“Once you accept your limits, a key aspect of ordinariness, the opportunity for growth and depth will seem almost limitless.”
Robert Wicks in The Tao of Ordinariness: Humility and Simplicity in a Narcissistic Age
By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine
In two decades of interviewing the internationally renowned psychologist Dr. Robert Wicks—whose vocation is always aimed at helping the world’s most vulnerable to recover from trauma—I cannot recall a more timely book. This new book is as close to “ripped from the headlines”—a phrase popularized by Law & Order fans—as anything Wicks has written in his dozens of earlier books and countless articles.
He lays out the core of this book in a single line: “Once you accept your limits, a key aspect of ordinariness, the opportunity for growth and depth will seem almost limitless.” Then, he sums up the current crisis we all are facing with a four-page analysis of President Trump’s greatest failing: a narcissism that prevents him from admitting any limitation and drives him to ferociously attack any perceived opponent.
“I was surprised,” I said to Wicks in our interview about this book. “This time, you very directly address our American crisis—pointedly naming and describing the core problem of Trump’s approach to leadership. Of course, all of your books are timely in the sense that you are addressing aspects of trauma—and healing responses—that are relevant to professionals and first responders around the world. But in this new book, I was struck by that laser light you aimed at Trump.”
“Well, this is not the first time I have addressed this,” he qualified in his responses. “But, you are right: I do name him and talk about him directly here in a new way. Why did I choose to do that? In the case of Donald Trump, the destruction being done is so overwhelming that, in fact, I felt not simply the freedom—but also the need to call it out.”
But wait! Before Trump supporters think they need to counter attack—get a copy of the book and read it! You may be surprised.
Remember: This is Dr. Robert Wicks, the master of helpful analysis, who is writing about Trump. That means: He writes in a compassionate way, setting the challenges of the presidency in context. Wicks even finds and highlights an example when Trump was humbly honest about a tragedy within his family.
Lincoln and Trump in Contrast: ‘Our Better Angels’
As always, Wicks’ goal here is not to take up a partisan crusade. His goal is to call all of us to our better angels, as Abraham Lincoln would put it.
In our interview, we began to discuss another new book, 30 Days with Abraham Lincoln—Quiet Fire. There’s a dramatic contrast between the two presidents, Wicks said. Trump struggles with narcissism—a truth that even most Trump supporters would acknowledge. In contrast, Lincoln embodies the main message of Wicks’ new book: Humbly and honestly acknowledging our limitations will open up limitless possibilities.
“Lincoln is a great example of what I’m writing about,” Wicks said. “Because Lincoln suffered so much personally, one of the things he recognized is that he couldn’t go it alone. He embodied the old African proverb: If you want to go fast—go alone; if you want to go far—go together. As Doris Kearns Goodwin tells us in Team of Rivals, Lincoln recognized that he had to bring people from the other side into his orbit. He knew that he had to work with this company of strangers.
“This important insight of Lincoln really grew out of his own disorder and pain, which had softened his soul and provided him this vision of what needed to be done—both personally and interpersonally—if government was going to be effective. Lincoln really is a model of what I’m writing about in my book.”
Understanding Wicks’ focus: It’s all about you and me
Although Wicks is referencing presidents here—that’s not the focus of his book. This book, like so many other Wicks books, is a letter addressed to—us.
You and me.
Wicks continued, “I would say that, while my other books have been timely, they were not written as such a direct reaction to the moment. That’s why I would describe this book as counter cultural. I am trying to counter this overwhelming culture of narcissism that seems to be surrounding us, right now.”
“I agree,” I said. “This new book seems to be a compassionate letter to readers about how to face all these disturbing—and sometimes tempting—examples we see.”
Wicks said, “What you’re saying makes me think of the story in the book about a woman who came to one of my talks, then walked up to me afterward and surprised me by saying, ‘Your presentation isn’t what I expected. Somehow I thought you would talk down to us. Instead you spoke about yourself, shared stories and ideas. You walked with us.’
“What I’m doing in this new book is inviting people to stop chasing these narcissistic examples and images we see all around us. Everywhere we turn, we see people chasing approval or reputation or wealth or fame. We all need to lean back and take a breath and begin to remember honestly our own limitations—and also our signature strengths and gifts.”
“That’s how you’re defining ‘ordinariness,’ ” I said. “It’s this honest mix of limitations and gifts.”
He continued, “And, then we need to add: One of the greatest gifts we can share with others is a sense of peace—but you can’t share what you don’t have.”
Tackling Trump to Recognize Our Own Temptations
Here is how Wicks turns this message back on himself: If we are going to be honest with each other, then he is going to be honest with us, as well. That’s Wicks’ signature style that runs through many of his books.
Why even stop to think about Trump’s example of raging narcissism? As a corrective. As a way to avoid the temptation to respond to rage with more rage. Wicks writes: “It helps me come to my senses when wrapped in my own personal experiences and exhibitions of egoism. In such instances, I am also helped to recall the temptations to typecast people like Trump or others in ways that prevent me from seeing their gifts.”
He doesn’t want us to escape the book’s most crucial message: This crisis is really about how we will respond when confronted with narcissism.
He is telling readers: In the end, all I can control in this crisis is how I will respond myself.
Why this matters as we approach the holidays
In his core message, Wicks is handing us a timely dose of his wise counseling just as millions of Americans are preparing for family gatherings at the year-end holidays. He is warning: Before you march into encounters with people you think you need to confront in an aggressive way—first, soften your own heart and remember that compassion is the key to community. Honestly assess your own limitations and gifts.
Because this is a Robert J. Wicks book, of course, the counselor eventually draws a line under the lessons he has shared with us—and then offers practical ideas for responding. Flip to page 110 or 125 or 197 and you will find Wicks-style lists: Bullet points of steps we can take and questions we can ask ourselves to begin the process of reclaiming our own humility and simplicity.
“This idea of ‘ordinariness’ is my way of describing this need to counter this culture that is mesmerized by image-making, spin and a desire for power and advantage to fuel our own egoism,” he said.
I said, “Like the photo on the front cover of the book—someone sitting on cliff looking out at a beautiful landscape—your message is really a call to stop for a moment and clear our heads.”
“That’s what I’m saying: Stop. Rest for a moment,” Wicks said. “Let’s look at what it means to travel lightly, in terms of not carrying the burdens of society today. Let’s become intrigued again by what is really good about ourselves and our institutions.”
And that is the closing message of his book, as well. On the final page, he writes: “The time for rediscovery of the virtue of ordinariness by all of us is now. Paradoxically, this virtue can help us to be so much more than we are now, if we begin to value and explore it anew as individuals and as a society.”