Arbour therapists are readers. Joy Gillet often travels with an inconvenient bag of physical books; Calvin Black is still shoving books from his old office into any available nook in our therapy rooms, and many staff meetings are spent reflecting on the latest paragraphs that have caught our attention that month. Below are the books that had an impact on us this year with reflections on their significance.
The book I read recently is Love Sense by Sue Johnson. Sue Johnson is the founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy; an effective and well-proven couples counselling approach. She is also a hero of mine! I love how Sue understands intimate relationships from an attachment perspective. Sue says:
“The greatest gift a parent has to give a child—and a lover has to give a lover—is emotionally attuned attention and timely responsiveness.”
She asserts (in her fantastic British accent) that we are bonding mammals and social animals, made to mate and attach to a partner for life. As she says so well:
“Splendid isolation is for planets, not people... We, too, as the Celtic saying goes, “live in the shelter of each other.” World War II historians have noted that the unit of survival in concentration camps was the pair, not the individual. Surveys show that married men and women generally live longer than do their single peers.”
And then she outlines how to do this: by emotionally relating to our partners by being available, responsive, and engaged with them. This may sound simple, but believe me, it is not! Sue gives some really good methods of how to do this well along with a ton of scientific research to back up her findings. Here is one good tip:
“Learning to love and be loved is, in effect, about learning to tune in to our emotions so that we know what we need from a partner and expressing those desires openly, in a way that evokes sympathy and support from him or her.”
It turns out those weird things called emotions that happen inside us are actually our key to connection. I hope you enjoy this book as much as I did.
This year I read two books by Johann Hari. Lost Connections, traces the impacts of disconnection and suggests that social factors play a larger role in depression and anxiety than we might think. He writes from a place of honesty about his own struggles with depression and recognizes that simply addressing it with medication led him to further frustration rather than relief. This book reminded me of how important relationships are in supporting us through whatever season of life we are in.
“I don't think it's a coincidence that this crisis in paying attention has taken place at the same time as the worst crisis of democracy since the 1930s. People who can't focus will be more drawn to simplistic authoritarian solutions—and less likely to see clearly when they fail. A world full of attention-deprived citizens alternating between Twitter and Snapchat will be a world of cascading crises where we can't get a handle on any of them.” - Johann Hari, Stolen Focus
The second book by Johann Hari that impacted me was Stolen Focus. This is a thorough unpacking of the many ways that the modern world challenges our ability to sustain attention. Hari again recounts his own experience: feeling like he can't sit for two minutes without checking his phone. Feeling overwhelmed, he takes a media sabbatical and tries to disconnect. He discovers that his ability to focus and attend to the simple happenings of daily life returns. But he also becomes aware that it is increasingly impossible for the average person to disconnect like this. Hari is a captivating writer and diligent journalist who weaves current information together with captivating stories.
Dr. Edith Eva Eger’s book: The Choice, is both a powerful and riveting memoir, and a practical guide to psychological healing from trauma, grief, and fear. Born into a Hungarian Jewish family, Dr. Eger’s family was swallowed up into Auschwitz by the Nazis during the latter part of World War II. Although her parents lost their lives very shortly upon entering the death camp, Dr. Eger survived.
After liberation, she slowly recovered physically, married, and escaped to America where she and her young family struggled as immigrants. The psychological trauma, however, would take decades to fully heal. Eventually, Eger chose to go to university, worked hard, and became a psychologist at the age of fifty.
“Maybe every life is a study of the things we don’t have but wish we did, and the things we have but wish we didn’t. It took me many decades to discover that I could come at my life with a different question. Not: Why did I live? But: What is mine to do with the life I’ve been given?” - Edith Eva Eger, The Choice
Dr. Eger wants her readers to come to embrace: ‘We can’t control what’s happening. But we can choose how we respond to it.’ I (Joy) found The Choice to be remarkable, not just as a record of one person’s healing journey toward forgiveness of her perpetrators, but also herself. Dr. Eger weaves together personal stories with case studies from her work as a psychologist. The Choice shows the path toward unlocking our mental prisons, becoming the persons we were meant to be, and learning to live our lives to the full.
I’ve read quite a few books this year, but one that stands out is Neil deGrasse Tyson’s quick read called Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, written in 2017. My father is an astronomer and a physicist, and he got me interested in all kinds of natural sciences, especially astronomy and nuclear physics when I was a kid. I guess you could say I grew up fascinated by studying how inanimate objects interact, and then became more interested in studying how people interact.
Anyhow, certain parts of this little book opened my eyes, especially the following statement on page 107:
"The most accurate measurements to date reveal dark energy as…responsible for 68 percent of all the mass-energy in the universe; dark matter comprises 27 percent, with regular matter comprising a mere 5 percent." - Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry
The amazing thing about this is that no one has any clue what the heck “dark matter” and “dark energy” actually are. No clue. They are mathematically essential to the integrity of the universe: yet all the theories about what these quantities actually are have failed miserably when put to the test. So: that means we can only explain 5 per cent of all the matter and energy in the universe. Despite millennia of scientific advancement, the other 95 per cent of the universe remains a complete mystery.
“Need some more ego softeners?” Tyson quips toward the end of his book. “The cosmic perspective is humble.”
I’ve enjoyed being part of a regular book group that has met every three weeks for well over ten years. We’ve read a whole bunch of books, many of them excellent, some not so much. Currently, we’re working through one that has all of us quite mesmerized: The Sound of Life’s Unspeakable Beauty, by Martin Schleske. It’s my new favourite book, and if you Google Mr. Schelske, you’ll find that he is actually a luthier. That’s right, he makes violins! In a nutshell, this book is a spiritual reflection that draws all sorts of parallels between the inner life of our spirit, mind, and heart, to that of crafting a violin.
I would say that this book will be most palatable to those of you who have a life of faith, as Martin Schleske is a Christian, and he notes with beautiful language the similarities of making a violin to the way God crafts, nourishes, and forms us.
Full disclosure – I’m only about a third of the way through this book, but already there are some rich gems. One example is where Mr. Schleske describes how a good luthier is focused on bringing the best sound out of the wood presented to him (pp. 96-101). Since all wood has its own unique pattern and grain, turns and imperfections, the luthier must carve the wood by working alongside its uniqueness, despite its imperfections. Rather than try to impose a “perfect” pattern over the wood—he calls this construction— the luthier must shift with the grain, the bends of the fibres, in a way that “the wood has its say in [the] co-creation”, and this way “justify” the wood, draw out its best sound—this he calls creation.
Then he goes on to make the parallel to our own lives:
“What moves me is the idea that God has the heart of an artist, who does not force reality into submission by bending and breaking and going against the grain. The thought of seeing every person, ourselves included, as a unique work of art in progress, an ever-changing and matchless expression of God, changes everything.”
In the fall, I read The Book of Form & Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki which, in its simplest form, is a fiction about grief, loss, poverty, mental health, love and friendship. Ozeki brilliantly creates complex characters and a plot that engages everything from philosophy to climate change, from the wisdom of holding possessions lightly to holding hope for deep pain. I loved it for “its ability to carefully celebrate difference, not patronizing dysfunction” (the Guardian- M. John Harrison). These hurting relationships are woven together with a beauty that is real, yet so often is hard to reach in our world, and it finishes with a truthful ending that holds the tensions of life.
As a therapist, I get the opportunity to see how so many different sources can empower people to change. Personally, I have always found fiction to be a place of revelation —helping me wake up to others' and my own realities. One of the delightful characters in Ozeki's book is Book, which personifies the book the reader is reading. Here are two of my favourite quotes from the Book character that express why fiction can help us heal and grow:
“Every person is trapped in their own particular bubble of delusion, and it's every person's task in life to break free. Books can help. We can make the past into the present, take you back in time and help you remember. We can show you things, shift your realities and widen your world, but the work of waking up is up to you.”
“The world has given you the eyes to see the beauty of its mountains and rivers, and the ears to hear the music of its wind and sea, and the voice you need to tell it. We books are evidence that this is so. We are here to help you.”
Johnson, S. M. (2013). Love sense: the revolutionary new science of romantic relationships. First edition. New York, Little, Brown and Company.
Eger, E. E., Weigand, E. S., & Zimbardo, P. G. (2017). The choice: embrace the possible. First Scribner hardcover edition. New York, Scribner.
Hari, J. (2018). Lost connections: uncovering the real causes of depression-and the unexpected solutions. New York, Bloomsbury.
Hari, J. (2022). Stolen Focus: why you can't pay attention-and how to think deeply again. New York, Crown.
Schleske, M. (2020). The Sound of Life’s Unspeakable Beauty. Wm. B. Eardmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan. Originally published in German (2010), as Der Klang: Vom unerhörten Sinn des Lebens., Kösel-Verlag, a division of Verlagsgruppe Random House GmbH, München, Germany.
Ozeki, R. (2022). The Book of Form and Emptiness: A Novel. Van Haren Publishing.