Monday, January 25, 2010

Self-help is not a remodel; it's window-dressing.

Whenever I "do media," I'm always asked a variant of the same question: "Isn't there anything in self-help that has value?" This came up again a few weeks ago in connection with that Big Event to which I keep alluding.

What I invariably think of when I'm asked that question is something I heard perhaps a dozen years ago from Dr. Laura; it was then one of her signature phrases, and may still be, though I haven't listened to the good (non-)doctor in a long while...and in that regard I'm not very different from lots of Americans: Despite a recent ratings recovery, Schlessinger is now heard on fewer than half the 450 stations sh
e boasted at her late-1990s peak, when she ran neck-and-neck with Limbaugh for talk-radio supremacy.

Anyway, here's the line:

Love is not an emotion; it's a behavior.
I suspect that she didn't invent the saying, and I'm really not that interested in who did (though I'm sure someone else will be). The point is, she brought the notion to the fore for me, and that first time I heard her speak it, it stopped me cold. I was driving on the beltway that circles Indianapolis, I-465, and I literally pulled off onto the shoulder to ponder the matter. Let's just say the thought had extreme relevance for me at the time.

Of course, Schlessinger didn't actually mean that love exists apart from the realm of feelings, per se. She meant that if you truly love someone, you show it in your actions. (I've alluded to this before on SHAMblog, with regard to the behavior of another guru, as it happens.) More importantly, she meant the converse: that it's absurd and hypocritical, if not downright repugnant, for a person to go around cooing I love you's all day unless the person is willing to walk the walk. Most often Dr. Laura would invoke the line as part of making a case for why a female caller stuck in a dead-end relationship should dump a man who, despite elaborate protestations of undying love, kept hurting her time and again.

But you know what? If that guidance originally struck me as a marvelous tool for thought clarification, it now strikes me as an equally marvelous example of the hollowness of self-help's pretty rhetoric—indeed, not unlike the empty I love you's themselves. Like so much of the wisdom that emanates from SHAMland, those eight words elicit oohs and aahs on first hearing—and, yes, may provoke some thought—but they're almost impossible to apply in the challenging settings where they're needed most. (In fairness to self-help, this is equally true of all of those time-honored proverbs about love, family, parenting and such that you get from Aunt Eloise, except that Aunt Eloise isn't going to charge you for them.) Ultimately the line was of no help to me in sorting out my personal travails, and even non-Dr. Laura found it inconvenient to apply that maxim (as well as others she liked to spout) consistently in her own life. For example, on her show and in her book, The 10 Commandments: The Significance of God's Laws in Everyday Life, Schlessinger also trumpeted the requirement to honor thy parents when they're older and can't care for themselves; it's vital, she wrote, that
parents, "although they may not feel wanted by family or society, are still given their appropriate reward." Nevertheless she allowed herself to become so estranged from her own mother that she didn't know that 77-year-old Yolanda Schlessinger had died (and was decomposing in her condo) till some weeks after the fact...and then she issued a statement that was striking for its coldness in spots, among other things informing listeners that her Mom "died as she chose to live, alone and isolated." I guess that's how a daughter loves and honors her mother, when the daughter is Laura Schlessinger.

I'm sure that if you asked Schlessinger herself, she'd say that the necessity of showing one's love should not be interpreted as the obligation to simply bestow endless dollops of affection and caring on people who can't or won't reciprocate. And she's probably right. Which leaves us with the question: How do you know when and where to draw such lines? How do we know that the line you draw today, in some current situation, is equally applicable to the situation you'll encounter a month or a year from now? Is your line necessarily transferable/relevant to me? Where is the line between the virulent narcissism sold in "codependency workshops" and the legitimate psychological codependency that traps people in masochistic relationships?

The genius of successful living, emotionally and professionally, comes down to the management of life's gray areas, those (myriad) places where one timeless proverb runs up against another ("haste makes waste" vs. "never put off till tomorrow what you can do today"; "two heads are better than one" vs. "too many cooks spoil the broth"). Sadly, those areas of philosophical tension are never reducible to a pat formula that works in all cases for all people.


LizaJane said...

My favorite examples of your premise:

"Distance makes the heart grow fonder."
"Familiarity breeds contempt."

Both, so true. And you can throw "Out of sight, out of mind" (which I never felt to be true, but might be for others) into the mix, as well.

sassy sasha said...

steve, one of the most amazing thigns to me was when i saw the pix of her online, OMG!! i'm starting to think is there any area of this woman's life where she isn't a hypocrite??

and dr laura if you're reading this you don't even look that good!

Mardi said...

That reminds me of Barbara DeAngelis. She looks nothing like the photos on her covers! Have they no shame?

Bob Collier said...

Hi Steve,

I noticed your guru watch under construction and thought you might be interested in this blog post I read today from a guy in the UK called Andrew T. Austin, which includes a reference to the James Ray deaths:

With best wishes.

weston said...

My favorite thoughts on this topic were by George Carlin. Obviously they lose something in the translation without hearing Carlin's impeccable delivery but:

"List of the people who ought to be killed...Starting with these people who read self help books…why do so many people need help?! Life is not that complicated. You get up, you go to work, eat three meals, you take one good sh*t and you go back to bed. What’s the f**king mystery?!

And the part I really don’t understand, if you’re looking for self help, why would you read a book, written by somebody else?! That’s not self help, that’s help!

There’s no such a thing as self help…if you did it yourself, you didn’t need help. You did it yourself!"

George Carlin

Steve Salerno said...

Weston: Yep. It's one reason among many why I open chapter 1 of my book with a quote from that very Carlin routine. :)

Anonymous said...

Hi Steve and everyone else, I'm new to this.

Steve , I loved most of 'Sham' and am loving this blog.

Regarding the 'feeling/behaviour' quote, I think Covey put it very well too, in the 7 Habits book with 'Love is a verb'. I've tried to have it influence my life a lot , specially my marriage, and I think its brilliant and works well. For me, reading the occasional self-help book enhances my life beautifully in a similar way to reading this blog and the comments does. Have you checked out 'The Winner's Bible' ? Just curious. Its big on a type of viualisation which is easy to dismiss as just more new-age crap except for something that I heard recently that did make me wonder a little bit.

When two sky-divers are free-falling, before they've opened their chutes, once they get separated, they can quickly get back together again not by contorting their bodies and thinking about adjusting their bodies according to aerodynamics, but by just looking at each other. They then start moving toward each other.

WAY off the subject but that does tend to happen with me. Perhaps like you , I'm a bit of a stirrer sometimes.

Katie said...

I came here looking for Guru information, being a cult refugee myself, but i am I found myself reading a lot of other stuff and it is really interesting.
I use to listened to the Dr.Laura show about 20 years ago. She would often say bad stuff about people who had Plastic Syrgery but I was surprised to see her recent face. She obviously had a face lift.
So much for that I guess.

Thanks for letting me post,

Steve Salerno said...

Katie: Thanks for dropping by. I'll look into that other thing you mentioned off-blog.