Self-Help Advice Books The Importance of Living

About the self-help book The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang, history and advice from the book.



The Head Man: In 1923 Lin Yutang, brought up as a Christian in China, was a radical young English teacher at Peking National University. He fought with bricks and poles, spent months in hiding, even had a post as secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with the revolutionary government at Wuhan. He later claimed he gave up revolution for authorship because he realized he was an "herbivorous rather than carnivorous animal, vastly better at minding my own business than that of others." Educated partly at Harvard--he received his Ph.D. in philology from Germany's Leipzig University, however--Lin spent a good part of his life in the U.S. His writing style was ironic, full of contradiction and paradox. He once said, for instance, that he was interested in "literature, pretty peasant girls [actually, he was something of a male chauvinist], geology, atoms, music, electrons, electric shavers, and every kind of scientific gadget [though he warned against looking at science with too much reverence]." He felt he would someday invent the best Chinese typewriter, but instead at the age of 77, in 1972 (four years before his death), he saw publication of his Chinese-English modern-usage dictionary, a monumental achievement of which he was justly proud.

Overview: The Importance of Living was one of the first popular works to present to the 20th-century American the ideas of the East in a Western framework. "Technically speaking, my method and my training are all wrong," Lin said, "because I do not read philosophy, but only read life at first hand." The concepts in the book came from lowly individuals like a Soochow boat-woman as well as from the sages of ancient China, some of them obscure (he did read philosophy, after all). The book is an amalgam of humor and serious discussion of such varied subjects as ethology, Mickey Mouse, Confucian sayings, love of nature, and contemplation of death. It contains, according to an Atlantic Monthly review, "a gospel that applies to all men . . . the artist's awareness of the universal." The overriding philosophical thought: that modern man must learn to respect the moral order of the universe and try to live in harmony with it.

Help-Yourself Advice:

1. See life as a poem and sense the beauty of its rhythm.

2. Adhere to the Spirit of Reasonableness, "the highest and sanest ideal of human culture," and the Doctrine of the Half-and-Half, ordering your life between the extremes of hedonistic humanism and ascetic spiritualism, "arriving at a perfect balance between action and inaction, shown in the ideal of a man living in half-fame and semiobscurity; half-lazily active and half-actively lazy; not so poor that he cannot pay his rent, and not so rich that he doesn't have to work a little or couldn't wish to have slightly more to help his friends . . . who collects, but just enough to load his mantel-piece. . . ."

3. Lie in bed alone for an hour a day, devoting yourself to a mental housecleaning, to contemplation, to the pleasure of solitude.

4. Do things beautifully.

5. Be passionate in your love of life, partaking of it as of a feast and appreciating its small pleasures.

6. "Keep a child's heart." Be unafraid to lead a happy life.

7. Love humanity in spite of its shortcomings.

8. Have the courage to be yourself. Don't be afraid of others or forget who you are in the business of living.

9. Don't try to be perfect or "strain after the unattainable" or "postulate the unknowable." Don't assume that life has too much purpose. "What is the end of human life except the enjoyment of it?"

10. Follow the advice of Lao-tzu: The wise man "does not contend, and for that very reason no one under heaven can contend with him." Remember the strength in weakness, the victory in loving peace, the advantage of lowliness.

11. Appreciate nature. Contemplation of nature can cure the "ambitions of the flesh" and "diseases of the soul."

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