Pros: Insightful; tries to provide a practical guide to living well
Cons: There is no simple way to apply this to your life
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Review book courtesy of Jane Wesman Public Relations, Inc.
John Izzo, Ph.D., a former minister and a psychologist, developed a television series based on the idea of interviewing ‘wise elders’ for their insights—people who have lived long lives and have found happiness and meaning in life. He and his co-workers interviewed more than 200 people age 60 and up, all of whom were described by people near to them as having that sort of wisdom. These people ranged from painters to barbers; spiritual leaders to businessmen; Holocaust survivors and victims of racism.
From these interviews emerged five common threads, or ‘secrets.’ These aren’t secrets in the sense of being unknowns—many of us have some idea that these things are important to a good life. They’re secrets in the sense that we aren’t living them. We aren’t applying them. We don’t seem to know how to make them work for us from day to day.
Dr. Izzo wanted to give us not just another useless list that would leave us scratching our heads and saying, “fine, easy for you to say.” He wanted to give us actual suggestions and concrete directions to help us put these secrets into practice. The difficulty is that due to the individual nature of each person’s life, emotional makeup, and so on, he can only partially succeed at this—there is no sure-fire recipe for figuring out, for example, what your ‘true self’ is so that you can be true to it. However, given the difficulty of his task, he does an admirable job. In addition to the TV show, he decided to put out a book on the subject: The Five Secrets You Must Discover Before You Die.
Unlike many of the fluffy pop-psychology books out there, Izzo’s book starts out with a thorough description of exactly why and how he and his co-workers went about pursuing their study. The premise seemed simple enough: if there are people in the world who have lived long lives and succeeded in finding meaning and happiness along the way, why not ask them what they discovered and how?
The ‘five secrets’ that emerged as constants seem similarly simple on the surface of it: Be true to your self. Leave no regrets. Become love. Live the moment. Give more than you take. The real difficulty, though, is this: what do these things mean, and how can you integrate them into a life dominated by bills, work, and oft-unexpected tragedy?
Dr. Izzo mines the lives of his subjects, his friends, and himself—as well as his psychology and religious backgrounds—to find answers to this. It’s tempting when faced with an instruction that seems as bland as ‘become love’ to dismiss it as the suggestion of someone who’s lived an easy life and isn’t familiar with whatever our own hardships are. It’s much harder to maintain that level of skepticism, though, when faced with the very personal stories of people who’ve survived horrible tragedies and catastrophes and yet gone on to find meaning in their lives.
This book delves into some uncomfortable areas, such as the chapter on ‘preparing to die well’. At every turn, however, it delivers helpful insights. It also makes it clear that it’s never too early or too late to learn these things: no matter where you are in your life, you can benefit by applying these secrets to your life.
The only difficulty Dr. Izzo faces with this book is the fact that, frankly, there’s a limited amount he can do to teach us to apply these lessons to our own lives. There is no simple prescription for figuring out what your ideal career might be or how to stop worrying about what will happen tomorrow.
That said, he does his best to give the reader ideas for where we might start. One of the more relevant lessons that I’ve been able to work into my life is the idea that we can only affect the present. If I can’t change the past, and I can’t predetermine the future, then the only way to make a change in my life is through what I do at this very moment—and when I keep that firmly in mind, it’s much easier for me to convince myself to do even little things like eating well, getting exercise, and so on. It discourages the tendency to say, “I’ll go to the gym tomorrow” or “well I haven’t been going lately, so I’m already failing; why bother?”
The title is kind of gimmicky, the subject sounds overly vague, and the concept sounds like hype. But when you get into the actual book, I think you’ll find it filled with surprising wisdom. This material won’t be easy to work into your life, but the result is almost bound to be worth the effort.