Sheldon Kopp was a therapist and author based in Washington DC whose work was widely read in the 1970s but who is largely forgotten today. When Kopp died in 1999 at age 70 he merited a New York Times obituary, although it does him a disservice by calling him "an author of books designed to bolster the reader's self-esteem." Kopp was in tune with the zeitgeist in a way that contributed to his popularity but which also makes it easy to oversimplify or misinterpret his writing in hindsight, and it's laughable to think that he would have described his goal as "bolstering self-esteem." That said, Kopp also reflects his era's prejudices, particularly those of straight, white, educated men, and when I read him today I regularly come across passages that make me cringe.
But I find enough of value in Kopp's perspective that I'm determined to remain open to his wisdom while acknowledging his biases. One of Kopp's best books is 1979's What Took You So Long?, a collaboration with photographer Claire Flanders. I encountered it at a particularly difficult time in my own life, and it was both a bracing wake-up call and a source of comfort and inspiration. The book is a slender volume of epigrams, typically just one sentence, each accompanied by one of Flanders' photographs, which are themselves rich with meaning. It's out-of-print but readily available, and if you find the excerpts below thought-provoking I hope you'll pick up a copy, both because Kopp's brief Introduction is well worth a read and because it's so much more powerful as a printed, visual work.
From What Took You So Long? by Sheldon Kopp
Often things are as bad as they seem.
Even so, some of the time it's possible to enjoy life as it is.
But the better anything gets, the more you'll miss it when it's gone.
Why grieve when nothing helps? We cry because nothing helps.
If you stubbornly refuse to mourn your losses, you get depressed.
What's a person to do about feeling helpless? For a while there's just no way to see what's funny about being stuck.
At last you cry out in anguish: "Why me?" God answers: "Why not?"
You can so stand it.
After all, it's only pain.
What makes it seem unbearable is your mistaken belief that it can be cured.
I have never begun any important venture for which I felt adequately prepared.
Without knowing for sure what's right or wrong, take your best shot.
There's just no way to get it all straight. Mistakes are inevitable.
Control is an illusion.
You wait for everything to be all right, knowing all the while that the next problem is already in the mail.
Complaining can become a way of boasting about how much suffering you can endure.
If we allow pain more of our attention than it requires, we miss some opportunities for joy.
Escape is not a dirty word. None of us can face what's happening head-on all of the time.
It's all right to pretend sometimes. The only danger lies in pretending that you are not pretending.
We don't have to pass the time. The time will pass in any case.
Remember, we are all in this alone.
It helps to know that everyone is in the same situation. It helps, but not a whole lot.
Unable to get our own way, often we settle for trying to prevent other people from getting their way.
We insist that our situation is special. It's so hard to accept how ordinary we all are.
We must learn to love in the absence of illusions.
We must try to live a just life in an unjust world.
We must be willing to go on caring even when we are helpless to change things.
Our best may not turn out to be good enough. Still it will have to do.
I'm not OK. You're not OK. And that's OK.
(The final line above, a direct shot at one of the greatest of '70s clichés, makes it clear that Kopp is not particularly interested in our self-esteem.)