Friday, April 23, 2010

Ding-A-Ling Prose And The Slippery Word

I sometimes have a little fun with self-help programs, which fall somewhere on my long list of targets. As a concession to potential opponents, I'll state that I think there are most likely a few good self-help programs floating around out there. I sympathize with those who try to use them.

What I want to do now is distinguish between solid self-help advice and fluffy feel-good prose. I never look at books with titles like Chicken Soup for the Soul or Everything I Ever Needed To Know I Learned in Kindergarten. First, I consider such titles an insult to my intelligence. Second, I have no wish to read vague, flowery prose whose sole purpose is to shut down readers' brains and give them a fleeting sense of animal satisfaction.

Some local publication recently published a piece of feel-good slop called "Ten Rules for Being Human." I'd like to amuse myself for a time by unpacking some of this ding-a-ling prose.

The so-called 10 rules are vague and nonreferential and imply a constantly positive valence. In short, they're designed specifically to make the reader feel good about himself regardless of the reader's condition or environment.

One of the wearying aspects about American culture is that one is always obliged to be positive no matter how dire the situation is. Even when people get a diagnosis of Alzheimer's, schizophrenia or incurable cancer, they feel they must come up with some sort of positive statement about the prognosis. In much less extreme cases than the three I just listed, I've sometimes found myself wanting to say to a person, "Well, I really don't see anything positive in your situation." But I just stay silent, because I know that it's pretty much forbidden to say things like that.

Having said that, let me go back to my description of this list as one of so-called rules. I want to be clear: nothing in this list is a rule. The items in this list are assertions about what it is to be human. For example, it is asserted that people will learn lessons, will repeat lessons and never stop learning lessons. A rule would have to take a linguistic form such as "You must learn lessons." There is nothing like that in this list. There are no rules here. There is nothing the reader is obliged to do or refrain from doing.

Let's start looking at the text itself. No. 3 on the list asserts "there are no mistakes, only lessons." Item four asserts "lessons are repeated until they are learned."

If there are no mistakes, how exactly does one "learn" a lesson? The assertion that one can learn the lesson assumes that there is a correct way to respond to the lesson — in which case it has been "learned." If one does not respond correctly, one has made a mistaken judgment about the lesson, in which case one has yet to learn it.

Now we are told "When you have learned [a lesson], you can go on to the next lesson." This is an assertion that human life presents lessons in a linear, sequential form. For example, one may first learn the lesson of what must be done to secure a job. Then one may learn the lesson of what must be done to secure an apartment.

The assertion leaves no room for the notion that lessons might overlap; might come in clusters; might come in an infinite variety of orders or in no order at all. There is no room for the notion that a lesson — say, for exam ple, the lesson of ways to enter new groups — would be accessible at some times and inaccessible at others.

No. 6 reads as follows: "'There' is no better place than 'here.' When your 'there' has become a 'here,' you will simply obtain another 'there' that will again look better than 'here.'"

Can we conclude from this item that people who live on the "here" of Riverside Drive do not feel that they live in a "better" place than the "there" of Ward 9 in New Orleans? Is it reasonable to conclude that a black male living in the "here" of Compton should think that a person living on Long Beach does not live in a "better" place? In New York, is the "here" of Harlem qualitatively indistinguishable from the "there" of Long Island?

I know from experience that while it may not always make sense to talk about places being "better" than other places, it certainly makes sense to talk about the cultures of some places being different from those of other places. In Southwest Louisiana, where I reside, difference is strongly discouraged and independent thought is blasphemous. People in this area are expected to be team players, refrain from the questioning of all authority figures and just basically get with the program. In Portland, Ore., where I lived at one point in the past, difference and the degree of one's independence of thought don't have any effect on social relations. Portland is the most libertarian city in a very libertarian state. The approach in Portland is live and let live. People there base their self-concept on what they have in their heads and what they do and accomplish. They don't feel the need to coerce others to accept their points of view about anything. It's taken for granted that a multiplicity of points of view is to be expected; is not a problem; and is never a hindrance to social discourse. It seems to me most unlikely that a sensitive or shy or introverted or creative person who has dedicated herself to the high arts or to complex thought or literature would feel as good in the "here" of Lake Charles as she would in the "there" of Austin, Taos, Ann Arbor, Santa Cruz or any number of places.

Now, back to the list. Time and again claims are presented in this list without one shred of evidence being offered in support of the claim. Let's look at No. 7, which reads "Other people are merely mirrors of you. You cannot love or hate something about another person unless it reflects to you something you love or hate about yourself."

OK. Let's apply this claim. If I hate my spouse for striking me with a closed fist, this means what I really hate is the psychotic aggression in my subconscious mind?

Did I get that right? If I hate to be beaten, that reflects my own hatred of my wishes to beat others — and that's the case even if I've never beaten anyone else or felt the conscious desire to beat anyone else. If I hate to be yelled at, that reflects my hatred of my own wish to yell at others, even if I'm utterly unaware of any such wish.

If I understand No. 7 correctly, I cannot hate what a sadistic, sociopathic thug or control freak does to me without at the same time concluding that I must subconsciously wish to engage in the behaviors of the thug that I find so repulsive and must therefore hate myself on that count.

I cannot get my head around No. 7. If a complete stranger is rude or treats me with lack of consideration, must I hate something in myself to hate what the stranger does to me? Just what in myself would I hate? Would I hate my preference that people treat other people with common decency?

On to No. 8. It's designed both to make the reader feel good and to lure him into the current pop psych fad of "empowerment."

"What you make of your life is up to you. You have all the tools and resources you need. What you do with them is up to you. The choice is yours."

Now, can I conclude from this that I can make my life what I want it to be if I have Alzheimer's, schizophrenia, severe mental retardation, leukemia or a painful terminal cancer? If I am paralyzed from the neck down at, say, age 18, can I just use all those tools and resources up in my head to make up my mind I'm going to feel chipper while I spend the next 60 years lying in bed staring at the ceiling?
What about the single mother of two children who's working a minimum wage job; has no savings and only a high school education; whose friends are as poor as she is; and who's just lost her last relative, who left her nothing, having nothing to leave her? What little miracle is this person supposed to whip up with her poor, skimpy network and the "resources" in her head?

What about the fact that more than 25 percent of this country's citizens don't have health insurance? Is it the case that a quarter of the population is just too lazy to make the choices and take the actions necessary to get health insurance? I don't think so. The insurance is overpriced and the people are underpaid. People can't change that basic state of affairs by thinking a certain way about it. It's not just a lie but a vile lie that gross economic inequalities can be erased with acts of individual will. On occasion, some single-minded, hard-working individual will rise out of destitution to a position of economic se curity. But for every one who does there are a thousand — or 10,000 — who are as single-minded and work just as hard and die on the treadmill of the working poor (and now, the middle class poor as well).

OK. No. 9: "Your answers lie within you. The answers to life's questions lie within you. All you need to do is look, listen and trust."

Like all the items, this one suffers from sloppy language usage. Due to the nature of American culture, almost all Americans who hear or read the phrase "your answers" will assume that the answers are both definitive and positive. In the rush for a positive outcome, it may be forgotten that the choice we are given is often the choice of the least bad alternative.

There is no simple, positive an swer — whether within you or with out you — to the state of dying a slow, painful death in the twisted wreckage of a car. You will search in vain for "answers" to intense physical pain that lasts for a long period of time. Where is the answer for the myriad individuals undergoing torture, genocide, famine; for those who are being beaten or raped or murdered while I write this column? The author provides no evidence that there are any types of "answers" about anything whatsoever. She does not even provide an example of an answer. And I suspect I'm not the only one whose sense of logic is troubled by the assertion that while "there are no mistakes" there are "answers."

"All you need to do" to get the answers, we are told, is "look, listen and trust" what is "within you." First, that's bad grammar. One could look at, listen to and trust what is within one. Second, it's ridiculous for me to "trust" what is within me if I know I'm schizoid, bipolar, severely depressed or have a tendency to extreme guilt, shame or anger. If I am in such a position, I should, far from trusting what is within me, carefully scrutinize what is within me at each shift of mood to be sure I'm not creating my own problems with my neurotic or psychotic thought patterns.

Sloppy, vague, insubstantial, feel-good language doesn't give us psychic security or even psychic direction. Pain, adversities and unexpected reversals are going to come. We are not going to find "answers" to all of them. Sometimes, no matter what we do or how hard we try, we're simply going to feel bad. In most of the world, there's no law against feeling bad.


  1. "In Southwest Louisiana, where I reside, difference is strongly discouraged and independent thought is blasphemous. People in this area are expected to be team players, refrain from the questioning of all authority figures and just basically get with the program." I'm right here with ya, Brad. So glad somebody said all that. Being positive all the time is a pain.

  2. "They don't feel the need to coerce others to accept their points of view about anything."

    Yep, bout time some one said that.