How Not to Do It Yourself

The unhappy company of self-help books

Written by Harneet Singh | New Delhi | Published:September 29, 2013 5:38 am

The unhappy company of self-help books

As somebody once said there’s a difference between a failure and a fiasco. A failure is simply the non-presence of success. Any fool can accomplish failure. But a fiasco…a fiasco is a disaster of mythic proportions. A fiasco is a folk tale told to others that makes other people feel more alive because it didn’t happen to them.

— Drew Baylor,Elizabethtown

For someone who thrives on being the heroine of her own screenplay — however sappy,mopey,dark or delirious it is — I believe I’m Drew Baylor. I’m the folk tale told to others. I’m a fiasco.

My story didn’t start like that. Years ago,when I was graduating from college,my friends would use words like “shiny” and “happy” to describe me. And then life happened and with it came despair. It wasn’t easy to deal with the diagnosis. I needed something that would make me accept the new me. I needed to upgrade my life’s software. I needed hand-holding and since most of my friends had given up on me “because I was constantly moping for no reason”,I fell for the “read this book and it’ll change your life” trap. I became a self-help addict.

It wasn’t an easy transition because I abhorred pop psychology books. Come on,nobody wants to become the person who gets life gyaan from books,right? But here I was. One day,I glanced at my bookshelf and I saw a row of self-help books. I don’t remember the exact moment when I became the self-help reader but I had. I really took the blurbs seriously. I started believing that if I followed the instructions,my life would improve. I dedicated a few years to scout around and read every new book I could so that I could find happiness. The likes of Byron Katie,Rhonda Byrne,Paulo Coelho,Matthieu Ricard and Brené Brown became my roommates. I thought at least one of them would help me decode the happiness code.

They didn’t. Slowly,I began to understand that the books that were supposed to make me happy actually made me realise that I was really unhappy.

They said: “Ask and you shall receive.”

I asked but I still didn’t get the ‘sorry’ I felt I should be getting from all those who hurt me. They said: “You can heal your life.” Really? I can’t heal a stress pimple on my face and I’ve been meditating on it for at least six months. They said: “When you want something,the whole universe conspires to give it to you.” Aha! I’ve been calling the Universe since The Notebook but Ryan Gosling still hasn’t been delivered to my apartment! They said: “You need to be positive all the time to be happy.” Hello,that’s just not possible,have you heard of something called the PMS? Elizabeth Gilbert said,“Smile from your liver.” Umm,not applicable since I’m so unhappy that I drank my liver. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying said,“I eat when I eat and I sleep when I sleep.” Clearly,the authors haven’t met a journalist chasing a story with deadlines whooshing over the head. I hardly sleep and I can’t remember the time when I did nothing else but only eat.

So,as you can see,the books that were supposed to lead me to Happy Land led me to writing this piece. It’s not that I’m negating self-help books totally,I’ve come to think of them like braces. They are important to strengthen a part of you,to keep it in place. But you outgrow them really fast.

Books can never tell us how to lead our life,only life has that privilege. But there are a few lessons I learnt in my years of life rehab. I’ve learnt that you can’t pre-order love,success or achievement. That we all get hurt. That it’s okay to feel lost. That nobody really knows anything,we are all fooling ourselves all the time. That the most empowering words are “I don’t know”. That the only way you can learn in life is through people,but eventually,people will hurt you and that’s how you grow. That the bestest prayers in the world are “Help Me”,“Save Me” and “Thank You”. That a break-up doesn’t always need to feel like you are breaking. That forgiveness is the best gift you can gift yourself.

As for happiness? The more self-help books I read,the more I came to the conclusion that,maybe,we are not supposed to be happy. Maybe,we are not wired to be happy. If we were,then we wouldn’t be chasing it all the time. I’ve made my peace with that. No book can change it for me. For now. Or maybe Ryan Gosling can. So what the heck? Once more,with feeling: “Hello Universe!”

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