Reviewer: Peter Vakunta, Ph.D.
Esther Lamnyam, celebrated author of Love under the Kola Tree: What City Moms Didn’t Tell You about Creating Fulfilling Relationships (2009) has come up with yet another powerful tool intended to enable readers to live impactful lives. Strive to be Happy is a compendium of epigrammatic reflections on human behavior. The ontological wisdom embedded in the bosom of this 148-page non-fictional book is priceless. Like François de la Rochefoucauld’s Maximes (1665), Lamnyam’s aphorisms are the condensed sagacity of a writer who has traveled many roads. Hers is a clear-eyed, worldly view of human conduct that indulges in neither condemnation nor sentimentality. She posits that our virtues are usually only vices in disguise. Perceiving life as a ritual, Lamnyam offers the following counseling to her readers: “Have a ritual you practice daily. This will help position you and give you your bearings for your present location.”(35). Come to think of it, life is, indeed a ritual, be it the drudgery of existential humdrum or the repetitive monotony of daily chores. Even the friendships that we create, opines Lamnyam, are ritualistic and tend to be evanescent if we fail to nurture them. As she puts it, “When we abuse and choose to not honor relationships and other humans, they might leave us…"(37). Many a friendship has been broken on account of mutual ingratitude and disrespect. In this vein, Lamnyam argues, to give relationships longevity, it is incumbent upon individuals involved to say or do little things that manifest thankfulness. In her own words, “Many broken hearts are born from being ungrateful” (37. Her words of caution to ingrates ring true: “Do not take others and partners for granted… They have the choice to leave the relationship any given day…” (37
Lamnyam has a predilection for proverbial sayings that remind readers of existential vicissitudes: “Everything that is hot eventually becomes cold” (45). This binary juxtaposition of antonymic words drives home the point lucidly. This writer broaches the importance of nomenclature in social intercourse as seen in the following excerpt: “Give a baby a name/it grows with it…/Fear is in a name when it belongs to a tyrant/A name has personality /when the bearer is subtle/There is credit in a name/ it has honor and influence”(43). Lamnyam’s book harbors the key to a happy life provided we do the little things that matter such as greeting the people we meet every day with a smile: “Start by smiling…One of the most powerful good energy generating tools is a smile”(49). Lamnyam appeals to readers to be mindful of the impact their demeanor has on the people in their entourage: “Think about the effect your demeanor or sadness has on those around you” (49). These words of wisdom may sound trifling but they really do matter and may be the dividing line that dissociates a life of failure from one of success.
Lamnyam’s Strive to be Happy is an inspirational work replete with didactic messages as the following extract illustrates: “Evil energy needs something to feed on just like a hungry person needs food… Evil energy needs evil energy as its food…” (94)These sagacious words brook no contradiction. They are applicable to all and sundry—indigent and opulent, slave and master, governor and governed. This is Lamnyam’s way of admonishing readers against evildoing because evil begets evil.Throughout this book Lamnyam’s voice sounds like that of a quiet peace-maker. She calls for nonresistance as a modus operandi needed to ward off the pangs of pain occasioned by social injustice, exploitation and disenfranchisement. Hear her voice in the following excerpt: “Learn non-resistance in (different situations)…. this technique of nonresistance can be used in so many ways to diffuse potentially explosive situations” (94). Another didactic lesson that Lamnyam places at the disposal of readers is the importance of keeping promises. As she puts it, “The only thing you can keep when you give out is your word…” (128) By this token, she stands opposed to prevarication and falsehood. She has the conviction that people who tell lies and half-truths eventually lose credibility: “You corrode your credibility when you do not keep your word” (128).Lamnyam envisages a symbiotic relationship between human beings and animal beings: “Learn from the animals” (138). By elevating beasts to the pedestal of human beings, Lamnyam, by the same token, lowers humans to the level of animals. This is food for thought.
In her ontological peregrination, Lamnyam draws inspiration from the indigenous knowledge of her people, the Wimbum, as seen in her recourse to the following proverb: “Truth is slow, but it always arrives” (138). This maxim is pregnant with meaning. She has more to say in this light: “Whatever is done in darkness eventually comes to light” (104). As she sees it, truth begets happiness. When all is said and done, what is happiness according to Lamnyam? She defines happiness in spiritual terms as follows: “Happiness is to know the Savior/Living life in His favor/ Having a change in my behavior/ Happiness is the Lord” (141). The message nestled between the lines in this excerpt is a pointer to the writer’s perspicacious spirituality. In her mind, a life devoid of spirituality is an unfulfilled life: “Living a life that’s worth the livin’/ Taking a trip/ that leads to heaven/ Happiness is the Lord” (141). God is Love but God is also truth. It is for this same reason that Lamnyam calls upon readers to steer clear of tall tales: “Many of us are liars… Be truthful, else all this good stuff I share with you will be hard to come to grounded fruition” (129) Lamnyam does not speak tongue in cheek. She tells it like it is, not caring whose horse is gored.
This book contains cosmological messages intended for readers who nurse skepticism about the symbiotic relationship that exists between natural and spiritual cosmoses as seen in this extract: “… we must understand the interconnectedness of the universe in multi-dimensions to make better progress” (127). Lamynam seems secure in her conviction that the universe is a network of disparate entities needing coordinated harnessing for human progress, without which the results of human endeavors will be “abysmal in many cases” (127). To lend more credibility to her belief system she contends that “the spiritual and physical aspects of human beings have rules that apply and are constantly in motion, like the clouds in the sky” (126). The didacticism contained in Strive to be Happy touches on race matters. Using the colors of the rainbow as a starting point, Lamnyam appeals to human beings to learn to cohabit peacefully without undue attention to racial differences: “Use the colors of the rainbow to harmonize your day, week and life” (105). Figuratively speaking, the colors of Lamnyam’s rainbow are symbolic of terrestrial racialism.
This book brings to readers important lessons on how time and money should be spent: “Spend time and money on yourself and your aspirations” (82). This message is not an endorsement of inordinate self-love or narcissism; rather it is a call for parsimonious utilization of the recourses that God has bestowed on humanity for the common good—the summum bonum. Lamnyam’s call for the judicious utilization of planetary resources is echoed in the following extract: “Determine what you need and spend your money to get it.”(82). Strive to be Happy is a futuristic work as this excerpt seems to suggest: “Lay the groundwork or foundation today for your older age … Plan your nights in the day. Plan your evenings in the morning, your summers in winter” (78). These are words of inspiration at their best. Lamnyam’s book is also a clarion call for religious tolerance: “If your religion is very important to you and someone’s religious affiliation is different from yours, discuss that upfront…” (77) The author is certainly not oblivious of the religious upheavals that are rocking the very foundations of contemporary society. The book also satirizes religious hypocrisy in no uncertain terms:” People have many faces, one for work, one for personal life, one for wooing others…” (77)
Style plays a non-negligible role in Lamnyam’s narrative and calls for a comment. She writes in a conversational fashion, opting for words that do not create room for double entendre. Her recourse to a non-erudite style of writing makes her work accessible to the learned and not so learned, the initiated and the neophyte. Her diction is commonplace and poses no comprehension challenges what-so-ever. This is a masterpiece that should be on the reading list of all philosophy courses nationwide. I thought I noticed a few very light-hearted authorial impositions in the narrative; however these moments of interjections from Lamnyam do not cause any prejudice to the overall flow of the narrative. The translation of orality into the written word is a noteworthy aspect of Lamnyam’s writing style. She uses poetics like the one on pages 41-42 to communicate culture-specific messages. Proverbs, these pithy wise sayings that communicate profound messages, populate Lamnyam’s written work.
In a nutshell, Strive to be Happy is a hybrid text that combines aphorisms, proverbs, and desiderata to produce a poly-semantic work that appeals to readers across social strata. The plurality of themes broached in the book constitutes one of its unique strengths. I would recommend this work for inclusion in the required readings of college-level psychology courses. The uniqueness of this book resides in its accessibility to all age groups.
About the reviewer
Dr. Peter Vakunta is Professor French and Francophone Literature at the University of Indianapolis, United States of America. He is chair of the Department of Modern Languages.