I Wish I May

Are we our own prisoners?

Dick Cheney quit smoking. But he was a millionaire with a private plane and personal chef. Pinocchio turned from wood into flesh. But he was imaginary.

When you want to change — plain old you, inside or out — you tell yourself tomorrow, and you vow and cringe and wish. Optimistic, you flex like a pupa. Pessimistic, you sulk under razorwire in your own little jail.

You wish you were different. You cower at parties. Panic in the dark. Wash till you chafe. Watch teens loping past in low-slung pants and think: criminals.

Welcome to evolution.

Our cave-dwelling ancestors had good reason to fear illness, night, and strangers, as Martin Seligman reassures us in What You Can Change … and What You Can’t (Vintage, $14.95). Whoever best battled those real-life threats survived. Their genetic legacy filtered down the eons into our quailings and rages and bigotries which are neither more nor less than “the rekindling of dark, primordial fears.” In a brave new world of cops and soap, Seligman notes, “some of what our evolution demands of us is just a vestige of pressures that no longer exist.”

Yet these pressures wrack us from the inside out, so they’re hard to shift. Anyway, Seligman believes that knowing the sources of our impulses matters much less than how we act on them. A psychologist noted for his research on happiness, he scorns the sort of therapy that seeks answers from the outside in — denouncing it as a scam that spawns self-described victims who pick their wounds without fixing anything.

“There is no justification … for blaming your adult depression, anxiety, bad marriage, drug use, sexual problems, beating up your children, alcoholism, or anger on what happened to you as a child,” Seligman asserts, citing major studies. “Mind the pattern. A pattern of mistakes is a call to change your life. The rest of the tapestry is not determined by what has been woven before.”

Is any book not about change? Plots are plots only if protagonists morph. And memoirs traverse from point A to point B, typically starting at B, flashing back to A, then vamping and sobbing their way back to B. Geek-turned-prostitute Kate Holden bonked in lockstep under the “grinding slavery” of heroin addiction. Within hours of completing rehab, she shot up: “Just as a reward.” Possibly the best book you will read this year by someone who did strangers in parks for lunch money, In My Skin (Arcade, $25) charts the transformative powers of methadone and motherly love.

At twenty, Matthew Polly “had never once stood up for myself and fought back.” He “shook like some abused Pavlovian dog whenever a voice was raised in anger.” Ashamed of his cowardice, “tired of running,” he ditched his junior year at Princeton to study kung fu at China’s famed Shaolin Temple. As revealed in American Shaolin (Gotham, $26), Slate reporter Polly never turned into Jet Li, but “I won by losing” anyway. In Leaving the Left (Sentinel, $24.95), ex-liberal activist Keith Thompson explains why “I’ve liquidated my stock in a philosophy that empowers a guardian state to encourage learned helplessness and endless class warfare, in the name of equality.” Edited by Michelle Nunn, Be the Change! Change the World, Change Yourself (Hundreds of Heads, $14.95) is packed with testimonials from volunteers who build shelters, coach sports, plant trees, translate, collect coats for the poor, and rescue turtles from busy highways.

They all chorus: Just do it. If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.

Allen Shawn agrees. In Wish I Could Be There: Notes from a Phobic Life (Viking, $24.95), he remembers his first psychiatry session thirty-plus years ago. “Remarkably naive,” he yakked on the couch about his childhood, believing with neophyte faith that all adult problems “were a kind of curse that could be lifted if you could talk your way to the magic spell. If you recalled the pertinent memory or offending influence, a beautiful angel with a golden key would suddenly descend, like the duck with a hundred-dollar bill in its beak on the Groucho Marx show, and unlock your chains.” Shawn fears elevators. He fears tunnels, glassed-in spaces, highways, bridges, open fields. “I am afraid both of closed and of open spaces,” admits this noted composer, son of longtime New Yorker editor William Shawn, brother of actor Wallace Shawn, and ex-husband of novelist Jamaica Kincaid. He hasn’t flown since 1993. He can’t transgress a five-state radius. Imagining the midpoint of any journey invokes in his mind “a vivid picture of myself standing at the center of emptiness, screaming.”

Rather than chat, what has worked for Shawn are programs providing hard practice in hands-on coping techniques: edging across a rural field, again and again, armed with anti-panic essentials such as water and a cellphone and a girlfriend. Sitting aboard planes parked in hangars, meeting pilots, touring cockpits. “Although I am still struggling and can’t predict how much better I will get,” he writes, he contends that dissecting a childhood spent among secretive smiles, a family tree fruited with phobias, “does not free one from them, any more than discovering the reason why one resists practicing the piano would turn one suddenly into a better pianist. For that to occur,” he resolves, one has to just play.

Waaaait — so moping doesn’t work? In Change or Die (Regan, $26.95), Fast Company reporter Alan Deutschman probes seemingly hopeless cases that somehow were saved: Dick Cheney, for one. And last-chance heart patients who would rather have died than ditch bacon but switched and stayed fit after adopting yoga and meatless regimens under the guidance of Sausalito’s Dr. Dean Ornish. Felons turn from coldhearted con artists into teachers, caregivers, and maîtres-d’ via San Francisco psychologist Mimi Silbert’s Delancey Street project. And Deutschman himself — at age 31, five foot eight, and 228 pounds — saw obesity “becoming my identity” before he met a personal trainer who shared his love for opera. He lost forty pounds and kept them off.

He proffers a three-point plan: “Relate, repeat, reframe.” Translation: Find like-minded others. Adopt mentors who resemble you at least a little: The counselor is rich and you’re not, but you both love the beach. Act as if you’re already better. Do it again.

Deutschman apologizes for his book’s scary title. (This is, after all, one of the last volumes issued by the HarperCollins imprint associated with that O.J. Simpson-memoir fiasco.) It’s a deceptive title, too, because Deutschman’s research suggests that threats about oxygen tents don’t work. For the long haul, for the true molt and transubstantiation, he insists that it’s not about fear but about hope and action and belief. Because how many breakups, how many breathless moments spent straddling bridge guardrails, come down to this dialogue:

I can’t change.

I can.

I can’t.

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