The Rise and Rise of Self-Help

by Fingal Libraries
by Fingal Libraries on April 13, 2015 in Libraries

In the library you’ll find them at the Dewey classification 158.1. It’s become a quick code for the staff. We all know what the number means because we’re asked for a book from the section several times a day. People not only want help, but they want to do it themselves. Not surprising, considering […]

In the library you’ll find them at the Dewey classification 158.1. It’s become a quick code for the staff. We all know what the number means because we’re asked for a book from the section several times a day. People not only want help, but they want to do it themselves. Not surprising, considering the cost of curing one’s psyche through the vehicle of counselling or psychoanalysis. Some such courses of care run into years, and indeed, is there a cure? One may continue to struggle with whatever was causing distress for the rest of one’s life.

Louise Hay was one of the first to popularise the notion of taking one’s inner life in hand and effecting one’s own order. You Can Heal Your Life came out in book and recorded form in the 1980s, and she toured the world with her particular portfolio of messages. At one gathering she opened her talk with the greeting, “What a lot of spirits in human form!” Whatever her concept of nature and genetics, she is much more than a show-woman for desultory psychological-DIYers. As a child, she was repeatedly abused by her step-father. She became pregnant at age 15 and gave the child up for adoption, having dropped out of high school. After a succession of low-paid jobs, she moved to New York and became a fashion model. When her 14-year-long marriage was beginning to bring her a feeling of ease, she was deeply injured by her husband’s infidelity. Soon after, she was diagnosed with cancer and this began her journey in self-healing. With the help of the ‘New Thought’ movement, she reorganised her mind and managed to cure herself of cancer. Undoubtedly, her mind-power must have been intensely strong to begin with, but nevertheless the achievement was huge. She has been criticised for providing a list of facile answers to various ailments, which was interpreted as blaming the victim. It was extreme and medically incorrect to postulate self-love as a cure for AIDS, but nevertheless, her system of affirmations is not without its valuable uses, if one knows how to choose and apply them.

Self-help is not for those in extremis, who can hardly help themselves to the books, let alone lift their efforts to a self-directed disciplined process. If you’re strong enough to look for a self-help book, you’re strong enough to use it to your advantage. Even Jeanette Winterson, a writer who believes that the contemporary taste for ‘reality’ points to a terror of the real inner life with its subtleties and imagination—not to mention an inadequate engagement with language—looks at self-help from time to time, because the legacy of a traumatic past is periodic collapse of the will. In that state, a simple, optimistic statement might be the equivalent of a trip home.

Since Louise Hay, the movement has altered and developed. Gurus are less manipulative and more inclined to explain their methods with reference to traditional disciplines. Deepak Chopra is a physician as well as being an Ayurveda practitioner, and frequently refers to physics. The late Susan Jeffers was a psychologist, always stressing her qualification as a PhD. One need only read the title of her book Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway to be reminded that other people also feel fear, something a fearful person might forget.

Whatever about the literary value or verifiability of the thousands of ideas being spun out by gurus, many of them are not new, as Rhonda Byrne points out in The Secret. The power of positive thinking is central to them all and is not, in fact, a secret. It’s at least as old as Marcus Aurelius in the second century. Humankind has always swung pendulum-like in the direction of constructed theories, many of which were later disproved or lost popularity with social change. At least these days, the swinging is more like that of a vast sea with several streams and currents. You can choose your own brand of hope.

After a sojourn in the 158.1s, you might have got yourself together enough to explore the more eclectic waters of such as Alain de Boton, and those of sober professionals like Adam Philips, Irvin Yalom and the scientist, Steven Pinker. Pinker’s tour de force, The Better Angels of Our Nature, will keep you on the straight and non-narrow with its extraordinary sweep of human natural history, and certainly leave you optimistic, if only because you’ve managed to finish it.

Self-help, many psychologists will admit, is the only real help. In the marketplace of ideas, it’s good to know that we can all access some tools to assist in the process.

By Swords Library Bloggers