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What I learned at The School of Life

Ancient wisdoms aren’t lost — they’re just on a new shelf at the bookstore. And they can help guide us through this sometimes difficult time of the year

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Illustration by Zoë Petersen

I discovered Alain de Botton’s work 14 years ago in Jerusalem. Newly separated from my first husband and living in a foreign country, I felt unmoored physically and metaphorically.

Although I was within walking distance of a dizzying array of sites sacred to Christianity, Judaism and Islam — the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Via Dolorosa with its 14 Stations of the Cross, the Western Wall, Al Aqsa — I stumbled, instead, into a Steimatzky bookstore. There, in the paltry English section, I found de Botton’s book, “On Love.” 

Within “On Love” — a philosophical treatise dressed up as a novel — I uncovered what I’d long sought in my Jewish heritage but had yet to find: comfort.

Relationships are hard for everyone, I understood through de Botton’s writing. By the time I finished the bestseller, my foibles seemed utterly un-unique. I felt more human and more OK with my fallibility and fragility.

Though my ex had yet to forgive me — and I hadn’t forgiven myself — in “On Love” I found absolution.

This, perhaps, is one of the points of de Botton’s work, which includes 14 books and The School of Life, which is a “collective of psychologists, philosophers and writers” offering online classes, therapy, business workshops, games and cards, books and even tote bags both virtually and at physical locations around the world. There’s also a School of Life YouTube channel with clips on everything from “How to Stop Feeling Scared All The Time” and “The Fear of Happiness” to “How to Cope With an Avoidant Partner.” The channel currently has more than 7 million subscribers.

As an author and pop philosopher, de Botton has created a platform of lessons, values and beliefs that offer the sort of help many people also find in therapy or religion — guidance that is lacking in modern educational systems. Speaking to the Huffington Post a few years ago, he said, “Schools forget to teach you so much of the stuff we need to get by in this world. Where is instruction in relationships, in the management of career, in the raising of children, in the pursuit of friendship, in the wise approach to anxiety and death? ... We’re trying to bring order and coherence to a confusing part of everyone’s life.”

De Botton is on to something that resonates with many, particularly during the holiday season. In the dark days of winter, as the year draws to a close and a new year looms on the horizon, we are prone to introspection. We resolve to improve ourselves and our lives in the months to come. To that end, de Botton’s contemporary repackaging of ancient wisdoms offers an emotional education, enabling us to lead “calmer and more resilient lives,” according to the “About” section on The School of Life’s YouTube channel.

Although his work has been praised for making heady ideas and ancient wisdoms accessible to the masses, it has also been criticized for the same reason. Critics have said he dumbs down philosophical concepts to the point of rendering them meaningless. The title of one scathing critique of both de Botton’s writing and his School of Life reads: “How to be a Pseudo-Intellectual.” In another excoriating column in The Guardian, writer and social commentator Charlie Brooker said, “Alain’s entire travel philosophy boils down to ‘wherever you go, there you are.’ It’s the sort of thing that might be explained in a single page of the ‘Little Book Of Comforting Dribble.’”

But even if you think The School of Life is intellectual dribble or just a way for de Botton to cash in on the business of self-improvement, you cannot deny that being reminded to open yourself up to another’s perspective or to admit and apologize when you are wrong is valuable. Whether Christian or Jewish, Democrat or Republican, boomer or millennial, whether you’re worried about being a better parent or finding satisfaction in your career, de Botton’s work can address your fears and concerns.

It can also guides you toward a universal ideal: self-actualization. 

That term comes from Maslow’s famous, triangle-shaped hierarchy of needs, which puts our physical needs at the base and our spiritual needs at the top. Self-actualization — the process of truly becoming yourself and fully realizing your God-given potential — is the tip, the crowning achievement of any human life. And The School of Life has a video about that, too, with de Botton calling Maslow’s chart a “beautifully simple visual cue.”

“At our less frantic moments, use it to reflect with newfound focus on what it is we might do next,” he says.

That’s a good reminder, surely, for anyone stumbling through the darkness we call life. To borrow the words of one of Israel’s most beloved singers, Arik Einstein, “Everyone, sometimes, whistles in the dark. ... Everyone, sometimes, is a little lonely in the dark.”

What I discovered that day in the Steimatzky bookstore in Jerusalem wasn’t a substitute for faith. But that slim volume — which has been a source of comfort and companionship for me for over 14 years now — turned on a light. And when things sometimes get dim again, de Botton’s teachings remain, for me at least, a whistle.