Wisdom Lies in the Details

This month celebrates the 150th anniversary of famed French novelist Marcel Proust’s birth. Proust’s capacity to connect us with the meaning-making riches of life gives his writings enduring relevance.

Wisdom Lies in the Details

It’s fine to slow things down over the summer, but few will have the luxury of sifting through all seven volumes of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. “Life is too short, and Proust is too long,” the French novelist Anatole France quibbed after the publication of the tome’s first volume in 1913.

Image of: In Search of Lost Time
Book Summary

In Search of Lost Time

Timeless, time-consuming and well worth your time: Reading Proust is a pleasure for all who know that time is to be neither gained nor lost.

Marcel Proust
Read Summary

But as Alain de Botton explains in his tongue-in-cheek essay, How Proust Can Change Your Life, there are valuable life lessons to be learned from Proust’s work – especially for a generation afflicted with a waning attention span, overburdened schedules and a low tolerance for adversity.

Image of: How Proust Can Change Your Life
Book Summary

How Proust Can Change Your Life

Marcel Proust is not your typical self-help guru…and that’s good.

Alain de Botton Vintage Books
Read Summary

So what are some of those lessons? Here are three:

1. Take Your Time to Fully Experience Your Life

Proust’s literary masterpiece is gigantic. Even its sentences are incredibly lengthy. The longest, if formatted into one line of standard-sized text, would extend more than 13 feet (about four meters). As an artist, Proust understood that all human experience, no matter how seemingly trite, is infinitely rich in its universal implications. Proust derided the “self-satisfaction felt by ‘busy’ men – however idiotic their business – at ‘not having time’ to do what you are doing.” His message: Spend the time you need to understand your experiences. Never rush. Take time to comprehend and appreciate life.

An hour is not merely an hour; it is a vase full of scents and sounds and projects and climates.

Marcel Proust

Sounds familiar? Modern mindfulness techniques have been specifically designed to help you slow down and focus on the simpler things in life. This enables us to live in the present, and to experience each moment fully. Learn more about shifting from the “doing” to the “being” mode from Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the scientifically validated Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program who helped bring ancient mindfulness into the American mainstream.

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Full Catastrophe Living

Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn shows those who work under pressure how to use mindfulness to revive their calmness and well-being.

Jon Kabat-Zinn Bantam Dell Books Read Summary
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Wherever You Go, There You Are

The past is gone; the future is unknowable; all you have is the present moment. Meditate to make the most of it.

Jon Kabat-Zinn Hyperion Read Summary
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Coming to Our Senses

If you want to discover inner peace and make the world a better place, practice mindful meditation.

Jon Kabat-Zinn Hyperion Read Summary

The time which we have at our disposal every day is elastic; the passions that we feel expand it, those that we inspire contract it; and habit fills up what remains.

Marcel Proust

Finding awe in everyday moments is a potent practice for addressing post-pandemic “languishing,” according to psychology research. Cultivating a deep interest in life is a prerequisite for flourishing, Dani Blum explains in her New York Times piece.

Image of: The Other Side of Languishing Is Flourishing. Here’s How to Get There.
Article Summary

The Other Side of Languishing Is Flourishing. Here’s How to Get There.

Postpandemic economic recovery is all the rage, but how will you recover your sense of well-being?

Dani Blum The New York Times
Read Summary

2. The Road to Wisdom Runs Through Hardship

Proust lived a life of misery, turmoil and immense suffering, both physical and mental. “I have little happiness,” he wrote at age 30. He was always frail and ill. He suffered from digestive problems as well as aches and pains, coughed incessantly, always felt cold, usually felt dizzy, and had terrible eyesight and remarkably sensitive skin. Yet he insisted that people learn about life only through trouble, suffering and distress.

As for Proust, his remarkable sensitivity that amplified his suffering also brought to bear his extraordinary powers of observation and analysis. In Search of Lost Time, which described in minute detail both the narrator’s interior life and the society around him, is hailed today as one of the most important pieces of 20th-century literature.

Happiness is beneficial for the body, but it is grief that develops the powers of the mind.

Marcel Proust,

Turning adversity into a strength is a common theme in the life stories of highly accomplished personalities and leaders. Author Steven Snyder talks about seizing struggle “as an art to be mastered,” while Ryan Holiday explains how famous leaders through the ages have relied on the philosophy of Stoicism to turn obstacles into advantages. Sharlee Jeter and Sampson Davis, meanwhile, talk about the transformative power of “the stuff,” which they define as “a cultivatable inner fortitude” that people muster to triumph adversity. Learn more about heroic life journeys from our summarized biographies.

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Long Walk to Freedom

Nelson Mandela’s candid, heroic life story inspires, informs and instructs

Nelson Mandela Little, Brown & Company Read Summary
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Book Summary

Man’s Search for Meaning

Viktor E. Frankl survived Nazi death camps and learned a lot about the meaning of life. He teaches that lesson in this classic text.

Viktor E. Frankl Beacon Press Read Summary

We are healed of a suffering only by experiencing it to the full.

Marcel Proust

3. Books Can Teach You a Lot About Yourself

Books, Proust wrote, provide the best way of “coming to be aware of what one feels oneself.” For Proust, reading provides “magic keys [that open] those dwelling places deep within us.”

Literature teaches you about the vagaries – and the intricacies – of the human heart. It enables you to understand people, their actions and their attitudes, as well as your emotional reactions to them, and what they think and do. Inevitably, through reading books, you become wiser, smarter and savvier.

We don’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves.

Marcel Proust

Proust intuited what scientific studies now seem to confirm: Reading fiction helps strengthen your empathy. A 2006 study found that frequent fiction readers are better able to understand people in the actual world. Avid fiction readers are also better at gauging other people’s thoughts and emotions through visual cues, the study concluded.

Only through art can we emerge from ourselves and know what another person sees.

Marcel Proust

Radical self-inquiry is the path to becoming more yourself, more genuine and more human, leadership guru Jerry Colonna explains in Reboot. In The Power of Understanding Yourself, Dave Mitchell sets you on a journey of self-discovery with an “interactive style” assessment, worksheets and exercises. 

The better you know yourself, the more authentic you can become. Executive coach Karissa Thacker details how to recognize and inhabit your authentic self in her insightful leadership manual. She describes the journeys and transformations that develop your authenticity and includes helpful “workouts” at the close of each chapter.

Image of: The Art of Authenticity
Book Summary

The Art of Authenticity

To thrive in today’s business climate, you must act with “authenticity.”

Karissa Thacker Wiley
Read Summary

Wisdom lies in the details – which can only be discovered and savored by slowing things down.

Discovery consists not in seeking new lands, but in seeing with new eyes.

Marcel Proust

If you have the luxury of some downtime this summer, take Proust’s advice to heart. For additional inspiration, check out our staycation guide and Heather Hodel’s Classic Advice column.

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