The Tragedy of Self-Help

While lists of self-help books keep growing with a never-ending list of self-help books, even as rates of depression and suicidality continue to grow, we need to stop and ask ourselves about this discrepancy. Why is it that we live in a world with such growing knowledge and resources for emotional wellbeing, yet we see such a steady decline in that same wellbeing? The explanation for this odd mismatch is right there in the title “self-help,” modern society expects its members to help themselves, with less of a focus on what we can do for others. Nothing highlights this better than what I learned when taking a course in psychology.

It was while taking an undergrad course in abnormal psychology. We had an extremely strict professor who had us study every possible mental disorder and its background.  We needed to know everything about every disorder, the prevalence, probability, causes, pretensions, risk factors, and treatments. We then had to take a big test on all of them. I was doing a lot of reading and memorizing and was suddenly struck by wording the textbook used for almost all psychological disorders. When describing individuals at higher risk of any disorder, the studies showed that despite all statistics, the likelihood of suffering from that disorder depended on how much “social support” that individual had. The same was true for recovery. The ability to recover from any condition or abnormality very much depended on social support. This blew my mind. While psychologists were spending their days trying to figure out how to cure or prevent conditions such as depression, anorexia, bipolarity, anxiety disorders, and more, turns out that having a good friend, caring teacher, or a loving family, could prevent or help cure all those.

Humans are social creatures. Ultimately, there is nothing we can do to substitute for the people around us.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks writes:

“self-help books dominate the bestseller lists. Yet in many of them, one thing is missing… the help that does not, cannot, come from the self but must come from someone else: a family member, friend, neighbor, mentor, even a stranger…. People have always known that tragedy, bereavement, crisis, and depression turn an individual in upon him or herself. In traditional societies, the cure is to reintegrate the individual with the community. By contrast, modern therapies tend to seek a solution within the self… Hence the idea of self-help. But sometimes staying within the self is not a cure but the problem itself.”

Recently, websites began offering a “rent a friend” service in many cities. Want to go to a museum or to the park? Sure, just pay up and rent a friend. A website in the United Kingdom has begun offering a rent a mourner service for those who lost a loved one and have no one to mourn with them and Japan has a thriving rent a family service. Scientists are now researching a pill that will help combat loneliness. All these things point to something very sad and broken in our beloved Western societies. We need to start looking at and looking out for one another. All the therapists and rented friends in the world will not rescue us if we can’t be there for one another.

Along with my public involvement, I have the privilege of looking out for others and asking others to do the same. At times I hear people say:” why doesn’t that person just go and see a therapist?” To me, that seems like seeing a person dying from thirst and asking them to go to the Emergency Room rather than offering them a cup of water. Our fellow humans need us to be there. Jewish tradition speaks of this saying that if you see someone’s wagon about to topple over it takes just one person to help stabilize the wagon. Once it tumbles over even ten people aren’t enough to set it up back on track.

Loneliness is the only problem that can cure itself, be there for others and you will not suffer from it. As humans, members of a global community with a shared future, we must make sure no one needs to look for self-help, help should be there for everyone. Not just because this will save us billions of dollars, spare illness, disease, and violence, but because it is the right thing to do.

About the Author
The writer is a rabbi, writer, teacher, and blogger (www.rabbipoupko.com). He is the president of EITAN-The American Israeli Jewish Network and lives with his wife in New York City.
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