December 28, 2012

This is Getting Weird

It happened again!  I just finished a non-fiction book, then whipped right through a kids book and there were so many connections between the two!  I swear I'm not trying to connect the most disparate books I can find, but there you go.

The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman was something I heard about recently on NPR I think and requested from the library.  I don't like reading brand new books but it sounded interesting and I figured I'd read a bit of it for free and see if it grabbed me.

It did, so I read the whole thing.  He's a fun, lighthearted writer, clearly a columnist, who takes some very different branches of thought and weaves them together here.  He takes lessons from the ancient Stoics, the Buddhists, the Mexicans, and even J.K. Rowling, Steve Jobs and John Keats to tell us about how not looking on the bright side, and even looking death itself in the face, is sometimes the best way to find happiness.  I was still skeptical about the  book (it's the way I am, people!) but quotes on the back from no less than Daniel Pink and Julian Baggini made me much more intrigued.

I mean I already agreed with him up front, but it's nice to read something validating your views and he goes about his search is such an interesting way that I enjoyed the trip.  I guess the simplest way to boil down what he's saying is to give it Keat's name: the Negative Capability.  It's the human ability to embrace uncertainty.  Most self-help books, guru's and motivational conferences try to get you to look on the bright side, stay motivated, make goals and visualize the best outcomes.  Which makes a certain bit of sense.  But then there are many problems when your goals aren't met, you are blindsided by bad outcomes or things just generally don't go your way and you're busy looking at the green grass in the neighbor's yard and not looking at the wonderfulness of what you do have.

It's more complicated than that but not difficult at all and quite enlightening.  For example, I just got some somewhat distressing news form my parents.  They're on their way home from holiday travels and have taken ill.  I'm going to worry until they get home and get better. Now I could try to look on the bright side and say to myself that it's probably not that bad or I could jump to the worst possible outcome and either feel much relieved and happy when that doesn't come true or at least have  prepared myself somewhat if it does.  Sound depressing?  It's really not, I swear.

And it's funny much of the time!  The book, I mean.  It opens with him at a San Antonio arena to see a big motivational seminar.  The first positive message comes from Dr. Robert H. Schuller, the writer, self-help guru, and pastor.  After his spiel about taking "impossible" out of your vocabulary and other such drivel, Burkeman reminds us that only a few months later Schuller's church had to file for bankruptcy  "a word Dr. Shuller had apparently neglected to eliminate from his vocabulary" (p.5).

So then I picked up Becoming Naomi Leon by Pam Munoz Ryan because it's our January pick for my 4th/5th grade book club.  It's about a girl and her younger brother living in a trailer park outside of San Diego with their Gram (actually 69-year old great-grandmother) and enjoying a quiet life when her mother turns up out of the blue after abandoning them years earlier, wanting to take her (but not the brother) away for what clearly turns out to be the money she and her boyfriend would get from the state for having a dependent and them in low-paying jobs.  Knowing her father lives in Mexico and would have a say, she and her brother and Gran and some friends take the school's winter break as the perfect time to visit Oaxaca, Mexico where an amazing carving contest is held yearly and at which they just know the father will be there.

What connect the two books?  Gran is forever talking about how most problems can be overcome with positive thinking, but Naomi isn't so sure and usually worries about things.  Her brother seems more on the lucky-thinking side.  But when things get bad and options are narrowing in the end, even Gran finds it more worthwhile to think a bit more realistically.  When there's a real possibility the mother could take Naomi when they get back she says in part, "...I have come to the conclusion that maybe I should be preparing you for that situation...just on the slim notion it might happen. I don't know how I would ever get along without you, but I'm more concerned with how you would get on without Owen and me" (p. 195).

I don't know how much the talk helps Gran or Naomi, but it sure helped me!  When it became clear what was going on in San Diego and just how truly awful and unstable this mother was, my heart was pounding as I read!  But when they were down in Mexico and Naomi was coming into herself and gaining confidence, I realized that even if the worst were to happen, just knowing that her father did love her and that her Gran and brother would be out there doing everything that could for her in the few years she'd be forced to live with this terrible woman, that that happiness is what would get her trough it.  Facing the Negative Capability of the situation makes you see the happiness that is there and that is possible.

You also realize as terrible as the situation seems at first, that they would have never met their father or had all the wonderful experiences they do in Mexico if none of it had happened.  And even after everything, Naomi is happy to have met and known her mother a bit.

Oh, and the school librarian, Mr. Marble?  He's awesome.  Yup, indeed.  Good guy, that Mr. Marble.