Monday, November 12, 2007

The Sociopath's Guide to the Universe. Part 2.

"Oh, Ted feels his pain all right. Every bit of it. He just can't feel yours."
The Deliberate Stranger, about sociopath and serial killer Ted Bundy

If you've read the two horror stories I posted before I yielded to my better judgment—and in general, if you listen to confessed victims of what I call "second-hand self-help"—it isn't long before certain themes jump out at you. This is especially true when you're talking about today's New Age Empowerment and the disciples of same. To the person who's full-speed-ahead on the ocean of Self-Discovery, there's little tolerance for contrary advice or dissenting opinion. No, not even when the words of wisdom come from people who deeply care about that person's welfare. Not even when—to belabor the maritime metaphor—there's damage below the water-line that the person does not see from his/her position at the helm. Nor does today's Seeker of Uber-Empowerment waste much time on the hurt voiced by those who get innocently caught up in things. Today's worshippers of the New New Age bristle at being reminded of how they've hurt you in the past—"Get over it!"—and they want no lectures about how they should try to act more thoughtfully in the future.

See, all of that is "negative energy" from "dark entities" who are "blocking" the path to full potential.

Often, New Agers fail to see the biting irony of this journey to Happyland and (so-called) positive thinking. I'm reminded of Gerry, from my second horror story, who told his wife not to watch the news in his presence because he "couldn't have that kind of destruction in his life." Then he went on blithely to wreak significant destruction in his marriage, and on his teenage daughter.

The gurus of Empowerment encourage us to take this no-regrets approach to people who've outlived their usefulness to us as we move closer to harmony with the Universe. They encourage us to regard those who've suffered at our hands as human detritus—waste products of our quest for fulfillment—somewhat akin to the skin a snake sheds as it approaches a new season of life.

Oddly, much of this is an outgrowth of codependency, one of the key planks in Empowerment's precursor concept (and mirror image), Victimization. I grant you, the idea that your happiness shouldn't be "chained" to other people's wants and needs may have been well-intended. Primarily, the gurus of Victimization sought to help women see that it wasn't up to them to "fix everything," and that they had no moral obligation to devote the rest of their lives to catastrophic unions with alcoholics and abusers. But like most aspects of self-help, it was oversimplified and oversold, such that it comes out, today, sounding something like so:

If it's not working for you, just move on. Do what makes you happy and don't apologize for it. If you choose to walk away from something/someone, don't look back. Life is about YOU.*

Never mind that this view of codependency pretty much rules out the kind of self-sacrificing outlook we used to admire—that it would conceive Mother Teresa as the biggest codependent in recorded history. Never mind that by the same line of reasoning, a mother might simply abandon a house full of kids who turned out to be more stressful or annoying than she foresaw, or a husband might leave a wife who was suffering through a bout with depression. (I know what you're thinking: Come on, Steve, no one intended for it to be interpreted that way. But that's what it says. And if you need all sorts of individualized caveats, conditions and qualifications in order to know how to apply a "guide for better living"…then what good is it? Besides, if my horror stories and research for SHAM mean anything, plenty of folks did, and do, interpret it "that way.")

The New Wage SHAMster immediately perceived a growth industry in showing (cash-paying) followers how to escape the guilt they instinctively felt over acts and attitudes that once were considered selfish** and contemptible. As a source for a related story told me, "The preacher who gives people permission to be sinners will never lack for a flock." And beginning in the early 1990s, that's just what the spiritual wing of the Empowerment movement did: They institutionalized freedom from guilt into the "value system" they preached.

Thus we had the mainstream evolution of so-called gnostic or "designer" spirituality, wherein each person has a direct pipeline to the supreme entity (or force), and no one person's "spiritual truth" is any more valid than anyone else's. This not only eliminates the concept of absolute right and wrong, but also leaves the door open for people to justify everything they do as "consistent with my spiritual reality."

In fairness to the New Wage crowd, the notion of religion without rules—faith that only rewards, and never punishes—isn't confined to SHAMland. A December 2005 New York Times article about "faith that fits" unfolded through the eyes of Emily Hoogenboom, a teenager who sampled religious experiences until she found one where she "felt God loved me, that I don't have to worry about sin because he forgives me." And we've covered the likes of Joel Osteen and his Gospel According to Ralph Lauren; Osteen's wildly popular brand of godliness openly embraces greed and gaudiness. But churches still need some rules, commonalities, and orthodoxies. The true genius of the new spirituality was that it gave each person license to be his own Pope, free to redefine right and wrong as expedient, free to blow off the very idea of conscience. And let’s face it, if you already know that your beliefs and behaviors are inconsistent with the demanding edicts of most formal religions...isn't it so much neater to just declare yourself "spiritual" and not have anyone to answer to?

I'm not contending that gurus like Rhonda Byrne and Joe Vitale are sociopaths or are knowingly trying to convert their followers into sociopaths. But it’s interesting how people schooled in today's Empowerment seem to think and speak in terms that sound like a $20,000 Pyramid category called "Things a Sociopath Might Say":

"Why are you always bringing up old stuff?" (Translation: Don't remind me of how I disappointed you last month or last week or yesterday. Yesterday is history.)

"I have a right to change my mind." (Translation: Don't try to hold me to any commitments, no matter how important you think they are. I'm a free spirit and I intend to march to my own drummer.)

"Well, it's what the universe wanted for you." (Translation: Hey, if you were hurt by what I did, that's not my problem. It just wasn't in the cards for you—and you're responsible for your own happiness anyway.)

The Secret has taken flak for its more outrageous positions, like blaming disaster victims for inviting that disaster into their lives (or at least failing to repel it); but the real problem with "spiritual regimens" like The Secret is broader and more subtle. Such programs sell the notion that people's pain is theirs and theirs alone. They attracted it; they "own" it. Thus, such programs afford moral absolution: You didn't cause the damage to all those wounded people around you. They attracted it.

Somewhere, the late Ted Bundy must be kicking himself for not thinking of that defense in time.

(Here's a link to Part 1 in this series.)

* By no means is this to say that only women succumb to such tendencies. To some extent, in fact, all self-help did was cause some women to act with the same calculated self-regard that had typified the actions of too many men for centuries. Still, there's no question that women have always been self-help's primary targets and core audience, and that women have been instrumental in helping SHAM's language and concepts "go viral."
** I suppose we could allow ourselves to be diverted by that old argument posing that "all behaviors are selfish"; that whatever human beings do, regardless of how others judge it, is motivated by self-interest and some psychic payoff. Under this theory, even Mother Teresa acted selfishly, because she obviously derived personal satisfaction out of "doing the Lord's work." I'd rather we not get bogged down in such philosophizing here. Even if I grant the point, I'd rather we focus on how your singular brand of selfishness affects others: Does it enrich them or hurt them? Does it consider the people around you or callously ignore them?


Yekaterina said...

I think it takes someone very wise to navigate through all the self-help ideas and be able to see what needs to be applied to oneself. The easiest road is to apply these things ass-backwards to justify our shortcomings. There are even risks to applying what we do need to the extreme, going from feeling excessive guilt to feeling none at all, for example; Neither of these extremes is healthy. I believe the main problem in the self-help world is that the majority of these self-help maestro/master/gurus are untrained, over zealous, not too bright and are not in a real position to “help” anyone. More often than not they’re suffering from deliriums of greatness. And then there are those who are simply taking advantage of the market to make a fast buck. Do we really want to be taking advice from these sorts of people?

Jenny Gesserit said...

I do have to say at least that I think that people ARE responsible for their own happiness. We choose how to react to a situation, we allow ourselves to react in certain ways.

RevRon's Rants said...

You might want to add to your "Things a Sociopath Might Say" list:
This is what [Jesus, Buddha, et al] was *really* trying to say.

If one accepts the basic tenet of New Age-dom, Descartes' axiom, "I think, therefore I am," does that mean the folks who are obviously not thinking will simply cease to exist? :-)

Steve Salerno said...

Good points, Jenny and Rev. However, those who read this blog frequently pretty much know my stance on "choice": I doubt its existence. At least in the sense we commonly use the term.

If there's choice, Jenny, then choose to have a conscience. (I'm assuming, since you didn't take issue with that aspect of sociopathy, you agree that you don't have one.) I say that because--just as one small illustration--the presence or absence of a conscience is going to dictate how we "choose" to react to a given situation. Is it not?