Flip through the pages of some of life's "instruction manuals" and you may find just what you need.

by Kenn Kassman

Have you ever wished that life came with an instruction manual? That your childhood educational system would have taught the basic lessons of how to live a meaningful life? That our elders were our mentors in the full sense of the word--gladly sharing their vast life knowledge and experience in a manner full of support and encouragement? It sounds like utopia, doesn't it?

Too often in modern society it seems like individuals are thrown out into life like a baby into a stormy ocean--to sink or swim on their own, to make a happy, successful life by somehow (by osmosis?) learning the real rules of existence. Unfortunately, these lessons are seldom taught by the respected institutions of our various societies. It should come as no surprise then that they are even less often put into practice. Are there mysterious secrets which one can discover to master life? Or is this merely naive wishful thinking? I believe it is neither. The lessons of living a meaningful, happy life are not unattainable arcana hidden on the dark side of the moon, accessible only to channelers and oracles. Nor are they illusive dreaming of the gullible eternal optimist. In fact, most of us know how to live a meaningful, satisfied life. It's just that we forget. Luckily, there are those who remind us.

I recently finished hosting a weekend seminar around the theme, "Eternal Truths for Better Living." Among others, we used texts by Dale Carnegie, Scott Peck, and James Redfield [1] but we could have selected any number of other authors. A quick peek into almost any bookstore will reveal shelves full of self-improvement, new age, transcendental, motivational, and self-help psychology texts. So why did I choose these few? Simply because I had them around and wanted to explore them in more depth with other people. Each of the texts chosen has sold millions of copies. Frankly I was curious as to why.

What I found is that the best of these books say the same things in different ways. In short, they state eternal truths. For example, Peck's first sentence is, "Life is hard." He maintains that once you accept this fact, you can stop feeling sorry for yourself and start working positively to make the best of what you have. He relates this wisdom to the first tenet of the four-fold noble truths of Buddhism-- the world is full of suffering. According to Buddhism, birth is suffering, death is suffering, old age is suffering. To meet a man one hates is suffering. To be separated from someone one loves is suffering.[2] You get the point. Hardship is a universal truth.

But many people do not get the point. They think that life should be as easy as a Sunday stroll in a beautiful park. When they encounter hardships, of whatever fashion, they turn into spoiled children throwing tantrums and cursing the fates for disturbing their wonderful picnic.[3] Peck believes that a problem occurs when people do not want to recognize that life is a series of problems to be solved. They wish to remain little children.[4] After all, facing the truth that life is hard is very difficult. To overcome hardship takes courage and discipline. It means rejection of an ego-driven self and acceptance of an ever- evolving, more mature reality-accepting self. And, if there is any eternal truth at all, it is that this sort of self-evolution is extremely difficult. The old self must die for a more evolved self to live.[5]

If life is a series of hardships, how can we deal with this situation? Are there philosophies of life offering useful action strategies and methods of coping? There are as many possible answers to this question as there are people and problems. Yet it seems that at the root of all these philosophies, religions, and other schemes lie eternal truths that actually work. For example, a comedian whose name I forget once remarked, "Yes, life is unfair, but sometimes it's unfair in my favor." This is an eternal truth. And it's a coping mechanism very similar to that expressed in the ancient Sufi story of the king who called his wise men together and told them "Bring me something that will make me happy when I am sad, and sad when I am happy." The wise men left and after a few weeks returned and gave the king a ring. Engraved on the ring were the words "This too shall pass." The king knew that his wish had been granted. When sad, like our modern comedian, the king could look at the ring and be reminded that his sadness was temporary. Things were bound to get better at some point in the future. The opposite is true as well. Life flows and changes and nothing stays the same. So why do we expect it too?

Some methods of coping with this reality are more useful than others. And some have withstood the test of time surprisingly well. This is one reason why I like Dale Carnegie's work. When I mentioned Carnegie's text How to Win Friends and Influence People in a recent course in East Berlin, I was surprised when two of my older students later brought in their original copies--which were over 50 years old! One of these students was a German soldier during World War II. He was captured by the Americans and sent to a POW camp in Oregon. During his stay he was given this book by the US Army. I don't know which is more amazing--that the US army gave books on how to make friends and influence people to their captured enemy soldiers, that this man kept his copy of the book for fifty years, or that it is still on the best- seller list in Germany today! A Russian friend of mine told me that in the former USSR, Carnegie's texts were considered so powerful that only the KGB and top Party officials could read them!

So what does Carnegie say that is so valuable? Nothing that you don't already know! He just reminds you that you know it. In How to Stop Worrying and Start Living he offers examples of people who did exactly what the title suggests. Do you think you have troubles? Carnegie presents people who have overcome the kind of adversity that makes me shudder. These people, many very famous and materially successful, tell their stories of recovery in their own words, in ways that will make you rethink your own situation and appreciate what you have. Page after page of true examples make one think, "Well, if these people can face the tremendous blows dealt to them and turn their lives around to create happy, satisfied, and successful lives, the least I can do is attempt to do work on my little problems."

Carnegie inspires and preaches the gospel of positive thinking. He quotes others often and distills the stories others tell into simple, yet effective parables, which he then summarizes. He likes short, to-the- point slogans, such as "count your blessings, not your troubles" and "nothing can bring you peace but yourself." Taken alone these sound like clichés but when put in context they become powerful messages that motivate and ring eternal.

All authors and all books have their faults, of course. Carnegie is a product of his time and his texts from the 1940s cannot take into account the vast changes which have occurred in the field of psychology since their publication. He is a pragmatist and not a psychologist. Peck may have the opposite problem. His many years as a practicing psychiatrist may have produced the arrogance and false omnipotence found in too many doctors. Perhaps together they make a good reading set. What I have found with books of this nature is that I take what I can from them and disregard the rest.

Naturally, what is considered useful and what is discarded will vary from person to person and day to day. What I take from these authors is what I need to take at the time. This depends not so much upon what is written in the book, but perhaps more importantly upon my current situation at the point in time that I am reading the book. I have found some books to be life-changing texts for me but I don't expect that they will have a similar effect on many others. This is because, for me, they were the right books at the right time. They held eternal truths which I needed to learn (or be reminded of) at that particular stage of my life.[6]

I suspect the situation with this genre of books is related to the principles of synchronicity and serendipity. In The Celestine Principle, James Redfield argues that everything happens for a reason and that you only have to pay attention to what comes to you. You will find what you need and what you need will find you. Being open and accepting of this synchronicity in our lives leads to serendipity--the finding of valuable or agreeable things not sought for. Most of the authors in this essay agree that these concepts describe real occurrences. By being open and aware of the surrounding world, one can recognize serendipity and take advantage of it. As Peck asks himself, "How many times have I let these miracles slip by?"

One common theme that all of these authors end up mentioning is God. When I recognized this, it was a surprise for me, as I consider many of these books to be very secular. I did not expect to see a religious theme discussed in Peck or Carnegie, for example. Yet, the authors broach the topic well, pursuing a spiritual rather than religious understanding of divinity. Each author has his own conception of God and each encourages the reader to develop a relationship of his or her own personal understanding with God. In our weekend seminar, a group of mostly secular people, we ended up defining the notion of something greater than our selves as follows: "There exists a source of vitality which we can connect to." For some of the group, this vital force existed outside of the self, for others it was an inner force that they could tap into.

I think Jess Lair expressed it best when he realized that he could have whatever concept of God that he wanted to. He was no longer limited by other people's conceptions, but opened himself to having a truly beneficial relationship to God on his own terms. He ends his text this way, "May the God in me touch the God in you."[7] At the end of our seminar, we came up with a list of eternal truths.[8] I think the most significant of these is that a single human life does have meaning, and can make a positive difference in the world. This insight integrates the realm of positive social change into personal evolution.[9] This does not mean that one has to become a politician or an important world figure, but that one becomes aware of his or her impact on the everyday world.

One of the best examples of this truism is the Frank Capra movie, It's a Wonderful Life. This movie is so popular that it is shown dozens of times every Christmas season in the US. It is a story of self-sacrifice and reward and illustrates the dramatic and far-reaching changes which one humble person can make in the world--just by doing right and touching the lives of others. This film offers the eternal truth that every life is significant. These texts, and the many others like them, present straightforward advice as to how to maintain and multiply this realization. Now if only the institutions of society would do the same!


  1. Dale Carnegie, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1984; M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled, London: Arrow, 1990; James Redfield, The Celestine Prophecy, NY: Warner, 1993.

  2. The Teaching of Buddha, Tokyo: Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai, 1987. The remaining three noble truths are: (1) The cause of suffering is desire; (2) If desire can be removed, then suffering will cease; and (3) Following the Noble Eightfold Path (right view, right thought, right speech, right behavior, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration) one can eliminate desire and thus eliminate suffering.

  3. Obviously, some hardships and disasters are horrible and deserve proper reactions of mourning. This is not problematic. What is problematic is not accepting the reality of the situation and coping with it in a positive way.

  4. In the most immature and negative sense. Jess Lair, I Don't Know Where I'm Going, But I Sure Ain't Lost, NY: Fawcett Crest, 1981 calls this the frightened little boy inside himself. Keeping some essence of the child is, of course very positive. See John Bradshaw, Creating Love, NY:Bantam Books, 1992, for an in-depth discussion of positive versus negative childhood traits and Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul, NY: HarperCollins, 1992, for a discussion of certain childhood traits we can never outgrow.

  5. An excellent discussion of the difficulties involved in this transformation is Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh's Journey Toward the Heart, NY: Harper & Row, 1976.

  6. I have since looked at several other books by the same authors which held nothing of interest to me. Perhaps they said what they had to say to me the first time?

  7. Lair, 1981.

  8. Our list of eternal truths is very short and by no means inclusive, but it was a short seminar, and the exercise was very successful in stimulating thought and conversation. Here is a brief summary --Life is hard! But is also a never-ending learning project. And no matter what the external circumstances, we alone are responsible for how we interact with our environment and current situation. So, why worry--after all, this too, shall pass. And it only takes one step at a time to begin and move forward along this journey of inner evolution. When in doubt, remember that there is always a source of vitality, which we can connect to anytime we chose to do so. And if you think that life is unfair, remember that it is often unfair in your favor!

  9. The emphasis on social service as a means of creating meaning is too often slighted in this literature. For good examples of the integration of social service and personal transformation see much of the writing and work of the Green movement. Another important new social movement is the Ananda Marga/Proutist movement which stresses service to others (including the earth). Acarya Prasiidananda Avadhuta's Neo-Humanist Ecology, Singapore: Ananda Marga Publications, 1990 is a very worthwhile addition to this field of literature and an excellent introduction to Proutist theory and action strategies.

Kenn Kassman earned his doctorate in political science at the University of Hawaii. He currently teaches futures studies and American cultural courses at the Technical University of Berlin, Germany. He is the author of Envisioning Ecotopia: The American Green Movement and the Politics of Radical Social Change, Westport, CT:Praeger Press/Greenwood Publishing Group, 1997.