I read a very popular article the other day that talked about positive things we all do – a typical “self help” piece, you could say. It had been shared by tens of thousands of people, and yet the language was so basic, and the tips so well-established, that I felt like it was plagiarized from the wall of my childhood Sunday School class: “Be nice to others. Don’t lie. Remember to always say thanks.” And yet I liked it. It made me feel affirmed, and more importantly, it made me realize something: I don’t think any of us read self help writing to find information we don’t already know. We read to find what we do know, voiced by a stranger, shared with the world.
Positive comments on such posts often fall along the lines of “this was a great reminder,” rarely even claiming to have come across anything “new.” Negative comments, meanwhile, are always the same: “This was cliché.” In other words, they attack its lack of novelty. But the negative responses do little to deter either readers or writers, and maybe the reason for that is that it’s irrelevant. No one cares if something is repeated over and over again. Maybe that’s part of the appeal.
When I was growing up, we went to church every Sunday. And every Sunday, we repeated the same prayers, and same songs, and often, even the same jokes. The rituals rose and set like the sun, with a solid, predictable calm. Increasingly, young adults forgo regular attendance at a religious institution. But the need for affirmations, for a sense of solidarity, for regular, well-stated reminders of what is right and good, remains.
Every major religion relies on some forms of repetition. Even the “Pledge of Allegiance” spun off this tradition. Now, when I go to yoga, the chanting and routines feel familiar. Every time, you Downward Dog. Every time, you say “Namaste.” The teacher tells us some kind words. We thank her when we leave. Perhaps this is what we are doing when we read positive, fluffy listicles. “Be a good listener,” we read, and it’s as though we’ve practiced a Sun Salutation. “Let go of failure,” is, in its way, a Hail Mary.
When it comes down to it, there are two reasons we read: one is to be surprised, and the other is to be reassured. Many pieces do both at once, but in general, Western Society deems the former to be more impressive, more “literary. “ Innovative packaging with the right mix of shocking content has made writing famous from Joyce to VICE. I, too, love writing that challenges the mind. It has its place.
Self-help writing, on the other hand, is the stuff of magazines, daytime TV, and now blogs. It’s safe, and not the least bit “newsworthy.” But it’s also the language of ancient faiths, and its significance is deeper than pageviews and shares. Importantly, it’s the fact that these beliefs are stated by someone else, often a stranger, as if there is some signal being shot into the ether saying, “I’m trying my best to be a good person, too!” With the internet, we don’t even have to be the writer to send this message. We can simply share it or re-post. No one considers this stealing. We celebrate it, encourage it. In “reassurance literature,” sharing is our way of saying, “I may not have a traditional dogma, but I care. I want to be good, even if I’m not yet sure what that means.”
In many ways, modern society does not leave space for spirituality, or make much room for deep emotions. Every hour is booked back-to-back with a meeting or task or appointment. Many of our deepest anxieties and concerns are considered inappropriate to talk about, a “downer,” even divisive. Older cultures work(ed) community and reflection into the daily routine. In contrast, we compartmentalize until the only person you feel allowed to be open with is your therapist. And in the meantime, we read self-help lists. They may just reiterate the things we already tell ourselves all the time, but it feels good to see it in someone else’s words. And when we email them to a friend, it’s our timid, modern way of saying, “I care about you, too.”