Please enjoy this transcript of another episode of the “Books I’ve Loved” series, in which I invite amazing past guests, close friends, and new faces to share their favorite books—the books that have influenced them, changed them, and transformed them for the better.
This episode, we hear from Alain de Botton (@alaindebotton), the founder and Chairman of The School of Life. He is a writer of essayistic books that have been described as a ‘philosophy of everyday life.’ He’s written on love, travel, architecture, and literature, including the titles How Proust Can Change Your Life and The Consolations of Philosophy. His books have been bestsellers in 30 countries.
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Alain de Botton: My name is Alain de Botton. I’m a writer and a founder of an organization called The School of Life, dedicated to emotional fulfillment and self understanding. I want to talk about two books today that mean a huge amount to me and that I always press into the hands of pretty much anyone that I meet. The first book is called, Home Is Where We Start From, and it’s a collection of essays by a wonderful English psychoanalyst called Donald Winnicott. And Winnicott is wise on so many fronts, but two of his ideas stand out in particular. The first of his ideas concerns what he calls the true and the false self.
For Winnicott, all babies are born with a capacity to express Winnicott’s true self. In other words, to express themselves fully and without inhibition. If they’re sad, they’re going to cry. If they’re angry, they might try and bite. If they’re happy, they’ll giggle. But the point is a child at a very young age is almost definitely authentic. It is putting forward its feelings as it experiences them. It is unfiltered, and this is what gives babies their charm, but also makes them terrifying, quite difficult to to look after because they’re just doing exactly what they need to do when they need to do it. There’s no process of editing. And this is a process of engaging with what Donald Winnicott, famous child psychoanalyst called the true self.
Now, key for Winnicott is the idea that if you’re going to grow up and be a balanced and healthy and authentic human being, you will need to have been given the enormous privilege of expressing your true self to those around you in the very earliest years that you were on the planet. All of us need to have those moments when we can be totally authentic even at the cost of giving other people a bit of a headache around us. We need some of this true self.
But Winnicott also observed in his work with children that there is a danger that something else happens too soon and that is the birth of a false self. Now the false self is created out of the expectations of everyone around the small child. And there are all sorts of expectations, firstly, that the child will be good, that the child will go to sleep on time, which really means on the parent’s schedule. That the child will smile at granny. That the child will, at school, be polite to the teacher. And then going on into a later childhood, will always follow certain rules. Writing, thank you letters. Being a good child.
Now, there are obviously good aspects to being a good child, but Winnicott was very alive to the concept of over early adaptation, what he called over compliance. And for Winnicott, the over compliant child has all sorts of problems. What happens is that they are more attuned to the demands of others than to their own needs. And this can give them lots of difficulties in later life when they can no longer be authentic, they lose touch with what they really want because what they really want has been censored so heavily by those around them.
In our world nowadays, we know all about rebels and the problem with rebels. They’re the ones who graffiti the underpass and cause social problems, and we know how difficult this can be. But through the eyes of Winnicott, we can also start to see another problem. And in a way it’s perhaps a bigger problem though it doesn’t present itself as such. And that is an excess of compliance in a whole group of people that we can call, with nothing pejorative being meant by this, the good boys and girls. There are good boys and girls everywhere, and the problem with good boys and girls is they’ve been good too early. They haven’t got the bad out of their system. They haven’t had a chance to express themselves as they needed to in the early years.
They weren’t able to bite when they wanted to bite, to kick when they wanted to kick, to scream and they wanted to scream. All the things that little babies and infants do and shouldn’t frighten anyone by wanting to do. If all of that is suppressed with too much energy, there will be a problem.
So, Winnicott the great patron Saint of being able to get the right relative claims of the true and the false self. A false self, we all need one to navigate adult life, but it only starts to make internal sense if we’ve also had a chance to express the true self at another point.
Another great idea from Winnicott is the concept of the good enough parent. Many parents came to Winnicott very worried that they weren’t doing a good enough job as parents. They wanted to be better. They were worried that they weren’t educating the kid right, or there was some eating problem, or school problem, etc. And Winnicott could see that these worries were actually getting in the way of the parents doing the fairly good job that they were doing. And so Winnicott made a fascinating intervention. First of all, he told parents, no child needs a perfect parent. Indeed, a perfect parent is very dangerous. It’s a one way route to psychosis, a psychotic incident because essentially the job of a parent is to disappoint a child bit by bit and induct them into adult realities. If the parent is perfect, how can the child grow used to living in the world that we all have to live in, which is a deeply imperfect one?
So in an ideal world, a good parent is able to break bad news well to the child until the child can accept the whole panoply of difficulties of adult life, amounting ultimately into the fact that we are all mortal, we are all going to have to die.
So, Winnicott in order to capture what he was trying to tell, parents came up with a wonderful phrase. He said, “No one needs a perfect parent. All they need is a good enough parent.” And this phrase, good enough, is the one that Winnicott launched into the world. And it’s a highly useful one because in so many areas, we don’t need to be perfect, we just need to be good enough. We only need to be good enough workers, good enough friends, good enough colleagues, and as I say, good enough parents. All of this comes from the very down to earth, beautifully written, and always highly useful and humane wisdom of Donald Winnicott and his wonderful book, Home Is Where We Start From.
Another book that’s very dear to me is by Arthur Schopenhauer and it’s called essays on The Wisdom of Life. Now, Arthur Schopenhauer is perhaps the most pessimistic of all the panoply of very pessimistic German thinkers that philosophy produced in that country in the nineteenth century. He stands out for the unrelentingly miserable tone of his voice. He says at one point, “It is bad today, tomorrow it will be worse until the worst of all happens.”
He says at another point that human life is completely ill adapted to its purposes, that no one can expect to be happy ever for more than five minutes at a time and that anyone who expects anything out of romantic love is sure to be completely disappointed. That nothing is true, that no friends can be constant, that no career ambition will ever come right. I mean, he is the most miserable person on earth. However, reading him is a joy.
Firstly, he writes beautifully. He writes beautifully in German. There are some wonderful translations into English. And there’s something about somebody articulating the most despairing thoughts that brings us a huge amount of comfort. For a start we think, “I’m not alone.” All those suspicions you have often three in the morning in despair or gazing out of the aeroplane window in a low moment and you just think, what on earth is the point of all this? Well, Schopenhauer has been there. He’s investigated the territory of despair and he’s put his flag all over it, and it is wonderful what he manages to see. Most of us only glimpse despair out of the corner of our eye and we can’t bear it.
Schopenhauer urges us to look despair in the face, make friends with it, and also laugh defiantly at it. He’s all the time grinning slightly as he tells us these dark, dark truths. So often sadness comes about because we clash into an expectation of what life should be like that is simply contrary to what reality can actually produce. And Schopenhauer gently, and with real intelligence, nudges us towards a slightly more pessimistic vision of the world. Yes, many of your dreams won’t come true. Yes, probably love won’t work out for you. Probably large aspects of your career won’t come off. Probably many people will disappoint you. The world will seem ugly and dumb. Schopenhauer is saying, “I know, I know, I’ve been here. Let’s cry together rather than alone or rather than escaping into a sentimental bromide that shields us from the fundamental reality that we’re engaged with.”
So, this is your man at the moments of real despair. He is the friend in darkness. And oddly, strangely, he is immensely consoling. So these are two books by Winnicott, Home Is Where We Come From, and by Schopenhauer, essays on The Wisdom of Life, that bring immense cheer in very different ways to the always confusing business of being alive.
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