[Paleopsych] NYT: On the Well-Traveled Road of Self Help
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Fri Oct 7 00:55:59 UTC 2005
On the Well-Traveled Road of Self Help
By MARY JO MURPHY
SELF-HELP." The author regretted the title even after the book became
an international best seller. Judged by it, he feared, the book might
be seen as "a eulogy of selfishness," as he wrote in the preface to
the revised edition in 1866, when in fact its chief object had been
"to stimulate youths to apply themselves diligently to right pursuits,
- sparing neither labour, pains, nor self-denial in prosecuting them,
- and to rely upon their own efforts in life, rather than depend upon
the help or patronage of others."
Over the next century and a half, counseling people to "rely upon
their own efforts," as Samuel Smiles had put it, became a
well-rewarded effort indeed. "The Road Less Traveled," whose author,
M. Scott Peck, died last week, was among a handful of books to lead
If some critics scorn the self-help pantheon as so much snake oil for
the soul and psyche, readers scorn the scorners, drawn by the tens of
millions in search of practical advice served up in slim volumes.
Here, a sampling, taken cheerfully out of context and without
discipline or diligence from those considered to be classics of the
genre. Help yourself.
In "Self-Help" in 1859, Samuel Smiles sketched biographies of
successful men for Victorian Britons to emulate:
Indeed, "how NOT to do it" is of all things the easiest learnt: it
needs neither teaching, effort, self-denial, industry, patience,
perseverance nor judgment. Besides, readers do not care to know about
the general who lost his battles, the engineer whose engines blew up,
the architect who designed only deformities, the painter who never got
beyond daubs, the schemer who did not invent his machine....
We often discover what will do by finding out what will not do; and
probably he who never made a mistake never made a discovery.
It was 1936 before the next blockbuster, Dale Carnegie's "How to Win
Friends and Influence People":
Why read this book to find out how to win friends? Why not study the
technique of the greatest winner of friends the world has ever known?
Who is he? You may meet him tomorrow coming down the street. When you
get within 10 feet of him, he will begin to wag his tail. If you stop
and pat him, he will almost jump out of his skin to show you how much
he likes you. And you know that behind this show of affection on his
part, there are no ulterior motives: he doesn't want to sell you any
real estate, and he doesn't want to marry you.
Did you ever stop to think that a dog is the only animal that doesn't
have to work for a living? A hen has to lay eggs, a cow has to give
milk, and a canary has to sing. But a dog makes his living by giving
you nothing but love.
Metaphor is the well-milked cow of the genre. Carnegie writes of a
disappointed woman who has gone mad:
Life once wrecked all her dream ships on the sharp rocks of reality;
but in the sunny, fantasy isles of insanity, all her barkentines race
into port with canvas billowing and winds singing through the masts.
Tragic? Oh, I don't know. Her physician said to me: "If I could
stretch out my hand and restore her sanity, I wouldn't do it. She's
much happier as she is."
In 1952, Norman Vincent Peale took his metaphorical turn in "The Power
of Positive Thinking":
The vast tree of worry which over long years has grown up in your
personality can best be handled by making it as small as possible.
Thus it is advisable to snip off the little worries and expressions of
As you snip off these small worries you will gradually cut back to the
main trunk of worry. Then with your developed greater power you will
be able to eliminate basic worry; i.e., the worry habit, from your
Peale, a minister, was a master of pop pulpitry:
Have you ever considered the importance of having the peace of God in
your muscles, in your joints? Perhaps your joints will not pain so
much when they have the peace of God in them. Your muscles will work
with correlations when the peace of God who created them governs their
action. Speak to your muscles every day and to your joints and to your
nerves, saying, "Fret not thyself."
Eastern and Western spiritual traditions both are represented in the
literature. In 1983, Benjamin Hoff borrowed from A. A. Milne for "The
Tao of Pooh":
As anyone who doesn't have it can see, the Eeyore Attitude gets in the
way of things like wisdom and happiness, and pretty much prevents any
sort of real Accomplishment to life.
Like metaphor, allegory serves the self-help author. From "Men Are
From Mars, Women Are From Venus," in 1992, by John Gray:
Never go into a man's cave or you will be burned by the dragon! Much
unnecessary conflict has resulted from a woman following a man into
And from "The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success," in 1994, by Deepak
Imagine throwing a little stone into a still pond and watching it
ripple. Then, after a while, when the ripples settle down, perhaps you
throw another little stone. That's exactly what you do when you go
into the field of pure silence and introduce your intention. In this
silence, even the faintest intention will ripple across the underlying
ground of universal consciousness, which connects everything with
everything else. But, if you do not experience stillness in
consciousness, if your mind is like a turbulent ocean, you could throw
the Empire State Building into it, and you wouldn't notice a thing.
Dr. Peck's perennial, "The Road," first published in 1978, opens with
the line "Life is difficult." But the road winds on before it winds
The type of discipline required to discipline discipline is what I
call balancing. ...
Balancing is the discipline that gives us flexibility. Extraordinary
flexibility is required for successful living in all spheres of
A final word on the discipline of balancing and its essence of giving
up: you must have something in order to give it up. You cannot give up
anything you have not already gotten. If you give up winning without
ever having won, you are where you were at the beginning: a loser.
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