Shelving Self-Help

I was half-napping in the family room today, beaten semi-comatose by the April rain, when a row of books caught my eye. A dozen or so, lined up neatly on the highest shelf of the bookcase. Self-help books. I studied them briefly from my position on the couch until seized, suddenly, by the urge to dump them.

Now, don’t get me wrong. These books are well-written, thought-provoking and were, at a certain stage in my life, helpful, at least insofar as shaping my philosophies, if not in solving any of the immediate issues I faced at the time. Issues like: What is wrong with me? Why haven’t I yet achieved total world domination, or at least stopped feeding my family out of boxes every night of the week? Why do I feel so lost? I tried to remember how old I was when I read those books. My late twenties? Early thirties?

“Live your questions now,” Rainer-Marie Rilke wrote, in a letter to an earnest young student, “and perhaps even without knowing it, you will live along some distant day into your answers.” I always found that idea intellectually appealing, but of course, I didn’t get it. You can’t get it until you have, well, lived through it. That’s the recompense for getting older: you earn the odd bit of wisdom. You also realize that you don’t know anything. By extrapolation, that means no one else knows much either. I find that realization rather comforting.

I take the books down from the shelf, stack them on the coffee table. Looking at pile, I remember the ambivalence that, by and large, I felt after reading them (or, more often, after abandoning them mid-way through). The exercises, “challenges” and questionnaires left me feeling wanting, empty. Even now, looking at the stack, I feel vaguely – what? Inadequate.

Now understand a few things about me: I have two law degrees. A black-belt. A law practice. A lovely home, a treasure of a husband, two beautiful children, a loving extended family including step-kids and all their attachments. I have a long history of modest athletic achievement. (Do not challenge me to a pull-up contest. I will eat you for breakfast). I juggle a lot and I do it with grace (mostly). I am a lot of things.

Inadequate isn’t one of them.

I carefully bag up the books. I have a niece in her mid-twenties who would very much appreciate them, I am sure. She is exploring life and reads much of this ilk, as she should. It is her time. And, might I add, she should read them without shame. No one should feel like a flake just for hanging around the self-help section. Heck, we should probably stand around and applaud her for trying so darn hard.

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