Tuesday, November 21, 2006

On Becoming Fearless - A Book Review

I was sent Adrianna Huffington's new book, On Becoming Fearless, and I was right away filled with fear about reading it and perhaps finding that I didn't like it and how does one say that when the book was free? So clearly I need some help with this fearlessness bidness.

Let us begin then, by fearlessly expressing all the things that I dislike about the genre of books this one belongs to: the self-help books for educated and upper class and most likely also white women. I dislike this genre, because self-help gets you only so far and because there are loads of women out there who are neither educated nor upper class, and it would be nice to point out in the preface that the book will discuss the generic "woman" as someone who wants to run a company or a political party. Now, I know that the women most likely to read a book like this are going to be educated and at least with aspirations to climb up the societal ladders, and it's ok by me to have books on that topic. But it would be good to make the intended market more explicit in the book itself.

I also dislike the genre for its general use of anecdotal evidence culled from a group which is never specified and probably consists of friends and family members of the writer, and because the anecdotes always have successful endings. This last one is a wider problem, by the way. Most self-help books on depression don't mention a single case where the patient gets more and more depressed, despite following all the good advice.

Ok. Have I been fearless enough already? I could add that some parts of the book seemed hastily put together and light on research. And now I feel truly awful about slamming a free book like this.

Now I'm ready to admit that mostly Huffington's book is a good read, a good peptalk to all of us and a good summary of the many issues that cause women differential fear when compared to the type of fear men might experience.

She talks about the maternal guilt and about the impossible Catch-22 mothers experience when they are made to fear letting their children play outside and then made to fear the effects of cooping them up like that and on top of that made to fear the messages the media gives the same children when they are cooped up to protect them from the pedophiles and drug-pushers out there. She talks about the impossible Catch-22 of working women who are expected to be assertive but who are labeled as bitches when they do assert themselves, or not promoted or rewarded if they decide not to be bitches and just silently work away. And she talks about the fears of the body and the fears caused by the demands to be beautiful and young even when time ticks on without mercy. She even talks a lot about the way societal expectations make it pretty much impossible for any woman to be regarded as truly successful, because these expectations war against each other and no non-divine human being can ever hope to satisfy them all.

The obvious solution is to stop trying, to listen to yourself a little more and to decide on what is truly important for you to do. Then you go and do it, even while shaking in your boots. For fearlessness doesn't mean the absence of fear, to me at least, but the refusal to let fear master you. A brave person is not one who doesn't feel fear. What is brave about being oblivious? A brave person is one who acts despite the fears she or he may feel. I'm not sure if Huffington sees fear this way but her book suggests she does, even though she focuses more on the idea that practising frightening things enough causes them to be less frightening.

Some fears are more life-protecting than others, and nobody argues that we shouldn't fear, say, being in a house on fire. But women's lives do have a whole army of fears which are generated by the society and which are not necessarily good for anyone. Yet those fears demand a large space inside our brains and lots of energy to tend and to fight. Letting go of them, accepting that we are not going to be universally loved and honored, learning to live with disapproval and acrimony, those are truly valuable gifts for most women. And Huffington is correct in that the way to learn all these things is by doing things in the face of fear and by getting up after each fall. It's not a secret and it's doable.

In the chapter called Fearless At Work Huffington quotes from an expert she interviewed:

According to Fels, "The underlying problem has to do with cultural ideals of femininity. Women face the reality that to appear feminine, they must provide or relinquish scarce resources to others - and recognition is a scarce resource. Although women have more opportunities than ever before, they still come under social scrutiny that makes hard choices - such as when and whether to start a family or advance in the workplace - even harder."

I bolded the bit which tickled my brain in that excerpt, the idea that being feminine requires relinquishing scarce resources. These resources could be the best and most nutritious foods in some societies, but in ours they very well might be things like esteem, recognition and power. I think men are equally called for to provide scarce resources to, for instance, their children, but it is indeed true that women are particularly expected to give up their fair share to such resources. Indeed, motherhood is almost defined in those terms and the Islamic concept of women's modesty is related to the same basic idea. I'd go as far as to say that a woman who demands a fair share of resources is instantly labeled selfish, and that this is not true of a man demanding the same fair share.

If Fels is correct in this argument, being "feminine" might be impossible in an equal world. - I found this idea a useful one in understanding some of my inner demons of femininity, of getting a hold on the diffuse feelings of guilt which have arisen in situations where I have done more than seemed required, yet was left with a feeling of odd guilt. Stuff I used to call my Jesus complex. But it could be just the training I have received on relinquishing good things so that others may thrive.

I would have liked Huffington to give us more societal analysis about the way fears are used to keep women (and men) in line, especially given the current administration's agility in keeping us all listening to the terrorist alarms, and in view of most feminist theory which points out that an inner housecleaning only takes women so far on the road to equality. Maybe she will do that in her next book on the topic.