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Did Walker Percy Really Write the Last Self-Help Book?
So lots of readers (about six) have written ME asking for advice on what book they should read to turn their lives around.
Here's my recommendation: Lost in the Cosmos by the philosopher-physician-novelist Walker Percy. It was published in 1983, and I'm one of the very few Americans celebrating the book's 30th anniversary. Several posts will be required to lay out even the basics about being lost in the cosmos. This, of course, is the first.
Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos is subtitled “The Last Self-Book.” He said he gave the book that title so that it would end up in the self-help section of bookstores. And it did.
From Percy’s view, our bookstores are mostly filled with two kinds of books—self-help books and diverting or entertaining books about scandal-ridden law firms or extraterrestrials or VAMPIRES or a bunch of sexually obsessive shades of grey. Diversions, of course, get your mind off yourself, relieve your stress, help out in alleviating your fears, your anxieties, your boredom. According to Pascal, most of our lives are diversions, escapes from what we really know, evidence of our misery without God. According to Percy, most of our lives these days are diversions that become progressively more disappointing. The pursuit of happiness has become the pursuit of diversion in the midst of prosperity. And one problem among many about living in our highly self-conscious time is that diversions we know are merely diversions are boring or only very weak and evaporating antidotes to despair. That’s why Percy knew people visiting museums are mostly ineffectively fending off despondency. That’s also why highly educated bourgeois Americans today try so hard and fail so miserably in being bohemians too.
Percy adds that the self-help books are diversions too. They claim to use the latest studies to tell us who we are and what we’re supposed to do. They tell us that we need, say, seven habits to be highly effective, to be productive, to satisfy our basically material needs. We are, like the other animals, organisms in environments, and we can be happy if we’re think for ourselves, listen to the experts, stay safe or avoid all the risk factors, are rich, and have effective interpersonal dynamics. But lots of us, Percy observes, faithfully follow the self-help advice and end up feeling more disoriented or displaced or more empty than ever. All the self-help experts can add is to stay busy (but with stress-relieving periods of recreation) and positive so eventually things will turn around for you.
So the self-help books work well for a while but eventually fail, as all diversions do. They claim to but do not really tell us who we are and what we’re supposed to do. They can’t extinguish the experiences of self-consciousness or the self or soul by denying that what’s distinctively human about each of us really exists. They can’t take out what the existentialists, such as the philosopher Heidegger, truthfully describe. We’re not organisms in an environment, and so we can’t really lose ourselves—our personal identities—in some environment, in some COSMOS in which each of us is merely a part. We can’t lose BEING LOST. That’s why the master psychologist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn heard just beneath the surface of all our happy-talk pragmatism the howl of existentialism.
For Percy, the resulting ANXIETY—the experience of being an inexplicable or absurd leftover in the world the EXPERTS describe—ought to be a prelude to WONDER about how strange the human self or soul is. But for the experts, anxiety that has no environmental cause (such as being isolated from the other social animals) must have a physical or chemical cause. So there must be a physical or chemical remedy—a mood-altering or mood-elevating drug. As Percy explains, for our experts psyche-iatry—discovering who we are and what we’re supposed to do through attentive conversation—is replaced by a kind of chemo-therapy. For Percy, Socrates and Freud were old-fashioned doctors of the soul; the expert objection to their approach is that was time-consuming and expensive and the results uncertain or unreliable. Who cares about the so-called REAL CAUSE if we can effectively manage the SYMPTOMS? Why shouldn’t we CHOOSE the moods that make us upbeat and productive?
Self-consciousness doesn’t become the enemy, but something to be controlled or managed through technology. But the truth is that even the drugs or chemo-therapy don’t work better than diversions. It’s easy to zap self-consciousness out of existence, but that would make the zappers the masters and the zapped the slaves. The zappers, as a result, would be more miserably lonely than ever. And, in our irrational pride and our love, we don’t really want to surrender our personal identities. We want to be able to manage our self-consciousness the way we can techno-control everything else. But our experts don’t really know what engineered mood or judicious mixture of moods would really make us happy or at home. It turns out that our moods—the moods we’ve been given by nature—are indispensable clues to the truth about who we are and what we’re supposed to do. That’s why Percy says, against the cheomotherapists, that he has a right to his anxiety. It’s his right to liberty that might lead to real truth and real happiness.
The other self-help books can’t tell each of us why we have that right, because they don’t even admit each of us is invincibly LOST IN THE COSMOS without help we can’t possibly provide for ourselves. We’re born to trouble as the sparks fly upward. Our alienation doesn’t have an environmental or physical or political or Historical cause; it's part of and caused by our self-consciousness or personal identity. It’s at the core of our REAL psychology.
So every self-help book has been a failure until Percy’s. His is the first truthful and effective self-help book. For that reason, it’s also the last self-help book. Percy explains, quite scientifically, why each of us is homeless, and, by so doing, he helps us be at home with our homelessness, and so free to be as at home as we can be with the good things of this world.
Stay tuned. There's a lot more to come.
A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.
- A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
- The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
- An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
Foul play?<p>A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during a high speed rail excavation.</p><p>The positioning of the remains have led archaeologists to suspect that the man may have been a victim of an ancient murder or execution. Though any bindings have since decomposed, his hands were positioned together and pinned under his pelvis. There was also no sign of a grave or coffin. </p><p>"He seems to have had his hands tied, and he was face-down in the bottom of the ditch," <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">said archaeologist Rachel Wood</a>, who led the excavation. "There are not many ways that you end up that way."</p><p>Currently, archaeologists are examining the skeleton to uncover more information about the circumstances of the man's death. Fragments of pottery found in the ditch may offer some clues as to exactly when the man died. </p><p>"If he was struck across the head with a heavy object, you could find a mark of that on the back of the skull," Wood said to <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">Live Science</a>. "If he was stabbed, you could find blade marks on the ribs. So we're hoping to find something like that, to tell us how he died."</p>
Other discoveries at Wellwick Farm<p>The grim discovery was made at Wellwick Farm near Wendover. That is about 15 miles north-west of the outskirts of London, where <a href="https://www.hs2.org.uk/building-hs2/hs2-green-corridor/" target="_blank">a tunnel</a> is going to be built as part of a HS2 high-speed rail project due to open between London and several northern cities sometime after 2028. The infrastructure project has been something of a bonanza for archaeology as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route that are now being excavated before construction begins. </p><p>The farm sits less than a mile away from the ancient highway <a href="http://web.stanford.edu/group/texttechnologies/cgi-bin/stanfordnottingham/places/?icknield" target="_blank">Icknield Way</a> that runs along the tops of the Chiltern Hills. The route (now mostly trails) has been used since prehistoric times. Evidence at Wellwick Farm indicates that from the Neolithic to the Medieval eras, humans have occupied the region for more than 4,000 years, making it a rich area for archaeological finds. </p><p>Wood and her colleagues found some evidence of an ancient village occupied from the late Bronze Age (more than 3,000 years ago) until the Roman Empire's invasion of southern England about 2,000 years ago. At the site were the remains of animal pens, pits for disposing food, and a roundhouse — a standard British dwelling during the Bronze Age constructed with a circular plan made of stone or wood topped with a conical thatched roof.</p>
Ceremonial burial site<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NDgwNTIyMX0.I49n1-j8WVhKjIZS_wVWZissnk3W1583yYXB7qaGtN8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C82%2C0%2C83&height=700" id="44da7" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="46cfc8ca1c64fc404b32014542221275" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="top down view of coffin" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
A high status burial in a lead-lined coffin dating back to Roman times.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>While these ancient people moved away from Wellwick Farm before the Romans invaded, a large portion of the area was still used for ritual burials for high-status members of society, Wood told Live Science. The ceremonial burial site included a circular ditch (about 60 feet across) at the center, and was a bit of a distance away from the ditch where the (suspected) murder victim was uncovered. Additionally, archaeologists found an ornately detailed grave near the sacred burial site that dates back to the Roman period, hundreds of years later when the original Bronze Age burial site would have been overgrown.</p><p>The newer grave from the Roman period encapsulated an adult skeleton contained in a lead-lined coffin. It's likely that the outer coffin had been made of wood that rotted away. Since it was clearly an ornate burial, the occupant of the grave was probably a person of high status who could afford such a lavish burial. However, according to Wood, no treasures or tokens had been discovered. </p>
Sacred timber circle<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDAwOTQ4Mn0.eVJAUcD0uBUkVMFuMOPSgH8EssGkfLf_MjwUv0zGCI8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C149%2C0%2C149&height=700" id="9de6a" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ee66520d470b26f5c055eaef0b95ec06" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="An aerial view of the sacred circular monument." data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
An aerial view of the sacred circular monument.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>One of the most compelling archaeological discoveries at Wellwick Farm are the indications of a huge ceremonial circle once circumscribed by timber posts lying south of the Bronze Age burial site. Though the wooden posts have rotted away, signs of the post holes remain. It's thought to date from the Neolithic period to 5,000 years ago, according to Wood.</p><p>This circle would have had a diameter stretching 210 feet across and consisted of two rings of hundreds of posts. There would have been an entry gap to the south-west. Five posts in the very center of the circle aligned with that same gap, which, according to Wood, appeared to have been in the direction of the rising sun on the day of the midwinter solstice. </p><p>Similar Neolithic timber circles have been discovered around Great Britain, such as one near <a href="https://bigthink.com/culture-religion/stonehenge-sarsens" target="_blank">Stonehenge</a> that is considered to date back to around the same time. </p>
Research reveals a new evolutionary feature that separates humans from other primates.
- Researchers find a new feature of human evolution.
- Humans have evolved to use less water per day than other primates.
- The nose is one of the factors that allows humans to be water efficient.
A model of water turnover for humans and chimpanzees who have similar fat free mass and body water pools.
Credit: Current Biology
Being skeptical isn't just about being contrarian. It's about asking the right questions of ourselves and others to gain understanding.
- It's not always easy to tell the difference between objective truth and what we believe to be true. Separating facts from opinions, according to skeptic Michael Shermer, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, and others, requires research, self-reflection, and time.
- Recognizing your own biases and those of others, avoiding echo chambers, actively seeking out opposing voices, and asking smart, testable questions are a few of the ways that skepticism can be a useful tool for learning and growth.
- As Derren Brown points out, being "skeptical of skepticism" can also lead to interesting revelations and teach us new things about ourselves and our psychology.