Thursday, February 18, 2010

Of life and love-nubs, sex and selves, hype and help. La finale. (And, yes, the last post of its kind.)

Be good at what you do. Whatever it is you do. If you're going to be a hit a good one.
Frank Salerno, circa 1977

[Click here to read beginning of series.]

My father was not as well-known as Socrates for his philosophy. But he got off some memorable lines. He offered the above advice jokingly—I think, for it could be hard to tell in those final mournful days of his batt
le against bladder cancer, when Dad washed down everything, including the generous helpings of perc that got him through the day, with even more generous amounts of beer.

His point, however, was taken. Do what you do, and do it well. I thought of that the last time I was in The City, grabbing coffee and a brownie in a cramped, very crowded cafe overlooking Sixth Avenue amid the gaiety of Christmastime in New York (which, for my money, is like Christmastime nowhere else). One of the busboys, squeezing his way past some of the patrons in the hubbub, noticed a small area of crumbs on the just-vacated table next to me. He all but sprinted back behind the counter, grabbed a cleaning rag, sprinted back to the table and wiped that table-top down with a thoroughness and sense of purpose that seemed more befitting a Michelangelo putting the finishes touches on the ceiling at Sistine. He even stood back for a second and inspected his handiwork before sprinting somewhere else in the cafe. This kid was all of 17 or 18, probably working his first job—and let's face it, it's a crappy job—but he cared. It meant something to him. It was his job, and he was gonna do it well, dammit. As anyone who's been in a fast-food environment or a mall boutique lately knows, there aren't enough kids like that out there. Hell, there aren't enough adults like that. And I think I know why, at least in part.

See, there's another layer of meaning to Dad's remark. I don't advocate for becoming a hit man or doing anything else that will leave you teetering dangerously at the edge of normalcy; to be honest, I feel like I've spent a good part of my life just beyond that precipice, and yes, it can take its toll. At the same time, it has its rewards. If nothing else, I feel that I'v
e lived my life—was the best me I was capable of being. I'm not talking about narcissism here; I'm not talking about the need to shower myself with material possessions or take off for Madagascar on a whim. I'm not talking about being oblivious to the needs of others, or being conscience-less when it comes to weighing my own interests against theirs; indeed, the people who know me well (there are one or two) would probably tell you—and this is ironic—that I may be the textbook definition of "codependency," as the 12-steps tried to sell the concept to America back in the late 1980s. No, I'm talking more about being true to who I was. Besides, I know for a fact that I could not have lived successfully pretending to be someone else. I would've self-destructed—as I, in fact, pretty much did, every time I tried.

We are, each of us, individuals. We are not just another thin slice cut from some Brobdingnagian cake, where each and every other slice looks and tastes the same. It follows that if our search is truly for self-actualization, we should attempt to maximize what we inherently are—not run from it in order to embrace some carefully processed, universal vision of Life on Earth.

I have to believe that if more people thought—examined things from all sides—they'd find more personally relevant answers to life's mysteries. Then maybe they wouldn't need to peruse those same damned magazines (or books) month after month, hoping against hope to find something that elevates their lives above the quotidian, something that actually helps them be the unique persons they are. Even when it comes to the search for suitable partners, how can we expect to find a "soul-mate" by employing the sort of shop-manual, one-size-fits-all approach to dating that's advocated by (and embodied in) books like The Rules? I hereby give you, in its totality, the chapter on relationships from Steve's self-help book: When you go on dates,* for Christ's sake, just be yourself! How else are you going to find someone who likes you for who you are?

(And here's the funniest part. Let's suppose that self-help really, really gains societywide traction, such that everybody has read "the literature," all the major works in the genre. Now think about the simplest career advice
say, something like "Always make eye contact with the person who's interviewing you." OK, now we're all making eye contact with the people who are interviewing us. So...where are we? Back to square one, is where we are. We've accomplished nothing.)

The bigger point is that when we stray too far from what we were "meant to be," something inside us rebels, chafing at that betrayal. This is what I meant in an earlier post about unintended consequences. Yes, it is possible that all those books and seminars, with their 10 rules and 7 keys and secrets unlocked, may provide you with the outer trappings of success. But they may also kill you, the real you, in the process. I submit that you may well be far less happy with what you have become—even if you are more outwardly successful (whatever that means)—because what you have now become is a reproach to the individual you were prewired to be. You'll exist in a constant state of inner tension, not unlike the hundreds of millions in the former Soviet Union who lived their profoundly constrained lives, doing exactly what they were told to do, knowing that the penalties for dissension—which is to say, for personal freedom
were extreme. This helps explain why so many of them turned to the bottle.

That kid in that cafe was a rarity. Most of us will not wipe down that table, certainly not with such passion, unless it's what we really want to do in life. We'll give it lip service, go through the perfunctory motions, and we'll hate ourselves in the morning, if not all day long. We do not as a rule take genuine pride in "achievements" that are unaligned with what we truly want(ed) to do and be. And we can't much help what we truly want to do and be.

More and more, science refutes the idea that we are blank slates at birth. More and more, science affirms that what we are, whatever we are, was largely present in the womb. We are tall or we are short, we are gay or we are straight, we are left-handed or right, we have dimples or not, blue eyes or brown. So too, we are moody or we are mellow. We are logical or emotional. Artistic or analytical. Dependable or erratic. It's all in there, in large measure. That is what I believe to be true.

I realize that a series of posts like this is bound to have overtones of elitism and intellectual snobbery (or at least the pretension to same). That is not my intent. But one thing I do know about myself is that I think for myself. Which is to say, I don't (knowingly) regurgitate pithy quotes or even whole arguments (as some do) that have been postulated by others, which I present to the world in the guise of "thought."** Further, I take almost nothing as a given, which can result in some pretty bizarre areas of inquiry (as those of you who've been with us a while can attest). I started this blog as an adjunct to the publication of SHAM, but I have maintained it all this time, largely, because I like to hear what people think. What people themselves think. And so if I ask you why blowing up Congress or having sex with roosters is wrong, I don't want you to quote from some law or one of the Commandments, or tell me "that's just how it is." I want to hear why you think it's wrong. My whole life, I've wanted to hear people talking as individuals, as selves. Not as reflections of what society (or Church; or the legal system; or Tony Robbins) made them. We can't help what we've internalized to this point in life. But we don't have to default to that body of core knowledge in approaching each new situation, and we certainly don't have to define ourselves by it.

So please, do me this favor: Don't call what you find on all those shelves in bookstores "self-actualization." Call it acculturation or selling out or whatever you want to call it. Just be clear on this: When you learn how to fit in, how to be better at what society wants you to be, how to make life go more "smoothly" and such, it is not self-help. It is the opposite. Because self-help does not actualize. It homogenizes.

This is likely the last post of this type that you will read on SHAMblog. In any case, our new format launches on March 1...otherwise known as the conclusion of my 60th year, all of which were, I swear, spent on this very planet. :)

* I am told that younger people don't really "date" anymore. Primarily they just fuck, see how they like it, and decide if they want to fuck that person again. Pardon my French. But I allow myself more leeway in footnotes.
** When I do use quotes, as in this series, they are more like mini-headlines, or what we in the magazine biz call "decks." Or I use them to be "catchy." In any case, they are always the result of the ensuing argument, not the impetus for it.


RevRon's Rants said...

Great post, Steve. While we might not agree as to the extent to which our lives are predetermined, I have to agree that who we really are is, for the most part, cast prior to our birth. However, as we go through our lives, “what we are” tends to evolve, in part as a response to our environment. Who we are is, IMO, more closely analogous to an onion than a rock, with an infinite number of layers which, when peeled away, reveal new aspects of our personalities. Some of these shifts are profound, some subtle, but they are shifts, nonetheless.

The real challenge, as I see it, is in recognizing that those shifts do not represent an emergence into some be all, end all definition of self. In part, our changes are in response to some societal pressure, and may well represent an aberration and a departure from a path to our “true self.” Yet, at the same time, they can be a step toward greater insight as to what truly drives us, outward manifestations of such steps notwithstanding. Other times, we might find ourselves peeling away a layer and finding a new “self” that more closely resonates with our core; our “primal hunger, if you will. The former instances might offer a degree of satisfaction, simply because they make our lives easier to tolerate, and even more enjoyable. To discount their value as being mere homogenization is, IMO, to waste a real gift, for we are indeed happiest when we experience a sense of belonging. So long as that belonging isn’t mutually exclusive with our core desires, it can be an invaluable asset, even helping us to better know those core desires.

At different times in my life, I have been a weak and frightened victim, a violent bully, a deeply pacifist disciple, and an angry poseur. Each “me” was true to my “self” at the time, yet none actually encompassed or defined my essence. It was only when I began to acknowledge that I am, at different times, each of those selves that I began to feel truly comfortable in my own skin, despite the fact that it felt at times ill-fitting or ugly. Thankfully, those times are somewhat balanced by an awareness that I am also at times intelligent and caring (albeit not to the extent that the “disciple” me would aspire.

It is arguable whether my increasing comfort is the product of acquired wisdom, or merely an increasing unwillingness to fret about things. Perhaps a little of both. I try to “fit in” more than I did when I was younger, but not to the point where I feel like I’m selling out. Perhaps the very act of selling out has become less distasteful to me… I don’t really know. All I know is that the more I change, the more I stay the same (or at least, the more I acknowledge and accept the parts of me that I might once have rejected, while laughing at the constriction caused by those parts that I hoped would define me).

I always seem to go back to the need for balance, as you know. Perhaps this is the most critical area of life to which that balance needs be applied; to suspend being judgmental about our underlying motivations, while at the same time using good judgment about the way in which we allow those motivations to be manifest. To truly accept responsibility, while rejecting the “blame” that serves only as an impediment to our growth.
Hi. My name is Ron, and I’m an asshole. And a saint. A horn-dog and a monk. Happy as a clam, and weeping inside. In short, a human being, living life as best I can, and screwing it up at the same time. IMO, the very paradox that is each of us is the one thing that is predetermined and inescapable. Once we can accept that, we can finally be true to ourselves. Perhaps even happy most of the time.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron: Through all of this, and whether or not we found agreement on a given point, your regular bursts of insight have been a pleasure to read and ponder, all the more so because they're apparently off-the-cuff (which amazes me). I'm sure I'll come back to these words of yours now and then for the pure pleasure of reading them and thinking about what I've read...which is what once drew all of us crazies to this craft that today stares into the abyss of obsolescence, sadly marginalized by vampire tales, political tell-alls, the opportunistic memoirs of pilots and other accidental heroes, and instructions on building a better set of abs.

RevRon's Rants said...

Thank you, Steve. "Off the cuff" pretty well describes not just my writing technique, but my whole life (for better or worse). As to "regular bursts of insight," keep in mind that even a stopped clock is right twice a day. :-)

Matt Dick said...


You said:

More and more, science refutes the idea that we are blank slates at birth.

and also:

Just be clear on this: When you learn how to fit in, how to be better at what society wants you to be, how to make life go more "smoothly" and such, it is not self-help. It is the opposite.

Do you give any credence to the idea that for some people, fitting in is exactly who they were "meant to be"? Isn't it possible that as a social animal there are those who are served well by the feeling that they are a small homogeneous portion of a larger whole?

I don't know what I think of this idea myself, but I think it's a credible counter to your proposition here.

Cosmic Connie said...

stv, wtf do u mn whn u say writg is obslscnt crft? lol! :-)

Seriously. This has been one of your best and most thoughtful series of posts. I'm not going to attempt to match Ron's eloquence but will simply say I've had a lot of fun on SHAMblog and look forward to seeing your "new format" -- though I hope you won't completely abandon the old.

As for Ron...well, what can I say. I am continually amazed at his ability to just sit down and... write -- beautifully. (He can also just stand up in front of a room and talk about ANYTHING. No fear of public speaking.) If only he would finish the book he started years ago... but we've been too busy penning or polishing books for other people. I'm hoping someday it will be Ron's turn to shine.

And perhaps it's your turn to shine too, Steve. After Sweatgate, people are at least more willing to listen seriously to critics of the SHAM-my, selfish-help, New-Wage culture. I'm sure I'm far from the only one who appreciates your intelligent criticism over the years.

Steve Salerno said...

Matt: In a word, yes. This post is intended mostly as a refutation of the "self" in self-help. Now, if you don't really have a true self--which is to say, if functioning as a social animal supersedes all else in your personality--so be it. I have no quarrel with such people (just as N.O.W. should have no quarrel with women who personally oppose abortion and decide to be stay-at-home moms to their nine kids). In a sense, those people are the true codependents, in clinical terms: They define themselves entirely by their ability to be social and conduct themselves in a manner that is pleasing to (and draws adulation and rewards from) others.

(I'm somewhat reminded here of the old paradox: If all Americans vote to become a Communist country, then isn't it still a democracy, since everybody voted for it? Short answer: No.)

But I still say, that isn't self-actualization, in the sense that the books imply. It's acculturation. In point of fact, when we encounter someone in this society who is a true Self, we tend to ostracize him, not celebrate him. I think that the vast majority of people feel obliged to try to "make life go more smoothly," even though they have any number of inner impulses and feelings that do not mesh well with the notion of "smoothness." So when they buy a "self-help" book (to learn to better fit in), it represents a surrender of the individual within; a surrender of self. That may be the highest irony here--that people are buying "self-help" books in order to learn how to stop being themselves.

Rational Thinking said...

Steve wrote:

More and more, science refutes the idea that we are blank slates at birth.

We aren't blank slates, but, as Ron has noted, that doesn't mean that environment doesn't play a part.

This is a little off topic, but I was reading an article recently about how the human decision-making process takes place in the unconscious mind, and that the conscious mind will then proceed to 'justify' that decision to itself. I wonder. Does that mean, then, that our genes rule? Richard Dawkins wrote something recently about how some people are, inexplicably, just so darn nice (I'm paraphrasing, of course) that we should be trying to nurture that trait. It seems to me, from your post, that you consciously (whatever that really means) consider the effects of your decisions on others. That's a rare quality in these sham-dom days.

I second your opinion of Ron's posts - always interesting, and on this occasion in particular, a delight to read.

And Steve, your father sounds a very wise man, with a fully-developed sense of humour - I love the quote.

RevRon's Rants said...

"people are buying "self-help" books in order to learn how to stop being themselves."

Would it not be equally valid to state that people buy mirrors to help them not look like they really look? Is the mirror therefore a hindrance to self-realization, or a tool to be used to facilitate function (even self-acceptance) within a given setting?

As I see it, the real problem lies in the marketing of distorted mirrors, as well as consumers' obsession with achieving a narrowly-defined reflection. "Fitting in" can be a valuable exercise, just as can being "true to self," so long as neither effort is carried to the extreme, and to the detriment of the other.

I brush my Hagrid-esque hair (in front of a mirror) in order to look more acceptable to those I encounter, but long ago realized that striving for straight, well-behaved hair is a futile endeavor, a fact for which I place no blame upon the mirror.

It's my parents' fault. :-)

Rational Thinking said...

Ron wrote:

"Would it not be equally valid to state that people buy mirrors to help them not look like they really look? Is the mirror therefore a hindrance to self-realization, or a tool to be used to facilitate function (even self-acceptance) within a given setting?"

This is such a good question. I wonder too, whether the writer of this blog, or the many excellent commentators, think that self-directed change is possible? I am thinking particularly of a 'conscious' decision to cultivate certain traits?

Steve Salerno said...

RT: Another irony (in a post and series of comments too full of them): My codependency has often backfired. Sometimes, I have learned, you do people no favors by "feeling on their behalf" or worrying too much about their possible responses to what you do.

Ron: Not sure about the mirrors. I think mirror-abusers (and my daughter happens to be one) fall into two camps--those who love looking at themselves (I see plenty of 'em down at the gym; both genders) and those who hate looking at themselves, so they use the mirror as a guide to what most needs fixing. (I won't specify the camp into which my daughter falls, IMO.) But at least, in the case of a mirror, you are responding on your own to its relatively passive cues, based on what you yourself see (or think you see). To me, that's not a strong parallel to what's going on in self-help, where people are, in effect, asking "the mirror" to render judgment on them in an active, overt way.

And at this point I must curtail my point-by-point responses to comments, but rest assured I read (and think about) everything. For what that's worth.

RevRon's Rants said...

"To me, that's not a strong parallel to what's going on in self-help, where people are, in effect, asking "the mirror" to render judgment on them in an active, overt way."

Thus my disdain for those who create distorted mirrors, which are by no means passive. No different from someone who wants to be thinner, and buys a mirror that will make them look so. The problem, as I see it, lies in the willingness of so many self-help snake oil salesmen to sell crooked mirrors!

Soylent said...

I've been enjoying these types of posts and this is a really sweet one that actually inspired a little "hell yeahing" by me.

Consequently you are really doing yourself out of a fortune by just giving this stuff away on a blog.

Perhaps you could print in a book padding it out with large type and even bigger headings and call it "We are all individuals: Self-Actualization 10 Steps to Exploring the Real You in 4 Days" and maybe throw in a little firewalking seminars. You'll be rich, rich I tell you.

Oh wait, what was that you said about being true to yourself? Dammit, always standing in the way of earning a fortune

Mike Cane said...

Really, Steve, this is the best damned post you've written here. This is A++.

rarchimedes said...

This all seems a bit self indulgent to me. You take from science this very general idea, and then ignore all the rest that science tells us about our nature and our nurture. We are all born little xenophobes. If we did not work fairly hard at it, we would remain so, and it is apparent that we quite easily return to xenophobia at the drop of a stressful hat. Then, we have this fight or flight reflex that is so useful in our daily social lives. I could go on, but I believe the point is made. We need constantly to fight against our basic nature just to have a society of any kind, and we often lose that battle.

You seem so concerned that all these self help books, mags, seminars, etc., will homogenize us, thinking that homogenization is a bad thing. That deserves some examination. Given that all of these things only work to some small degree and are vastly nullified by our basic recidivism even when they do work, why worry about them. Yes, I know that they are annoying, but consider how that person might be without the attempt at self help. Besides, there are so many self help things and so contradictory, that I have little fear that we will have a great horde marching down the street in lockstep. That seems to be largely reserved for social movements or religious nuttery or do I repeat myself. Now, I probably dislike the null-speak that arises out of these various movements more than the average person, but I have learned to fend off their efforts to drag me into whatever is their latest obsession, and that is enough for me.

Besides, history is replete with the cautionary tales about those who indulge their basic natures or "desires" as some would have it. Those are the true submerging commonalities that are all too easily spotted in ourselves and in others. I am not religious, but the Catholics "seven deadly sins" aren't too far off the mark as descriptions of what we will do if we do not pay attention to our basic nature. Now, I'm not into full time resistance on all of those, and I am not sure just how deadly they always are, but it sure doesn't pay to overdo any of them.

Maybe you could retitle that blog as "Much Ado About Nothing", but that one is already taken. At least titles cannot be copyrighted. Maybe we could just call it a fit of personal pique.

Steve Salerno said...

Rarch: Nicely put.

LizaJane said...

RevRon, hi. Wonderful post. However, I don't think Steve is saying that our LIVES are predetermined (and correct and disappoint me if I'm wrong, Steve), but rather that our fundamental "outlook" (positive/negative, quick-tempered/even-keeled, etc.) and, to some extent, our deepest desires or leanings (such as which gender we're attracted to) is predetermined. You can work with or against these traits, but fighting them all your life is, in the most cases, going to cause inner turmoil that manifests as what self-help and popular culture call "issues" and what I call "problems," or even better, "tsuris." That is -- addictions, relationship woes, job dissatisfaction, trouble finding "happiness."

Matt - You've definitely got a point there.

LizaJane said...

Rational Thinking -- hello. I think that some things about us are "changeable," others less so. One thing I do think you can change is how you react and respond to others. Perhaps that's more a learned skill, and a function of maturity (which, let's face it, is NOT a natural occurrence just because we get older -- some people never actually grow up), than a fundamental shift in our innate personality or "who we are."

LizaJane said...

Rarchimedes said: "We are all born little xenophobes. If we did not work fairly hard at it, we would remain so, and it is apparent that we quite easily return to xenophobia at the drop of a stressful hat..."

Do you have any kids? Because if you do, surely you've noticed that little kids (I mean toddler, not snarky jr. high kids) are not afraid of anyone, and don't judge anyone as "better or worse or evil or good" based on their differences -- whether color or clothing or disability or anything else -- but only by how willing they are to play nicely together. Xenophobia is learned.

RevRon's Rants said...

"I don't think Steve is saying that our LIVES are predetermined (and correct and disappoint me if I'm wrong..."

To quote the Dread Pirate Roberts:
"Get used to disappointment." :-)

"You can work with or against these traits, but fighting them all your life is, in the most cases, going to cause inner turmoil..."

Or perhaps - dare I say it - emotional growth? As one who was once filled with (and frequently acting upon) an all-pervasive rage, yet who learned not only to control it, but to release it altogether, I'd have to disagree with the assertion that we are incapable of overcoming those seemingly hard-wired traits. And I - as well as the people I encounter - are the better for it.

Steve Salerno said...

Steve is saying that our lives are predetermined.

RevRon's Rants said...

"kids ... don't judge anyone as "better or worse or evil or good" based on their differences..."

On what planet?! I spent years teaching Sunday School for a group of normal, good kids, and had recurring visions of "Lord Of The Flies." Competition (often very aggressive) among them started early - likely in their hard-wiring - and would manifest unchecked until some authority figure appeared. Any kid who seemed "different" for whatever reason rapidly became the target of the others' aggression. And these were good kids, too, not delinquents.

G said...

Well, having sex with roosters is clearly wrong as it is unethical. Rape generally is you see... as for blowing up congress...well..that is a much more difficult situation, I would say more of a morals thing than an ethics thing. I mean can we be sure it would get ALL the congress-critters? Would innocents be injured...we need to know before we can say really :)
Cool blog. I am now a regular reader.