Sunday, February 23, 2014
Some Thoughts Inspired By "The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking" by Oliver Burkeman
I just finished reading the book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman. In general, I found this book to be very insightful, and would definitely recommend it, especially for those who love the philosophy/psychology genre of literature as much as I do. I agree with author Daniel H. Pink who said, "The Antidote is a gem. Countering a self-help tradition in which 'positive thinking' too often takes the place of actual thinking, Oliver Burkeman returns our attention to several of philosophy's deeper traditions and does so with a light hand and a wry sense of humor. You'll come away from this book enriched-and yes, even a little happier."
That said, here are some of my thoughts on a few of the sections that I found to be the most thought provoking.
Chapter 8, Momento Mori: Death as Way of Life, Burkeman offers some interesting perspectives on the topic of death. This chapter suggests that most of us are extremely terrified at the thought of our own mortality, often to the extent that we choose to live in denial of it all together. I'm not sure that I agree with that. I don't think it's so much that we are in denial of the fact that we'll eventually die, as that we simply choose not focus on it. In fact, one could argue that it's because we accept our final fate so completely, that we are capable of not thinking much about it, for the things we tend to focus on, are the things we hope to change in the future, or wish we had changed in the past, not the things that have always been outside of our control.
So although not all of us are in denial of death, I do agree that most of us find the thought of our own death or the death of our loved ones naturally upsetting. John Updike once wrote, "Every day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead. So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?" We all know this is true. The problem is, accepting that all things must change and eventually end, doesn't make the reality of having to say goodbye any less sad.
In Momento Mori: Death as Way of Life, Burkeman did provide a perspective that I found to be very comforting, and one that I hadn't considered it before. He brings up a point that the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus once made that has become known as the 'argument of symmetry'. The book reads, "Why do you fear the eternal oblivion of death, he wonders, if you don't look back with horror at the eternal oblivion before you were born - which, as far as you were concerned, was just as eternal, and just as much an oblivion?"
What a great question! But like I said before, many of us are not so much terrified or horrified by the idea of death, it just has a tendency to make us feel very sad. So I rephrased the question to this, "Why does the eternal oblivion of death make you feel so sad, if you aren't saddened at the eternal oblivion before you were born?"
I found that asking myself this question to be incredibly comforting, most likely because it helps to see the bigger picture. I think that this could even be applied not only to the loss of ourselves, but also the loss of the people we love. Perhaps the two best ways to find comfort when saddened by loss, is to allow yourself to see the bigger picture or to live in the moment and not think at all about what you have said goodbye to in the past, or what you must say goodbye to in the future. But living in the moment can be incredibly difficult for must of us, especially in times of grieving, which may make the ability to see the bigger picture that much more important.
I likely took some of the points in this book in a completely different direction than what Burkeman intended, but this book really made me think, and I am thankful for that. Any book that makes me ponder things to the extent that The Antidote did, is certain to deserve a place on my book shelf! In fact, this book earned a place on My Fifty Favorite Books list, which, given how much I read, isn't an easy list to make.
I must confess that my favorite part of the book was actually the Epilogue, Negative Capability, where Burkeman reflected on some wisdom of Keats and the importance of having the ability to not always seek the resolution. He wrote, "Sometimes the most valuable of all talents is to be able not to seek resolution; to notice the craving for completeness or certainty or comfort, and not to feel compelled to follow where it leads." So true! In fact, it reminded me of one of my all time favorite literature passages by Rainer Maria Rilke:
“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.”
There is so much more in this book that I could write about and I'm sure I will read it again and again in the years to come. Definitely check it out if you haven't already and I'd love to hear your thoughts!