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Get Over Yourself

How useful are self-help books?

Marjorie Ingall
September 26, 2008

Every fall, as the High Holidays approach, we Jews go into self-inventory mode. We reflect; we apologize. We think about how to be kinder, more patient, more connected. For some of us, this means going to synagogue. But for some others it means going to the bookstore—to the self-help section.

Way back in 1981, Harold Kushner published what has become perhaps the most famous example of Jewish self-help, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Informed by the death of the rabbi’s own son, it was an honest, humane, non-jargony look at how we can retain our faith while dealing with grief and injustice. Since then, driven in part by a mainstream trend in everything self-help-oriented, a slew of books devoted to the specifically Jewish flavor of personal betterment have hit the market.

In many ways, of course, Torah and Talmud are the original Jewish self-help books. And Judaism has its own traditions of meditation, movement, mind-body connection, and appreciation of nature as ways to center oneself and connect with God. The raft of often marginally-Jewishly-identified big-ideas book writers who sneer at Judaism’s eggheadedness or offer radical suggestions for fixing Jewish spirituality tend not to acknowledge, or seem to be aware, that they”re reinventing the wheel.

Unlike the Torah and Talmud, though, most self-described self-help books are easily skimmed. You can scan them with only partial attention; simply by turning the pages you feel you’ve absorbed life-changing wisdom. Books like the Oprah-blessed Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now are repetitive, convoluted, weighty yet metaphysically airy—or, as we used to chant in Jewish sleepaway camp while convincing ourselves that we could levitate: light as a feather, stiff as a board.

Living in the Now seems like a great idea, but isn’t it our obligation to worry about the future, the generations that will follow us? In books like these, there are no worries: Living in the Now will take care of the future. Any objection to narcissism or circular reasoning can be answered by the metaphysics of the books themselves; don’t think too hard. “The accumulation of time as the psychological burden of past and future greatly impairs the cell’s capacity for self-renewal,” Tolle writes. Furthermore, “even a stone has rudimentary consciousness; otherwise it would not be, and its atoms and molecules would disperse.”

To paraphrase Keanu Reeves: Whoa. Dude, did you just say the stone has consciousness?

When I told a friend I was writing about Jewish self-help books, she laughed. “The religion is the self-help!” she exclaimed. True. The Gimme School of Self-Help and its cousin, the Field of Dreams School of Do-overs, don”t seem very Jewish. We’re the People of the Book, not the Feeling. We encourage tzedakah and gemilut chasadim, not the seeking of external rewards. We’re about dialogue (between Reb Hillel and Reb Shamai, between a rabbi and a congregation during a drash, between endlessly jabbering family members), not monologue. And we worry about the community as much as the individual. We want prayer to be a team sport, encouraging a quorum to show up.

More significantly, Judaism doesn’t do short cuts. We love to tell the story about the guy who wanted to learn the whole Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel told him, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor; that’s the Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.” That ending’s essential: “Go and learn it.” In other words, do the work.

This Hillel story has legs (as it were) for a few reasons: It’s got a voice (if a slightly snarky one); it’s got a narrative; and it’s got specificity. All of the best self-help works do.

In Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life, Rabbi Irwin Kula discusses how we can learn from disorder, ambiguity, and imperfection. The book is filled with detailed examples from Jewish texts, from the rabbi’s counseling work, and from literature and mass culture. As someone who struggles with her control-freak tendencies, I found it genuinely helpful. Wendy Mogel’s Blessings of a Skinned Knee is terrific on the self-help front (concrete, practical advice for overindulgent helicopter parents), perhaps less successful on the Jewish front (the Torah examples are a bit facile and not very revelatory to folks with a Jewish education).

Harold Kushner’s Overcoming Life’s Disappointments lacks the power of his first book, but gets a lot of mileage from the story of Moses destroying the first set of Ten Commandments. Having to work, in collaboration with God, on the second set, having accepted the loss of perfection, is a lovely metaphor for coping with loss. Other anecdotes about Moses seem a little overreaching and strained. But Kushner’s advice about coping with a spouse’s affair, a diagnosis of infertility, or paralysis is so cringe-worthy that I actually blushed as I read. (Reader, please do not tell a woman who has had multiple miscarriages, “Women today no longer live in a world where being a wife and mother is the only path to fulfillment. … If she cannot be Eve, mother of many children, she can be Woman, created to be a friend, a companion, a lover, a person of achievement in her own right.”)

Real Power: Rise Above Your Nature and Never Feel Angry, Anxious, or Insecure Again, by Dovid Lieberman, offers Yoda-esque aphorisms, with scads of footnotes from psychology studies and Jewish tradition, to help one, well, never feel angry, anxious, or insecure again. (Let others argue that this is neither possible nor useful.) Lieberman, who writes a column called “Human Nature 101” for the Jewish Press, is the author of two New York Times bestsellers, Never Be Lied To Again: How to Get the Truth in 5 Minutes or Less in Any Conversation or Situation, and Get Anyone to Do Anything and Never Feel Powerless Again—With Psychological Secrets to Control and Influence Every Situation. I suspect that if he ever interrogates me, I will fold like an origami crane.

Lieberman’s message: We need to accept responsibility for our own lives. Valid. But how to do the work of becoming better? Lieberman writes: “The following four-step process can morph our negative feelings into positive emotions, turn guilt into regret, and turn regret into action”:

1. Feel remorseful
2. Stop the behavior
3. Confess before God
4. Resolve not to do it again.

Well, all right then! Who needs ten whole days of penitence when all it takes is four easy steps?

Concrete advice about how to do what we know we should do is not, alas, forthcoming. Maybe the promise of the payoff should be sufficient motivation: “Being able to accept ourselves completely organically purges the ego,” he writes, “which automatically taps us into an undistorted reality. Once we do this, then our eyes would perceive a different reality; we would see truth … God … reality, everywhere.” (Now he sounds like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix. Many self-help books sound like they could star Keanu Reeves.) I do wonder whether anyone who is not a sociopath can ever accept himself completely. And would it be desirable to purge one’s ego even if one could? Isn’t having ego an essential part of being human? Don”t the best lessons from Jewish tradition involve people struggling against ego (Jonah, Moses, Sarah)?

What troubles me most about today’s self-help as a genre is how frequently solipsistic it is. It’s often navel-gazy, ahistorical, luxuriantly narcissistic. Judaism’s response to suffering, for better or worse, is much like Cher’s in Moonstruck: a brisk slap paired with a Brooklynese “snap out of it!” Don’t separate yourself from the community. Sing. Study. Help fix the world. What’s hateful to you, don’t do to others.

All of this said, my awareness of the impending holiday colors my own conclusion. For Jews, the High Holidays are as close as we get to pressing the restart button. Different books resonate with different people; if something—anything—helps a person feel more in control and better able to connect with others, far be it for me to criticize it. On the Day of Judgment, after all, who am I to judge?

Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.

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