Thursday, June 22, 2006

Before you run out to have your legs cut off....

Just saw, on my local news, the story of two amputees, a male and female, who were told they'd never walk again and are now competing in an important upcoming race in the Special Olympics series. The high point of the segment occurred when the male amputee looked earnestly into the camera and told the world (or at least, the environs of Philly) that he and his female counterpart are proof positive that "You can do anything in life if you put your mind to it!" I don't want to rain on someone's parade--certainly not an amputee's--but that's a little bit like getting Bill Gates and Ted Turner in a room and using them as examples of why it doesn't hurt to be a college dropout.* For that matter, why not use Kobe Bryant as an example of why it's a swell idea to skip college altogether? Hey, he did OK for himself, didn't he?

Can we please stop buying into this? (I guess I'm addressing that to the media as much as anyone.) You can't take a few anecdotal cases where people succeeded despite serious impediments and use those as blanket evidence that "you can do anything!" (To believe what this amputee Olympian is saying, after all, is to believe that everyone who remains in a wheelchair wants to be in that chair, or hasn't tried very hard to beat the handicap. I think that's an affront to the millions of Americans who find themselves disabled by circumstances they simply cannot overcome.) And you certainly can't take people who rose to the top despite their handicaps and, reasoning backwards, decide that those handicaps were in reality a plus!

I like an inspiring story as much as the next person. Truly, I do. I cry every time I see the real guy at the end of Radio; hell, I cry at the mere theme to Brian's Song. But an inspiring story is IN NO WAY a life lesson. It's just a feel-good episode that very likely has no wider significance. To elevate it to the status of a philosophical epiphany is to turn a nice moment into a prolonged intellectual groaner....

* I have not independently verified the circumstances of every name on this site, but it makes its point regardless. I'm sure that (at least) many of the listings are true.

11 comments:

les said...

Are we in an unusually bad mood lately? I like a realistic way of looking at life, too, but these latest posts of yours are veering off into fatalism, I'm afraid. Lighten up, Steve!

Cosmic Connie said...

My “day-job” persona believes that stories of hope – those dramatic tales of folks overcoming terrible odds – can actually have value beyond the momentary “feel-good” rush. However, in my opinion the main value of many of these stories is to give hope to people in *similar* circumstances – rather than to make the average Joe or Josephine long to become a paraplegic so s/he can miraculously overcome the handicap and go on to become an Olympic swimmer.

F’rinstance…A woman who has just been diagnosed with breast cancer can probably benefit from reading stories of other women who have faced a similar diagnosis, survived grueling treatments and emerged with a renewed appreciation for life.

Beyond this, I do think that many of these stories, fleeting as their effect may be on an individual basis, can have a cumulative positive effect for readers in general. At the very least, sometimes these tales help put everyday problems in perspective.

The trick, of course, is to strike a balance between optimism and denial.

OTOH, my Cosmic Connie persona can’t help recalling one of my favorite pieces from Texas humorist Joe Bob Briggs. In *The Cosmic Wisdom of Joe Bob Briggs* (Random House, 1990), he imagines a phone conversation between motivational guru Zig Ziglar and a man who has …well…a problem. Before even knowing what the problem is, Zig says, “If you *think* you have a problem, you will have a problem. I call that ‘Garbage Dump Thinking. What do you *think* your problem is?”

“I don’t have any arms.”

“‘Don’t have’ is just another way of saying ‘won’t have,’ because if you *want* something, you *will* have that something. Everything you want is available to you.”

“I want arms, but I don’t have any arms.”

Well, Zig keeps on dishing out the motivational cliches, and by the end of the dialogue, the no-armed man has finally caught Zig’s enthusiasm. He says he believes in himself now. “Let’s go have a victory dinner!” he says to Zig.

“Now you’re talking!” Zig exclaims. When his new convert offers to drive them to dinner, however, Zig suddenly remembers a previous engagement…

Steve Salerno said...

Connie, thank you, as always, for your engaging and literate comment. Look, I won't deny that this stuff can have a certain cumulative psychological weight that may enable us to weather life with a smile and even summon up a second effort that we might not bother with otherwise. I realize that the truth of all this is more "balanced," to use your word, than it's portrayed in this blog or in my book. However, I go back to my reasons for writing SHAM: People who want to hear "the good news" about a can-do attitude have no trouble finding it; American culture is literally awash in PMA-mania. As I've said in many media appearances, all you need to do is switch on the TV (Oprah, Dr. Phil, the morning talk shows), buy almost any top consumer magazine, browse the best-seller racks in any bookstore, or turn on any sporting event (since announcers these days will go to almost any length to avoid crediting a victory, or even individual athletic excellence, to sheer talent; instead they'll talk about "determination" and "poise under fire" and "get checks" and all that other nebulous nonsense). Even at work, employees become captive audiences to motivational speakers who spew all the buzzwords.

I wrote SHAM as a rebuttal: "the other side of the debate," if you will. (And prior to my book, in fact, most folks would've assumed there WAS no other side.) That's my frame of reference in this blog as well--not to deny ANY value to SHAM-based thinking, but to focus on the extreme hyping/overselling of that value, which is pervasive in society and (I would argue) often destructive in its own right. That's why I don't feel compelled to be more "fair" in my posts. Prior to my book, people who were interested in a more thoughtful, analytical approach to this material had nowhere to go. That's not ego. It's just fact.

Anonymous said...

Well, what I wonder is this: How many upbeat, triumphant stories of breast-cancer survivors there would be if the compilers returned to their contributors in 5 or 10 years. Here's a case where I REALLY wish I could believe the hype...

Steve Salerno said...

Amen, "anonymous." How wonderful would it be if the inspirational stories the hospitals and cancer-drug companies parade before us (for their own commercial purposes) did, indeed, have something to do with the average person's actual odds of survival.

That's a motivational program I'd endorse in a (literal) heartbeat...

Steve Salerno said...

Incidentally, "anonymous"--I don't know if what I'm about to allude to remains common practice, but--my dad died of cancer in 1978, despite having been cured of it. Yes. That's because, under then-protocols, you could count someone as having been cured of certain types of metastatic cancers if they failed to show up somewhere else in the body within 5 years. My father lasted 5 years, 4 months before his bladder lesions reappeared in his pancreas and elsewhere.

Cosmic Connie said...

Hey, Steve: I was in a big hurry when I wrote my first comment, and neglected to wrap it up by saying that overall I do agree with the main point you were trying to make. I didn't want you to get the wrong idea there. I too am tired of the hype and overselling and, most of all, the motivational cliches. (Which is why I am really glad to be out of corporate America.) And I don't think you are being at all unfair in your posts. You are providing a necessary counterpoint to the nonsense that's out there.

I also have to say that despite all the satirical stuff I've written over the years about the new age movement, the recovery movement, the self-help movement and corporate America, I have completely overlooked the utter stupidity of sportsbabble. I guess that's because for the most part I ignore sports.

But once in a while I hear some talking sports head trying desperately to fill in air time with those annoying cliche-ridden analyses, and I just have to roll my eyes.

Or, worse, some triumphant athlete, whose ego is even bigger than his overly-inflated paycheck, starts spewing out those falsely modest "I couldn't have done it without..." cliches. It's especially irritating when they give all the credit to their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. That's when I have to change the channel.

So, Steve...keep on blogging!

Anonymous said...

Exactly. Just because the cancer victim doesn't die after treatment doesn't mean he isn't going to die. Maybe I'm just paranoid, but I sometimes wonder if the biopsy technique itself, in which potentially cancerous material is ripped from the body, ostensibly releasing cancer cells into the bloodstream, doesn't actually induce metastasis. I can't help but think that future generations will view our current cancer treatments as a barbarous form of "help"...

Steve Salerno said...

Connie, since we all seem to find ourselves in an apologetic mood, let me add mine: I didn't mean to make you think I was overreacting to your original comment. [Aren't we just a lovely bunch of codependents after all? ;) ] I know that you were simply picking out one sub-theme from my post that you deemed worthy of dissection and expansion--which is what I hope people will "do with" this blog. I wrote SHAM in order to inject a different perspective on the zeitgeist and try to keep people on their toes...and that's exactly how I expect readers to approach my thoughts here.

Your overall reservations about the SHAM-scape are quite clear...

Cosmic Connie said...

Thanks, Steve...and OMT re "anon's" comments, and your responses. I should have been more clear in my original post when I used cancer survival stories as an example. I wasn't referring to those smiling folks who are paraded before us by the cancer-treatment industry. (And I have always thought that defining "cure rate" by "five-year-survival rate" was absurd.)

The truly helpful cancer-survivor stories I have seen, and to which I was referring, are those written or told by realists who acknowledge that they don't know what tomorrow or next month or next year may bring. They are acutely aware that the cancer may come back, because it often does. They are just enjoying the life they have now, and are trying to convey the message that it is possible to have a quality life after cancer.

I am really enjoying this blog. And since you have a new post up, I guess I'd better get busy reading!

Zic the Wyrdo said...

Well said, Steve. (I see this article is from 2006, but I just followed a link into it from a page of Cosmic Connie's)

--
Furry cows moo and decompress.