I was about to participate in a seminar where women spend two days learning about men. I mentioned my upcoming appointment to a few friends and acquaintances and asked them what they thought.
Woman One: "Seminar? Why go to a seminar? Men are so simple. That seems like a big waste of time."
Woman Two: "It's sad that society's generated this belief in a gender gap. Some people are from Mars, some people are from Venus, and some are from Saturn. We're all different, and complex as well. I think it's pathetic to go to a seminar and try to learn quickly about some complex subject that should take a lifetime to learn. (Of course, I'm 34 years old and single.)"
Woman Three: "Those women are desperate stupid idiots. Why don't they read a book in bed and figure it out for themselves?"
Man One: "What a sick bunch they must be. Why don't they just go to bars? Yikes, what a scary thing."
Woman Four: "There's not much to be gained from categorizing people. I'd rather go out to dinner with a man than learn about his psychology."
Man Two: "The word to women is often, 'You're okay. There's nothing wrong with you.' But the message can also be that men are boorish, unappreciative creatures."
Man Three: "Good idea. Study the enemy."
Woman Five: "It's the easiest thing in the world to keep a man happy. Feed him and fuck him and leave him alone."
Most of the reactions I got were negative, but not all of them were. One woman told me, "You're either bitter or better. Whatever helps people get better and not be bitter is a good thing."
Many women also asked me for details regarding the seminar, as though they would like to attend. Did it have a good track record? Did I think it would work?
I have another friend who's a male who told me to forget the seminar. "For men and women to learn about each other, they should just read each other's magazines," he said. "Men should read Elle and Cosmo, and women should read Playboy and Maxim. Because it doesn't matter what's true or false. It matters what's being said. It's all about the spin."
I considered the hostilities that underlie the most aggressive of these reactions. Are people just against seminars in general? Do most folks share my own built-in aversion to groupthink and submissive conformity? Or these people I'd been asking -- and some of the women insisted on being called "Ms." -- did they see these seminars as an admission of weakness? Were they against admitting that we need to be fixed, because that implies that somehow we're broken?
To me, self-help is like the CliffsNotes to the great literature of the self. It's a massive shortcut. Instead of reading philosophy and poetry, and paying attention to what our bodies are telling us, and writing down our dreams, and learning to meditate, and traveling widely, and living in different places, and meeting unusual people -- instead of participating in all of these instructive and self-renovating pursuits, some folks make do with reading or following the watered-down teachings of someone else who has done these things.
Instead of learning a musical instrument and a foreign language, we listen to tunes and rely on subtitles. Instead of going for a run, we watch a race. Instead of traveling the great undiscovered country within ourselves, we visit its website.
Is it possible, then, for self-help to really help? CliffsNotes can help us pass the quiz, but then we never come to own the experience of the book. Carrying this analogy, I'd contend that self-help might tweak a surface behavior or two for the short-term, but then the deeper patterns of who we are will rise inevitably back into view.
"The relations of the soul to the divine spirit are so pure that it is profane to seek to interpose helps," Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote. We all want to better ourselves, but Emerson taught us that the way to do this was to read poetry and observe nature.
Since Emerson's time, the diminishments of nature and literature have closed off vast spaces in the souls of people, but can those spaces be re-reached and re-appreciated by a system of repeated affirmations, self-actualization courses, and 12-step techniques?
Truly helping ourselves -- that is, overhauling our deepest selves -- requires a slow and steady accumulation of experiential ingredients. Reading a self-help book or attending a seminar is like buying an already-baked cake. You might enjoy the benefits, but afterwards all you'll have is indigestion and crumbs. Borrowing another metaphor, I'd say, self-help might teach you to fish, but it won't go fishing for you.
(By now I'm sure you've begun to wonder what my own gender is, or perhaps you've already checked for a clue from my name, dearest reader. But does it matter? I am, in fact, a man, and if you wish to profile me further, then I'll also tell you that I'm 37 years old, divorced, white, and, well, what else do you need to know to contextualize my statements and judge me? Anyway, I'll be attending the aforementioned seminar as a liaison, a representative man, whose role it will be to answer the questions of these self-helping women. And let me go on record here and assure you that I am not judging these women or this particular workshop. I have hopes for each of them and will attend in the spirit of wanting to contribute, to help the help happen. I may be skeptical about what they're fixing and how they're fixing it, but that's their business, not mine.)
Susan Cameron, a chiropractor, had just broken up with a man whom she'd been dating for four years. She told me that she'd been going to a series of seminars to learn about men.
What was Cameron's history with self-help?
"My spiritual transformation started with doing Native American practices, which included vision quests and fire walks and sweat lodges. And I had a yoga instructor who got me into macrobiotics and yoga."