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Tommy Hellsten opens his Courage to Surrender: 8 Contradictions on the Spiritual Path with his personal story. "Having acted as a family therapist of sorts from [his] early teens," he sets out upon a journey to steer his client-readers in the direction of spiritual growth and mental health. His guidebook along this path is framed as a series of eight paradoxes, each of which he unlocks in turn to reveal the paradoxical nature of life and the human condition. The core message of Hellsten's book is that people's illusions of personal power and self-sufficiency must be surrendered to achieve a healthy human life. A critique of the modern, fast-paced, success-oriented, consumption-driven, self-seeking life in modern industrialized, materialistic society, this book counsels that we admit our incompleteness, befriend our weaknesses, humble ourselves to our human frailty, and recognize our necessary reliance upon others (and ultimately the Judeo-Christian god) for fulfillment and happiness.
The first paradox--"the journey begins when you stop"--launches the reader into a monologue on the wisdom of unknowing. Jesus is cited as the exemplar of paradox and humility. The failure to elect the obvious candidate, Socrates, as the exemplary proponent (and originator) of the notion of human wisdom as humility (Socrates is the wisest man in Athens because he knows that he does not know) can be explained by Hellsten's anti-reason stance: intellect is posed as an obstacle to healthy living. Where Socrates counsels the wisdom of unknowing as an invitation to rational inquiry, Hellsten insists that one must have "the courage to surrender" reason and to take "a leap of faith" (p. 13).
With the second paradox--"true strength can only be found in weakness"--Hellsten takes a firm stand against the modern construal of weakness as despicable and shameful. He encourages us to face our common human frailty and come to embrace it as an opportunity to link with others on a common plane. All human beings are frail corporeal creatures; clinging to others is how we come to know love, overcome fear, and find our authentic selves.
With the third paradox--"if you seek safety, live dangerously--Hellsten argues that the bad things that befall people are blessings in disguise, and serve an important function in human lives: "only by enduring the pain of misfortune can we truly savor the triumphant joys of life" (p. 32). The pain and suffering that most people would deem "evil," Hellsten redeems and celebrates as the necessary backdrop to a happy life. He counsels against "unhealthy self-sufficiency," and suggests "wrecking our elaborate security constructions" or "safety structures" (pp. 43, 44), including our "clinging to others" (p. 36).
Paradox four--"what you give up will be given to you"--is a critique of moral individualism and a eulogy of moral absolutes. When "our morals become elastic, nothing is absolute," Hellsten laments (p. 72). He gestures toward faith and "a deep dependency on others" as the right path to authentic selfhood (p. 82).
Paradoxes five through seven--"the less you do, the more you get done"--counsels that we replace the idea of being as "the place where doing happens" with the place where we find rest (p. 92). The sixth and seventh paradoxes--"only alone can we be together" and "only together can we be alone"--speak of respect for self and others, especially crucial in modern capitalist societies that tend to isolate and alienate individuals, pitting them in competition against each other, rather than encouraging mutually-supportive communities.
Finally, paradox eight--"if you seek eternity, live in the here and now"--critiques the tendency in modern societies to deem consumption as "a holy act" and hold material goods as the "sacred" dimension of life. Here, Hellsten closes with a deeply religious call to bring one's troubles to "the Christian faith [which] holds answers to all these questions" (p. 140).
There exists little doubt that Hellsten's spiritual primer offers some valuable insights into mental and spiritual health. He highlights unresolved childhood issues as the primary source of a sickened psyche and an unhappy, alienated life. He offers a shrewd analysis of alcoholism as a coping mechanism for life failures, and wise counsel for how addictions may be overcome--by staying focused upon one's weakness, so as to avoid the false confidence that leads to risky behaviors. His critique of the tendency of the forces of consumerism and industrialization to dehumanize and alienate people will ring true for most readers.
On the other hand, there are serious problems with Hellsten's book and the spiritual path to which he beckons us. Paradox is the stuff of human life, and reason alone cannot mend the fractures of modern society, but easy platitudes, self-contradictory counsel, and faulty logic cannot set us on the path to redemption. Human existence is absurd enough without being advised to overcome both our tendency to "live only for the moment, as if each one were our last" (p. 14) and our tendency to "step out of the present moment . . . the only moment in which life is present" (p. 38). Hellsten assures us that stubborn trust in our own convictions is one of the greatest roadblocks to human connection and individual happiness (p. 48). Yet, a page later, he hails as "heroes" men who "stubbornly [stand] by their own convictions" (p. 49). Then again, he flips his counsel: we must give up our need to control truth; "we no longer need to see things only from our own viewpoint" (p. 127).
We should abandon our individual convictions and gain the wisdom of unknowing, so that our humility will open us to faith and Christian "absolutes": Hellsten laments, "our morals have become elastic; nothing is absolute" (p. 72). But "moral absolutes" (from the Latin more designating social customs and prohibitions) are precisely what shift from society to society, begging the question why Christian mores are the ones to be granted "absolute" status.
Add to the book's logical--and moral--problems its troubling use of gendered language (he, man), its redemption of pain and suffering as valuable aspects of life (logically rendering perpetrators our benefactors), and its universalizing discourse, which suggests a common "human nature" that sickens and finds health in identical ways. Hellsten may have written seventeen books and practiced therapy all his life, as his introduction indicates, but serious scholars, and indeed any educated audience, will need to muster the "courage to surrender" their expectations that this book, little more than an oversimplistic, logically faulty, all-too-Christian string of platitudes, is a serious attempt at therapy.
© 2008 Wendy C. Hamblet
Wendy C. Hamblet, Ph.D., SAC (Dip), North Carolina A&T State University