Although the title sounds very self-help, a serious text in which Christopher Hamilton — philosopher, author, and senior lecturer in philosophy of religion at London’s King’s College — uses his scholarship to push the reader. His is not a simple recitation of how to act when faced with difficulties — not a “do this, then do this” type of read. Those books can have value, too, but here Hamilton makes us stop reading and think.
In fact, he doesn’t suggest what we should do in the event of life challenges so much as suggest that we should anticipate them, know ourselves, then react in sync with our values and priorities.
On the topics of family, love, health, and death, Hamilton draws from Seneca, Franz Kafka, Max Blecher, Montaigne, Tolstoy, and even Woody Allen, among other well-known minds. I found it interesting to see how time has not changed what we face: that from generation to generation we continue to have similar types of adversity and continue to wrestle with and write about them.
In choosing these four main areas, Hamilton covers most of our significant life situations. However, a couple of areas he does not explore include difficult people and workplace adversity. (Of course, there are many books focused on these topics alone.)
In discussing family, Hamilton zeroes in on the parent-child relationship and provides an analogy to chemicals. Each chemical is unique; some blend well with certain compounds and yet conflict with others. People are similar, Hamilton suggests, even when it comes to family members.
In some situations he feels it may be best to simply avoid contact with certain people.
When it comes to personal health, Hamilton offers some particularly memorable quotes. He takes from Montaigne, who says we should “submit gently to the laws of our condition,” for “we exist to get old and weak, to fall ill, despite what medicine offers.”
In other words, our vulnerability is unpreventable. Although we obviously should take care of ourselves through diet, exercise, spirituality, socialization, there is still illness we cannot prevent or control.
And, of course, death is not preventable, either. Hamilton asks whether we’re more afraid of what death means, or more afraid of the actual act of dying. Perhaps both.
One writer, Philip Gould, was dying of cancer when he wrote: “Only when you accept death can you free yourself from it.” I wonder, though, whether it is easier to accept death when it is right in front of you than to keep it in mind while still healthy. How to remind oneself that the end is coming someday, and live as though it could happen at any time?
Without worrying excessively about the future, Hamilton writes, we can still benefit from thinking about how we might handle likely problems. That way when they do occur we’ve already figured out how we can respond.
Because Hamilton believes our lives are more the result of chance than choice, he suggests that we be realistic about the bad, or at least unexpected, things that could happen. His book How to Deal with Adversity is a nice place to start.
How to Deal with Adversity
Picador, September 2014
Paperback, 224 pages