Two thousand and a few hundred years ago, the Psalmist wrote:
Lift thine eyes, oh lift thine eyes to the mountains, whence cometh help
(Rendered rather nicely by Mendelssohn:)
In some present-day parts of the world, we look instead to politicians, to whom it’s thought that God has delegated his salvific powers:
But in most circles, we no longer lift our eyes to God or to others for help. Indeed, ‘God helps those who help themselves’. Yet we still find ourselves in need of a kick up the bum, so we look elsewhere: enter the self-help phenomenon.
How to be a great leader, How to found the next Uber, Six ways to market your start-up, How to raise venture capital in five easy steps, The step-by-step guide to becoming an entrepreneur, How to learn from failure, Couch to 10K, 10 life hacks for busy moms, How to raise a happy child, Meal planning for lazy vegans, How to know if he’s the one, relationship goals … We’ve got LinkedIn Pulse for career advice, Buzzfeed to help us hack our lives with listicles, Snapchat for body inspo (via gym pics), Pinterest to help us build the perfect home/wedding, Instagram for food inspo, etc etc etc.
That so many self-helpful resources are available should be great: we can now do anything, become anything, earn a living anyhow, look any way we want (with the help of that latest contouring vid!), mould our kids the way we want, have it all.
Thanks to technological progress, medical advances, liberal politics and sheer luck, we in the West may no longer be at the mercy of childhood diseases, famine, urban overcrowding, and other annoying things that once cried for vengeance to the heavens. Beyond this, the rise of self-help means that we are more than ever aware of our own power to change our environments. Yet seizing control of our lives from the hands of unknown cosmic or deific powers hasn’t been an unmixed blessing. We have all the above resources available to us, and yet our lives may still be less than perfectly optimised. This can only beg one question: why?
I’m in control, yet my life is not perfect. Because self-help articles tell me that I can, this is not because perfection is impossible to achieve; instead, my imperfection can only be a reflection of my own poor efforts or capabilities. I haven’t achieved, because I haven’t followed the instructions carefully enough, haven’t pursued optimisation enough, perhaps am just less capable of achievement. We are at the mercy of the judgement of those very selves, ourselves, that we are attempting through our own efforts to perfect.
It’s too easy to flip ‘How to get your dream job in 10 easy steps’ into ‘Why aren’t you following these 10 easy steps?! (Are you deficient/lazy/what’s wrong with you?)’. I don’t think I need this. Sure, I need a kick up the bum sometimes, but I’m also sure I put enough pressure on myself without, now, needing to feel I must obtain the perfect home, job, work/life balance, boyfriend, without further delay.
I worry that among all this strife we may be missing something. I don’t see a self-help article for How to react to your friend’s diagnosis or How to struggle through cancer/sexual assault/bereavement or How to cultivate your inner life or How to tell your friend she’s wrong or How to be a good spouse … Maybe these are too broad for a listicle, too personal for the internet. But I worry that we might be misdirecting that drive that we all have to be better versions of ourselves, while instead piling on the stress and self-loathing when we inevitably, still, fail to be happy. My bathroom tiling needs fixing, for sure (and I’ll be hitting up YouTube for a tutorial later), but so do my self-worth, my heart, my relationships. There’s no grout for that on Amazon.