Saturday, December 29, 2012

Book Review: Life 101

A Fair Trade Book

Book Title: Life 101

Authors: John Roger and Peter McWilliams

Date: 1991

Publisher: Prelude Press

ISBN: 0-931580-97-8

Length: 400 pages

Quote: "We call this book Life 101 because it contains all the things we wish we had learned about life in school but, for the most part, did not."

In the 1980s, stores near my school sold a book of practical advice for young students. I don't remember whether Life 101 was in its title, or subtitle, or blurb-on-the-jacket. I remember that it discussed things like changing tires and cleaning filters, and other things people renting their first furnished rooms needed to know.

Many years later, I found this rather large paperback book and wondered whether it was an expanded version of that practical little book I remembered. The simplest way to review Life 101 is to say that it wasn't.

What the McWilliams brothers have to offer is a philosophical outlook on life that was popular with New Agers and the human potential school of psychotherapists in the 1980s and 1990s. By 1991 a backlash had begun. Some Christian groups had pronounced the McWilliams' philosophy heretical; I'd already reality-checked it and found it unhelpful.

"Accept reality." Why is that not helpful? First of all, this phrase uses the word "accept" in an incorrect way. To accept something literally means to pick it up in your hands, as when you pick up a package at the post office and take it home. Neither a situation, nor a person, nor "reality" can be accepted in the literal sense, so what is "accept reality" supposed to mean, and why can't the person speaking use the verb that fits whatever is in his or her mind? The McWilliams brothers are using "accept" as an alternative to "deny"; they're advising readers not to live in denial, like a sick patient who may actually believe that he's gone back fifty years in time and that the grandson to whom he's speaking now is the brother who died forty years ago, or like an alcoholic who won't admit that she drinks too much. The average person reading Life 101 is probably not living in denial. The reader of this book may be more interested in changing tires than in trying to change his or her emotions, but probably perceives reality about as efficiently as the rest of us do.

Several words that describe things most of us do, relative to "reality," would fit this context better than "accept." What about "acknowledge," "perceive," "face," "consider," "evaluate," "understand," or "be aware of"? Those words didn't sound "dynamic" enough for the philosophy the McWilliams brothers are preaching. Preachers of this philosophy wanted a word that seemed to mean something active and cheerful. And why was the subjective emotional tone of the word so important? Because what they were actually about to say was something like "Just tell yourself you like whatever's on your mind, because I'm emotionally enmeshed with your moods but I don't intend to do anything to help with your actual situation."

In a word: unhelpful. I think Life 101 is likely to be most useful to the critical reader who wants to write a study of "Lies My Therapist Told Me, or Feel-Good Ideas That Leave People Feeling Bad." Life 101 is a great source of the quotes, the oh-so-insightful bad puns, and the whole popular philosophy of the 1980s. It is valuable for studying this period in historical perspective.

If you're looking for advice you can use in your life, this web site recommends that you read the Bible.