Saturday, November 10, 2007

Cult-Like Programs I've Embraced, Part V: Don't Sweat the Small Stuff (and It's All Small Stuff)

In my old office I had a corner filled with black and white pictures of Men of Character. Arranged so that my head was positioned in the center of the group, when viewed from the door, were portraits of Hunter Thompson, Johnny Cash, Allen Ginsberg, my kid, and a tiny shot of a guy with a Big Toothy Grin and a slightly too-intense, almost forced, look of sheer ecstasy on his face. That last was Richard Carlson, author of Don't Sweat the Small Stuff (and It's All Small Stuff).

And here we go, go ahead, roll your eyes -- beliiieeeeeeve me, you're not rolling your eyes any more than I did when I walked into the downstairs part of Shakespeare & Co. back in '02-'03(?), followed the alphabet to the right shelf, thumbed past all the ultra-specialized Don't Sweat volumes, and settled on the classic. My own eyes had rolled so far up into my head that scoff-atometers a block away in the Derision Lab at Hunter College began sneering and saying "Puh-leeeze" and they weren't even turned on.

Weighing down one shoulder, as I walked to the cash register with that slim, brown, vaguely victorian-looking volume, were Stewart Smalley, Oprah Winfrey, someone saying "You go, girl!" and lots of kitty-cats and doilies. On the other shoulder was a feral wolverine of anxiety staring at my Adam's apple and licking its chops.

I decided to go with the Emo geeks on the other shoulder, and paid for the book.

My self-help reading is not that extensive. And I've never bought one of those for-dummies books. (Aside: I heard a funny George Carlin joke the other day on the radio. To paraphrase: "How come people buy self-help books, but they're written by someone else? That's not self-help. That's help.") But I was in the midst of a confluence of existential crises and I wanted a list of things to do that would make me feel better. If this was delivered in a somewhat smarmy, tooth-achingly earnest style, with lots of exclamation points punctuating dozens of little revelations, all the better.

Whew, I thought on the subway later. Just what I was hoping for! I read the thing deliberately over the next week.

Here's the power of Don't Sweat. You're every day running full-tilt into some particular problem, feeling, situation, or cycle. Over and over. There's no way out of it. It's driving you to [insert addictive behavior here]. I mean, dude, you're freaking out. So you pick up this book, and you flip through looking for the part that says "Here's how to stop having your particular problem," but there is no such chapter. It doesn't do that. Nor is it all vague like "Dude? Why'nt you just relax?" Instead Dr. Carlson lays out a series of 100 exercises, some physical, some mental, some procedural (for lack of a better term) that don't have anything to do with your problem. Shit! you think. Wrong book! But you've bought it, so you read it, and you find one of the little techniques that will inconvenience you the least, and you try it.

And then next day you're walking to work from the subway and you're overcome with the usual rage and remembering some event from junior high and nothing has changed. So that afternoon at lunch you read some more and you find another technique that sounds doable and has nothing to do with your problem and that night you try that one. And so on. One day you realize you haven't thought about that particular problem in a couple of days. Even though you've been in the same situation, with the same people, facing the same challenges, and your junior high past hasn't changed either. Somehow the edge -- the anxiety-producing, rage-building, time-consuming, goal-diverting edge -- has been dulled.

It worked for me. I needed a way to attack my problems laterally, because years of smashing face-on into stuff had proven counterproductive. As with any of the cult-like programs I've embraced, feeling better by reading this book required a certain drinking of a certain amount of Kool-Aid. It required believing that such a book could help, which belief in turn led to a certain commitment to practicing Dr. Carlson's recommendations, which do, in fact, work.

And a year or two later, that's why his face ended up on my wall. When he died unexpectedly -- young, from a heart attack, on a plane from San Francisco to New York -- it was a little confusing. Because of his age (45) and his apparent calm. The obvious gag -- that maybe he died from the ironic buildup of pent-up steam -- had no allure for me. I can only assume that he felt like a success when it was his time to go. And even if, as my cynicism sometimes suggests, he was a marketing genius first and a quasi-buddhist do-gooder second, at least his marketing efforts went toward something useful. RIP, Richard Carlson.

That ended heavy. Tomorrow, yardwork!


Anonymous said...

Dang, I gotta get me a copy of this. Anything that will stop me from waking up in the middle of the night, filled with remorse over That One Time I Said Something Stupid.

Bill Braine said...

I've known you for approximately 20 years and I've never known you to say anything stupid. So go to sleep.