Ever wonder who those idiots are who actually buy those inspirational books that promise to transform your life? Books that take up more shelf space in Waterstones than military history and classics combined? Wonder no more. Stuffed in a collection of Waitrose bags for life are the following volumes: Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff… and It’s All Small Stuff (1997); The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living by the Dalai Lama; Women Who Run with the Wolves; The Road Less Travelled (three copies); Emotional Intelligence: Why it can Matter More than IQ; Gail Sheehy’s Passages; Danah Zohar’s The Quantum Self; Erich Fromm’s To Have or to Be; Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life.
All that now remains on the bookshelf in the space called Hope is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance and Thoreau’s Walden. The feeling of relief is beyond measure. Admittedly, I didn’t buy all of the books now destined for the nearly free book table in the farmer’s market. Some were gifts from truth-seeking friends and could be described as never read. The books tucked in the bags that look as tattered as a family Bible are Clear Your Clutter and Simplify Your Life, two pocket books that I read annually in hope of a miracle. Getting rid of these books fulfils the missionary goal of both. I also have two more copies. The motivational word behind this great heaving is ‘relief’.
A form of happiness than cannot be earned or learned, relief is in a class that passeth all understanding. Unlike the youthful pleasures of lust and ambition, relief is an emotion that grows more intense with age. The final mortgage payment is paid. The wind farm next door is refused planning permission. The village post office is saved. School fees are over. A much-loved lost watch is found. The inch of rain saves the sugar beet. The overdraft is a bank error. You have no flights booked with British Airways.
The damp in the hall is not dry rot. The house martins returned. The tick bite is not Lyme disease. The dogs came back. The hay fever/gum disease/painful heel/New Labour went away. The VAT increase doesn’t come in until January. The bag of white powder left in the bathroom after the party is cleanser for contact lenses. The car turned over, but Josh climbed out through the sun roof. The thank-you letters that should have been written in March were posted this morning.
One school of thought is that seeing relief as the purest form of happiness requires a pessimistic nature. This may be right. I come from a family whose description of a successful Thanks-giving is: ‘It was a wonderful reunion; nobody got hurt.’ A family who believes that the most beautiful word in the English language is ‘cancelled’. So we don’t have to drive two hours for Sunday lunch now because the nanny has chickenpox? So the in-laws can’t come because the Prius was recalled?
And yet, at heart, I am an optimist. For instance, I believe that the environmental disaster in the Gulf is a wake-up call and will prevent deepwater drilling in the Arctic. That facing up to the colossal debt that hovers over the land like a buzzard just might lead to the shrinking of the state. That when all the troops come home from Iraq and Afghanistan, the politicians won’t get away with sending our soldiers off to unwinnable wars again for another generation.
Meanwhile, I’m off to get that icon of self-help, a wheelbarrow, so I can get these books down to the farmer’s market. I don’t know why I lingered in the hazy world of happiness and self-help so long. I never thought that the dove that hovered over Noah’s Ark was the dove of peace. I always thought it was the dove of welcome relief.