How We Are: Book One of the How to Live Trilogy

How We Are: Book One of the How to Live Trilogy

by Vincent Deary


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We live in small worlds.

How We Are is an astonishing debut and the first part of the monumental How to Live trilogy, a profound and ambitious work that gets to the heart of what it means to be human: how we are, how we break, and how we mend.

In Book One, How We Are, we explore the power of habit and the difficulty of change. As Vincent Deary shows us, we live most of our lives automatically, in small worlds of comfortable routine—what he calls Act One. Conscious change requires deliberate effort, so for the most part we avoid it. But inevitably, from within or without, something comes along to disturb our small worlds—some News from Elsewhere. And, with reluctance, we begin the work of adjustment: Act Two.

Over decades of psychotherapeutic work, Deary has witnessed the theater of change—how ordinary people get stuck, struggle with new circumstances, and finally transform for the better. He is keenly aware that novelists, poets, philosophers, and theologians have grappled with these experiences for far longer than psychologists. Drawing on his own personal experience and a staggering range of literary, philosophical, and cultural sources, Deary has produced a mesmerizing and universal portrait of the human condition.

Part psychologist, part philosopher, part novelist, Deary helps us to see how we can resist being habit machines and make our acts and our lives more fully our own.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374535964
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 01/05/2016
Series: How to Live Trilogy Series , #1
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.07(w) x 8.07(h) x 0.69(d)

About the Author

Vincent Deary is a health psychologist at Northumbria University who specializes in helping people change their lives for the better. How We Are is his first book.

Read an Excerpt

How We Are

Book One of the How to Live Trilogy

By Vincent Deary

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2014 How to Live Limited
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-71321-8


The Beaten Path

A kind of overture, in which themes from the whole book are touched on. In particular, we focus on the process of making ways of life through acts of repetition. This process is considered at the individual level, in such mundane acts as learning to drive, and on the grander scale in the formation of culture and the process of evolution. Finally, we consider how the process of making ways may be fundamental to our sense of self.

How is a road beaten down through the virgin snow? One person walks ahead, sweating, swearing, and barely moving his feet ...

Five or six people follow shoulder to shoulder along the narrow, wavering track of the first man.

Varlam Shalamov

Strange reciprocity: The circumstance we cause In time gives rise to us ...

Philip Larkin

I. Urban planners and landscape architects describe a phenomenon they call 'natural desire lines' or simply 'desire lines'. The new park near my old house had a striking example. The park's planners had designed gracious curving paths, which walked the walkers around the borders of the newly planted lawns, through avenues of young shrubs and fledgling trees. The public were being instructed, guided on an improving and scenic detour. From the main road there was one path that led through the park to the entrance of a large supermarket. The park had, in fact, been built by the supermarket owners, placed between it and the road to mask this new and unsightly growth of commerce. This path was curved like a long archery bow, cutting a grey and gentle swathe through the young and vibrant grass, taking the public on a stroll on their way to and from the store, encouraging them to stop and smell the roses. Which of course we didn't. Loaded with desire one way and bags the other, we chose expediency over prescribed detour. We voted with our feet. Gradually a line was worn through the grass, connecting the ends of the curve like the string of an archery bow. With use, this line gained definition, lost its green. Soon it was a solid beaten path, a taut and muscular line inscribed by desire and necessity. In fact you could say that this path was the record of a public decision and not only a record but a new suggestion, a new instruction, a new way of solving the problem of getting to and from the shops which was at odds with the official prescription.

II. So desire can inscribe itself on the landscape, make a big mark. No one planned it and no one sanctioned it, but still this mark upon the world happened. Massed desire expressed itself. There is, in a way, nothing remarkable about this process. All the paths that lead from here to there, all the places they connect, all are formations of desire. The political question would be whose desire – cui bono? – who stands to benefit from this particular formation? In the case of the park, the path is notable precisely because it's such an anarchic gesture, though at the same time it also speaks of a herd urgency to rush to the pasture of commerce. Sheep also make desire lines to their troughs. The official avenues and park walkways of our premeditated built world stand as a polar, political opposite to this crude herd formation. But consider this desire-line urban myth, a fable of urban planning best practices: an American college campus has been newly built. Its buildings are scattered over a wide area, so paths will have to be built between them. Rather than prescribe or attempt to predict the ways the public will want to go, the designers decide to record them first. They sow the campus with new lawns without pathways and let the students loose. Over the next year, the pathways of natural desire and necessity are worn down. Only then are they paved, their anarchic spontaneity memorialized in stone. And maybe this is closer to how the world was made, a strange reciprocity between the forces of natural human desire and those in charge of controlling and containing its expression, giving it form. In the infancy of any culture there must have been first steps in which desire and necessity will have sketched their rudimentary form onto the landscape. This form in turn directs subsequent desire as a riverbed does water. The worn ruts become ever more substantial and compelling, and the movements of the collective more coherent as a result. Deliberate human agency – the decision actually to build the path, or rather to endorse the path of common use – need not enter the process until fairly late.

III. What is at work here is a dialectic of force and form. The raw force of human compulsions, the lacks and needs that make us move – hunger, anger, sex, comfort, curiosity – are translated into movements and actions. These movements and actions are not arbitrary – some are more effective at satisfying our needs than others. A random sample: certain trade routes are more profitable; the river is more easily accessed at a certain point for travelling or fishing; there is a 'best' route to a neighbouring village. So certain movements and action will be repeated more than others, and will in their repetition become established and routine. These routines, these rudimentary formations of desire, will begin to leave marks, expressing themselves as paths or even as stories about the best way to build them. These marks – these semi-permanent forms, these tangible manifestations of desire – are what we call culture.

IV. In La Rabbia (The Rage), and in his films in general, the Italian poet and film-maker Pier Paolo Pasolini was constantly trying to discover how the earth looked before it was overlaid with the markings of desire. This is like wanting to see the dawn's new snow beneath the over-trodden slush of lunchtime. This question runs through Pasolini's work: What would we look like were we not overrun by culture, by what he calls in La Rabbia, 'the old, bleeding roads of the earth'? He made a short film about his search for the locations for The Gospel According to St Matthew, the latter being a luminously simple telling of the gospel narrative. In it, we watch him and a priest visit the Church of Christ in Jerusalem. He is struck by how the magnificence of the temple stands in relation to the humble rock on which it was founded; how the grandiose architectonics of Christendom have been established upon a foundation of humility and simplicity. It is 1964 and Pasolini, a Marxist and an atheist, had been arrested for a film he made only a couple of years earlier, about a poor man, a film extra, dying on a cross on a film set depicting the Crucifixion. The Catholic Church had not liked this equating of the sub-proletariat with Christ, and had Pasolini charged with blasphemy. So he was wary. In his contemplation of this new cinematic life of Christ, he decided to consult a Vatican expert about his intentions before he began filming. His question for the Vatican was this: Could he dismantle the edifice of Christendom and show the humble rock on which it was built? Or at least try? Can I do this, he asks the priest, as they stand by the temple, can I tear down the temple, can I show the luminous, simple, humble truth before it is overrun, over-built with all this grandiosity? Yes, says the priest, you can. You have the authority.

V. Like that other visionary poet, Rimbaud, Pasolini was suspicious of our thoughtless inheritance of the desire lines that we walk every day – these old, bleeding roads of the earth. The future is not conjured from nothing. The future is the past renovated, its paths thickened, embellished, reinscribed with a firm and then a firmer hand. The present is a kind of memorial of the past, both a living monument preserving its memory and a dead weight obscuring it. The present both preserves and effaces. Parents know this, as does anyone who has watched a growing thing. Each new version eclipses the one before: the child at five obscures the child at four, the adolescent effaces the toddler, but also preserves an essence we believe we see unfolding and maturing before us. The face more definite, the gestures more assured, the voice stronger. The present as the past once more with feeling.

VI. The pagan temple, then the church and now the hall for yoga and meditation: our spiritual communions have tended to take place in the same locations, on the same patches of hallowed earth. As with God, so with Mammon. The money tends to stay put. Witness how the mercantile areas of cities are ceaselessly renovated. The most recent advances in infrastructure and design are rushed to money like tributes to a monarch, with the advance of technologies fired by the desire to appease and facilitate the life of money. But while these parts of the civic body, these city areas, may be the most absolutely modern and shiny and new, they are also some of the oldest and most established. Indeed, it is the very age of their establishment that ensures their smooth running. The paths of money are well worn and constantly tended. 'Beneath the pavements, the beach!' ran the old French situationist slogan, reminding us, as Pasolini and Rimbaud did, that there was a before of all this building, all this enculturation, which we went through as a people and as individuals. Beneath the pavement is a well-established road; beneath that a track; beneath the track a path; and beneath that path a worn rut. Beneath the pavement a desire to move written in earth.

VII. Interesting to watch the new technologies at work. Consider the way a whole new network of paths has been established by the internet, and the way the old desires are re-emblazoned on this new land. Gossip and sex, money and violence, desire and desire for communion, all the old urges wearing down new electrical pathways.

VIII. It takes a lot to efface the traces of desire. Think of the gay districts of the major cities. These were once the cruising grounds of furtive criminals, the camouflaged haunts of outlaws. But they persisted for years at the same locations until, for now, the law assented to legitimize this particular desire and it became gradually visible. Now you can buy gay maps. How many lives would those maps have altered not so many years ago, when hardly anyone knew that such exotic lands existed? Think of all the coded, still-secret geographies, the subterranean, marginal or illegal currents that must traverse our lands. From drugs to freemasonry, from Elvis fans to swingers and people having or watching public sex, every desire will have its map, leaving its marks for those who can read them, find them. It takes real destruction to efface the traces of desire. The Earth has habits too.

IX. I'm going to be learning to drive soon. I imagine the parts of my body that will become dedicated to driving as a field of virgin snow, a landscape as yet unmarked with desire. It will involve effort, willed and conscious effort at first. First steps always do. There are sequences of actions to be learned, routines combining and coordinating gross and fine muscular movements with a whole new set of sensory and judgemental processes. I'll have to think a lot at first, to deliberate. My movements will be very conscious and clunky, klutzy; as long as they are deliberate, they will be bad. Only when the inner paths have been trodden and re-trodden, again and again – pure repetition – only through this effort, willed and deliberate and conscious and muscular, sweating and swearing and painful and clumsy repetition, only after this, only then will I become good, when it begins to get effortless, thoughtless, unconscious, automatic. I can't wait.

X. 'A walk in the park' is a synonym for ease because the park knows how to walk. It does it for us. A good park anticipates our desire. Anticipated desire is the key to leisure. People have been paid and good money has been spent on figuring out what we are going to want to do. They care so that we don't have to. The good hotel, the theme park, the penny arcade, the pub, the cinema – all of them relieve our consciousness of the burden of worrying about what to do next. Think of those early difficult days with a new thing – a computer or a mobile phone, a guitar or a car, or a relationship in which you now feel comfortable. Learning the right moves, what they mean, how to, when to, what not to, where to, repeating and rehearsing, experimenting and getting it wrong: 'poise, and grace, and assurance were not qualities inbred in me, but were things to be acquired, painfully perhaps, and slowly, costing me many bitter moments.' We want to rush past our bitter moments, to a place of facility and ease, we want to be old at this new thing, but rushing won't do it. Only time and repetition bring ease. Then it's second nature, a walk in the park.

XI. Second Nature. A telling phrase – so what's first, what comes naturally? A lot. It seems the snow is not so virgin after all, a whole host of routines are fitted as standard. The old and bleeding roads of the earth are emblazoned upon you. The vast and folded architecture of your brain and nerves are waiting for the world and have a strong presentiment of exactly how the world is going to be – waiting for space, expecting time, ready for language, anticipating movement and other people, prepared for sex and violence, fear and loathing. As the parks and cities are public records of millennia of problem-solving, of desire facilitated to the point of ease, so you are the repository of millions of years of very hard thinking about this world. You know the world already as your lungs know air and your kidneys water. Its weight and shape have determined your height and form, its light has demanded your eyes, its noises called for ears, its food and water shaped your mouth, your teeth and guts, its earth and roots and branches formed your grasping hands. You, the newest, shortest route between desire and fulfilment, are more intricately traversed by patterns and pathways than the entire world. Imagine the first attempts at hunger, matter desperately maintaining its structure through stealing other matter, the elemental stirrings, the prehistory of hunger. Clumsy, primitive molecular structures managing, just, to cannibalize the earth, to maintain and repeat themselves. Imagine hunger's first steps, desire's primal movements, life's beginning. Look how good it's got at it. Look how good we are at eating now, at maintaining and reproducing the integrity of a staggeringly complex structure, without even thinking about it. You just know. You were made for this world, by this world, of this world. You are the record, the embodiment of life's ceaseless desiring, written in tiny molecular hand, transcribed and translated into flesh, from dust and water. Knowledge of a billion years of living in this world is folded up inside you, is you. You are the latest model, the most recent experiment in living.

XII. The world runs in our blood. The hunger within us is a billion years old. There are glimpses of this ancient in us. We have little intuitions of it when we hear phrases like the 'reptilian brain', or when we read how we are only a vehicle for our genes that have been around for a billion years. Meaningful parts of us really are millions of years old. Science tries to point out what is only fact, but must also struggle to make us feel that weight of years that it took to reach a point when a couple of buckets of water and a bag of earth became this you, here now, so blithely reading, turning pages, this earth made flesh, this flesh alive with vision and reason, this reasonable meat conjured from dust. It took that amount of effort over that amount of time to reach the point where there is some clay that can 'see' and 'feel' and 'know' and 'think'. And that it does all this with such a lack of effort. This ease, the smoothness of the mechanism now, our hands moving to the places we want them to go before we have even thought to ask, they just know how. It took a long time, a lot of learning, more than just one lifetime, to get that good. How old is life? That's how long it took for you to learn how to read and turn this page.

XIII. The first stirrings of life, the first response, the first repetition of an elementary gesture directed at the world in desire, the first hunger to persist. The first steps on the path of life. Can you imagine?

Darkness and concealment are the dominant characteristics of the primordial time. All life first becomes and develops in the night; for this reason, the ancients called night the fertile mother of things and indeed, together with chaos, the oldest of beings.


Excerpted from How We Are by Vincent Deary. Copyright © 2014 How to Live Limited. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of figures ix

Introduction 1

1 The Beaten Path 7

Act 1: Saming

2 The Automatic 21

Part 1-The Knack 23

Part 2-The Gist 37

Part 3-Pause for Thought 47

3 House Rules 55

Part 1-A Room of our own 57

Part 2-Common Rooms 68

4 Cosa Nostra 79

5 News from Elsewhere 107

Act 2: Changing

6 First Impressions 139

7 Second Natures 167

8 Spellbound 193

9 Dancing Already 223

Part 1-Response and Responsibility 225

Part 2-Calls and Calling 239

Acknowledgements 261

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How We Are: Book One of the How to Live Trilogy 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
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