Book Review: Waiting: A Non-Believer’s Higher Power

I’ve never been Marya Hornbacher’s target audience. I’ve never had an eating disorder, never diagnosed as bipolar, and I’ve never had to work to overcome a substance addiction. The closest I can come to her experience is getting diagnosed with OCD and learning to come to grips with my addiction to anger.

Twice in my life, I’ve found myself reading her books.

I first read Wasted back in the early-2000’s, possibly while still in high school. I went through a morbid stage, where I read a lot of real-life stories of those battling eating disorders. Her book was one of many, and I remember enjoying her writing style.

When I started searching for books to read for this month, books relating to a higher power, I wanted to go a non-traditional route. I tried to find a book told from a nonbeliever’s perspective. But not your typical atheist text, one filled with anger towards a particular higher power. I wanted one that examined if you could be spiritual without a higher power.

Marya’s book, Waiting, came back as a top result, and since I recognized her from Wasted, I decided to give it a go. I did not read a summary, nor did I research beyond the title, subtitle, and author. I placed it on hold from my local library and waited. It was a shock when I started reading it and realized I was not the target audience, again. Marya’s book is for people in the process of recovery who do not believe in a higher power*. But given how some popular recovery program’s require a higher power to work through the steps, there can be anxiety surrounding a lack of belief. Marya’s book fills that gap and provides comfort and assurance that a person can complete a program without belief.

Granted, it was my fault for not researching the book. I judged a book solely by its cover and as a result, found that it might not be for me.

But the book was for me. I may not be in recovery for substance abuse, I am in recovery for some equally destructive behaviors. Marya had plenty to say that applied in my own life, primarily as I work through the process of self-acceptance, and stepping outside of my addiction to anger.

So it ended up being a beautiful accident to read Waiting for this month’s book review. 

What follows is my review of a book I chose on my own. I did not receive any compensation for this review.

Book Information

Title: Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power
Author: Marya Hornbacher
Date Published: 2011
Publisher: Hazeldon
Pages: 137
Genre: Spirituality/Recovery

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Marya Hornbacher organizes her book as a year during a spiritual journey working a recovery program. Just as a year has twelve months, so do many recovery programs. Through each recovery journey, a person encounters seasons, like within a year. There are ups; there are downs. There are seasons we embrace; there are seasons we wish would end quickly. Same with the recovery steps.

Each chapter is a month, and each month is a step in the program: January/Despair, February/Doubt, March/Letting Go, and so on. Marya splits each chapter into two parts: her personal experiences within the journey, and her philosophy gained from them. These moments take her around the country as she searches for meaning and ways to maintain her sobriety while working the program. We get glimpses of her life as she works to re-discover herself, find her humanity, and how to grapple with the lack of belief.

The philosophy sections tend to be longer than her tableaus of life. Here she asks a lot of questions without providing answers. Nor can she offer a solution: these questions are deeply personal to each person who asks them. What answer she arrives at, if she does, will not be the same for the reader. Despite this, Marya does offer her advice for some of the conclusions she did reach to maintain her sobriety. Marya flatly says in the epilogue that she cannot neatly sum up her journey other than she must be present for it. So the reader walks away with a similar expectation: be present for our journey.

Thoughts and Recommendation

To be straightforward, I found that the book lagged each time we shifted from her life experiences to her philosophy. What I love about her prose is how exciting her life is, even if she’s describing sitting on a porch beside Lake Superior. When she’s cozy, nestled in blankets in the sub-30 degree temperatures, you feel equally cozy. But when we shift away from the natural flow that comes from narrative writing to the stilted and unemotional prose of self-help and philosophy, it can be a bit cumbersome.

Admittedly, it may have to do with my never being in a recovery program. These second parts of each chapter are a foreign language and concept to me. I do not have a common ground, nor the same starting place to appreciate what Marya is trying to do.

However, these parts that I think are lagging contain the primary purpose of her book: to provide insight and reassurance to those lacking a higher power. Whether I had common ground or not, this half of the chapter did feel clunky. Marya’s strength is in her narrative prose, and I feel like she is less comfortable navigating the unemotional waters that is self-help writing. I understood what insight she was providing, and I wonder if it could be delivered more interestingly.

That criticism aside, her book does provide what a reader might be looking for: assurance that spirituality can come without a higher power. Perhaps what makes Marya’s delivery so dry is she’s speaking from a place of wisdom gained, not while she is still figuring things out.

A lot of these books, ones that describe a person’s journey through self-discovery, have a writer still too close to the subject matter to be objective. Coincidentally, the same day I finished Marya’s book, I picked up a book about a runner’s journey through their year of self-discovery. It was apparent that the author was still working through their demons while writing the book. The contrast was stark and made me appreciate Marya’s book when I sat down to write this review.

I am also fully aware that I am guilty of that, too: I am using this blog to figure things out on my wellness journey. I can imagine if I go back and read my posts in a year or so, I will cringe.

I think it’s helpful to see that she’s in a place of personal serenity while she writes. It grants her authority to the subject matter, which, in turn, brings comfort. Here is a person who overcame their addiction, figured out what works for them, keeps them healthy, and therefore, I have a chance. Marya never assumes she’s reached a stopping point. Life is a journey and therefore requires constant work to maintain healthy homeostasis.

What stuck with me the most is her emphasis on the community as a form of spirituality. With addiction or any self-destructive behaviors, we isolate ourselves from the group. We view ourselves as alone, worthless, or useless to society. When we separate away from humanity, we offer minimal contributions. There are times when we do something positive, but often we output negativity. Several years ago (and I still slip into these habits), I was a whirlwind of anger, poor behavior, and general unpleasantness.

When Marya wrote about how spirituality comes from our connection to the community, it struck a chord with me (100). Life is a not game where we keep score for what we do for others, and then expect equal or greater in return. Operating within the community should not be about withholding help because you received none in return for a while. 

It is about giving for the sake of giving and connecting with others who live beside us. Stranger or not.

Admittedly, I am guilty of this attitude of “tit-for-tat.” I have kept score in relationships before. I have “politely” but loudly said “you’re welcome,” to a stranger walking away after I helped them and they never said “thanks.”

When we take this attitude, “I am doing something to get something in return,” it moves us spiritually away from others. With a higher power or not, if we keep score, we lose our connection to humanity when we embrace selfishness. According to Marya, once we start doing things for others, with no expectation of a return, we can regain our spiritual connection. This connection is within and outside of us. Giving becomes its own reward to quote the cliche.

We become useful to the community, and we begin to reconnect with it. While Marya does not qualify it in her book, I will do it here: we can only give what we can. With a chronic illness, as it can be with an addiction, we sometimes find our emotional/physical reservoirs depleted. Giving does no good if we don’t engage in self-care to refill the wells.

While the audience for this book is recovering addicts, I believe it has value to anyone who’s engaged in self-destructive behavior or searching for spirituality without a higher power. The dull parts are worth the moments of connection when she writes something you identify within your life. 

*A Final Disclaimer

If you or someone you know struggles with addiction or self-destructive behaviors, please check out these resources below.

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Featured photo credit: Michelle Melton

One thought on “Book Review: Waiting: A Non-Believer’s Higher Power

  1. I don’t think, given my personal experiences, that I could read Wasted, but this one sounds quite interesting. I’m not religious, nor am I spiritual, but I do sometimes feel a yearning to ‘connect’ to something more.. The emphasis on community and also the reminder that giving does no favours if we don’t ‘refill the wells’ by taking care of ourself, both make me more intrigued in a book I probably would otherwise have overlooked. Great review!
    Caz xx

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