Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Seasons of Life

Book: The Seasons of Life
Author: Paul Tournier
Translated by John S. Gilmour
Edition: 1963 Hardback
Read: July 2009
63 pages
Rated: 3 1/2 out of 5

There is no secret on why Paul Tournier wrote this book. He is in his 60’s at the time of the writing and seeks to give understanding on the phases of our life. This is not a clinical book, nor a self-help book, nor a revealing book. But Tournier reminds us of things we know and things we care about and then organizes them into our seasons.

I am 55 when I read this book. It’s a time of looking ahead; a time to reflect on what I have done and what more am I capable of. Consequently, I reading this book to help give me insight.

This six chapter book does not for through Spring to Summer to Fall to Winter, even though there is some of that. It talks more about who a man is—as an individual, what gives meaning to his life; contentment and fulfillment or emptiness. These are what allow us to have a sense of anticipating to our next part of life or anxiety.

The point which came to me personally is where Tournier says as we go from our adult active life to being aged—the Fall of our lives—we turn from doing and having to being. It is like our choices which we have made over the past 40 years culminate into who we are. Am I a person forever chasing my youth, ala Jack Nicholson? Am I a person content with who I am? Or thinking back on what I should have been? I suspect we are mostly a mixture.

The book is written heavily from a Christian perspective. He is aware that there is a divine plan for every man, each event of a man’s life. This is the over-arching theme of the book. It is what ties in all of his thoughts.

As such he understands the working and the freeing of God’s grace in our lives. But he is aware that the miracle of God coming into our lives does not free us from the natural laws which we live under—laws such as gravity, results of aging, and the consequences of our past acts. He quotes Aquinas on this—Grace does not suppress nature.

If a man is static, does not change, then that is where there is no meaning. He says that a man in movement, continually undergoing change… The very movement implies meaning in life. How does that play out in retirement, when we think that time is stood still? That we are not doing? Is there still meaning? Is there still meaning in laying in an invalid bed?

As part of this movement, Tournier notes that man can change. I think he would be more accurate by saying that a man can change. When a man is healed, there is change—whether the healing is physical or psychological.

Tournier is interested as a practicing doctor and psychiatrist in treating the whole man. It is not enough to treat the symptoms of aging without addressing the affects on the soul. Also that our whole life gives meaning to our being. Even though later on he points out that it is usually a few significant events which turns us to new directions—I think the rest of our lives fill out what those events build in us.
It would be a mistake, if you took my opening words to mean that Tournier does not talk about stages of life. 

Some of the things he says is:
  • - Adulthood is marked by moral-self direction. Becoming aware of what mechanisms control him
  • - As obstacles are faced, are they avoided or do they become part of you? Tournier calls this integration—the way of courageous insight, a path of unceasing discovery.
  • - Childhood is marked by passive submission, concern for the forbidden—the roots of legalism.
  • - We see at the peak of our productivity where each of us feel we have neglected something important in us, an unanswered inner call from our youth. Success in one area of life comes at a price of leaving another part of us behind.
  • - Even during our active summertime of life, we find adulthood is not made up of only activity, but also of meditation. This is a time of seeking God’s plan, a personal set of values.
  • - While Autumn is noted as a time when you realize that even valued dreams and goals will not realized.
  • - As we are in the Autumn of our lives, we review it. We revise what was accomplished, we gain understanding. Most people develop bitterness about the lack of accomplishment—there is a longing to live the Summer of their lives over again. Few are content.
  • Tournier lays out four important factors in development:
  • - Love. He works through this as a child receiving love, to us being capable of receiving God’s love
  • - Suffering. How we work with suffering develops us. Do we respond with despondency? Courage? Acceptance? …
  • - Identification. Who am I? We imitate, we seek independence, we love, we become what we do, what we think.
  • - Adaption. We each are faced with our surroundings. We change to survive, to thrive, … This means meeting each new situation by going beyond ourselves, and our habits. We succeed or we regress.
  • Miscellaneous thoughts:
  • - When God made women, He made him different than a man. This was purposeful. God did not make her just like me. This is for companionship. God loves diversity.
  • - Where Christianity is practiced well, it outstrips the practice of psychology.
  • - No person, man or woman, can achieve fulfillment unless their actions embrace both the home and career.
  • - Fulfillment is not doing everything, giving up nothing, losing nothing. Rather it is being contented with our choices. The youth says do everything. The mature says to be somebody.
  • - The doing and the having are giving away to the being [in the Autumn of our lives].
  • - Below, on the page 55 quote on choosing. The question in my mind is, choosing what? Tournier goes on and says that the choosing will rely more on our inner dispositions than our physical abilities to carry out choices. Something to ponder on the how and what is he talking about.
  • - One task is to help men grow old. What does this mean? Particularly in relationship to our parents? Tournier is speaking towards the medical profession in this statement.
  • - In Tournier’s view, the encounter with the living God is the greatest human event possible.
New Words:
  • - Vicissitudes: able to change or mutate.

Good Quotes:
  • - It is in dialogue that our thinking is clarified. Pg 8
  • - Moralism is simply seeking oneself pretending to be able to know both good and evil… Taken to its logical end, it simply means tat we do not need either God or his grace. Pg 33
  • - Man is neither angel nor brute, and the unfortunate thing is that he who would act the angel acts the brute. Pascal, Pensees, 358
  • - God’s plan is fulfilled not just through obedience of inspired men, but also through their errors, their sins. Pg 43.
  • - We have to renounce far more than we accomplish. If there are satisfactions, there are also disillusionments; if there are successes, there are necessarily failures as well. The day comes when we understand that the latter have been more fruitful perhaps than the successes. Pg 46
  • - We cannot recover time. Pg 48
  • - Successes have their meanings and there is no question of undervaluating them. Failures also have their meaning, perhaps a deeper meaning. What gives them meaning is that they work together toward the fulfillment of God’s plan. Pg 49
  • - Prosperity brings a kind of old age, not only premature, but false. Pg 50
  • - Those who complain about their retirement are usually the same ones as those who used to complain about their work and longed to be set free from it! Pg 52
  • - If living means choosing, and if in adulthood this is true to an ever greater degree, then choosing becomes the supreme vocation of old age, when life has become privation and earthly treasures have lost their glitter. Pg 55
  • - In every life there are a few special moments that count more than all the rest because they meant the taking of a stand, a self-commitment, a decisive choice. Pg 58

Friday, July 24, 2009

Blandings Castle

Book: Blandings Castle
Author: PG Wodehouse
Edition: Hardback, Overlook Press
Read: July 2009
301 pages
Rated: 4 out of 5

PG Wodehouse is a kick to read. But if you are reading this book for some secret message or deep hidden meaning, it is a mistake. PG is one of the best blathers that there is. He tells stories for the shear pleasure , not to impart wisdom; because it is a story; not for life important topics. I guess in one aspect there is hidden meaning. Our lives are to be lived not as a means to an end; ut for the enjoyment of ourselves, others and the Other.

Blandings Castle is two sets of short stories. The first is about the farce of a family of Lord Ensworth. As you read, your gut feel is this family is a product of too much inbreeding. Various members of the family gets into awkward situations with the remedy to get onto an even more awkward situation.

The other set of stories has to do with the Mulliners in Hollywood. Think of the stereotype of Hollywood and the movie industry in the 1920’s. Then throw in an Englishman telling of it from a greatly exaggerated point of view—well you get the idea. The cast of stories include Nodders-those who agree with the boss; marriage in a gorilla cage; and story-writers in exile.

So as you read, just enjoy. Think how much the English really need Jeeves for all the Woosters they have. But most of all, savour the taste of a good writer with nothing to say. Enjoy just for the enjoyment.

Notes from my book group:
There was a very good response. Enjoyable summertime read. People in my group needed to leave the room when reading because they were laughing so much.

New Words:
Saga habit – Wodehouse uses this in connection with telling a long drawn out story, after story
Parva – latin for little
Paladin – a heroic champion

Good Quotes:

- Lord Emsworth could conceive of no way in which Freddie could be of value to a dog-biscuit firm except possibility as a taster. Pg 33
- Nature has made some men quicker thinkers than others. Page 103
- Dogs are philosophers. They soon forget. They do not waste time regretting the might-have-beens. Page 130
- A boy who throws coco-nuts at top hats is fundamentally sound in his views. Page 147
- We are too ready, they say, to dismiss as cowards those who merely require the stimulus of the desperate emergency to bring out all their latent heroism. The crisis comes, and the craven turns magically into paladin. Page 207

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

An Unsuitable Job For A Woman

Book: An Unsuitable Job For A Woman
Author: PD James
Edition: 1972, Paperback
Read: June 2009
297 pages
Rated: 3 out of 5

James introduces us to a new private detective, Cordelia Gray. Her senior, male partner has committed suicide. A renowned scientist son has died under mysterious circumstances, investigators say suicide, but the father wants a further explanation. Particularly, why did he committed suicide. He commissions this 22 year old, inexperienced Cordelia Gray to look into the matter. On this, James goes through the usual questionable people close to the situation and figures out what happened in this death. Of course, Cordelia Gray does a chase scene, as well as gets attacked. There is the usual surprise ending.

James wrote this book in 1972, when the feminist movement was starting to make ripples. From the titlte through about the first third of the book, the influence of that movement is evident. In today’s environment, this kind of writing is passé. I suppose if I had read this book 30 years ago, I would have a different reaction. So one gets the impression that the book is a bit dated in its approach. In places the influence gets in the way of the book. But being a good author, she does settle down to write a decent book.

The other issue with the book is that James cannot figure out if this is an Adam Dalgliesh book or not. The protagonist’s dead partner’s ex-boss had been Dalgliesh . Also Dalgliesh ends up in interrogating the protagonist at the end of the book. This leaves the book being neither free of Dalgliesh to form its own character or to fit into the Dalgliesh mode. There is one gratitutice chapter where he is a major character. [Note: There is a second book with the Cordelia Gray character—The Skull Under The Skin.]

What makes James interesting is the wider perspective she brings to a story—not just, who dun it. Starting in chapter four, she brings in the underlying thought, what does evil look like? A respectable scientist, not notable for being mad, but involved with good things such as environmental impact, does things which are detestable actions. Is that what evil looks like? James finds evil in two ways, when we justify our actions by what we are trying to accomplish and when we disfigure another being. The former she does not dwell on too much, except at the end where you understand why the scientist did what he did.

But the evil James talks about here goes beyond bad manners, disagreeable people or even sin. This includes “serious” sins such as theft, adultery or even murder. What James found in this mystery was when you disfigure another person’s image. This can be a degradement of the person to even changing the person’s appearance. This changing of appearances, degradement of another, this is the work of Satan—not specified by James. This is similar to Satan appearing before God in Job, degrading Job and dragging him through the mud. Murder and theft robs us; James shows where evil comes to us in the form of dehumanization. While James does not say this, I suspect where this really comes from is since each human is made in God’s image, when we tear apart another human, we really are trying to deface God.

Also James frames an interesting question, if we destroy people in the name of good, how can we say we are trying to make the world better? This gets to the root—when our goal destroys others, we have lost our way and our project has gone astray.

On the whole, this mystery is a pleasant read, but not a must read. You can spend a good afternoon going through the book, enjoying yourself.

Good Quotes:- Rudeness should always be intentional, otherwise, it’s insensitivity. (pg 111)
- It doesn’t matter what we feel. Actions are important, feelings aren’t. (pg 113)
- Perhaps it’s only when people are dead that we can safely show how much we cared about them. We know that it’s too late then for them to do anything about it. (pg 191)
- What is the use of making the world more beautiful if the people who live in it can’t love one another? (pg 226)
- The secret of contentment is never to allow yourself to want anything which reason tells you you haven’t a chance of getting. (pg 254)

References:- Wikipedia on Cordelia Gray: Wikipedia on An Unsuitable Job for a Woman:
- Overview of the Cordelia Gray character: PBS Mystery:
- Amazon: