Lessons for Living

What Only Adversity Can Teach You

About the Book

Profound essays that cut through the messiness of life to help you get the good from the bad—by famed therapist Phil Stutz, the New York Times bestselling co-author of The Tools and subject of the Netflix documentary Stutz
“Is there another way? Can you live life with its conflicts, uncertainties, and disappointments and somehow feel good about yourself? You can. But it requires a completely new orientation.”
There are issues, and there are issues—love, loss, success, failure, hope, regret, life, death. How can we even begin to think clearly about dilemmas so universally confounding? Phil Stutz has spent his life pondering the big challenges that we all face, and this profound book puts the conclusions he’s reached at your fingertips.
Stutz has been writing these remarkably insightful short essays since the late 1990s, which are collected here for the first time, along with new insights specific to the unique challenges of today. Each one will change the way you think, but taken all together, this book becomes something far more than the sum of its parts: a compendium of human experience and knowledge that will reframe your worldview. There are hard truths here—the acknowledgment that life is full of pain and not a single one of us is special enough to escape it—but we need to understand and accept them in order to realize our full potential.
While The Tools explains the general concepts and five specific practices that Stutz employs in treatment, Lessons for Living addresses real-world circumstances, such as the needs of children, rising above envy, defeating your bad habits, the positive side of anger, and facing insecurities, offering a new way to think about life itself.
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Praise for Lessons for Living

Praise for Lessons for Living

“Stutz lays a clear path to self-acceptance and self-love. . . . makes for compelling reading.”Booklist

Praise for Phil Stutz

“His psychology has an otherworldly dimension. . . . His existentialist teaching is as much a spiritual education as it is a therapeutic endeavor.”Los Angeles Times

“Throughout his career, Stutz has earned a reputation as a go-to Hollywood therapist who’s helped everyone from Gwyneth Paltrow to Adam McKay unblock their creative channels. It is not difficult to understand why these people turn to Stutz, who rejects the approach of conventional therapy. Rather than remain neutral, he has concrete tools that provide some relief in the first session.”The New Yorker
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Lessons for Living

Just an Illusion

Our culture denies the nature of reality. It holds out a promise that you can live in an ideal world where things come easily, a world in which unpleasant experiences can be avoided, where there is never a lack of immediate gratification. Worse, it suggests that if you do not live in this world, something is wrong with you. This ideal world is a realm of illusion. No matter how promising this world seems, it does not exist.

Be honest. Your own life experiences have been far from ideal. But what you have experienced is what is real, not what you would like to experience. In short, the nature of reality is this:

•Life includes pain and adversity.

•The future is uncertain.

•Accomplishment of any kind requires discipline.

•You are not special. No matter what you do, you cannot avoid these aspects of life.

•This will never change.

There is love, joy, surprise, transcendence, and creativity as well, but these never occur separately from the above five points.

Yet there always seem to be others who are exempt from the adversity of daily living. The media portrays them to us. They are physically more perfect, they do not worry, they are certain of their course through life. They never lack for love or companionship. They are secure in themselves. These people seem to have abolished the negative aspects of life. And this power makes them special. Products are marketed with promises of putting us in this group. We all feel a pressure to convince others that we are part of it. This holds true for the poor kid unsure if dinner is coming and the billionaire with six homes. When everyone acts as if a fantasy is real, it begins to seem real.

But only for someone else. In your own life, you find yourself unable to take a risk. You don’t know how to make a decision. Your financial future is uncertain. Your face has a new wrinkle. There is no time to parent properly. You simply cannot get life under control. There is nothing wrong with this. This is how it feels to be alive. The problem is that the other group has become the standard, and self-esteem starts to depend on being like them. An adverse event feels like something is happening that is not supposed to be happening. The natural experiences of living make you feel like a failure.

Is there another way? Can you live life with its conflicts, uncertainties, and disappointments and somehow feel good about yourself? You can. But it requires a completely new orientation. The first step is to realize that life is a process. Our culture leads us to forget this fact and makes the destructive suggestion that we can perfect life and then get it to stand still. The ideal world with the superior people is like a snapshot or a postcard. A moment frozen in time that never existed. But real life is a process, it has movement and depth. The realm of illusion is an image, dead and superficial. Still, these images are tempting. There is no mess in them.

How can you retrain yourself to prefer what is real and alive, although often painful? The key depends on a simple truth that we resist: life is made up of events. The only real way to accept life is to accept the events that comprise it. And the flow of events never stops. The driving force of the universe reveals itself via the events of our lives. Why resist this fact? Because it places us in a world that is not perfectible or predictable. There is awe and mystery in the fact that no one knows what will happen next. But it also makes us feel small and out of control. The realm of illusion suggests that we can get above this flow of events. But that would be a spiritual death, for it is only events that allow us to be in touch with an alive, meaningful universe. If fate is woven of a series of events, then mental health is the ability to accept our fate with enthusiasm.

Dealing with events is similar to being a good parent. It is not enough to just show up. You need a point of view and a set of tools. It is impossible to deal with events constructively without being prepared. Why are so few people prepared? Because they hope that the events, particularly the bad ones, will never come. They believe that the ideal world is real, that they can live in a world of ease. They play the lottery every day. In our culture, very few people prepare for anything.

Preparing yourself with a philosophy enables you to change the meaning of a negative event. With a specific philosophy, you can aggressively change your perception of events. The philosophy of events is as follows.

•Adverse events are supposed to happen.

•Their existence doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you.

•There is always an opportunity in a negative event.

•Developing spiritual skills is more important than getting a good result.

It is not possible to know what adversity you will face in the future, but whatever it is—misunderstanding, abandonment, risk, conflict, loss—this philosophy helps you not to be taken by surprise. It allows you the distance to step back and label the event and give it value above and beyond its immediate details. The event becomes generic. Events of abandonment, for instance, will teach you to develop a set of skills that will make you more emotionally independent. But if you fail to label an event, you can’t see the value in it. All you want is for it to be over. And once it is over, you forget all about it. You learn nothing. Labeling an event, even just to call it an adverse event, allows you to take advantage of it instead of it taking advantage of you.

It’s best to think of the skills that events teach you as spiritual skills rather than psychological skills, which reminds you that it is a meaningful universe that touches you via the events of your life (particularly the adverse events). These spiritual skills help you relate to the universe by finding meaning in everyday events.

Try an experiment. Next time you face an adverse event, apply the philosophy of events. Observe how you feel. If you are open-minded and do this with regularity, you will begin to experience the first glimmer of higher meaning in events. Your experience will change. In training to make events your teachers, you make real experience the foundation of your philosophy.

That is the purpose of a human life.

About the Author

Phil Stutz
Phil Stutz graduated phi beta kappa from the City College of New York and received his MD from New York University. He worked as a psychiatrist at the Rikers Island jail complex and then in private practice in New York before moving his practice to Los Angeles in 1982. He is the bestselling co-author of The Tools and Coming Alive. More by Phil Stutz
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