Weather report for alligators

by Yule Heibel on January 26, 2004

I recommended Grace Llewellyn’s The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education to a friend a while ago. Excerpts are available online, but I decided to get the book from the library for a quick refresher (with one upshot being that my 9-year old daughter and 12-year old son began devouring it … hmmm…). Llewellyn’s appendices include an annotated bibliography, where I found a book that I hope will be the only “self-help” (vs. “how to”) book you’ll ever see me recommend: Wishcraft by Barbara Sher. Originally published in 1979, it’s available in its entirety on Sher’s website, Wishcraft Online as well as in a new Dec. 2003 edition. The title intrigued me — I still own my dog-eared, heavily underlined copy of Louise Huebner’s 1969 Power Through Witchcraft, which I bought in 1971 (alas, the paperback reprint, not the original by Nash Publishers, which sells on Amazon for around $90!). That was a fun and inspiring hands-on sort of book, and Wishcraft is strangely similar. Sher has ditched the spells and instead substituted flow charts, but the underlying message is the same: you need a plan, you need a plan, you need a plan, and how you feel about yourself isn’t as important as having a plan. My favourite chapter is “Hard Times,” celebrating “The Power of Negative Thinking”:

Complaining — bitching, moaning, kvetching, griping, and carrying on — is a terrific and constructive thing to do. You’ve just got to learn how to do it right.
(…) You were brought up to believe that complaining is not nice and you should never do it. Of course, you do it anyway, but you don’t like yourself when you do. Every one of us would like to be able to say, “I’m not a complainer.” We’re supposed to be able to pull in our belts, put off our pleasures, bear our disappointments, and face our fears without a squeak of pain or protest.
Hemingway called that kind of behavior “grace under pressure.” I happen to consider it mildly psychotic. (p.94)
[ Sher’s suggested cure? Hard Times, or: bitching, moaning, complaining: ]
Hard Times is nothing but a good old-fashioned gripe session raised to the dignity and status of a ritual. Other cultures have made an art form of complaining. Look at the Flamenco gypsy’s howl. Listen to the blues! The universal peasant poem is a string of curses directed at heaven…and what do you think the Bible means by “lamentation,” anyway? A fancy word for bitching and moaning, in my book. But we can learn to recognize and honor the need to complain — and then to be as openly, vividly, and
creatively obnoxious as we can. It takes a little practice, because we’ve all been conditioned to be sweet and polite even when we’re feeling like an alligator with a hangover. (p.96) (…)
(…) Depression is an energy crisis, and
negativity is energy — pure, ornery, high-octane energy. It’s just been so repressed and tabooed that we’ve forgotten something every 2-year-old knows: how good it is for us to throw a tantrum. We’re all such good little children — and inside every one of us is an obnoxious, exuberant little brat, just squirming to be let out. I’ve got one. So do you. That brat is your baby, and you’d better love her, because you ignore her at your peril.
Somewhere along the line our culture has sold us the absurd idea that we’ve got to have a positive attitude to succeed. We’re afraid to be negative because we think it means we won’t
do anything. And yet the evidence to the contrary is overwhelming. A quick look at your own experience will show you how powerless positive thinking really is. Oh, it feels good — while it lasts. The first morning you get out of bed saying, “I know I can do it, I know I can do it,” it makes a whole new day for you. You walk around whistling to yourself, thinking, “God, I could run the world with this idea!” The second morning you know you’re lying. You not only can’t do it, you can’t even get out of bed. (pp.97-8)

What I especially like about Sher’s counsel is that she discounts the inflated and supposed importance of self-esteem to individual happiness or success. Success, she writes, “does not depend on how you feel”:

This is terribly important to realize, because deeply ingrained in our culture and our past experience is the mistaken notion that you can only do well when you’re feeling good. You’ve had highs — those periods in your life when you just couldn’t roll the dice wrong. You felt unafraid, self-confident, articulate, creative, and you knew you could do anything — for a day, a week, or even a month. Right? Well, that was just about the worst thing that has ever happened to you. Because then, as sure as night follows day, a low rolled in and wiped out your sense of progress, leaving you feeling like you were right back at zero. And ever since, you’ve been sitting around waiting for that high to come back so you could do it again. (p.104)

Sher closes the chapter on Hard Times thus: “Is your self-esteem non-existent today? Don’t worry about it. It’s irrelevant.” Make a plan instead — then she explains how in flow-chart detail.
Standing in line to pick up a college application, a young man asks the old man behind him what he’s doing there. The old man answers that he’s applying for college, and tells the young man that he’s 74. The young man is confounded by this, and says to the old man, “But you’ll be 78 by the time you graduate!” “Son,” said the old man, “I’ll be seventy-eight anyway.” (p.184). Get a plan, figure it out. That’s an anecdote Sher tells regarding the importance of plans (and deadlines once you have a plan). I have to admit I’m still at the reading-about stage here. No plan in sight yet, beyond “figure out how to finesse this homeschooling thing and carve out some time for my self, for my work — whatever that is.” Homeschooling has been incredibly time-consuming, lately more so than in previous months, and as a result my blogging has gone flat, too. But there’s more: I’m getting sucked into thinking too often about meta-blogging issues, a sure sign that I’m past the “Power of Negative Thinking” stuff that powered many of my postings before, and there’s not enough there to take its place. I don’t have a plan because I don’t have a goal, which kind of means that the Negative Thinking was pure excess in this, the economy of my psychic life, vs. fuel for a purpose. (And yes, I know that “excess” is potentially revolutionary in a Bataillean theory of economics, but eventually even revolution needs, sadly, very very sadly, a plan. And the fact is that I still don’t have a fucking plan, although I believe that blogging saved my miserable soul insofar as it made me write, which I had given up on entirely.) It’s come to this, pathetically true, that I need to work through a book like Sher’s if I even want to figure out — or rather: remember — what I want to or can do. I have this idea for blogging bits of my book (Reconstructing the Subject) that relate to theoretical things of general interest to me if no one else. It’s about quantity and quality, the subject-object relation, the addendum, vertigo, the rhetorical moment, the mimetic moment…. All the things I used to love. Stay tuned, or not. But the shape of things is uncertain at this point.


Joel January 27, 2004 at 10:13 am

You know, in the past few years, I’ve done plenty of feeling lousy about myself and wasn’t very successful, either.

I don’t think that it is deeply engrained in our culture that “you are doing well when you’re feeling good”. I think what people believe is that you’re doing well when you are making a lot of money and have a lot of material things.

Sher seems to be validating this point of view at first reading. I have rejected it. It is easier to plan when you have a solid emotional floor beneath you. What Sher glorifies, it sounds to me, is the good old soul-killing Protestant Work Ethic.

It doesn’t hurt to tackle problems systematically, but I’ve enjoyed the randomness of my life and come to appreciate that not getting what I wanted has often not been such a bad thing. I am free to write and think, activities which I enjoy. My wife doesn’t mind being the breadwinner.

Money’s fine, credentials are fine, but happiness is an excellent measure of satisfaction and the worthiest of life’s attainments.

What’s so bad about feeling good?

maria January 27, 2004 at 1:18 pm

Ah, the Plan … is exactly what I have been missing myself, too. And Barbara Sher is so right about ditching that whole notion of self-esteem — that hot steam about having to feel good in order to be successful.

A timely post and link that comes as that proverbial (well, cliche-like) ray of sunshine in the general gloom and doom that is my “scape” of January….

Anonymous January 30, 2004 at 12:33 pm

I agree we should embrace our negativity, accept it as part of the human condition, but not because positive thinking is “powerless.”

btw, I hadn’t read on your blog that you were moving toward more focus on your work and your writing when I emailed some encouraging words on how I hoped you would keep writing in whatever form. I think that’s a pretty positive coincidence 🙂

Anonymous January 30, 2004 at 12:37 pm

I agree that we should embrace our negativity and accept it as part of the human condition, but not because being positive is powerless.

By the way, I hadn’t read your blog post on deciding to focus more on your work and your writing when I emailed some words encouraging you to continue writing in whatever form. I think that’s a pretty positive coincidence 🙂

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