Saturday, February 16, 2008

What falsely enlightens us, makes us dumber.

Last night as I waited for 20/20, which, naturally, under that new theory of network programming and lead-ins, begins at 10:02, I was forced to endure the final few moments of Desperate Housewives. The episode ended with the usual slide-show of events up and down Wisteria Lane (one supposes that this is meant to be tragicomic/bittersweet, and to whet the appetite for the next installment), behind the usual tender-voiced narration, in this case punctuated by a dramatic rendering of the ubiquitous Nietzsche quote: "What doesn't kill us...makes us stronger." [fade to black....] We've talked before, briefly, about that particular string of words, which is among a handful of aphorisms, like "believe it, achieve it," that have been embraced to the collective bosom in this culture without ever being questioned. In certain circles, in fact, it's considered a sacrilege even to subject such quotes to further scrutiny—a faux pas on the order of, say, writing critically of Valentine's Day cards. (Sorry. I couldn't resist.)

But seriously, folks: What doesn't kill us makes us stronger? Says who? Do you suppose the GI who comes back from Iraq with no legs thinks that way? And regardless of how he, himself, thinks—is he, factually, stronger for the loss of his limbs? How 'bout the bullet intended for Ronald Reagan that drilled that lovely hole in the forehead of former press secretary James Brady: Does Brady seem stronger to you in the years since the shooting? What about cancer patients as a class? (One of the lead characters in Housewives is trying to beat cancer.) No small percentage of such patients hold the disease at bay for a while, make an elaborate show of proclaiming themselves cured and living life to the fullest, etc....then suffer a relapse and die. So in such cases, would it be more accurate to say, "What doesn't kill us, eventually kills us anyway"?

You say I'm taking it all too literally? All right, then. Let's look at the emotional realm. I don't think the 9/11 families by and large feel stronger, deep inside, for what they went through on that tragic day. Or what about Clint Hill. Hill, if you don't recognize the name, was the Secret Service agent who jumped onto the back of JFK's limo in Dallas after Kennedy's head exploded from the fatal shot (whatever its origin). He has said many times, most memorably and tearfully to Mike Wallace in a 60 Minutes interview a dozen years later, that he would've gladly taken that bullet for the president. The events in Dallas did not make Hill stronger; actually, I doubt he ever recovered. These are just high-profile anecdotal cases, but the point they illustrate has wide relevance: that many of us probably do not emerge from traumatic events "stronger." On the contrary, we are damaged in ways that can never be fully repaired, no matter how we spin it ourselves. Consider, too, the rash of school shootings. I could be wrong, but I'm betting that the events at places like V-Tech and, now, Northern Illinois University, have not only played havoc with the well-being of surviving students on those campuses, but also have caused a slightly increased level of paranoia in college students everywhere (or at least some college students). These students do not feel stronger. They feel vulnerable and exposed. They survey the room on the first day of classes each semester, and they wonder....

Are there people who gain strength from overcoming adversity? Of course! But to posit the Nietzsche line as a frank statement of cause-and-effect—Get seriously hurt! Then get stronger!—which almost implies that we should actively seek near-death experiences so that we can emerge new-and-improved on the far end, is absurd. So absurd that its absurdity shouldn't require discussion. Alas, for many among the Attitude-is-All crowd, the notion is not only true on its's a religious incantation. They simply won't listen, no matter what factual or commonsense rebuttal you produce.

Nietzsche penned the line more than a century ago, of course, but it has really come to the fore in recent years as another example of that pop-psych/PC initiative that rationalizes away all bad things, often by making bad seem good (e.g. special or differently abled instead of crippled or handicapped). And the phrases in this category do, indeed, sound terrific; they have that certain je ne sais quoi. Trouble is, when you scratch away the slightest bit of surface sheen of today's cultural and philosophical [sic] rallying cries, it usually reveals another popular saying, which was the slogan for Miller Lite:

"Tastes great. Less filling."


Anonymous said...

The first time I saw "That which does not kill us makes us stronger" was at the beginning of the movie "Conan the Barbarian," where I assumed it was meant as irony. But then, I'm the person who thought throughout my childhood that the saying "When the going gets tough, the tough get going" meant that the tough could run away from a bad situation faster than less-tough mortals...

At any rate, thanks for your comments about cancer "survivors." It has also been my observation that cancer always eventually kills, unless something else beats it to it, no matter how long a remission or how many remissions one has before the end. Facing this--in the absence of an actual cure--and making the best possible use of the remaining time (the best, of course, differing for each person) seems to me a far better course of action than the typical "I'm cured!" response we are urged to show. It would encourage others to continue being supportive, and allow victims of the disease to express their fears and sadness, rather than putting on the shiny front demanded by today's "we've fixed it" attitude, and to make the most of every moment they had left.

Anonymous said...

It would be more accurate to state that "What does not kill you, changes you. Sometimes for better. Often for worse."

But old Friedrich, being a narcissist with serious hang-ups, could not admit the latter. Apparently, neither can we.

Steve Salerno said...

The funny part is, lots of things "don't kill us" or "almost kill us," and often this little drama plays out entirely beneath our threshold of awareness. I dare say there are thousands of things that haven't killed me (yet) today. I know, I know, it sounds like I'm being purposely ridiculous, but think about it: Are we even aware of the myriad forces acting upon our life at any given moment? Is it not possible that some of the forces that have (or soon will have) the greatest impact upon us are also forces of which we have little or no conscious knowledge?

You fly through an intersection on your way to the party store. Two seconds after you've made your turn onto another noisy, busy street, the car that followed you through that intersection got t-boned by a tractor-trailer. You were almost killed today. You just don't know it. Do you feel stronger? ;)

All right, all right. I'm just in one of those moods.

Anonymous said...

Steve, you've clarified the gist of the mantra here: You have to be aware and scared of the murderous force (incident) to benefit from the "wisdom" of its post-facto rationalization.

Because that is what the "what does not kill you..." is -- a rationalization, kinda magical thinking about powerful events that influence our lives but are beyond our control.

On the other hand, the vaccine against measles you got in infancy did not kill you and made you more resistant to the illness in the years that followed. So the Friedrich's saying has some real life applicability, in physiological and psychological realms -- in that some properly dosed adversity makes us more resistant to falling apart when we are faced with similar (and greater) adversity in the future.

But when it comes to catastrophic events, these rules may not apply.

P.S. You may want to stay home for the rest of the day. Just a suggestion.

Blair Warren said...


I have struggled with this very issue regarding statements such as Nietzsche's.

As you and others have pointed out, these types of statements are not "true" in a cause and effect sense.
And yet they "survive" in the meme pool (a la Richard Dawkins).

My question is, WHY do they survive?

According to memetics, one reason might be that they provide some sort of benefit to those who hold and perpetuate them.

But, if they are not "true" in a literal sense, how might they be of benefit?

Well, what if these types of statements aren't made as statements of fact but as indicators of attitude?

Clearly there are times when taking on the attitude "that which does not kill us makes us stronger" can be beneficial (e.g. trying to psyche up a team before facing a much greater opponent, trying to tolerate withdrawal symptoms when overcoming an addition, etc).

Though it may turn out in any particular instance that this attitude is "wrong" (i.e. we aren't stronger, after all), it almost certainly helps strengthen our will to fight and probably increases our chances of succeeding.

This does not mean this attitude is always helpful or even appropriate. Clearly there are times when it is more helpful to give up the fight and make the best of certain situations.

Anyway, that's the way I often think of these types of statements. Not as "truths" but as "attitudes".

But there is no doubt that this isn't the way they are usually bandied about.

Of course this shouldn't surprise us. After all, Nietzsche also said, "The lie is a condition of life." ;)

Anonymous said...

Steve, what's PMA you reference under your post and elsewhere?

Steve Salerno said...

Elizabeth: PMA = positive mental attitude. Now go hide your head in shame! ;)

Steven: But see, that eternal conundrum--Is believing in a falsehood its own justification, so long as that belief makes the believer feel better?--is a serious problem to me, as it could become the basis for belief in just about anything (like, say, The Secret. And then aren't such believers just setting themselves up for a colossal fall at some point?) We go back to the fable of the emperor's new clothes. He may have felt really swell walking about in his new suit of nothing...but he was naked nonetheless. At the end of the day, rationality and the search for a "real reality," if you will, has to count for something. No?

Anonymous said...

Round of applause. Bravo, Steve.

Anonymous said...

I read into the Comments after the applause and found you said this:

>>>and often this little drama plays out entirely beneath our threshold of awareness. I dare say there are thousands of things that haven't killed me (yet) today.

Oh how true.

I Got Your Spooky Right Here

Also: PMA, Positive Mental Attitude was W. Clement Stone's spin-off of Napoleon Hill's "Think and Grow Rich." (If you read Hill's bio, *he* never really got rich.)

W. Clement Stone

Napoleon Hill

Anonymous said...

Steve, I've been reading your blog for awhile now. I can't say I can argue logically with anything you say. It all makes perfect sense. I do have an honest question that builds on something Blair said. (I think you said Steven when you meant Blair, earlier). And I hope you'll take it in that spirit.

Isn't it true that mankind needs the illusions just to get through life? Even if we know it's fake and we're building things up to be more than they are, we do so knowingly because we probably can't face life as it really is. If you take away that illusion and you rub people's nose in real life, how is that doing them a favor? I'm not criticizing you Steve, or what you set out to do here. I just wonder if some of this does more harm than good, even if it makes perfect sense.

Steve Salerno said...

I actually think I mostly answered that earlier, at least broad-brush--and yes, you're right, Anon, I did mistakenly address Blair as Steven. (Sorry, Blair; it's been that kind of day. And week. And month...) But ohhhhh, does plodding deeper into that terrain open up cans of worms!

Give me a chance to get my bearings and we'll talk more about this tomorrow or Monday. Fair nuff?

Anonymous said...

Blair, to answer your question "WHY do they survive?":

Because they quench terror of existence. We are mortal -- and continuous, raw awareness of that fact, unsoftened by illusion, would make life unlivable for most people.

Such beliefs shield us, more or less effectively, from truth about life, which is full of suffering and ends in death. Just like religion and various forms of superstition, which do not have any support in verifiable reality. As Anon says, mankind needs illusions. Consider them a band-aid for the chronic wound of life.

mikecane, I'm reading about Hill and Stone and scratching my head in amazement. Only in America. Seriously. There are no cultural references to draw upon for a not-quite-American like myself (lived the first half of my life in socialist Poland) to comprehend and relate to this positive, nah, downright magical thinking espoused by these two (and others like them).

Steve: And why should I hide my head in shame? :-)

Steve Salerno said...

Elizabeth, you know, I was sorry about that little "shame" line as soon as I wrote it, even though it was meant as a throwaway phrase. It's simply a reference to the fact that this blog has occupied itself with PMA (both the acronym and the core concept, if you will) since the outset, so I'm implying that everyone should be up to speed on the nomenclature. But obviously, people who aren't steeped in pop psychology (and who, in fact, have a considerable background in formal psychology, as you do), wouldn't be as familiar with it. I dare say, anyone without that kneejerk familiarity is probably better off. ;)

Anonymous said...

No problem, Steve. I would have never guessed on my own that PMA stands for what it does (perhaps because PMA is something I woefully lack).

In my speculations I got as close as Pre-Menstrual Apathy and Post Modernist Analysis. Not even close, as you can see. (Hiding head in SHAMe.)

Steve Salerno said...

Or how 'bout Pointedly Moneymaking Acronym?

moonrambler said...

This is one of those sayings that makes me nuts because it's so obviously not true. This, along with "Everything happens for a reason," and "God doesn't give us any situation we're not strong enough to handle."

Steve Salerno said...

Moonrambler, yes, that last one in particular--"nothing we can't handle"--is so patently ridiculous. Tell that to the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust. But, on the bright side, I guess that made their widows, widowers and orphaned children stronger....

Now, I'm not so sure about "Everything happens for a reason," and that's because my response would depend on how you mean it. I do believe that everything that happens, happens because something else happened--that life is a chain of predetermined events. But when most people use the phrase, they mean something more along the lines of "everything happens for a good reason"--that it's the way things OUGHT to be, and we're better off that way. And that, of course, is as absurd as the Nietzsche quote.

moonrambler said...

"Everything happens for a good reason, because it is creating a new situation where things will be better than before, or something that is supposed to happen, now can happen." That's the idea that makes me nuts.

But . . . do you think that ANYTHING ever happens for the reason that it's creating a new situation where things will be better than before?

Steve Salerno said...

Specifically for that reason? As if there's some grand, beneficent cosmic design, wherein "all will turn out well in the end"?


Anonymous said...

My favorite impossible expression is, "live your life with no regrets." Now is that really possible? I would say not if you have a conscience or moral compass. I think people should regret certain incidents if they harmed others and regret shows self-evaluation. The reason these sayings survive are due to society's need to make life managable. If you lived in stark reality, you wouldn't reproduce, marry, or live comfortably. Would you marry if you knew statistically you are more likely to be killed by your mate and not a stranger? Would you reproduce if you knew how many defective genes you could be passing down to your offspring? Stark reality can make life just as unmanageable as living in fantasy land. One amazing thing about humans is the need to understand concepts due to our big brains. I know that I hold, what others might consider, "out there" ideas that make sense to me about certain aspects of my childhood. For me, these concepts allow me to function and trust, which enables me to live comfortably. There is one saying I understand, "whatever gets you through the night."

Steve Salerno said...

Let's face it, Anon (and others who've submitted their favorite nominations for Platitude of the Year), any sentiment/axiom/proverb/cliche that reduces life to 10 words or less is bound to have a dozen major flaws and only about, oh, a million or two exceptions...AT BEST. This, in a nutshell, is the same problem I have with self-help regimens that attempt to distill success at life to "7 keys" or "10 points" or whatever. Can't be done--certainly not in a one-size-fits-all program. They sound great in theory, but when it comes to application...there's the rub.

Anonymous said...

Well, there's one saying at least with which I wholeheartedly agree: "Any day spent aboveground is a good day."

Steve Salerno said...

Well now, even that depends...if you're a SCUBA enthusiast?

Anonymous said...

As I'm sure you well know, Steve, PMA is also visible in the "formal" American psychology. (And I'd stress *American* here.)

Maslow and his self-actualization theory, for example, and now the burgeoning field of positive psychology are affected by it, despite their efforts to remain "scientific."

One of my favorite exasperating examples from my field (gifted education and counseling) is the imperative "to develop one's full potential," which seems to be taken very seriously by both theorists and practitioners. But as far as I know, nobody has ever been able to define what it means -- both the "full" potential and its desired development.

However, it does not stop experts from writing books and how-to (yes) articles on the subject. And sending parents on long guilt trips because they somehow fail to enable their kids to DFP. Sounds familiar, no?

What is fascinating to me is how uniquely American this positively mental attitude is.

These ideas are not really transplantable to other cultures -- and if they do find audiences there, they are very limited (from my experience and observation -- and I'm thinking Europe, non-native English speaking). That includes the formal psych theories and trends (self-actualization and positive psychology included), which fail to gain widespread popularity in the Old World. Somehow the notion of happiness, success and self-actualization above all seems pointless as a guiding life value, at least in my (previously) native Poland. Lots of reasons for that (I see a dissertation to be written right here :-).

Anonymous said...

P.S. This could be one of the reasons why your book has been (was?) selling better overseas.

Anonymous said...

Or if there's a nuclear attack. Then any day spent in a Pentagon-level underground bomb shelter is a good day! I thought about saying this originally as a qualifier, but controlled myself, since the original quote referred to being alive as opposed to its literal meaning.

Anonymous said...

Elizabeth: Here in America, we have a long history of self-improvement, both philosophical in nature and practical (and those two aren't necessarily in opposition). Hill and Stone are the least objectionable of the lot. If you excise the magical stuff, they do offer some practical advice that could help people. For some, if not most people, what they have to say is stuff they've never heard. Hill and Stone, for example, each emphasized hard work. Something tripe such as The Secret does not.

And, by the way, it's not all smiley-smiley stuff. There's room for smart pessimism too:

Defensive Pessimism: Part Of The Real Secret

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Mike, for your elaboration.

Just to add: All major religions seem to advocate self-improvement and for some good reasons (one of them being that we are never as perfect as we believe ourselves to be). As a (now recovered) Catholic, I was heavily indoctrinated in my childhood into its guilt-driven version and I even recall it with certain fondness, too.

But what SHAM (and the version of self-improvement popular in the US) appears to stress is 1. often a higher value of the attitude over actual deeds and self-improvement efforts (i.e. as long as you feel good about yourself and dream big, great things will happen to you), and
2. the ultimate hedonistic goals of any and all attitude adjustments and efforts at change (i.e. material success, popularity, love understood as bliss and not the kind that, for example, rips your ego to shreds, etc.)

This is a peculiar brand of self-improvement, based on self-gratification rather than self-denial and genuine self-transformation (in accordance with the highest human values, as taught, for example, in Catholicism). It does not teach how to grow such abilities as humility, empathy, compassion, patience, and responsibility -- true marks of a self-improving individual, imo. What is being improved here are psychopathic-like skills at grabbing more money, more power and more admiration from others with the ultimate goal of self-elevation and self-satisfaction in mind.

Stone and Hill appear to be no exceptions here, judging by the bio entries you provided in your post. They are both preoccupied with achieving success in life uniformly defined as material wealth. No matter how you slice it, it is self-improvement that, in its core, promotes conformity and adherence to the lowest human values.

Anonymous said...

I like the idea of defensive pessimism, Mike.

I would go even further and say that not only pessimism, but depression, inner conflict, frustrations, dissatisfaction with oneself and (positive) maladjustment (i.e. maladjustment to the common norms and values) are necessary for any significant human achievement (other than gathering money -- and that in itself would not follow in the significant achievement category, imo). There is plenty of evidence that it is so indeed, but somehow we don't like to talk about it. Especially in the US. Go figure.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Elizabeth's assessment of the SHAM industry's reliance on self-gratification. As a society we are moving away from the goals of compassion, empathy, and humility to some scary consequences. I hate the phrase, "if I'm happy others will be happy." Who says so? I believe there is a link between the rise of the SHAM industry and the rise of psychopathic/sociopathic/narcissic/anti-social behaviors. Everyone thinks a psychopath is a serial killer, but the numbers by Robert Hare, Phd, state one in twenty is a psychopath. Martha Stout,Phd puts the numbers at one in twenty-five people have this disorder. We tend to think psychopaths are criminals, but the fact is they are just lacking a conscience and empathy and interact with us in some way. This blog touched on this connection once before and it bears repeating.

Anonymous said...

Elizabeth, you have to look at the history of the United States to understand the connection of money and happiness. There has been and still is, to a great extent, a belief that prosperity is identified with goodness. Logically, as a society, we know this is not true, but the belief persists. There is a lot of shame in the U.S. about not being financially well-off. A lot of people associate lack of money with lack of morals. The U.S. also has a long history of lack of self-examination unless it is to look at itself in a positive light. Even in this current presidential year, it's about "change" not about "let's look at how we got here." The U.S. has the mentality of looking forward and not looking back. Self-examination is painful and the U.S. does not take to that type of pain too well. Yes, there are those who criticize the government, but few look at the society as a whole. If anyone comes out to say the American society has social/psychological problems on a large scale, they are usually attacked for being anti-American or whatever label comes up. Honest self-evaluation is not something the average American takes too well to. All you have to do is see the dieting industry for an example of that. Staple your stomach instead of closing your mouth and moving. That is just one example, but there are others. The U.S. has given the SHAM industry a place to flourish.

Steve Salerno said...

Those are interesting points, though I do feel compelled to mention the flip-side of that coin, at least where money and success are concerned: I think that--today--there's almost a knee-jerk cultural assumption that if you have money and success, you are not a very "good" person; I think there's an assumption that money and success are most often attained through duplicity and dishonor. This is all the more true amid the current climate of criticism of the GOP, the Cheney-Halliburton connection, Big Oil, Big Pharma, etc. I don't know how many of you saw this, but just last night on 60 Minutes, there was a long and, I must confess (even as a critic of "gotcha journalism"), impressive segment on how Bayer hushed up data about one of its hot drugs that resulted in the death of thousands and thousands of people. In effect, if 60 Minutes is correct, Bayer even lied to the FDA (a lie of omission, but a lie nonetheless). I can't help but feel that such scenarios are the customary image most people (particularly young people) have in mind when they think of business, industry and, above all, profits.

Hence, at least in part, the Obama-phenomenon (Obama-non?)

Anonymous said...

Anon, one of the most stunning discoveries to me personally (and one that does not cease to amaze even after 20+ years of living here) is that making money is elevated to the level of virtue in the US (and you say as much in your post). Being confronted with this is a source of an on-going culture shock that, surprisingly or not, seems to be only getting stronger as I grow older.

Yes, the historical (and other, even geographical) dimensions of the self-improvement for profit phenomenon in the US are fascinating (to me, at least). There are layers and levels to explore here.

Steve, I agree that making money and being a conventionally good person are not mutually exclusive. And I have no doubt that there are well-to-do people who are honest and hard-working. I have no qualms with wealth as such (mostly. I think.).

However, making money and working on genuine self-improvement seem less compatible, for the simple reason that our time is limited and you cannot devote it to two very different, competing core values (and goals). Maybe I'm stuck up in my post-Catholic hang-ups, but I have not yet seen a compelling example of someone who'd be devoted to both.

But I may be wrong -- I'm open to the possibility.

Anonymous said...

I don't think it is a "knee jerk" mentality about success and money, but a memory lapse. The "middle class" has been dwindling for years to such an extent it can no longer even be defined. The U.S. does not have the greatest memory either. Enron was just a couple of years ago and here we are again with the sub prime mortgage mess and guess who's bailing them out-us. They have learned from the airline industry how to come crawling to the government for a handout. BTW, Obama came from a pretty privileged background. He did not graduate from some "unknown" state colleges, but Ivy league schools. What he has in bundles is charisma, which Hillary lacks. Since Watergate, which was glossed over, the U.S. has notoriously low voter turn-out and Obama's charisma is drawing them back. Did you know most people get their jobs not from their qualifications, but from how well they are "liked" by the one giving the interview. Barbara Ehrenreich did a great and highly criticized book about this called Bait and Switch: the (futile) Pursuit of the American Dream

Steve Salerno said...

Elizabeth, your sincere open-mindedness is refreshing.

I have to say that the reason why "making money and working on genuine self-improvement seem less compatible" is probably twofold. It has to do with an unholy alliance between mentor and mentee. People who really fall under the spell of self-help tend to develop--or perhaps I should say, tend to finally reveal--a degree of narcissism that is most unbecoming. (It's like the old line--I'm thinking it was GB Shaw again, but I could be wrong--about coming into great wealth: Money doesn't make people jerks. It just makes them show us the jerks they were all along.) Self-helpers become totally obsessed with Self, often to the exclusion of (or at the expense of) the "improvement" part.

Then there are the gurus themselves: To say that a fair number of them are less than sincere about what they're selling is the epitome of understatement. Now, maybe I'm naive, but I do believe that some small percentage of them, in the beginning, do think they've "hit on" something that may be of benefit to others. But pretty soon the profit motive takes over, and the marketing machine kicks into high gear, and the whole thing feeds on itself, and they're selling it just to get it sold.

Anonymous said...

Nice is relative. Look at Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, they can't give their money away fast enough, which makes you wonder why they worked so hard to get it in the first place. I know a lot of people who would not call either Gates or Buffet "nice." I agree with Elizabeth that monetary success generally does not lead to a fulfilling life due to time constraints. I have never personally seen it either, but there are a lot of things I haven’t seen.

Anonymous said...

It is so pervasive to equate making money with being virtuous we no longer question it. Look at Richard Dudum’s book, his only qualification for writing it was his ability to reproduce yet Steve mentioned Dudum’s right to make a buck. Why does Dudum have the right to make a buck if he does not have the qualifications to write it? Dudum did not even defend himself when he appeared on Steve’s blog just pushed his book. He never gave any examples of why his book was that great to read or why we should read it. Dudum just stated that it would change Steve’s life and I ask why? Now we get into the area of free speech and the “right” to say what we want. Here we get into the tangled web of being responsible, which is a two-edged sword. The self-help industry loves turning people into sheep and working on the social factor of humans. Humans need each other to survive. This has been documented by anthropology and physiology. If you got kicked out of the cave, you died and that’s the end of your genes/story. Humans are always warring with themselves about being accepted and being self-sufficient. This war is why people look to psychology, philosophy, religion, self-help, and you name it for answers. The true answers lie within, but that is a very rocky and sometimes lonely road indeed.

Anonymous said...

Hm... Refreshing as in hopelessly naive and out-of-touch? (Hard to say reading e-mails. I would not be offended, btw. It's not the worst thing to be called.)

Anonymous said...

Anon, that makes two of us (as there are a lot of things I haven’t seen).

I would honestly love to see an example of money-making and self-improvement that is not based on self-gratification. (And a flying pig, too. OK, here I'm just needlessly facetious.)

I will not be holding my breath, but I promise to be sufficiently amazed and thoroughly convinced if I do come upon one. I'll share my amazement with others, too.

Anonymous said...

Steve, gurus give people false hope by dishing out formulas and recipes for life, according to their own tastes. They sprinkle some universally agreeable spices all over, thus making them palatable to large masses of people who are famished and will indiscriminately ingest any nourishment.

But the ones who are really being fed in the process are the gurus themselves. Except that their hunger is insatiable. If it weren't, they would not be gurus, but find more decent employment, in janitorial circles, for example.

Gurus thrive on others' need for guidance and direction. It puts them in the center of people's attention without much real accomplishment to justify it (other than their gift of gab and persuasion). And their followers get what they want as well: an assurance that life is good and just and they are worthy of whatever it is they desire.

Imagine a guru that would dish out the truth for a change: that human life is difficult, complex and inscrutable. The one thing you can be certain of is that you will suffer and you will die, anything else is mostly a matter of capricious, random and unfair luck. And speculation. You are largely insignificant, save for the small circle of fellow human beings who care about you and whom you care about.

You do not -- cannot -- become a master of life, or even of your own existence. If you live it well, you will allow it to break you down, tear you apart and pummel you to the ground, figuratively and literally. Well, in that last instance you have no choice anyway.

You have no choice, except this: Despite this grim prognosis, you better hope, dream and believe that your life is worth living. Because what's the alternative?

Steve Salerno said...

Elizabeth: Just for the record, no, I did not mean that AT ALL.

I consider myself open-minded and even-handed...except maybe where the self-help industry is concerned. ;)

Anonymous said...

Steve, it took me a while to realize what you meant (chuckle). Slow on the uptake, yunno.

That last sentence should have read
"But I may be wrong (since I often am) -- (and) I'm open to the possibility (that there exists a person able to combine money-making and genuine self-improvement)."


Anonymous said...

Steve, I'd like to comment on your thought that a small percentage of gurus "do think they've "hit on" something that may be of benefit to others."

I would say it is likely they all believe this, otherwise it would be difficult for them to sustain the illusion of their special status and enlightened wisdom. To embrace the role of a guru, they have to start with a particular kind of pathology, which includes narcissism and susceptibility to irrational ideas (if narcissism was not irrational enough).

I suspect that those gurus who are shaky in their beliefs at first grow more delusional and convinced about specialness of their mission with the passage of time and increase in the number of their followers.

The more often they repeat their mantras, they more they self-indoctrinate. Gurus are as susceptible to mind tricks as their followers, if not more so. Increasing profits help, too, in dispensing with a possibility of critical thought and self-examination; but I think that profits, as enticing as they are, are a secondary motive for perpetuating gurudom. The primary one seems to be malignant narcissism.

Some gurus are relatively harmless, others decidedly less so. But all gurus should be considered guilty until proven innocent.

Steve Salerno said...

Elizabeth, though I very much agree with (and once again admire) the overall thrust of your comment here, it also strikes me that you don't seem to end up where you started. At the outset you say that they they're all true believers, and then by the end of it you're saying that they should be considered guilty until proven innocent. Though I think I know what's going on here, I do have to ask: If they're true believers in what they're doing, then don't they at least have to get some brownie points for sincerity? Or are you saying in essence that they're true believers only because they're pathological, and thus deserve no more sympathy for their commitment than, say, a Ted Bundy deserved for his?

Anonymous said...

The latter.

And, thanks. :)

Anonymous said...

One of the biggest complaints I have about the SHAM world is its lack of introspection. Self-examination is the hallmark of a person who is willing to grow and change and admit sometimes we are ugly. Self-examination is uncomfortable and hard on the ego. Now I see gurus using this "take responsibility" mantra without understanding what they are saying. If they were really willing to take responsibility, they would say, "I don't know if my ideas will work for you, because each person has an individual journey to take." Would you buy that guru's book, seminar, cruise, or what not? The average person wants some form of guarantee for their money and no honest person can guarantee anything, but death. The average person wants to hear that they can take the golden steps, the course in faith, the living in the now, or whatever is being offered to happy land, which does not exist outside of their minds. When the sad follower comes down and realizes he or she is not much better than before, instead of the guru being compassionate and honest, the guru offers another "package." This is lack of introspection on the guru's part. Elizabeth is right about "guilty until proven innocent." A guru is guilty until he or she can admit of their failure and exploitation.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon, your passage, "If they were really willing to take responsibility, they would say, 'I don't know if my ideas will work for you, because each person has an individual journey to take.' Would you buy that guru's book, seminar, cruise, or what not?" is the crux of it. You are absolutely correct about the personal journey--that is the very essence of Self--and the answer to the question you pose is of course a resounding No; most people would not buy the book, and certainly they would buy the seminar (not at Tony Robbins prices) or go on the cruise. And that is exactly why the gurus--realizing this--offer their insincere guarantees.

Anonymous said...

Anon and Steve, well, but here is the rub of the crux ;) -- people who are capable of honest self-examination and taking responsibility for their words and actions do *not* become gurus.

Anyone who is able to say 'I don't know if my ideas will work for you, because each person has an individual journey to take' is automatically rejected from the path to gurudom. (And they would never aspire to it in the first place. It is just not in their psychological make-up.)
Guruing is the one position for which un-deluded non-egomaniacs need not apply.

As to gurus being insincere, Steve, I think that there may be a distinction between the "real" guru and his smaller, commercial version, anointed by the media etc. with the main purpose of peddling a product. The latter may have an inkling as to the insincerity of his enterprise, but I imagine the former does not. Where a whole exalted ideology is involved, I think it's a different level of delusion.

But in the overall SHAM of things, these distinctions may not matter much, after all.

(And, as always, I may be wrong.)

"nat" said...

To Elizabeth: You do the same thing Steve does and I wish both of you would stop doing it b/c it sounds insincere. You spend paragraphs stating all these things you believe to be true. You do it in the most cynical and disparaging language, cleverly making fun of the other side. Then somewhere along the line, or at the end of it you throw in "but I could be wrong" to cover yourself in case someone accuses you of being arrogant or headstrong. That doesn't fool anyone you know. ;)

Steve: You're going to want to reject this as "a personal attack" but it isn't really. I'm talking about peoples' style of arguing and I believe that is relevant to your blog.

Steve Salerno said...

I agree, "Nat." It is relevant. I can't speak for Elizabeth, but I can only tell you, in my case, that I never assume automatically that I'm "right" in some objective, metaphysical sense--even when I strongly believe something (in fact, sometimes especially when I strongly believe something). And I think SHAMblog regulars will tell you that I "walk the walk" when it comes to admitting opposing viewpoints, and allowing the possibility of my being "wrong" in the overall.

Anonymous said...

Nat, but that's the beauty of the blog -- and I'm grateful for it.

Here we can share our opinions, headstrong, arrogant and mistaken if be. And why not?

I can't stand gurus, so you bet I'll have strong opinions on the subject -- and, boy, am I happy to know that at least one other person shares them with me (thank you, Steve and Anons). And we have only scratched the subject here, imo.

But, even though it may sound coy, the disclaimer about being wrong is sincere -- how could it not be? I would consider it more of an invitation to others to present their own, presumably very different, opinions, so we can spar -- and learn something new in the exchange.

Anonymous said...

P.S. And if I do overboard, I can trust Steve's moderating to stop me from making a total idiot of myself, no?

Steve Salerno said...

I wouldn't count on that, Elizabeth, inasmuch as folks would tell you that my track record--in terms of stopping myself from looking like an idiot--has been spotty, at best. :)

Anonymous said...

Steve, I just read your response to Nat and I second it (esp. the following: "I never assume automatically that I'm "right" in some objective, metaphysical sense--even when I strongly believe something (in fact, sometimes especially when I strongly believe something").

Reading your writing, btw, I never get an impression that you do (assume that you're automatically right, etc.)

On the contrary, I see and appreciate the humility of unknowing you consistently present under the biting and ironic tone of your words.

Anonymous said...

Steve, not that it still matters, but I should have said: *go* overboard and *not* knowing, instead of unknowing(?). Sigh. Still need ESL lessons.

(Obviously too late for that idiot thing ;).

Anonymous said...

Steve, your question about gurus' motivation has been on my mind and, rushing out the door, I do not think I answered it the way I wanted to.

You asked:
"If they're true believers in what they're doing, then don't they at least have to get some brownie points for sincerity? Or are you saying in essence that they're true believers only because they're pathological, and thus deserve no more sympathy for their commitment than, say, a Ted Bundy deserved for his?"

I agreed with the latter, which was the essence of my conclusion on the necessity of judging gurus guilty before they are proven innocent. I stand by it, but...

When I revisit your idea of brownie points for sincerity and sympathy for commitment, I wimp out.

Most of us are true believers in what we are doing -- whether it's writing books, or blogging, or whatever we choose to occupy our time. And some of us may even be delusional in our pursuits, who's to say for certain. ;)

So by the virtue of universal sympathy that all of us earn simply for being alive and trying to manage it as well as we can, gurus, overall, deserve it too. But sympathy should blind us to the real motives behind their actions.

Which brings me to another mitigating issue here -- our own responsibility for creating gurus. If it were not for the public demand, gurus would not exist.

It appears that the guru phenomenon requires two colluding factors: the public need for certitude and relatively simple answers to complex life problems that you have often criticized here (that need is usually exacerbated by any social discord and upheaval -- economic, religious, political); and the presence of a charismatic, deluded and/or cunning (but always grandiose) individual who is willing to fulfill that need by making unrealistic and often downright harmful promises based on his own, usually deluded, POV.

Some groups even purposefully groom their gurus (i.e. the n-th incarnation of the Buddha selected in a small child, and subsequently worshiped and nurtured for his role -- a mind-boggling practice, imo.)

The greater the chaos in the group/society, the easier a guru will be elected and championed -- and the less his ideas questioned. We can see this on a mass scale with political figures who are able to mobilize a whole society around their agenda (e.g. your "Obama-non"), even if that agenda is murky or dangerous; but also in smaller and more sophisticated circles with various spiritual leaders, therapists, or artists who gather faithful and unquestioning admirers around them -- and use them to satisfy their needs.

Seems we all get the gurus we deserve...

I'm also still mulling over your thought that gurus can be purposefully insincere and in it just for the material profits. And I'm still somewhat torn on it.

What I think is going on is that we (i.e. non-narcissistic individuals --
a very generous we, admittedly ;) can see the disparity between the guru's promises and reality, and between their words and actions.

And, in our ability to empathize, we suspect that the guru must know the truth as well, somewhere "deep down" (and perhaps even feel bad -- that's how we project our conscience on others), so naturally we assume he must be purposefully deceiving us with some ulterior motives in mind. IOW, we apply our standards to him and conclude that he is premeditated and insincere in his actions.

While some more commercial gurus may fall into this category, I still think that it it not usually the case. In the guru's universe (which is located largely and firmly in his head, or more accurately in his unstable and fragile ego), all that happens, happens "for a reason" (yes, here we go).

And the reason is that they are special (anointed, enlightened, chosen, you pick). They deserve all the accolades and perks of gurudom -- why, the universe (their god, etc.) has chosen them for this special role and now it only reflects what is duly theirs ("The Secret," aka Gurudom 101. It's really a how-to manual of narcissistic-like cognitive disturbance.)

Notice that those who have a lifestyle/philosophy to sell (The Secret, The Now, the what have you) can do it without any cognitive dissonance because that very lifestyle/philosophy has worked for them -- and very well at that. Why, "The Secret" folks' delusional and grandiose aspirations came true, didn't they? They got what they dreamed of and then some.

Tolle was saved and transformed by his suddenly obtained ability to focus on here and now, wasn't he? He's been living happily ever after since. If it worked for the guru, it's gotta work for you -- there is no doubt in the guru's mind, because, well, there is never doubt in the guru's mind. It's all sincere.

There is no doubt in the guru's mind that things are as they are supposed to be -- that their every whim, no matter how nasty or ridiculous -- is a just expression of some larger preordained design in which they play the central role. (And again, we have some responsibility here, because we support this belief.) This mindset allows them to justify any behavior and do things, without a pang of self-reflection or conscience, that either freeze normal people in horror or send them rolling to the floor in laughter. (See the qrotesque excesses of various quasi-religious leaders, for example.)

Gurus are like psychological vampires that feast on unsuspecting but vulnerable humans, draining them of identity and free will. And like vampires (or so we are told), they are difficult if not impossible to harness and disable. That is because they live in that very own, self-contained and self-perpetuating universe that does not have many, if any, real contact points with the emotional universe the rest of us inhabit. They are vaccinated against reality of other people's emotions and experiences by their own delusions of grandeur.

Gurus will not tolerate dissent or even the smallest hint of criticism, because to them criticism has universe-shattering consequences. What's shattered is that overblown -- and because of its size, wobbly and fragile -- ego of theirs. To protect its existence (because that is what's at stake here) they will destroy their critics in self-righteous rage.

Now, we may think that this last blow to the guru's ego was all that was needed to take him down, but in his mind (= his world) this was a sign that, say, his god (universe, etc.) wants him to double his grandiose efforts (preferably in a new setting and with new, more faithful disciples). (What does not kill me, makes me stronger -- here we go again.)

So there is a reason (many, actually) why the guru's narcissism is described as malignant; but as sick as it can be, I believe that it is not insincere. Not anymore that Ted Bundy's murderous behavior was insincere -- after all, he did what murderous psychopaths do: kill people. In a world without conscience, which is a psychopath's world, this is normal (sincere) behavior.

In the guru's (= narcissist's) head/universe everything also fits well together and there is no room for self-doubt or reflection. That's just how things are: grandiose and perfect -- and well-deserved, by him, in both. Sincere.

Anonymous said...

Somewhere there I say, "But sympathy should blind us to the real motives behind their actions."

I meant to say, "sympathy should NOT blind us..."

(Hmm... :)

Steve Salerno said...

You Freudians and your slips.

Myself, I kinda like being blinded by sympathy. At least in my personal life. ;)

Thank you again for taking the time and effort to compose such thoughtful and solidly anchored comments. No wonder my readers would probably rather hear from you than me!

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Steve, for letting me air my thoughts on your blog! (And to my fellow bloggers, I apologize for the ridiculous length of my posts.)

You say:
Myself, I kinda like being blinded by sympathy. At least in my personal life. ;)


Yes, I like that kind of blindness, too. (And was caught saying so, apparently.)

But I also struggle with it, because with it comes gullibility and (what others often perceive as) naivete, which, as my experience teaches me, is not always such a useful trait. Especially when I try to understand why people do what they do.

But yes, there are worse sins than sympathy.