The Point Is : Making Sense of Birth, Death, and Everything in Between
February 08, 2016
Lee Eisenberg offers up a guide to nothing less than the point of life, and how to narrate it.
We are all finite bodies of water and energy. It is up to us to determine how we use our limited time here—to learn, to work and perspire, to connect with the people and world around us, to reflect, relax, retire. It was that last topic Lee Eisenberg tackled in his bestselling (yet, we've always felt, still somehow underappreciated) book The Number. His new book, The Point Is: Making Sense of Birth, Death, and Everything in Between, tackles them all.
Eisenberg has been a favorite author of ours for some time now. Jack Covert and Todd Sattersten (our founder and our former General Manager, respectively, not to mention the two authors of The 100 Best Business Books of All Time) were huge evangelists for The Number. It most likely didn't reach the heights they believed it could because people don't really want to confront the anxiety that comes with the transition to retirement and the financial planning that comes with it. Todd talked to a publisher that said "people don't want to read about how they are not going to have enough money when they retire." Todd himself wrote that it was an "emotional roaster coaster ride through what it is going to take to deal with the second half of your life" and that it had been a long time since a book had left him that depressed.
What they constantly championed in talking about that book, however, was the powerful storytelling. And it's no surprise. Eisenberg has spent his life and career living intimately with stories.
It's no exaggeration to say that I've got stories on the brain. I always have, actually. For a big slice of my career, nearly twenty years of it at Esquire, I've been up to my eyeballs in stories, fiction and nonfiction, commissioning them, celebrating them when they clicked, mourning them when they fizzled. Later on, I was paid to think about how I could apply storytelling to everything from enriching a school curriculum (at an educational start-up) to explaining the wonders of a high-tech down-filled jacket (at a catalog company).
Some of my best friends are stories.
The Point Is is, again, a deep reflection on the quality of our lives. And it all began with thinking about how it all ends.
But here's the kicker: your story remains an enduring mystery because there's one thing you don't know and you may not want to know even if you could—how and where the story ends. And there's another thing you'd give almost anything to know:
Is there any point to it?
That's what this book is about.
So… another uplifting read from Mr. Eisenberg, hey?
Well, actually, yes. Though the specter of death was certainly an impetus for the book, it is not an unpleasant one. Mr. Eisenberg made books on death the foundation on his summer reading list while putting together his thoughts for this book, but like the night makes the day brighter by contrast, it serves only to highlight the importance of the time we have and what we do with it.
We get to define that for ourselves. To a very large degree, we define that with a personal mythology we construct throughout our lives and a personal narrative of our time here. Or, perhaps there's a tiny little writer living in our heads keeping that story and myth straight for us, updating and revising it as needed throughout our life. He or she is the author and editor-in-chief of our life story, as Lee Eisenberg was at Esquire throughout the '70s and '80s.
That may sound crazy, but that is exactly the device Eisenberg uses. He calls this little writer upstairs "the scribbler," and it is this diminutive entity documenting your life story, organizing it into chapters, constructing it into an overall plot, writing your phychobiography. It all comes together in a book Eisenberg names The Life and Times of My Enduring Self—after deciding, as any good editor would that his first two titles Me: A Life and The Life and Death of the Enduring Self were "too generic and flat" and "too grandiloquent."
Explaining that some of us may not want to imagine a tiny idiosyncratic writer toiling away in our brain, he does provide an alternative:
I realize that some of you may not like the idea of a self-doubting, too-clever-by-half narcissist living inside. Some of us don't like houseguests, period. Others aren't at ease around "creative types." If it will help you keep an open mind about the scribbler upstairs, feel free to think of your storywriter as one who can hold her own in a corporate environment. She's your Chief Subjective Well-Being Officer—with a pen. But whether you think of her as a scruffy bohemian or Chief Well-Being Officer, your life story starts and ends with this person. By arranging your memories into chapters, she can make your life seem coherent and meaningful. Or not.
Like any good story, your life will have a beginning, middle, and an end. Each will have important chapters, key supporting characters, and character forming turning points. The trickiest transition, as it is in constructing any story, comes in the middle of life. Eisenberg writes:
It's often the middle of the story when trouble arises. The middle of any story presents a stern test for even the most accomplished author. The middle's hazardous. The middle is where the plot goes to unravel. It's where characters are prone to fall apart.
"It's here," he writes later, "that the story must find its focus if it hasn't already." This is something I often think about as I enter the middle of my own life. I have my family focus, but is that all? I have my work here at 800-CEO-READ, but am I forming strong enough bonds outside of my family and focused enough on my personal work, my "own writing" and artwork? (It didn't help my worrying that as I was reading this section today, I walked to the office kitchen to get a coffee mug, and as I looked up from the book and opened the cabinet, the first mug I saw said "Due to recent cutbacks, the light at the end of the tunnel has been shut off.") But I didn't worry long. Eisenberg is funny, smart, and incredibly engaging (especially as he shares his own life story), and the anxiety simply slipped away.
Eisenberg does a great job of keeping this book light even as he dives deep into an examination of how we construct our self-image, and narrate our own lives both private and public, secret and societal, intimate and out in the world with others. It is a dissection of what brings meaning.
He doesn't try to "undermine your faith in a supreme being" or tell you how to live your life. The man who wrote a book called Shoptimism: Why the American Consumer Will Keep Buying No Matter What tells you that if you that if you base your self-worth on what you can buy, he's not here to tell you otherwise even if he doesn't agree with that approach. What he does do is "pass along a few writing tips." Three of them are wrapped up in questions about the importance of a good beginning, middle, and end. "Finally", he asks, "what's a great life story about?"
Indeed, as I'm sure we've all asked ourselves, "what is the [bleeping] point?"
The point is to write the best story we can. The point is to keep the story from obsessing over what's lacking, inferior, or ugly in life, and instead cast our attention on the good, the true, and the beautiful, never overlooking the pain or injustice but confronting them. As Viktor Frankl said, it isn't what you expect from life that matters … it's what life expects from you. Life expects that we give back to it.
Each of us is sentenced to write a life story. Writing it as well and as creatively as you can is the point.
If you'd like the assistance of a very thoughtful and entertaining editor for that little writer typing away upstairs in your mind, Lee Eisenberg has written the perfect manual of style and substance in The Point Is.
We have 20 copies to offer.