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I'm surprised they still publish books like this. In spite of its titular nod to the self-help genre, it is in fact an old fashioned book of essays with the author dispensing wisdom culled from a lifetime rich in variegated experiences and incident. And Gordon Livingston, a walking paradox, has something worth saying. He is a West Point Graduate decorated for bravery but doesn't believe in war; a patriot at odds with the foreign policy pursued by the US since World War II; a physician who now practises as a psychiatrist; a psychiatrist with a social outlook and sceptical about his own effectiveness; someone widely read who communicates plainly and with ease.
Here are thirty meditations on modern culture and contemporary consciousness and how they are coloured by our collective fears and failure of courage, both personal and collective: an examination of the human condition in an age-old tradition, brought up to date by a contemporary with an unblinking gaze.
For me, the nub of the book revolves around its ninth chapter or 'truth' as the author prefers -- Courage is not a feeling; it is a habit. For here is the key to Livingston's thinking and to the whole book. It is built on a useful piece of advice about dealing with our fears which in characteristic style he transforms from a standard self-help tip into a deeper and wide-ranging challenge to our humanity.
This stems from an experience he had as a soldier, as do many of his reflections, when he was learning to parachute. He learnt the only way to overcome fear, in this instance his fear of heights, is to confront it. He found that as he repeated the experience of stepping out of the aircraft, his fear started to diminish and eventually he began not only to enjoy the experience but to positively look for opportunities to jump. For the majority of us, however, we find it far easier to avoid fear-inducing situations altogether, as it can be a slow and terrifying process, not just fear of heights but other everyday fears such as fear of public speaking, asking for a raise, confronting a bully.
But he seeks to make a larger point. By overcoming our fears, we make ourselves into bigger people. We are diminished by choosing the easier option of avoiding these situations and looking for the short-term relief of our anxiety. What does it mean, he asks, to live a small life as opposed to an expansive one, that is, a life that benefits others? Any attempt to build a cocoon of safety around ourselves is illusory in Livingston's book and leads us into all kinds of convoluted knots, like confusing our own good fortune with some virtue we possess and refusing to help either politically or personally those less fortunate than ourselves.
This habit of averting our eyes from others' hardship works only until we experience our own losses and calamities, says Livingston, like when the tornado strikes our street, when someone close to us dies, when we are reminded of the fragility of all we have and all we love, we are finally humbled. We live in an impersonal universe, he says, where rewards and punishments are, in fact, not allocated by merit.
So what standpoint does he suggest we adopt to give us some positive take on this universe? Or as he puts it, what is required to respond bravely to the evident fact that we have so little control over what happens to us? The truth is, he states, that as long as we live, we are never out of choices.
We need to find a realistic place between the narcissistic illusion that we will be spared the experience of watching our best hopes collapse and the belief that life is meaningless if we cannot control it. If we can find such a middle ground, we will not relinquish the fight.
It seems to me that Livingston is about old-fashioned public service. Self-improvement, he would maintain, is not an end in itself but should be a way of reaching out to the larger community. The cardinal virtues, he says, are kindness and courage and if we are going to make choices and take risks, it must be to benefit others, if we are to be truly courageous. He points out that one of the ironies of the capitalist system is that the largest material rewards go to the most selfish and acquisitive among us while self-absorption is the personal characteristic that most threatens our ability to live peacefully with each other. Society should enshrine true courage in an honours system that awards valour medals to those who manifest their feelings of generosity, empathy and obligation to others, even if they are not risking their lives in the process.
On the whole, this is a book of trenchant observation, with some arresting insights by a thoughtful and humane observer. It is not uniform in its excellence as some chapters seem to end rather inconclusively and abruptly and some which seem a little detached from the rich soil of his own experience and lack conviction, such as the one on humour.
He does not propose any remedies for the contradictions and anomalies which he identifies and with which our society is riddled, either as a civic programme or steps in a programme of personal change and sometimes there is a suspicion of the elderly grump out of synch with a new age, where his generalisations are a little too sweeping but David Livingston has survived some extremely harrowing experiences in his life, has encountered people at their weakest and has a lot to teach us.
© 2012 Chris Vaughan
Chris Vaughan writes about himself: I live in Birmingham, England. I am now retired after a career in the pharma industry and am very much involved in community activities. I am a board member of the Birmingham Environmental Partnership and chair a local patient network. I have written a book on the British Health Service and I currently write for a health website. I am very interested in the mind-body.