Review: Tools for Teaching

Review: Tools for Teaching

Tools for Teaching: Discipline, Instruction, Motivation.  Primary Prevention of Classroom Discipline ProblemsTools for Teaching: Discipline, Instruction, Motivation. Primary Prevention of Classroom Discipline Problems by Fredric H. Jones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Have you ever looked at the work kids turn in these days and wondered, “What will happen to this country in the next 50 years?” When you watch Larry sharpen his pencil, you know that the future is in good hands. It’s inspirational.

Last year I switched from teaching adults to teaching teenagers. Though I’m still teaching English, the job could hardly be more different. With adults, I could focus entirely on content; my students were mature, intelligent, and motivated, so I could think exclusively about what to teach them, and how. With kids, I am dealing with a classroom full of energetic, distracted, unruly, loud, and sometimes obnoxious humans whose main motivation is not to fail the upcoming exam. They’re not there because they want to be, and they would always inevitably rather be doing something else.

This probably makes me sound jaded and disenchanted (and I hasten to add that I actually have a lot more fun teaching kids, and my students are great, I swear!); but the fact is inescapable: when you’re teaching in a school setting, you need to worry about classroom management. Either you will control the kids, or they will control you.

It is the hope of every beginning teacher, myself included, to manage through instruction. We all begin with the same dream: to create lessons so dynamic, so enriching, so brilliant, and to teach with such charisma and compassion, that misbehavior isn’t a problem. But this doesn’t work, for two obvious reasons. For one, we don’t have unlimited control of the curriculum; to the contrary, our room to maneuver is often quite limited. And even with complete autonomy, having interesting lessons would be no guarantee of participation or attention, since it only takes one bored student to disrupt, and only one disruption to derail a lesson.

Even if you’re Socrates, disruptions will happen. When they do, in the absence of any plan, you will end up falling back on your instincts. The problem is that your instincts are probably bad. I know this well, both from experience and observation. Our impulsive reaction is usually to nag, to argue, to preach, to bargain, to threaten, to cajole—in other words, to flap our mouths in futility until we finally get angry, snap, yell, and then repeat the process.

But no amount of nagging creates a motivated classroom; and no amount of speeches—about the value of education, the importance of respect, or the relevance of the lesson to one’s future—will produce interested and engaged students. In short, our instinctual response is inefficient, ineffective, and stressful for both teacher and students. (Again, I know this both from experience and observation.)

Some strategies are therefore needed to keep the kids settled and on task. And since teachers are chronically overworked as it is—the endless grading and planning, not to mention the physical strain of standing in front of classes all day—these strategies must be neither too complex nor too expensive. To the contrary, they must be relatively straightforward to implement, and they must save time in the long run.

This is where Fred Jones comes in. Fred Jones is the Isaac Newton of classroom management. This book is nothing less than a fully worked out strategy for controlling a room full of young people. This system, according to him, is the result of many hundreds of hours of observing effective and ineffective teachers, trying to analyze what the “natural” teachers did right and the “unnatural” teachers wrong, and to put it all together into a system. And it really is systematic: every part fits into every part, interlocking like the gears of a bicycle.

This makes the book somewhat difficult to summarize, since it is not a bag of tricks to add to your repertoire. Indeed, its main limitation—especially for me, since I’m just assistant who goes from class to class—is that his strategies cannot be implemented piecemeal. They work together, or they don’t work. As a pedagogical nomad who merely helps out, I am not really in a position to put this book into practice, so I cannot personally vouch for it.

Despite this, Jones manages to be utterly convincing. The book is so full of anecdotes, insights, and explanations that were immediately familiar that it seemed as if he was spying on my own classrooms. Unlike so many books on education, which offer ringing phrases and high-minded idealism, this book deals with the nitty-gritty reality of being a teacher: the challenges, frustrations, and the stress.

The main challenge of classroom management—the problem that dwarfs all others—is to eliminate talking to neighbors. Kids like to talk, and they will talk: when they’re supposed to be listening, when they should be working, whenever they think they can get away with it. This is only natural. And with the conventional classroom approach—standing in the front and lecturing, snarling whenever the kids in the back are too loud—talking to neighbors is inevitable, since the teacher is physically distant, and the kids have nothing else to do.

Jones begins by suggesting board work: an activity that each student must start at the beginning of class, something handed out or written on the board, to eliminate the usual chaos that attends the beginning of the lesson. He then goes into detail about how the classroom should be arranged: with large avenues to the teacher can quickly move around. Movement is key, because the most important factor that determines goofing off is physical proximity to the teacher. (This seems certainly less true in Spain, where people are more comfortable with limited personal space, but I imagine it’s quite true in the United States.)

This leads to the lesson. Jones advocates a pedagogical approach that only requires the teacher to talk for five minutes or less at a time. Break down the lesson into chunks, using visual aids for easy understanding, and then immediately follow every concept with an activity. When the kids are working, the teacher is to move around the classroom, helping, checking, and managing behavior, while being sure not to spend too much time with the students he calls “helpless handraisers”—the students who inevitably raise their hands and say they don’t understand. (To be clear, he isn’t saying to ignore these students, but to resist the impulse to re-teach the whole lesson with your back turned to the rest of the class.)

This leads to one of the main limitation of Jones’s method: it works better for math and science than for the humanities. I don’t see how literature or history can be broken down into these five-minute chunks without destroying the content altogether. Jones suggests frequent writing exercises, which I certainly approve of, but it is also hard for me to imagine teaching a lesson about the Spanish Reconquest, for example, without a lengthy lecture. Maybe this is just due to lack of imagination on my part.

When it comes to disruptions, Jones’s advice is refreshingly physical. The first challenge is remaining calm. When you’re standing in front of a crowd, and some kids are chuckling in the back, or worse, talking back to you, your adrenaline immediately begins to flow. Your heart races, and you feel a tense anxiety grip your chest, intermediate between panic and rage. Before doing anything, you must calm down. Jones suggests learning how to relax yourself by breathing deeply. You need to be in control of your emotions to respond effectively.

Then, Jones follows this with a long section on body language. The way we hold our bodies signals a lot about our intentions and our resolve. Confidence and timidity are things we all intuitively perceive just from looking at the way someone holds herself. How do you turn around and face the offending students with conviction? How do you signal that you are taking the disruption seriously? And how do you avoid seeming noncommittal or unserious?

One of the most brilliant sections in this book, I thought, was on dealing with backtalk. Backtalk can be anything, but as Jones points out, it usually takes a very limited number of forms. Denial is probably the most common; in Spanish, this translates to “Pero, ¡no he hecho nada!” Then there is blaming; the student points her finger at her neighbor, and says “But, she asked me a question!” And then there is misdirection, when the offending student says, “But, I don’t understand!” as if they were in a busy intellectual debate. I see all these on a daily basis. The classic mistake to make in these situations is to engage the student—to argue, to nag, or to scold, or to take their claim that they “don’t understand” at face value. Be calm, stay quiet, and if they keep talking move towards them. Talking back yourself only puts you on the same level.

The penultimate section of the book deals with what Jones calls Preferred Activity Time, or PAT. This is an academic activity that the students want to do, and will work for. It is not a reward to hold over their heads, or something to punish the students with by taking it away, but something the teacher gives to the class, with the opportunity for them to earn more through good behavior. This acts as an additional incentive system to stay on task and well behaved.

The book ends with a note on what Jones calls “the backup system,” which consists of the official punishments, like suspension and detention, that the school system inflicts on misbehaving kids. As Jones repeatedly says, this backup system has been in place for generations, and yet it has always been ineffective. The same small number of repeat offenders account for the vast majority of these reprimands; obviously it is not an successful deterrent. Sometimes the backup system is unavoidable, however, and he has some wise words on how to use it when needed.

Now, if you’ve been following along so far, you’ll have noticed that this book is behaviorist. Its ideas are based on control, on incentive systems, on input and output. As a model of human behavior, I think behaviorism is far too simplistic to be accurate, and so I’m somewhat uncomfortable thinking of classroom management in this way. Furthermore, there are moments, I admit, when the job of teaching in a public school feels more like working in a prison than the glorious pursuit of knowledge. Your job is to keep the kids in a room, keep them quiet and seated, and to keep them busy—at least, that’s how it feels at times. And Jones’s whole system can perhaps legitimately be accused of perpetuating this incarceration model of education.

But teachers have the choice of working within an imperfect system or not working. The question of the ideal educational model is entirely different from the question this book addresses: how to effectively teach in the current educational paradigm. Jones’s approach is clear-eyed, thorough, intelligent, insightful, and eminently practical, and for that reason I think he has done a great thing. Teaching, after all, is too difficult a job, and too important a job, to do with only idealism and instinct as tools.

View all my reviews

Advertisements

Review: A Guide to the Good Life

Review: A Guide to the Good Life

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic JoyA Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There will be—or already has been!—a last time in your life that you brush your teeth, cut your hair, drive a car, mow the lawn, or play hopscotch.

In my review of Feeling Good, a self-help book, I noted the lack of practical philosophies in the modern world. Far from an original insight, I now see that this idea is a relatively common criticism of contemporary education and modern philosophy. The other day, for example, I stumbled upon a YouTube channel, the School of Life, an educational project that tries to teach life lessons rather than academic knowledge. This book, an attempt to revive ancient Stoicism, is part of the same loose movement.

William B. Irvine set himself the task of making Stoicism viable and palatable in today’s world. To put it bluntly, this meant rummaging through the Stoic classics to make a self-help book. Whereas the classic Stoic authors—Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus—dispensed practical advice without much order, Irvine tries to create a systematic practice that any reader can follow.

Irvine’s system consists of several mental exercises, or tricks, that the novice Stoic can use to gain tranquility. The most important of these is negative visualization: take a moment to imagine how things could go wrong, how you could lose what you have—your health, job, or spouse—and how everything you take for granted might never have existed at all. This will counteract what Irvine calls “hedonistic adaptation,” which is when we get used to the good things in our lives and lose the ability to enjoy them. Hedonistic adaptation is the real enemy of tranquility, because it forever enchains us to desire—as soon as one desire is satisfied, we have another one, and the process repeats without us getting any happier.

Another Stoic exercise is the internalization of goals. First, determine the extent to which you can control the outcome of any situation; then, make sure you only worry about that part which you can control, and don’t trouble yourself about the rest. If you are going on a first date, for example, don’t make it your goal to impress the person—since you can’t directly control whether someone likes you or not—but make it your goal to try your best. In the language of self-help, that is, focus on the process and not the product, the effort and not the outcome.

The last major technique can be better described as an attitude rather than an exercise. This is to take a fatalistic attitude towards the past. Since what happened in the past is beyond your power to alter, don’t trouble yourself with “if-onlys” or fill up your mind with regrets. Instead, try to cultivate amor fati, love of fate; learn to appreciate the good in what has happened, rather than think of all the ways it could have been better.

The general attitude that a Stoic wishes to cultivate is a mixture of enjoyment and detachment: the ability to enjoy all of the little pleasures of daily life without becoming so attached to anything that you are incapacitated without it. It is rather like the attitude of a spectator at a play: heartily enjoying the show, while keeping in mind that all the action is staged and not worth getting upset over. With this mentality you could, in theory, be satisfied with anything, and maintain your tranquility under any circumstances.

These, in nutshell form, are the book’s major pieces of advice. The rest of the book is divided into a brief historical sketch of Stoicism, a series of short chapters about applying Stoicism to specific challenges, and a broader cultural criticism from a Stoic perspective. The latter of these was the most interesting—Irvine isn’t a fan of political correctness or of grief counseling. He also has a lot of advice about responding to insults, some of which I thought was obvious, some of which I thought was wrong, and most of which made me wonder: Why is he talking so much about insults? Is poor Irvine getting insulted all the time?

My main criticism of this book is its style. Perhaps because Irvine was trying to appeal to a popular market, the prose is painfully simple, and filled with unnecessary clarifications and wearying redundancies. “Repetitive” is a charitable description. Added to that, I often got the feeling that he was purposefully avoiding delving deeply into any topic, for fear of losing any novice readers, which irked me.

The important question is: Do the techniques work? I have been having some fun imagining my life going horribly wrong: my metro being crushed underground in an earthquake, my computer bursting into flames and blinding me—getting struck by lighting on my walk to work, all of my friends leaving me en masse, and so on. Somehow, this exercise does tend to put me in a cheerful mood. I also agree with Irvine about desire—why hedonism doesn’t produce contentment, why connoisseurship is counterproductive, why it’s wise to accustom oneself to some disappointment and discomfort.

At the very least, this book is an interesting experiment: trying to revive a dead philosophy of life for the twenty-first century. Now, to put Stoicism into practice, I’m going to imagine this review not getting any likes.

View all my reviews

Review: Modern Romance, by Aziz Ansari

Review: Modern Romance, by Aziz Ansari

Modern RomanceModern Romance by Aziz Ansari

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

One firm takeaway from all our interviews with women is that most dudes out there are straight-up bozos.

My introduction to modern romance was abrupt and unexpected. I was back in New York for the holidays, drinking with a few friends, sipping and gulping the wonderful IPAs that I miss when I’m here in Spain.

Sometime deep into the night, one of my friends, who is a gay man—this is relevant to the story; you should also know that I’m a straight guy—asked if anyone wanted to go on his Tinder. “I do!” I said, and soon found myself face to face with the infamous app for the first time in my life.

Now, for the three remaining people who don’t know how Tinder works, it’s very simple: You look at pictures of people, and swipe left if you don’t want to talk to them, right if you do. (In this respect it’s like the Last Judgment.) If someone you’ve approved of also approves of you, then you are both given the option to send messages.

My friend was obviously a stud, because I was getting matches left and right (well, only right). One of these matches was a young man who I’ll call Woodrow Wilson. With permission from my friend, I sent Woodrow a message. The conversation went something like this:

Me: What’s your favorite tree?

Woodrow Wilson: Uh, White Pines are pretty cool I guess.

Me: White Pines? So cliché.

Woodrow Wilson: You’re right, I was only testing the waters. I’m really fond of Quaking Aspens. You?

Me: Now we’re talking. I’ve always been fond of the Shagbark Hickory.

The conversation proceeded like this for about four days, by which time it was clear that I had found my soul mate through my gay friend’s Tinder. Unfortunately, many barriers stood in the way—I’m straight, I was going back to Spain, and I was basically deceiving him—so I didn’t meet Woodrow Wilson. (If you ever read this—hello, and sorry!) But the experience was enough to make me curious about the opportunities and hazards of romance in the modern world.

Being a reluctant single, a very reluctant millennial, and a very, very reluctant member of the modern world, you can imagine I was, well, reluctant to tackle this topic. This book enticed me, not because it was written by Aziz Ansari—I didn’t consider myself a fan, and in college I even passed up the opportunity to see him live on campus—but because he teamed up with a sociologist, Eric Klinenberg, to write it. I listened to the audiobook, nasally narrated by Aziz.

The most striking thing about this book is that, despite its lighthearted tone and frequent funny asides, it is basically a serious and even an earnest book. Sociological statistics, psychological studies, and anthropological analyses are mixed with anecdotes and interviews and a bit of humor to give a quick but surprisingly thorough tour of romance in the contemporary world.

Aziz begins by pointing out that dating in today’s world is strikingly different from dating in my grandparents’ or even my parents’ generation. This is not only because of advances in technology but, more importantly, because of shifts in values. We now have developed what you might call a perfectionistic attitude towards finding a partner. We want to find a “soul mate,” “the one,” somebody who fulfills us and thrills us. Aziz contrasts this with what he calls the “good enough” marriages of yesteryears—finding a partner that satisfies some basic criteria, like having a job and a shiny pocket watch

I myself have noticed this shift from studying anthropology and history. In cultures all around the world—and in the West until quite recently—marriages were considered a communal affair. Aziz’s own parents had an arranged marriage, and according to him have had a long, successful relationship. (To be honest the idea of an arranged marriage has always been strangely appealing to me, since I don’t think any decision of such importance should be left in my hands. But the rest of my generation disagrees, apparently, so now I’m left to rummage through apps.)

Connected to this rise in the “soul mate” marriage is a rise in our preoccupation with romantic love. According to the biological anthropologist, Helen Fisher, there are two distinct types of love in the human brain: romantic, and companionate. Romantic love is the kind that writes bad poetry; companionate love is the kind that does the dishes. Romantic love hits early in a relationship and lasts up to a year and a half; companionate love grows slowly over time, perhaps over decades. This division accords well with my own experience.

(Parenthetically, I have long been skeptical, even morbidly suspicious, of romantic love: that kind of idealizing, gushing, delicious, walking on air feeling. To me it seems to be a form of self-deception, convincing yourself that your partner is perfect, even divine, and that nobody else in the world could make you so happy—when the truth is that your partner is a flawed person, only one of many flawed people who could induce the same delirious sensation. Wow, I sound really bitter in this paragraph.)

This cultural shift has been bolstered by our new dating technology. Now we do not only have the expectation that we can find the perfect partner, but we have the tools to do the searching. I can, and sometimes do, scroll through hundreds of faces on my phone per day. All this is very exciting; never before could I have so many romantic options at my fingertips.

But there are some major drawbacks to this. One is what the psychologist Barry Schwartz called the “paradox of choice.” Although you’d think having more options would make people more satisfied, in fact the reverse occurs. I remember watching TV was a lot more fun when I was a kid and I only had a few dozen channels; when we upgraded to hundreds of channels, it became stressful—what if there was something better on? Similarly, after spending three months in a camp in Kenya, eating whatever I was given, I found it overwhelming to go to a pizza place and order. How could I choose from so many toppings?

Along with these broader observations is a treasure trove of statistics and anecdotes that, if you’re like me, you’ll be quoting and misquoting for weeks. I found the little vignettes on the dating cultures in Japan, where there’s a sex crisis, Buenos Aires, where there’s a machismo crisis, and Paris, where there’s lots of infidelity but apparently no crisis, to be particularly memorable.

These anecdotes are not just for mental titillation, but are used to support several tenets of dating advice. Here are just a few takeaways. Check your punctuation before you send a text. When you ask someone out on a date, include a specific time and location, not “wanna hang out some time?” vagueness. Texting people is not a reliable way to gauge if you’ll like them in person; it’s best to ask them out sooner and not prolong a meaningless texting conversation. Take the time to get to know people; rarely do you see the more interesting side of someone’s personality on a first date.

As you can see, this book is quite a rare hybrid: part social science, and part self-help, and part comedy. And yet the book rarely feels disorganized or scatterbrained. Aziz keeps a tight rein on his materials; the writing is compact, clever, and informative. With the notable limitation that this book deals only with heterosexual couples, and covers no topic in serious depth, I can say that it’s hard for me to imagine how any such short book could give so complete a picture of modern romance.

Most impressive is the human touch. What could have potentially been a mere smattering of facts and stories, Aziz makes into a coherent whole by grounding everything in the day-to-day frustrations and realities of the dating world. Aziz knows firsthand how much dating can suck, how tiresome, uncomfortable, and stressful it can be. Yet, for all this, the book is ultimately hopeful.

Beneath all these shifts in values and demographics, all the innovations in dating technologies and changes in romantic habits, all the horror stories and the heartbreaks, beyond the lipstick and the cologne, below the collared shirts and high heeled shoes, above the loud music and the strong liquor, pushing every button and writing every text, is the universal human itch to connect.

This itch has always been with us and always will be. Each generation just learns to scratch it in new and interesting ways.

(If interested in setting something up, please direct all inquiries to my mom.)

View all my reviews

Review: Spiritual Exercises

Review: Spiritual Exercises

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius: Based on Studies in the Language of the AutographThe Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius: Based on Studies in the Language of the Autograph by Ignatius of Loyola
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Just as taking a walk, journeying on foot, and running are bodily exercises, so we call Spiritual Exercises every way of preparing and disposing the soul to rid itself of all inordinate attachments, and, after their removal, of seeking and finding the will of God in the disposition of our life for the salvation of our soul.

Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1491 – 1556), the founder of the Society of Jesus, has a claim to being among the most influential Spaniards in history.

His beginning was quixotic. The son of a Basque nobleman, his imagination was fed, like the Don’s, on tales of knight errantry and romance. This led to a career in the army, cut short by a canon ball that struck and permanently crippled his leg. His shattered bone had to be set, and then re-set twice, in order to heal properly; and by then his injured leg was too short, and he had to endure months of painful stretching. He walked with a limp the rest of his life.

During his convalescence, deprived of his usual adventure stories, he read about the lives of the saints. This, combined with the pain and immobility, worked a religious conversion in him. When he healed, he resolved to devote his life, no longer to earthly glory and the favors of young Doñas, but to God and the Catholic Church. Thus, eventually, the Society of Jesus was formed, which bears the military stamp of its founder in its dedication, organization, and devotion.

The Jesuits soon acquired a reputation for being excellent educators. Voltaire himself, no friend of anyone in a robe or a hood, received his early education from Jesuits, and always had a good word to say about his instructors and his tutelage. The success of the Jesuits in education is somewhat ironic, considering its founder’s lack of interest in formal schooling. In the words of this edition’s translator, St. Ignatius wrote in “limping Spanish,” since he had “only the elements of an education” and used the Spanish language “with little knowledge of its literary form.”

I should pause to note that this translation, by Louis J. Puhl, a Jesuit himself, is excellent. The language is clear, simple, and idiomatic. To achieve this, he had to depart somewhat radically from the original sentence structure, as well as abandon the sixteenth-century Spanish idioms used by St. Ignatius. He justifies this by noting that the book is meant to be a practical manual, not a work of literature, and I think he is right.

The Spiritual Exercises is meant for a month-long retreat. To that end, the exercises are divided into four weeks. We begin with an examination of our conscience. What sins are we committing? We are invited to compare our many sins with the fallen angels, now demons in hell, who committed only one sin. Then we are instructed to contemplate the sin of the rebellious angels and the first sin of Adam and Even in the Garden. What is the nature of those sins? What makes them tempting? What makes them abhorrent in the eyes of God? After that, we shall vividly imagine the tortures of the damned: the smell of burnt bodies, the screams and cries of the hopelessly sinful, the burning flames and the sea of writhing flesh. (The epic of Dante or the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch are helpful.) This is the first week.

The schedule is demanding: “The First Exercise will be made at midnight; the Second, immediately on rising in the morning; the Third, before or after Mass, at all events before dinner; the Fourth, about the time of Vespers; the Fifth, an hour before supper.” I don’t know how many hours that would be in total. Elsewhere, he says: “One who is educated or talented, but engaged in public affairs or necessary business, should take an hour and a half daily for the Spiritual Exercises.” I imagine this total number of hours would increase for somebody on a spiritual retreat.

Before I mention what I liked, I will state my reservations. For me, the fixation of sinfulness and the terrors of hell have always been the most disagreeable aspects of Christianity. I don’t think it is healthy to despise one’s own body, to focus relentlessly on one’s faults, or to act in accordance with a moral code for fear of eternal torment. For somebody, such as myself, who has grown up in the post sexual liberation era, quotes like the following are hard to swallow: “I will consider all the corruption and loathsomeness of my body. I will consider myself as a source of corruption and contagion from which has issued countless sins and evils and the most offensive poison.”

In one section, St. Ignatius even recommends hurting oneself for penance: “The third kind of penance is to chastise the body, that is, to inflict sensible pain on it. This is done by wearing hairshirts, cords, or iron chains on the body, or by scourging or wounding oneself, and by other kinds of austerities.” And in another section, he states that all believers must submit unhesitatingly and completely to the church: “If we wish to proceed securely in all things, we must hold fast to the following principle: What seems to me white, I will believe black if the hierarchical Church so defines.” Neither of these strike me as a good idea.

All these reservations aside—and if a pagan such as myself can judge—I think that this book can be profitably used by contemporary Christians seeking to have a deeper spiritual experience.

I myself tried to do some of the exercises in this book. This was a challenge. I am not a Christian and my knowledge of the Bible is not as intimate as could be desired. What is more, I did not have an hour and a half every day; the most I was willing to spend was half an hour. In any case, even if I was a practicing Catholic, these exercises are not meant to be used by oneself. My attempt to do the exercise was an experiment to see if I could interpret the mythology of Catholicism in a way that had meaning for my own life. And I am happy to report that, despite some struggles, I made considerable progress in experiencing this grand faith, which I have long admired as an outsider.

View all my reviews

Review: Writing to Learn

Review: Writing to Learn

Writing to Learn: How to Write--And Think--Clearly about Any Subject at AllWriting to Learn: How to Write–And Think–Clearly about Any Subject at All by William Zinsser
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Humor is the most perilous of writing forms, full of risk; to make a vocation of brightening the reader’s day is an act of continuing gallantry.

Specialization inspires in me a certain existential dread. This is of two sorts. The first is the despairing thought that, by specializing, I will come to know only a certain, restricted corner of the vast universe. The second, more puerile fear is that, by becoming a specialist, I will commit myself on a path I won’t like very much.

Generalization is often, I suspect, motivated as much by fear of commitment as by humanistic curiosity. In Spanish there’s a word for a man who likes to sleep around—a picaflor—which conjures up the suggestive image of a bee going from flower to flower. Well, picaflores and Don Juans and Lotharios are generalists. Devoted husbands are specialists.

Promiscuity aside, we continue to do homage to generalists with our notion of the “Renaissance Man,” and the quintessential Renaissance Man was of course Leonardo da Vinci. His notebooks are filled not only with “art,” but studies of anatomy, light, physics, engineering, music, and so much else.

Last year I read a selection of Leonardo’s notebooks, hoping to find out how one man could tackle so many disparate subjects. My conclusion was that his versatility was due to the application of his medium: drawing. By making careful, detailed sketches of things—bees, bodies, bridges—he came to understand them. His pencil thus acted as antennae, with which he probed and investigated his world.

I thought: Could I do something similar? Certainly I have little talent as regards visual art. But I do have a verbal addiction. Perhaps I could use writing in a way similar to how Leonardo used sketching? Such an idea was hardly original. Soon I found out that Zinsser, the writing guru, already had a book about it.

The idea of reading another Zinsser book was not especially appealing. I had already read his popular book On Writing Well, and came away with a sour taste in my mouth. But if I was going to be the next Leonardo, I had to swallow some pickles. Dutifully I bought this book; and, after equally dutiful procrastination, I am here to tell you about it.

My first reaction is distaste. This is not entirely rational. Every good writer has what I call a “literary personality”—related to, but not identical with, their real personality—and I simply do not like Zinsser’s. I do not wish to spend time with him or to invite him to supper. I cannot really articulate why I dislike him, in the same way I can’t say exactly why I don’t like the sound of people eating apples. He’s a strong writer and I agree with much of what he says. He is thoughtful, curious, broadly educated, sensitive to art, music, and literature, and generally benign in his means and ends. When I think about it, I really ought to like him quite a bit. Yet I don’t.

Maybe this is because I object to the way he romanticizes his craft. Zinsser would have you believe writing clearly is one of the most difficult, dangerous, and distasteful activities in the world. It is so hard and so strenuous that it requires continual, backbreaking effort. Good writers are saints, many of them martyrs, including Zinsser himself: “I don’t like to write, but I take great pleasure in having written.” Zinsser makes very clear that his vocation is a heroic one, especially considering that he not only writes himself, but teaches it too:

Why, then, would anyone in his right mind want to be a writing teacher? The answer is that writing teachers aren’t altogether in their right mind. They are in one of the caring professions, no more sane in the allotment of their time and energy than the social worker or the day care worker or the nurse.

It takes serious audacity (to use a polite word) for a writing teacher to compare himself to a nurse. I also gag at this self-pity about the how hard it is to write well. Yes, it can be hard. Lots of things are hard. The only thing that sets writers apart is that they tend to whine the most eloquently.

Even when I put my personal dislike aside, however, I still must conclude that this book is disappointing. It begins with an unnecessary autobiographical section on Zinsser’s childhood education. (Considering how much Zinsser likes to talk about omitting unnecessary material, I found this especially ironic.) The rest of the book consists of long excerpts of what Zinsser considers to be successful examples of writing in different subjects, from anthropology to chemistry, from geology to mathematics. The book could easily have been an anthology, and probably should have been.

Most of what I wanted from this book is lacking. Yes, any subject can be written about engagingly—Zinsser didn’t need to prove this to me—but how do you go about doing that? Zinsser avoids the problem of methodology by insisting that good writing is learned by imitation. This is no doubt largely true; still I found it to be an abdication of this book’s promise: to give the would-be autodidact a strategy, or at least a few tips, for writing to learn.

Another serious omission is that Zinsser does not provide any concrete advice for teachers looking to apply this philosophy to their classes. There are a few reported examples of teachers who have done so, and a lot of hortatory passages about the benefits of “writing across the curriculum,” but very little in the way of concrete strategies for implementing this idea. As both a student and a teacher, I was irked by this.

Still, I suppose this book does have its value as a piece of propaganda. Zinsser is enthusiastic about writing, and his enthusiasm is contagious. For anyone skeptical that any subject—even chemistry, physics, or math—can be written well, or if you’re unsure whether writing can help you think and learn, you’ll find these doubts addressed here. For all its faults, this book does provide a glimpse of a compelling educational ideal: one that allows all of us to be picaflores in good conscience.

View all my reviews

Review: How to Meditate

Review: How to Meditate

How to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your MindHow to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your Mind by Pema Chödrön

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Enlightenment isn’t about going someplace else or attaining something that we don’t have right now. Enlightenment is when the blinders start to come off.

When I was in high school, I spent a few years going to Tae Kwon Do classes. I was never any good. Every time we had sparring practice, I got whooped—that is, unless I accidentally kicked my opponent in the crotch (which I did a lot). But besides the fun of hand-to-hand combat, one thing that kept me coming back was the meditation. After every class, we would spend about ten minutes in a guided meditation. These were not easy. Most often, the master had us holding an uncomfortable or difficult pose, until all my muscles were quivering and shaking and I collapsed.

Sometimes all I felt was pain and struggle; but other times, something would happen. As I listened to the master talk about energy flowing through my body, I could actually feel it. I felt strange forces in my arms and legs, seeming to move through me. This was weird, since I didn’t believe anything the master was saying—at least not in a literal way. I didn’t believe in qi, or energy centers in the body, or any of that stuff; but I felt something, and it was interesting.

This experience left me with a lingering respect for and curiosity about meditation. A book by David D. Burns about anxiety recently reawakened this curiosity. As I read about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, I kept thinking that it reminded me of what I knew (or thought I knew) about Buddhism. Besides that, Burns himself drew some parallels with Buddhism in his discussions of fear. So I decided to look into it. A Buddhist friend of mine suggested Pema Chödrön as a place to start; and this book, a practical guide to meditation, seemed perfect.

I was surprised by what I found. The type of meditation Chödrön advocates doesn’t involve holding difficult postures or enduring pain. You don’t even have to close your eyes. Instead, you find a spot, sit up straight, cross your legs (or don’t), and stay there, eyes open, breathing in and breathing out. You don’t focus on energy centers or the cosmic flow of qi. Instead, you just try to focus on your breath. You breathe in, breathe out, and try to keep your attention on the present moment.

I have been doing these exercises for a week now, and I can tell you that being present, focusing on the moment, is far more difficult than you’d think. My mind is like a boiling, bubbling cauldron. Memories randomly appear; fearful fantasies flash into being; my to-do list nags me; an itch on my head irritates; my leg’s falling asleep; a sound triggers an association; a smell makes me think of food; and spasms of impatience surge through me as the time wares on.

Meditation certainly hasn’t induced a Zen-like calm in me so far. But it says a lot that now I’m aware of all these things. Just sitting there noticing what happens in my head, and letting it all pass through me, has been tremendously interesting. I realize that my very brain is not totally under my control. Things are always happening in there, constantly, spontaneously, which draw my attention from the moment; and it takes effort not to get sucked in.

One of the things I like most about Chödrön’s approach is its versatility. You can make anything your object of meditation. You can focus on sounds, sights, tactile sensations, or the taste of an apple. You can focus on fear, anger, sadness, joy, on fantasies or memories. Anything in your life can be the object of meditation, as long as you use it as an opportunity to reconnect with the present moment. Meditation gives you the self-awareness—not through conceptual discussion, but first-hand experience—to learn what your mind is doing and how to interrupt your habitual patterns.

What I find especially appealing is the philosophy. Well, perhaps “philosophy” isn’t the right word; it’s more of an attitude or a mindset. Through the attempt to reconnect with the moment, you realize how much of your experience is transformed by the conceptual overlay you put on top of it. Our heads are full of judgments, opinions, beliefs. We are constantly telling stories about our lives, with ourselves as the protagonist.

Have you ever had an experience like this? When I was in college, I accepted a job doing surveys over the phone. But I was extremely nervous about it. I imagined respondent after respondent yelling at me, hanging up on me, and my manager angry at me and chastising me, and me having a breakdown and getting fired. This fantasy was so strong, I almost couldn’t make myself go to my first day of work. But when I finally did make myself go, shivering with fear, and when I finally made myself call, my voice quaking, I realized that I could do it. What seemed impossible in my imagination was easy in reality. In fact, I ended up loving that job.

This is what I like to call the “novelistic imagination.” Your mind is a natural dramatist—at least, mine is—and it can tell the most outrageous stories about your past, present, and future. But the interesting thing, I’ve found, is that we’re actually quite bad at imagining how things will be. We’re good at imagining possibilities—especially worst-case scenarios—but bad at imagining experiences. That’s because, when we use our novelistic imagination, we assume that life is a story with a beginning, middle, and end. But life is not a story: it’s a collection of moments. And the present moment is so different, and so much richer, than all the wild fantasies in our minds.

My hunch is that we evolved our novelistic imagination as a way of avoiding danger by running scenarios. “If I go so far away, maybe I won’t be back by sundown, and the hyenas over there might smell me, etc.” The problem is that this gets out of hand, which is why we humans get so many stress-related diseases—not to mention suffer from chronic anxiety. We developed the mental faculty to anticipate danger and avoid it; but we can’t turn it off, so we sense danger everywhere.

This is taking me pretty far from the book (so you know it’s a good book, because it’s making me think). I’ll only add that this book strikes me as an ideal introduction to meditation. Chödrön writes with warmth, humor, and understanding. She is brief and to the point, but you don’t feel that she’s leaving anything out. She is practical, encouraging, and inspiring. I encourage anyone whose curious to try it. You can be a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, a Muslim, or an atheist like me—it doesn’t matter. Meditation is not about believing certain things. To the contrary: it’s about getting past your beliefs about the world, and experiencing the world itself.

View all my reviews

Review: When Panic Attacks

Review: When Panic Attacks

When Panic Attacks: The New, Drug-Free Anxiety Therapy That Can Change Your LifeWhen Panic Attacks: The New, Drug-Free Anxiety Therapy That Can Change Your Life by David D. Burns

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have always been an anxious person. I think I get it from my mother.

One time, we were in the car on our way to the supermarket when, for whatever reason, she asked if I had my license on me. “No,” I said. “Why do I need it? You’re driving.” “But what if we get into an accident?” she replied. At first, this response confused me. Then I realized that she was wondering how people would identify my body if we both died in a crash. “I think they’d figure it out,” I said finally, as scenes of bloody car crashes played in my mental theater.

This anxiety was part of my identity. It shaped how I interacted with strangers, my friends, my family, how I behaved in school, at work, and in my relationships. I thought it was a part of me. Sometimes I would have episodes when my worrying would flare up to the point that I was incapacitated; but for the most part it was manageable. Around last year, however, my panicking got decidedly worse. Terrible fantasies would flood my brain, making my chest tense up, my stomach tie itself into a knot, and adrenaline rush through my body. After another attack again this year, I decided that I didn’t want anxiety to be such a big part of my life anymore, and thus reached for this book.

Burns begins with his general views on anxiety. He doesn’t believe in anxiety disorders. The criteria for diagnosis are, he thinks, vague and arbitrary. There are people who tend to be more anxious than others; but anxiety-proneness falls onto a spectrum and does not map onto two neat categories, normal and pathological. Burns also has a negative opinion of anxiety medications. In his experience, they often don’t work and generally leave the underlying cause untouched. Thus he thinks it’s more effective when people don’t tell themselves that they’re “sick” and don’t treat anxiety like a disease to be cured. Rather, anxiety is a common state and it can be effectively managed through fairly simple techniques.

After explaining his general views, Burns launches into his techniques. These techniques occupy the bulk of the book, and are divided into three categories, Cognitive, Exposure, and Hidden-Emotion.

The Cognitive techniques were the most familiar to me, since this is the same approach used in his book on depression, Feeling Good. As the name implies, these techniques focus on your thoughts and beliefs. Anxiety, in this view, is the result of unrealistically negative thoughts which are traceable to certain deeply held beliefs. Burns calls these beliefs self-defeating, because they equate certain things with happiness, and yet inevitably lead to unhappiness. These self-defeating beliefs may be personal—such as perfectionism or achievement addiction—or interpersonal—such as entitlement or blame. The techniques thus focus on these beliefs and the thoughts they give rise to, with the goal of adopting a more realistic, forgiving, and easygoing attitude towards yourself and others.

Exposure techniques operate on a different principle. Instead of combating your anxiety, you seek it out and embrace it. For people with phobias, this means doing exactly the thing they’re afraid of. For people with traumatic memories, this means revisiting these experiences. For people who are shy, this means socializing. If you run away from what you fear, you only tell yourself that you ought to fear it; but if you confront it, you can find out that there’s nothing to be afraid of.

The Hidden-Emotion technique is based on still another principle. It holds that anxiety results when people sweep negative emotions—like frustration, anger, or hatred—under the rug. This most often results from “niceness”—the fear of upsetting anyone or even admitting to yourself that you’re upset. It is not that the negative feelings are consciously shunned, but that they are not consciously registered at all. Thus the technique consists in examining your life—not your childhood, but right now—and looking for things that bother you that you’ve been ignoring.

By the end of the book, Burns has explained 40 techniques. He includes so many because nobody can be sure which technique will work for which person. His treatment plan consists of trying these techniques one after the other until you find one that’s effective. In his experience, it can be very difficult to predict which one will work in any given case, so he encourages you to experiment.

I can’t summarize each of his techniques here, but I want to include just a couple examples of cognitive techniques.

One technique is thinking in shades of grey—that is, avoid essentialism in your self-talk. This sounds simple enough, but I’ve found that most people tend not to do this. For example, if a guy is trying to quit smoking, but he only lasts three months, he might conclude “I’m a failure.” Yet it would be more realistic for him to say “I was successful for three months, and then I relapsed. Maybe I can be successful for longer next time.” That’s both more accurate and more encouraging.

Also useful is the double-standard technique. If you’re having a problem and beating yourself up, ask yourself how you’d treat a friend who was having this same problem. Often you’ll find that you’re much more compassionate, understanding, and optimistic with your friend. Once you realize that, try talking to yourself the same way. If you do this, you can respect yourself in good times and bad, just like you respect your best friends, rather than beating yourself up for falling short, failing, being rejected, or getting criticized.

You may be thinking that these “techniques” are childishly simple. Indeed they are. And yet I was acting in the very opposite way, and without this book I don’t think I would have changed. Besides, simplicity is a good thing. The techniques don’t require you to believe anything untenable or subscribe to a new philosophy of life. They only require that you do some work with a pencil or paper, or try a new approach in conversation, or get over a fear that’s been holding you back. They allow you to understand and confront your emotions rather than be their victim.

That’s all for my overview. I could stop here with the note that I’ve found the book extremely helpful, indeed emancipating. But it is hard to write reviews of self-help books without lapsing into autobiography—at least for me it is. Well, here it goes.

The biggest realization I had while reading this book is that much of my anxiety resulted from being out of touch with my emotions. I think Burns would say I had emotional perfectionism, and thus swept a lot of negative feelings under the rug. But lately some kind of interior barrier broke. I suddenly realized that I was sad, and I cried for the first time in many years. It was a huge relief! Now even children’s movies are enough to set me off. I watched Inside Out on the plane ride back from Spain and ended up in tears. My girlfriend was absolutely shocked.

My other main lesson from this book is that fears have to be faced, not shunned. Instead of trying to push away my anxiety—resulting in endless struggle—now I just let it do its work. And the strange thing is that as soon as I stop resisting, the anxiety loses its grip.

To reinforce this lesson, I decided to confront one of my oldest fears—roller coasters. I went out to Coney Island and rode three of them.

When I was a kid, I went on a few roller coasters and hated it. Looking back, I think that’s because I mentally resisted the experience. I kept wishing to stop and get off, and simply wouldn’t accept the fact that I couldn’t do anything but sit there. This time around, I was scared, but instead of resisting it I told myself that there’s no getting off so I might as well try to enjoy it. That made all the difference. The ride itself was actually fun, and not terribly scary. The only difficult part was making myself get on.

And I realized that roller coasters provide a perfect metaphor for anxiety. If you resist the experience and try to wish it away, it’s only going to seem terrifying, pointless, and dangerous. But if you accept the experience and embrace it, you’ll find that it’s harmless fun.

So treat fear like a roller coaster that you can’t get off. Accept the things that scare you, accept your fear, and accept the insecurities, limitations, and imperfections that make you afraid. You can’t wish them away, so you might as well have some fun.

IMG_5621

View all my reviews

Review: Feeling Good

Review: Feeling Good

Feeling Good: The New Mood TherapyFeeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David D. Burns
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you can love and respect yourself in failure, worlds of adventure and new experiences will open up before you, and your fears will vanish.

It is an interesting statement on contemporary culture that practical, self-help books are often looked down on as lowbrow, unsophisticated, and unworthy of serious consideration. Just note how often in reviews of self-help books you come across the phrase, “I don’t normally read books like this,” or the like. Of course, skepticism regarding books of this kind is merited, especially when you take into account the amount of quackery, chicanery, demagoguery, and baloney in print. Indeed, I think it’s fair to say we have a veritable advice industry in our culture today, with a great deal of money to be made and thus lots of enterprising, unscrupulous people peddling various forms of nonsense, hoping to get rich. Self-help books now sell so well that they have to be excluded from non-fiction sales rankings, because if they weren’t the top 10 best sellers would be an endless parade of one self-help book after another.

But why are so many people willing to pay for and devour book after book, getting swept about by the ceaseless winds of doctrine, navigating their lives through fad after fad? Fashionable ways of running and ruining your life have always been with us; yet I think there is another aggravating factor at work in the present day.

Recently I read two history books, one about Ancient Greece and the other about Rome. As I learned about the philosophies of education in those societies, I noticed how central were the ideas of ethical and moral teaching. I don’t mean ethical in the narrow sense of right and wrong, but in the wider Greek sense, used by Aristotle, the Stoics, and the Epicureans—how to cultivate wisdom, how to live a well-regulated life, how to deal with the hardships and misfortunes that are so often thrown our way. These were primary concerns of pedagogy. By contrast, our current education system, as least here in the States, has deemphasized ethical teaching almost completely.

There are, of course, many reasons for this, and many of them are good ones; but I do think it leaves a certain gap in our culture that self-help books partially fill. Unfortunately, from what I can tell, many of these seem rather mediocre—or worse. But this book, by David D. Burns, is for me one of the exceptions. It is an interesting and, for me, an extremely useful book, based on a well-studied and much-tested therapeutic technique.

Burns’s aim in writing this book was to popularize the methods of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a therapeutic technique developed by the psychologist Aaron T. Beck, among others. The premise of CBT is very simple: your moods are caused by your thoughts, so by controlling your thoughts you can control your moods. At first sight, this may seem like complete nonsense; our moods come and go, and our thoughts simply take on the timbre of whatever mood we happened to be in, right? This seems to be what most people assume; certainly I did. Yet consider this scenario, which actually happened to me:

My boss scheduled a meeting with me out of the blue. I immediately started thinking that I hadn’t been doing a good job recently, so I began to panic, sure I was about to get fired. Eventually, this panic turned to indignation, as I convinced myself of the injustice of the situation, since I worked hard and tried my best. So, literally trembling with anxiety and outrage, I went to the meeting and sat down; and my boss said: “We’re giving you a bonus, because you’ve been doing so well. Congratulations!” Suddenly, all my negative feelings turned into joy.

This I think well illustrates the central idea behind CPT. All of my negative and positive emotions in this scenario were due to my interpretation of the event, not the event itself. I made the false assumption, based on no evidence, that I was going to be fired. I thought of every mistake and imperfection in my work over the last month or so, and convinced myself that I was doing poorly and that termination was imminent. Then, I persuaded myself that I wasn’t given adequate resources or support, and that the situation was unjust. And when I was finally given the bonus, I interpreted that to mean I was doing a good job and that I was getting all the support I needed—which were equally tenuous interpretations. Thus you can see how my mood was a direct product of my thoughts.

All of my negative assumption in the above paragraph contain what Burns calls “warped thoughts,” or cognitive distortions. These are irrational patterns of thinking which have been found to be common in depressed and overly anxious patients. The CBT interpretation of depression is that these thinking patterns are not caused by depression, but actually cause depression. In other words, depression results from persistent, unrealistic negative interpretations of one’s life and experience, leading one to focus solely on the bad and to feel hopeless about the future.

Burns gives a list of 10 types of warped thoughts, but in my opinion there is quite a bit of overlap in the categories. The distortions more or less boil down to the following:

—Making negative assumptions, whether about the future or about what someone else is thinking;
—Assuming that one’s emotions accurately reflect reality;
—Over-generalizing a small number of negative occurrences into an inevitable trend;
—Willfully ignoring all of the positives to focus solely on the negative;
—Thinking in black and white categories;
—Making unjustified “should” or “ought” statements about the world without considering other people’s perspectives;
—Feeling that you are responsible for things over which you have no control;
—Labeling oneself and others with vague pejoratives.

The first part of this book is dedicated to allowing the reader to recognize these types of thoughts and to combat them. This most often is just a matter of writing these thoughts down and exposing the distortions that lay beneath. Simple as this sounds, I’ve found this to be remarkably effective. As you might have guessed from the above example, I am rather prone to anxiety; and during this summer, my anxiety was getting to the point that I felt incapacitated. I was driving my friends and family nuts with my constant worrying; and nobody, including myself, knew how to deal with me.

Luckily, I heard about a site called MoodGYM, which is a website developed by the Australian National University for people dealing with anxiety and depression, using the techniques of CBT. Desperate for some relief, I completed the reading and activities on the website, and found that I felt much, much better. Impressed, I looked for books on CBT techniques, and of course came across this one.

What most intrigued me about CBT was the emphasis on accuracy. The techniques weren’t based on the premise that I was somehow damaged or filled with strange desires, nor did they include any amount of self-delusion or wishful thinking. Quite the reverse: the whole emphasis was on thinking clearly, basing beliefs on evidence, avoiding unreasonable assumptions, and seeing things from multiple points of view.

Take anger. Very often (though not always), our feelings of indignation simply result from seeing an event through a narrowly selfish lens. We don’t get the job we interviewed for, and we feel cheated; someone beat us to that parking spot, and we feel outraged. But when we consider these scenarios from the perspective of the boss or the other driver, the situation suddenly seems much more just and fair; they are pursuing their own interests, just like we are. So simply by looking at the situation from multiple points of view, and thus understanding it more fully, our feelings of anger are cooled.

When I began working through the techniques in the book, I was astounded by how often these types of distortions plagued my thinking. It would almost be funny if it wasn’t so unpleasant: I could twist any situation or piece of information into somehow reflecting negatively on my character. Everything bad in the world confirmed my negativity, and everything good only served to reproach me and to make me envious and resentful. The good news was that, when I began to recognize these illogical patterns of thought, it was extremely easy for me to correct them; and for the past month or so I’ve been feeling a great deal happier and calmer.

After teaching the reader several personal and interpersonal techniques—strategies for dealing with oneself and others more effectively—Burns moves on to examining some of the underlying assumptions that give rise to warped thinking. It turns out that these all involve equating one’s “value” or “worth” with some extrinsic good, whether it be approval, love, success, fame, or even skill. There is, of course, nothing wrong with enjoying the approval of others, the thrill of love, the sense of accomplishment, or the satisfaction of a job well done. The problem arises when, instead of enjoying something, we use it to measure ourselves.

To use a somewhat silly but germane example, how many people believe that those who read more books, bigger books, harder books, are somehow “superior” to people who don’t? I’ve certainly been guilty of this; but it is pretty clearly an absurd position when I think about it, and one that I couldn’t possibly defend on any valid moral or intellectual grounds. What on earth does it even mean to be a “superior” person?

Superiority only makes sense when we have some quality we can measure, such as wealth or strength; but when we say “superior” by itself, what quality do we mean? “Worth”? How do you measure that? You can try being clever and say “By the number of books you read” or something, but that’s clearly circular reasoning. If you are a humanist or religious, you might say that you have worth just from the fact of being alive; but then of course everyone is equally worthy and there’s no sense in feeling worthless.

In the non-Goodreads population, I suspect book addiction isn’t a big problem; more often, people feel down because they imagine that approval, love, money, or expertise is necessary to be a worthwhile and happy person. But the absurdity of this kind of thinking is revealed when you consider how many famous, beloved, rich, virtuosic, brilliant, successful people there have been, and still are, who are deeply depressed and feel worthless and hopeless. Short of torture, there are no circumstances in life that guarantee unhappiness; and the same goes for happiness. This is not to say that you shouldn’t try to change or improve your situation, only a reminder you that the way you interpret a situation is often as important as the situation itself, if not more so.

I cannot hope to sum up the entire book in the space of this review; but I hope what I have included has convinced you that it’s at least worth looking into. After all, by definition, nothing feels better than happiness.

Of course, the book isn’t perfect. Burns’s writing style is nothing remarkable, and it is occasionally tacky; but I think that it’s excusable considering that he’s a therapist, not a writer, and that he’s trying to reach a popular audience. One flaw that I thought was less easy to excuse was Burns’s exclusive focus on straight couples in his sections on love and relationships. Burns writes in a purely heteronormative vein, not even acknowledging same-sex couples, which is difficult to justify, considering the higher rates of depression and anxiety among gays and lesbians—not to mention others in the LGBTQ community. I hope this is changed in future additions.

A criticism I am tempted to make, but which I actually think is unfair, is that CBT makes people passive, accepting, and more content with the status quo. It sometimes seems as if Burns is telling people not to try to change their circumstances, but rather to accommodate themselves to them. I think this is unfair for a few reasons. No matter how powerful we may be, there will always be things in life which we cannot change and which we simply have to accept; so developing the tools to do so without frustration or anger is useful for everyone. What’s more, real depression and anxiety are not conducive to effective action. Quite the opposite: depression often makes people apathetic and anxiety makes people feel too overwhelmed to do anything. Besides, you can’t solve a problem unless you can see it clearly, and the thinking patterns associated with depression and anxiety lead to a total inability to see problems clearly and to deal with them rationally. So I think accusations that this book is somehow reactionary or that it leads to passivity are unfair.

To sum up this already overlong review, I just hope I’ve convinced you that this book might be extremely valuable to you or to someone you know. It certainly has been for me. Now I no longer feel that I am at the mercy of my moods or emotions, or that my sense of self-worth or confidence is dependent on my circumstances. And I’d say these benefits definitely outweigh the tacky cover and the corny title, don’t you?

(Oh, and if the book seems like too big a commitment, MoodGYM is pretty swell too, despite additional corniness of course.)

View all my reviews

Review: Feeling Good Together

Review: Feeling Good Together

Feeling Good Together: The Secret to Making Troubled Relationships WorkFeeling Good Together: The Secret to Making Troubled Relationships Work by David D. Burns
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The path to intimacy is nearly always painful.


For a while now I have believed that the Life of Reading, if it isn’t to be merely a diversion or a way of stroking one’s own ego, must be a life of self-transformation. To be well-read does not only mean to be familiar with certain names and ideas, plots and quotes; more importantly, it entails the development of real changes in perspective, personality, and behavior. Thus when I recently ran into a problem in my relationship, I chose to see it as an opportunity to improve myself through reading. And since I’ve already been helped by David Burns’s Feeling Good, I turned once more to his work.

Burns begins with a simple but, for me, surprising point. Psychologists and the general public have long assumed that people experience relationship difficulties because they lack the proper interpersonal skills. They crave intimacy, but they don’t know how to achieve it. The obvious solution would be to train couples to express their feelings—to learn how to empathize and to be assertive. The problem is, despite many different techniques for doing this, couples counseling has a pretty disappointing success rate. Why is this?

The reason, says Burns, is because very often we don’t really want intimacy. There are lots of benefits of having an antagonistic relationship: you get to feel like you’re in the right, you feel powerful, you take without giving, you aren’t vulnerable, you get to complain to your friends about how mistreated you are—and this list only scratches the surface. This is the ugly side of human nature, the side of ourselves we most often don’t like to acknowledge. But coming to terms with this part of ourselves, and deciding whether we prefer the benefits of an intimate or an antagonistic relationship, is a crucial step: you’ve got to decide if you want intimacy, and if you’re willing to look at a part of yourself usually swept under the rug.

Next, Burns introduces his criteria for successful communication: empathize with your partner’s thoughts and feelings, clearly express your own feelings, and always treat your partner with respect. This sounds simple and even obvious, but when I analyzed a common interaction I had with my partner, I realized how badly I was communicating. Indeed, the more I analyzed my own interactions, the more I realized that I had been effectively shutting down communication. And when I imagined what it would be like to be on the receiving end of my words, I suddenly understood—with a pang of remorse—that it would have felt really awful.

After coming to terms with the flaws in one’s own behavior, Burns next teaches you skills for communicating more effectively. Conceptually, these are simple enough: understand your partner’s perspective, acknowledge their feelings, share your own feelings respectfully, give them praise, and encourage them to share more. However, doing this in the heat of battle, when both you and your partner are upset, is challenging and takes a lot of practice. The urge to blame your partner for your problems can be overwhelming; and treating someone else respectfully while you’re feeling angry, hurt, or rejected can be an enormous challenge. Thus Burns has you practice with a variety of imaginary scenarios and also provides some exercises to do with a friend. The practice is the really valuable part. Everyone says they want to empathize better, but most people don’t know how and don’t take the time to learn.

That’s the book in a nutshell. Personally, I found it to be clear, persuasive, and helpful; and although I still need practice, I have found the strategies highly effective. Even if you do all the exercises, it’s a pretty quick read, yet he packs quite a lot into the book.

Of course, this book isn’t perfect. One superficial thing that bothered me was Burns’s calling his strategies “Secrets,” which unfortunately makes him sound like a cheap con artist to me. Also unfortunate was his choice to use imaginary couples for his examples, thus giving most his anecdotes a rather artificial and flavorless quality. The men and women don’t seem like real people with real problems, but soulless illustrations. Another shortcoming, it seems to me, was that Burns didn’t discuss forgiveness. Relationships require constant forgiveness, and they reach crises when one of the partners can’t decide whether to forgive or not. I’ve known many people in relationships who were wondering, after years of accumulated pain, whether it was worth forgiving the partner or if it was better to let the relationship end. Usually I don’t know what advice to give, and I’d be curious to hear Burns on the topic.

But I can’t dwell on these faults, because once again I feel an enormous debt of gratitude to Burns, for I discovered something about myself as I read. While analyzing my own ineffective behavior, I began to wonder why I had acted in such a nasty way to a loved one. Gradually, I was forced to face the fact that I got a real pleasure from acting disrespectfully. Being condescending was a way of propping up my ego and maintaining a heightened self-image.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized how many of my actions, both inside and outside my relationship, were done to gratify my ego and create a certain persona. Meanwhile, this prevented me from effectively sharing my emotions or feeling close to others. I was trapped by a need to feel superior, which required constant snobbishness..

It feels odd to write these things about myself, for truly it is ignoble to be so egotistic. But I had to look deeply at this part of myself, and understand that my condescension was fueled by a deep fear of inadequacy, before I could change my behavior. This meant giving up this self-image, letting my ego die—and it’s been hard. Feeling superior to others was something I savored, and now I’m trying to give it up. But it’s worth it. The compensation is being open to a new world of joys.

View all my reviews