Monday, January 15, 2007
Why New-Age Self-Help Formulas Make Me Crazy
Happy MLK Day! This seems as good an opportunity as any to indulge in a rant that's been building for a while now.
Every month, when I go through my Carnival of Hope submissions, I find a lot of posts from human-potential, seven-surefire-steps-to-success, self-help type blogs. You know: those perky sites that suggest that all your problems are a function of wrongthink, and that if you just adjusted your attitude, your life would suddenly become wonderful? The ones that claim that yes, you can do anything you want -- overcome all obstacles! become rich and famous! never be unhappy again! -- if you just approach your problems the right way?
I use very few of these posts, because I don't believe them.
Let me preface this by saying that if this stuff works for you, more power to you. Certainly attitude's important, and certainly maintaining a positive outlook is a key component of physical and mental health. But I have three very big objections to this approach: a) it's profoundly individualistic, denying the human need for interdependence with other people, b) it ignores real, material, physical circumstances (poverty, hunger, illness, war), and c) it leads inexorably to blame-the-victim thinking, which means that at bottom, it's more cruel than compassionate.
Are you a starving, HIV-positive victim of genocidal conflict in Darfur? Feeling down? Hey, it's just wrongthink! Adjust your attitude, look on the bright side, and everything will be fine!
See how quickly this stuff breaks down when you remove it from the bubble of American affluence?
Before I became Episcopalian, I briefly attended a Unity church. (Not to be confused with a Unitarian church; they're completely different!) It was a very welcoming, non-threatening place for someone who hadn't gone to church before: there was no creed, no scripture, nothing dark or scary. Everything was love, peace, joy, and bliss. The people were very friendly and outgoing, and I was genuinely fond of many of them.
But it quickly became too fluffy for me. Even when I was still going there, I took to calling it "woo-woo New Age ecumenical Christian light," which drove the minister nuts. I got tired of hearing "Chicken Soup for the Soul" read from the pulpit, rather than any scripture written more than five minutes ago. And I started getting very itchy when, at the end of each service, we all held hands and sang "Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me," while swaying back and forth.
At Unity, "let it begin with me" meant adjusting your attitude. What passed for theology there was a metaphysical approach that maintained that if individuals changed their consciousnesses, the world would change in response, without any physical effort. So we often sat and meditated about peace, but the church had no social-outreach projects: although some individuals were certainly involved in volunteer work of various sorts, there was no organized effort to improve material conditions for people suffering from a lack of peace (or water or food or clothing or money or healthcare).
I tried to talk to the minister about this. I remember suggesting that if someone's dropping a bomb on your head, changing your attitude isn't going to change the situation. She was unconvinced.
Unity's approach also made it profoundly unhelpful to people who were in pain. If you were in pain, you had a bad attitude, and that made your pain your fault. When I expressed grief that someone in the congregation had died of cancer, I was told briskly, "You shouldn't be sad; he's better off now." When I tried to talk to a friend there about a difficult conflict with someone to whom I'd been close for many years, I was told gently, "People can only upset you if you let them."
After nine months of this, I fled to the Episcopal Church: where matter matters; where service to the poor, the ill and the lonely is an obligation conferred by baptism; and where people hug you, listen and sympathize when you're having problems. (Can you imagine my trying to be a hospital chaplain with a Unity outlook? "Nonsense, that cancer shouldn't upset you: just adjust your attitude!") Incarnational Christian theology acknowledges that people need each other, that they can and should help each other, and that the world is a broken place that often hurts us, even as we try to mend it. Incarnational Christian theology acknowledges that social problems are real, pressing, and very often seem intractable. Incarnational Christian theology acknowledges that there aren't any easy answers, that there aren't seven surefire steps to success.
(On the subject of "steps" and self-help, let me say here that my family and I have been greatly helped by various 12-Step programs. The 12-Step, model, though, explicitly states that we can't do everything by ourselves, and that the most effective model of self-help is helping others.)
Today we celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. He recognized injustice and took concrete steps to address it. He spoke, took to the streets, joined with other people. He had a dream, but instead of simply sitting at home and meditating about it, he used it as his inspiration to do hard, meaningful, material work. His dream, and his willingness to be visible in the service of that dream, ultimately killed him, because changing your attitude about an assassin's bullet won't make you any less dead.
The world is better now because of Martin Luther King, Jr., but there's still more to be done. He wouldn't want us only to sit home and meditate about peace. He'd want us to get out there and help make it happen.