Several of my closest friends are devoted readers of self-help books, and so I find myself from time in time in possession of a borrowed copy of Getting the Love You Want or Be Your Own Best Friend or some other promisingly-titled volume filled with the success stories of one renowned psychotherapist or another. “You must read this,” a friend will tell me, pressing a tattered paperback into my reluctant hands. I try to force myself to sit down with Dr. Daniel Danielson MS MSW, say, and follow the stories of “Lisa” who “came into my office with tears streaming down her cheeks” or “Bob” who “vowed he was swearing off women once and for all.” (Note: Names have been changed to protect the confidentiality of these woefully one-dimensional patients.) But sitting through more than a chapter of Coaching Your Way to Joy is even more difficult than motivating myself to turn on the television I do not own. How can I knowingly subject myself to brain-death? Is this insufferably cheerful-looking bright yellow mass market paperback really going to teach me how to be happy? Beneath a furrowed brow I am frowning skeptically — even before turning the first page and reading the dedication to Daniel Danielson’s beloved seventh wife, so help him Psychotherapy.
Every so often I read a novel that reassures me that I am not mistaken in reacting so dismissively to self-help books — Not because I have mastered the lessons they attempt to instill (nor will I ever, I suppose), but because I have my own genre of self-help literature: Literature. I believe with full faith that the best literature helps me to be a better self, whether by cultivating empathy, extending the limits of my universe, inspiring me to stand up to my greatest fears, or simply rekindling my desire to live. In this sense, all great literature is self-help, and novels exist for no other reason than to teach us how to survive our own lives.
By way of example: I do not think I would have been able to get out of bed these past few weeks if not for Glory Boughton, a character who is more inspirational to me than all the Lisas and Bobs whose stories populate the Oprah website (also recently recommended to me by a concerned friend). In Home by Marilynne Robinson, Glory returns to her quiet hometown of Gilead, Iowa at the age of 38 to care for her aging father. “Did she choose to be there, in that house, in Gilead? No, she certainly did not. Her father needed looking after, and she had to be somewhere, like every other human being on earth. What an embarrassment that was, being somewhere because there was nowhere else for you to be.” Glory had high hopes for her life – she was supposed to be married to man who supposedly loved her, and who sent her 542 love letters (all of which, by now, she has burned). But she has resigned herself to the fact that “the gradual catastrophe of her own venture into the world had come to an end.” She is ashamed of her failure, and dreads showing her face in Gilead, even though at some point she acknowledges that “it was time she stopped avoiding ordinary contact with people.” It was when I came to that line that I lifted my head out from the covers, set aside the book, and faced the day that was streaming with insistent brightness through my open window.
I should explain that I do not personally identify with Glory Boughton, nor would I want to. I do not read literature to reflect my own experiences; life is real enough as is, thank you very much. But Glory’s pain and longing enable me to acknowledge and excavate my own. Her story sets off seismic tremors that shift the tectonic plates of my soul ever so slightly, overturning the heavy rocks I had previously left undisturbed. As I read on in the novel, a few suspiciously-looking furry creatures scurry out from the crannies of those rocks, making their way along the fault lines, and I watch them try to hide from the unaccustomed daylight. These demons are old familiars, though I am generally quite good at keeping them well-buried. Yet again and again I am drawn to novels that move me and unsettle my interior terrain, aware on some level that it is good to peer down into the vast caverns of my loneliness and up to the frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed mountains of my mind.
In reading Home, I found myself again and again nodding in affirmation at resonant moments. “I am hungry in general. It is the particulars that discourage me,” Glory’s brother Jack tells her. I sat with head bent over my breakfast and my book, marking in pencil those many passages that articulated or confirmed some deeply-held truth that I had surely (so I told myself) been harboring inside. “As for herself, she did still pray on her knees. Train up a child in the way he should go and even when he is old he will not depart from it. Her father had always said, God does not need our worship. We worship to enlarge our sense of the holy, so that we can feel and know the presence of the Lord, who is with us always.” Sentence after sentence of Robinson’s novel alighted on my windowsill like a spring robin come to sing my soul out of her slumber. “I think hope is the worst thing in the world,” Jack tells Glory. “I really do. It makes a fool of you while it lasts. And then when it’s gone, it’s like there’s nothing left of you at all.”
And there you have it — for nothing could be more hopeful to me than hearing someone else give voice to that sinking feeling that creeps into my heart at night and causes my legs to writhe like snakes in my bed and my arms to flail in protest against – against – I do not know what. Hope makes a fool of you while it lasts, yes. But as this novel (like so many blessed others) reminds me, I am all too glad to be made a fool of once again.