Discover more from The Luminist: Personal growth through grief, loss & death
#21: Self-help pride.
Courageously growing our minds and our mindsets.
I am a bookworm. It’s not a new thing. But since Mike died, it has definitely become a different thing.
Books (and their authors) kept me company in depths of grief that many of us inevitably visit but few examine or chart their way through. Ever since my “grief canon” provided a faint but followable promise out of the ink blackness of loss, I have turned to books over and over again with questions simple and profound. (You can find the full list of those books here.)
How do I live a better life?
How do I remain calm(ish) at my children’s antics when I really want to scream?
How can I be a better community member, leader, servant to the greater good?
How can I spend less time staring at my phone, TV, computer and more time connecting with the natural world?
What are the truths that the wise sages of the ages learned about living, dying, connecting, loving and how do I learn them too?
What are the “hacks” that will help me focus more, sleep better, lead better, live longer, and how can I weave them into my daily life?
I think, because I’m relatively new to the personal development scene, I didn’t realize the extent to which my reading choices (and now writing choices) have earned me a place in a unique group. A group that doesn’t seem to get a whole lot of respect from “literary” types. A group whose mission is somehow thought of as frivolous, naive, hapless…?
A few weeks ago, Kendall and I traveled to New Orleans for Tulane’s admitted students weekend.
On the flight, I read A Line in the World: A Year on the North Sea Coast by Danish author Dorthe Nors — a visceral exploration of noticing more, feeling more, reflecting more as Nors explores the historical and current-day challenges facing the unforgiving, weather-beaten coastline of her homeland.
After the information sessions, Kendall went off with new friends to do what (pre-) college students do on a beautiful spring day (I didn’t ask) and I found myself with a few free hours. Serendipitously, the New Orleans Book Festival was also happening on campus that day. *Bookworm wiggle of delight.*
After perusing the festival pamphlet, my purple pen circled a talk that was happening in just 15 minutes. I fast-walked across campus (fast enough to be on time but not so fast that the Louisiana humidity combined forces with my sweat to turn me into a swamp creature) because I really didn’t want to miss this one! I slipped in with two minutes to spare, noticing that attendance was sparse… but those in attendance seemed as excited as me. The session title explained it all: The Uplift and Little Pieces of Hope: Finding Happiness and Inspiration in Everyday Life with Tony Dokoupil and Todd Doughty.
I had zero name recognition of these gentlemen but since I am totally into the radiance in dailiness, I couldn't miss anything that included “finding inspiration in everyday life”.
With four-story-tall oaks oozing green through the windows behind them, Doukupil told us about his show — The Uplift on CBS — and desire to change the never-ending focus on negative news. Doughty explained the inception and impetus of his Instagram project highlighting small-scale positives, which eventually turned into a book — Little Pieces of Hope: Happy-Making Things in a Difficult World.
Both of these men have projects focused on helping others see the world differently by highlighting the hopeful in a society addicted to the enraging. They were pouring out their souls in deep connection with the audience, sharing backstories and anecdotes, unexpected synchronicities and electric insights. I was furiously scribbling notes on my program — takeaways for looking at my life through a new, uplifted light.
Which is why I was so perplexed when Doukupil turned to Doughty and asked, “But… how does it feel to have your book labeled ‘Self-Help’??”
Reader, I assure you, he did not mean it in a positive way.
Help. A good thing to provide, of course! But an embarrassing thing to need. If you are unlucky enough to need help, you are trying to move through the “hard times” as quickly as possible to “get back on your own two feet.”
When we need help, even to move a piece of furniture so big that no one could do it on their own, we’re sheepish about it. We often apologize both before and after making the request! (“I’m so sorry to ask but…”) We go to Google with our questions, preferring to admit our ignorance to the anonymity of the search bar before our close friends and family. We feel insufficient and like a burden and it makes whatever we are going through worse… to the point that sometimes we won’t ask at all.
Obviously, this is nonsense. Humans, with our minuscule teeth, flimsy claws, and erratically distributed hair, are decidedly not built to go it alone. And though we have agreed to live together, work together, and rely on each other in many aspects of life, it only extends to culturally sanctioned limits.
Outside of that, competence and independence remain the expectation. Especially when it comes to mental health, productivity, weight loss, finding love, making money, accepting, healing, and loving yourself — aka “personal issues” that “should” be “controlled” by “willpower.”
(If you haven’t read about the science that suggests willpower is a myth, I highly suggest it. It’s very very gratifying.)
And even then, when we embrace our responsibility and empowerment — like good “independent” people — and try to help ourselves by going to the sources that say they have the answers to our questions (already written and printed in a book!), we are looked down upon for visiting that section of the bookstore. Come ON.
By this logic, our moral obligation is to struggle, suffer, and not say a word… with experiences, mindsets, challenges that other people have already faced and found their way through.
You should have also learned to read on your own, do math on your own, drive on your own, play basketball on your own.
Struggle is inherent to life. As is the desire to progress, to learn, to improve your situation. But we can do all those things without reinventing the wheel.
Cultivating, curating, and consuming the right kinds of self-help for YOU (correct, not all self-help is going to be helpful) is like having a good friend ride shotgun on your wild journey of life — she’s been where you want to go, she has snacks, tissues, a wicked sense of humor, and she knows how to change a flat.
To Doughty’s credit, when asked how it felt to join the self-help bookshelves, despite his day job at Penguin Random House that has him focused on more “high-minded” literary pursuits, he said he didn’t care what his book was categorized as, as long as it resonated with people. As long as it helped them through their day.
No wonder he wrote a “self-help” book — he knows something that many of us could use! He’s learned to set aside any pride that keeps him from helping himself or others.
In its place springs a pride that’s deeper than keeping up appearances. A pride in the incomparable human ability to learn, adapt, transform — to decide to climb a mountain even though you don’t know the way… and seek directions from those who have traveled before, because living to tell the tale is worth the “embarrassment”.
Author and magician Amit Kalantri put it succinctly. “It is courage which can find the solution to every problem.”
In this way, I see “self-helpers” as not just hopers and dreamers but as warriors, willing to both believe that there is a better way, and willing to fight to find it…
On that note, rather than throw out the self-help section, I want to expand it!
I want it to include books we wouldn’t typically call self-help but which provide tangible, actionable wisdom about the human condition nonetheless. A book on the meditative aspects of fly-fishing or bird watching (Slow Birding: The Art and Science of Enjoying the Birds in Your Own Backyard) comes to mind. And biographies of historical figures we admire (I just finished one on Chester Nimitz). Or the book I read on the way to New Orleans about living on the desolate edge of the civilized world, what it strips away, and what it brings to life.
And I don’t want to stop at books. My other self-help inputs (and suggestions!) include sunrises and great coffee, rich conversations and deep connection, architecture and art.
And, frankly, YOU. Because you inspire me every single day. I am inspired to break my old thought patterns, to morph my mindset, to explore crazy ideas so I can aggregate, integrate, and illuminate as a gift to you. Connection with and service to you teaches me and drives me to be the best version of me. And all you have to do is sit there and look pretty ;).
Self-helpers dare to dream that things — and themselves — can be different… and are willing to consider any source of help, advice, insight, illumination to discover how to make it happen.
As Lex Luthor says, “Some people can read War and Peace and come away thinking it's a simple adventure story. Others can read the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper and unlock the secrets of the universe.”
(Yes, I’ll even take words of wisdom from a comic book character!)
Don’t let anyone (yourself included!) make you feel bad for having the courage to put your pride aside and seek solutions wherever you can find them.
What are your favorite self-help sources, books, podcasts, newsletters, etc?
Have you noticed a particular type, perspective, genre, or format of self-help really works for you? Or one that doesn’t?
Any words of advice for a self-help newbie who is trying to find what works for them?
With hope & courage,
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