Monday, June 04, 2007

Guilty with an explanation. Part 1.

By now, it will not have escaped the attention of faithful readers that nothing much has gone up on the blog for some time. Yeah, I've been pretty busy. (Thankfully. When a writer is busy, by definition that's a good thing. Note to any young people reading this: Writing isn't one of those enterprises you should ever contemplate if your goals are peace of mind and an orderly financial existence.) But in truth I've also been vamping, stalling, while I wrestle with questions about our forthcoming series of self-help horror stories.

I guess I was na├»ve when I embarked on this endeavor, which really was spurred by a single email from a particularly disconsolate victim of second-hand self-help. From the outset, I realized that the fact-finding process—approached fairly and exhaustively—entailed a high risk of my getting bogged down in an unending he-said/she-said, as I sorted out the so-called true facts of any given scenario. At times I've felt almost like a judge in family court, trying to determine who was at fault and to what degree, as well as what role, if any, self-help played in the unfolding disaster. To wit, could it actually be said that the self-help regimen caused the unfortunate events I was hearing about? Or did that regimen merely bring festering problems to the surface? Or, equally possible, was the regimen just an "incidental bystander" to a situation that seemed destined to end in tragedy anyway?

However, that wasn't even my biggest headache. As time went by, it became clear that I'd failed to consider the degree to which this inquiry would drag me into all sorts of ancillary issues having to do with the limits of individual responsibility and, indeed, the very essence of the pursuit of happiness. These, of course, are issues that have absorbed and ultimately confounded philosophers going back to antiquity.

Remember that to date, this blog, like the book on which it was based, mostly concerned itself with aspects of the SHAMscape that were fraudulent in an unambiguous way: programs that did nothing or helped no one, programs run by felons or self-styled gurus with bogus credentials, etc. What I'm attempting to do with these horror stories is a bit different. Yes, I've received stories wherein a self-help program turned out to be a disaster for all concerned, including the party who initially sought improvement. Except…most of the stories I've been hearing aren't like that. On the contrary, these are cases where the quest did deliver some level of benefit for the individual fulfillment-seeker. It's the people around him or her who suffered.

And that's what has had me up thinking well into the wee hours: What do we finally say about a program that helps the person who embarks on it—but lays waste to other lives in the process? Does it come down to a mere question of the "greatest good"? Do we simply fall back on math (i.e., "Let's see, one person was helped, but three others were shattered, so therefore it's a net loss of minus-two"...?) Suppose the equation is even-Stephen, as it were: one life improved vs. one life destroyed. Do we shrug and say, "Hey, that's life in the big city. Person A found her joy, now it's up to Person B to do likewise"? (FYI, that very situation existed long before self-help came along: We call it divorce.)

Further, what do we say of a program that teaches you that when you come right down to it, you're the only person whose destiny you can really control…ergo you're the only person whose needs it makes sense for you to worry about…ergo all decisions should be made based on their ability to promote your "joy"?

But then, this past weekend—a moment of insight. I realized that I've probably been overthinking things. I realized that maybe* it's not my job to "answer" the sorts of questions that have mystified the likes of Aristotle and Sartre down through the centuries.

Anyway, for those diehards who are still with me (a) I appreciate it, and (b) I'll have more on this—including where I finally ended up—tomorrow or Wednesday. In the meantime, I invite (and would sorely welcome) any feedback on the sorts of questions I've posed herein.

* maybe??


Cosmic Connie said...

Steve, I think you solved your own problem towards the end of your post. It's *not* your job to answer the big questions. It *is* your job as a journalist to tell the people's stories. If you're telling the stories to make a specific point, of course, you skip the stories that don't reinforce your point (either because they're too ambiguous, or you can't verify some of the facts, etc.). If you just want to present real-life stories from varying perspectives (the way Studs Terkel used to do), you have more leeway. But I guess you've already figured that out. :-) Anyway, I look forward to reading the accounts that you've chosen. Let the series begin!

a/good/lysstener said...

I have to admit I was wondering what was going on with you and the blog. I did get a sense of stalling for time. But I'll look forward to reading your horror stories, and I'm sure based on the other material you present here that your worries were unfounded and they'll hit the mark with readers. As for the questions you raised here, isn't that raelly what we all struggle with? THe idea of balancing out selfish needs or wants with the expectations of people who count on us or feel they have a vested interest.

Lana said...

I feel your pain! I agree with Connie. The only thing anyone can do, in my opinion, is observe the human experience and communicate those observations to others. We're all in this life together. I don't believe it's anyone's job or responsibility to declare "truth" or "answers."

We learn by trial and error what seems to work best to promote life. Time and experience will weed out what doesn't work. Meanwhile, we need to record the experiences and experiments.