Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Book Review: Something More

A Fair Trade Book 

Title: Something More
Author: Sarah Ban Breathnach

Author's web page:
Date: 1998
Publisher: Time Warner
Length: 352 pages including index
Quote: “Joy is your soul’s knowledge that if you don’t get the promotion, keep the relationship, or buy the house, it’s because you weren’t meant to.”
Right. This is a book for female yuppies who were born middle-class and intend to be upwardly mobile and have never really thought about where, since they already have and always have had enough money to live on, the next move upward might be. For them, remarks like the one quoted, and several others in the same vein, sound like friendly encouragement rather than a slap in the face.
For most of the people I know, it might be more encouraging to mention that the author had already been whacked on the head with something solid, years before she wrote this book. That’s how the literary persona of Sarah Ban Breathnach came to exist, actually.
Fair disclosure: This is a lukewarm review of a book that didn't sell nearly as well as everything else in the series of which it was part. I understand why. Something More is as close as a decent human being can get to an apologium for a divorce. I think this book sold well locally because readers had learned that, whichever pen name she was using, this writer was the one to consult if you needed suggestions for something simple, cheap, and fun to do on a rainy day. The suggestions for families that included small children were credited to “Victorianna Sharp,” explained as a possible ancestor the real Mrs. Sharp was impersonating when she dressed up in Takoma Park Founders Day (1890s) clothes and recycled lots of 1890s family fun ideas. The suggestions mostly for adults were authored by “Sarah Ban Breathnach.” Either way, they were things you could do to cheer yourself up, entertain friends, or bond with children, without having to take a class or spend more than ten dollars per person. If the people you wanted to invite to parties were what was known as “Takoma Park types,” at the time, you could even use these tips to plan a successful party.
So readers grabbed Something More, too, hoping it would contain more of the same kind of delightful ideas as Simple Abundance...well, it doesn’t. To put it mildly. Not just because Sarah’s other books all but physically replay “These Are a Few of My Favorite Things,” and this one replays “I Will Survive.” I was a Takoma Park type too, and I have a serious objection to this book. I’ll try to put it as mildly as it can be put.
When people are prosperous, they don’t really have to be told that, if they don’t get the promotion, it’s because they weren’t meant to; they know they’ve been reasonably happy with the job they’ve had for the last few years, and/or they can easily get a job they like better. And if they don’t keep the relationship, it may mean they have to re-learn how to sleep alone, but it doesn’t mean they have to appeal to the Salvation Army for help keeping their children warm during the winter. And if they don’t buy the house, they may well be happier buying a different one.
When people really need help and encouragement, any job would count as a promotion from their current positions, and all relationships are more or less dysfunctional because even a good counsellor or social worker is not what anybody really wants to have in their life, and realtors want them to leave the neighborhood on open house days. And they feel, not without reason, that telling them that they weren’t meant to have the things that the person spouting platitudes takes for granted is a reliable indicator that the person spouting platitudes needs to be whacked on the head with something solid.
For those “living at a survival level,” physically or emotionally, there’s nothing that could be called “comfort” in platitudes like Sanaya Roman’s “This is simply the way you have chosen to learn many important lessons and experience the essence of who you are.” That’s an excuse for someone else not to help. The lesson to be learned from not having money is about making money, and although friends can’t do it for each other, they must help each other do it. The lesson to be learned from diseases and disabilities is about curing them. A variety of lessons can be learned from romantic disappointments, but even there, real friends actually do something...they don't sit around spouting platitudes.
The platitudes of twentieth-century pop psychology are particularly dangerous, because they sound so benign. It’s certainly easy and pleasant to tell other people to ignore the facts in their lives, focus on their feelings, and just talk about how everybody ought theoretically to feel better. If someone’s need really was for distraction from the pain of a chronic mood disorder, this technique might even help. However, most people's unpleasant feelings have more to do with reality problems.
In order to be useful in their specialty, psychotherapists are trained to ignore the reality problems, often even distracting a client from what the client really needs to attend to: “I can’t offer you a job. Let’s talk about how you feel about the company breaking up.” What this could, and I believe should, tell the client is that the client has moved beyond needing psychotherapy. What it tells "New Agers" is that they can escape from their reality problems into a sort of secularized Buddhist outlook on life. Life is but a dream. Take the cosmic perspective. Nothing in your life is likely to have much effect on the universe a million years from now. Whether you fail or succeed, get well or get worse, live or die, is important only to you. So only the present moment matters, so the important thing is to talk yourself into feeling happy in the present moment. Since the world is big enough that most of us can find something that seems as if it ought to feel pleasant to us in any given moment, this philosophy can work, for some (well-off) people, up to a point. There are times, and Sarah shares memories of one of those times with us in Something More, when this approach may even help us give ourselves a chance to recover from physical illness or injury.
So it sounds very peaceful and kindhearted and “spiritual” to tell ourselves that we can use this same technique to recover from the “emotional injuries” of unemployment, bankruptcy, failed investments, divorces and break-ups, bereavement, quarrels with friends, sabotage by competitors who may have pretended to be friends, disappointment in children, even violent crimes or natural disasters. Fold hands, breathe deeply, tell self that everything is all right. Above all, avoid the natural indignation that might come from letting yourself understand which human errors on whose parts led to the calamity. That would be judging and blaming, which would not feel like happiness. Try to believe that pollution and war and rape and terrorism are just part of some sort of cosmic plan and your job is to be happy with them. After all, it seems to work for real Buddhists in Asia, and even if you’re not part of a Buddhist culture wouldn’t it be pleasant just to exhale all your unhappiness away...
And I say, stop that thought. At least, before trying to become an Anglo-Buddhist, get a little historical perspective. Historical fact is that some Buddhists have waged wars and some Christians have chosen lives of contemplation, but let’s work, for the moment, with the generalization that Buddhist/Hindu/Asian culture encourages passivism, while Christian/European (and also Native American) culture encourages action, sometimes even activism. Cultures that have been arbitrarily labelled “Western” encourage people to act on moral judgments; cultures labelled “Eastern” encourage people to abstain from moral judgment. Consider how that has worked for those cultures. Where do we find the most outrageous abuses, the enforced suicides of widows, the child prostitution, the physical torture of children to make them more effective street beggars? Where do we find the prosperity that has time to purge the abuses out of our own system and even send out missionaries who hope to relieve the despair of the less successful nations? Where do we find the moral judgment that everybody ought to have a fair chance, and where do we find the attitude that injustice and misery are part of the cosmic plan?
At this point Sarah Ban Breathnach would probably say that Something More is not actually meant to shape a whole culture; it’s just a nice, cheerful series of encouragements to a hypothetical yuppie who needs to take a lot of time to think about what she really wants to do. Which makes sense, theoretically, if we grant that people are in that situation. I’m not sure I’ve ever met any. When illness and poverty gave me plenty of time to sort out who I was and what I felt and what I believed and what I needed, what I learned was that I needed, and will probably always need, to fix facts first and let feelings follow. I see women who are in that situation. I see a lot of women whose emotional problems are actually caused by their bogging down in passivity and emotionality, rather than meeting their physical, social, spiritual, and creative needs.
Maybe we have to spend eighteen months being too sick to do anything but soul-searching to reach the point where we can know that we may need money—I’m not talking about the pathological greed that American culture tends to assume motivates all of us, I’m talking about X amount for the purpose Y—or time to heal ourselves, or treatment for a disease that’s not going to heal itself, or a fresh creative challenge, or more intimacy, or more sex, or more solitude to reflect on new thoughts, or time to mourn, or justice for ourselves, or the joy of helping achieve justice for others, but we do not, ever again, need to get stuck on that endless loop of “How do I feel about myself today?”
I hope not. I hope most of us can fast-forward straight through “How do I feel about myself today?” into love, work, and worship, because that’s the basic definition of sanity. And although Something More is a well written verbal collage containing some excellent quotations, it doesn't lead readers back to sanity.
Two people definitely don’t need this book. One is the person who wants to stay married, who does not need to seek comfort in the things people say in hope of consoling the recently divorced. The other is the amateur counsellor—the teacher, minister, writer, manager, or wife of one who is asked for advice because of her (or his) seniority, e.g. If “I don’t know anything about your situation, I can’t help you” seems too harsh, we might be tempted to hand out the easy-fix advice of popular psychology. “Look within, build a better relationship with yourself, ask yourself what to do” is easy to say, and if we heard it in therapy it may give us great pleasure to sound just like a real therapist when we say it to someone else, but it’s not going to help the other person who already knows how to read the books that say that and is looking for more practical help from real people in his or her real world. (And although I postponed marriage until after age thirty, and have been waiting for the right time for remarriage, even I can’t read Sarah’s—callous or callow?—advice to the lovelorn that “your great You” without feeling queasy.)
If you’re going to buy just one of Sarah’s books, get either Mrs. Sharp’s Traditions, if you live with children, or Simple Abundance, if you are or live with a woman. But if you want to complete your collection and get to know the real woman behind the “Simple Abundance Books” publishing phenomenon, reading this book is an essential part of the process. It’s an enjoyable read, for people not wrestling with urgent reality’s just likely to leave you still wanting something more.

Probably because it wasn't the general readers' favorite in this series, Something More has actually started to sell at collectors' prices. As a Fair Trade Book it will cost $10, plus $5 for shipping it and whatever else ships in the same package, and out of this Sarah Ban Breathnach or a charity of her choice will receive $1.50.