A New Approach to Self-Help
Hello. My name is Dr Naïan Fedler. You don’t know me yet, but over the next two hundred and thirty-nine pages, you and I are going to go on a journey together. Along the way, we’ll encounter many obstacles. Together, we’re going to overcome those obstacles and end our journey exactly where we began, but wiser and with cold air in our lungs.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because what I’ve just described isn’t just the way this book works; it’s the way life works for each and every one of us. The story I’ve just outlined is one that you’re bound to recognise because it’s the very story you’re living right now – the story in which you are the main character. Also, I mentioned something similar in the introduction to my last book, Think Yourself Lucky, so you might remember it from there.
When you set out on the journey of life, you don’t know what to expect. Partly this is because you’re very young at the time, but partly it’s because life is unpredictable. In fact, I’d go one step further and say that life isn’t just unpredictable: it’s random. That’s a very hard word to fully understand, but it’s one that we’ll keep coming back to again and again in the course of this book. When you say the word “random”, a lot of people think of something like a game of dice or a lottery, but the truth is that the world we live in is far more complicated than we can possibly understand. Imagine a lottery where, instead of choosing numbers, you have to draw a doodle on a piece of paper and if your doodle matches precisely, millimetre for millimetre, the winning one, you get a prize that could be anything from eternal life to instant death. Except that you never get to see the winning doodle, or find out if you’ve won, until it’s far, far too late. And the rules change with every passing second. And no one’s quite sure if they’re actually playing or not. Or whether the game even exists.
If this sounds daunting, that’s because it is. The universe is infinitely complex and you can never hope to understand any part of it, let alone change any aspect of it in any meaningful way. Understanding this is the key to my approach, and the subject of this book’s first chapter, You Are Nothing.
In order to form a sense of self-worth, you must first recognise that there is not really, in any appreciable sense, such a thing as “self”. Far from being an autonomous and self-aware agent of physical action, you are little more than a ragged bundle of chemicals lost in the infinite chaos of an unintelligible universe. Seen from a perspective of unbiased objectivity, you are no more significant than the chair in which you are sitting, the air you breathe or the rotting orange peel you throw in your compost bin. In fact, one day you will become compost right along with that orange peel – your physical body will decay and become indistinguishable from the mulch under your feet. This is the subject of chapter two, You Are Dying.
In my professional capacity as a counsellor, a lot of people come to me looking for guidance. Often it’s because they feel lost, because they feel scared or because they’re worried that they lack direction in life. Over the years, I’ve thought about these problems and come up with a few answers. In a very simplified form, they go like this:
- You are lost.
- You should be scared.
- There is no “direction” you can have other than the slow, inevitable march towards death and, thereafter, oblivion.
Sometimes, people are resistant to my approach. They say, “Naïan, surely there must be some kind of purpose to life? Or if not a purpose, then at least a way for me to stay afloat in this vast, bewildering sea of meaninglessness? Or, if nothing else, a way for me to get out of paying for this session?” But to them I say, “You, my friend,” (this is merely a turn of phrase – I am fully aware that the people I counsel are clients rather than friends and I would never transgress the boundaries of that professional relationship for both clinical and legal reasons) “are like a clumsy Egyptian boatman.” I then leave a gap of precisely two seconds before revealing the punchline: “You’re in denial!” This little joke helps to relieve the tension, but also serves to illustrate a valid psychological point. To deny the fundamental lack of meaning at the heart of all things is to deny a universal truth, and anyone trying to lead their life with that kind of contradiction in the back of their mind is going to end up, like our maladroit African friend, in some pretty deep water.
Some people try to solve the problem of meaninglessness by relying on the idea of a higher power. For some it’s a god or gods, for some it’s a commitment to furthering human understanding, for some it’s a devotion to altruistic works. Whatever form this delusion takes, my diagnosis is the same. I call these people “head-in-the-sand-birds” (the term “ostriches”, which I used in my previous books, has since been registered as a trademark by Dr Fenton McWheely, the author of How Not To Grieve). By denying the pointlessness of every aspect of existence, these people are setting up a destructive dichotomy, or destrotomy, at the centre of their spiritual lives. If they came to me for advice, I would tell them this: it is only by accepting the fundamental emptiness of all things that you can learn to give your life the value it deserves, which is none. We’ll discuss this in greater depth in chapter seven, Nothing To Live For.
As you read this book, you will come across ideas that challenge you and exercises you may find difficult. My approach to self-help is, I will be the first to admit, radically different from anything that has come before, but this is what makes it so powerful. Whether you’ve picked up this book as a result of bereavement, unemployment, marital breakdown or simply a lingering sense of dissatisfaction with life, I guarantee that by the time you finish reading it, you’ll be seeing things in a whole new way. Next to the dark emptiness of a soulless and chaotic world, your problems will simply fall away into the background. When you and I reach the end of our journey together and turn the last page of chapter thirteen, Nothing Means Anything, So Don’t Worry, I promise you that you’ll be a new person: a clear-sighted, rational and, above all, fundamentally empty person.
Thanks for reading.