Early in the summer of 2011, not long after we arrived in Colorado, I received an email from our good friends in Los Angeles who also own a cabin down the road from us. They had offered the use of their cabin for one week to the rector of their church, All Saint’s in Pasadena, who would be using it as a retreat while he worked on his book; they wondered if we could “keep an eye out” for him in case he needed anything during his visit, and asked if they could give him our telephone number. I’d do anything for these friends, to begin with, and the fact that this visitor was a writer made me all the more willing to help.
According to my friends, the Rev. Ed Bacon had appeared on The Oprah Show, as well as on her radio program, and apparently she suggested on air that he write a book. This aroused the interest of literary agents and led to a bidding war for his book proposal, along with a “significant” advance. Even before I met Ed Bacon, I felt envious. I’ve been writing since I was 12 and for most of my life have wanted nothing more than to be in his position. I had launched my website seven months earlier and was struggling to find my way as a blogger; I’d also begun a non-fiction book in the self-help genre and would soon be attempting to interest a publisher in acquiring it. I knew that the prospect of a “significant” advance for a relative unknown like me was highly unlikely.
On the day of his arrival, Ed telephoned me: he had missed his turn and was having a hard time finding his way to the cabin. The roads around us are difficult to navigate, so instead of trying to give him directions, I drove down to meet him so he could follow me back. I led him to the cabin; we chatted briefly before I left him, and I invited him to join us for a drink the following evening. Despite my envy and feelings of competitiveness, I liked Ed right away. I also felt curious to hear about his experiences. I’m always eager to discuss the writing process, and I had a strong intuition that talking with Ed would be a fascinating experience.
My intuition proved accurate. What followed were three memorable evenings spent together that week, one with Ed alone and two more with his collaborator Stuart Horwitz as well. I had acknowledged to myself those feelings of envy and competitiveness; they didn’t stop me from liking Ed and Stuart very much and engaging in some of the most satisfying conversations of the year. I also felt free to disagree with Ed concerning some aspects of his book as he described it. We discussed our differences with mutual respect and also found our views had a great deal in common. Ed is an enormously intelligent and erudite man; he lives his life on a much bigger stage than my own, counting Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama among his friends. Getting to know him was a pleasure, tinged a bit with envy for that book contract.
Ed’s book 8 Habits of Love has just been released by Grand Central, part of the Hachette Book Group. On Friday, I downloaded a copy to my eReader in preparation for a plane flight. As I began to read, I realized that I was approaching the book with vestiges of that envy; I found that I was in a mind-set to disagree, largely because of those competitive feelings. Remembering that week when I first came to know Ed, I worked hard to set those feelings aside and open myself to his book. When I did, I was very pleased to find how much I agreed with what Ed has to say. It’s a wonderful book.
I’d like to state my disagreements up front, getting them out of the way, because there’s so much more I want to praise. My central issue is the one Ed and I discussed over a year and a half ago: he believes that fear is what prevents people from feeling love and fulfillment in their lives; emotions such as hatred, anger, envy, cruelty, etc. are by-products of that fear. He also believes that letting go of that fear will enable us to experience love more fully and leave those destructive emotions behind. Those of you who have been following my posts for a while know this is opposed to my own views. I see anger, envy and hatred as normal aspects of the human experience; it is when those feelings become unbearable, or when the defenses against the awareness of them become too deeply entrenched or rigid that they cause us trouble.
8 Habits of Love also encourages the reader to try to feel love, and offers advice for how to open your heart to that experience by letting go of fear and cultivating certain habits. While I believe the ability to feel genuine love and compassion leads to a more satisfying life and more fulfilling relationships, I’m skeptical about trying to feel that way — or any one particular way, for that matter. In my view, by embracing and learning to tolerate the full range of human emotions within ourselves, it enables us to empathize more fully with other people in their own struggles with difficult emotions; it makes possible a kind of love that has room for the occasional surge of anger, envy or even hatred.
All this being said, I was very pleased to find how much of Ed’s guidance fits with what I believe. The kind of effort he advocates very often seems compatible with the work I do, both with myself and in my practice. For example, one of the habits Ed encourages the reader to cultivate is that of Stillness. He discusses mindfulness meditation, but also talks about other ways of developing this habit — through gardening or music, for example. In addition to cultivating stillness during my morning piano practice, I also engage in a kind of mindfulness meditation during my hikes in the Rocky Mountains.
As with all of the habits, the goal of the Habit of Stillness is to release the hold of fear upon you, in the process opening your heart to the experience of love. I would say that Stillness enables you to perceive the emotional truth, whatever it may be, but the guidance offered here for how to cultivate the habit is extremely useful.
Ed also discusses the habits of Truth and Candor. The habit of Stillness enables us to perceive our own inner truth, the script by which we are living our lives, along with our internal moral compass. Truth “helps us grow — and in so doing, calls us to abandon the restrictive and anxiety-producing old truths by which we may have lived before.” Although he never uses the word, I think Ed is discussing psychological defenses. In my forthcoming book, I rely heavily on Donald Meltzer’s formulation that defense mechanisms are “lies” we tell ourselves to evade pain. I also believe that truth is to the psyche as food is to the physical body, and this seems very much in keeping with Ed Bacon’s view expressed here.
I love what he has to say about Candor, and how people may react to it with “ferocious defensiveness” even when the intention is positive. He also distinguishes it from brutal forms of honesty that conceal other motives: how supposed “authenticity” can mask “power grabs” or destructive impulses. He tells a wonderful/painful story about a summer spent at Wesleyan College when one of the counselors correctly identified Ed as a first-born child, publicly calling him “narcissistic and controlling” in a deeply hurtful way. Ed values honesty and truthfulness, but his respect for those virtues is neither naive nor simplistic. He understands that difficult truths may very well be heard when the impulse behind them is full of love and concern. The practice of psychotherapy involves the continual telling of difficult truths, often unwelcome, but within the context of a strong attachment between therapist and client, those truths can be heard and healing can occur.
I found the chapter on Community the most moving, and the most personally relevant. He tells the story of a man whose wife died shortly after the birth of their child, who found a sense of community through blogging and was able to process his grief by sharing his pain, asking for advice and receiving the support of thousands of people online. It felt very much akin to my own experience blogging and the community that has developed here, how much meaning it has given to my life and to my own inner struggles. “We all need Community,” Ed tells us, “in whatever form we find or create it, to give us courage, inspire us to change, and hold us accountable.” I couldn’t agree more.
Maybe it was a way to assuage the last of those competitive feelings — after all, we’re both writing in the “self-help” genre and addressing similar issues, even if Ed’s method is more spiritual and inspirational than my own — but in the end, I came away feeling that he and I probably deal with very different types of psychological challenges in our work. Most of the people in the many vignettes he offers to illustrate the different habits struck me as relatively healthy, the sort of person who would be open to and benefit from the kind of guidance he offers. In my practice, I deal more with people whose internal obstacles would make it extremely difficult to make use of such a book. People damaged by backgrounds of serial sexual abuse and gross parental betrayal, who suffer from debilitating shame of a profound nature, who struggle with suicidal urges or hear voices. I guess you could say that, in the end, I felt there was room for both of us within the community of caregivers!
* * *
My life has changed a lot since those evenings Ed and I spent together a year and a half ago. The audience for my blog has grown enormously, I opened my practice to Skype therapy and now work with clients in Europe, Asia and Africa, as well as here in the United States and Canada. I sold my book to New Harbinger Publications and then voluntarily withdrew from the contract six months later when I felt I couldn’t write the book I wanted under their editorial restrictions. It’s a decision I have felt better and better about as time has gone on. I’m enormously proud of this book, especially the final chapters, and I know my publisher would never have let me write them the way I chose to do. I found and followed my own inner truth, in a way not very different from the guidance offered by Ed Bacon’s fine book. I look forward to releasing Why Do I Do That? — self-published and word-for-word what I wanted to write — in a few weeks’ time.
Am I still envious of Ed and the launch he received from a first-rate publishing house? Yes. Do I wish I had an Oprah to open doors for me? You bet I do. But my feelings of envy and competitiveness don’t stop me from admiring this wonderful book and wishing Ed Bacon all the best with it.
Here’s a link to 8 Habits of Love. I strongly urge you to check it out.
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