A breathing space over this long hot weekend, no idea what happens in the morning. Staying in the day. The government has called for an end to the protests that have turned violent and criminal, but so far no wage agreements have been reached, so the rioting could resume tomorrow. How I long for those long dull days when nothing much happens.
All the same, life does go on and I’m sitting with a mug of green tea reading all about the rise of the self-help industry, a phenomenon about which I feel ambivalent, the nuggets of common sense and wisdom mixed in with the vapid or narcissistic. What has happened in AA over the course of six or seven decades? What would BillW not recognise if he walked into a downtown New York meeting on a cold January evening in 2013? An article with a great title: How Self-Help Publishing Ate America:
The New Age was really a revival of what had once been called New Thought: a religious movement spawned in the primordial soup of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Sigmund Freud, and William James that preached the flip side of the Protestant work ethic: faith above works and a belief in one’s unlimited capacities on Earth. The new New Thought was the perfect religion for the Me Decade, a reality-show version of spirituality in which the meaning of life is to unleash the inner superstar.
You might date the final triumph of New Thought over mid-century pragmatism to the relocation of Harper & Row’s venerable religious division. In 1977, the old Protestant imprint moved to New Age–soaked San Francisco, land of Esalen, yoga, est, and Human Potential. Nine years later, it partnered with the Hazelden clinic to publish Melody Beattie’s Codependent No More. Suddenly, the jargon of AA became the jargon of the USA. Linda Loewenthal, who led self-help beacon Harmony Books, calls the recovery boom “my awakening to the power of naming something.” And, actually, “recovery” named everything, defining every problem as a personal illness to be conquered—toxic parents, women who love too much, obesity, excessive shopping, and above all “codependency,” which could potentially encompass any human relationship.
We learn and then unlearn, start over, as old certainties and paradigms shift and lose ground. What is conflated and what is not included, what is normal and what increasingly is defined as abnormal or illness. So many new hypotheses, so many questions about the power of naming. How much we are learning about the brain, about neuroscience and the nature of human impulses and motivations and neural pathways, synapses misfiring. From The Edge:
Maybe a lot of the neurons in our brains are not just capable but, if you like, motivated to be more adventurous, more exploratory or risky in the way they comport themselves, in the way they live their lives. They’re struggling amongst themselves with each other for influence, just for staying alive, and there’s competition going on between individual neurons. As soon as that happens, you have room for cooperation to create alliances, and I suspect that a more free-wheeling, anarchic organization is the secret of our greater capacities of creativity, imagination, thinking outside the box and all that, and the price we pay for it is our susceptibility to obsessions, mental illnesses, delusions and smaller problems.
We got risky brains that are much riskier than the brains of other mammals even, even more risky than the brains of chimpanzees, and that this could be partly a matter of a few simple mutations in control genes that release some of the innate competitive talent that is still there in the genomes of the individual neurons. But I don’t think that genetics is the level to explain this. You need culture to explain it.
This, I speculate, is a response to our invention of culture; culture creates a whole new biosphere, in effect, a whole new cultural sphere of activity where there’s opportunities that don’t exist for any other brain tissues in any other creatures, and that this exploration of this space of cultural possibility is what we need to do to explain how the mind works.
And both the self-help mentality and the neuroscience of family history and genetics comes together in the Kennedys as archetypal American power moguls gone wrong. For those who haven’t heard enough as yet from this curious troubled family, there’s Susan Cheever in The Fix:
Patrick Kennedy: And I had the genetics. In 1969, when I began my drug use, it was an entirely different culture. We didn’t know then what we know today. As a matter of fact, my parents did not have the ability or the information to really intervene in a meaningful way in my using. Things have evolved. Not so long ago, one of my kids presented with an anxiety disorder. Now I know, from this book, that as many as 70% of all people who present with an addiction also have a co-occurring mental illness. To complicate that—and this is where this book is different and new—not only do they present with a co-occurring mental disorder, but they often present with more than one! If you are an alcoholic and you show up at a treatment center, chances are that you might have a food disorder. You might smoke, have a sexual compulsivity or a gambling problem.
But sitting here in a strife-torn countryside, the problems are other and older lessons to do with morality or right ways of behaving and acting have not gone away. Despite secularism, we still need idealism, the transcendent,, we want the bigger picture, we hanker after hope. And the warmth of spring, the change of season.
In untrustworthy springtime
he was seen moving
among us like one of us
in green Judea, covered with the veil of life,
among the olive trees, among the many shapes
blurred by spring,
stopping to eat and rest, in obvious need,
among the thousand flowers,
some planted, some distributed by wind,
like all men, seeking
recognition on earth,
so that he spoke to the disciples
in a man’s voice, lifting his intact hand:
was it the wind that spoke?
Or stroked Mary’s hair, until she raised her eyes
no longer wounded
by his coldness, by his needless destruction
of the flesh which was her fulfillment—
This was not the sun.
This was Christ in his cocoon of light:
so they swore. And there were other witnesses
though they were all blind,
they were all swayed by love—
Winters are long here.
The road a dark gray, the maples gray, silvered with lichen,
and the sun low on the horizon,
white on blue; at sunset, vivid orange-red.
When I shut my eyes, it vanishes.
When I open my eyes, it reappears.
Outside, spring rain, a pulse, a film on the window.
And suddenly it is summer, all puzzling fruit and light.