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Primer on self-help and grace

Self-help: no outcomes, no news, no hurry

by Wolf Pascoe on May 13, 2011

self-help deskIn my small study sits an old, upright, mahogany desk I inherited from my parents. The writing surface swings down, revealing a theatrical-looking alcove surrounded, rainbow-like, by a warren of cubbies, curved drawers and tiny locked cabinets. The whole effect reminds me a little of the stage in Shakespeare’s Globe. It’s not hard to imagine miniature figures arrayed in the alcove and cubbyhole above playing, say, the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet.

Overlooking the topmost cubby, supported by two pillars, a roof juts out. I call it the Heavens. On it I have plastered various Post-Its with scribbled injunctions such as:

No outcomes. No news. No hurry.

Ceaselessly I find myself digging for operating wisdom, any words to bring direction and still my beating mind. It’s a fools errand, like trying to bottle the wind. Here is what the Buddha says on his Post-It:

Each morning we are born again.

Here we have the prophet Micah (6:8):

It hath been told thee, o mortal, what doth the Lord require of thee, only to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God.

But next to him is Lao Tse, sowing doubt:

The Tao that can be told is not the Eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name.

As if that weren’t enough, now comes Ecclesiastes:

Then said I in my heart, As it happeneth to the fool, so it happeneth even to me; and why was I then more wise?

Ecclesiastes might well have said,

The Internet is full of answers. Yet all the answers run into the sea, and the sea is not full.


Franklin Autobiography self-helpThere have been two original, American contributions to world literature: the short story and the self-help book. The short story began with Poe and the self-help book started even earlier, with Franklin. There is a direct line from Zen Habits that travels back to Franklin’s Autobiography. It meanders through Godin, Covey, Chopra, Peck, Carnegie, Peale, Eddy, and practically anyone else you’d care to name. Currently, Amazon lists 129,592 books under the category of self-help. I’ve read them all.

Last week, I stumbled on an essay with the intriguing title, Avoid News. “We are so well informed and yet we know so little,” it begins. “Why?” Because news is addicting and irrelevant, misleads and manipulates, limits understanding, inhibits thinking, increases cognitive error, kills creativity, makes us passive, wastes time, costs too much, and stresses the body for no good reason. That’s why.

I decided to add “no news,” to my catalog of Post-Its, and threw in “no outcomes” and “no hurry” for good measure.

If only it were that simple. All the answers run into the sea, and the sea is not full.


Here is one by Norman Maclean, which does not pull its punches:

My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him all good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.

Let me tell you something about grace. A few days ago I was in the kitchen. Nick was at school, Nora was out and about town. I had the house to myself with the cats.

A pile of dishes beckoned. I turned on the faucet and put my hands under the stream. Light from the yard filtered through the window, a yellowy-green color on the counter top. The beclouded world hushed. A line from Yeats came to me:

While on that shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed, and could bless.

It lasted about that long, but it was enough. Even the cats noticed.

Kabir felt it for five seconds, and became a believer for life.

More grace, please. Much more. I can blame many things for its lack. Fatherhood and its attendant chaos, for starters. My so-called career. The news, the economy, the Internet.

But jeez, I was doing the dishes.
. . .



Zen Fatherhood



Live more, need less — from the author of Zen Habits

How To Be Alone—a short film on noticing things:

The Lost Art of Reading — Lovely essay from the L.A. Times: “One must believe in the reality of time. Otherwise one is just dreaming.”
. . .


Any thoughts about grace or the beclouded world? Perhaps a quote you’d like to add to the mix? I charge and exhort you to leave your comment below. I always respond here.


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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

shelley May 13, 2011 at 1:00 pm

I used to cover my computer with similar notes to myself. But then I got overwhelmed by all those messages. So I’ve decided to depend on forces bigger than myself to bring me the right message at the right time. Sometimes I miss my messages, though!


Wolf Pascoe May 13, 2011 at 4:41 pm

Which is precisely why one needs bigger force voice mail.


BigLittleWolf May 13, 2011 at 4:45 pm

You had me at “a warren of cubbies.”

What you felt in those few minutes of washing dishes and solitude? I feel it when I am outside my home, and surrounded by books. In a library or a bookstore. That hush. That utter contentment.


Wolf Pascoe May 13, 2011 at 7:34 pm

Remember the Wenders film, Wings of Desire? How the angels hung out at the library?


Amy May 14, 2011 at 2:01 am

I love the messages taped to the wall above my computer. One of my favorites: “You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth. Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness.” Kahlil Gibran


Wolf Pascoe May 14, 2011 at 7:00 pm

I feel an archery post coming on …


Dan Attias May 14, 2011 at 9:58 am

Beautiful, O Wise One! Keep at this. I feel grace at work.


Wolf Pascoe May 14, 2011 at 7:00 pm

Thank you, grasshopper!


Charles Bernstein May 15, 2011 at 3:13 am

Grace only needs a welcoming place or occasion. Think what amazing Shakespearian spectacles and pageants must appear on your enchanted desk while you are sleeping. (Or washing the dishes).


Wolf Pascoe May 15, 2011 at 9:45 am

Things are always missing from that desk. It’s the fairies from Midsummer, I think.


Barbara May 16, 2011 at 4:12 pm

I have a similar rainbow of post-its surrounding my computer desk, tidbits of inspiration. I’m not surprised you felt grace while doing the dishes – it’s those tiny, unspectacular moments that are what life is really all about, isn’t it?


Wolf Pascoe May 16, 2011 at 8:53 pm

They’re the only ones you have a ghost of a chance of paying attention to.


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