Friday, January 22, 2016

Simply Elite? ~ by Leah St. James

A few months ago a friend reached out on Facebook and asked if I’d be interested in joining a group discussion on a book called Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy by Sarah Ban Breathnach.

Always eager to read new books and talk about them, I said, “Sure!” Off I went to Amazon where I discovered the book was written in 1995. Apparently it caused quite a buzz at the time. The book was a huge hit, and achieved the gold ring of authorship:  a seat on Oprah’s couch.

As an aside, I’d never heard of the book. Those were the dark days of my reading life—not to mention pop culture of any kind. My kids were young (like 6 and 11), and I was working a home-based business plus doing the whole school-church-volunteer thing. The decade of the ‘90s is a blur to the point I’ve pretty much lost it. (On the plus side, I do know how to build a Lenni Lenape hut!)

Anyway, the book is a daily devotional for women about finding joy (abundance) in the simple things of your life, based on the principles of gratitude, simplicity, order, harmony, beauty and joy.

Think “Stop and smell the roses.” Or “Don’t worry, be happy.”

The book starts out with the basic concepts, then drills down on a daily basis with examples of how to apply those concepts until they’re so ingrained in your everyday thought process, you’ve discovered your “authentic self.” Once you do that, you’ll see the world with newly opened eyes to its wonders, you’ll ride the storms with gratitude, and you’ll be happy, happy, happy. (Okay, okay, I apologize for the snark, but I’ve been a bit of a skeptic.)

For one thing, right from the beginning I got the impression that the author’s audience was wealthy and elite, or at least comfortably middle class.  (How else can you interpret the advice to not worry about money because finances ebb and flow and we don’t REALLY need everything we want, do we?)

Perhaps my snark has been amplified by  the fact that I also just read a book called Crave: A Sojourn for the Hungry Soul by Laurie Jean Cannady. It’s a memoir of the growing up years of a young African-American woman in Southern Virginia whose family existed in a cycle of poverty, hunger (to the point of near starvation), abuse and violence.  It’s a tough book to read, only lightened by the fact that you know she eventually comes out of it by the simple fact that she wrote the book.

The contrast between the two has been stark, and even though I’m not poor like Cannady’s family, I was raised by a single mom, and we were pretty poor. And while my sister and I have come a long way, thanks to our mom and her love and support, I’m neither wealthy nor  elite, and most days I don't feel too comfortable financially. :-) Many of Breathnach’s examples on simplifying your life, for example, have made me roll my eyes, snort and mutter obscenities under my breath.

So imagine my shock to find this story on that, despite the book’s huge success, the author had lost all her money a few years back.

She blamed hyper generosity (my phrase) and the fact that women of her generation weren’t taught how to handle finances. (Crickets...crickets...)

Again, I have to say perhaps it was her class/status in society that kept her in the dark. My mom knew how to stretch the few pennies she had pretty far. I think most women with little/no financial means learn how to handle what little they have pretty quickly!

Still, I’ve decided there are lessons for me. Like try to find the joy in each moment. I can do that. And it has been helping...bit by bit. Yesterday when I answered the newsroom phone (at my day job) to a caller asking me to do online research for him on a CNN anchor because he can’t get to the library, I decided to be grateful that I do have resources and got him the information he was looking for.

There's another plus to this reading journey. At the author’s suggestion, I started a gratitude journal. At first it was hard to think of different things to be grateful for outside the usual (family, friends, health, housing, food....). But then I started to internally identify things during the day – like the fact that I do have internet resources while others don’t – and my evening list-making became easier.

So despite my overall cynicism, I’ll probably still keep reading. I mean, what if the light bulb in my brain finally goes off and I start to get it!

If you’ve read the book, I’d love to hear your thoughts!


Leah writes of mystery and suspense, good and evil and the power of love. Learn more at


Brenda Whiteside said...

I haven't read it, Leah. It doesn't sound like a book I'd enjoy. I've never been much for self-help happiness books. I suppose if you're an extremely negative person, this type of book might help. Who knows. But I'd probably view it the same way you did.

Vonnie Davis ~ Romance Author said...

Someone gave me the book as a present through a gift exchange at work. At the time, I was a single mom with 2 boys in college and was working every hour of overtime I could grab. I found the book condescending and insulting to my situation. I felt this woman had no clue. I tossed it.

Margo Hoornstra said...

Ah don't you just simply LOVE IT when people who think they know it all -- read those who consider themselves elite -- try to tell the rest of us how to 'make ourselves better' than we are? I would agree with you, Leah, and Brenda and Vonnie too. As they say - Those who can't teach. Guess that applies to life in general as well.

Jannine Gallant said...

Haven't read it. I can see the value in getting the most out of the little moments in life--and try to do that. But maybe if "Ms. Don't Worry, Be Happy" had spent a little more practical time learning the basics of finances instead of sniffing flowers along the way, she wouldn't be broke right now! Really interesting post, Leah.

Rolynn Anderson said...

I am always amazed at people who write books about how to live the good life...and even more stunned by the amount of people willing to pay for the advice. Remember primal screams and the theory that unhappy people should crawl like babies because they missed out on that in their youth? Lordy! Maybe that's why I write fiction...I am humbled by the fact my life has been a good one so far, but I would never suggest that I have the answers for how to do it right. I've been lucky and have persevered (I didn't scream; I think I did crawl as a baby, but who knows if that helped or hindered?.

Diane Burton said...

Good post, Leah. I'd heard about the book but didn't read it. I'm not good with self-help books. They bore me. This sounds like one to avoid. Too bad the author didn't know about handling one's finances--or hired a good financial planner.

Alison Henderson said...

I've never heard of the book, but I'm always a serious cynic about advice-givers. I can, however, see real value in keeping a gratitude journal. I look around myself every day and see things to be grateful for, but writing them down in a formal, systematic way would give them more weight and value.

Alicia Dean said...

Great post. Your cynicism cracks me up. :) I have to wonder how seriously I'd take her advice too. But, yes, a gratitude journal is something we could all benefit from.

Leah St. James said...

I think you might be right, Brenda, that people with an overly negative viewpoint would probably get more out of it. We're all romance authors of one type or another, which I think qualifies us as seeking goodness out of bad. Maybe that's a big reason why I'm rolling my eyes. :-)

Leah St. James said...

Vonnie, I can only imagine what it must have been like to read this book while you're struggling to raise a young family. I have to hope the person who gave it to you was trying to help (??), but geez, that would feel more like a slap in the face.

Leah St. James said...

Thanks for commiserating with me, Margo and Jannine. I think the author truly had the best intentions. I mean, she ended up losing her money because (according to the article) she gave too much away, at least in part. She does seem to be a generous person. But yeah...I have to wonder how people decide to write those types of books. Maybe having such what seems to be such a narrow point of view is how--they don't realize how narrow it is.

Leah St. James said...

RoLynn--I was amazed at the book's popularity, too, once I found out! Maybe all the people who bought it were of the "upper crust" group as well! I do remember the primal scream fad. :-) Too funny.

Leah St. James said...

Diane - Others have described it as "boring" as well. I'm sure I'd be challenged to find several hundred ways to write about the book's six main tenets. I'd probably get bored with myself! :-) Sometimes I get mixed up about what exactly I'm supposed to be getting because to me the six are so closely connected.

Leah St. James said...

Alison and Alicia - The gratitude journal has been good for me. I don't get to it every day, and it's easy to slip out of habit, but it's something I would like to try to keep up. Tonight I'm going to add "writing friends" to my list. :-)

Rohn Federbush said...

I remember the Ophra segment. My daughter-in-law who doesn't speak to me anymore suggested I start a gratitude journal. It didn't take me long to decide I should attend a church gathering as a witness to the comforts the Lord has provided. I have been spoiled after surviving a loveless Spartan childhood.

I do wonder at the Lord's shortcomings. If he can provide so generously for me, why do others face unfilled basic needs?

Leah St. James said...

I've turned to scriptures a few times while reading, Rohn. I always find the Beatitudes so comforting. I think most people wonder the same thing though--Why them and not me? Just like people who are suffering sometimes will ask the opposite--Why me?