Tuesday, June 12, 2018

3 Expeditions to Happiness

Fight Back With Joy by Margaret Feinberg (2015)
Happier Now by Natalya Kogan (2018)
This Close to Happy by Daphne Merkin (2017)

IN JUNE 2018, TWO CELEBRITY SUICIDES shocked fans of fashion and tv food shows and reignited the discourse on why people commit suicide. As usual, the reports claimed that the deceased gave no signs of their struggles as though they were reprehensible for not having visible symptoms and signs of distress. It should be pointed out that modern technology has also given us the power to curate the impressions we want to project, as well as how much and where we are seen by others. As a result, vulnerability that creates a true connection between people has become a quality that is avoided in everyday face-to-face connections.

Despair demands answers. Hope waits for it. Despair drives people to suicide. Despair is being isolated in pain. Hope is someone stepping in uninvited with the authority of love.

Living is also not the same as having something to live for. Even the most unimaginative of us get up each morning with a vague sense of mission in life and importance to people around us. But I imagine that for certain people, the only thing that keeps them going each day are new and exciting projects they keep taking on for a sense of purpose to justify staying on for another day. These become crutches that though necessary are still crutches. Over time, these high-functioning individuals become even better at driving multiple high-profile projects that become associated with their names but soon weaken as the compelling reason to live another day for. Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade took their own lives in the midst of impressive ongoing projects.

Reactions to suicides invariably leads to people talking about the victim’s mental and emotional state. I’m certain that suicides are not a result of character failure but are psychosocial manifestations and social tragedies. Depression is term that is over-used as a simple cause of suicides. In reality, there are other D’s like death of a loved one, divorce and emotional desertion that can trigger a penetrating sense of loss and hopelessness.

While I’m not sure if Jews have a greater propensity for intense sadness, three women from Jewish families, Nataly Kogan, Margaret Feinberg and Daphne Merkin, have written books about fighting persistent sadness and their quest for a happier state of being. Their books, Happier Now, Fight Back with Joy, and This Close to Happiness, are all written in a persuasive memoir style that attempts to authenticate their writing on such a subjective topic as happiness.

FIGHT BACK WITH JOY by Margaret Feinberg
The stumper: I had physically survived (cancer). I was still breathing. My life had been spared, at least for now. So why did I feel sad? Why did I feel like I was still in mourning? Shouldn’t I be living in unspeakable, uncontrollable joy?

The experience of crisis: Ambulance chasers are a dime a dozen; rebuilders are hard to find. Our phones stopped vibrating. Knocks at the door grew further apart until they stopped altogether. Others we’d known for longer than a decade never spoke a word. Not even a “thinking of you” text message. Their absence stung.

Bonus: 5 things to say when you don’t know what to say, and 5 things those facing crisis can’t tell you.  

HAPPIER NOW by Nataly Kogan
The stumper: Launching Happier wasn’t the end of my fear, stress, and anxiety. In fact, it was the beginning of a heart-wrenching deep dive into a pile of pain that I had ignored for years and that I had been hoping to escape by achieving my way into a sense of peace and endless bliss by way of my “I’ll be happy when…” mantra.

I’m only two chapters in but Kogan establishes credibility with me by writing about the irony of happiness eluding her while she was running Happier workshops.

If you think I told anyone about the fear and doubt I felt, you’d be wrong. My husband and a few close friends knew, but not fully. I told no one else. I’d never met a leader who shared their doubts or anxieties as they were experiencing them. I thought to share it would make me weak, and I did not want anyone to think I wasn’t up to the job.

I’m in on this book.

THIS CLOSE TO HAPPY by Daphne Merkin
The stumper: (Prologue, first sentenceLately I’ve been thinking about the allure of suicide again – the way it says basta! to life…No more rage at the circumstances that have brought you down. No more dread. Most of all, no more disguise, no more need to wear a mask: “What, you, depressed? I never would have known.”

I find this so typical: when people are too detached, obtuse or fearful of intimacy to discern distress, they call it a disguise. I call it getting on with life till you don’t. Your desire to live doesn’t follow a schedule. You live till you don’t. 

In Merkin’s words: You have lost the thread that pulled the circumstances of your life together. Nothing adds up and all you can think about is the raw nerve of pain that your mind has become…and how merciful it would be to yourself and others to extinguish this pain... the truth is that no one is interested in why you want to kill yourself, no one really believes that you will, until you've done it, and then it becomes morbidly intriguing to try and map it backwards.

Merkin has clinical depression that she attributes more to environmental causes than biological. As a longtime columnist for the New York Times, she writes with a uniquely provocative yet personal style that feels like a friend sharing her uncensored yet well-processed deep thoughts. It’s an intensity and depth that exposes vulnerability and fears and precisely the qualities I look for in real people and relationships.

Although Merkin lets you into her rich and deep mind through the many phases of her life, there seems to be no ‘exit’ signs for her until the last chapter:   

If I can’t quite declare victory over my depression, I am giving it a run for its money, navigating around it, reminding myself that the opposite of depression is not a state of unimaginable happiness but a state of approximate contentment, of relative all-right-ness. (Never lacking in material comforts her entire life with beautiful holiday homes, she found company in) friends I have invited for the weekend are reading on deck chairs…It is not an exceptional scene but it is one that I cannot imagine having arranged until relatively recently, one that reqires me to take the helm instead of hoping that someone else will manage things for me.

Whoever thought I'd be this close to happy?

Life is indeed always a little chaotic, a little mad, a little sad which makes it incomprehensible that we should want to wait till we are all sorted out into neat packages before we step out to connect with others. In the meantime, we are missing out on joyous moments that can be found only when we invite others into places where there is legitimacy to be less than happy, and where mourning turns into dancing with the music of compassion.

Saturday, January 6, 2018



I’m drawn to the title because intimacy-avoidant people have played key roles in my life since young. I’ve become fiercely independent largely because of our relationships. Being family at some point or other, they are not people I can write off and close the door on. So I want to understand their psyche better and to create a place for greater honesty and responsibility from them in our relationships.

The crux of the book’s message is to drop the act and to have the courage to reveal our true selves to the people around us. There's even a chapter titled 'Performance Anxiety in Real Life.' For this exposé of himself, Miller stayed single and avoided dating for almost a year.

I’d spent a good bit of my life as an actor, getting people to clap - but the applause only made me want more applause. I didn’t act in a theatre or anything. I’m talking about real life.

Can we really trust people to love us just as we are? (I’d add: Not hidden but known) Nobody steps onto a stage and gets a standing ovation for being human. You have to sing or dance or something.

I think that’s the difference between being loved and making people clap, though. Love can’t be earned it can only be given. And it can only be exchanged by people who are completely true with each other.”

Miller had good friends:
·     Bob, the attorney friend who kept calling to check in on him for a year when he was emotionally broken  after a breakup.
·     David Price, who shared an office with him and loved him enough to suggest that he stopped dating for a season and encouraged him that he was not all bad in relationships. “It might be good for you to go through withdrawal…to detox from all the drama.” The result was about a year without dating.
·     His pastor, the late David Gentiles, who was like a father to him. David was a gifted writer and orator who sought little earthly validation while pursuing the stuff that really mattered. After his passing, Miller wrote, “He had been driven by what I was only beginning to experience: a deep sense of meaning. It was his love for me that created the chasm and the ache.”

Miller also has a fantastic imagination that had negatively affected his relationships. From his dating sabbatical, he emerged with the reality that fantasy changes nothing and produces only a bankrupt story. I’ve personally found that optimistic people like myself tend to have a greater imagination than the more negative types. We imagine the loving parent while living with an emotionally closed-off one, we imagine a spouse has deep loving intentions while raising a family alone almost as a single parent, we believe that people are genuinely concerned and kind even when we go through painful seasons in extreme loneliness with little contact from them.

A safe person speaks the truth in grace. I’d also add that a safe person operates in honesty and courage and does not hold back out of fear of disagreement and offense. A safe person delivers the honesty that's needed and sticks around to help you pick yourself up. Measured against the biblical standard of love in 1 Corinthians 13:7 ‘It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres’ – I’d say honesty and courage binds people in love and see each other through the storms of life.

The ‘Author’s Note’ sets the typical tone of openness and humiliating honesty that is found throughout this book, and as I discovered not long after, also characteristic in Miller’s earlier book ‘A Million Miles In A Thousand Years’ that I will review here too.


Miller inspired me to write a better story to live out. I know my story is going to be as good as the quality of relationships involved. And sometimes, that means ending the way I relate with some people so that the relationship can get better. It hurts like hell but if things have been nowhere near heavenly and the way God intends for people to relate, any change is an improvement.

Here are my favourite Miller bites (my comments in brackets):

-     Nobody remembers easy stories. Characters have to face their greatest fears with courage. That’s what makes a story good. There is probably death at stake, inner death or actual death, …polar charges of happy and sad things in life that are like colours God uses to draw the world.
(Consider Isaiah 54 – it juxtaposes so much promises of God in the place of painful barrenness. It makes a great story and when lived out, a true testimony).

-        The fact of life and the reality of death give the human story its dramatic tension. If you aren’t telling a good story, nobody thinks you died too soon; they just think you died. But my uncle died too soon.
(I believe some people should have just do away with a funeral to save others the agony of creating fictitious eulogies).

-          The elements that made a story meaningful were the same that made a life meaningful. Most of our greatest fears are relational. It’s all that stuff about forgiveness and risking rejection and learning to love. We think stories are about getting money and security, but the truth is, it all comes down to relationships. I knew a story was calling me, I knew I was going to have to see if my father was alive. And once you know what it takes to live a better story, you don’t have a choice. Not living a better story would be like deciding to die, deciding to walk around numb until you die, and it’s not natural to want to die.

-       I believed God was the Writer who was not me and He could write a better story than I could, but I did not trust Him. I told God no again, but He came back to me and asked me if I really believed He could write a better story – and if I did, why didn’t I trust Him?
(Again, we go back to the standard of love in 1 Corinthians 13:7 ‘It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres’)

-          It’s an odd feeling to be awakened from a life of fantasy.
(I know that, but it frees your mind to be in the now.)

-          The truth about telling stories with your life…you’re not going to want to do it. It’s like that with writing books, and it’s like that with life. People love to have lived a great story, but few people like the work it takes to make it happen. But joy costs pain. People fear change, and tend to plant themselves in what’s comfortable even if they secretly want for something better. But for every good story, there is a force resisting the beautiful things in the world, and too many of us are giving in.
(John 10:10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full reminds us that God has a better story for us to live out in full but the Enemy is just as intent to short-circuit the narrative.)

-       The most often repeated commandment in the Bible is “Do not fear.” But fear isn’t only a guide to keep us safe; it’s also a manipulative emotion that can trick us into living a boring life.

About storytelling
§  Great stories are told in conflict, but we are unwilling to embrace the potential greatness of the story we are actually in. We think God is unjust, rather than a master storyteller.
§  (Just look at Isaiah 54 and other parables and stories in the four Gospels)
§  An inciting incident is a doorway through which the protagonist cannot return.
§  In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield wrote, “The must honors the working stiff.” A writer has to sit down every day and write, regardless of how he feels.
§  Robert McKee’s Story is a manifesto on all things story.
§  Save the Cat is a how-to book for screenwriters writing for movies.

From an accomplished author who also struggled with feeling unlovable and immense pain of that, Miller left readers with this encouragement: I don’t ever want to go back to believing life is meaningless. We need to move our thoughts beyond our own despondency into direct action that affirmed a greater meaning in life. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answers to its problems and to fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets before each individual.

When he meets God, he’ll want to ask if He remembers when he fell apart. But he has a feeling that God will remind him instead of the parts he forgot, the parts that were His favourites.
(I really like that!)

Without honesty, love is a hollow echo, relationships are devoid of courage, character development is stunted, and life is meaningless. Of course, manipulative and controlling people have always called it honesty for all manner of abuse and rudeness. But that’s not what I’m talking about. And Miller’s book offers a humbling reflection for those craving honesty that builds up and desiring to take the first step of courage to change their lives and relationships.  

COURAGEOUS FAITH by Charles F Stanley

THIS WAS AN UPLIFTING PRE-CHRISTMAS READ. It's an autobiography that traces the well-known pastor's life circumstances from childhood to his painful divorce and the death of his ex-wife. A latchkey child, he was haunted by the thought that there would always be no one there for him. While his young widowed mother tried to get him the occasional adult company and supervision, he grew up with a “sinking feeling of abandonment”. From young, he took on menial low-paying jobs like newspaper delivery, car wash and though he made the grade, he could not afford college until a pastor who heard about it offered him a scholarship in the last minute. Throughout life and ministry, he experienced periods of intense anxiety when waiting for a provision that was needed or for a direction from God. Such are moments  we tend to think that God has sovereignly changed His mind but Stanley always sticks it out to see God create something out of nothing or out of chaos.

“God will give you everything you require to accomplish what He’s planned for you.
True to form, God was right on time, as He always is.”

This book is written as much for new believers as it is for those who are discouraged and who find Him distant and silent in times of private distress. Stanley knows and has this word for those going through dark nights of the soul: Take it from me, you can overcome anything that happens in your life – regardless of how devastating or hopeless it may seem – by having faith in God. The same is true for you. The enemy knows how to discourage you. The message may be different, but the effect is the same: he makes you feel futile, unwanted, and without hope. But don’t believe him. The Lord …has given you the storms you experience for a purpose – to transform you and those around you. So obey Him, turn in to the tempest and don’t be afraid.

It is clear from the book that Stanley goes through life on his knees. I can testify to the power of crying on my knees, calling out to Jesus on my knees, praying on my knees, listening on my knees, and falling asleep on my knees. That posture of total surrender intimates to our natural senses a total surrender to God.

Struggling with loss alone

“The truth of the matter is that, eventually, a lack of encouragement and support from fellow Christians always takes a toll on our spiritual lives and invariably leads us to feelings of alienation and isolation. We become easy targets for the enemy.” As a well-known preacher who was not only mourning the loss of his marriage, but also fearing how the separation would affect his ministry, God provided him with friends who showed up for him even when dark clouds of gloom were overhead.

When it’s tiring to stand strong

“When we lose those closest to us to death, discord, or distance, it strikes at the core of our worth, identity and security and injuring us down to our innermost parts. I learnt that grief is not something that can or should be cut short. All pious works in the world will never fill a grieving heart. Rather, you and I must allow the pain to run its full course so that we can experience the healing our heavenly Father intends.”

Stanley also learned that “God hasn’t called me to understand, but to obey Him, forgive others, and seek forgiveness…Like many divorced people, I never dreamed that I would not be married for my entire life. Friday nights used to be the most difficult.”

“Earthly fathers may be unreliable, but the Lord is absolutely faithful.”

“Our obedience is the fruit of what Jesus has given us – not the prerequisite to having a relationship with Him.”

“If the Father doesn’t answer you immediately, that just means you don’t need to know yet.”

“It is always worthwhile to trust God and do as He says, even when it means flying straight into the storm.”

“Are you an oyster or an eagle?”

Thursday, May 25, 2017

EYES WIDE OPEN by Isaac Lidsky

Lidsky writes withoutany grandiosity about the debilitating visual degeneration he went through, or the total blindness that is now a daily reality.

“With hard work comes strength; with practice, mastery,” he said without pretense about his struggles with the progression from seeing to the realities that a blind person encounters every moment.

Discouragement, disappointment, frustrations are compounded when one goes through major life changes. At the back of your mind, you wonder how long people will stick around a dejevted person,  and how much they can bear to look at what you are going through. Many don’t and that’s the only way they know how to respond. Who can stand being around someone with no more laughter, no more imagination, and when is there no more emotional and esteem benefits for sticking around. Yet he wrote about his wife Dorothy, “She never doubted that I would provide for our family. Decision by insane decision, she was there for me. It was fine by her if her fancy lawyer husband wanted to reinvent himself as a construction guy. Her reward? I turned our lives upside down. In New York we had dreamed I would build a business empire. Last week I told her I would likely file a personal bankruptcy.”

And his Jewish mother stood by him. “Please be good to yourself, tatele. (a Yiddish term of endearment or little boy) She heard the pain in my voice. She wanted to save me.” Only mothers do that: some mothers. They can hear pain, but you have to make the phone call. She gave him her entire life savings of $350K in a duffel bag and walked back to her car. That’s what some mums do because hope is priceless and they would do anything to bring that back to life.

It is not mentioned in the book but perhaps these two women are walking by faith and not by sight, and it is a faith that rests not in a man’s talents and abilities, but in God who is larger than the man they both love. 

Some people face debilitating diseases like Lidsky, some face the unexpected death of a loved one, others battle life-long depression or deal with crushing post-divorce realities. The world doesn’t need another ‘do this and you’ll be fine’ book under self-help or Christian titles. Nothing in this book claims that promise. If anything, it preaches vulnerability and urges those going through their dreaded and irreversible D’s to breath and focus on the flow of taking things one step at a time. For many of these on many days, those are big steps: to focus and to keep moving.

For a book titled “Eyes Wide Open”, he ends with chapter 8 titled “Heart Wide Open.” Lidsky says, “I’m a funny blind guy with an open heart.” I think so too.