Theology, Writing & Publishing

The gospel of “self help”

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There’s a lot of advice out there about how to conquer your problems and live your “best life.” I’ve never been entirely certain about what that means. How to become rich and famous? How to be great-looking and best dressed? I have no idea.

Just perusing the Self-Help section at Barnes and Noble, I notice lots of titles that seem to make those promises. If only I can just pull myself up by my bootstraps (assuming I was born with sturdy bootstraps I am physically able to pull), I can do just about anything.

Granted, I have not read every self-help book out there, so I can’t say with any certainty that the authors of these books were all born into completely privileged existences, with no hardship whatsoever. I can’t say that none of them have ever known pain or disappointment.

And yet. Sometimes, those messages just feel empty. Like a key ingredient is missing.

***

I may sell enough books to afford the expensive bag. Maybe one day I’ll be able to fly first class to any country in the world. I might someday have thousands of adoring Instagram followers who can’t “like” my posts fast enough.

And yet. When moments of suffering come – and they will – what hope will those things offer me?

We live in a world that measures worth by outward success. There are publishing houses that wouldn’t give me a contract because my online platform isn’t big enough, no matter how well I can write, or how meaningful my engagements are with the five Instagram followers who interact the most with my content.

As of now, I’m in great physical health. But how will I feel when I look at my list of goals and dreams and I’m too physically weak to accomplish them? What if I were to be measured by the things I didn’t achieve – the bestseller lists I didn’t make, the boxes of unsold books in my trunk?

I’ve read books and blogs that encourage me to “just be positive” and wash my face or save screenshots of my favorite Amazon reviews people wrote about my books to visit when I’m feeling down. But in the face of real suffering, I’m not sure those things will be enough.

The self-help gospel wants me to believe I am awesome and capable of anything. If I just believe in myself, the universe will let good things happen to me. I am all for healthy self-esteem, but I also advocate for healthy humility. Sure, I have good qualities and talents, but I am not entitled to good things because of them. That is a straight-up lie.

Sometimes, trying to be happy makes me feel worse. Sometimes, trying to “be positive” makes me snap. I am done trying to make “the universe” bend to my will and give me what I want. And that actually makes me feel pretty relieved.

***

Self-help talk, pop psychology – it’s called many things, but it is its own kind of gospel. It preaches a simple, practical, “The only one standing in your way is you” kind of mindset, which many people find helpful. But it doesn’t work for everyone.

How can Jesus’ message of perseverance in suffering be useful to everyone – the sick, the dying, the impoverished, the victimized?

I’m asking because I have no idea. But I do believe that his message was meant to be universal, not just for upper-middle-class white people with money and privilege.

***

It takes a strong person to still be okay with themselves when they fall short, to not allow those failures to define who they are. But where does that strength come from? That is the real question. If the source is finite, or dependent on outward achievement, is it real? Is it stable? Will it last beyond the season’s current trends? Is it possible that maybe real strength comes from recognizing that we are, in fact, not the center of our own lives?

Most importantly, will that source sustain you when everything else is taken, or will it disappoint you because you have nothing tangible left to offer?

Excerpted from Spinning Crap Into Fertilizer: How American Christianity Has Forgotten the Necessity of Suffering.

Photo by Peggy Anke on Unsplash
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