Lessons in the Thimble

I’ve read quite a number of self-help articles and books in my time, and what I’ve learned from all of them, taken together, could be aptly described by the very old country adage, “Shake it all together and stuff it in a thimble and blow it in a bed-bug’s eye.”

Oh, this isn’t to say that I learned nothing from dozens of manuscripts purporting to reveal the mysteries of life and/or the best way to live, for I did learn a great deal–especially from those authors who were humble enough to admit that these ideas were simply methods that they, personally, had found to work in their own lives.  These unpretentious authors tended to suggest that the reader could adapt and apply all or part of these lessons to her or his existence.

But what I actually learned from most of the self-help sages was that I was intelligent enough to debate their pronouncements—sometimes arriving at the conclusion they were insightful; occasionally gaining only a scrap or two of wisdom amidst a whole lot of nonsense; and, sadly and most often, finding discovering egotism and conceit in their writing.

For instance, reading one child-rearing article some years back, I learned that to handle a toddler who was throwing a tantrum (said child wanting Mommy to participate in building a Lego fortress at a time when she simply could not stop to play), Mom should solemnly promise to play with the Legos “next time”.  Of course, I thought to myself, “next time” will occur when good old Mom is preparing a formal dinner party for ten, but, what the heck—this is an EXPERT talking.  There was also the childcare expert who suggested that, in order to teach a child that a stovetop was hot, the parent should see that the kid burned his little fingers “ever so slightly”.  I am not even going to tackle my reaction to that sage piece of advice!

Later I encountered the trendy “Two Different Planets” concept of couplehood.  In the chapters of that book devoted to those actions women must absolutely take to preserve their unions, I particularly remember a pronouncement that couples should take weekend trips away together to renew their relationship–and that, if she was under the impression that they just couldn’t afford to do so, she was wrong.  Uh-huh.  Yep.  Just wait until the bills begin piling up in the inbox after that romantic weekend getaway, I thought, and see precisely how much good it had done their marriage.  Buyer’s remorse was going to set in once the checkbook reached government-style deficit financing proportions, and the resultant quarrels would be beyond ugly.  Not to mention the fact that, since this “how to preserve your relationship” ploy was pronounced by this expert to be her responsibility, she would be the one locating the B&B and making the reservation while also lining up babysitters for the kids or pet sitters for the dog and cat. And although he would likely see that the car was gassed up and the tires aired prior to their jaunt, she would be the one rushing home from work to hit the kids’ soccer game and dance lesson before getting the laundry caught up so that suitcases could be packed…and all of this only to learn, much too late, that the whole romantic getaway had been planned in conflict with the weekend of the Big Game.

What a great way to save one’s marriage.

All too often, though, I learned that the self-help gurus themselves had the proverbial feet of clay. One, whose popular book I could not finish despite the fact that it contained genuine nuggets of insight, provided telling examples throughout his narrative of the points he was making.  But every single negative example he provided was illustrated using the behavior of one gender, while each of his positive examples was delineated by describing the behavior of the other.  Noticing this anomaly only a few chapters into the book, I thought that it must certainly change as the work progressed, so I skimmed quickly through the remaining chapters, searching for further illustrations of the author’s points. And the singularity was consistent. Negative examples were always illustrated depicting the behavior of one gender; positive examples, the other.  I was so appalled by this bias that I could not finish the book, despite what might have been some very helpful guidance.

It’s a rare day now when I read either self-help articles or books. After half a lifetime of taking all those books and magazines and putting their lessons into the thimble, I’ve learned that listening to self-proclaimed savants is  just a way to test one’s own wisdom; that arguing with the individual who has all the degrees “proving” their erudition is futile and something best done in the privacy of one’s own mind; and that, finally (and most importantly), hidden within my own soul is all the wisdom that I’ve ever needed to run my own life well and competently, if I will but listen to and act upon it.

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