Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Helping Me Help Myself: Conclusion

Thanks to all who have been reading Helping Me Help Myself. This month hasn't focused much on the ten gurus whose teachings Beth Lisick mined during her year of self-exploration -- Jack Canfield, Stephen Covey, John Gray, Richard Simmons, Julie Morgenstern, Thomas Phelan, Julia Cameron, Suze Orman, Deepak Chopra, and Sylvia Browne. (Brooklyn Book Talk did see our heaviest discussion during the month we spent on Browne's Phenomenon.) Rather, I wanted to consider -- as Lisick did in her book -- why we feel the need to look to experts to improve upon ourselves, and what it means that we in the U.S. usually do this as a solitary pursuit.

On a personal note (to conclude discussion of this very personal book), a close friend has told me that a point made in one of this month's posts helped him reach a major decision, to seriously look for other work so that he can leave the job (in a detested field) he's had for a dozen years.

While reading Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way, Lisick considers the coddling of the creative life and observes: "This seems like a linchpin of why so many people get sucked into self-help and empowerment programs. They can't trust that what they're doing is the 'right' way to be doing it" (p. 199). Here's to learning to trust ourselves, however we may arrive at that state.

Our next topic will be "Banned Books Across Cultures." This is the first time we'll be using a more thematic approach to a discussion, rather than one focused on a particular title. Please join in!

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.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Helping Me Help Myself: Introduction

Suddenly, an idea struck. I would learn how to do the splits on both sides. From an audience standpoint, it would look a lot better if I could slide down on one side, pop up, and then slide down on the other. Goofier. Plus, more symmetrical and showbizzy....I'll do something involving the splits, I thought. I lay back in bed, satisfied for a second with my bout of reflection, and took a sip of coffee. Then, as I started imagining how I would train for such a thing, what kind of stretches I could do to accomplish this feat, a scared, empty feeling took hold....I mean, let's reflect for a minute: That was now my goal for the new year? My resolution? (p. xii-xiii)

Thus spin Beth Lisick's thoughts during her first hour of being awake on January 1, 2006. Now with a new, true resolve, she will look to acknowledged gurus of self-help in order to make sense of her life and work out long-standing issues. Over the next twelve months, she will read books, attend conferences, go on a cruise, reach out to friends and family, and contemplate the knee-jerk cynicism and self-disgust that well up at the idea of "self-help" and "life-coaching." The product of this year of action and reflection is Helping Me Help Myself: One Skeptic, Ten Self-Help Gurus, and a Year on the Brink of the Comfort Zone. (This title is also on BPL's Adult Summer Reading booklist this year, fitting in with the theme of "metamorphosis.")

Beth Lisick is a writer and performer based in California's Bay Area. Among other creative projects, she co-organizes the Porch Light storytelling series in San Francisco and is one half of a comedy duo. She's been possibly the only straight performer invited to go on a Sister Spit tour, and she has even led a band with my vote for best eponymous name ever: The Beth Lisick Ordeal.

Helping Me Help Myself is a funny, easy read, but it's also a deeply personal work. Why is it that so many people are willing to put out into the public sphere their private self-betterment? And why are so many of us eager to read it? People make life goal lists on 43 Things for all to view and comment on (to give an idea of the wide scope here, among the "recently cheered goals" on the day I'm writing this are "NEVER apologize for who I am!" and "Apply to become a glass teacher"). Fortunately, it's beyond the scope of this discussion to get into why ordinary people want to put out into the public sphere parts of their private lives in the first place (though, speaking as someone who finally opened a Facebook account a few days ago, this has indeed been on my mind; incidentally, Lisick is on MySpace, too).

On this end, Lisick's book has two things going for it -- there's the usual voyeuristic/competitive fun time of having someone else's life hanging out in front of you (at least I can clean out my damn closets), and she's an appealing and amusing enough writer to make you want to read about her year anyway.

Stephen Covey, Suze Orman, Deepak Chopra, and Sylvia Browne are among the gurus whose teachings Lisick explores (also Richard Simmons -- which explains the cruise). Using light humor to describe her stumbles through the year, she proves herself a likeable guide into self-helpdom. (On the phone with Julie Morgenstern, author of Organizing from the Inside Out: "'We keep most of our shoes in this wire wine rack thing that we got at a garage sale.' 'Oh.' She sounds amused. 'And is that working for you?' 'Well, no.' 'Okay...' I feel reflective. 'I think it's because a shoe and a bottle of wine are not really the same shape.' 'Good.'" [p. 149])

But another element of Helping Me Help Myself is watching the self-consciously edgy, artsy, Left Coast-er Lisick take part in pursuits valued in mainstream American culture -- including the concept of self-help itself. Sometimes she still comes out on the outside (as with most of John Gray's essentialist philosophies of gender, for example), but she always does try hard to start open-minded. Enjoying this book also requires acknowledging that we're focusing on a particularly privileged, mostly middle class American perspective here (something Lisick does touch on in one chapter).

In the end, despite bouts of near-bankruptcy and depression, Lisick has improved in some ways. She realizes that becoming aware of oneself and how we relate to others opens one's eyes to the synchronicities that show how "there is something cool and mysterious about being alive. A random element that can shock and surprise." (p. 260)

We'll take more in-depth looks at the particular gurus who appear in Helping Me Help Myself, so to start I'll repeat these questions: Why is it that so many people are willing to put out into the public sphere their private self-betterment? And why are so many of us eager to read it? Also, has anyone found a public recounting of your foibles and attempts at redemption to be helpful in self-improvement? Any life coaches out there who have comments on Lisick's journey?

Click on the comments link at the end of this post to participate.