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Keep Moving by Maggie Smith and Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach

January 1, 2023

I find with books that I think of as “self help” — books on spiritualism, psychology, meditation, presence, etc. — the form and voice of the book is make-or-break for me. I couldn’t stand the bestseller The Power of Now from Eckhart Tolle (despite reading it twice), yet Thich Nhat Hanh connects, even though they’re essentially about the same topic.

I prefer simple, plain-spoken, clear. If there are flourishes, I want them to be in poetics, not clinical jargon or hacky, illustrative dialogue. And so I’m pairing these two books about loss, acceptance, and moving forward, because for me, one delivers and one is, unfortunately, borderline insufferable.

Let’s start with Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance. Radical acceptance is based on a Buddhist-like idea of accepting the world as it is, honoring pain, loss, failures and barriers as a fundamental part of life, and not allowing them to be a source of frustration, bitterness or self-doubt.

It’s a great message. I kept recalling a line from No Country for Old Men: “You can say that things could have turned out differently. That there could have been some other way. But what does that mean? They are not some other way. They are this way.” Don’t dwell. Accept, learn, move on. (The application of this advice is problematic in No Country, as the speaker then murders the person he’s talking to, but it’s wise advice nonetheless.)

But the language Radical Acceptance is bogged down in a mix of clinical and spiritual jargon. And it includes unbelievable but supposedly real dialogue to illustrate points. Just say it — we don’t need you to roll out the stock characters to act it out. It all feels very stilted and cold.

I was disappointed, because I enjoyed Brach’s interview on Tim Ferriss’s podcast. So I’ll chalk this up to a problem in execution, not concept.   

On the other hand, I was really concerned by the format when I opened Maggie Smith’s book. It’s a collection of quotes about loss, acceptance, and moving forward, with some interstitial mini-essays. Each quote ends with the refrain, “Keep moving,” which made me cringe.

But beyond that cheesy decision, this book is rich in short, insightful, often poetic bits of wisdom. I highlighted or flagged something on probably half the pages.

I came to Smith through her 2021 poetry collection, Goldenrod, one of my favorite books that year. Even though Keep Moving is a very different kind of book, it is infused with the same warmth, humanity, vulnerability and sense of wonder as Goldenrod. The impetus for Keep Moving was her divorce, but the themes of dealing with loss, disappointment and an uncertain future are universal.

Keep Moving is structured loosely, but the cumulative advice is strong:

Don’t see change as disruption. Accept it as an inevitable, even essential part of life.

Don’t be afraid of struggle. Struggle is part of it.

Be kind to yourself.

Focus on taking one step forward. “Take one step toward making something real and lasting, something you can be proud of.”

Throughout this book, I felt a strong sense of connection with Smith. She is so open about her own struggles, but there are also lines everywhere that I connect with personally. It’s like having a conversation with a really wise, thoughtful friend. I highly recommend Keep Moving.

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