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The Self in Self-Help

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The expression “self-help” comes from a book of that name, published in 1859 by the great-grandfather of the modern movement, one Samuel Smiles. (I kid you not.) These days, the phrase is so commonplace that we no longer hear the ideology implicit in it. But there is one: We are here to help ourselves, not to get help from others nor lend it to them. Unlike his contemporary Charles Dickens, Smiles was unmoved by appalling social conditions; on the contrary, he regarded them as a convenient whetstone on which to hone one’s character. As a corollary, he did not believe that altering the structure of society would improve anyone’s lot. “No laws, however stringent, can make the idle industrious, the thriftless provident, or the drunken sober,” he wrote. “Such reforms can only be effected by means of individual action, economy, and self-­denial; by better habits, rather than by greater rights.”

Smiles was Scottish, but it makes sense that his ideas received their most enthusiastic and enduring reception in the United States: a nation founded on faith in self-governance, belief in the physics-defying power of bootstraps, and the cheery but historically anomalous conviction that we all have the right to try to be happy. But this now-ubiquitous model of self-help might do an injustice to both the source of our problems and their potential solutions. We are social creatures, and we function (and dysfunction) in context. All of us know that we are notably different from one environment (Grandma’s assisted-living facility) to the next (Pyramid Club, East Village, 3 a.m.). What none of us knows is who we would be—or could be—if our context were altered in crucial ways at critical times. It’s entirely possible that socioeconomic background and current community exert a more powerful influence over us than our ostensibly independent inner selves. In that case, the best self-improvement effort would be to better society.

The larger point is this: God knows we all need more help, but possibly we need less self. That has long been the political response to the self-help movement, and it is also, in a different sense, what Buddhists believe. Curiously, Buddhism is simultaneously a burgeoning influence on the Western self-help movement and entirely at odds with it: anti-self, and anti-help. It is anti-help insofar as it emphasizes radical self-acceptance and also insofar as it emphasizes remaining in the present. (Improvement, needless to say, requires you to focus on the future.) It is anti-self in that it treats thoughts as passing ephemera rather than as the valuable products of a distinct and consistent mind. The journalist Josh Rothman once wrote a lovely description of what a cloud really is: not an entity, as we perceive it, but just a region of space that’s cooler than the regions around it, so that water vapor entering it condenses from the cold, then evaporates again as it drifts back out. A cloud is no more a thing, Rothman concluded, than “the pool of light a flashlight makes as you shine it around a dark room.” And the self, the Buddhists would say, is no more a thing than a region of air with thoughts passing through.

I’m not just mentioning these two anti-self self-improvement measures because they appeal to me, although they do. I mention them because, when it comes to helping ourselves (and, okay, also in some other areas), I believe in heterogeneity and promiscuity. Most of the time, when we want to solve a problem, we try to eliminate hypotheses until a single one remains standing: a theory, in the scientific sense. But there’s a case to be made that we should try to increase rather than decrease the available hypotheses about helping ourselves. I’ll make that case by way of conclusion and by way of making my own small and questionable contribution to the large and questionable body of self-help advice. And since this is after all an essay about selves, I will also make it, if you’ll forgive me, by getting momentarily personal.

I have no idea how I got over my depression. I spent a year doing the things one does: I read Feeling Good, went to therapy, got exercise, tried to eat well in the utter absence of appetite, and routinely forced myself into sympathetic company when every particle of my being—or, I suppose, every particle but one—wanted to curl up alone in the dark. I did all these things not out of any real hope that they would work but because the failure to do them seemed like it would cede more ground to the awfulness. And then some moon in my inner universe set silently, and the awfulness went out like a tide.


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