Inside Story

Crisis talk

Books | We need to change, yet we resist. Sara Dowse reviews Vincent Deary’s compelling account of the psychological how and why

Sara Dowse 9 January 2015 2535 words

How We Are: How to Live Book 1
By Vincent Deary | Allen Lane | $39.99

Vincent Deary comes late in a long tradition of grappling with this tricky business of being alive. Over a thousand years ago the Roman philosopher Seneca noted that “a gem cannot be polished without friction, nor a man perfected without trials.” Philosophers, theologians, psychotherapists, novelists, poets, columnists, economists – you name it, they’ve all been more than ready to jump in and tell us how to navigate life’s joys and sorrows. It’s part of the process of figuring it out for themselves. But Seneca was a statesman as well as a philosopher who also wrote plays, while Deary, until this first publication, was a little-known health psychologist lecturing at Northumbria University, researching the fear of falling among the elderly, the persistence of medically undiagnosable symptoms, and various other maladies the acronyms of which I’ve been unable to decipher.

So here, on the face of it, was an unlikely candidate for a multimillion dollar bidding war among publishers that has left Deary substantially better off than anything he could have dreamed. To be fair, the war was for two other books besides this one, all on the tired yet endlessly fascinating theme of how best to cope with the difficult things we’ll encounter simply by being born. Readers take note, volumes two and three are on their way: How We Are will be followed by How We Break and then How We Mend.

As is often the case, the catalyst for conceiving all this was a crisis in Deary’s personal life. What exactly happened he leaves unclear, but it necessitated a radical rejigging of his living arrangements and goaded him to embark on his project. Starting out, he had little idea where it would take him, and after the first year he had not much to show for it but a bundle of post-it notes. Five years later he had finally finished, but it took him another five to show it to anybody. Once he did, that was that. His reader was excited, as were the publishers who bid for the book. Penguin came up with the highest price and that’s how, fully formed, with its prestigious Allen Lane imprint, this first volume has landed on the bookshop shelves.

Yet you’d be forgiven for asking just what it is that Deary has to say that hasn’t been said so many times before. The catastrophic-life-event-that-doesn’t-break-you-will-make-you theme got a boost in the late 1970s with M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled, and countless other books went on to tread the same path. A genre, if you will, was boiled down to the reductionist “self-help,” but it can be much more. Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling memoirs ease into the category, as do the writings of Alain de Botton. So what makes Deary different, or perhaps better suited to our time?

The challenge in writing such a book is to drag your expertise away from the fusty abstruseness of your profession out into the open air where your readers have some hope of grasping what you’re on about. Deary takes many of his insights from the modern cognitive behaviour therapy he’s practised, but this is precisely the theoretical straitjacket he has struggled to break out of, at least for the purpose of this exercise. And so, because crisis lies at the core of any dramatic work, it’s to drama he turns. How We Are is structured accordingly. Act One deals with what he calls “Saming,” that is, the comfortable carapaces of habit that leave us on automatic pilot too much of the time; and Act Two is about “Changing,” or how we respond to the cracks in those carapaces that most of us, sooner or later, will experience, if to varying degrees.

The kind of drama he refers to is not for the most part the kind that Seneca penned but the more homely variety we watch every day on television or whenever we go to the movies. Television, Deary points out, is all about seasons. Most popular series are plotted on life’s stages: their very popularity rests on the way they mirror our own trajectories, reflecting a more or less steady progression from childhood to death with the inevitable bumps and hollows in between. Movies are different. “Movies are all about the change,” he writes, “the graceless dance” of passing through a transition. He illustrates this with a diagram of the narrative arc of a standard movie script, and then elaborates:

The little line to the left is Act One, representing the last stage of the stable state, just before disaster strikes, before something happens, some news from elsewhere: the leaving, the loss, the imperilling, the new arrival. The Event. The bulk of the movie is taken up by Act Two, the desperate dance of adjustment. That’s what we pay to watch. The struggle to re-establish equilibrium, not the old one, that won’t happen, and that’s the real struggle at first. The new reality clashes with the habits of the old one, the inbuilt, ingrained physiology of denial that continues to perform the old gestures in response to new demands, continues to reach for what’s gone.

First he tells us what has gone – that “small world” where everything seems to work for us. So much so we don’t even have to think about it; and so much so that, in such a mode, our consciousness is less a matter of will than of unconscious habit, those “beaten paths,” many of which can be retraced back to the beginnings of our species and are finessed in our individual histories. In other words, we’re creatures not only of our own sets of routine but also of the ready-made cultures we arrive in and the physical surroundings we inhabit. But that’s only the half of it. We in our turn inscribe ourselves onto these environments, from the way we order our intimate living spaces to the physical paths we create through acting out our desires.

Deary begins this first section of Act One with a disquisition on just what it is that’s “automatic” about us and how it has come to be so. One example he gives is the construction of a new supermarket in the neighbourhood where he once lived. To give the supermarket a congenial setting, the planners built a park in front of it and in the park a series of curving concrete paths to encourage pedestrians to amble through on their way to do their shopping. It was a noble intent, designed to make them stop and smell the roses. But habit had another thing in mind. The shoppers were concerned to pick up their groceries and other essentials in the quickest time possible and so ignored the curving paths and beat one of their own, straight from the road to the supermarket. A lesson was thus learned. The next time the planners undertook such a project they filled the open space in front of the supermarket with lawn and let the shoppers walk where they would. In very short time distinct paths were worn and these were the ones that were concreted.

That there’s a metaphor lurking here is obvious. But it’s when Deary expands on it, supported by the depth of his cognitive theory, that he comes into his own, demonstrating with his simple conceit of the beaten path how we are shaped by our world and how we come to operate in it. From here he is able to branch out into examining such diverse matters as how killers are made, not born, and how habits, good and bad, have both bodily and perceptual effects. A dancer’s constant practice will “physically sculpt” him and, in addition to staining teeth and damaging lungs, the tobacco habit will make a smoker enter a room in a wholly different manner from a non-smoker, causing her to make a quick judgement about whether it’s safe to light up. These are but two instances of what Deary posits as the interplay between force and form.

Habit creates unconscious agency, which comprises the greater proportion of our consciousness in general. We act out of habit even before our conscious selves are aware of it. In such a situation memory, for one thing, becomes unreliable. We have all had experiences of remembering things that others recall differently, or discovering that a remembered incident either didn’t happen or didn’t happen as we had recalled it. Yet it’s through memory, this most unreliable of narrators, that we create some sense of ourselves as living human beings. We need a continuous narrative, a vital part of which is “back story,” in order to maintain a healthy presence in the moment and, more, to plan ahead for a future. As far as we know, we are the only animals to have this capacity. Still, this essential component of our humanity is a far from perfect mechanism. “Attention needs to stay fresh to every moment, so the memory gets shifted into temporary storage, still relatively intact, for a few days at most,” Deary warns. All we can remember after that is “the gist” of things. The rest is imagination.

Force and form: the impact of these two concepts, and the all-important, never-ending interaction between them, constitute the basis of Deary’s thinking and much of the cognitive theory that has shaped his perception of the workings of human consciousness. But what happens to us when the form of our lives is suddenly, or ineluctably, dismantled? This, of course, is the essence of change. Yet however difficult or unexpected it is, change may be beneficial, may be, in fact, the means by which a healthier being is grown. That this isn’t always the case and sometimes is rarely the case, is yet another riff on Deary’s theme:

There is always a period of adjustment, of resistance to incoming change. And not just incoming: in our anticipations, dreads and desires, in our stories about how we should be, we create the gap between where we are and where we want to be or think we want to be. We make ourselves uncomfortable. Our longings to be elsewhere produce arousal and fatigue at the thought of all the work that we’ll have to do to get there. Our aversions for our present state lead to an inner shrinking, a closing down; a kind of arousal still, but this time fuelling the desire to flee or fight against it.

These feelings are, put plainly, our “resistance to the new.” Deary uses examples drawn from people in his life, friends or acquaintances, not to mention his own experiences. (They have been consulted about inclusion and given different names, and they have never been his patients.) I’ve come across a slew of examples of this sort of resistance in my own life, as most readers would have. A feminist activist, I learned early on that women who protested most loudly against feminism were often the very ones likely to end up embracing it fervently, and I myself spent years shoring up what I thought were my defences in a relationship I now see was doomed. But what Deary also makes clear is that these periods of change can be dangerous, “when the Automatic is for the moment suspended and Deliberation makes a rare, sustained appearance.” He finds such transitions “uniquely important and indeed formative of our character,” because this is when we can make the most character de-forming mistakes. We can be caught up in cults, for instance, because they offer ready-made, routinised frameworks as rigid as the shells we’ve broken out of. Or we may take cover in our own defensiveness and denial, never to move on to the next stage of equilibrium.

The force of our desires, the forms they take, then break. This is a process repeated throughout our lives until death, that final break, comes to carry us away. But part of Deary’s thesis – a fundamental part – is that our body’s death doesn’t actually remove our presence, which is embedded in the memories of other people, whether they be family members or members of the wider community. We are embedded as well in the physical environment, the buildings we’ve lived in, the records we leave behind, the paths we have taken, and in countless other ways. A good friend of mine – another writer – was the first to draw my attention in her fiction to the way a stone step can be worn away in the middle, evidence of the generations of feet that have trod there. And as it is with individual people, so it is with entire societies. This is especially significant when societies are subjected to new challenges. Their capacity to re-form, to channel their energies into newly productive ways of living – or not – is the very substance of history.

Back to the beginning then. Does Vincent Deary tell us anything new, anything we haven’t yet heard from one discipline or other, from another expert or another of trauma’s survivors? Well, perhaps not, although he does direct us to recent findings about the way our minds work and informs us that mere conscious will is not the efficient driver for action we once believed it was, and persist in hoping it will be. He is able to extrapolate from psychology, insights into social grouping, and the dynamics of history. Moreover, he’s presented all this in a highly readable, quickly assimilable book. And there, I suggest, lies the problem – at least it’s been a problem for me, its reviewer. Deary’s writing is so engaging, the insights at his command so extensive and varied, that oddly enough the central message can be hard to grab hold of. But I’ll give it a go.

Cognitive behaviour therapy is a quicker, less expensive method of resolving emotional difficulties than other forms of psychotherapy. But it shares a fundamental tenet with deep analysis, both Freudian and Jungian, and many other philosophies. “Know thyself,” in other words, comes in many packages, and can be reached through many well-beaten paths. Vincent Deary has shown us to be essentially creatures of habit, rather dull, and depressingly conformist at that, but every once in a while something will happen to change this, and if we see our way through it, a new way of being will emerge. It’s one of the very few things we can count on in this frustrating, beautiful, tragic, ultimately mysterious business of living. •