“Can you see if you have this book?” a patron asked me one night last week.
Obviously I get asked that question often, but this interaction is lingering in my memory.
“Sure,” I said. “What are you looking for?”
She asked for the sequel to Rachel Hollis’s self-help book.
As I looked up the title and put her on the hold list (16 other people were waiting to read it that night), I listened to her gush about how Girl, Wash Your Face had changed her life, and how excited she was to put what she’d learned into action, and how certain she was that the sequel would be even more helpful.
And then she asked me the question I was hoping she wouldn’t. “Have you read it? Didn’t you just love it?”
I told her I had read some of it, but didn’t finish it, and tried to leave it at that, but she insisted. “You’ve got to check it out again!” she said. “It will change your life. I can’t believe everyone’s not reading it!”
She left the reference desk feeling happy, even if she did have to wait, partly because I'm a professional librarian. I knew that telling a Rachel-Hollis fangirl how I really feel about those books would’ve been a disaster. Pointing out the flaws in the book to her would've only annoyed her, because if she can't see them herself then it's just my opinion.
To be fair, I only read the first chapter of the first book. I didn’t continue for two reasons: 1. The writing tone. I couldn’t spend hours and hours with that chirpy, upbeat, faux-hood writing style. 2. The message itself. I went to a couple of Amway meetings in my 20s. That was enough. The focus on getting and spending—the expensive bags, the second house in Hawaii, the trendy shoes—is not how I choose to focus my efforts in my life. Her message is that the lies we tell ourselves hold us back, which is true, but I think “having expensive possessions brings happiness” is also a lie. I realized with that first chapter that I have no interest in getting coached by a person whose basic values are vastly different from mine, who earned her expensive purses through party planning, who actively self identifies as a “lifestyle influencer.”
But I didn’t share any of that with the library patron that night, not because I don’t feel passionately about it, but because I have come to understand that not many people are able to read critically. (I also understand that for many readers, this isn’t the point of reading.)
By “critically” I don’t mean “in a way that expresses disproval.” I mean the second definition, “analysis of the merits and faults of a work of art, literature, movie, or music.”
Merits and faults.
One of the reasons I love reading, and continue to read, is critical thinking. It is one of the things I loved about teaching: having a group of people to interact with in a discussion about a book, an essay, a poem. I like reading for story, of course, and to get to know characters and to enter a setting. But I also like thinking about (and writing about and, if we’re ever at a meal together, talking about) what the story means, how the characters make mistakes, the way the book influences and changes me. Not in a get-more-expensive-purses kind of way, but in a understand-something-difficult-about-the-world kind of way.
In essence, that is why I can’t bring myself to read books like Rachel Hollis’s: because they are obliviously lacking critical viewpoints. They are unable to allow for differences in life experiences, desires, and opportunities. They assume that everyone wants a Hollywood kind of life.
But Hollis’s books aren’t even the reason I sat down to write this today. They are just an example of why critical thinking is important to me.
Because I feel like it is time to bring some of those critical thinking skills to my own life, not just to the books I read.
As I wrote in my last post, I am trying to experience this autumn season with intent. I want to feel things and to experience them, rather than only looking as if through a window. “Looking as if through a window”: this is how I feel I have been living my life for many years. It has to do with the choices I’ve made, the people in my life and their choices, the ways I have chosen to wall myself off. It is about how I feel like I always have to acknowledge: yes I know I am different from you. It comes from seeing my differences and feeling ashamed of them, wondering why I don’t fit in, instead of being able to be who I am.
I want to be who I am.
The God’s honest truth is that I haven’t been really, honestly happy in…I’m not sure how long. I love my people but I keep bumping up against the reality that my life doesn’t feel like the life I need. And when I write something like that, I am flooded with doubt. I don’t want to hurt anyone. I don’t want to be selfish. I love my children and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. I love my husband. But there are flaws here. And I am realizing: life is short. Life is so, so short. I’m nearing fifty and I still haven’t done many of the things I intended on doing.
And of course I can just continue here. I can keep on with my average life. I can do it until I die.
But deep down, I want change. I am craving change. I am wanting to be more than the quiet, stunted person I’ve made myself into, the one pretending. It isn’t only about church anymore. It is about everything. Maybe it is because I am at the end of my years of mothering. I still get to have an influence on Kaleb for a few more years, and I am learning how (thank goodness) being a mother doesn’t ever, in a sense, really end. But the hardest years of daily care are past, and now, for the first time since I was 23, I can ask myself: what do I want?
What shape do I want the rest of my life to take?
I can’t find the answer in a self-help book. I can’t even find the answer in the fiction and poetry I love.
I can only find the answer by myself, and that is both liberating and terrifying. I know what I want, but I don’t know how to get it within the current shape of my life. I don’t want to hurt anyone. I don't want to burn it all down. But I am also starting to realize that I can matter, too. Is that selfish?
Here I am: a frumpy woman with stiff knees, nearing 50. What have I done with my life? What will I do with the life I have left? I suppose everyone faces and answers that question every day of their lives. I have answered it so far in part by doing what other people told me I should do. Which is like reading a book and loving it only because the story was good, rather than for the wrestle with new thoughts it caused. And I’ve been doing that for too long.
It is time to wrestle.