From the beginning of my time in the Real World™, I’ve been consistently shocked at the extent to which self help culture permeates every aspect of American life. From my days working in a grocery store to my days working in the classroom, from grade school to grad school, I’ve had it hammered into me that the world that exists a rung above me is fixed and unmoveable. I’ve been told that the decisions made above my station in life are what they are, and nothing that results from those decisions can be changed or fixed. I’ve learned, over and over again, that what I CAN fix is my attitude, my outlook.
Every time I think I’ve escaped the self-help bubble, I turn a corner to see it rearing its ugly head again. Over time, I’ve come to understand that this an integral part of how our society shifts responsibility for our collective problems to the individuals who are least responsible for them. Our energy for change is always directed inward and downward instead of outward and upward. It’s the grease that keeps this machine running.
I have to admit here that I have, in the past, directed a great deal of judgment at the people who gravitate towards self help culture. I’ve always found it odd that people can approach this kind of stuff – which is ultimately so repetitive and so limiting – and find some sort of revelatory value in it each time. There’s clearly a religious element in the whole venture, and at my worst moments you can always find me sneering at anything that even vaguely smells of religion.
But even moreso than the ritual of it all- the spiritual incantations, the meditative mindfulness, the practiced reactions to the world around us – there’s a fundamental faith in the rationality of the world around us. In this world, credit scores are an act of God and police are rational arbiters of all that is right and good in the world. In this world, anyone who works hard enough can become rich, and anyone who has sufficient belief in themselves can navigate the incomprehensible maze that our society has set up for them and somehow come out on the other end with their dignity intact. The fact that the mechanisms of this world punish people for failure to navigate its intricacies through depriving them of food, housing, and healthcare is an immutable fact of life. These mechanisms are a result of natural law in the same way that the rising and setting of the sun is. To maintain this faith, a person almost has to engage in religious rituals. A person has to assume that any problems they encounter are a result of their own personal defects.
Of course, the reality of our country’s economic structure isn’t exactly easy to stomach. The reality is that wealth and comfort are primarily reserved to those who are born into it, regardless of the effort they put in. The reality is that people who possess the worst character traits are are often ushered into positions of power through systems that are designed to limit opportunities for people of conscience. The reality is that with every day that passes, a person born into limited means is less likely to escape their social station than a person born the day before. And things have been heading inexorably in that direction – albeit at varying speeds – for the entirety of my life and that of millions of others. There simply aren’t many people who have the social and economic foundation built under them to function regularly in their daily lives with that knowledge and understanding.
So at the end of the day, people who are chasing self-help culture – the ones who go to the workshops, buy the books, and practice the rituals – are channeling their energy in the only way our society allows. And that pursuit is not a sign of weakness, but of strength. They are trying to tackle an impossible task – to change the very wiring of their brain and rid themselves of the nagging doubt about the world around them. Not only is that a tough mountain to climb, it’s the only one that they can see in front of them. And good for them for trying to conquer it.
Of course, this doesn’t mean I agree with our society’s incessant need to shift responsibility from institutions to individuals. Self-help purveyors have their share of hucksters, ambulance-chasers, and those who profiteer off of human suffering – but what religion doesn’t? These purveyors are chasing what capitalism demands that all of us chase- a growth market. They’re selling, selling, selling to an audience that is only growing larger every day. And it makes sense that it’s a growth market. Right now, the expectations that we are placing on individuals to succeed are greater than ever in a world where there are objectively fewer opportunities to succeed than ever before. It makes sense, in this world, that people gravitate towards a philosophy that asks them to direct their energy inward instead of outward. It makes sense that people are yearning to maintain their faith in the world around them even as that world is proving itself to be woefully inadequate to the needs of its people. The alternative is scary as shit.