THE ADVICE CULTURE
The self-help industry is booming, but its overall message is surprisingly reactionary and lacks the transformative power of grace.
One of the less remarked upon phenomena of the modern book trade is the growth in self-help literature. In a recent thirty year period, up to half of all Americans bought a self-help book. The same trend is observable in Britain. What has provoked this boom in advice culture?
In the modern era, families have been dispersed and the loss of shared wisdom has left many bereft of proven ideas. Where the local extended family may once have been the repository of knowledge, people now turn to the internet for help, which is like turning from your local river to the Pacific Ocean to do some fishing. The options are limitless and, paradoxically, inhibiting. How do we know who is right among all the opinions on breast-feeding or potty training? Who should we believe on how to craft a CV or handle an interview? Can the top result on a Google search be relied on over the one in second place, third place or sixty-fifth place? The loss of trust in institutions, of which the Church is one, means people are less inclined to listen to what they are being told by traditional authorities and so they rummage around for advice online. The self-help industry has mushroomed where there is no light.
One journalist, Jennifer Niesslein, carried out a risky experiment on herself by trying to live only by the advice she received from such books. In the book Practically Perfect in Every Way she describes how after two years of doing as she was told by self-help gurus she became prone to serious panic attacks and found less contentment and peace than she had before. The quest for perfection by surrendering her critical faculties led to an obsessive and uncontrolled life-style. Yet there are no signs we are about to relinquish our passion for the advice of strangers.
There is a disturbing undertow to this current and its power is in the pernicious sense that success and failure in life is entirely the responsibility of the individual. We are the masters of our own destiny in a world where it is ludicrously believed that nothing is beyond anyone if they want it enough. And so we rummage for every piece of advice we can get. The concept of unlimited choice is a myth. Many things are beyond us in life and to obtain the things that aren’t we are still dependent on the kindness and welfare of others. This is how God has made us.
The advice culture is something of a parody of the Christian message in its alluring call to ‘become yourself – only a better version’ (as Cosmopolitan magazine puts it). The thrust of Pauline thinking is that we become the person God has called us to be as we die to self and learn to live for Christ. This transformation can never be a trick of the mind or merely an exertion of the will. Only by willing co-operation with the Holy Spirit can ingrained and futile ways of being be altered. One of the great wastes of modern society which is thirsty for advice is ignorance both of the wisdom which God imparts to those who ask in faith and the power of his Spirit to effect the changes we most need. There is a vast untapped oilfield of spiritual resource which we are not turning to because it is not in a part of life we frequent.
The risk of self-help culture is that it encourages people on a journey inwards, where we try to make everything right on our own. This is a reactionary, not a transformative message. It tells us that we are wrong and must put things right when often the reverse is true: we are not wrong but social conditions and cultural attitudes have inhibited our development. This is similar to the risk inherent in individualistic Christianity which says much about personal development but little about societal change.
For all these misgivings, the advice culture has a contribution to make. The Christian faith is not prescriptive in most ways, establishing rather the characteristics which should inform our experience of the many varied ways we choose to live. As St. Paul said, we should work out our own salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). There are many things to be gained from listening to others. But there is only one we should assign our life over to.
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