work, convinced that I was a complete failure and would soon be publicly humilated. I headed to the Self-Help section again, and searched fruitlessly for two hours for something that would speak to my troubles. Finally, again on the point of leaving, I instinctively reached for a lurid black and yellow spine and unearthed Happiness for Dummies.
How can that title not make you laugh? I flipped the book open and it spoke to me. Honestly, I think it was just the abundant headings and little check-lists. It offered something to go on. And when I took it home and finally got around to reading the relevant section, about work, it actually contained excellent advice for that moment.
Now, maybe I'm a paticularly shallow person. Maybe these books flatten out the complex and mysterious world of emotions in a way that is actually harmful – and I just haven't figured that out yet. But I like to think the opposite: that there is real value in just realizing, in this supposedly highly sophisticated civilization of ours, that a lot of us really are dummies when it comes to managing our emotions. And we benefit from being reminded, in simple terms, of some really basic precepts about managing ourselves and our relationships with others. We benefit from following some directions – even if those turn out to be wrong, at least we know exactly what we did wrong.
This is not a popular point of view. At a party a while after I bought Happiness for Dummies, I was exhorted by a woman I met to read Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose. Needless to say, I didn't mention Happiness for Dummies. And since I had previously been exhorted to read that same Eckhart Tolle book by Oprah, a friend of mine, and a stranger who overhead my conversation at a Bridgehead shop, I decided to give it a try. I was impressed at the outset by the lofty promises: apparently, simply through the process of reading the book, I can overcome the strangling effects of the ego!
I look forward to that. In fact I, and no doubt the millions of others who bought this book, look forward to the realization of Eckhart's vision: that one day all of us, whether we are standing in the line at Wal-Mart, writing briefing notes for unseen cabinet ministers or personally negotiating trade deals at the World Trade Organization, will be fully conscious that we are One with the world. And, possibly, we will give up those occupations and find something way better to do. But in the meantime, to take those baby steps towards being just a slightly more decent and effective human being, I'm sticking with my Dummies books.