Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Peta Kelly reads her way to greater health and healing

 Peta Kelly is an avid reader, a former teacher-librarian, a current student - and a cancer survivor. Like so many of us, she allows books to be her companions - and sometimes her support. Here she shares the experience of returning to two favourite books - EVERYDAY KINDNESS and THE CONSOLATIONS OF PHILOSOPHY - with needs that have changed since her first reading.

Recently I had another health pause enforced on me and was looking through my shelves for a little bibliotherapeutic consolation. I had been inspired by reading a blog entry by Kerrie Lee Power on A Nun's Life (this LINK takes you to it), on learning to 'let it be', 'just Being', due to ill health.

It really resonated with with me and as I didn't have a copy of Evelyn Underhill's The Spiritual Life quoted by Power, I looked along my shelves for inspiring consolation. My eyes settled on Stephanie Dowrick's Everyday Kindness. I'd read it in 2011 cover to cover, over and over, when it was published whilst I in a state of despair/shock at all the medical diagnoses heaped on me. I had underlined, asterisked and 'post-it-noted' all the reflections that I recognized in myself at the time. Dowrick's Seeking the Sacred and  Everyday Kindness, as well as Caroline Myss' Entering the Castle became cleaved to my spirit as they consoled and  en-couraged me in the true sense of the word. (The word “courage” originates from ceur (now coeur), an Old French word for heart.)

The American/UK edition of Everyday Kindness

This time I decided to spend time mediating on Being-in-kindness, and so began to re read Everyday Kindness. I noticed that the little penned stars that I'd used to note all the sentences that resonated with me in my time of fear and illness still had some music to play this time round. But I found others that reflect the “me” of right now. Back then my focus was on me getting comfort to face what was ahead. I didn't really appreciate the other notes playing to me because they didn't have my attention. This time round it was about me being out in the new reality of my life - and moving out of my time of monastical sequestering and mental vulnerability as my body heals.
The Australian/NZ edition of Everyday Kindness

Now I found I was reading/looking for a deeper way of being, as I found myself in the process of moving along the continua of survival (a la Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of need) to self-actualization  spiritually as well as in a  physical sense.

In my search for consolation I went out to my favourite bookshop/cafe and bought a fresh copy of Alain de Botton's Consolations of Philosophy (I'd given mine to someone, hence the gap on my bookshelves and an excuse to enter book heaven with a fragrant cuppa at hand).

When I first picked up de Botton's book in early 2000 it was for a crash course in all things philosophical as I had committed myself to jumping into a philosophy degree; something I had lusted after since my early twenties when I became friends with my then-boyfriend's mates in the university baseball team. One of those mates was a lecturer in philosophy, the other was his student - and I was the silent witness to their intriguing discourses and merry symposia in the truest re-enactment; food, alcohol and debate.

I was very illiterate in matters academe in those days, barely passing high school. So even de Botton's little book was a purchase steeped in fear and excitement. I swallowed that little book whole. He made philosophy look do-able and enjoyable to read.  I always find reading prescribed texts to be a boring venture so I make things a little more spicy looking for books that give me the gist but are eminently more readable/digestible. But when de Botton entitles his chapters Unpopularity, Not Having Enough Money,  Inadequacy, A Broken Heart, and also Difficulties suffered, studied written and spoken of by philosophers from ancient to the the present, the book has to be enticing.

When I picked this copy of Consolations of Philosophy up again twelve years after the first read, I found heaps of little post-it-notes that explained concepts that I'd needed to know. This time round I was reading it in the light of knowledge and greater understanding and didn't need to know it verbatim until my anxiety had lessened for me to begin to understand it.

I laugh as I write this because I am in my body of the time, a sheen of icy sweat on my upper lip worrying that I would interpret it incorrectly. This time round I luxuriated in the smug knowing that I can now have knowledge and power, and don't have to agree with de Botton's view of some of the philosophers' writings. I see that time and technology change nothing. Humans still crave knowledge and certitude, love, self-understanding - and they are still looking for the transcendence of Truth, Beauty and Goodness: the hinting at something greater.
Beauty and truth

Everyday Kindness is a practical, everyday manifesto of how to live Truth, Beauty and Goodness: to seek and reflect on our lives and our impact on ourselves and others in choosing/not choosing that which is our Truth. One sentence amongst many stood out in my search to heal my body and soul:

Stephanie Dowrick wrote: “Love your life and your body: When you are not sure what this means, simply ask, 'Is this kind? Is this nourishing to my spirit as well as my body?' Let your immediate responses be your guide.” This struck me head on. I had read it before but it hadn't taken root. How is it that someone (me?!) who studies psychology, has studied philosophy and theology not actually asked her body what she feels? It was in this light that I discovered new and refreshing insight in this lovely book of deep spiritual and practical wisdom.

These two experiences led me into thinking once again about the states we are in when we read books that we choose and why we make those choices. Both books for me offered/offer me comfort; both are philosophies of living; both are for everyday living; but only one addresses my spiritual needs.

De Botton is an atheist and Dowrick is an interfaith minister [as well as a writer and co-host of this Book Club]. Both are writers in the truest sense: they love to reflect on issues, research them and then share their insights in very enjoyable writing styles. But both write from different platforms of seeing the world's richness in shadow and light. De Botton's essence is to live for today, to be present as that is all there is and to be consoled that others are living the same experiences. Dowrick speaks to the soul: live fully, joyfully, in kindness today so that you will experience the full potential of the now - but will also have glimpses of what is to come.

Follow Peta's bookish thoughts on twitter. You can purchase Peta's recommendations or any other book through our bookstore links (above right) and also support the Universal Heart Book Club. We also love to have your comments. If you don't have a Google email, just use "Anonymous". Follow captcha - two "words" with space between - to save us from spammers. Should be easy!


  1. Thank you so much to Peta for her wonderful words, especially about EVERYDAY KINDNESS. It is the greatest reward a writer could have to know that one's books are true "companions". It's a joy to have another "reader's piece" from Peta at the Book Club. And we wish her great good health and many many years of reading adventures.

  2. I think I better get the kindness book its the one I hsvnt read thankyou for sharing so honest PETA andbest of health to you

  3. thank you for your kind wishes "Anonymous" and Stephanie