Thursday, May 18, 2006

It's a tough job, but...

ONE OF THE prime reasons underlying self-help's astonishing and enduring popularity--I'm not so naive as to think that my book or my blog has changed any of that--is that it tells people what they want to hear. Oprah's 9 million viewers watch her show dutifully each day because she croons a love song of boundless hope; she tells them they can beat life at its own game. (Admittedly this is a little less true nowadays than it once was. The 2006-model Oprah can be somewhat less chirpy, somewhat more in-your-face than she used to be. But I suspect that she feels safer in doing that now that she's built her vast quasi-religious empire. People don't abandon the Catholic church, after all, just because the Pope rains a few stern words down on St. Peter's Square.) Even Phil McGraw, for all his "Get real!" and "Stop being a weenie" and the rest of that tough-love bluster, is making that same basic bargain with his viewers/readers: Do what I tell ya and things'll work out for ya before ya know it. You can have it all if ya just trust yer ol' pal, Dr. Phil.... Dr. Laura spouted pretty much the same message when she burst on-scene and became a multimedia phenomenon: "I'm going to tell you things you won't like--at first--but those things I tell you will enable you to find your path through the darkness."

I have a confession to make at this point: I sometimes get sick of writing this blog. Yes, I believe in the empirical and philosophical truth of what I say here. I also believe in the value it provides to people who otherwise would waste a lot of money on this crap--people who'd be set up for a huge emotional crash somewhere down the line, or at the very least would wind up as navel-gazing self-help junkies, doing endless amounts of planning and hoping and mentally strategizing while in the meantime their real lives simply passed them by.

But it's no fun saying this stuff (and I know it's often no fun reading it, which is why I think SHAMblog readers burn out from time to time and turn their attentions elsewhere). It's depressing to think that one's mission in life--my mission in my life--is to throw darts at people's pretty balloons, puncturing the illusions that make the daily grind livable for so many of us. The simple fact is that, given a choice between truth and hope, most folks would probably pick hope; that's just the way of things for homo sapiens, especially the American variety. We're strivers and dreamers. We want to believe that the impossible remains possible (even if we know better), and we don't like people telling us otherwise. (If you want to know the truth, I don't like people telling me otherwise, even in my own life.) So it must get tedious reading this same cynical sharp-shooting day after day, week after week. And, as I said above, it gets tedious writing it.

A week ago, after receiving an email on this theme from SHAMblog regular Rodger, I reviewed all of my posts for the previous few weeks. Though I more or less remembered what I'd written about, I was shocked and dismayed to evaluate the material in toto: It read as an endless stream of negativity and nihilism, one downbeat remark after another. Rodg seems to think that if I have issues with SHAM's unrealistic (and usually insincere) optimism, maybe it's time for me (of all people) to sit down and write a book that provides a more commonsensical brand of self-help: self-help "for people who think," if you will. The jury's still out on that one.

For now, I just wanted you folks to know that it "gets to me," too. I'm as eager as the next guy or gal to want to hear good news, and I want to be able to apply formulas in my life that will help me achieve my goals (when I have them)--formulas that will spark greater success and happiness and everything else we aspire to as a species (yes, even me). I just don't want people getting rich on my dime/time by selling me promises that they already know are rooted in nothing, and are really designed to help one person and one person only: the person making the promise.

1 comment:

Rodger Johnson said...

Ranting about the soothsayers and snake-oil charmers of our time and exposing their dirty little lies is a good thing. But it does become gut-wrenching when that’s all one talks about. And it does spoil a person’s otherwise jovial, pie-in-the-sky perception of life.

What’s important, however, is that your blog is beginning to evolve into a “reality check.” To a greater degree SHAM does that too.

Intuitively, I’ve always been suspicious of the Tony Robbin knock-offs of the world. Most rational, well-educated people probably share that same hunch, but the problem is with these millions of Americans that have feasted on a tainted notion of self-reliance mixed with a “believe it, achieve it” cocktail that makes people drunk on materialism. If you notice, most self-help has a twinge of materialism for its taking. People get hooked by the something bigger and better, but that thing never satisfies an inner emptiness of humility, service and of meaning. The notion goes as always serving me. Me! Me! Me!

That’s why we have leaders like Myles Brand, the former president of Indiana University, who now leads the NCAA, telling an Indy Men’s Magazine writer that, “If I’m not improving, then I’m wasting your time.”

What kind of message does that send?

Personally, I think your blog is a good thing on many levels. It shows readers that you’re using technology – blogging is becoming the single most powerful persuasion tool worldwide. It also is fundamentally changing the way we communicate, build communities and network.

Dan Rather was cut down and forced into early retirement by bloggers, that could happen to Dr, Phil too – n’est pas? You could be that leader to build that community, that network, and raise that army of rational thinking Americans who understand that “Who is rich? He that is content. Who is that? Nobody,” as Ben Franklin said.

But those same Americans know that you find contentment in the service your provide others – especially the poor. And they know not to think too highly of themselves.