Self-Help and the Modern World

Have you ever noticed that people who buy Self-Help books never buy just one?  They always have three or four of them kicking around.  Usually they’re all on the same subject, but sometimes — and this is really scary — they’re all over the map.  There are people (we all know them) who could use a little help, self or otherwise.  There are also people who genuinely want to improve themselves; their outlook, their personality, their world, in general.  There’s nothing wrong with that!  In fact, most of us could do with a tuneup every once in a while.  However, this is the basis of the Self-Help industry.  They know, that we know, that there’s something wrong with us.  All they have to do is sell us the cure.  And that’s the reason people buy so many Self-Help books: they are a cure — that doesn’t work.

Self improvement is not a recent innovation.  There is probably something called A Slave’s Guide to Better Cowering written in hieroglyphics on a papyrus scroll, buried in the Nile Delta somewhere.  However, Self-Help is less than a hundred years old.  Its rapid development into a multimillion dollar industry runs exactly parallel with the development of our contemporary society.

There are two reasons Self-Help has become such a lucrative business.  First, we are losing our sense of family, and secondly we have lost our sense of community.

As we head off into the 21st century, our homes are no longer multigenerational.  Our parents and grandparents do not return to the family in old age.  Increasingly, they are warehoused, first in retirement communities, and then in care facilities.  Likewise, as most families consist of one or more working adults, childcare is outsourced, first to Daycare then the public school system.  Although these may be excellent institutions, they simply do not have a personal, vested interest in either education or development (beyond immediate behavioural problems.)  In other words, it’s a lot easier to fly right if you have grandma looking over your shoulder — or Dad — because they have an emotional attachment to you and pretty much everything you do.  You are the centre of their world, and they genuinely want to help you find your way around.  Likewise, as you grow older, your emotional connection to your parents and grandparents is strengthened by, if nothing else, proximity.  Nobody in a multigenerational family is left on their own to fend for themselves.  It isn’t in anybody’s emotional best interest.   Just as an aside, I know there are excellent care facilities everywhere with expertly trained staff, and I cast no aspersions on them.  However, at the end of the day, nobody wants you to succeed at life as much as grandma and grandpa do — and that lasts forever.  As we continue to replace the functioning parts of our multigenerational families with multi-task, care-for-hire personal assistants, we are turning ourselves into individual entities, relying on the kindness of strangers for our well-being.

It works the same for neighbourhoods.  In the old days, for better or for worse, the multigenerational family actually cared what the neighbours thought.  This was simply because they knew who the neighbours were.  They didn’t merely share the back fence; they shared community values and responsibilities.  Neighbours were involved with the comings and goings of the neighbourhood, which included Bob’s diet or Janet’s quit smoking plan.  People were available to help, and they did.  In essence, neighbours were all in it together.  However, as that community disappears, we are not only becoming physically isolated in the world; we are now increasingly psychologically alone.

The mantras of the Self-Help crowd are “Show personal responsibility” and “Take ownership of your problems.”  This is just a sugar-coated way of saying, “Good luck!  You’re on your own!”  Since we no longer believe we can rely on the traditional community to support us, we go looking elsewhere for help.  Invariably, this means throwing money at the problem; either through professional assistance or Self-Help.  And there we are again, back at that one-size-fits-all guide to personal growth, wealth and happiness: the Self-Help book.

Somehow, I find it impossible to believe that somebody sitting in their converted laundry room cranking out 800 words a day, has any connection to my quest to quit procrastinating.  They may have a good plan.  It may have worked wonders for them.   However, unless they know my heavy schedule of avoidance behaviour, I’m afraid they’re going to come up short.  By the same token (and I’m sure this worked for you, too) no three-chapter discussion of “How to Dress for Success” ever trumped my mother telling me to wash my hair and put on a tie.

Sometimes, the best self-help comes with some sharp-tongued maternal assistance.

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