how reading can help you through your life crisis

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Roughly five years ago, two things happened: my husband filed for divorce and I got my first Kindle.

I grew up in a small town where I never fit in: bullied, physically by boys and then later, once the boys changed their tune, psychologically by girls. I looked to books for guidance, wisdom and solace.

I read so ferociously that by the time an adult in my life tried to deliver some Life Lesson – ranging from menstruation and sex and first love to rape and the Holocaust and the HIV virus (I came of age during the AIDS epidemic) – I had already absorbed the information through my reading (and in some cases knew more than the adult, which no doubt totally endeared me).

It was books that opened up the world and demanded I explore it. So I struck off: as an exchange student, as a university student on scholarship, as an ESL teacher in Japan, and then as a writer and startup widow in California.

When my marriage fell apart, my overwhelming impulse (aside from protecting our kids from the immediate ugliness) was to read.

Converting from print to Kindle enabled me to read even more.

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I was no longer reading for the deep, complicated pleasures of storytelling or to develop my craft as a writer.

I was looking for straight-up advice on how to live.

Fiction is one of the best educators you can ever have about how to live a meaningful life, how to relate to people, how to grow, how to find your place in the world.

In fiction, life kicks people into the ashes all the time.

It’s part of a process. It forces a character to cast off the strategies for being and living that no longer serve her, so that she can rise stronger than before.

I had written ten or so novels (three of them traditionally published), countless stories (a few of them anthologized). As much as it sucked to be in the ashes, to watch my old life burn down around me while my replacement stepped into the role I had vacated, I could recognize the pattern when I saw it. This was a time of transition and transformation. This was my phoenix point.

So I went on a reading binge for five years and, to be honest, am only starting to come out of it now. I was ready to admit that I had fucked up: even though, in this so-called post-feminist age, I had known better, I had allowed myself to be seduced by some fairytale, consumerist notion of the good life. You know that saying, Careful what you wish for, you just might get it?

Forget that.

I think it’s good to get what you want, especially when it teaches you to want other things. click to tweet

The older and more experienced I become, the more disturbed I am by the messages this culture beams down to us. When you buy all the right stuff, then you’ll be happy. When you can pay off your debt for buying all that stuff, then you’ll be happy. When you get that lean body (or power and status), then you’ll be loved. When you’re loved, you’ll know it, and you’ll feel complete and whole.

I’ve been privileged enough to discover that none of this is true.

And women get these other messages, starting in princess fantasies and traveling up through television, movies, magazines, advice about relationships and dating: make yourself pretty and wait to be chosen. Don’t call him. Don’t be competitive or ambitious. Don’t be intimidating. Don’t be threatening. Don’t go for greatness, which isn’t possible anyway if you want to have kids (and if you don’t want kids, then what the hell is wrong with you?).

These messages slip into our subconscious and encourage the malignant growth of a rescue fantasy. If it’s not a man or woman that will magically whisk you away to some trouble-free paradise, then it’s a job offer or an inheritance or a winning lottery ticket or a phone call out of nowhere, it’s a validation from a parent or boss or partner or ex-partner even when you know on a rational level that such validation isn’t possible (and for reasons that have nothing to do with who you are or what you’ve accomplished).

Looking to external sources, to some fake authority we deem as higher for signs of our own deep worth, keeps us uncertain and smiling and trying to please, keeps us trapped in false notions of what it means to self-sacrifice, disconnects us from that soulvoice saying, This is bullshit. It makes you start to mistake the bullshit for truth.

All the reading I’ve done has a funny way of bringing me back to basics.

We have two missions in this world: to create and connect. click to tweet

You discover who you are through what you make. click to tweet You don’t know who you are until you know what you can do – and you can do so much more than you think, once you take yourself seriously, commit to the learning process, and push toward mastery.

And if you don’t know what it is you should be doing, pay attention to what attracts you. Decide to learn something. Anything. We think passion precedes a sense of mastery, or even a sense of competence, but that’s not always true. The beginning stage – once the honeymoon period wears off — is always a bitch. You have to push through the valley of despair (what Seth Godin terms the dip) to get to the cool part.

You discover joy, deep soul bliss, through your ability to connect.

To your family. Your friends and community. Your work and activities. Your appreciation of beauty, history, nature and special places. Your pets. Your ideas, wisdom and rich inner life. Your tribes. Your greater truth, and the meaning you find in the pursuit of it. Your bigger picture.

To yourself.

To your ability to be who you are – to remember who you are – and find a place, a home, a family (however unconventional) allowing you to do that.

I know all this, I can hear some of you thinking. And of course you do. But is knowledge actually power of any kind, if we don’t do anything with it?

Which is my way of asking: if we know so much, why do we settle for so little?

Jun 6, 2013
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9 comments · Add Yours

Brilliant, honest and true. I just tweeted this quote yesterday: “The biggest human temptation is to settle for too little” – Thomas Merton

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Your final question opened me up: “If we know so much, why do we settle for so little?”

Because we believe the lies we have been told about who we are and what is possible.

Thanks for sharing your fierce intelligence. It made my day.

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This has happened to every person who ever lived and the best answer I found was from one of Israel’s kings….. Solomon.
At the end of a very lengthy discourse on life he concludes in Ecclesiastes 12 verse 13 & 14….. Now DON’T go out & read this passage until you’ve read the entire discourse from the beginning or it won’t make any sense to you at all.

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Love this post! Have lived through much of it myself – it struck a lot of familiar chords. :) e

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“You discover who you are through what you make.” Wow, thank you for another inspiring post. I want to print this out and take notes!

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What a beautifully written piece. Thanks so much for this post!

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This has been my experience, too. I believe the Writer’s Aphasia-the inability to read or write- I’ve experienced in these years since The Great Detonation (of my entire life), may well be the reason that it’s taken so long to go through the rebuilding process.

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I loved this post, Justine. I’ve often said that reading has saved my life on more than one occasion, and it sounds like it’s been something of a life raft for you too.

“You discover who you are through what you make” really resonates with me as well. Sometimes there’s no way to know what’s really in you until you do the work of drawing it out.

Thanks for another beautiful post.

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I can relate to this post, as I’m sure many of us can. Reading has helped me through so many tough times in my life. Great post and I love “You discover who you are through what you make.” I only hope that what I write inspires and comforts others…to me that is the greatest reward.

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