I have been going through a transition period for much of the last few years. A profound personal loss in 2020 has accelerated this journey. My reading list of late has hugely been influenced by these changes. In January, I re-read several old favorites. Here are a quick list and short reviews.
4/5*: On Confidence by The School of Life
Alain de Botton is one of my favorite living thinkers. I disagree with a lot of what Botton has to say, but he never ceases to say interesting things and brings up fresh perspectives that make you reflect and consider and offer an entirely different perspective for looking into the problem of living in a society increasingly devoid of sacred and sacred ideals.
On Confidence by The School of Life is a wonderful small book for anyone suffering from a little lack of confidence, suffering from so-called imposter syndrome, and are in need of a little upliftment in their esteem. It is just over a hundred pages. And it is full of gems and genuine insights that you can put into work right away.
Like every other work of Botton, there is a lot of consolation for our lot and condition. He offers examples and assertions confirming that everyone, apparently intelligent and successful people we admire, equally suffers from a lack of confidence at times and does consider themselves as fools.
By making our problem of lack of confidence common even among the most successful ones in society, he manages to convince us that we are not entirely unique in our lack of confidence. There is rarely anyone else in a better position than us.
The book takes a more foundational look into the issue of the origin of our lack of confidence, which essentially is a sense that I’m not enough. For example, it explains our lack of confidence may have originated in our childhood. It also offers how we may cure ourselves, not entirely of course, of the disease of a lack of confidence at times.
One of the most powerful books I have read of late. It deals with religious spirituality and purifying our hearts, an important metric for judgment in Islamic tradition.
The book has identified symptoms for a number of diseases of the heart and offers practices to remedy the diseases such as envy, hatred, wantonness, and so on. This is a deep read and deals with matters that modern secular people deem unnecessary but deeply in need of.
The crisis of our time is not the scarcity of wealth or education, it is the scarcity of civility and kindness, and patience. We have reduced everything to “explainable”, and in the process lost the capacity to believe in sacredness. As a result, our only remedy for life’s tragedies is doing more of what does not work: more consumption, more travel, more social media, and binge-watching, and so on.
Here is a beautiful quote from the book: “Muslim scholars have identified four essential qualities in human beings, which have been identified in earlier traditions as well. Imam al-Ghazālī and Fakhruddīn al-Rāzī adopted them, as did Imam Rāghib al-Isfahānī in his book on ethics. According to Imam al-Ghazālī, the first of them is quwwat al-ʿilm, known in Western tradition as the rational soul, which is human capacity to learn. The next one, quwwat al-ghaḍab, which may be called the irascible soul, is the capacity that relates to human emotion and anger. The third element, quwwat alshahwah, known as the concupiscent soul, is related to appetite and desire. The fourth power, quwwat al-ʿadl, harmonizes the previous three powers and keeps them in balance so that no one capacity overtakes and suppresses the others.”
I have found this to be a deeply relevant read for our time. We are living through one of the most prosperous times in human history. The condition of a collective lot of humanity has never been better. Despite the immense material achievement and humdrum of GDP and economic growth talk, we are going through a time when despair, a sense of meaninglessness, and depression are pervasive in all corners of our society.
Over the years, our cultures have turned heedless, flooded with profanity and moral relativity in every area of how we operate. Consequently, an unbearable lightness of being haunts every area of our lives. We would give everything for material success. To undo our success, we find material success deeply hollow and meaningless. As a result, we give into rampant consumerism, having more sensation in the form of binge-watch, travel, and consumption as an antidote to our persistent sense of rootlessness and loss. I have experienced all of these.
A sense of inadequacy coupled with the meaninglessness of everything around us is the source of many diseases of our time. Nothing inspires or excites us anymore because we know deep inside ourselves that nothing is what appears to be.
My personal experience is that this is a disease of the heart. Our heart has become corrupt. The Purification of Heart offers an excellent antidote to our disease of heart for anyone regardless of their religious views.
4/5*: Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves by Stephen Grosz
Life is bizarre. At times, the reality is peculiar than the cinemas. We suffer from all kinds of maladies and malfunctions. They come in a relentless torrent as if someone has opened the floodgate of misfortune in our favor.
We might think we are probably all alone in our tragedies and trials. Life probably is not this difficult for other people. The ones who keep on sharing beautiful photos from their routine travels to exotic places. Romantic excursion with their beautiful partners. Happy faces and relentless progress in their career and life. We are probably the unfortunate ones. With deep dissatisfaction. Unmet needs. Contentious relationships. Halted progress in life and career.
In his excellent book Examined Life, a collection of stories from his psychotherapy practice, Stephen Grosz, psychoanalyst, and author, offers us a window into the lives of other people and all kinds of trials and tribulations people go through in life. A timely consolation for our own tragedies and a compendious of insights to deal with life’s challenges.
The book, a collection of stories and accompanying reflection from the Author’s twenty-five years of work as a psychoanalyst, offers a unique insight into how life goes stray and what we can and can’t do about it.
The book has everything from how our childhood experiences shape our present, past, and future to how our inability to change even when we realize change is necessary for our survival and growth and how certain difficulties become enmeshed with our identities and we don’t want to change them despite the fact that they are harmful to us. Some problems that we endure in life serve a purpose for us. Unless we understand it and get rid of that purpose, we would not be able to solve that problem.