Ursula LeGuin is awesome at world building. She layers so many interesting details into a pastiche that really makes you think. My main takeaway from The Disposessed is that utopia doesn’t exist. There will always be some kind of problems that crop up, due to human nature. The types of problems will be different in different societies, but there will always be problems.

To me, this is a helpful worldview, because I think comparing the present world to a utopia is psychologically unhealthy. It’s a form of perfectionism. Perfect doesn’t exist.

We can still work to make the world a better place AND laugh to ourselves and say, “Of course human society is imperfect. Always was and always will be.”

In the book, there are two planets, each with its own society:

  • Urras is capitalistic and very unequal, with a large underclass that does the menial labor. In this world, you can fly to great heights, but can also reach very low lows.
  • Anarres is anarcho-communistic and equal, but with the side effect of suppressing individual achievement. There is a stultifying groupthink where if you are not down with the mainstream ideology, you are shamed as a “propertarian.”

My family immigrated to the USA from the USSR, kind of like the main character in the book immigrated (for a time) from Anarres to Urras.

My favorite quote:

To say that a good end will follow from a bad means is like saying if I pull a weight on this pulley, it will lift a weight on that one.

Two Brothers was the first book I read in a book club with my grandma! I enjoyed the way Ben Elton showed, through ample historical detail, how the Nazis turned up the temperature gradually, and like the story of the frog in the pot of water, many Jews did not leave. Also, I enjoyed the way the character of Stone was stuck in his past love that was not reciprocal. It was only when he found this out that he could move on with his life. Reminds me of the title story in Yalom’s Love’s Executioner.

Top 2 takeaways (spoiler alert):

  1. There is no hierarchy to suffering. All beings suffer: remembering this helps to open your heart. Eger tells of two patients she saw, back to back. The first is a woman crying because her new Cadillac is the wrong color. The second is a single mother, struggling with raising children and working full-time. Both are suffering. Eger states that even though the first lady might seem to be ridiculous, she in fact didn’t do the things she wanted to in life (she lived the privileged life her family wanted, marrying rich and starting a family instead of pursuing her own education) and the tears that are seemingly about the Cadillac are in fact tears of deep regret. In another part of the book, Eger sees a kid who is in a Neo-Nazi group. She tells herself: “Find your inner bigot.” In this way, she does not wall off from him, and is able to access her own compassion. It would be very easy for Eger to identify with her past as an Auschwitz survivor and say: “F— these people, this spoiled rich lady and this neo-Nazi.” She doesn’t. I found that to be very inspiring.
  2. Awareness of of our own subconscious patterns is the first step in healing. Eventually, this awareness can help us make new choices our lives. Eger goes through decades of her life carrying a massive psychological burden: she feels guilty that she killed her mother. Eger depicts a scene that determined her entire life: she stood with her sister and mother in the Auschwitz sorting line. When Dr. Mengele pointed to her mother and asked her who that was, she said, truthfully, that this was her mother. This choice led the swift murder of her mother, because, unbeknownst to Eger, older women were sent immediately to the gas chambers. In the end of the book, Eger, travels back to Auschwitz and becomes aware of this guilt she has been unconsciously carrying her entire life. She forgives herself for the choice she made, when she was a young, stressed prisoner. She makes the choice to let go of this guilt, so that she can live her life with more vibrancy. She likens much of her life to a prison of guilt: even though she was no longer in the camp, she still lived in this prison of her own construction. Her life’s work has been to help free her clients of similar such mental prisons, and help them live the way they want to live, with with more active choosing and freedom in their lives.

Top Takeaway: Intentional deprivation can be a tool for gratitude. Thru-hiking is subtracting in a big way. Brian subtracts modern conveniences (cushy beds, nice food, reliable water, walls) and lowers the boundaries between himself and nature. In this way he opens himself up to gratitude for things most “civilized people” would not give a moment’s thought.

A hamburger meal to many Americans is mundane, but to vegetarian Brian who has been “eating dried food out of a bag for six months,” it is manna from heaven. Simple things, like shelter at the top of a mountain in a windstorm, are profoundly moving when delivered by “trail angels.”

If you spend all your time in modern civilization, you get used to its amenities and stop appreciating it. Spending half a year living out of of a backpack on trail is a way to profoundly rewire one’s brain.

Actionable point: Take a hike! Introduce deprivations into my life, to increase my gratitude.

Sweet Quotes:

“If you go through life telling yourself “I can’t” to everything that seems odd or out of the ordinary, you’re right…Find the balls within yourself to do something you did not think possible before. Give yourself a challenge and work towards it. These uneasy situations will give you the jitters and nervous sweats, but it is a hell of a lot more fun than sitting around, getting old, and wondering where the time went.”

“Thru-hikers can live happily in the woods and out of a backpack for six months, walking across our beautiful country, while some can’t escape into the backcountry without two horses to carry them, a hundred pounds of gear and two coolers packed with beer. They are afraid of doing without their things, afraid of listening to the silence and afraid of having downtime.”

“Time…should be evaluated by experiences and growth, not by the days of the week or the turn of a new year. The stiffness of a monotonous life ensures a stale existence.”

“There really is no hurry to get anywhere. If you are so worried about getting somewhere, then you are there and not here where you should be. Meanwhile, the mind finds consideration of the past and future an easy excuse to explore the trenches of memory or desire. It travels to different dimensions, timelines, and alternate universes of never-ending possibility while the body remains in the present. Force the mind to live in harmony with the body. Be where your body is and appreciate the beauty of the moment.”

“Whoever said that walking can’t solve everything is only partially wrong. When in doubt, just walk.”

“There is no point in trying to do something if you do not believe that you can.”

“My time on this trail is nothing more than moments just like now, when I can be in total awe of where I am, and how lucky I am to be here.”

“No hiker is on trail because they love where their life is at. If you loved where you were in life, you would still be there. We take to the trail because there is something missing, suspecting there is more to be discovered and learned.”

“I am humbled as always in the face of Nature.”

“I much prefer to spend my life watching the world turn than wasting my days staring at a clock and and counting the hours for which I am to be financially compensated while waiting for freedom. Why should I invest my time in something that holds indefinite importance, not only in my lifespan but in the wider scope of humanity and the even wider scope of the universe?”

“When hiking alone, there is no one around at the end of the day to tell you, ‘Good job!’ or ‘You’re doing great!’…No other voices existed apart from those inside my head…”

“If I am not happy, I will concern myself with doing something that encourages joy. Complete happiness is rare, and while I believe it can be achieved in moments, it is far more more difficult to consistently find and feel.”

“Proof to his family and friends that it is possible to live a life in the woods, jobbless, for six months. Proof that you do not need a high-paying job or white picket fence to be happy. Joy is found in the simplest places, joy is felt in the woods, joy is brotherhood, and joy is effortless with a pack on your back.”

“And I can only do this while I am young? Then what?…I’m doing this for as long as I can.”

“I spend a good amount of time on trail pondering my future: what I want out of life, what I want to accomplish, what challenges I want to face, what I want to look back on in twenty years and think, I am sure as hell glad I did that. This trail has already taught me that anything can be done, and all that is necessary to accomplish most things is time…Time is a gift…that must be spent right away, wisely, and willingly.”