Friday, June 08, 2007

Of horror stories and scarlet letters.

Here's the one final thing we need to talk about. Then we start the series—for sure—really—on Monday.

It's impossible for me to run these stories without mentioning the obvious, or what will soon become obvious as you read along: Adultery is a chronic pattern in the 23 stories I received (not all of which do I plan to use, by the way). In fact, adultery is a subplot or back-story in every single one. Now, my collection of vignettes may have no larger validity; they're just melancholy and/or bitter reminiscences submitted by a self-selected group of disparate people who consider themselves victims of someone else's quest for fulfillment (and have provided what I consider ample documentation of same*). But looking at them as a self-contained universe, one has to wonder:

Why is it that for so many of us, "personal growth" = "cheating" or even "leaving your marriage for someone else"?

Maybe I'm looking at it backwards. Maybe it's the folks with the bad marriages who are the ones embarking on these journeys of self-discovery, and who were therefore more susceptible in the first place. Or—the most cynical interpretation—maybe adultery plagues just about every marriage anyway, thus self-help is no more than an innocent bystander in these events. But I don't think self-help is an innocent bystander.

In the first line of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy memorably wrote, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." I think he overstates; it's one of those iconic literary openings that "sounds poetic" but breaks down on analysis. And yet I do believe it can be said that in just about every unhappy marriage where a partner strays, the same operative mindset applies: "I deserve this. I deserve more than I'm getting at home." Too often today, even partners in happy marriages seem to feel that way. Regrettably, I base such observations in part on personal experience. Infidelity has touched every relationship I've ever been a part of, including my two marriages. This goes back to when I was 15 and discovered (to my horror) that my classmate-girlfriend, who allegedly was "saving [herself] for marriage," had already been giving herself to some 19-year-old Brooklyn "Guido," as we called the breed, for six months. Some years later, I'd learn that my fiancee (this is a different woman we're talking about) had been late for our own wedding rehearsal because she'd spent the afternoon in bed with a coworker. True story. That particular unhappy family lasted seven months. And here is where it behooves me to admit that as I moved through life...well, let's just say that sometimes, what we've seen and experienced can affect us in unexpected, paradoxical ways. (But then, we all like to find charitable explanations for our own failings, don't we? And is that not also part of the syndrome that self-help has given us?)

I had no idea, going in, what themes our horror stories would distill to, and it's not my intention that this series become a morality play about adultery per se. Whether we want to face it or not, infidelity has been around in some form probably ever since there were expectations of fidelity. What's more, one is mistaken to portray men as having the franchise on cheating, and I don't need to fall back on my formative experiences in saying that. Every woman I have ever so much as discussed this with, save for my Mom and just one other, has admitted to cheating on at least one occasion. Most admitted to doing it more than once. The latest surveys appear to corroborate that infidelity is rampant among both genders; there's also evidence that such surveys, if anything, understate the prevalence of cheating. And incidentally, knowingly participating in adultery is adultery: If you've been with someone who's pledged to another, you've committed adultery, even if you yourself were otherwise unattached at the time. A married guy couldn't cheat if there were no one willing to cheat with him...if there were no one who felt that she deserved him as much as, or more than, his wife does.

One might easily conclude that infidelity didn't need a lot of help from the gurus of pop-psychology to become enmeshed in the fabric of contemporary life. But remember: Pop-psychology is also enmeshed in the fabric of contemporary life—and has grown progressively more so all the time over the past 40 years. As I demonstrate in my book, the liturgy of self-help has bled over into the popular culture, such that it now shapes the attitudes that inform (or misinform) the paths we take in life. In that sense, we are all, to some degree, victims of second-hand self-help.

Think about it: "You deserve this." Hmmmm. Now where have we heard that before? You are looking at the most important person in the world.** You're special!... Believe it and it will come to you... You DESERVE THIS!

What this series of stories is about, then, is a climate in which personal gratification becomes the highest "ethic" of all, if not the only thing that even matters. It's about gurus who trade in the myth that you can wake up and begin a new life on Monday without worrying about those messy loose ends from the life you were leading on Sunday (or the people who were sharing that life with you). It's about a mindset in which a person should never look back, never feel guilt or misgivings about "embracing The Happy," as one coaching program puts it, no matter what form "The Happy" takes; a mindset that says you can't let yourself get bogged down in pangs of conscience or unproductive emotions like regret because—as another self-help regimen exhorts—you need to focus on the path that evokes the "biggest YES in you" and makes your cells "vibrate in joy!"

As I reflect on these stories in the context of what I learned while writing SHAM—and also consider the lessons of my own life—I come away wondering if it's possible for humans, burdened as we are with that thing called human nature, to not regard Empowerment as a license to do the selfish, hedonistic thing. Any "belief system" that celebrates narcissism must, after all, simultaneously reject the notion that you "owe anything" to others.

But I've already said too much. I don't want to excessively color your perspective on the stories before you've read them. So I'll take the weekend off, read whatever reactions anyone may wish to offer to what I've said here, launch the stories on Monday, and hope for the best.

* I'm still in the process of getting the i's dotted and t's crossed for a few of them. I've got at least a dozen ready, and I'll sprinkle them in among other material, one or two per week.
** A sign commonly found over classroom mirrors in schools that emphasize self-esteem. Gurus in codependency workshops often recommend that participants place such signs over their bathroom mirrors.


Cosmic Connie said...

Very good post, Steve. I am somehow not surprised that adultery/infidelity are the common themes in virtually all of the horror stories you received. Not only does SHAM culture encourage narcissism and personal gratification at the cost of everything and everyone else -- as you so aptly pointed out -- but many of the SHAM leaders are sexual predators themselves. Whether they're Eastern-style gurus or Western-style spiritual or motivational leaders, so many of these jokers trade on their charisma and sex appeal as much as they do their words of "wisdom." (Regarding the "hands where they don't belong" shenanigans of the Eastern types, a glance at the Guruphiliac blog is enough to make you shudder.)

And it's easy pickin's for those who are so inclined, as so many of their followers are at a very vulnerable point in their own lives. In a sense, SHAM is just one big party for horndogs. (That ACCESS Energy Transformation thing I wrote about recently seems *very* suspect.)

Cosmic Connie said...

Steve: Re my previous comment about sexual predators in the ranks of the self-help "leadership"... In my haste, I neglected to cite your own mention, in SHAM, of this phenomenon, in your chapter on life coaching. As you noted, sometimes the "coaching" gets a little too personal. Again, it's a matter of a person in a position of power taking advantage of a more vulnerable party.

a/good/lysstener said...

Steve, I applaud your honesty. I think. Your wording is cagey so it's hard to tell exactly what you're sharing here. But I think I get the point. And I totally agree about the permissive climate you describe. I see it all around me in the children of privilege at college in ways that have nothing to do with money. Just an attitude that it's all about you, to coin a phrase, and whatever you do is ok by definition because you're the one doing it.