Friday, August 12, 2005

Self-help nation

I enjoy Esalen. I have taken all of my massage classes there. It is beautiful, has great food and the baths just rock. What I don't like is the psychological babble about "empowerment". There is always a part of every class (I'm usually there for five days) that deals with getting in touch with yourself, letting go, etc. At the same time there are four other classes that are exclusively devoted to these ideas, surrounding you with about 180 people, all believing that they have the right to be "number one" That their "process" should be allowed to develop.

Okey dokey. What a load of crap. When I went to school, I learned to count. There is only one number one, with many other numbers following. You can empower yourself by understanding that you are not always the center of the known universe, things will not always break your way and hope that you can find a way of accepting the accident of birth that has made you unattractive to society and find a way to turn it to your advantage. Maybe smiling more, standing up straight, look people in the eye, say hello when you pass people on the street, listening to the people around you, actively caring about how the world sees you, instead of how you see the world, might be a little more beneficial and satisfying in the long run. Books | Self-help nation: "Still, the particular conditions of late capitalism have added a new twist to the fantasy of self-creation. The current permutations of self-help reflect what McGee sees as a crisis brought on by the movement of women and minorities into the workplace. She points out that the 'self-made man' (an idea traceable all the way back to ancient Greece) was never really that; the unpaid labor of a mother and usually a wife helped 'make' him, and he often benefited as well from the underpaid labor of servants and others prevented by skin color or class from enjoying the same opportunities. Now that all those previous unpaid and underpaid workers are demanding their own shot at the brass ring, it's become painfully apparent how impossible it is for individuals to really make it all by themselves. At bare minimum, someone still has to teach us to walk and talk.

No wonder, then, that child rearing and the roles of mothers stand at the center of so much controversy. What Salerno dislikes about the self-help industry is that it makes some people feel entitled to more than they can get and it permits others to shirk personal responsibility. What McGee sees as the problem with self-help is that it deceives us into thinking that we can function in complete independence, that every problem in our lives can be addressed as a purely individual challenge. Child rearing (and to a lesser degree caring for the sick and elderly) challenges this notion because it's both essential to the survival of humanity and proof positive that everybody needs somebody sometime.

For centuries, raising kids has been the unpaid work of women. Now that they have the chance, if women instead choose to invest their time and labor in the kind of self-cultivation -- networking, overtime, maintaining a marketable appearance, acquiring new skills -- essential to survival in today's unstable, loyalty-free workplace, you can hardly blame them. They're only doing what every shrewd "self-made" person is supposed to do. In defecting from the home they're also unwittingly demonstrating that the American ideal of rugged individualism is a big lie. No wonder career women make conservatives apoplectic. Nowadays, those women who do decide to donate their time to rearing their children can count on little job security and the decay of their employability. Rick Santorum likes to complain that "radical feminists" devalue stay-at-home moms, but it's really the free market that treats their contribution as worthless (or worth only the pittance paid to childcare workers)."

The article wanders into the political arena with the following:

McGee has the sense to insist that activists ask themselves "why people have embraced self-help groups -- what do they get there that they don't get in political organizations?" What she fails to consider is the possibility that those organizations have yet to articulate a coherent, alternative and post-socialist vision of society that's sufficiently appealing to lure people away from the siren song of capitalistic individualism. Many people look at the ever-widening gap between rich and poor in this country and think to themselves, Hey, it's a great time to be rich.

As Salerno points out, a motivational speaker who tells all 250 members of a sales staff that with the right attitude every one of them can be the No. 1 salesman is obviously promising the impossible. No one laughs, though, because at that moment, sufficiently pumped up, each candidate believes she's talking only to him. Commentators like to say that self-help speaks to the American faith in the Protestant work ethic. But perhaps what it really taps into is the same impulse that makes poor people waste their dollars on lottery tickets.

On my way to get one now.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Deb,
    I am filled with admiration for your work. I'll be a regular reader of this great blog as well as your insightful stumbles from now on.