The problem of human pain is big, but Anne Lamott’s new book about it is small, probably because she knows that there’s no definitive answer to why we suffer and no point spending pages and pages on that fact. Instead, she offers a few stories and analogies about living with and moving on from the pain, making suffering part of our lives and healing from it, even if we never quite get over it.
I read this just after finishing Breath, Eyes, Memory, which is a book in which characters find healing by naming and confronting their pain. Lamott says much the same thing:
It would be great if we could shop, sleep or date our way out of this. Sometimes we think we can, but it feels that way only for a while. To heal, it seems we have to stand in the middle of the horror, at the foot of the cross, and wait out another’s suffering where that person can see us. To be honest, that sucks. It’s the worst, even if you’re the mother of God.
Mary didn’t say, “Oh, he’ll be back in a couple of days,” She didn’t know this. She stood with her son in the deep unknowing as he died.
Yet no matter what happens to us—to our children, to our town, to our world—we feel it is still a gift to be human and to have a human life, as long as we ignore the commercials and advertisements and the static that the world beams at us, and understand that we and our children are going to get knocked around, sometimes so cruelly that it will take our breath away. Life can be wild, hard, and sweet, but it can also be wild, hard, and cruel.
One of the things I like about Lamott’s nonfiction is that she’s honest about the good and the bad in life. She avoids coming across as cynical and whiny or as simplistic and naive. Good and evil exist side by side in the world, and she doesn’t minimize either one. That’s a tremendously hard thing to do. But I think doing it is helpful because we can cope with the evil by finding the good, the true good, rather than the false good that distracts us from pain instead of healing us. That true good often comes from helping others or noticing small beauties—butterflies and argyle socks and daily rituals.
I love Lamott’s way of looking at the world, and this book doesn’t include any radical departures from her usual way of thinking. She’s perhaps a little less snarky and a little more hopeful here than in her other books, which is interesting, but probably necessary given the topic. But even though this book contains writing and thinking that is typical Lamott, I found it a little lacking overall. It’s so short, and the focus on a single theme means there are fewer amusing digressions and essays on general life topics than in Traveling Mercies. It also seems a little like a book for her fans, not for new readers. There are a few inside jokes and references that might not make sense if you haven’t read her other nonfiction. If you’re interested in Lamott, Traveling Mercies, Bird by Bird, or Operating Instructions is a better place to start.