19/12/2018

Life and How to Survive It (by Robin Skynner and John Cleese)

It’s nearly twenty years since I last read ‘Life and How to Survive it’ by Robin Skynner and John Cleese. However I re-read their first book, ‘Families and how to survive them’ in 2010, and despite the slightly daunting length and format, decided that ‘Life..’ would be a good book to read in January this year. I had determined to read at least one book I categorise as ‘miscellaneous’ or ‘lifestyle’ per month...

It’s taken me eleven months to finish it. That’s partly because I kept forgetting to pick it up, and partly because the middle section is a bit heavy; involved with businesses and marketing, and I didn’t find it particularly relevant or interesting. It’s also quite a difficult style to read much of at a time, as it’s in dialogue form. This works very well from the point of view of the expert (the late Robin Skynner) explaining his theories and expounding on research to his former client (John Cleese), peppered with some Pythonesque humour here and there. But it’s hard to read more than a few pages at a time. It doesn’t lend itself to skimming.

The book takes the ideas discussed in ‘Families…’ - that of the mental health of an individual or family, and what makes for healthy communication - and applies it to the wider world. There are sections on religion, on life and death and aging, and quite a bit about helping companies become more productive, at least as far as employee relations go. Examples are given, and both the authors digress regularly, but summaries are given and there’s much to think about.

Skynner talks, as he did in the first book, about individuals becoming more healthy in the mental and emotional sense. This happens by (among other things) observing, listening, and being willing to admit their faults or failings. Most people, he claims, will automatically widen their perspectives and become more healthy simply by interacting with a wider group of people as they grow up, and in meeting new situations.

Those who are less healthy, however, will tend to cling to rigid viewpoints, often learned in childhood, or developed as a result of suppressing some emotions that aren’t considered appropriate in their childhood. When someone becomes defensive about new ideas, or is unwilling to consider alternative viewpoints, the authors count them as less healthy. However they point out that everyone’s mental health varies, due to many factors, and everyone can have both blind spots and also subjects or situations when they display better than average health.

There’s a lot about politics later in the book. Some of it is rather dated now, twenty-five years after it was written, and some of the people mentioned would mean little to younger people embarking on this book. But the principles still hold: that politicians, even more than the general populace, tend to hold fast to their party line and official opinions without any room for negotiation. Skynner does mention that some public schools in the UK had started emotional health training in the 1980s, and he hoped that would lead to some of the future country’s leaders being more open to discussion, and consideration of other points of view. His hope, alas, does not appear to have been realised.

My interest is far more along the lines of family and individual communications, so although I did like this book, and thought it had plenty of sage advice, I didn’t find it as helpful as ‘Families…’. Still, it was good to revisit the theories, recalling again the general principles of freedom, co-operation, discussion, and agreement amongst all parties concerned - but with the management (of a company) or parents (in a family) being able to pull the reins and take action in a positive way if chaos ensues, or if there’s a crisis requiring decisive action that might not have time for full consultation.

I thought the section on religion was fair and open-minded, giving an excellent example of how to discuss a potentially controversial issue in a constructive way. While neither of the authors subscribe to Christianity or any other system of belief, Skynner acknowledges that he has become quite a spiritual person and both point to Jesus as an example of someone with supreme mental health.

The cartoon images, as with the first book, are somewhat bizarre, probably incomprehensible to anyone outside the UK. I didn't find them amusing, for the most part; but it was easy enough to ignore them.

Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in understanding mental health issues better from a layman point of view. Psychological jargon is minimal - the informal conversational style enables this easily - so although the ideas are quite deep, they’re not difficult to understand.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

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