In Which I Cannot Find A T.S. Eliot Quote

 The book: The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey. My edition was also updated with fresh insights by Sean Covey.

Why did I choose this book: When I started this blog, I had a rule for myself that I would not read books that I already knew I would hate, meaning nothing involving Navy SEALs or whatever. About halfway through this book I told my husband over dinner that I hated it. He said that seemed predictable. He was not wrong, but my justification for choosing this book was that I believed my husband had told me that a former boss of mine, who I admire a lot, had been a big fan of this book. My husband does not recall knowing or telling me any such thing. It is a mystery. Anyway, the book is a cultural phenomenon and once in Washington, D.C. I accidentally wandered into a Franklin Covey store, so.

Is the author smart/do they know things I don’t: No. This is an impolitic answer and maybe even a wrong answer and one of the few but also really important shared beliefs that Stephen R. Covey and I hold is that everybody is smart in such different ways that there is no point in comparing people. On the other hand, one of the chapter heading quotes is from George H.W. Bush and you are repeatedly directed to the biography of Anwar Sadat for inspiration and so as a matter of principle I am giving this one a no.

Does the main idea seem true: No. An important sub-idea in here, which I will get to, seems true in a really really meaningful way to me, but central to the Seven Habits (which are nowhere near as straightforward as the title makes them sound; there are sub-habits and drawings with arrows and I got a little lost) is the idea that you are ultimately in control of your life. I reject this both factually and morally, with important gradations. If a person wants to insist that their own bad choices caused their own bad fortune and/or that another person’s good choices caused that other person’s good fortune, I guess I’m not the boss of them, but it seems to me literally soul-destroying to allow yourself to believe either that your good choices caused your own good fortune or that someone else’s choices caused their bad fortune. (I feel like this has come up in every single one of these blog posts — sorry. I guess it’s not surprising that most self-help books have the premise that your behavior can change your circumstances. This one has it in a way that especially bothers me.) I do not see how you can be alive and not see the hand of chance in the circumstances of your life. You may conclude that it is more useful to you to act as if you are in control, but that does not mean you are allowed to believe it. It certainly does not mean you are allowed to believe it on behalf of others.

Stephen R. Covey wants you to center your life around correct principles — this is a profoundly religious book in that way — and he tells you that if you do this you will be the master of your ship. I wrote about my religious upbringing here; I do not believe any more in the things I believed growing up, but one of the central principles of the faith that I was raised in was that truly abiding by your principles meant understanding that they would not shield you from anything on the material plane, and that is a belief that has stayed with me. 

The world is an engine for creating many things and one of them is disaster and there is no way of avoiding it when it comes. Another one of them is joy; there is also no way of avoiding that. I am not against principles, but any that don’t allow you to experience the world as vast and unknowable and truly incalculable seem to me like bad ones. Also many of my worst mistakes and the times I have hurt people most deeply have been when I believed myself protected by the armor of my correct principles. So there’s that, also. 

Moment where I was like, oh boy, here we go again: “The Constitution has endured and serves its vital function today because it is based on correct principles, on the self-evident truths contained in the Declaration of Independence.”  

Something awesome about this book: I was reading along about the importance of proactivity and control and hating everything about everything and then I came to the long section about the importance of listening to other people. Just listening, no agenda, no prodding, no analogizing. That section didn’t actually make me cry, but almost. It’s something that if you had asked me what I thought about it as a concept, I would have said that it’s a good thing that I do a lot of, but something about the pages and pages that Seven Habits devotes to it really ground into me how often I fail to listen properly, how often the tools that I think of as helping me listen are ways of short-circuiting the experience of sitting with somebody else. And what Stephen R. Covey does not shy away from saying is that we need that, weird squirmy animals that we are — that this kind of listening and the converse feeling, of being heard, is necessary in itself and not just instrumentally. It was actually really beautiful; I feel like everybody could use it, and Stephen R. Covey’s weird business-speak language (at another point in the book he uses the word “response-ability” as a way of making a point about how important it is to take responsibility for things) actually made it more moving — it was the end of Howard’s End translated into a different language, poetry with a different meter. I cannot overstate how moving this part of the book was to me; I wish it was its own book.

Thing That I Would Like To See The Numbers On, Sir: It’s a tie between the story about the IBM employee who was flown out by helicopter to receive medical treatment and the child who underwent physical withdrawal when kept away from a video game.

Useful Counter-programming: For years and years and years my divorced parents have separately quoted to me a line from T.S. Eliot about building an altar so the fire will fall elsewhere. Fire, in this metaphor, is a good thing; it’s sad that it’s not going to fall on your altar, but you build it anyway. There are a lot of bad things to say about T.S. Eliot, but that seemed like the kind of thing I was looking for in this section. However I was unable to find the poem that it comes from, as were my parents, both of whom I called on for help. I like to imagine that one of them made it up somewhere along the way, which, it’s a really good line; if that’s what happened they should be proud of themselves.

Next [Indefinite Period Of Time’s] Book: Good Habits, Bad Habits by Wendy Wood

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