Monday, July 14, 2008

Helping Me Help Myself: Self-Help and Mutual Aid

What are the differences between "self-help" in its current individualistic connotation and the principle of mutual aid? How does an admittedly idiosyncratic and comedic book like Helping Me Help Myself fit into these ideas?

Micki McGee, in Self-Help, Inc., discusses the morphing of the meaning of "self-help" from referring to "cooperative efforts for mutually improved conditions on the part of a community of peers" to evoking a solitary and apolitical pursuit of individual improvement (p. 18-19).

Stephen Covey has the image of the "trim tab," which he uses to mean that you might look ineffectual but actually have the power to effect a disproportionate amount of change in your area; Suze Orman concludes her talk in New York that Lisick attends with the Gandhi quote that "we need to be the change we want to see in the world." But to what extent are these "gurus" interested in actually changing the world beyond improving the behavior and performance of individuals (and, dare I say, selling their products)?

On the one hand, seeing ourselves purely as individuals, with our own bootstraps to pull ourselves up by (or not), with our own "self" to "help," makes us less likely to conceive of our community, or our entire society, as something that can change in a radical way. Helping Me Help Myself does not challenge, for example, why Lisick and her husband and friends have to scrounge to get by just because they've chosen creative fields of work. Their struggles are their own private problems to deal with.

On the other hand, perhaps our society has benefited from some of the loosening of community bonds in favor of self-actualization. In the case of Lisick, she credits a stable, loving upbringing with giving her the confidence to choose such an offbeat lifestyle as an adult. In her previous book of humor, a collection of essays called Everybody into the Pool, she writes:

"I loved my normal upbringing. I just think the fact that I had a stable childhood was precisely what let me stray pretty far away from it without ever landing in therapy, rehab, or jail or having an identity crisis, eating disorder, drug problem, or prescription for antidepressants." (p. ix)

So the family support network was crucial, but living in self-contained American homes and fragmented urban environments also means that you can do weird things without risking alienation from the community as a whole. In other cultures, this would not be as possible.


Anonymous said...

Can there be an unconscious cultural bias in whom we choose to be our "self-helper" be it a book or an event, guru or a group? Self-help industry is very lucrative and mostly exploits the inadequacies of human intellect and emotion not to mention the predicaments of constantly living in uncertainty, and corporate media-controlled economies and polities. Some serious questions need to be asked in turbulent times like these for the planet. Can self-help be a disguised form of self-love? Does it help the self in becoming more self-aware, compassionate, creative, kind? Has the world improved despite great governments, education systems, religions or the self-help industry. Homo sapiens still spends trillions on technologies of violence and injustice the world over. Is that progress? Seemingly disparate "choices" are connected by the imperatives of the cognitive, aesthetic, political unconscious. People often choose to go to pop-psychology or New Age philosophy or even organized religions/politics (same thing) for helping themselves. The phenomena of born again Christians, or Jews or Muslims etc, or even born again Americans/ Arabs (increased popularity of Fox News in the Mid-West, & Al-Jazeera in the Middle East etc), can only be explained by an unconscious cultural bias and fierce fondness for whatever has "family resemblances." The cultural & political unconscious lurks around latently until it gets the opportunity to strike back. "One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious."

Anonymous said...

I think self-help products or events one chooses are, more often than not, a function of identity (racial, cultural, political, religious etc) of the person. Self-help industry is mostly about seeking similarity and familiarity. It is not uncommon in multicultural societies, to find on peoples book shelves, books written by authors who have the same racial, cultural, political, religious identity. As Richard Sennett said: “The narcissist is not hungry for experiences, he is hungry for Experience. Looking for an expression or reflection of himself in Experience, he devalues each particular interaction or scene, because it is never enough to encompass who he is. The myth of Narcissus neatly captures this: one drowns in the self—it is an entropic state.”

Melissa said...

2:59, your question about whether self-help could be "a disguised form of self-love" -- I suppose that reading/studying in the self-help area means that you're already self-aware, by definition, which can lead to becoming more compassionate, etc. But how do you think the leap could be made from the personal to the collective? And what would you recommend to people other than "pop-psychology or New Age philosophy or even organized religions/politics" for self-improvement?

Anonymous said...

Melissa Wrote:

"But how do you think the leap could be made from the personal to the collective? And what would you recommend to people other than "pop-psychology or New Age philosophy or even organized religions/politics" for self-improvement?"

As a lover of truth, the national propaganda of all the belligerent
nations sickened me. As a lover of civilization, the return to
barbarism appalled me, said Bertrand Russell.

To understand the relationship between the personal and the collective, I also wonder about Bertrand Russell's question when he asked that why is propaganda so much more successful when it stirs up hatred than when it tries to stir up friendly feeling.

Maybe we have the answer now, thanks to the great strides made in cognitive neuroscience. According to one of the most important thinkers of our time George Lakoff, a great deal of strife in the world stems from the "cognitive unconscious" of individual citizens of any given culture.

The science of mind has lit up a vast landscape of unconscious thought—the 98% of thinking our brain does is not available to our awareness.

Lakoff further suggests that our language gets its power because it is defined relative to frames, prototypes, metaphors, narratives, images, and emotions. Part of its power comes from its unconscious aspects: we are not consciously aware of all that it evokes in us, but it is there, hidden, always at work. If we hear the same language over and over, we will think more and more in terms of the frames and metaphors activated by that language.

Relative consistency of representation over time creates powerful unconscious short-cuts in groups and individuals mental life which later allows a ready acceptance of ready-made propagandized/rhetorical versions of reality. This is true in all cultures, East or West.

Cultural narratives and frames are instantiated physically in our brains. We are not born with them, but we start growing them soon, and as we acquire the deep narratives, our synapses change and become fixed. A large number of deep narratives can be activated together. We cannot understand other people without such cultural narratives. But more important, we cannot understand ourselves—who we are, who we have been, and where we want to go—without recognizing and seeing how we fit into cultural narratives.

The main battlefield of the culture war is the brain, especially how the brain functions below the level of consciousness. What is at stake is the deepest form of freedom, the freedom to control our own minds. To do that we must make the unconscious, conscious, and think about our thinking as objectively as humanly possible. The world we have created is a product of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.

Anonymous said...

I think that if we help ourselves, we become better people. This in turn causes us to care more about the environment in which we live and to try to improve it. For years, I would put up with bad environments. Then one day, I decided to stand up for myself and improve my environment. I now try to help other people as much as possible. I cannot control other people's actions, only my own. I can try the best I can to control my own and to provide others with as much support as possible. I feel that if everyone did this, we would end up living in a more civil, if not more just environment.

In terms of artists & pay - I have spent alot of time in hospitals. I also have friends who are teachers. I think that nurses are really overworked and underpaid, as, in many cases, are teachers and daycare workers. I don't view artists as being better or more worthy of pay than teachers or nurses. Ideally you choose a job because it seems to fulfill a need. As you change as a person, you may change careers.I have met many genuinely creative people who are naturally creative both at and outside of their day job but don't call themselves artists. In other countries, this is the norm.I think the US should calm down a bit with the artist as the "chosen person"concept.

I find myself wondering how much family money is behind these people that serves as an unconscious cushion.Most people with rent to pay and a family to support cannot spend a year without income.

Melissa said...

Thanks for your comment, 2:36. I agree that self-improvement can help us relate better to people, thus creating a cycle of better behavior.

I also agree with your thoughts on creativity. To bring it back to Helping Me Help Myself, Lisick would not regard artists or other creative types as being "chosen people," either (she goes into this in the chapter in which she reads -- and is mostly nauseated by -- The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron). Also, Lisick at least has said that she has never borrowed money from her family (I'm not sure if you're including her in the "these people" of your last paragraph).