Much as I love watching Julia Baird on The Drum, and much as Mr Gums and I worried about her multiple cancer diagnoses and her extended journey to recovery over recent years, I’m not sure I would have read her book, Phosphorescence: On awe, wonder and things that sustain you when the world goes dark, if my reading group hadn’t scheduled it. However, we did schedule it, and I did read it. I found many of its ideas affirming or confirming, or, if not those, thought-provoking. In other words, although it feels like a self-help book which I usually avoid, I’m glad I read it.
Why? Her hope, which she shares late in the book, is pretty straightforward:
I wrote this book in the hope that it might be a salve for the weary, as well as a reminder of the mental rafts we can build to keep ourselves afloat, the scraps of beauty that should comfort us, the practices that might sustain us, especially in times of grief, illness, pain, and darkness. (p. 274)
She goes on to say that she understands that the things she’s shared, “stillness, kindness, the sea and ancient trees can hardly be a universal panacea for all the suffering on the planet”. This is true, but there is more to the book. In the Prelude, she describes her intention as being ‘to search for “the light within”, for what makes people shine’. What she shares, I’d say, will speak to each reader differently, according to our personal values, beliefs, and life experiences.
The book is divided into four main parts, focussing in turn on awe, wonder and silence; the importance of accepting and valuing failure and imperfection; the art and value of friendship; and the practice of looking and savouring, of paying attention to our inner strengths. Each of these explores its topic from three perspectives: documentary evidence from researchers, writers, philosophers; anecdotal evidence from people Baird knows or has spoken to; and, of course, her own personal experience.
It is an unusual hybrid of a book. Part book of essays, part memoir, and part quest (for “phosphorescence” or “the light within”), it sometimes felt more like a collection of random thoughts and ideas than the coherent argument I was expecting. This may be partly because several of the essays originated in previously published pieces, whose links are not immediately obvious. However, while this uncertainty was at the back of my mind as I was reading, it didn’t stop me enjoying each essay as it came along, because each had something interesting – and often heartfelt – to offer.
So, for the rest of this post I’m going to share some of the ideas that appealed to me and why.
Japanese thought, friendship, imperfection and doubt
First was the frequency with which she references Japanese thinking and aesthetics – and many of you know how much Mr Gums and I like Japan. The ideas, which are hard to put into Western words so my descriptions are loose, are Shinrin-yoku (or forest-bathing, the physiological/psychological benefits of being in the forest); Yūgen (mysterious or sublime, perhaps, experiences of beauty); Wabi-sabi (beauty in imperfection or transience, often characterised by asymmetry, roughness); Kintsugi/Kintsukuroi (repairing broken pottery visibly, so that the damage becomes part of its history and beauty); and Moai (the groups created among newborns in Okinawa to provide lifelong social support).
It’s not surprising that a nation that is generally known for values like stillness and stoicism, for preferring what novelist Juni’chirō Tanizaki calls “a pensive lustre to a shallow brilliance”, might have ideas relevant to a search for our “inner light”.
Anyhow, Moai was discussed in the section on friendship which is titled “We are walking each other home” (after Ram Dass). If there’s one image from the book that moved me it was this, the idea of “walking each other home”. It speaks of grace, tenderness and care, and of the way I’d like to think my friends, family and I are with each other. Baird’s section on friendship is beautiful .
In another evocatively titled section – “We are all wiggly” – Baird discusses failure and imperfection. Again, as in the other sections, she ranges over a wide range of ideas and examples, which are too numerous to share here, but they include honouring our failures, letting ourselves go (appearance-wise), and appreciating impermanence.
In the fourth section, Baird, a Christian, writes about faith and doubt. While I appreciated her discussion of her faith and what Christianity means to her, I most enjoyed her discussions of other forms of faith, hope and stoicism, and its corollary, doubt. Embracing doubt is valid, she argues, though she adds this aside:
(Although, seriously, if you can’t accept what the vast majority of scientists have to say about climate change, it’s not doubt that is your problem.)
I also enjoyed her exploration of the importance of searching for our “ert” (a term coined by marine biologist Lisa-ann Gershwin to oppose “inertia”).
In this section she also refers to Helen Garner and Tim Winton, Australian writers for whom faith is important, but whose thinking about it is personally rather than institutionally focused.
Setting a “low bar”
However, what struck me most was her articulation of a philosophy that I live by. It is, as described by psychologist Barry Schwartz, that “the secret to happiness is low expectations”. Or, at least, Baird adds, “realistic ones, erring on the low side”.
When it first dawned on me that this was how I managed my life, I was surprised. It didn’t seem to accord with my view of myself as an idealist, but I then realised that the two were not mutually exclusive. I could have high ideals of how we should all behave and treat each other but I could also not expect that we all would (all of the time). I worried that this might sound snooty, or holier than thou, but hoped not. For me, this approach encompasses the realisation that we don’t all come from the same place; we don’t all have the same experiences or values; we have not all had the same opportunities; and, perhaps most critically, many of the things that affect us are out of our control and that, to remain sane, I need to be able to accept them.
As I’ve been writing this post, it’s become clear to me that the book does, in fact, satisfy Baird’s goal of searching for “the light within” – even though, while reading it, I sometimes felt I was losing the overall plot as I followed her down multifarious paths. In retrospect, I’ve decided that this could be the book’s strength. Not only does it offer a variety of experiences and thinking, but it enables us to choose paths most suitable for us, paths that may change depending on our circumstances. I won’t be swimming with giant cuttlefish like Baird, but I’m very happy to bathe in the forest.
Phosphorescence: On awe, wonder and things that sustain you when the world goes dark
Sydney: Fourth Estate, 2020
310pp. (including 23 pages of Endnotes)