Help Yourself: New Age vs. Old School

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self help.JPGWhatever investigators and courts ultimately decide about three deaths and a number of alleged injuries in a "sweat lodge" program at his Arizona New Age retreat, the guru James Arthur Ray has no plans to abandon his mission. And to judge from the positive reaction of many prospects, the risk might even make the program look more attractive -- no pain, no gain and all that. (There's a theory that as technology makes motoring and other activities safer, some people compensate by craving new risks.) According to the Los Angeles Times,

Though shaken by the deaths, Ray has quickly returned to the road, teaching his secrets of success even as he uses them to cling to his own.

"I've taught that we're all going to have adversity and we can't run from it," a somber, teary-eyed Ray said Tuesday night at the beginning of his free recruitment session in Denver. "I've certainly learned a lot in the past 10 days."

Some weren't aware of the Sedona deaths until Ray addressed it. But Lyle Guthmiller, 44, a heating and air conditioning technician, said it didn't dissuade him from considering signing up for one of the retreats. "When you're pushing the limits, unfortunately, things can happen," he said. "I'd rather live that life than be a couch potato."

Self-help gurus--and their disciples--have exasperated skeptics for over a century, at least since the debunkers of the Russian-born spiritualist Helena Blavatsky, whose Theosophy movement has survived its early detractors to become a presence on the Web. Even negative publicity keeps leaders in the news, and weren't many of the founders of today's great religions denounced in their own time as charlatans?

Video in particular favors today's prophets, with their often spellbinding performances, over less charismatic naysayers. Ray was featured on the Larry King show, as the self-help critic Steve Salerno notes with dismay in the Wall Street Journal. Even accomplished investigators of alleged occult phenomena like the magician James Randi, who offers $1,000,000 prize for proof of the paranormal, can't expose the advice of motivational speakers in the same way. One of Randi's blog contributors does have an illuminating account of a post-tragedy appearance by Ray. It should not be so surprising that Ray and his followers have taken the offensive; over 50 years ago, a Chicago end-of-the-world movement was not dissolved but galvanized into action after its Armageddon deadline passed, helping inspire the psychological theory of cognitive dissonance.

There are many sins in the self-help industry. One is the dogma that anybody can be a great success at any time simply by drawing on inner resources. It's one thing -- and a good thing -- to show how many people have overcome poverty, illness, disabilities, and discrimination. It's another to deny the role of factors beyond our control, especially chance (despite some evidence that our attitudes can affect our luck) and circumstances. For example, in 1996 magazine interview, the great computer scientist Donald Knuth observed that people with exceptional programming aptitude existed and exist where there was no opportunity to display their gifts: "I imagine there are computer scientists in the pygmy forest." Some people's gifts may no longer be profitable; others' not yet. And then there's the insidious Just World Hypothesis, recently exposed here by Jonah Lehrer. Louise Hay, the publisher-doyenne of New Age healing, told the New York Times Magazine writer Mark Oppenheimer that while she would not confront victims with guilt, she could see justice even in genocide:

"Yes, I think there's a lot of karmic stuff that goes on, past lives." So, I [Mark Oppenheimer] asked, with a situation like the Holocaust, the victims might have been an unfortunate group of souls who deserved what they got because of their behavior in past lives? "Yes, it can work that way," Hay said. "But that's just my opinion."

Should we condemn all self-help books? Some are recommended by mental health professionals, as Daniel Goleman observed years ago, before going on to write a best-seller of his own. The monarch of the genre may still be Samuel Smiles, author of the original Self-Help, a Victorian sensation still in print after 150 years.Smiles was a disillusioned political reformer who argued for individual effort. Reactionary propaganda or progressive politics by other means? Make up your own mind here. Smiles glorified the work ethic, not wealth or social status, and admired his protagonists for the sacrifices they made, for example the French Protestant ceramicist Bernard Palissy supposedly fueling his furnace with his household furniture as a last-ditch measure. This and many other anecdotes in Smiles have been questioned by more recent scholarship. But his message was the opposite of most of today's movement. He taught at workers' schools and declined lucrative offers to memorialize self-made industrialists.He preached no Secret but perseverance and dedication to the work for its own sake rather than for external rewards.Smiles the Scots Calvinist may have been the last great apostle of the Protestant Ethic, but he was also a forerunner of twenty-first-century ideas like self-efficacy.

Photo Credit: Flicker User Casey Serin

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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