Monday, January 23, 2006

America the Inexplicable?

One of our most frequent SHAMbloggers, the succinct and astute "acd," once explained the extensive media interest in SHAM overseas (compared to that here at home, where the largest media outlets have been lukewarm about the book) thusly: "It's easier for them to laugh at us than it is for us to laugh at ourselves."

In the book itself, I take a few stabs at explaining why Americans seem so singularly susceptible to the self-deceptions of self-help. (Note to any former writing students reading this: That's way too much sibilant alliteration for one line. Don't do that in your own writing. Ever.) But I must admit, I'm still not convinced, in my own mind, why this should be so. In other words: What is it about America that makes so many of us such ripe pickin's for the gurus of the self-help movement? What makes us think, alone among all the world's citizens, that we're free to reinvent ourselves at will? That there are, indeed, "no limits" (even in the face of all evidence to the contrary)? What even makes us think we're entitled to spend so much time in such basically self-absorbed enterprise in the first place?

Love to hear your takes on this.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

There are so many reasons . . . but I think the biggest is that we've been conned into thinking that we're supposed to - if you aren't "looking at yourself," trying to change, improve, blah blah blah, you're somehow stuck, stagnant, not living authentically (nods to Oprah and Dr. Phil for being two of the biggest contributors to this cultural myth). Expressing your feelings and living authentically (which is difficult to define) is the new American religion.

Rodger Johnson said...

Americans are gullible because of our lifestyle. We have become a people driven to value success regardless of the how we perceive our capacity to achieve it. This, in turn, has created an internal void many of us struggle with daily. To compensate, we try to find quick answers to problems that require more attention and diligence.

A good contemporary example is American Idol. Those who audition and sing well are usually the people who have a quiet reverence, a hint of anxiety about their talent and their performance. They are focused on the here and now, assiduously working. To use an existential term – they are.

Others auditioning for American Idol who are loud, obnoxious and self-absorbed lose because – and let me extend that existential term – they want to be and think that being is something other than what they are. So, they easily ascribe to empty hope and buy into the latest “snake-oil” gimmick.

(I'm working on alternative answer, but it will take a day or two...)

Anonymous said...

Given the origins of America, I should think it would be obvious why we alone among nations believe we can reinvent ourselves at will: It's an integral part of our national makeup, and from the beginning. Had we not reinvented ourselves, we would still be a large, awkward British colony, or perhaps we'd have become part of Canada at some point. America alone was bold enough to break from feudalism and class constraints, and the results were so impressive it's no wonder the country that exalted individualism is still exalting it. Where the breakdown occurs is in the loss of the "rugged" part of the individualist formula, the hard work component. We've become so spoiled by prosperity that we've become a nation of entitled whiners, not doers. And therein lies our ruin...

Rodger Johnson said...

Anonymous…

You touch on two very interesting points: one existential, the other cultural.

Anonymous said...

Why do we think we can reinvent ourselves at will? Within reason, just why can't we? That is, to those who do not have the limitations (e.g. - the Idol contestant with the beautiful voice vs. the one without, etc.), there really IS no limit, (and this is the important part) provided you are willing to put in the hard work and effort to achieve it. Too many people read the quote "You are never given a wish without also being given the power to make it true." but forget the second part "You may have to work for it, however."

Now, if you have a handicap or other physical limitation, or rotten genetics rendering you incapable of whatever you're unrealistic dream is, then yes, you're kidding yourself if you think you're going to reinvent yourself. I like to run, like 5K, 10K and half-marathons. I'd love to qualify for the Boston Marathon someday. But I'm not so unrealistic as to think I'll ever qualify for the Olympics (especially at my age). However, if I set realistic goals for myself, there's no reason whatsoever I can't achieve them (I have in the past).

Steve Salerno said...

Well, there are several different things going on in your comment, "Anonymous." You quote the line, "You are never given a wish without also being given the power to make it true" as if it's fact--when it isn't. (At least, I see no evidence for it. There are many people with completely unrealistic wishes.) You yourself seem to acknowledge as much in your previous few lines, where you say, "to those who do not have the limitations (e.g. - the Idol contestant with the beautiful voice vs. the one without, etc.), there really IS no limit..." But come on; that's circular reasoning (i.e. "if you succeed it means you always had the potential to become a success." Well, no kidding.) The problem is, how do you know AHEAD OF TIME what your limitations are? In other words, if you operate on the theory that if you (a) have a wish, you also (b) have the power to make it true--I think that's irresponsible (and a colossal waste of otherwise productive time) in many settings, for most people. In fact, it's a large part of the mentality I attack in my book.

The problem we have here (as in so many relevant areas of life) is that you never know whether or not you "have what it takes" until the game is already over, and you see yourself standing there victorious. Therefore, often, you never know whether it's worth investing all of yourself into something until it's too late.