Excerpts from LIFE PRESERVERS | By Harriet Lerner
To My Readers
There are never just two different ways to understand or tackle any particular human problem. There are seven different ways — or maybe nineteen or one hundred. Sometimes imagination and uncommon sense are required to solve the riddles and relationships of life.
I’m a person who asks for help. I don’t always apply my best thinking to my own problems (compared to, say, someone else’s problems). If I’m anxious enough, or angry enough, I may not think at all. That’s when I grab some remarkably clear-thinking person by the collar and ask what she thinks or what he would do in my shoes. At a calmer time, I may be the remarkably clear-thinking person someone else needs.
Some folks are “do-it-yourselfers,” but emotional self-sufficiency doesn’t appeal to me. I think we’re here to help each other out. If we’re drowning in our emotions, or just flailing about, we can grab the life preserver that is tossed our way. Then, when our feet are on solid ground, we can toss one out to someone else.
Consider a folktale I learned from family therapist Rachel Hare-Mustin.
An old man was bothered by some noisy boys playing outside his house. So he called the boys to him and told them he liked to hear them play, but he was getting deaf. If they would come over and play noisily every day, he would give each of them a quarter.
The next day they played noisily and the old man paid them. But the day after that, he gave each boy only fifteen cents, explaining that he was running out of money. The following day he said he regretted he would have to reduce the payment to five cents. The boys became angry and refused to come back because it was not worth the effort to play noisily for only five cents a day.
What a clever guy! When we feel most frustrated we’re least likely to be flexible and creative-but this story reminds me that even when we are convinced that we’ve “tried everything,” there is always something new to do after all.
I hope Life Preservers will help you see old problems from a new angle. It’s a book to help you to stay afloat in troubled times, and buoy you up when life takes a difficult and unexpected turn. We all feel better when we have a clear direction, a solid plan, a larger and more balanced view.
Life Preservers covers the landscapes of work and creativity, anger and intimacy, friendship and marriage, children and parents, loss and betrayal, and sexuality and health. From the countless questions I have received from women over many years, I’ve selected those most frequently asked, as well as those rarely voiced.
Most of the questions and answers have been published in my monthly New Woman magazine column, “Harriet Lerner’s Good Advice” and others have never before seen print. I have received the majority of questions through the mail and each has been condensed into a paragraph. Brevity is a challenge at both ends, especially mine. It’s a tall order to respond concisely to a complex problem shared in good faith by someone I have never met. I identify with the author who told a friend, “I would have written less, but I didn’t have the time.” It is, indeed, harder to say less.
So here are short answers to some of life’s big questions. The question-and-answer format of Life Preservers has given me an opportunity to address the broadest range of human dilemmas — and for readers to hear my views on just about everything. I trust that women (men, too) will find themselves in these pages, take what’s useful, run with it, and ignore the rest.
What we think is most shameful and unique about ourselves is often what is most universal. It helps to hear of other people’s struggles and to recognize that humans are more alike than different. I want to thank all the women and men who have responded to my work with overwhelming gratitude — and more questions. The generous and inquiring letters from my readers are a life preserver for me.