Posted by: ritagone | March 28, 2012

The Secret of Life via Anne Lamott

Today I’d like to begin by quoting a little section from one of my favorite author’s (Anne Lamott) new book, “Some Assembly Required.”  It is sub-titled “A Journal of My Son’s First Son,” and it is in keeping with Lamott’s other irreverent and profound non-fiction writings in that she pushes the envelope of her faith and ours by writing about some pretty “out there” stuff.

But the section I’m using really made me laugh and almost weep at the same time with its profundity, because it came at a time when I needed it deeply.  First let me quote it to you, and then I’ll tell you why it was relevant to what had recently occurred in my life.

“November 27, Letter to Jax (her grandson) on the Secret of Life

Dear Jax: Yesterday was your first Thanksgiving, and it is time for me to impart to you the secret of life.  You will go through your life thinking there was a day in second grade that you must have missed, when the grown-ups came in and explained everything important to the other kids.  They said: ‘Look, you’re human, you’re going to feel isolated and afraid a lot of the time, and have bad self-esteem, and feel uniquely ruined, but here is the magic phrase that will take this feeling away.  It will be like a feather that will lift you out of that fear and self-consciousness every single time, all through your life.’  And then they told the children who were there that day the magic phrase that everyone else in the world knows about and uses when feeling blue, which only you don’t know, because you were home sick the day the grown-ups told the children the way the whole world works.

But there was not such a day in school.  No one got the instructions.  That is the secret of life.  Everyone is flailing around, winging it most of the time, trying to find the way out, or through, or up, without a map.  This lack of instruction manual is how most people develop compassion, and how they figure out to show up, care, help and serve, as the only way of filling up and being free.  Otherwise, you grow up to be someone who needs to dominate and shame others, so no one will know that you weren’t there the day the instructions were passed out.

I know exactly one other thing that I hope will be useful: that when electrical things stop working properly, ninety percent of the time you can fix them by unplugging the cord for two or three minutes.  I’m sure there is a useful metaphor here.”

Ah, I do love Anne Lamott for her honesty and ability to hit the nail on the head!  Thank you, Anne.  What you wrote to your grandson Jax a few years ago was just what I needed to read in the here and now, because I had had a recent encounter with someone who was pretty negative.

I think there are many people who must have missed school the day the secret of life was whispered to the students.  Because their conversation and their entire mien is one of criticism and harshness.  They are quick to judge, quick to condemn, and quick to cover it with a sort of blanket of biblical righteousness.  People they often don’t even know fall victim to their scrutiny.  Of course, the irony here is that it doesn’t really matter to the people they don’t know!  But sadly, it matters to the heart and soul of the person doing the condemning and criticizing, but there’s the rub, as our literary friend Will Shakespeare would say.

Because when you fail to show compassion, even to those you don’t know, even to those who might not deserve it, you don’t really damage the people who are on the receiving end of your criticism.

You really damage yourself.

You take a little piece of yourself and cut it out and toss it away.  And you can never get it back.  Oh, you can find forgiveness from God for being this way by asking Him for it; we all know that.  But what is being forgiven then is a person who has been irretrievably damaged by a thousand cuts and criticisms of their own making.

I should know.  I suffered and still all too often suffer from this syndrome.  I’m a critical soul.  I can do things better and wiser than most human beings; at least, that’s the message that rolls around my brain.  “Why don’t they walk, talk, think like me?” is a mantra I have lived with for decades.  It takes a lot of self-correction and a lot more prayer to maneuver from this position to the one where I know Jesus wants me to rest: a place where grace and allowance reign supreme.  It’s not a territory I live in comfortably.  So believe me when I say that I know what the mind-set feels like from the inside out.  I’ve walked in those shoes, and it doesn’t take much for me to slip back into those not so endearing and beautiful ruby red slippers.

What I don’t want to do, as Lamott points out, is feel the need anymore to dominate and shame others.  I’m going to choose to live, instead, as if I were there the day the grown-ups came in and explained everything, sitting, in fact, in the front row.  Best for others, and best for me.  Because, again, as Lamott says, “It’s always the same old problem: how to find ourselves in the great yammering of ego and tragedy and discomfort and obsession with everyone else’s destinies.”

Can you relate to what I’m saying here?

Most likely you can too.


  1. Very powerful. I wish I had read that years ago. Thanks for the blog Rita. I always am blessed and touched by your transparency.

  2. Not only can I relate, but reading this post was like sitting in the front row of that second grade class I missed and while receiving those life-giving instructions, also being hand some tasty, nourishing juice to quench a very parched soul. I always enjoy reading your posts, but just had to comment on this one.

    My son is actually in second grade. He has some disabilities and is struggling with self esteem, etc. It can be painful to feel his pain, but more painful is the awareness that my ability to help him is hindered by my own issues. “It’s always the same old problem: how to find ourselves in the great yammering of ego and tragedy and discomfort and obsession with everyone else’s destinies.”You have a talent for words. Thank you Rita. Thank you Deb for faithfully posting Rita’s posts.

  3. Rita ~

    You bring back a memory.

    After a heated exchange, my college aged daughter remarked, “You always have to be right!” I remember replying, “Well, of course I do; I’m your mother and it’s my job to be right!” I cringe now!!

    We were both stubborn and oppositional then. Later, we both learned that Mother is human and doesn’t “have” to be right to be a good and loving mom and teacher. After all, that would make her “wrong” all the time.

    We both remain strong-willed and independent woman, but my ever evolving, Christian mindset and lifestyle has helped me to let go of the burden of having to be right and our relationship is better for it. In fact, I feel a love and respect from her that I thought I’d never enjoy. God’s grace and gentle shaping of my spirit has brought me to this better place..and I am blessed and grateful for it. Thank you for reminding me of a place to which I hope never to return.


  4. I love this section! And she’s absolutely right about unplugging electrical things.

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