For the Week of January 15, 2017: There’s No “How To” for Navigating Life

I’ve been talking back to Siri, the voice on my iPhone that directs my travel on the freeways and streets of San Diego County.  She’s sometimes unreliable, mapping what should be a drive to a place ten or fifteen miles from my home to a cross-country trip ending in Oklahoma or Missouri.  I’m mystified by these wildly incorrect directions, and Siri hears about it.   Since my days have been much too busy with meetings, dental and doctor’s appointments, when Siri misdirects, “she”receives the full brunt of my frustration.  (Of course, better Siri than my husband as the recipient!)

But perhaps what I experience with Siri is a good analogy for navigating through life.  It’s not always a smooth experience, whether relying on a GPS, dealing with a move, or the emotional roller coaster of cancer.  How, I wonder, did we all begin to rely so greatly on GPS devices their print counterparts–self-help books–to navigate the ups and downs of daily life?

Until I was introduced to Siri, I drove perfectly well without turn by turn directions recited by her voice.  I read maps, wrote down directions, and most often, got to where I needed to go.  I was happily self-reliant.  If I got confused, I stopped to check the map or ask someone for assistance.  No longer.  I’ve become dependent on the voice in my cell phone to guide me along any unfamiliar route.

What, we wonder, is our now habitual use of navigation tools doing to our minds? Writer David Kushner asked in a November 2015 article in Outside magazine.  An emerging body of research suggests some unsettling possibilities. By allowing devices to take total control of navigation while we ignore the real-world cues that humans have always used to ­deduce their place in the world, we are letting our natural way-finding abilities languish. 

Yet Siri is just one of the many sources of directions, instructions, and step-by-step how-to resources available.  Consider the many hundreds of self-help books on the market.  It’s likely that you, as I have done, have turned to self-help books in times of doubt and uncertainty, searching for encouragement, guidance or even self-affirmation.  As I’ve begun downsizing my bookshelves, I’ve found a few of these books still sandwiched between fiction and poetry.  There’s not a single one I finished reading; most of the pages are pristine and unmarked, suggesting I found the content neither relevant nor useful.

In the article, “Stop with the Self-Help Books Already,” author Marty Nemko offered his opinions on the plethora of self-help books:

  • Their recommendations are mainly just common sense or common knowledge.
  • They’re filled with examples that often feel concocted, too pat.
  • They propose models that over-simplify reality. For example, organizations or people don’t usefully distill into just a few types.
  • Their recommendations are often out of touch with what works in the real world. (In:  Psychology Today, June 27, 2014)

often out of touch with what works in the real world, yet self-help books represent a $10 billion a year industry.  When lives change, whether we relocate, retire, marry, have children, diet, or confronted with serious illness, hardship or loss of a loved one, there’s no shortage of books offering step-by-step advice for any and all significant life events. Even for aspiring writers, there’s an abundance of “how to” books on writing poetry, novels, nonfiction or simply journaling.

Out of curiosity, I conducted a brief search for self-help books for cancer patients on Google, immediately turning up titles such as playbooks and guides for the patient, for how to be a friend for a cancer patient, coping with altered bodies, radiation and chemotherapy, create a nutritional diet to “beat” cancer, or a guide to a peaceful death, to name a few.  Although any of us may each find one or two of books like these helpful, the dizzying number of titles makes one wonder that although any kind of change is difficult, as Dr. Jim Taylor remarked, writing in the Huffington Post, “Someone might be able to show you the way, but you have to make the journey yourself.”

Do friends need self-help books to be friends when you’re in need?  Can cancer be beaten with by following a particular nutritional plan?  Do we find guidebooks helpful when we lose a loved one?  Perhaps. We may turn to those resources at first, but gradually come to realize that no one is free of those walloping times of hardship, change and loss.  A “how to” book doesn’t make it any easier nor does it give us the answers we seek.  We discover what gives us comfort or solace as we go, trying things out, making mistakes, gradually finding our way through those difficult life chapters.

Cancer survivor, Sharon Doyle’s poem, “There’s Not a Book on How to Do This,” offers an apt metaphor for making those difficult journeys as the narrator sketches a composition plan for her autumn garden, one that celebrates and honors her cancer journey and survival:
There’s not a book on how to do this,
but there is an emphasis on composition.

The trucks that slug by under our window
hold trombones, mirrors, dictionaries.
It’s not my fault they invade
the calm of trees like cancer.  I

don’t have cancer anymore…

…I rarely remember the
uterus I don’t have.  One of my sons said,
“You were done with it right away, right, Mom?”
I guessed so…

There’s not a book on how to do this…” Think about it.  Whether cancer, divorce, the loss of a loved one, job loss—any major life challenge—there’s no a GPS or an instruction booklet to help us navigate through the upheaval, fear, or grief.  We do have the comfort of friends and family, of physicians and helping professionals, and so much more, but ultimately, the journey is ours to make, the road full of unexpected twists and turns, conundrums and set-backs.  Yet little by little, we find our way and without even realizing it, we begin composing a new life for ourselves with each step we take—one that honors where we’ve been but also embraces what we have discovered in our journey.

Doyle’s loving gifts from her family, the birdsong and flowers, are symbolic of the support that gave her courage and hope as she made her way back to health.  In the final stanza, we smile as we discover her celebration recovery and life:

I left vacant fourteen
trellis lightscapes for
balloons.

(From The Cancer Poetry Project, p. 52, The Cancer Poetry Project, V. 1, 2001)

Writing Suggestions:

This week, reflect on your difficult life journeys.  It’s unlikely you were handed a GPS or a book of instructions to help you navigate challenges like chemotherapy, surgery an altered body or loss of a loved one, job or home, each propelling you into change you never anticipated.

  • What helped you navigate the rough waters of such profound and unexpected change?
  • What internal compass—your beliefs, aspirations, or faith—played a part in helping you rediscover hope and embrace a new life?
  • What did you learn from it all?

About Sharon A. Bray, EdD

Best known for her innovative work with cancer patients and survivors, Sharon is a writer, educator and author of two books on the benefits of expressive writing during cancer as well as personal essays, a children's book, magazine articles and the occasional poetry. She designed and initiated expressive writing programs at several major cancer centers, including Breast Cancer Connections, Stanford Cancer Center, Scripps Green Cancer Center and Moores UCSD Cancer Center. She continues to lead expressive writing groups for men and women living in the San Diego area and teach creative writing workshops and classes privately for UCLA extension Writers' Program. She previously taught professional development courses in therapeutic writing at Santa Clara University and the Pacific School of Religion, was a faculty member of the CURE Magazine Forums and at the Omega Institute in 2014. Sharon earned her doctorate from the University of Toronto and studied creative and transformative writing at Humber School for Writers, University of Washington, and Goddard College.
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