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An Existential Guide For When You're Really 'Lost'

by Adam Frank
Jul 30, 2012 (All Things Considered)

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Adam Frank is the author of About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang.

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Adam Frank is an astrophysicist at University of Rochester and host of the 13.7: Cosmos and Culture blog on NPR.org.

I don't read self-help books. On any given day my self seems to need so much help that 200 pages of cheerful advice and end-of-chapter exercises miss the core of my dilemma. The real question keeping me up at night is this: What the hell is a self anyway? How did I get one and why is it so damn desperate for help?

There is one book however that does stare down this hole and I am happy to pass it on. Walker Percy's Lost In The Cosmos is aptly subtitled The Last Self-Help Book. And while Percy keeps his tongue held firmly in cheek, his goal is to help in the most universal sense. He knows we are lost and he knows that there is no real direction home.

Walker Percy began his professional life seeking to be a doctor. Then a battle with tuberculosis in brought him to a second career as a successful writer. Both made Percy a keen observer of the fundamental human predicament. In one section he attempts explore "Why it is possible to learn more in ten minutes about the Crab Nebula...which is 6,000 light years away than you presently know about yourself even though you have been stuck with yourself all your life." We're forever a mystery to ourselves, Percy is telling us, and it makes everyone just a little bit crazy.

Everyday we wake up and we're forced to schlep these selves around. We shop, take the kids to Kung Fu, register our cars at the DMV. Yet through it all we're stuck in the dark about who we are, what we are, and what these selves are here for. Playfully perverting the self-help genre (there are lots of end-of-chapter exercises) Percy lays bare the choices facing us, and he takes no prisoners. This book is bound to make you feel worse, at least in the beginning.

Percy's goal isn't to provide easy answers (or any answers for that matter) but to force our hand and, in the process, drive us to insights that just might lead to some freedom. But to get there he has to undresses us all first.

With sly humor he shows us our strategies for solidifying and shoring up these tenuous Selves. We can, for example, seek status (my Self is better than yours). We can quiet the self's discomfort through connoisseurship, associating the Self with what it owns: a Stella McCartney dress, a $2500 fixed-gear bike. These moves are nothing more than attempts to give the Self an illusion of reality. Seeing through it is the real "help" Percy offers. He shows us these identities we invent are but temporary definitions to pin us down: Democrat, Republican, Christian, Atheist, Mother, Father... Me! Each is just a cherished symbol used to ward off the deeper mystery.

Even art, that most transcendent of endeavors is not exempted from Percy's keen-eyed insight. A section entitled "Why Writers Drink" lays out a problem he calls "reentry". Artists experience blissful hours of intense creative concentration when the self is forgotten. But when the work ends and they push away from their canvas, the Self is still there, still lost in this solid, hum-drum and very un-transcendent world.

In the end, Lost In The Cosmos is true to its purpose. It does help. For all his chiding Percy never loses a kind of existential optimism. We may not know our Selves, but we certainly can embrace their journey, the romantic encounter with our own mystery that fills us with meaning. The friend who gave me this book summed it up beautifully, "We are all wayfarers in Percy's eyes. We're just a process that's given itself a name."

So what should we do? What else can we do on finding ourselves naked and with no direction home?

Open yourself entirely, offer up these hollow selves to the glorious mystery which isn't going to go away even if we want it to. And travel on, travel on.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Rose Friedman with production assistance from Gavin Bade.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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