Oh, the endless promise of the self-help book aisle. Cheaper than even 10 minutes of traditional psychotherapy, and carefully worded to be completely unhelpful without overtly appearing so, it’s no wonder we get trapped by these shiny, happy books. Just follow these 10 steps, and you can turn your nervous breakdown into a breakthrough.
I should have known it was time to switch advisers when Laura started recommending I read books like Byron Katie’s I Need Your Love — Is That True? and Barbara Stanny’s Overcoming Underearning a year or so ago. I halfheartedly skimmed a few of them, saw that they wanted me to write uplifting statements on my bathroom mirror, and quickly took them to the dumpster outside, afraid that someone might come over to my apartment and see them in my trash can. I reported back to Laura that they didn’t really help.
“What is it that you want in your life?” she asked.
“I have no fucking idea,” I told her.
“Here, I want you to try one more,” she said. “And really read it. It’s not like the others — it’ll just help you get clear on what might make you happy.”
Which is how I found myself reading The Passion Test: The Effortless Path to Discovering Your Destiny by Janet and Chris Attwood. Who doesn’t want to discover their destiny, or even just come to believe that they have a destiny? We all would like to think that if you just point yourself in the right direction, everything happens effortlessly. Money drops in your lap. You suddenly find yourself a guru who showers you with wise koans to meditate on under flowering trees. There were plenty of stories in The Passion Test to illustrate this. As soon as the anecdotal people had completed the test, they found money and love and unbelievable happiness. Fuck it, I thought. I might as well give it a shot.
I wrote the uplifting statements on my bathroom mirror. I wrote down the five goals that I thought were most essential for a fulfilling life, and descriptions of what my life would be like when I achieved them. I delved into Oprah territory and created a collage — oh, sorry, I mean a “vision board” — of items I desire in my life (the only magazines I had on hand were one Elle, one Gourmet, and one Esquire, so the photos were mostly shoes, a nice bottle of whiskey, and the actor who plays the coach on Friday Night Lights) and hung it where I would see it every day. I got to the part where I was supposed to write down what the person who knows me best will say when toasting me on my 100th birthday. I called Honeybee and asked her. She didn’t humor me for a second.
“Dear, I am older than you, and I will be dead by then,” she said.
I suddenly realized that I was only a few self-help-book steps away from The Secret and quickly threw The Passion Test into the same dumpster as the other books. It’s nice that these people were able to answer a few questions and suddenly their lives became perfect, but then there are the rest of us. Not everyone can decide that they want to create a documentary about enlightened saints in India, and then suddenly have a relative die and leave them a wad of cash, and then have an enlightened saint suddenly show up on their doorstep and invite them to stay at her house in India. (But then, wouldn’t you already have to be the type of white, upper-middle-class woman who wants to make a documentary about the enlightened in India? I’ll take directionlessness over being a cliché, thanks.) It’s an extremely simplistic idea about how the universe works, but no wonder you can find dozens of books exactly like this one. And no wonder they sell. Who doesn’t want to believe that such a charmed life is possible for everyone?
The Passion Test has been newly updated and rereleased this month, with the subtitle changed from Discovering Your Destiny to Discovering Your Life Purpose. The contents are similar, however; the Attwoods are still doling out the same bunk, treating the universe as if it were some magical wish fulfillment device, doling out money to the people who think about it enough and in the right sort of way. (And, conversely, giving cancer to those who are still angry over the fact that their father used to beat them with a belt.) I can personally be glad that this is not the way the universe works, as when I came across the list of goals and positive statements from my first reading recently, I knew that I would now be completely miserable had my wishes been granted.
When we’re going through periods of great vulnerability, it’s important to be incredibly particular about whom we listen to. Unfortunately, it’s also the time we’re the most likely to be indiscriminate. We’ll read the books of anyone who thinks they have an answer for us. We’ll listen to therapists who tell us that it’s not that we’re depressed or lazy — it’s just that our uncle was the member of a Satan-worshipping cult and forced us to participate in sexual and cannibalistic rituals, as anyone who remembers the ’80s recovered memory scandal knows. Which is why I worry about the future readers of Anneli Rufus’s Stuck: Why We Can’t (or Won’t) Move On. Hers is not a voice you need when you are stuck.
She defines stuck as anyone not dealing with reality, anyone who is not breaking free of their bad habits or recovering from their tragedies. That pretty much includes everyone alive in one form or another. Former football players who keep talking about that one big game, women who can’t stop their compulsive shopping, even victims of violence who continue to live in fear — Rufus sees them all as stuck in either the past or the present, refusing to get over it and move on with their lives.
There is a reason why recovering alcoholics make the best AA counselors, and why rape survivors make the best rape counselors, and on and on. They know the things about tragedy and recovery that you cannot learn from reading a book or listening to someone’s stories. Rufus wants us to know that she is stuck, too. She is stuck in perpetual immaturity, viewing the world in black and white and quite dependent on her husband to make important decisions for her.
“And how was I to know in seventh grade that, long hair flying, lapels flapping, I would more or less stop growing then? For no reason I have ever discerned? … Could I grow up? A bit, perhaps. Through some hardship, say civil war or drifting on a raft after a shipwreck, spearing seagulls with a straightened hanger.”
The problem is you don’t go to an active alcoholic to chat when you’re trying to recover. Nor should you listen to someone who glorifies her particular stuckness and admonishes you for yours when you’re trying to make progress. Because she sees the world in black and white and the worst thing she can think of from her own childhood is that one time her father yelled at her for spilling some nuts in the car, she cannot understand why you are still upset about that one time someone broke into your house and raped you. Nor can she fathom how anyone gets addicted to alcohol or cocaine. To illustrate, she tells us that she once had a free, endless supply of cocaine, and yet was able to control herself and not get addicted. Therefore, addiction is completely a choice and only fools and the weak-willed get trapped in it. She may be right that the current theory of addiction as a disease is very flawed and can make the addicted feel powerless, but she dismisses genetic predispositions, social pressure and, yes, shitty childhoods and the need for escapism. Trauma and addiction are much more complicated than Rufus imagines.
Much of what Rufus writes sounds like the truth, and indeed, a lot of it comes close to being true. Our culture is very much in love with the victim, buying up memoirs of alcoholism, child abuse, depression, rape, and every other bad thing that can happen to you. But Rufus has no compassion and keeps bringing the book back around to her. Your misery memoir makes her feel bad that she has never suffered or been tested. Your admission that monogamy bores you threatens the strength of her marriage. Now not only do you have a rape/addiction/abusive childhood to feel bad about, but you also have to worry about how your pain is boring Anneli Rufus.
The goal after trauma is recovery, which is different from just “getting over it,” as Rufus suggests. The first thing I recommend to someone shaking in the wake of a tragedy, or feeling stuck in their lives, is throw out these self-help books. They fill your head with lies and make it harder to move on. Recovery, however, is different for everyone, and unfortunately, the next step is up to you. • 2 December 2008