Book review “Happy: why more or less everything is absolutely fine” by Derren Brown

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have been an admirer of British illusionist Derren Brown since watching his brilliant and controversial TV shows such as “Miracle” and “Sacrifice”. He is also a writer and when I learned that he shared my interest in Stoicism, and that this informed his book “Happy: Why more or less everything is absolutely fine”, I was keen to read what he had to say. It’s a big book, ambitious and sometimes provocative, spanning a wide range of topics. The style is fluent and engaging, though tends to ramble at times.

I very much enjoyed the potted history of philosophy and psychology, the critical appraisal of the self-help industry, and the practical guidance on modern applications of Stoicism in Parts One and Two. I would have given 5 stars if the book had ended there but was less impressed with Part Three, in which Derren presents his views about death and dying and argues against the existence of an afterlife. Reference to the work of the many thinkers and researchers who have studied these fields, and to others’ contrasting experiences and beliefs, would have made these chapters more balanced and helpful.

Reservations aside, this is an original and stimulating book that can be recommended for serious readers seeking a fulfilling life.






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Stoic perspectives on death and bereavement

New Year’s Eve 2020 was the fifth anniversary of my mother’s death. I have finally destroyed her personal papers (see my earlier post) but the memories, both happy and sad, remain. Many other relatives and friends of my husband and myself have also died in recent years, and we are getting old ourselves. I had a lot of professional exposure to death and bereavement during my medical career, but the personal experience is very different. I’ve been exploring what the ancient Stoic philosophers had to say about this subject, hoping it may prove helpful for coping in future. The Stoics believed in facing up to death as a natural process which is nothing to be afraid of.

A central tenet of Stoicism is that only our own judgments and voluntary actions are “up to us”. Other aspects of life are not, and although some of these “externals” are to be preferred over others, they are best regarded with indifference. Death, an external that is inevitable for all living things, is only bad if we consider it to be so and sometimes may be welcome.

Epictetus: Death is a release from and an end of all pains: beyond it our sufferings cannot extend: it restores us to the peaceful rest in which we lay before we were born.

The Stoics believed that the timing and manner of death, random and cruel as it may seem, is determined by fate and not up to us. This is less true now that advances in medical science have enabled more control over health and longevity than was available to the ancient Greeks and Romans, but much unpredictability remains. We and those close to us are all going to die one day – maybe tomorrow. Frequent contemplation of this prospect (the Stoic practice of memento mori), is not intended to promote morbid obsession, but to emphasise the importance of making the most of the “festival of life” every day, not wasting time, and appreciating our loved ones while they are still here.

When a loved one dies there will inevitably be distressing reactions such as shock, grief and anger. While negative emotions in the short term are natural, the Stoics advised aiming to move on as soon as possible towards a calm acceptance of the person’s death; continuing to remember them often, but with love and appreciation rather than with sorrow.

Seneca: Thinking of departed friends is to me something sweet and mellow. For when I had them with me it was with the feeling that I was going to lose them, and now that I have lost them I keep the feeling that I have them with me still.

This approach will appeal to some people, while striking others as unrealistic or heartless. It is rather different from today’s prevailing view of mourning as a gradual process of working through the “stages of grief” over many months, perhaps with the aid of bereavement counselling. Everyone is different, and the best way of coping depends on individual personality and circumstances. One idea I have found helpful myself is to think of the deceased as having been “reclaimed by nature”, as all living things will be one day, rather than “lost”.

Epictetus: Is your child dead? It has been given back. Is your wife dead? She has been returned.

What about the soul or spirit, and the question of an afterlife? As I understand it the Stoics believed that death is probably followed by the same oblivion that existed before birth, and that individual immortality is unlikely.

Marcus Aurelius: Just as on earth, with the passage of time, decaying and transmogrified corpses make way for the newly dead, so souls released into the heavens, after a season of flight, begin to break up, burn, and be absorbed back into the womb of reason, leaving room for souls just beginning to fly. This is the answer for those who believe that souls survive death.

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Jennifer Barraclough, originally from England and now living in New Zealand, is a retired doctor and a writer of medical and fiction books. A list can be found on her author pages: https://www.amazon.com/Jennifer-Barraclough/e/B001HPXGZI (US) and https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jennifer-Barraclough/e/B001HPXGZI (UK).

Stoicism for writers and healers

I’ve been reading some basic books about Stoic philosophy, which originated in Ancient Greece and Rome, and describes a path to a good and happy life lived in harmony with others and with nature. It has much in common with other systems and many of the ideas were already familiar to me from Buddhism, Christianity and modern psychological therapies, but it is refreshing to have them presented in clear practical terms. Here are a few thoughts from a novice student of Stoicism.

One of the principles stated by Epictetus (50-135 AD) resonates strongly with me. He wrote that “some things are up to us and some things are not up to us”, so it follows that we are well advised to focus only on what is within our control – which includes very little except our own judgements and behaviours. This may sound simple and obvious (and the “serenity prayer” of St Francis, which I have heard so many times, says something similar) and yet I am certainly not alone in having wasted much futile effort and distress over things which I have no power to change. Applying this principle would avoid many of the hassles of daily life, such as frustration in a traffic jam or irritation with an untidy workmate. It is also relevant to both the two fields – writing and medicine – in which I have spent my career.

As a writer it is up to me to make my books “the best they can be”, to choose whether to submit them to traditional publishers or to publish independently, and decide how much time and money to spend on marketing. But whether people want to buy my books, and whether readers like them, is not up to me. So there is no point in getting upset over rejection letters, lack of sales or negative reviews – in theory. In practice, overcoming the desire for external validation and becoming more tolerant of criticism requires mental discipline and training.

Turning to the medical field, again there is a dichotomy between what is “up to us” and what is not in relation to physical health. We can make choices about many aspects of our lifestyle and behaviour, such as diet and exercise, in the hope of preventing or recovering from disease. But there is no guarantee that our efforts will be successful, and nor can we change some of the other factors such as our genetic susceptibilities, exposure to pathogens in the environment, the inevitable deterioration of our bodies as they age. The dichotomy between what we can or cannot control is not always acknowledged. Some put all their faith in external treatments with drugs and surgery, and ignore what patients can do to help themselves. Others advocate total personal responsibility for health, and risk making patients feel guilty for being ill. Both extremes are potentially dangerous.

There is of course much more to Stoic philosophy than this and, having enrolled in the annual online event Stoic Week which is about to start, perhaps I will write more blog post(s) on this subject.

The fascination of crime fiction

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Foxglove: one of the poisonous plants featured in Agatha Christie’s novels. Photo by Clint McKoy on Unsplash

Crime and mystery novels rank among the most popular of fiction genres today. The many subdivisions – the traditional, police procedural, psychological thriller, cosy mystery, historical crime – almost always have murder as central to the plot. Why do so many people, most of them pleasant and law-abiding in real life, enjoy writing or reading about this gruesome topic? Whereas cruelty towards animals in books and films is widely considered unacceptable, and rightly so, cruelty towards humans is seen as fair fodder for entertainment.

An obvious reason, though perhaps not the most important one, for the appeal of crime fiction is the intellectual challenge of solving a puzzle. This is clearly so for the old-style “whodunnit” which often involves the discovery of a dead body in a closed setting, such as a country house hotel, where each of the people present is found to have a motive for murdering the victim. One or more other deaths may follow. A detective, amateur or professional, eventually nails the culprit – usually the most unlikely suspect – with the aid of clues which have been scattered through the text, along with a few “red herrings”. The solution must not be too obvious but, in theory, a clever reader should have been able to work it out. The story will have a neat resolution, with the truth being revealed and justice restored.

Variations on this basic formula are still used by some modern crime writers but the trend is for longer books with more subtly and complexity . In psychological thrillers, the interest lies not so much in solving a mystery as in exploring the criminal’s character and motivation. Sometimes the murderer’s identity is obvious from the start, though there will usually be a surprise twist at the end.

Crime fiction appeals on the emotional level well as the intellectual one. Perhaps it offers an acceptable channel for expressing feelings that in civilised society are usually suppressed – for example jealousy, greed, hatred, desire for revenge, obsession with evil and death. PD James said that all the motives for murder are covered by four Ls: Love, Lust, Lucre and Loathing. Whereas in real life the majority of crimes are committed by men, it is notable that many writers and readers of crime fiction are female, including some highly respectable mature women. Maybe crime fiction offers them a “safe space” to express the shadow side of their personalities.

Is crime fiction just harmless entertainment, or does it influence readers’ attitudes towards murder, whether acting as a deterrent or even encouraging the occasional person to commit one themselves? Novels at the lighter end of the spectrum, by presenting a sanitised picture of unnatural death and treating its investigation like a game, tend to trivialise the topic. More serious ones, which provide graphic forensic detail and authentic descriptions of police and court procedures, might help anyone who is planning a crime to select a method and escape detection. Similar concerns apply to crime movies and TV shows, which reach a wider and less discriminating audience than most novels do. But leaving such concerns aside, I continue to enjoy reading, writing and watching stories about crime.

Jennifer Barraclough is a retired doctor, originally from England but now living in New Zealand, who writes medical and fiction books available from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk and other online retailers, or from bookshops and libraries.

Stranger than fiction

Good fortune can come about in the most unexpected ways: coincidence and synchronicity that seem too remarkable to be due to chance, “lucky mistakes” that seem devastating at first but work out for the best. Evidence for a higher intelligence orchestrating our lives, or just random quirks of fate? These examples from my own experience range from the trivial to the life-changing.

The car ferry

Last week we visited the Bay of Islands, some hours’ drive north of our home in Auckland, and took the car ferry between Russell and Opua. I was parked at the front of the side row. Although I thought I had followed the attendant’s guidance, she warned me I was too close to a metal bar on the boat and would probably scrape against it on the way out, because with other cars packed so close I would not be able to reverse. I felt increasingly upset and anxious as the voyage progressed. But then, at the​ end of the crossing, the car next to mine failed to start. The vehicles behind had to reverse to get round it, giving me room to get clear of the obstruction. Meanwhile, shore staff had come on board with jump leads and restarted the stalled car.

The Italian jug

A few years ago, when I was preparing to publish my first novel Carmen’s Roses, I came home to find an unfamiliar jug being washed in the kitchen sink. My husband had picked it up from the pile of rubbish awaiting the annual “inorganic collection” from the pavement of our street. It was white, decorated with swirls of blue and orange, and had Made in Italy written on the bottom. I was delighted and amazed, because a similar jug plays a key part in the plot of my novel, and unknown to my husband I had been searching for a relevant image for the cover. A photo of the jug now features in both the two versions of the cover, on Amazon and Smashwords.

Long-lost family

My last example is more significant. Last year, after my mother died, I felt free to seek information about the father I never knew. A friend with an interest in genealogy posted an online inquiry on my behalf. The synchronicity was that a member of my father’s “other” family was searching the same website at the same time. The lucky mistake was that my friend had got my mother’s name wrong and, for reasons too complicated to explain here, it was only because of this that the connection was made. Though my father himself is long dead, I have since found out about his life, and had successful meetings with my “new” relatives in the UK.

 

 

 

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Blondstar: Thinking inside the box

My beautiful new yellow Honda Jazz RS has various high-tech features that were not present on my previous 10-year-old model. These include “keyless entry with remote central locking and immobiliser” which, despite studying the manual, I have found hard to understand. Judging by the posts on the internet forums for Jazz owners I am not alone in this. I read one story about a person being locked out of their car after leaving the keys inside.

After returning from a drive one night, my husband and I had only just got out of the parked car when I decided to go back and move it forward, to make more room for a neighbour’s vehicle. Leaving my husband to wait on the pavement holding my handbag, which contained the key, I popped back in and repositioned the car slightly. I switched off the engine and opened the door, but heard a series of alarming bleeps. I concluded that I should not have been driving without having the key with me. I retrieved it from my handbag and attempted to lock the car but this did not work. Then I tried various things which made the situation worse: the side lights and all internal lights came on and I could not switch them off, nor could I start the engine, and the bleeping continued whenever I opened the door. It was getting late and I dared not leave the vehicle unlocked overnight with its battery running down. I rang the AA.

The AA officer arrived by midnight, having had a long journey from another part of Auckland, and informed me that I had left the vehicle in Drive instead of Park. He was admirably kind and polite, but I was mortified and felt like an elderly version of Blondstar. Because of my fixed assumption that the problem involved the “keyless entry with remote central locking and immobiliser”, I had never thought to check for other obvious explanations.

How many mistakes, misunderstandings and lost opportunities result from being stuck in a certain mindset and failing to consider the alternatives? For example I have known several people whose serious medical conditions – for example brain tumour, Parkinson’s disease, hypothyroidism – remained undiagnosed until a late stage, because their symptoms were assumed to be due to a recurrence of the depression from which they had suffered in the past. Conclusions based on past experience, preconceived beliefs or assumptions are often correct but sometimes not, so it is a good idea to think “laterally” or “outside the box”.

Incidentally my Jazz was back in good form the day after its traumas.

car

Tarot

Many years ago a friend introduced me to the fascinating and mysterious world of the Tarot, a set of 78 cards that has been used since ancient times for divination and as an aid to psycho-spiritual development and intuition. Its origin is unknown; the complex images could be seen to derive from the myths, legends and belief systems of many civilisations including those of Egypt, India and China, and it has been known in Europe since at least the 14th century. There are numerous different decks available, featuring artwork in styles ranging from the traditional to the quirky.

I studied the Tarot myself for a while and did occasional readings for friends, but was perhaps deterred from continuing when I realised what powerful effects the symbols could have. With their universal relevance they almost always seem to relate to the life situation of the “querent”. One woman told me afterwards that her chosen cards had been instrumental in her decision to divorce her husband; fortunately this turned out a good decision. One man took his spread to be predictive of his own death, despite my efforts to interpret it more constructively, and he did die suddenly not long afterwards. It is indeed hard not to be shocked and distressed by some of the cards, such as Death, The Hanged Man and The Devil, even though they are not intended to be taken literally; instead, they symbolise in different ways a common Tarot theme, that of letting go of the old to make way for the new. Other cards, such as The Star and The Sun, show much more beautiful and positive images. Whether or not the Tarot has any occult significance, as opposed to being a psychological tool, I think it should be regarded with respect and not used frivolously.

The insightful reading I had yesterday from Samantha Jung-Fielding stimulated much reflection and promise for the future. To summarise just a few of the cards that particularly resonated with me: Ace of Swords: change beginning on the mental level with new attitudes and ideas. The Empress: creativity and abundance, happy relationships. Nine of Swords: fear and despair, but the threats are in imagination rather than reality. The Fool: appearing as the final card in my spread, this represents the start of a new adventure! My complete Celtic Cross spread is pictured below.

Celtic cross

 

Tit Willow

Last night we attended a vibrant performance of The Mikado at the Torbay Theatre on Auckland’s North Shore. The Mikado is among the most popular of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas, and I’d certainly seen it a couple of times before, though that was a long time ago and I couldn’t recall details of the plot. So I didn’t understand why I seemed to know all the songs by heart. They were familiar almost note-for-note and word-for-word.

Afterwards, I remembered once being told that the first thing I ever said was “Tit Willow”. This sounded rather unlikely and I supposed it was some obscure family joke. But when I asked my mother this morning she said “Yes, that’s true – your Uncle Geoffrey taught you to say it.” (Uncle Geoffrey being the WW2 Spitfire pilot who wrote Geoffrey Guy’s War). She explained that when I was a baby her own mother, my grandmother, had bought a record of The Mikado which I liked very much. Apparently, as soon as I was carried downstairs in the mornings, I would wave at the gramophone demanding that it be played over and over for as long as the adults could bear to listen.

I don’t recall any of this, but it seems to prove that early childhood memories are indeed retained in our subconscious minds, and can surface many years later in the right setting.

For a Youtube video of the song, please paste this link into your browser: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AoAmmiTzliI

 

Life imitating art

Not long after publishing a series of novels with a medical theme, and my previous blog post about the portrayal of illness in fiction, I was overtaken by some real medical dramas. Both my husband and my mother required emergency hospital admissions followed by major surgery, and I developed some health problems of my own. All this reminds me of the saying about “life imitating art”. This is attributed to Oscar Wilde, although I don’t think he meant it in quite the literal way I am using it here.

The similarity between the content of my own writings and the events in my family was too general to be truly remarkable. All the same it was perhaps an illustration of the Law of Attraction: the idea that continued mental focus on a topic, in this case sickness, will result in its practical manifestation.

There have been other much more striking instances of fiction seeming to predict future events. One example is the novella called “The Wreck of the Titan” which foretold the sinking of the Titanic in considerable detail. Some readers dismiss this as coincidence, others believe in a metaphysical explanation.

There is also a saying about “art imitating life”, which means that creative work can be inspired by true events. Certainly, most writers do base their stories to some extent on personal experience. But whether the traumas of recent weeks will provide material for my own fiction in future is too soon to say. Some aspects  – for example the responsibility of having to make life-or-death decisions on a relative’s behalf, the complexities of the mind-body connection, the pitfalls which can delay the diagnosis of a serious disease, the search for meaning in illness – could certainly be woven into an interesting plot, though it would require a more skilled writer than me to do them justice. But dealing with long-term illness in the family also involves a lot of sadness, worry, waiting, tedium and hard work – which hardly make for interesting or uplifting reading. I shall try to find more cheerful subject-matter for my next book.