Friday, July 27, 2012

Sound and fury not quite signifying nothing...

By the time of SHAM's 2005 publication, the Recovery/Victimization movement seemed to have run its course, nudged out of favor by the kind of virulent, No-Limits Empowerment soon embodied in The Secret. Recently, though, I've noticed a resurgence of woe-is-meism, and though no one can specify the precise cause, I'm sure the financial and social dislocations of the past several years have had something to do with it. Many Americans are feeling down again, disheartened if not somewhat defeated; and rather than just saying, "Hey, yanno, life pretty much sucks nowadays," they're looking inside themselves for answers. Thus we are witnessing a second wave of 12-step programs addressing ever-more-nichified ailments. (This has to be one of my favorites: Am I to assume that, following the AA model, once you've vowed to give up emotions, you can never have another one again, even just socially...?)

Genevieve Smith wrote about one such group, Underearner's Anonymous, for the June issue of Harper's. After the piece ran I was contacted by a very nice Harper's editor-lady and invited to submit a letter in response. For no pay. That's how it goes with letters at Harper's; you're supposed to consider it an honor merely to be solicited to write one. (Don't get me wrong, I've written actual articles for Harper's a number of times and been paid quite well. That was some years ago, however.) So I wrote my letter of response. The very nice editor-lady emailed me two weeks later to praise my offering to the skies...and also to tell me, almost in afterthought, that they'd simply run out of space for it. She expressed her hope that I would publish it somewhere, as it "deserved" to be read.

So you know what, I'm going to run it here, and unedited, no less, for that is my right as administrator of this damned blog. In fact, I've even decided to pay myself an honorarium of $500. Take that, Harper's!

Genevieve Smith's piece, “In Recovery,” reminds us that for all the hopeful affirmations and triumphant visualizations—which are meant to furnish (or at least feign) that most precious of postmodern emotional commodities, Empowerment—12-step programs ultimately disempower by encouraging participants to define themselves by their failures. The assault on the psyche begins with the familiar, baleful greeting—“My name is so-and-so and I'm a [fill in the blank],” and segues quickly to the very first step in the 12-part litany, wherein one confesses to being powerless over one's problem. And this assault is all the more harmful because it unfolds in a group dynamic, which reinforces a sense of impotence against some shared foe. This helps explain why questions remain about the efficacy of even the prototypical 12-step program, Alcoholics Anonymous. Evidence suggests that AA through the years has grossly overstated its success rate (not cure rate, for in recovery lore one is never cured), and that newer approaches, like cognitive behavioral therapy, may be far more useful.

But regardless of one's feelings on AA, there is no doubt that recovery-world has gone totally off the rails in recent decades, forever creating new classes and subclasses of so-called diseases to be mourned and treated. If recovery succeeds at anything, it is in promoting intense navel-gazing that perpetually seems to yield more lint as participants imagine new problems that don't exist and interpret minor slip-ups as symptoms of some major crippling syndrome. There are no mole hills in recovery; only mountains.

Whereas once we might have shrugged something off as a bad day or a bad break, recovery conceives even the mildest forms of adversity as confirming evidence of some lifelong malady that needs remediation: It's all your fault! (“I am an underearner, therefore I underearn.”) This undermines the stoicism and resiliency that once were hallmarks of the American ethos. So it is that, far from engineering true solutions, recovery merely tends to self-propagate: As Smith suggests, attendees often belong sequentially if not simultaneously to a number of such working groups as they strain to identify the (supposed) root cause of their malaise. The result is an endless battle against a succession of inchoate demons and/or addictions.

And things have only gotten worse since the advent of Rhonda Byrne's blockbuster DVD and book, The Secret, which sold the solipsistic belief that the external physical world is obligingly responsive to our inner dialog—that the Universe will send us that over which we obsess. It's meant as a secular prayer for an agnostic age, and has now been embraced as part of the recovery routine. Naturally, one is supposed to obsess one's way to prosperity and healing. But irony of ironies, this telekinetic view of life can be emotionally lethal in a recovery setting, because it implies that attendees have projected their inadequacies out into the Universe and thus are being repaid back in kind and in spades. (Bizarre as it sounds, Secret creator Rhonda Byrne went so far as to assert that Katrina victims had somehow invited the hurricane into their lives.) Failure is always a function of personal fault.

In truth, of course, many setbacks are random—“that's life”—and success is in large part a supply-and-demand numbers game: There is room on life's medal stand for very few of us. In the case at hand, when the unemployment rate is as high as it has been of late, many will underearn (if we earn at all). Especially when one is passionate about a hyper-competitive enterprise such as writing. The overarching point is that none of this moaning and maligning has much to do with the rudiments that historically have underwritten human progress: hard work, lots of practice, a certain amount of formal education (which imparts real knowledge, as opposed to mere “self-knowledge”), etc. Introspection and visualization are poor substitutes for action...but isn't visualization just so much easier and more fun?

The final and most tragic irony of recovery programs as well as all mass-market forms of so-called actualization is that they represent not self-help, but the utter abnegation of Self. Such regimens see success through the lens of a few one-size-fits-all bullet points, and reduce failure to pat, stigmatizing labels like “codependency” or “underearners syndrome.” In the land of self-help, we are not rich in the nuance and detail, the flaw and gift that make us uniquely, sublimely human; rather, we are characterless labels, blobs of psychic scars and dysfunction, and captives of our worst or unluckiest moments.


a/good/lysstener said...

It's good to see you doing so much blogging again, Steve. You started something big with your book and you shouldn't let your own thunder be stolen by others!

Plus I definitely think Harper's should have run your letter. I remember thinking when I read the piece, yes I subscribe, this is right up Steve's alley.

james jones said...

Brilliant post as usual. Funny as well; one quality which self-help new agers always seem deficient in, probably because comedy has a lot to do with destroying sacred cows instead of feeings them. If I ever feel in need of an antidote to sham thinking I just read some 1-star reviews of these popular self books on amazon. There are some good comedians on there.

roger o'keefe said...

Well done, Steve. They should have made room for it. Good to see you back to your core again. In fact I agree with Alyssa, it's good to see you blogging again in general. Sorry about the job thing. I'm sure it's for the best.