Autobiography in 5 Chapters

Do you know the poem “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters” by Portia Nelson? It is something I came across when I attended a self improvement course on one occasion. The person running the workshop handed it out and it has stuck in my mind ever since because I find that it perfectly describes the difficulty I have in correcting certain behaviour.

In my previous post about detachment, I mentioned that I am presently working on trying to change my behaviour in situations where I feel strongly opposed to views being expressed by others. This poem beautifully illustrates the difficulty. Portia, who died in 2001, was a singer, songwriter, actress, and author, but perhaps she was most famous for playing the role of Sister Berthe in movie The Sound of Music. Here is the poem:

Chapter I
I walk down the street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I fall in. I am lost … I am helpless. It isn’t my fault. It takes me forever to find a way out.

Chapter II
I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I pretend I don’t see it. I fall in again. I can’t believe I am in the same place. But, it isn’t my fault. It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter III
I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I see it is there. I still fall in … it’s a habit. My eyes are open. I know where I am. It is my fault. I get out immediately.

Chapter IV
I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I walk around it.

Chapter V
I walk down another street.

The number of times I have discussed Tracey Emin‘s Unmade Bed in social situations reminds me that it has taken me considerable time to get past Chapter III and I am not sure I have actually made it yet. What I mean is that many times, when people discover that I like art (especially painting), someone will ask me: do you like modern art? Now right there, there is a ‘hole in the pavement’ and I know it’s there, but I generally fall in with my usual answer that I like all art.

Usually, the question leads to a deeper ‘hole’ in the same pavement as I get asked: what about Tracey Emin’s Unmade Bed, is that art? Whether or not Tracey’s bed is art is a question that I am tired of discussing, so you would think it would be fairly easy to see it coming and ‘walk around’ the thing, but usually I don’t.

With my new resolve to relinquish my attachment to my own views, I am almost waiting for the conversation to arise again, just to see if I can manage to, at least avoid that particular hole. That would indeed give me great satisfaction. I imagine the conversation going something like this:

“… so, do you like modern art?”

“Well, I like all forms of art, though not all examples.”

“Really? What about Tracey Emin’s Unmade Bed. Is that art?”

“That’s an interesting question. What’s your view?”

That approach should get me around the ‘hole in the pavement’ I should think until I have finally figured out how to ‘walk down a different street’.

4 thoughts on “Autobiography in 5 Chapters

  1. Will Edwards

    Hello Nicola

    Thanks for your question. The main thing is to separate your attitude from your behaviour. We are not talking about a detached attitude, but detachment from your own opinion and, in particular, as another reader pointed out, from your desire to be proved right.

    Will 🙂

  2. nicola

    What are your views on those who are antagonised by the sort of detached response you are talking about? I have been told off for using my intelligence against people when I have responded like this in the past. I understand the problem lies with them, I am wondering what it might mean for them as it is so far removed from world view. Any ideas?

  3. Will Edwards

    Bless you Becky – that’s a really lovely thing to say.

    There’s a contact link in the post and on her page, there’s an email address.

    Best wishes,

    Will 🙂

  4. Becky Chandi

    I wish I could help Alice visit my country Kenya. If she finds her way, I would be happy to host her and do what would make he visit memorable.

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