Self-Help Books

Harvey Cushing and his wife Kate during a rare down time.
Harvey Cushing and his wife Kate during a rare down time.

You’re good enough! Don’t worry; be happy! You’re a star! Has anyone else noticed this annoying theme in pop music? I notice it every time I drive my kids to one of the many vapid events necessary for a fulfilling childhood.

I think if I had it to do all over again I’d instill in my children a sense of mission. Happiness seekers are so . . . well, shallow.

Let’s take HARVEY CUSHING as an example. I have no idea if he was happy, but he was driven. Driven has gotten a bad rap of late. What did Harvey do? He invented modern neurosurgery is all. Oh, and all the instruments for operating on the brain. He had no time for boredom what with being “a celebrated clinical researcher, an accomplished artist, a fine writer, a passionate collector of books, a medical historian and bibliographer, and the chief founder of the Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library.”

When did he have time to listen to pop music? Maybe coming from Puritan lineage gave him a leg up on the rest of us pleasure seekers. His father was strict but with a good sense of humor (are you listening fathers?) and his mother was perfect: “Bessie’s mother love was as boundless as her belief in reading, education, music, family loyalty, cleanliness, temperance, and regular attendance at the Presbyterians’ Old Stone Church….None of the Cushing children ever recorded a word of criticism about their perfectly wonderful mother.”

Harvey on a trip to Atlantic City (to study pleasure seekers?)
Harvey on a trip to Atlantic City (to study pleasure seekers?)

Maybe Harvey’s success came from never finding fault with his parents. Have you noticed how time-consuming blaming parents is? So much therapy and complaining and reliving of events! I never fell into this camp. I thought my family was exceedingly good and normal–I had a problem with me. This also was a waste of precious time–and money. It never occurred to me to take out self-help books from the library. I had stacks of good intentions and highlighted plans and prescriptions, but when my brother helped me move boxes loaded with positivity manuals he asked with not a small bit of frustration, “Will you ever be cured? Because these damned books are heavy.”

Imagine time better spent on the classics or neurosurgery. Or writing that novel or volunteering at the soup kitchen (and not just for forced community service hours–high schoolers should rebel at being FORCED).

Harvey also went off to war. He experimented with electromagnets to see if they could extract shrapnel from the brain.  As a young doctor he was mentored by another wonderful doctor named William Osler famous for saying things like: “Listen to your patient, he is telling you the diagnosis.” which seems pretty old hat after watching too many medical dramas (when I could have been establishing a library of self-help books for the public).

William Osler’s son begged his father to open some doors to get him a commission in the military (his eyes weren’t very good). His father did so with trepidation. As sad luck would have it the young man was mortally wounded and Harvey was the one to try to save him.

It must have weighed heavily on him (as it did on Dr. Osler for the rest of his life) and it is true that sitting in your basement anxiously awaiting the next superhero video game you pre-ordered allows for a certain safety, a certain escape from the terrors of realizing a wasted life and a total lack of gumption, but I thank God I threw away–yes in the regular trash without recycling–all of those damned self-help books.

A Happy Moment
A Happy Moment

Harvey contributed. He may have been blessed with genius, but it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to know that life is more than just happiness.

Photos courtesy YALE MEDICAL HISTORY LIBRARY

27 thoughts on “Self-Help Books

  1. I also bought a ton of self-help books. And, like you, I wish I had invested more time in doing things – helping people, reading the great books, etc. But hindsight is 20/20 and the self-help industry is run by some pretty shrewd folks. What chance did a kid have? Hopefully, my children won’t fall for that.

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    • I laugh thinking of you purchasing self-help books. Back in my self-help phase I used to go to real bookstores. I wasn’t even remotely embarrassed of my constant need to over analyze myself and others. I had very low energy in a few of my chakras (if I remember) and I just couldn’t follow the 7 habits of highly successful people.

      What was your favorite self-help book?

      I also read a pseudo-religious book called A Course in Miracles. I later found out that the author became demon possessed! When I was reading the book I had very bizarre dreams about a portal of some sort so I stopped reading.

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      • I had to buy them at real book stores a lot of the time. I bought tons. I spent hours at the New Age store in Harvard Square. Very little helped me. I was scared, honestly. I remember there was one point where I was reading some book – I think it was some book about Zen – and I had this sudden urge to just let go and accept myself as I was. It was a powerful experience but it was followed almost immediately by fear. What would happen to me if I just allowed myself to be myself?

        This came up again recently when talking with my counselor. I mentioned that I still have a lot of defenses up – a lot of things I refuse to talk about, etc.

        He said: what’s stopping you?

        I said: I’m scared I’ll end up living under a bridge.

        He said: Have you talked to Jesus about this?

        Then I prayed a bit and tried to hear Jesus’ voice.

        He asked: What does Jesus say about this?

        I said: The Son of Man has no place to lay His head.

        He laughed out loud and replied: What do you think that means?

        I said: If I end up living under a bridge I’ll be in good company.

        Still haven’t accepted myself. But at least the issue seems clearer somehow.

        I’m not sure I have a favorite self-help book. Maybe “On Having No Head”. There was a Ram Dass book that really influenced me. Not the whole book, just one chapter. I forget what it was called. I’m not sure. I did read a bit of The Course. There’s some good stuff in that one about not identifying with your thoughts and I think that’s a good idea. I ended up putting it down pretty quickly though. It seemed like a lot of material to wade through and I was all about quick results.

        I hadn’t heard that she was demonized. How does one come to that conclusion? I know about 90% to 95% of the people in my church would say I’m demonized based on what I write about. Maybe they are right. My new WIP isn’t as demon driven, I suppose. Does that mean I’ve gotten rid of some of my demons?

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      • Growing up Catholic we only read snippets of the Bible. It wasn’t until I was older and read the gospels and saw how ridiculous the apostles were that I really got the Gospel. Finally I had people I could relate to! How can we not love Peter?
        In self-help books it was all about loving oneself until you got “better.” That was never going to happen for me. At the peak of my self help mania I was walking around with an undiagnosed insanely huge blood-clot problem and trying to meditate my way out of it. What a joke.

        Some will say it’s a cop-out but when I understood that God forgave us even when we were deep in sin and against Him, I got interested–though I still felt pretty sure God was a trickster who was going to force me into this miserable sainthood. I figured he’d want me to give up stuff (I really wanted to hold on to my pathetic, rumbling identity for some reason).

        The Course in Miracles story is weird. I gave up the book, my nightmares went away. Years later I started reading it again–wanted to get deep into a course–but the dreams came back! The very same dreams. So I searched online to see if it was a common thing.

        That’s when I found out that the woman had worked with a priest at Columbia (maybe) and after the book “channeled” through her she became very depressed and never wanted to talk about it. Eventually she was put in the hospital and the priest came to visit her. He said it was the only time in his life that he felt certain that a person had been possessed. Her life was destroyed and she kept saying on her deathbed that she never should have let the book be published.

        My brother has been visited by demons. he believes a demon entered our family on my father’s side a few generations ago when they lived in a haunted house.

        He was also visited by his dead wife who seemed to be in a heavenly state and told him not to obsess over health since everything was predetermined.

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      • –>How can we not love Peter?

        Indeed. He’s pretty much the most lovable person in there. (Excluding members of the Trinity!)

        –>In self-help books it was all about loving oneself until you got “better.” That was never going to happen for me.

        I guess that is the difference between the New Age and Christianity. In Christianity, it’s Jesus who loves us, not orusevles. And that, for some strange reason, is what makes us better. Or so I’m told.

        –>Some will say it’s a cop-out but when I understood that God forgave us even when we were deep in sin and against Him, I got interested–though I still felt pretty sure God was a trickster who was going to force me into this miserable sainthood. I figured he’d want me to give up stuff (I really wanted to hold on to my pathetic, rumbling identity for some reason).

        Oh, I still struggle with that. My church doesn’t help. I still feel a lot of shame there. Maybe it’s just me, though.

        –>My brother has been visited by demons. he believes a demon entered our family on my father’s side a few generations ago when they lived in a haunted house.

        My church teaches that you can get demons pretty easily. Not sure I believe that.

        –>He was also visited by his dead wife who seemed to be in a heavenly state and told him not to obsess over health since everything was predetermined.

        What do you make of that visitation?

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      • The heavenly visit seemed amazing and intense. The predetermination about death I’m okay with (just not so sure about the BIG predetermination of being saved–actually I don’t really buy it). My brother said that after her visitation he didn’t sleep for 3 days because he felt this amazing supernatural energy. (Gave him more time to go to the strip clubs. LOL.)

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  2. I agree. The pursuit of happiness is way overrated. Psychologists have found in studies that those who feel their lives have “meaning” are reportedly more satisfied with life than those who are reportedly happier. Having children, for example, gives people a sense of meaning even though they don’t rate high on happiness. Let’s face it, raising children can be very demanding and stressful. But raising children is only one example. There are many pursuits that give a sense of purpose and meaning that do not necessarily rate high on happiness. Nice post.

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  3. This made me laugh out loud XD
    ” . . .but when my brother helped me move boxes loaded with positivity manuals he asked with not a small bit of frustration, “Will you ever be cured? Because these damned books are heavy.”

    We need balance, that’s for sure.

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