[Book Notes] 12 Rules for Life


“Before you help someone, you should find out why that person is in trouble. You shouldn't merely assume that he or she is a noble victim of unjust circumstances and exploitation. It's the most unlikely explanation, not the most probable. In my experience —clinical and otherwise— it's just never been that simple. Besides, if you buy the story that everything terrible just happened on its own, with no personal responsibility on the part of the victim, you deny that person all agency in the past (and, by implication, in the present and future, as well). In this manner, you strip him or her of all power.”

“Success: that's the mystery. Virtue: that's what's inexplicable. To fail, you merely have to cultivate a few bad habits. You just have to bide your time. And once someone has spent enough time cultivating bad habits and biding their time, they are much diminished. Much of what they could have been has dissipated, and much of the less that they have become is now real.”

“Maybe I should at least wait, to help you, until it's clear that you want to be helped. Carl Rogers, the famous humanistic psychologist, believed it was impossible to start a therapeutic relationship if the person seeking help did not want to improve.”

“Thus, I continue helping you, and console myself with my pointless martyrdom. Maybe I can then conclude, about myself, "Someone that self-sacrificing, that willing to help someone -that has to be a good person." Not so. It might be just a person trying to look good pretending to solve what appears to be a difficult problem instead of actually being good and addressing something real.

Maybe instead of continuing our friendship I should just go off somewhere, get my act together, and lead by example.

And none of this is a justification for abandoning those in real need to pursue your narrow, blind ambition, in case it has to be said.”

“Here's something to consider: If you have a friend whose friendship you wouldn't recommend to your sister, or your father, or your son, why would you have such a friend for yourself? You might say: our of loyalty. Well, loyalty is not identical to stupidity. Loyalty must be negotiated, fairly and honestly. Friendship is a reciprocal arrangement. You are not morally obliged to support someone who is making the word a worse place. Quite the opposite.”

“It is for this reason that every good example is a fateful challenge, and every hero, a judge. Michelangelo's great perfect marble David cries out to its observer: "You could be more than you are." When you dare aspire upward, you reveal the inadequacy of the present and the promise of the future. Then you disturb others, in the depths of their souls, where they understand that their cynicism and immobility are unjustifiable. You play Abel to their Cain. You remind them that they ceased caring not because of life's horrors, which are undeniable, but because they do not want to lift the world up on to their shoulders, where it belongs.”

“Does that mean that what we see is dependent on our religious beliefs? Yes! And what we don't see, as well! You might object, «But I'm an atheist." No, you're not (and if you want to understand this, you could read Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, perhaps the greatest novel ever written, in which the main character, Raskolnikov, decides to take his atheism with true seriousness, commits what he has rationalized as a benevolent murder, and pays the price). You're simply not an atheist in your actions, and it is your actions that most accurately reflect your deepest beliefs--those that are implicit, embedded in your being, underneath your conscious apprehensions and articulable attitudes and surface-level self-knowledge. You can only find out what you actually believe (rather than what you think you believe) by watching how you act. You simply don't know what you believe, before that. You are too complex to understand yourself.”

“Pay attention. Focus on your surroundings, physical and psychological. Notice something that bothers you, that concerns you, that will not let you be, which you could fix, that you would fix.”

“Here's a fifth and final and most general principle. Parents have a duty to act as proxies for the real world —merciful proxies, caring proxies— but proxies, nonetheless. This obligation supersedes any responsibility to ensure happiness, foster creativity, or boost self-esteem. It is the primary duty of parents to make their children socially desirable. That will provide the child with opportunity, self-regard, and security. It's more important even than fostering individual identity. That Holy Grail can only be pursued, in any case, after a high degree of social sophistication has been established.”

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