Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Guilty with an explanation. Part 2.

When we left me on Monday, you may recall, I was having a (rare) moment of clarity regarding our forthcoming series of self-help horror stories.

That moment occurred when I belatedly realized that it's not up to me to assign guilt in any of these scenarios as a prerequisite to posting them. (Further, it would be embarrassingly presumptuous of me to even try...and I'm not sure why that didn't occur to me from Day 1. Maybe I'm just too close to the material.) My job was simply to find the stories, report them as fairly and accurately as possible, and let you draw your own conclusions. Because in the end, it doesn't really matter if people have differing recollections of a few specific events. As long as there is basic agreement on the Big Picture—that there came a time when Person A embarked on a process of self-discovery; that as a result of that process, Persons B through F were devastated—that's what counts. It's not my job, therefore, to determine whether Fred and Francine had a lousy marriage to begin with. All we need to know is that Francine went to a seminar, decided to walk, and now Fred and their innocent twin 3-year-olds are miserable and alone. (That is a made-up example, btw. There are no Freds and Francines among my subjects, and any resemblance to actual people or situations is unintended.)

My basic premise going in—I'll say this much—is as follows: When self-help vows to "make life better," I also think there is (or should be) an implied moral covenant that extends beyond the individual who's actually reading the book, attending the seminar, hiring the life coach, etc. Here, I'll fall back on another of my famously-flawed-but-food-for-thought analogies: If I tell you that if you attend my seminars on health and fitness you'll emerge healthier than you've ever been—but I omit the part about how your getting healthier will cause the rest of your family to die—I think we'd agree that's a significant omission. It's something that you, and your family, deserved to be told. Yes, emotional self-help is a bit different. Sometimes, in order for Francine to be happy, Fred must be hurt, and them's the breaks. Sometimes it really is either/or. If you've read my book, you know I'm not a fan of "codependency," which I regard as one of the most vague, dangerous and ultimately inept constructs ever to come out of pop-psychology. That said, we all know people, usually women, for whom the label fits: They need to break the chains of their emotional oneness with their abusive partners in order to be healthy and whole again. And in those cases (which I do think are far more rare than what pop-psych leads us to believe), they can't get all caught up in how upset their partners will be once they leave. That's the very syndrome they need to escape.

But really, I think the question here is: Does today's Secret-style brand of self-help "empower" happiness? Or does it empower something quite different? In too many cases, it seems to me, self-help empowers irresponsibility and shortsightedness. It empowers (and then validates) an excuse to live a reckless, self-indulgent life, to give in to one's basest urges and emotions—all in the name of "pursuing joy!" The crushing irony is that that sort of mentality often ends badly for the joy-seeker as well, in time. As my father used to say, "The only thing hedonism and happiness have in common is, they both start with h." My father also said, "There's a difference between an epiphany and an erection."

Which is a perfect segue to the one final caveat we need to cover before we begin the actual stories on Monday (geez, this is worse than the endless series of trailers in the theater, isn't it??). I figure it'll be fairly controversial, and we'll deal with it tomorrow or Friday.

12 comments:

Lana said...

Steve, I think you've nailed it. The Secret-style self-help, which is heavily based on Abraham-Hicks teachings, often leads to this distorted thinking and behavior. It is extremely painful to experience or watch the results.

Steve Salerno said...

Yes, and it will get still more painful tomorrow or Friday, when we talk--in a very personal vein--about the striking common denominator in these horror stories.

moi said...

Steve, while you know I don't agree with you on some things, I admire your steadfastness and dedication to exposing vague and sometimes dangerous ideas that circulate in pop culture. That said, I want to comment that i am not so sure the Hicks teachings necessarily lead to distorted and hurtful behavior. Distorted thinking, yes, but I think it is a little less harmful than some people make it out to be. Currently, I have been attending a women's group where I live and several of the members are big LOA practitioners. Therefore, I have been able to observe the results of this directly. I've told them that I don't want to be part of the group if it will be focused on LOA. They accepted me, though, and actually said that they liked the fact that I had a different point of view. However, this may be because those particular people are very open minded. It's kind of hard to tell at this point what the effects of the Secret will be since it hasn't been around for that long.
About parents who get involved in self help and leaving their young children, that, I think, is the result of narcissism, and perhaps self indulgent psychology. In my own case, my mother kicked my dad out the house when I was 2 because her (Freudian)psychaitrist told her she should think about her own needs first. She's been doing it ever since, to the detriment of all around her.

Steve Salerno said...

This is very tricky terrain, Moi and Lana, and we all try to muddle through as best we can, balancing desires against principles. Most of us end up somewhere between the poles defined by, say, Mother Teresa (total selflessness--though of course she derived satisfaction in helping others) and, say, the late gangster Ben "Bugsy" Siegel (total selfishness, at least as widely characterized). The real problem I have is when gurus--who are not stupid people, and who know how desperate most of us are to think we're "on the right path"--purposely twist the labels around, giving us faux mechanisms for rationalizing indefensibly hurtful behavior. The gurus know that their disciples will pay almost any price to be validated. And speaking of disciples, this is also the problem I have with the likes of Rev. Joel Osteen (I blogged about him a while back), who attract huge followings by telling their congregations, in essence, that greed is not only good, but "godly." What's next? A course in ethics taught by Tony Soprano?

Cosmic Connie said...

Steve, with all of these teasers leading up to the Big Series... are you sure you're not taking a page from Rhonda Byrne's marketing manual? Maybe you should delay the series a little longer... do a little viral marketing too... make us beg for it, LOL.

As for Abraham-Hicks, I agree with both Lana and Moi. I'm sure those teachings do led to harmful and distorted behavior in individuals who are prone to that sort of behavior anyway. The more moderate LOA-ers that Moi has come to know are probably not prone to going off the deep end.

At the very least, though, Abraham-Hicks has led to a strange phenomenon whereby seemingly sane grownups hang on every word from a middle-aged woman who speaks in a bad fake accent. Esther Hicks, you are no Meryl Streep!

And as for Joel Osteen and his brand of "prosperity Christianity," I definitely see the insidiousness in that. It's very much like the New Thought churches in a way, except without the New-Age trappings. Even so, I sort of like Joel and feel sorry for him for being joined at the hip to that harpy...

Now I'm rambling, so I'd best get back to working or blogging. Looking forward to your series, Steve.

Steve Salerno said...

Trouble is...who'd beg?

But maybe you're right; maybe I should present this series of stories under the heading... "The Secret(s)"?

Lana said...

Hey, I'd pay to read this series!

It will be interesting to see the striking common denominator.

Moi, I agree that the A-H teachings don't necessarily lead to harmful behavior. As with anything, you'll see both mild and extreme examples. In my case, I personally experienced and witnessed the harm.

Steve Salerno said...

Lana, the way things are going of late, I may hold you to that...

a/good/lysstener said...

I think I would've really liked your father, Steve.

Lana said...

And I'm serious. Why not sell the series as an ebook?

I agree with a/good/lysstener -- your dad seems quite the character.

moi said...

Lana, I'd be interested in hearing about your experience of the harm that came from the secret. I haven't seen anything bad, just naiveté.

Lana said...

Hi moi, I witnessed two families get torn apart as a result of the magical thinking that The Secret/Abraham-Hicks promotes. One of the victims contacted Steve, so you might get to read the details in his series.

The harm to me from the people involved is much, much less, but it still wasn't fun. I lost a good sum of money and wasted a lot of precious time.

I have several stories to tell, which I might do some day under a pseudonym!