The first source of this book’s power are its letters. Carefully selected from thousands, each letter combines moving detail with clear framing of some universal aspect of human suffering. Some writers simply need courage to do what they know they should. Others are genuinely lost. The result is a cathartic cross section of loss, abuse, lust, confusion, betrayal and despair. Whatever the problem you face, however deep your suffering, it is hard not to find perspective or comradeship among their ranks.
Then there are the replies. Cheryl draws as unflinchingly from her own tragic story as she does from those of the many sufferers she has met and counselled. Her writing is open, conversational, honest, irreverent, intimate and vulnerable. It feels like there is nothing you could say that would shock “Sugar”. Nothing you could feel or do that would not make her love you. That her replies are so accepting, thoughtful and insightful is remarkable. That each one is so specific and yet feels like it could be addressed to you personally is what makes them unique.
The truth, though, as Cheryl acknowledges, is that nothing we feel is unique. Though its causes are many, suffering has two basic properties. First, it is universal. Second, it does not function on an absolute scale. Take a victim of abuse, a parent who has lost a child and an angstful teen. We might judge the relative gravity of their situations differently. And yet each may experience their suffering as acutely and strongly as the next. Each may see their path as impossible and insurmountable.
It is at the centre of this universal and general nature that suffering provides us with hope:
Acknowledge. Accept. Act.
Acknowledge. Accept. Act.
Acknowledge. Accept. Act.
These are the three themes that vibrate clearly throughout Cheryl’s letters. The promise of a single (if not easy) solution to a single problem.
Read “Tiny Beautiful Things”. Keep it close. Refer to it in times of trouble. Refer to it when you lose perspective. Share it with others.
It will make you stronger. It will make you happier. It will make you a better person.
In the meantime, here is a woefully inadequate book crunch.
Being there for yourself
Acknowledge your suffering.
- Your suffering is real and natural.
- Nothing you are thinking or feeling is wrong.
- You are not alone.
Accept reality (You don’t choose the cards you’re dealt…).
- Life isn’t fair.
- Sometimes things that are not our responsibility become our problem.
- Bad things happen:
- to good people,
- for no reason,
- all the time.
- Life isn’t black and white.
- Being human is complicated.
- People don’t do what they should / you want, they do what they can.
- We are all savages inside: we all want to be loved and esteemed.
- The past is fixed.
- What happened, happened.
- You can never change that.
- The future is uncertain.
- Things, relationships and people change.
- Holding on to old truths doesn’t make them true.
- And this moment too will pass away.
Accept responsibility (…but you choose how to play them.).
- Stop feeling sorry for yourself.
- Self-pity and emotion change nothing.
- The only person you can change is you.
- Change is not a nice thing we say…
- Change is a hard thing we do.
Draw strength from others.
- Find and take courage from others who have suffered like you.
- Seek support and advice from people you love and who love you.
- Use formal safety nets e.g., doctors, therapy.
- Use informal safety nets e.g., Alcoholics / Narcotics Anonymous.
- Let it out: find a place for it or it will rule you.
- Ask questions: understand the bigger picture.
- Explain your feelings without making someone else responsible for them.
- Be honest with others in a way that allows them to make healthy decisions.
Think / understand.
- Think things through on paper.
- Draw up lists.
- Make diagrams.
- Think from the perspective of others.
- Map out the options.
- Map out the consequences.
- Identify your motivations, desires and fears.
- Think from the perspective of your best self.
(Generous, reasonable, forgiving, loving, big hearted, grateful).
- Visualise what you wish you’d done a year from now.
- Ask what there is to lose / gain from each option.
Have the courage to act.
- You don’t always need a reason you can verbalise.
- Trust yourself – live out what you already know to be true.
- Be true to your truest self.
- Don’t act inconsistently with your gut / inner core.
- Don’t do the things you know are wrong.
- Identify excuses / lies you use to avoid doing what you fear most.
Change what you can.
- Distance yourself from sources of harm (this is not running away).
- Set healthy boundaries.
- They are not judgments punishments or betrayals.
- They teach people how to treat you.
- They teach you how to respect yourself.
- Don’t prioritise the short term over the long term.
- Reach hard even if it is difficult.
- Pick and stay true to one most important thing…
- Even if that means taking some risks.
- Start with the smallest steps.
- It’s going to be hard but you have to keep going.
Be patient and don’t give up.
- You can’t always escape.
- You can’t work everything out at once.
- The process of recovery is non-linear; there will be circles and set-backs.
- That’s why you will mess up; and that’s O.K.
- Try to be the person you want to be…
- But don’t kick yourself when you’re the person you are.
- And remember, this moment too will pass away.
- Understand that failing in one role (e.g., husband) does not mean failing as a whole (e.g., father).
- Forgiveness means acknowledging and letting go of anger or pain.
- It does not mean allowing the forgiven to stomp all over you once again.
- Rewrite your narratives
- Narratives define who we are.
- We can change even the most ingrained ones.
- But it takes time and effort.
- Practise gratitude (for the tiny beautiful things).
- Gratitude defeats jealousy, depression, anxiety.
Being there for someone else
You cannot teach a man anything, you can only help him to find it within himself
– Galileo Galilei
Your job is not to solve the problem.
Acknowledge and accept.
- Over and over.
- Even if it feels lame and insufficient.
Share stories to give strength and courage.
Soften with admission and vulnerability.
If someone asks for advice:
- Know you can’t change them.
- Be honest but don’t meddle.
- Be compassionate but not judgemental.
- Give them some tools to help.
Be there if / when things falls apart.
“The Art of Loving”, Erich Fromm – “A rich and detailed guide to love—an achievement reached through maturity, practice, concentration, and courage.”. The kind of book that will make you stop and reconsider your entire life in a new way. This book is a classic of personal development and a must-read.
“Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trai”, Cheryl Strayed – A rich, raw autobiographical account of Cheryl’s three month journey down the Pacific Crest Trail and through her life. All of the power of Cheryl’s writing with a little insight into what it takes to become “Dear Sugar”.
“How to: Achieve Growth Through Pain”, Erin Young – A superb guest post from Erin on the topic of loss and growth written on this blog and deeply inspired by Cheryl’s work. More excellent reading recommendations to be found here.
Tiny Beautiful Things Quotes
The reality is we often become our kindest, most ethical selves only by seeing what it feels like to be a selfish jackass first.
“The best thing you can do with your life is to tackle the motherfucking shit out of love.”
“Trusting yourself means living out what you already know to be true.”
“Compassion isn’t about solutions. It’s about giving all the love you’ve got.”
“The narratives we create in order to justify our actions and choices become in so many ways who we are. They are the things we say back to ourselves to explain our complicated lives.”
“You cannot convince people to love you. This is an absolute rule. No one will ever give you love because you want him or her to give it. Real love moves freely in both directions don’t waste your time on anything else.”