In the last paragraph of The English Patient, Hana, the protagonist, stands alone in her house and, because hair flies in her eyes, accidentally knocks a glass from the cupboard, smashing it into a hundred pieces. Meanwhile, halfway around the world, Kip, the man she loves, easily catches a fork an inch from hitting the floor similarly brushed off the dinner table by his daughter.
Some of us are Hanas. Some of us are Kips.
My friend, lets call her Sarah, is a Kip. When the two of us went to Guatemala a few years ago, I couldn't get over the karma she brought along---never in my life have I traveled with so few wrinkles, so few glitches. I left her side for only 40 minutes that trip. In those 40 minutes, I was harassed by a policeman and shat on by a pigeon.
I am a Hana. I'm convinced that if I didn't work for my luck, I wouldn't have any at all, and instead be borne backward on a conveyer belt, the sort who always watched his candy bars get stuck in the vending machine and got Canadian pennies for change.
It is entirely irrational, this feeling, one that flies in the face of every objective data point in my life. Yet I've felt this way for as long as I can remember. How small we are when our minds develop minds of their own.
I went to see Carol Cannon a while ago because I was curious about the techniques of positive psychology, curious whether a person like her could make a person like me feel less like a person like Hana.
Cannon is a positive-psychology coach who has an office in Arlington, Massachusetts, near Harvard, where she works as an assistant clinical professor at McLean Hospital. She has clients from all over the world, from L.A. to Sao Paulo, many of whom she consults by phone ("High-level people often don't have time to drive," she says).
My first consultation with Cannon was on the phone. She assured me that her approach was eclectic and admitted outright I might not be the best candidate for this kind of thing. So she proposed, as a modest goal, that we aim only to find ways that "would put one or two or more positive moments in your day".
Her goal, she said, was to reverse my focus every once in a while, to "find pockets where you did things right, where you might have actually used a strength".
It was a lovely idea and, as it turns out, a bit ambitious.
In our next phone conversation, she asked what I'd done right since we last spoke. A long, sitcom-like silence followed. I'm sorry? I couldn't think of a thing, --including paying a long overdue cable bill--and the next thing I knew I was silently checking the television set to see if it was working.
It wasn't. Damn.
I don't want to trivialize Cannon's skills or my commitment to this quixotic enterprise.
When I met her for my third session in her Arlington office--an office not unlike a shrink's, with an Oriental rug and Indian artifacts--and I quite liked her style, though I winced when she used the word empower for the third or fourth time ("I'm a positive-psychology nag," she explained).
We didn't discuss my parents, my girlfriend, or any of the other psychoanalytic staples. What we discussed, instead, was how to plan on making my days a bit nicer---something a person like me has to actually plan.
She occasionally stopped me mid-sentence to show how my mind worked. A good deal of the hour, in fact, became a discussion about the bum habits of my mind, and how to stop it from always circling back to the blacker things, like a tongue running obsessively over a sore tooth.
It occurred to me later that what we were doing was quite literally the opposite of psychoanalysis. In stead of encouraging patients to reenact through transference, she was crudely modeling a new way to think and behave. She acknowledged, again, that I was a hard case. "But anything you practice sets up a memory trail," she said, "whether it's a golf swing or a piano piece."
I spent the day feeling great. It didn't last, of course.
It may just be a matter of practicing my golf swing---I have no idea how I'd feel if I spent a year chatting with her on the phone, trying to change my thinking habits. Three sessions is hardly enough to tell. My sense is that it's a crapshoot, an art more than a science---like any talking cure.
When I came home the next day, I found e-mail from Ben Shaffer, the teacher of the Harvard course. I'd written him first, mentioning I'd ordered Samuel Smiles book, Self-Help, now an Oxford Classic. His reply was brief, and it was perhaps the only time in my life I've laughed at the use of an emoticon:
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Jack L. Key writes feature articles, satire and political commentary. He is the author of the new novel Gideon's Trumpet, and is currently writing his third book. He may be contacted at: email@example.com