Until very recently, I worry about everything I can think up. I refreshed my email so many times a day that if it, my email, had a kind of hand, it would have run a fist into my face for not letting it rest. I worried about the fact that the previous year was folding up already and I was still yet to be laid, and that it may not happen this new year—and that, even if it does, it will be shabby. I worried about my GCE result; I had failed maths in two exams and I couldn’t make myself believe I wouldn’t fail it this time again. I worried about how to tell the danfo driver that I was getting down at the next bus stop; I rehearsed how my voice would sound in my head. I worried about my loneliness, about cold nights with no one to ring and trouble (broke up with my girlfriend a few months before). I worried that one day one day, my ex would be a big woman riding a big car and I’ll be just one wretch walking the streets and she’ll just park next to me and make jest of me. I worried that I won’t get admission to the university next year; that, even if I get admission, I won’t have money to go—because I am not cool with my father, because he is not one who wants me to be cool with him, and because my mom is having a long sleep or staring down at me with bright eyes from some place I don’t know. I worried that I’ll never be such a big writer, that I’ll never see the world I want to see, except on my phone screen of course. I worried that I’ll never be rich, that I’ll get some girl pregnant and I’ll have a child I won’t be able to give the kind of life she deserves. I worried that the life I’ve been given is not the life I deserve; I deserve better.
Until very recently, I worry about everything I can think up.
These worries might make you laugh, at how stupid I was, but those worries made me unable to sleep at night. They made me forgetful. Once, I was going to my exam center for an exam, and I was worrying so much. I don’t even remember what I was worrying about now, but I remember that my worry made me forget my photocard at home, and without my photocard I couldn’t write the exam. I had to use five hundred naira to take a bike to and fro—to my house, to pick the photocard, and back to the center. On the bike, worrying, I wished that the bike would crash into a car, so that I could die and have peace. Later at night, the thought of death wouldn’t let me sleep because I worried that I wouldn’t wake the next day, that I’ll die and go to hellfire. Sometimes, my worrying made me unable to move, just made me fixed in a moment, at a spot, daydreaming my life turning to ruins. And because worrying is the sister of fear, it always seemed my heart was fighting some war in my chest. Peace was the last thing I knew.
When Chioma, a writer-friend, and somebody I’ve come to see as an aunt—when she suggested that I read Dale Carnegie’s book “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living”, I didn’t want to, because I felt there was nothing another motivational book could do for me. Writers, or a good deal of writers, have such gross egos that it would be enough for a room full of people to share, and they’ll still have plenty left. So, my ego didn’t want to read it. But then I read the preface, where Dale wrote, “Please read the first forty-four pages of this book—and if by that time you don’t feel that you have acquired a new power and a new inspiration to stop worry and enjoy life—then toss this book into the dust-bin. It is no good for you”, and I thought, well, it doesn’t hurt to read the first forty pages.
Writers, or a good deal of writers, have such gross egos that it would be enough for a room full of people to share, and they’ll still have plenty left.
First published in 1948, over seven decades ago, when there was no internet or social media (two things which are feeding us so much noise these days, it has become so hard for us to have quiet on the inside, not to talk of peace), the book contains what Dale rightly calls “old, obvious, and eternal truths”. Most of the hows in this book are not ones I didn’t know (they are ‘old’ and ‘obvious’), but ones I wasn’t acting upon. And one of the reasons why I wasn’t acting upon them is, I had gotten comfortable worrying, even though worry was eating up my comfort by the minutes. So what Dale does in the first part of the book is to present “Fundamental Facts You Should Know About Worry”, and he doesn’t list them; he writes about the lives of people who have worried and what they’ve found out about it.
One of the cheapest advice, “Live in Day-Tight Compartments”, is the title of the first chapter of the book. In this chapter, Dale writes about the lives of some very notable people who worried, about little and big things: a medical student who was worried about passing his final examinations, a publisher who was worried about the future (Arthur Hays Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times), a soldier who was worried about making ‘embarrassing and serious mistakes’. And he shows us how each one of these men dealt with it. All of these people dealt with their worries by “Living in day-tight compartments”, by asking only for this day’s bread.
Reading that chapter, I began to realize that tomorrow is none of my business, really, that it’s something I don’t have any control over. All I have is today, and what matters is what I do with today. Ironically, the success of tomorrow is dependent on what is done today, but sadly, worrying will make one unable to plant anything today. The moment I realized and accepted that fact, that it didn’t matter what kind of writer I will be in the next ten years, that what matters is what I do to make myself a better writer today—I started feeling a kind of peace. I felt more peace when I applied the same thinking to rejections and publications and awards—like tomorrow, those things are not in my power; what’s in my power is to write good works and send it out and have it live its own life. The moment I started seeing it this way, the moment I started focusing on LIVING today, the war in my chest began to quiet. I didn’t feel bitter seeing somebody else’s success, wondering why mine was taking so long to happen; I began to understand that success is what happens every time I do what I have the power to do.
Success is what happens every time I do what I have the power to do.
A few pages in, Dale wrote, “One of the most tragic things I know about human nature is that all of us tend to put off living. We are all dreaming of some magical rose garden over the horizon—instead of enjoying the roses that are blooming outside our windows today.” He expands on this in Chapter Seventeen where he wrote about the lives of men and women who “turned their minus into plus”, and he advised: “If You Have A Lemon, Make A Lemonade”. (Coincidentally, I began reading Mary Oliver’s collection of poems, “Swan”, at the same time I was reading Dale’s book, and what struck me is how Mary Oliver sees joy and beauty in the things we consider ‘trivial’ or ‘mundane’ because we have become so accustomed to the miracle of always having those things that we’ve stopped seeing them as miracles. I recommend “Swan”.)
My loneliness, I am learning, is more of a gift that it is an opportunity to grieve.
I have come to the understanding and acceptance of the fact that, to paraphrase the singer James Arthur: It’s not really about the life you were given; it’s a matter of: Are you living it right? My loneliness, I am learning, is more of a gift that it is an opportunity to grieve. This life I was given is not the best for anyone else, but I could sew it to be just the perfect size for me. Understanding this, I began to spend more time with books, watch more movies, and I sat with my aunt and cousins, listened to the stories that are now the source of what might be a collection of stories. When taking a walk, instead of worrying, I look up at the sky and wonder; sometimes I ask questions. Why is the sky blue? What kind of blue is the sky today? How will you describe these clouds—not as thick smoke, or soaked balls of cotton wool, think up something else? And I find out that, as Ben Okri wrote in one of the poems I hold dearest, “There is wonder here”, and as Logan February wrote, “Look up at the steady strike of lightning/ It’s pretty scary, isn’t it? But, it’s pretty also.” Until we start seeing the prettiness of the lightning, until we stop seeing the same yellow, black-striped danfo and we start wondering why they are yellow and not green like those in Abeokuta, until we start trying to understand why the agbeero shouts all the time, wondering if he smiles at all, if he kisses, how does he kiss, does he have a mother, is she sick, does he need money to take care of her, how about my mother, have I called her today, told her I love her—until we begin to see wonder here, we will forever think the life we are given isn’t the one we deserve, and we won’t make the move to upgrade it.
Most of the issues we have is rooted in the fact that we size up our life by other people’s, without considering that not the same factors work in your favor and theirs. As a result, we always wish that could be us or ours. I wish I won that award. I wish I was published in that magazine. I wish I had such a nice body. I wish ____________. And that is how we keep wishing the miracles that we are away. Dale Carnegie advised: “Find Yourself and Be Yourself: Remember There Is No One Else on Earth Like You”. It is that simple. And so are some of the other advice he gave: Think and act cheerfully; give for the joy of giving; count your blessings; develop a mental attitude that will bring you peace and happiness.
“Find Yourself and Be Yourself: Remember There Is No One Else on Earth Like You”.
However, the delight of reading this book, a book I’ll return to over and over, is not just the wisdom in its pages, but the humor and frankness with which Dale Carnegie wrote it—and the fact that the stories he shares feel so relatable, even though they’re about the lives of men and women who lived decades ago, in lands distant from where I live, with experiences that aren’t really close to mine. Here, writing about how chronic worriers may be struck with angina pectoris: “Boy, if that ever hits you, you will scream with agony. Your screams will make the sounds in Dante’s Inferno sound like Babes in Toyland. You will say to yourself then: ‘Oh, God, oh, God, if I can ever get over this, I will never worry about anything—ever.’ (If you think I am exaggerating, ask your family physician.)” I don’t know how that excerpt reads, but it reads like one from a Junot Diaz story, but it’s Dale.
It’s a new year and a new decade, and all I want for the new year and decade is peace, and whatever peace is, I know it is the absence of worry. I also want you to have peace, perfect peace, so I’m recommending this book to you. Read it. Live by some of the instructions here. Return to it often. I tell you, it’s as relevant as it was seventy years ago when it was first published, if not even more important now.