Let’s take a day off from the great Trump debate. You know, a day without Trump is a day without… fill in the blank.
[Trigger warning: today’s candidate for the Antitrump must be Jonah Goldberg, in National Review. I will not, out of respect, link his screed.]
To get back into our wheelhouse, a new book has just appeared with the title: F*ck Feelings. It was written by a psychiatrist and his comedy-writer daughter, so it promises to be witty, but not very theoretically substantive. Perhaps that will make it a popular book; you never know.
Be that as it may, Kyle Smith offers some of the book’s pithier remarks om The New York Post. I have been expressing many of these thoughts on the blog and in various other places, so I am naturally inclined to like the book.
Smith describes the book:
Say you’ve been to therapy, or bought a self-help book, or thought about doing either of those things. You may be wondering, “Why can’t I be happy?” “Why do I have such bad luck?” or “Why is my boss so unfair?”
One shrink has a novel solution: “F–k happy. F–k self-improvement, self-esteem, fairness, helpfulness and everything in between.”
Because if you can set aside all of these obsessions, you might be able to simply accept that there are lots of things you can’t change — and get over it.
One sympathizes with Bennett’s exasperation. One has felt it oneself many times, well before Donald Trump entered the political scene. And yet, proposing that we can solve it all by saying: F*ck it-- does not feel especially profound or substantive.
Bennett is trying to say that therapy and its ubiquitous culture have been selling us a lot of snake oil. They have been peddling pretend solutions to problems that they have invented. One cannot help but agree.
Bennett and his daughter advise us to stop asking Why? I concur. In fact, I wrote some brief remarks about it on my Linked In page. As I mentioned there and in other places, I believe that we should stop asking why and start asking how. When we ask why, we invariably come up with a narrative that purports to explain why we have the problems we have. Knowing this narrative has no effect on the problems, so one can only feel puzzled about why people place such credence in it.
In place of introspecting-- to find the meaning of our problems-- we do better to try figuring out how to get out of the ditch. Knowing why we are in the ditch will not serve in any way to get us out of it. Especially if you think that you fell into the ditch because your bad parents made you do it.
Anyway, Smith summarizes:
Whenever you have an insoluble “Why?” in your life, the Bennetts offer, the solution is to stop asking the question. “The answer you’ll get from your Maker, when you finally meet Him or Her and get to ask why,” they write, “is the same one you got from your mother when she didn’t know the answer and didn’t want to waste time — ‘because I said so. Now go make yourself useful.’ ”
And don’t expect anyone (except your mother) to pay attention when you’re describing your pains and sorrows.
As real world advice, this is very good. You should not burden your friends with your complaints. And yet, the therapy business is filled with empathetic practitioners who will pay very close attention when you are whining about your pains and sorrows. In so doing, they will be inducing you to imagine that in a healthy relationship with a real human being—that is, not a therapist—you should be constantly bemoaning your problems. Of course, therapy will also teach you that if your interlocutor does not want to witness your exercise in self-degradation he lacks empathy and needs some serious therapy himself.
Needless to say the Bennetts are down on self-esteem. In fact, many sensible commentators on today’s therapy culture are down on self-esteem. (Have you noticed the difference, in today’s argot, between being down on self-esteem and being down with self-esteem.)
The Bennetts believe that it is wrong to imagine that self-esteem is like a vitamin that will give you control over your life. They are entirely correct. In so saying they are exposing an occupational hazard.
All psychiatrists are physicians… by definition. All psychologists are scientists… sort of.
That being given, they see mental health issues within a medical narrative, one where mental health problems are analogous to physical illnesses. Thus, if you are in emotional distress, they prescribe a pill, either a medication or a vitamin… and assume that once your mind becomes better regulated, you will be able to function perfectly in the world. Just as a body, returned to health by the proper medication, will naturally function perfectly in the world. If they don’t have a pill, they prescribe an insight. If they have no insights on hand they offer up some words to boost your self-esteem.
Forget that: “Enjoy bursts of confidence when you can and take credit for your hard work, but beware making confidence a goal, because that implies control, responsibility and blame when you can’t make it happen . . . Instead, assume you’re stuck with s- -t.” So do your best to survive, try not to add to your troubles, and behave as if you like yourself.
One appreciates the “life sucks” attitude, though it does sound a bit adolescent. One is happy, however, to point out that the recommendation, which I have trafficked often enough myself, to “behave as if you like yourself” is very good advice indeed.
It would have been better advice if the authors had added that you ought also to behave as though you respect yourself.
I hasten to add that it is not that easy to know what you would do if you liked yourself and what you would do if you respected yourself. We cannot solve all your problems by offering a pithy piece of advice.
The book suggests that we should stop wishing for unattainable goals. It might have added—I do not know—that organizing your life around your wishes and desires is not a good thing. Having some goals and plans is genuinely a good thing.
The book supplies lists of “things you wish for and can’t have” contrasted with “things you can aim for and actually achieve.” For instance, you wish you could have a “an improved heart free of hate, envy, fear and general ugliness.” Fat chance, buddy. What can you actually achieve? “Act decently in spite of the way you really feel” and “bear the pain of living with ugly feelings.”
What the authors count as wishes are really qualities that apply to saints. They are suggesting that therapy has been selling spiritual experiences under the guise of offering medical and paramedical treatments. Many therapists, some of whom I have written about extensively, have encouraged their patients to try to achieve something like sainthood.
As for what you can actually achieve, if you set goals that are practical and not spiritual—I assume that this is what the authors are trying to say—you will be on a far more constructive path.
But then, I wholeheartedly endorse another piece of advice that the authors have thrown into this mix. So much so that I have offered it myself on many occasions. That is:
… act decently in spite of the way you really feel…
Naturally, this assumes that you know what a decent person would do and are willing to contrary to feelings. This is basic ethical teaching and I applaud it. As I have often pointed out, it is positively Confucian.
Observe the rites, the Sage said, regardless of what is in your heart. After a time, your heart will catch up and your observance will become sincere.