My son was 6 years old. I was dropping him at school. I didn’t plan this; it just happened.
“Bye!” I called. “Be kind to yourself, and to everybody else!”
And I drove away.
It took me a moment to catch my breath.
Genius, I thought (once I’d caught it).
Be kind to yourself, and to everybody else.
It was perfect. Simple yet elegant. There was no better guideline for living.
I decided that this would be our new catchphrase. Each morning, I would repeat it to my son. It would infiltrate his being, fold into his essence.
One day, he would accept the Nobel Peace Prize. “This is for my mother,” he would say, holding up the prize, holding back his tears. “Because she always taught me to be kind to myself, and to everybody else.”
The next day, as I dropped him at school, I called to my son: “Bye! Be kind to yourself, and to—”
My son stopped. He spun around. Stared at me.
“What did you just say?”
“I said, be kind to—”
“Yes, I know what you said. I mean, why did you say that?”
“Well, I just thought it was—good advice for—”
My son was shaking his head. “But you said it yesterday. I heard you then. Never say that again.”
And he headed into the school.
Guidelines for living are not for everybody.
Last year, I was at a writers’ festival, chatting with a group of authors. Somebody asked about my latest book.
“It’s called Gravity Is the Thing,” I said. “It’s about the self-help industry.”
I said the idea had started when I overheard a conversation between two strangers on a train. Both had recently read The Celestine Prophecy. “I don’t yet know,” the young man had said, gazing into the young woman’s eyes, “what message I have for you.” “But you do have a message,” she whispered.
I told the group that I’d spent 15 years researching the novel: reading self-help books, getting my aura read, my face read, my tarot read, studying numerology and tantric sex.
It’s about the illusion of magical possibility (I said). The soothing falsehood that everything is connected. The empty promise that anything is possible, if only we believe. The self-help industry preys on despair (I said), blames the ill for their illness, makes the oppressed responsible for their own oppression.
(And so on. I’d had a few drinks.)
Everyone agreed, fervently. We moved to another topic.
A few minutes later, one of the writers took me aside.
“Don’t tell anybody else this,” he said, “but self-help books changed my life.”
He’d been a deeply troubled teenager, he explained. Then he’d read a series of guidebooks, followed their advice, and now he was a successful, happy author. All of his dreams had come true.
So, guidelines for living are for some people.
Personally, I grew up yearning for somebody to tell me how to live. I’ve always been extremely indecisive. (I’m a Libra.) I’m also absentminded. And I have a constant, uneasy sense that I’m getting everything wrong—the way I organize my paperwork, how I converse with my hairdresser, the fact that I let my child collect sticks from parks, bring them home and pile them in his wardrobe. It’s like I’ve missed the meeting where everybody else learned the rules. All I really know is I like chocolate.
In fact, for years, I’ve secretly fantasized that a committee of experts would begin sending me regular, personalized instructions. Reminders to make dentist appointments and to do a spring clean. Advice on fashion (wear brighter colors—you’re washed out in those pastels!), hobbies (sign up for tae kwon do!) and love (dump him—he might be sweet, but he bores you to tears).
The entire time I was researching for this novel, my mind was split neatly in two: half was pure cynicism, the other half completely believed.
Gravity Is the Thing is a novel about Abigail, owner of the Happiness Café and mother of a 4-year-old named Oscar. When Abigail was 16, her brother went missing and never returned. Around the same time, she started receiving chapters from a self-help book, The Guidebook, in the mail. Now, 20 years later, Abigail has been invited to attend a retreat where, it is promised, she will learn the “truth” about The Guidebook.
It’s a novel about missing persons. (I’ve always been struck by the strength required to cope with this ambiguous loss. The adult son of family friends disappeared over 30 years ago. His mother still bakes him a birthday cake each year, just in case he returns.) It’s also about flight. (I grew up with the language of flight. My father was a pilot, taught us the aviation alphabet and once landed a helicopter in our backyard.) It’s about single motherhood, loss and hope.
And of course, it’s about the self-help industry—about who or what should be telling us how to live our lives.
(Bye! Be kind to yourself, and to everybody else!)
Jaclyn Moriarty lives in Sydney, Australia. How’s this for a guideline for living: Read Gravity Is the Thing.
Author photo courtesy of the author.