Not too many years ago, when Pastor Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life was a best-seller, I was not one of its buyers. That is not because I have any doubts about Pastor Warren or, for that matter, about the contents of his book. In fact, from what little I know of him—all of which is only what I’ve picked up along the way of our media-driven culture (or lack of culture, as the case may be)—I’m sure his book contains nothing but worthwhile contributions to the literature of self-help.
I most surely have no objections to what is called “self-help” literature. After all, one of my own books, Emotional Literacy, when it was published in New York by Crossroads back in 1996, was marketed under that rubric.* Though that had not been my intention in writing it, marketing it that way was all right with me. Over the last quarter century especially, I have personally benefitted in some surprising ways from taking seriously what I found was there to be learned in various “self-help” books. Above all, I have derived such unexpected benefits—the very best kind!—from such classics of self-help literature as St. Benedict’s Rule for monastic life, John Cassian’s Institutes, Lao Tzu’s Dao De Jing, Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Bible.
I am not joking. It is all a matter of approach.
The most common way of approaching self-help literature lacks all skill at letting the self be helped. It therefore altogether misses its mark. It turns self-help into self-hurt—like loving parents who lack the requisite skills for being “good enough” parents, as we might call them, following Donald Winnicott, the great “object relations” psychoanalyst and theorist, and therefore end up dis-abling their children in their very efforts to en-able them. So abused rather than used, self-help literature becomes just another chain binding the self, rather than a path into freedom from bondage.
It comes as no secret to those familiar with the great works of self-help literature I mention above—such classics of self-help as the Bible—that the worst, most burdensome, greatest bondage of the self is always the self’s bondage to itself. In Alcoholics Anonymous, AA’s “Big Book,” another classic of self-help literature, what has come to be known in AA and all Twelve Step circles as the “Third Step prayer,” prays that the self may be relieved of “the bondage of self.” Only so relieved of itself does the self become free to become itself.
“You are looking at the problem,” say a wonderful self-help transparency designed to be placed on one’s most-used mirror. Unfortunately, however, most of us most of the time—and at least in this instance I am myself most definitely one of “us”—are so utterly clueless when it comes to helping ourselves that, no sooner do we finally realize with a shock that we are the problem, than we commence to try to self ourselves out of self, a fool’s errand if ever there was one. The result of approaching even the most deeply and truly liberatory self-help literature with that totally self-enclosed mindset is, of course, that the problem just becomes all the worse, the bondage all the more binding.
The only way to break the self loose from bondage to itself is . . . well, it’s just that: to break it loose. There’s an old saw that says the way to get a mule to do what you want it to do is first of all to get its attention, and the way to get a mule’s attention is to hit it between the eyes as hard as you can with an ax-handle.**
That applies to breaking the self out of its bondage to self: It first takes a heavy axe-handle, heavily applied, to get the self’s attention. More exactly, it takes such an axe-handle so handled to get the self’s attention off itself, and open for the possibility of attending to something else—something that, at least in happy happenstances, can help the self become itself, rather than, like Narcissus, getting lost in its own most cherished image of itself.***
Once the self is broken out of its own bondage to itself, reading self-help literature, for example, can indeed help the newly freed self. Otherwise not. If the self has not yet been beaten enough with the right axe-handle to have its concentration on itself broken, so that it is open to help, then the more the self reads of self-help literature, the more bound up it becomes in the fool’s errand of trying to self itself out of self.
My own preferred way for doing that—binding myself ever more tightly into the bondage of self—is to turn whatever I touch into a project, then to set about doing everything I can to realize that project. That is, I take what is given to me and, instead of enjoying it, as I’m sure the giver would have me do (otherwise, it’s no gift, but a curse), I immediately turn it into my very own purpose, which I then compel or drive myself to achieve. Thus, I am a master at taking the most enjoyable activity and turning it immediately into a burdensome chore, then lashing myself mercilessly to complete it. It’s as though I were intent upon saying to the giver, whoever or whatever the giver may be (including nothing): “I’ll teach you to try to give me anything!”
Speaking for myself, when I drive myself to achieve a purpose, I am guaranteeing that nothing I do will be done with any joy on my part, nor bring me back any joy in the doing. My joys, I have finally found, are inversely proportional to my purposive drives, or driven purposes. For me, a purpose driven life is designed to rob me of all joy in living. It is a way to guaranteed unhappiness.
* * * * * *
One time when I was still in my mid-teens, I had one of what were for me very rare serious conversations with my father. This particular conversation concerned my own future. At one point, I asked him what his hopes for me were: what he would like to see me be, eventually. My father did not answer immediately. He gave the matter serious thought (and he was indeed a thoughtful man, much more so, I fear, than I, his youngest child, who for his whole, long career took pay for thinking), and then finally said: “Well, I just want you to be happy!”
My father was far from a perfect father. He was just a good enough one.
One of the greatest gifts he ever gave me—a gift given with no purpose, to no purpose, that has brought great joy into my life and will, I am sure, continue to do so, just so long as I can be kept out of my own way—was to let me be present at his bedside when he died. That was on November 28, 1994, nineteen years ago today.
That is one of the things for which I am most thankful this Thanksgiving Day.
*To make a purely pragmatic, purpose-driven plug, let me add here that Emotional Literacy is now available again. I re-published it myself through CreateSpace earlier this year, and it is available under my given name of Francis F. Seeburger, in both paperback and e-book versions. Buy a copy, please! While you’re at it, but copies of my other available books, too: Addiction and Responsibility, first published by Crossroad, and my most recent, The Open Wound: Trauma, Identity, and Community! And please tell all your acquaintances to buy copies as well! Now that I’m retired, I want all the money I can get! (Come to think of it, that was true before I retired, too.)
**Of course, the risk in hitting a mule with an axe-handle to get its attention is that, for lack of happy happenstances, you may end up killing it. After all, any tool is a dangerous as it is powerful. That is why skill at their usage is so important with such powerful tools as the axe-handles of addictions or, in general, repetition compulsions—so important, and so difficult to acquire.
***For addicts, their addictions are the axe-handles used for breaking the self loose from its fixation on itself. In general, that is what repetition compulsions triggered by trauma (which, in my judgment, fits addictions) are for: to keep whacking at us until they either kill us, or get our attention off ourselves, and open to surprises.