On Bibliotherapy and Sabr

It’s been more than a trying last term in my Master’s program. By the God’s grace, life has been well.

But the other day was a day with a resounding message, a gift of thought. It reminded me to keep check, to maintain perspective no matter where I am.

I attended a talk by Professor Keren Dali, a library science professor in my faculty with an expertise in reading behaviour and reader’s advisory in the library context. In the talk, she discussed the dangers of reading and bibliotherapy. Both, she pointed out, come with their own set of caveats. With the advent of the novel and the sudden spread of reading fiction in the 18th and 19th centuries, doctors were wary of the effect reading had on people’s–specifically women’s–physical and mental states. Reading, they said, put one in an alternate state of mind which was nothing short of pathological. It made readers oversympathize and overidentify with the characters and experience their stories viscerally, which physiologically taxed their bodies. At the same time, readers had a perpetual sense of guilt for neglecting their “real world” duties, which added to the stressors. The critic Samuel Johnson introduced a philosophical dimension to the reading obsession by saying that reading had the tendency to “produce effects almost without the intervention of the will.”

Attitudes towards reading have transformed so radically that they have veered towards the other extreme: the innate goodness of reading is now accepted without question. Professor Dali recalled attending a workshop at a librarians’ conference in which a bibliotherapy workshop was proposed for aging patrons undergoing significant life transitions. The idea was met with great enthusiasm. She, however, was stunned, and could not believe that the matter of people’s lives was being taken so lightly. She urged librarians working in readers’ advisory to be mindful of the specificity of people’s personal problems. And while librarians are nowhere close to being sources of professional help–even bibliotherapy requires certification–it is their responsibility to follow stricter rules in readers advisory when it came to matters of bibliotherapy. Only recommend a book that you have read, that you genuinely loved, and that helped you in a similar time. Keep in mind that reading is not therapy in itself: it is supportive.

This talk challenged the mindset that reading is a good unto itself. Professor Dali’s talk was met with several snickers, but the truth of the matter is, it is just as easy for reading to worsen one’s mindset as it is to improve it. Someone who has a tendency to be deluded, or to numb themselves with formulaically constructed stories, should be encouraged to indulge in escapist reading.

That same day, I finally watched Life of Pi in the theatre with my little brother. Both of us are highly sensitive and have a hard time seeing any beings–particularly animals–in difficult situations. We shrunk back in our seats during some especially tumultuous scenes, and on many occasions he simply covered his eyes.

Afterwards I tried to explain to him what I wish I was told ages ago: to not be afraid of feeling sad, to be brave about it. I recounted the Prophet Abraham’s sacrifice of his son as a metaphor for how we must let go of things that we are attached to with sabr. I tried to tell him that these glimpses of sadness are hints into the greater sadnesses that lie ahead for us, and being unafraid of it makes us become aware of what may befall us at a moment’s notice.

Thus, while bibliotherapy is traditionally applied to those who are struggling with problems and are at a low point, I can’t help but think of think of the flip side of things: that “therapy” also applies to being humbled when things are going well. I was not happy at how my insides retracted while watching Life of Pi. Had I watched the movie last summer, when I was grappling with intense hopelessness and fear, I would have taken those feelings in stride, paying them no heed.

This phenomenon even applies to physical pain. I once had an accident involving a spillage of boiling water that blistered left a scar on my hand–and yet, I was so stressed and overwhelmed at that time that I paid it no heed. I am certain that if I were content and happy, that pain would have been worse.

Bibliotherapy may start with a fictional story, but then the gaze should shift to other injustices and atrocities I may not usually be equipped to think about. Now it is time to watch that footage of animal treatment in factory farms and seriously rethink my dietary choices. Now I need to revisit my phobias and expose myself to their triggers. Now I need to grow in ways I cannot when I am feeling down. And just like there is no knowing when we will die, there is no knowing how long happiness and contentment will last.

Bibliotherapy does not necessarily have to involve books. It involves appropriate usage powerful narratives that should instill us with appropriate doses of hope or fear, depending on what we need at that particular time. It means–no matter what our situation–being mindful of the extremely limited role our individual lives play in the grand scheme of things. I may not spend a lot of time in the day explicitly weighing my fear of God in respect to my love and gratitude to him for placing me where I am now, but I can remind myself of the issues that I am better equipped to face now.

I am relatively happier and more content than I have been for a long time, and I pray that Allah make me not heedless in this time, or hoplessly paralyzed when things go bad. I am at the mercy of whatever he choses to bestow on me, but a step beyond just surrendering to it is being proactive in building stores of courage and and an armor of resilience.