Sunday, June 21, 2009

Don't Worry Be Happy

Last week I walked across the street to look through piles of phonograph records and bins of old dishes spread across our neighbor’s lawn. Their grown children were cleaning out the house and having a sale. Just weeks before we’d taken our own boxes of similar things to the thrift store and felt well pleased to have those odds and ends gone. Now we were looking through someone else’s stuff, and delighting in finding a “very useful” mixing bowl, and some “these could be handy” small wooden shelves.

The things that most often find their way back to our house are books, and I found myself sitting on the neighbor’s porch sifting through boxes of hardbacks and paperbacks. There were the usual yard sale staples: mysteries and romances and a big pile of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. I have a fondness for those; I grew up with them and met many great authors in those striped, four-in-one hardbacks.

In my neighbor’s stash was something else that I recognized from childhood; a set of books by Dale Carnegie, the grand master of personal improvement. There was a copy of his famous, How to Make Friends and Influence People, but the book that I reached for was How to Stop Worrying and Start Living. I asked a nearby teenager, “How much?” “Ten cents”, said the girl. I gave her a quarter and walked back to my porch to read the familiar text.

When I was a kid, Dale Carnegie’s books were on the top shelf of my father’s bookshelf. As a quintessential first-generation, self-improving, education-valuing, always striving, Depression survivor, my father read these books over and over. And, like the typical second-generation, take-achievement-for-granted, life-is-easier kids that we were, my brothers and I made fun of Dale Carnegie every chance we got.

I have to tell on myself now, though. I am my father’s daughter. His drive for self-improvement and habit of worry was passed to me by nature or nurture. Over the years I’ve spent thousands on classes, courses, workshops and retreats. I’ve tried every remedy and herb that promises peace. I even gave a huge wad of cash and an armload of flowers to get a secret mantra from Transcendental Meditation.

Now I laugh. I could have just looked at my father’s books. Opening How to Stop Worrying I skim the table of contents. The message—in stories and quotes-- is this: Change your thinking. Change your mind. Be in this day. Dale Carnegie seemed to know what the Beatles learned in India: Let it be. I flip to the title page and see that “Worry” was written in 1950, and my copy is from the 46th printing.

If Dale Carnegie wrote this today he’d be a guru and superstar; Oprah would have him on her show and he’d do the celebrity workshop circuit. I grin to imagine a scenario in which Dale Carnegie would be rumored to be the man that changed Madonna’s life. She’d wear a gold “DC” necklace instead of a red kabala string, and, when pushed, she’d whine that no one really understood her devotion to Dale.

Though he was successful in his day, Dale Carnegie wrote his books for the post-WWII, GI Bill, self-improving, house-buying, ladder-of-success fathers of the fifties. His was a male message since it was presumed that the man of the house was the one who was worrying about the bills and the bosses and how to pay for the babies. That too was my Dad.

My father is not around to thank today. He died before I started my own journey of self-improvement. So I’ll claim this musty book as a gift from my father’s spirit. There is nothing new under the sun. Be here now; live in this day; laugh at yourself and grow up.

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