Saturday, February 25, 2006

Why Self-Help Turns Into Self-Hate


[Full disclosure: my fiancée was one of the winners of Oprah’s Pontiac G6 giveaway cars. She’ll probably be mad at me for writing this.]

Knowing that “Oprah” makes me angry, I try never to watch it. But occasionally, female influence forces the issue if I am to share couch time. I happened to catch an interview with Tracey Gold, former star of “Growing Pains” who has since battled with anorexia and been a frequent guest of Oprah’s. I was reminded what drives me nuts about the show: with self-righteous humility and a vague sense of the spiritual, the billion-dollar hostess offers little that gets one to look beyond themselves. When I read of a future show guest being a woman who had sex with almost 90 people and turned to Oprah for help, I began to believe a friend when he quipped that Oprah was a cult. Does this woman really think Oprah has the answers? Is there no other place she could have turned first, especially a place that is not on national TV? And where will Oprah point this woman to seek help?

All of this navel-gazing is unhelpful, and worse, unhealthy. While presuming to be the shining star of mental health, the self-help movement is an impossibly hopeless venture. It promises a never-ending quest for fulfillment, which must, to people on that never-ending journey, seem like a dead end after a while. If you go to any bookstore, you will notice a gigantic “self-help” section, which always makes me ask the question, “If the self-help movement was so successful, why would it need all of these silly books?” Doesn’t it seem obvious that if self-help worked, we would need relatively few expressions of it? Instead, we keep reinventing the self-help wheel, thinking if we can nail this aspect or that aspect of it down, we’ll finally figure ourselves out.

But we won’t. Even the masters of meditation, Zen Buddhists, would agree with that. There does not exist within us a magical key to turn for personal fulfillment, even as yoga, health food and eastern philosophy crazes come and go. There does exist a vast supply of cheats, walls and nooks that shield us from pain for a certain period of time. But looking for this magical key within us over the course of time will be limited, and all of the self-help in the world will come crashing down. And then, we will hate ourselves all the more. Why? Because we will always fall short of the ”potential” self-help wants us to see in ourselves. Always. It is our nature. It is the condition of original sin, which, whether you believe it or not, seems to have manifested itself enough over the course of history to prove it exists.

Of course, Oprah can never admit this. While she cedes a vague spirituality that is quasi-Christian, quasi-Buddhist, mostly-New Age, if she ever actually owned the precepts of Christianity, her show would cease to have a platform. The same is true for Dr. Phil and even courtroom television programming. (How I long for the days of Judge Wapner…) The advice to people could no longer be, “Look inside yourself and find what makes you happy,” but instead might be service, humility and blessedness, a form of happiness superior to that of self-help. But then, there’s no audience in that, and besides, that’s what churches are for. As someone who works in the church, I find Oprah’s philosophy of self-help to be futile in the end. Oh, occasionally, self-help can be a helpful tool in helping people to see their faults and repent, etc. But if it leads to a path of arrogance that includes the motto, “I can solve my own problems,” it is a dangerous way to view life.

Finally, I am not critical of Oprah for being wealthy. She has made her money the old-fashioned way in a free society, and I know she has been philanthropic with her wealth. I am critical because it is time we recognize the limitations of the pseudo-philosophy of self-help. It is a contradiction in terms and will lead innumerable people down a path no one is capable of staying on for a sustained amount of time, and when they get off of it, they will be too exhausted to examine other options. When they realize their limitations as fallen people, their failed self-help will lead to self-hate. The only bookstore section to help with that dilemma is “Religion,” and I’m afraid the religion of self will have already taken over by then.

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