We can thank the giraffes. The threat of their extinction had driven Rebecca Davis into despair and sent her on a rollicking search for meaning. The resulting book, Self-Helpless: A Cynic’s Search for Sanity, was at times dangerous to research, but it is witty and delightful to read.
In the past, when confronted with the disappearance of a species and other symptoms of the appalling state of the world around us, Davis had the perfect solution to all her worries: alcohol. She did not just drink socially and in moderation. Most of the time, she preferred to drink herself into oblivion. When her excessive consumption of alcohol began to threaten her relationship with her wife Haji, she decided to call it quits and find other ways of engaging with reality in her free time.
During her investigation, Davis acknowledges her inner demons, occasionally risks her life and finds insightful answers to some of the most pressing questions of our times. Self-Helpless records her adventurous year-long journey towards “wellness, spiritual enlightenment and good old-fashioned happiness”. Living in Cape Town, she is at home in the city that has the latest fads of self-improvement, no matter how outlandish, on offer.
Magic mushrooms might not seem like an obvious point of departure for all, but Davis attends a Sacred Mushroom Ceremony and is nearly converted, but then, she and her wife attempt to replicate the experience at home – with nearly disastrous consequences. A visit to a sweat lodge ends up nearly as lethal. Davis is sceptical of the possibility of reincarnation, but allows herself to be hypnotised in order to explore her past lives.
Having married into a family observing the fast of Ramadan, Davis joins her relatives, hoping to become “free and light; empty and pure” through fasting. She quits social media and turns for guidance to the good, old-fashioned plethora of self-help books available in our bookshops. She discovers the existence of the “exercise pills” and orders the illegal wonder-drug online. What gets her truly hooked, though, are gyms and exercise apps.
Following Marie Kondo’s path to minimalist living, Davis declutters her home, leaving behind only objects that “spark joy” (some famous books do not survive the purge). She finds peace through meditation, on a silence retreat and inside an isolation tank. Her encounters with her cursed ancestors turn out to be much less satisfying. Luckily, even though she has a brush or two with her own mortality, no giraffes are harmed during her quest. And you will not want to miss the story of her “pet goat” and the “icky guy”.
Although highly entertaining, the book is much more than a humorous romp. Davis is great at making us chuckle and think at the same time. At the end of it all, for life to be meaningful, each one of us has to know what gets us “out of bed on a Saturday morning”. If that thing makes you smile, hold on, you are on the right path.
Self-Helpless: A Cynic’s Search for Sanity
Review first published in the Cape Times on 21 September 2018.