A Little Happier: A Friend’s Description of Herself Reminded Me of Who I Am.

Sometimes we learn about ourselves from other people.

I’ve often written and talked about the fact that we can build a happy life only on the foundation of our own nature—but it can be hard to know ourselves. We get distracted by the way we wish we were, or by the way we think we ought to be, or by other people’s expectations, or by the pressures of everyday life, and we lose sight of ourselves.

I have twelve Personal Commandments, and my first Commandment is to “Be Gretchen.” This sounds so easy, and yet it’s one of the great challenges of my life.

I’ve found that one helpful though painful question is: whom do I envy? When we envy people, that means they have something we wish we had. And that can be an important clue about what we want from our lives.

Or sometimes someone says something about himself or herself, and you think, “You know, I’m the same way.” And a truth about yourself becomes clear. That’s what happened to me when I was reading Samuel Johnson, and he said of himself, “Abstinence is as easy to me, as temperance would be difficult.” I thought, that’s me, and I realized I was an Abstainer.

The same thing happened to me, in a conversation, several years ago.

Now, my whole life, ever since I learned how to read, I have loved to read. Reading is my tree-house and my cubicle, my treasure map and my teddy bear. I love, love, love to read. It’s a huge part of my identity.

But there was a period, several years back, where somehow I wasn’t managing to make time to read, not nearly as much as I’ve usually done in my life. With everything going on, it had just gotten crowded out. I was dimly aware of this, but didn’t think much of it. I kept thinking it would fix itself.

But then I was at a meeting of one of my three children’s literature reading groups (I was still doing some reading). One member of the group, Susan, reads a tremendous amount. In particular, she reads a huge amount of contemporary fiction. So everyone in the group knows, if you want to get the scoop about a new novel, ask Susan.

We were talking about the latest buzzy book, and somebody said, “Susan, how do you have so much time to read?”

And Susan said, “I must read.” She paused for a moment to think and said again, “Yeah, I just have to read.”

When I heard that, my stomach dropped. I felt the very same way. I must read. And yet, I hadn’t been reading, not the way I need to read. And I realized at that moment, my life had to change.

I must read. And my life had to reflect that.

I still fight to make time to read, and I feel like I don’t have enough time to read, but ever since that evening, I’ve never stopped working hard at it, and I do read.

Sometimes, it’s other people who remind us of our deepest values, and the truest things about ourselves.

If you’d like to read my Twelve Personal Commandments, they’re here. If you’d like to read more about Samuel Johnson and being an Abstainer vs. a Moderator, I write about it in my book Better Than Before, and I’ll link to a discussion of that, too. And if you want to know what I do read, each week on #GretchenRubinReads, I post a photo of the books I’ve read that week.




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