Arianna Huffington And Fear Itself
Friday, September 22, 2006
ON BECOMING FEARLESS
. . . in Love, Work, and Life
By Arianna Huffington
Little, Brown. 230 pp. $21.99
A few weeks ago I was out speaking at a library and was asked -- somewhat routinely -- what I was reading these days. I answered, a new book by Arianna Huffington, and was greeted by a spontaneous and heartfelt groan. These days, just the name Arianna Huffington can elicit spontaneous and heartfelt groans. That may explain why -- along with all the other things Huffington chooses to think about -- she felt the need to write about becoming fearless.
All of us, on our bad days, have a tendency to assign sour motives to people who get on our nerves. In California, from where I write, Huffington carries a sour mythological biography. She's that social climber with the funny accent who married some rich Republican who tried to buy a Senate seat. When that failed, they separated, and she switched political sides. Then she gave many Gatsby-style parties, invited everyone, got a newspaper column and set up a blog called the Huffington Post. Groan. People don't care much for women who think, and it's not only men who get creeped out: If a woman like that disagrees with you -- and has the nerve to say so out loud -- it's more than possible that she may be right.
I went to one of her parties once and had a nice talk with Sylvester Stallone's mother. The hostess stood alone, aloof, luminous and apart. What had she actually done? Written a string of books on different subjects, obtained that column. She was a woman of strong opinions who didn't mind sharing them -- had to share them. She ran for governor in the last California gubernatorial circus, appearing on television with a horde of other candidates, all men, who patronized her, ignored her, insulted her. They ended up looking like mindless oafs; she more than held her own.
So here is this short, vaguely disappointing little book, made up partly of platitudes or, more particularly, advice on what to do rather than how to do it. Women, for instance, should be fearless about our bodies and not think too much about what popular culture says we should look like. (We can have facials, though.) "Instead of comparing ourselves to Angelina Jolie," why not compare ourselves to "a woman who lost her legs fighting in Iraq?" This is fine advice, but it doesn't work, the way it didn't work when my mother forced me to eat watery boiled squash while thinking of the starving Armenians.
We should be fearless in love, Huffington tells us. And adds that for women, "the fear of being alone underlies all other love-related fears. It's the überfear." Again, she's quite right. She mentions her own book about Picasso, and how he used to boast "that he liked to take goddesses and turn them into doormats." Women tend to pine for men, the more churlish the better, and women certainly ought to get over it. Somebody ought to cure cancer, too. The question is, of course, how?
And we should be fearless in motherhood. But, as Francis Bacon wrote long ago, "He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune." He was suggesting that if you were a parent, you wouldn't be free to do great things, but that sentence can be read in a far different context. Once you have a child, you're doomed to be a nervous wreck for life, because what if they die or are horribly sad or contract a disease or drive the family car into a tree trunk? I'd dearly love to be free of fear about my children, but just telling me to do it won't make it happen.
About halfway through the book, though, Huffington gains some traction. In her chapters about fearlessness at work, about money, about aging and illness, God and death, she allows herself to speak more clearly and specifically about her own experiences. She was born in Greece; her mother went through the Second World War. Arianna went to England, where she managed to get into Cambridge and its famous debating society, the Cambridge Union. She went for it, as they say, with the help of her resilient and terrific mother, who lived with her daughter for most of their lives. When her mother hit a bad patch of her own, she hired herself out as a house manager -- anything to keep going, bring in some money, live. Her resilience and generosity serve as the author's example.
As for God, Huffington is matter-of-fact: Over the centuries, men have put humanity between a theological rock and a hard place, with hellfire-and-brimstone organized religions on the one hand and bleak existentialism on the other. She recommends a third way -- recognizing an overarching spirituality above the strictures of any particular belief and praying to aspects of our own choosing of the Divine. For her, it's the Virgin Mary, Hestia (the Greek goddess of the hearth) and Hermes (the god of serendipity and change). It's an appealing idea.