Dave's Progress. Chapter 65: Self-Help: Harmless Aid to Living or Pernicious Con?

I am writing this post because I recently borrowed a book from a friend entitled, "Ask and it is Given. Learning to Manifest Your Desires. The Teachings of Abraham" by Esther and Jerry Hicks. My friend had been so taken with the book that she felt that I should read it. Indeed, she wants to give a talk on its "teachings" at the Pathways Group (the group run by my local mental health residential unit for the long-term mentally ill) as she feels that what is contained therein has genuinely changed her life. Indeed, she recently claimed, "no one need ever suffer from depression or psychosis ever again", because of what she had found in the book.
However, I have reservations about this for a number of reasons. It is not that I have anything against helping yourself, but I have long held an aversion towards the so-called "self-help" industry. And it would seem that it is, indeed, some sort of industry, producing books which sell in to the millions. My aversion exists, rather, because, as far as I have read, and as far as it has been explained to me, books like the above seem to make some pretty wild claims and assertions without proffering any sort of proof, or proof as I see it, for them at all. For example, even in the foreword the book is talked up to such a degree that it seems highly improbable that it can live up to such claims. The writer of the foreword, Dr. Wayne W. Dyer, begins by saying, "The book you are holding in your hands at the moment contains some of the most powerful teachings available to you on our planet today." Really? These guys certainly don't underestimate themselves, do they? After a brief explanation of "the law of attraction", the "law" which the book is largely about, Dr. Dyer ends by saying, "I love you. ALL OF YOU". Now, forgive me for being cynical, but when people start talking like that I tend to think that they are either high on drugs or deeply delusional. To my mind, it did nothing for the credibility of the book and indeed, I began to wonder just what exactly did Dr. Dyer have a PhD in which qualified him to make such seemingly absurd claims. Indeed, one began to wonder who all the PhD qualified people, whose quotes about the book were written inside the first few pages, were and what their qualification was in. Why did they support a book which made wild claims and offered no proof for them at all. Surely as academics they were familiar with the concept of using evidence to back up one's argument?
Indeed, the only "authority" in the book, and who most of the "teachings" come from, is the mysterious figure of Abraham, who is the sort of spirit guide of Esther Hicks. It is from him that this wisdom comes, through Esther, to us. However, as Abraham only speaks to Esther, it is kind of hard to get hold of the guy and ask him where he gets his information from. It certainly isn't wikipedia, but as a member of an ancient spirit-like people, supposedly from whom we all descend, his authority is obviously, to some, without question. Abraham even claims that many great minds have been aware of "the law of attraction" and, moreover, that their ability to use it had been responsible for their success. People such as Shakespeare, Aristotle and Plato, apparently, all knew about the "law of attraction". In this way, the book claims, anyone who learns to use the "law of attraction" to their advantage can do, be or have anything they desire. In fact, anyone can be a genius. That is why the knowledge is so powerful. In this way the book, by focusing on desire, and espousing a philosophy which suggests you can do and have it all, perhaps makes a powerful and seductive link with another quixotic and flawed ideology, that of the American Dream.
To me, however, who has trouble believing in any sort of spirit entities, including God, this only further compounds my doubts about such books. Indeed, the teachings themselves, half of the book being given over to an explanation of them and half on how to actually use the "law of attraction", seem to be a somewhat unexciting mixture of cloying sentimentality, cod philosophy and psychology and pseudo-science, all mixed together with a bit of cognitive behavioral therapy. Indeed, when I asked my friend where the proof for any of this came from, she simply stated that I was "over intellectualising" the whole affair and that the truth, rather, comes from what the book describes as "a feeling place". This seems to me, however, to be just an extremely convenient get out clause for when things begin to get too "real", as it were.
Further, it is not just the content of the book that appears to be both unbelievable and trite. The very language in which it is written is, to my mind, almost an offence to the English language. I believe W.H. Auden once said that a poet's only true responsibility was to guard against the degradation of his language. So, as someone who has a book of poetry published, I would like to exercise this responsibility by showing just how this book would appear to degrade my beloved English.
For example, the book seems to contain an absurd amount of neologisms which are used to describe things which already exist. Why create a new word to describe something when one already exists, other than to try to show that what you are saying is a new thing, which really, is not the case at all? Take, for example,the following statement:
"This Rampage of Appreciation process will be of most value to you when your emotional set-point is ranging somewhere between:
(1) joy/knowledge/empowerment/freedom/love/appreciation and (5) optimism...
So, let us say you are feeling positive expectation. Since positive expectation is ranked (4), and (4) falls between (1) and (5) suggested current emotional set point range for the rampage of appreciation, this process would be one of the most valuable for you to use right now."
Here what Esther and Jerry call "emotional set point range" would really just appear to be one's mood. Why then, not just call it that, instead of making out that you have come across something new by using such absurd neologisms. But perhaps I have this slightly wrong. These are not really neologisms, but rather old concepts dressed up in different language. Also, can one really box off and categorise one's mood so easily?
Further, this quote would also seem to point to another problem I have with Esther and Jerry's arguments, in that it would seem to want to make us all in to people who are positive ALL THE TIME. Do we really want to go around behaving like happy-clappy automatons? Indeed, it has been argued by some psychiatrists (and now I'm being almost as vague as Esther and Jerry) that a sometime lack of positivity, or sadness (I do not mean depression here), is good for our spiritual growth. It is strange, then, that Esther and Jerry would want us to remain positive all the time because they claim that their book is, in many ways, a spiritual one.
It would also seem that such overwhelming positivity, and seeming adherence to ideologies very much in line with consumerism, would make us extremely compliant to the political status quo of advanced capitalism.
So, is self-help just a harmless aid to living or a pernicious con? I think you might guess where I am coming from. Indeed, I wish my friend, who is an intelligent and articulate lady, were not so enamoured with all this. I feel, somehow, that I have lost her to the paltry teachings of Esther and Jerry. And, as she is one who has experienced mental ill health, I wonder just how much of this is to be viewed as a harmful con played out on the vulnerable. No doubt my friend would not see this as such, but when the "law of attraction" fails her, which it may well do, who will be there to pick up the pieces. It certainly won't be Esther and Jerry- more likely it will be her true friends like yours truly. So, this also makes me somewhat trepidatious about bringing such ostensibly attractive, but in the end specious "teachings" to the pathways group, which is full of lively, intelligent people, but people who nonetheless may be just vulnerable enough to be similarly brainwashed by Esther and Jerry. I obviously can not comment on the whole of the self-help oeuvre, which may indeed contain some very good books about how to cope with life and its increasing pressures. As for this one, though, I suggest it be approached with caution and with one's tongue firmly in one's cheek.
That's all for now from your normal, average paranoid and delusional man.


bazza said…
Hello David. The self-help market is worth billions. Guess what Jerry Hicks was before starting this? An Amway salesman.
When I Googled the couple the autocomplete brought up words like fraud and scam.
They are apparently considered to be the worst.
So you are right to have reservations but I have to say that the whole self-help genre cannot be tarred with the same brush.
The cod psychology is the least useful but we have to allow that some books are genuine.
Overall I would say that you have nailed this one brilliantly!
David said…
Dear Bazza,
Thanks for your comment and allowing me to breathe more easily over what I have said. Indeed, if my friend reads this I get the feeling she will be none too pleased, so taken is she with this material. But as a friend, I feel it's only my duty to tell her what I really think of it. It is, then, heartening to know that others might share my point of view. And, like you say, we shouldn't tar the rest of the self-help genre with the same brush- there are obviously genuine people out there.
Thanks once again.
Yours with Very Best Wishes,
klahanie said…
Hi David,
Apologies for not getting here sooner. I read your comment on my blog and I think I know why I seem to be commenting on this blog out of chronological order. Then again, maybe I'm as confused as ever:-)
Upon read this posting; I have to totally agree with 'bazza', who does an excellent informative blog also.
I think we have to be very careful with these alleged 'self-help' books. No doubt there are a few genuine examples out there that do have some positive benefit. However, and here I go all cynical; I believe a lot of these genre type books just prey on the vulnerable and the wishful thinkers. Anything to make a fast 'buck' or pound.
I reckon that the best resources are there in the sharing of ideals and concerns with our friends and family.
Brilliant article, David. Well done for speaking your mind on this subject.
With very kind wishes, peace and love man, your friend, Gary.
David said…
Dear Gay,
Thank you for your comment. It seems that many of us would agree about such types of "self-help" books, without forgetting, of course, that there is probably a great deal of good advice out there, to counteract what I feel is such nonsense.
Anyway, glad that you finally found this blog and with Very Best Wishes,
Your Friend,

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