Peace of Mind, with Mistakes:

A book review of Oliver Burkeman’s ‘The Antidote’

There’s something in me drawn to those with radically different ways of looking at the world, and it was in this spirit that I found journalist Oliver Burkeman’s weekly Guardian residency called ‘This Column Will Change Your Life.’ I quickly learned that Burkeman possesses not only courage for independent thought, but also exceptional storytelling ability. He intertwines esoteric philosophy and everyday life with admirable ease, a craft undoubtedly honed over years and countless articles.

Burkeman’s column supplied a refreshing perspective, deeply needed in our age of wishful thinking: an open-minded antidote to the tyranny of positive thinking that has bled into almost every corner of popular culture. Burkeman asks the crucial question of, ‘is it true?’ Does positive thinking really help us? Or is something else going on? What about the times when positive thinking doesn’t work? Where do we turn?

I read the first chapter of Burkeman’s 2012 book, aptly titled The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, and was pleasantly surprised to find my old philosophical companion Alan Watts, elegantly excerpted to introduce ideas central to the ‘negative path’ to happiness. The Antidote explores philosophies some of us may be familiar with, but it is a unique achievement, startling in its density, concision, and insight.

Burkeman takes us on a literal journey through philosophy, jumping hilariously from the mania of a Get Motivated! self-help seminar, to a meeting with the serene, silent author Eckhart Tolle, to the inner perils of a weeklong meditation retreat, to the celebrations of the dead in Mexico. He is not interested in easy answers, in ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions, nor in side-stepping the human foibles of misguided effort and misplaced energy. He embraces them, lead by innovative contrarians like modern Stoic Dr. Keith Seddon in London, who greets a challenging life with clarity and depth. Burkeman introduces us to new perspectives, balancing quirky journalism with philosophy in a dynamic map toward living a whole life.

This, is, I think, what Burkeman is after: acceptance. Especially of those attributes we find least acceptable. To do so, given our culture, we may have to come face to face with some unpleasant things, even the most unpleasant thing (death). But the result of undergoing such a process is a life that is grounded and unshakeable. We earn a different kind of happiness, a peace of mind that reflects the ever-changing mystery of life itself. Here it is in Burkeman’s words (from The Antidote): “Trying to flee from insecurity to security, from uncertainty to certainty, is an attempt to find an exit from the very system that makes us who we are in the first place.”

Listening to Trump’s inauguration speech on Friday, I found it revealing how his words focused on America’s desperation, our defeats, our failures. The shit has already hit the fan, Trump tells us. We are down for the count, and would be doomed — if not for him.

President Trump’s rhetorical insistence on failure, however, works oppositely to Burkeman’s point. Trump beats us down to remind us of what we do not have, in order to inject his message of fantastic tyranny. He takes advantage of our insecurity, but never accepts it, nor delves into its meaning, content rather to promise a forthcoming, if hazy, universal solution. What does Trump stand for if not this fleeing that Burkeman warns us of, from uncertainty to certainty, ignoring who we are, where we come from, and what we cannot reasonably know about the future?

Burkeman’s book may provide, in this respect, a necessary alternative for our current mental health, and a doorway to another kind of life — a richer one. I will surely be returning to The Antidote and following some of the ideas, authors, and people within.

Here’s a link to Burkeman’s Guardian column.

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