In a context of confusion and flashy journalism, rigour becomes a precious value.
“The key to happiness is inside you. If you don’t find it, you are boycotting yourself.” This is the message from the self-help books. They all have the solution and that says that the machine will automatically start itself when it is switched off.
I should talk about this year’s festival of Sant Jordi (St. George) in Catalonia, Spain, and mention that, whilst waiting for the results of the Book Fair from Madrid, it seems clear that ‘self-help’ books are, yet again, the most successful non-literature genre on the market.
This year, alongside the obligatory authors and a ‘dodgy’ novel, self-help books have been selling like hot cakes. I dare not mention the title of the novel in case I get nightmares tonight. I should talk about this and the editorial world in which we live; I should talk about the life expectancies of authors, but that is all too obvious, more appropriate for a psychiatrist’s couch than for an article.
I would like to explain the reason for the title of this article and say why I think that self-help books are rubbish, not to call it something worse. I am being objective here, not just irrationally angry at the fact that, yet again, the best sellers belong to a literary sub-product which is bought by naïve readers. But I must tell you another story first.
When I was young, perhaps due to my naivety, I used to wonder what the preachers and missionaries meant by ‘recognising our sin to God to access salvation’ and how the real world, the people I worked with or studied with, would understand this concept. I once or twice asked them during a Bible study or a lecture to clarify what they meant by ‘recognising our sin’. The conversation went like this:
(Me): “But, what is ‘sin’?”
(Them): “Sin is what separates us from God”.
(Me): “But, what separates us from God? What is it specifically?”
(Them): “Our sin”.
Ad infinitum. Some of them, to avoid the subject, would say that it was a mystery of deep theology that we should accept blindly because that is what the Bible said. I think that they themselves did not understand it and they were under too much pressure to admit it. They were happy to accept the small definitions provided by the ecclesiastical language.
Therefore, sin was a big problem, a very big one. Firstly, because it separated us from God; secondly, because we had to recognise it (and we all know how hard that can be) and thirdly, we didn’t know what we had to recognise. On the one hand, we were told convincingly by our authorities that sin was something that you did or did not do, as it is the case with the Catholics, who believe that salvation is by good deeds. Sin was ‘our condition’.
There used to be debates about whether we were born with that condition or not and for how long a child would be innocent. I was left none the wiser. It felt as if you had soiled your face but there were no mirrors where you could see where to clean yourself. We may not have known it, but we were clearly sinners.
During those years I came to accept that evangelising, going round the world preaching the gospel, was not my thing. What was I supposed to be preaching? The only possible message I was going to preach was that people had a huge problem with sin that was ruining their lives and was keeping them away from God. But, to be honest with you, I couldn’t see that the people around me were in ruins.
They were simple people, humble and hard working. Many of them were fantastic people. The world was not a horrible place. There was chaos and things to improve, but there was also a sense of happiness that was electrifying. It was the nineties and we were riding the crest of the economic wave. ‘Ecology’ was the fashionable term and we were hopeful that recycling and awareness of the environment would allow us to re-establish a balance with nature. It was all about the future and the well-being.
It was Eduardo Punset who, much later, made me realize what sin really was and how it inhabited this world and destroyed people’s lives. I am not saying a heresy here, as I will explain.
At that time, I did not understand the difference between what belonged to Christ and what didn’t- that is to say, I knew perfectly well which were the moral norms of what belonged to the ‘world’ and which weren’t, as told by the Church. In other words: do not go to discos, do not have non-Christian friends, do not have bad friends, do not wear provocative clothes (for the girls), do not drink and do not have sex before marriage.
But if you shared those ideas with non-Christians, many of them agreed with me that they were good ideas and norms to follow. They did not need convincing about that, therefore I couldn’t find ‘sin’ anywhere. I could not see any difference and so I just carried on living within the confines of my norms, as best as I could.
Then, one day I decided to read Journey to happiness, by Eduard Punset. I had followed him on the tv program called ‘Redes’. According to Punset, it has been scientifically proven that the goal for humans is to find happiness. His book is based on this idea and how to find it. So, that day, I asked myself: “what will I do when I do find happiness?”. Apart from the fact that the road to finding happiness is arduous and complicated, full of mental traps and cognitive slants.
Apparently, as Punset would affirm, we have been designed to search for happiness but we ourselves make it a hard task. That does not make sense to me. But he was adamant and wanted us to believe it because it had been scientifically proven.
I started to dislike Punset, even though up till now I had been quite fond of him. I started to find him weird. Later on he was found advertising sliced bread and our suspicions were confirmed. By the way, all the people I knew, all those good citizens for whom the gospel of repentance was preached, were also searching for happiness. They were looking for order, meaning, simplicity, love and beauty.
We all search for it, as it happens. If we really had it inside of us, as Punset had told us, there would have been some people who would have found it, but no-one seemed to have found the authentic happiness they were searching for. There was always something missing, something ugly or chaotic. They said that your life was a machine in perpetual movement, that it fed itself, but they also said that you had to make the first move to get it going. Did they not realize that it was an impossibility? They kept repeating the same idea and building a castle over the sand, which would not stand the force of the wind.
“The key to happiness is inside you. If you don’t find it, you are boycotting yourself”. This is the message from the self-help books. They all have the solution and that says that the machine will automatically start itself when it is switched off.
Thanks to Punset, I started to see all those wonderful people, those who do not need Christ because everything is going well, with different eyes. They were all struggling with something and it was usually within themselves. They were not growing or improving, they were actually wasting away.
Everything was rotten in different ways. Some people had problems with obesity, others with their children, others with their finances. Others had no solution for their problems. Ecology was a lie and Greenpeace were only after your money and it was too late for the Amazon anyway. The rivers were already polluted and the ozone layer had a huge hole for which there was no remedy. There were also problems inside people which went back generations, engraved in the DNA, provoking death and allergies.
Humans were still searching for order, meaning, simplicity, love and beauty, driven by an unknown force inside them to see good in the world. Our need to find good leads us to embrace any imitation. We believe, time after time, that our ultimate problem is another one which we hadn’t thought about and that was the reason we were still unhappy.
That was the reason.
All self-help books have something in common: they all say there is something wrong. They sell because we all identify with what they say: we all know something is not right. Just as it happens when you open the fridge door and it smells rotten- you can’t see it, but you know it is there. Also, all self-help books claim to have the definitive method to bring you happiness. Perhaps they do, I won’t say they don’t.
Let’s be honest: that book, that method ‘works’. You know what I mean, it really works. You follow it, you learn it and then you become happy, completely happy. Then, if you are like me, you will ask yourself: ‘now what?’, ‘what shall I do now?’, ‘will this happiness help my lactose intolerance?’, ‘will this happiness prevent my friend from dying in a car crash?’, ‘will it stop me being afraid of death?’. No, that happiness just makes you say: my life is rubbish, therefore you better love rubbish because that is all there is:
- Order does not exist; it just convinces you that you should love chaos.
- There is no meaning; it just convinces you that you should accept a meaningless existence and that anyone who tells you otherwise is deceiving you.
- There is no simplicity; because you have reached this truth through a complicated idea.
- There is no love; because you are still afraid.
- There is no beauty; because you must realise that beauty is a problem of the sociocultural conditioning.
Then, at that moment, Christ appears. He is not the dogmatic discipline of the moral religiosity. He is not a guru of happiness (would not be a good one, considering how he ended up dying). He is a person, unique and different. He cannot be taken for granted.
If you think about it, he is still the centre of everything, even if you choose not to say his name.
The great majority of the self-help literature is no more than mere Christianity, but without Christ. We authors love to change words and ideas, to bring in new concepts as if they really were new:
You could add to the list. You just need to look for them.
Christ is everything that the self-help claims to be, but with purpose and meaning. With Truth. All teaching that strays from there, whether taught by Punset or the very ‘St’ Paulo Coelho, is a half truth. It is an attempt to get the machine of perpetual movement start by itself. But that is not how it works. None of our efforts, best intentions or mantras to the universe have an ounce of strength compared to the majesty and power of a single move from the Holy Spirit in our lives.
That self-help without Christ, that non-reality without logic, is rubbish for a very simple reason: because they tell you that it is; because it teaches us to open the fridge so that we can smell the rotten food, in order to close it again and say to ourselves that our fridge is perfect as it is.
Noa Alarcón is a Spanish writer and literary critic.