The importance of finishing the year strong

This time of year is awash with sporting events – primarily football games.  There are no less than four of them today alone.  Quite frankly, it’s been overwhelming, and I’ve really wasted a lot of time this weekend laying around and lazily staring at the boob-tube.  I was even tempted to forego this week’s blog – which would have been a first since I began writing it this Summer.  I found myself rationalizing that it’s already been one of my most productive twelve-month periods ever: writing and publishing two books and starting three additional ones; downloading and learning some graphics art software so that I could produce my own book covers; writing a weekly blog; getting involved in social media with a goal to submit only uplifting, encouraging and informative messages; and praying for and counseling dozens of hurting people.

 But my Pastor’s message yesterday reminded me of the importance of finishing the year strong; because how one leaves any period in life determines how they will enter the next period.  And I want 2014 to be leaps and bounds more productive than this wonderful year.  I don’t know how many people actually read and get some benefit from my simple messages – it would be great to know that I have hundreds, or even thousands of followers who find them occasionally of some value – but it’s more important that I just be obedient to do what I’ve been given the ability to do.

It’s not like I’m the only person out here to share my thoughts on the innumerable problems and issues that people face in life or that they’ve created for themselves.  There are literally thousands of products on the market – aimed at providing advice and quick fixes, while coveting a share of the amount people are willing to pay for them.  In the first decade of the 21st century, the self-improvement industry, inclusive of books, seminars, audio and video products, and personal coaching, was said to constitute an annual market worth between $9 and $12 billion.

In the midst of all this, you’ll find dozens upon dozens of institutions and so-called experts who have researched these products and who have developed their own lists of the best ones – to give the seeker a shortcut to his fix.  If we focus on the self-help book industry alone, the USA Today has their Top Ten list, as does the UK Guardian, the Christian Science Monitor and every other major newspaper in the free world.  Then there are individual gurus who have developed their personal lists and have blessed us all by publishing them on-line.

Consider for example the freelance writer and editor from Philadelphia who compiled “The 20 Classic Self-Help Books to Get You Through the New Year.”  Strangely, at the top of her list is ‘The Art of War’ by Sun Tzu, a 2,000 year old ancient Chinese military manual.

Then there’s the young lady who came up with “The 20 Best Self Growth Books That Will Change Your Life.”  She describes herself as a resident of tropical South India, who rides a scooter, meditates, does yoga and helps people create fulfilling and unique lives.  She promises that the books on her list are sure to improve your life and give you a better understanding of wealth, success principles and health.  One book she announces fully explains how to get into the proper thought vibration to attract your desires; another explains the process of visualization and how to acquire the sixth sense; and still another teaches how to use universal laws and metaphysical studies to attain wealth and success; while one of her favorites came into being after the author “started channeling Jesus.”  She summarizes her findings as: “I’m not sure which particular book impacted my life most, because I read so many of them!”

One of my favorite list titles is “The 10 Best Self Help Books You Have to Read Before You Die.”  The gentleman who compiled it is described as the creator of “The Top-Down System,” a holistic personal development training course.  He assures his followers that “I personally read hundreds of self-help books in the past and this is my list of 10 books I would recommend to everybody without a second thought.”  His list of authors runs the gamut from Dale Carnegie to the Dalai Lama.  His number one is described as “a spiritual book.  It can connect you with yourself beyond your name, character, roles or body. You will learn to feel and trust your deeper sense of self again. Most importantly it helps you to be more alive and to center your consciousness in the present moment – The Now. The first chapter teaches you that ‘You Are Not Your Mind.’  And this is also the credo in order to really understand the book, which contains not just intellectual knowledge but also real transformational power: the ‘felt oneness with being’.”

A sub-genre of self-help book series also exists: such as the For Dummies guides and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to books.  How did we get to this point of relying on the dribble of foolish people rather than the wisdom of the Author of Creation?

Self-help advice provided from secular sources is really nothing new.  We even have evidence of such in ancient times.  For example, around 700 BC, the Greek poet Hesiod wrote Works and Days, which is a poem instructing his brother in the agricultural arts, but also offering him extensive moralizing advice on how he should live his life.  Then in the 3rd Century BC we know that the Stoics taught that destructive emotions resulted from errors in judgment, and that a person of moral and intellectual perfection would not suffer such emotions.  They also offered ethical advice on the notion of well-being, welfare, and flourishing.   Political and literary works during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance directly instructed rulers on certain aspects of rule and behavior, and created images of kings for imitation or avoidance, particularly for the benefit of a young and inexperienced ruler who was about to come to power.  These essentially represented a secular view of Biblical wisdom.  And Proverbs from many periods embody traditional moral and practical advice of diverse cultures.

The specific phrase “self-help” seems to have first appeared in the 1800s, most often in a legal context, referring to the doctrine that a party in a dispute has the right to use lawful means on their own initiative to remedy a wrong.  For some, George Combe’s Constitution (1828) inaugurated the self-help movement in the way that it advocated personal responsibility and the possibility of naturally sanctioned self-improvement through education or proper self-control.   The Oxford English Dictionary claims that “self-help” was regarded as a moral virtue as early as 1836, as evidenced in Thomas Carlyle’s novel Sartor Resartus.  In 1841, an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson, entitled Compensation, was published suggesting “every man in his lifetime needs to thank his faults” and “acquire habits of self-help” as “our strength grows out of our weakness.”  In 1859, Samuel Smiles actually published the first self-consciously personal-development Self Help book — under that exact title.  Its opening sentence is: “Heaven helps those who help themselves.”   This was just a variation of a phrase used by Benjamin Franklin a century earlier in his Poor Richard’s Almanac: “God helps them that help themselves.”

“Self-help” really came into its own in the 20th century.  James Allen published As a Man Thinketh (1902), which proceeds from the conviction that a man’s character is the complete sum of all his thoughts.  The book maintains that noble thoughts make for a noble person, while lowly thoughts make for a miserable person.  And Carnegie’s success as a self-help author further developed the field with How to Win Friends and Influence People in 1936.  Having failed in several careers, Carnegie became fascinated with success and its link to self-confidence, and his books have since sold over 50 million copies.  Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich (1937) described the use of repeated positive thoughts to attract happiness and wealth by tapping into an “Infinite Intelligence.”  And Neville Yeomans, an Australian psychiatrist, clinical sociologist, psychologist and lawyer pioneered self-help and mutual help at Australia’s first therapeutic community in Sydney; and former inmates of this unit started many self-help groups around the metropolitan area.

In the final third of the 20th century, not only was there tremendous growth in self-help publishing, but the self-improvement culture really took off in other ways.  Some attribute this to the reduction in political activism, and the increase in social isolation.  Twelve-Step recovery groups popped up in which individuals sought a sense of community.   Then group and corporate attempts to aid the “seeker” moved into the marketplace, with Large Group Awareness Training (LGAT) and psychotherapy systems represented.  These offered prepackaged solutions to instruct people seeking their own individual betterment.  Some support groups are now even Internet based, with people in similar situations joining together on-line.  Of the many different self-help groupings, each has its own focus, techniques, associated beliefs, proponents and in some cases, leaders.  They delve into every nook and cranny of life — economically, intellectually, or emotionally.  And the culture has provided some of our most robust new language: recovery, dysfunctional families, and codependency.

From early examples in self-driven legal practice and home-spun advice, the connotations of the word have spread and often apply to education, business, psychology and psychotherapy.  Even the American Psychological Association (APA) has accepted that there are many potential benefits that self-help groups can provide that professionals may not be as equipped to satisfy.  These include friendship, emotional support, experiential knowledge, identity, meaningful roles, and a sense of belonging.  In A Layman’s Guide to Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis, Eric Berne says “there is something about ‘groupishness’ itself which is curative.”   And Daniel Goleman, in Emotional Intelligence claims that social isolation increases mortality by a factor of two, suggesting an added value to self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous as surrogate communities.

While some psychologists have embraced an empirical self-help philosophy, aiming to refine the field by increasing scientifically sound research and well-engineered models, there’s also much criticism.  Scholars have targeted self-help claims as misleading and incorrect.  In 2005 Steve Salerno portrayed the American self-help movement not only as ineffective in achieving its goals, but also as socially harmful.  He uses the acronym SHAM: the Self-Help and Actualization Movement.  Salerno suggests that 80 percent of self-help and motivational customers are repeat customers and they keep coming back ‘whether the program worked for them or not’.  R. J. McAllister in Emotion: Mystery or Madness? and others point out that with self-help books “supply increases the demand… The more people read them, the more they think they need them… more like an addiction than an alliance.”  Lennard J. Davis, author of Obsession: A History, describes self-help writers as working “in the area of the ideological, the imagined, the narrativized…. although a veneer of scientism permeates their work, there is also an underlying armature of moralizing.”  Christopher Buckley, American political satirist and the author, in his book God is My Broker asserts: “The only way to get rich from a self-help book is to write one.”  Kathryn Schulz, freelance journalist and author suggests that “the underlying theory of the self-help industry is contradicted by the self-help industry’s existence.”

So here I stand, a “lone reed,” giving my own advice.  The “lone reed” term was coined by the Frank Navasky character in the 1998 movie, You’ve Got Mail, as he tells his girlfriend, Kathleen Kelly: “You are a lone reed standing tall–waving boldly–in the corrupt sands of commerce.”  But though you can get my advice for free, it only has value to the extent that it is reflective of God’s advice from the Bible.

I asked earlier, how did we get to this point of relying on the dribble of foolish people rather than the wisdom of the Author of Creation?  I believe the magnetism of the self-help industry comes down to mankind’s innate but misdirected pursuit of acceptance, success, and power.  Christian author Philip Yancey addresses this briefly in the following excerpt from his 1977 book, Where Is God When It Hurts?

Jesus captured succinctly the paradoxical nature of life in his one statement most repeated in the Gospels: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”  Such a statement goes against the search for “self-fulfillment” in advanced psychology — which turns out not to be advanced enough. Christianity offers the further insight that true fulfillment comes, not through ego satisfaction, but through service to others. And that brings me to the last illustration of the pain/pleasure principle: the Christian concept of service.

 In my career as a journalist, I have interviewed diverse people. Looking back, I can roughly divide them into two types: stars and servants. The stars included NFL football greats, movie actors, music performers, famous authors, TV personalities, and the like. These are the people who dominate our magazines and our television programs. We fawn over them, pouring over the minutiae of their lives: the clothes they wear, the food they eat, the aerobic routines they follow, the people they love, the toothpaste they use.

 Yet I must tell you that, in my limited experience, these “idols” are as miserable a group of people as I have ever met. Most have troubled or broken marriages. Nearly all are hopelessly dependent on psychotherapy. In a heavy irony, these larger-than-life heroes seemed tormented by an incurable self-doubt.

 I also spent time with servants. People like Dr. Paul Brand, who worked for twenty years among the poorest of the poor, leprosy patients in rural India. Or health workers who left high-paying jobs to serve with Mendenhall Ministries in a backwater town of Mississippi. Or relief workers in Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, or other such repositories of world-class human suffering. Or the Ph.D.’s scattered throughout the jungles of South America translating the Bible into obscure languages.

 I was prepared to honor and admire these servants, to hold them up as inspiring examples. I was not, however, prepared to envy them. But as I now reflect on the two groups side-by-side, stars and servants, the servants clearly emerge as the favored ones, the graced ones. They work for low pay, long hours, and no applause, “wasting” their talents and skills among the poor and uneducated. But somehow in the process of living their lives they have found them. They have received the “peace that is not of this world.”

 When I think of the great churches I have visited, what comes to mind is not an image of a cathedral in Europe. These are mere museums now. Instead, I think of the chapel at Carville, of an inner-city church in Newark with crumbling plaster and a leaky roof, of a mission church in Santiago, Chile, made of concrete block and corrugated iron. In these places, set amidst human misery, I have seen Christian love abound.

 The leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana, offers a wonderful example of this principle in action. A government agency bought the property and promised to develop it, but could find no one to clear the roads, repair the plantation’s slave cabins, or drain the swamps. The stigma of leprosy kept everyone away.

 Finally an order of nuns, the Sisters of Charity, moved to Carville to nurse the leprosy patients. Getting up two hours before daybreak, wearing starched white uniforms in bayou heat, these nuns lived under a more disciplined rule that any Marine boot camp. But they alone proved willing to do the work. They dug ditches, laid foundations for buildings, and made Carville livable, all the while glorifying God and bringing joy to the patients. They learned perhaps the deepest level of pain/pleasure association in life, that of sacrificial service.

 If I spend my life searching for happiness through drugs, comfort, and luxury, it will elude me. “Happiness recedes from those who pursue her.” Happiness will come upon me unexpectedly as a by-product, a surprising bonus for something I have invested myself in. And, most likely, that investment will include pain. It is hard to imagine pleasure without it.

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