Friday, March 09, 2007

The Secret: Magic is real! Santa Claus exists!

A previous poster asked about The Secret, and if it inspired the current inspirational book phase. I can say that no, it did not. It's just the latest, most awful movie/book in a long succession of awful books that make us hate people's query letters because they think they can write them because honestly, they look pretty easy to write. Well, they're not, so stop it.

As to why The Secret is such a success, the short answer is of course that people are stupid. That's all I was going to write, but then I realized that blogs are meant for long, rambling monologues where the poster insults the readers' political/spiritual/moral beliefs, and that writing about something other than my mystery virus would distract me from the headache that is caused by my mystery virus. Don't start a publishing company.

Self-help and inspirational books have existed since the beginning of contemporary publishing, whenever that was (sometime this century). It exists as a genre because there's a great demand for it, for the most part by bored people who want to improve themselves or their lives, and I support the idea of buying a book about carpentry and building a birdhouse. Sure it'll fall apart next week, but you'll feel better about the crappy Dilbert job you have and feel like you accomplished something, even if the thing was just glued together and your area doesn't have many birds.

Then there's "inspirational" books, a term I take to mean, "at least vaguely-Christian watered-down spirituality, sometimes in the form of old man wisdom." On a certain level I admire a person who can find total happiness in life with a $7.95 paperback on the bargain rack at CVS. It's a lot cheaper than my synagogue membership and this person probably has way more free time than I do. I'm busy trying to figure out if I can put the chili on the hot plate on Saturday morning because the chili is so watery that it might cook the water, which is a violation of one of the 39 labors forbidden by G-d to perform on the Sabbath (as opposed to solid food, which cannot be re-cooked), and this person is at the movies or the theater or riding a bike. Who knows.

On the other hand, most people who turn to the bargain rack at CVS for meaning in their lives are probably in pretty dire straits in terms of finding that meaning. Allow me to sum them all up in one sentence:

If you have a more positive attitude, your crappy life will not seem so crappy, because you have a positive attitude about it.

This does not, however, actually change the quality of your life, as these books lead you to believe. It may, but it depends what you're up against. Cancer, not so much. These sorts of books have a double-edged sword that can cut you, to take the metaphor way too far. If you believe that you will recover from an illness by positive thinking and then you don't, you might come to the very logical conclusion that it's your fault that you're ill because you didn't think hard enough about how much better you were going to get.

You may have guessed at this point that I'm speaking from experience. When I was newly diagnosed with Crohn's Disease a lot of this mind-body shit was shoved down my throat to the point where I actually believed it, and when my surgical procedure did arguably more harm than good and the complication nearly killed me, I thought it was my fault. It wasn't a hyperactive N-protein in my immune system causing inflammation to my lower intestines that was the problem. It was my bad attitude.

When I realized that was complete bullshit, I felt much better - about my life, at least. I didn't actually feel better health-wise, further proving my point.

The problem with The Secret and the reason that it's caused so much controversy is that it takes this basic concept to the extreme of wish fulfillment. There's apparently a segment in the original video on which the book was based in which a woman wishes for a gold necklace around her next, and because she wishes hard enough, the necklace appears. At this point I can't help but think of Patrick Swayze's slimy motivational speaker in Donnie Darko, who turns out to be a kiddie porn addict. At one point in the movie, the gym teacher (who is a devotee) makes the class watch one of the videos and says that all of human experience can be put into the categories of either fear or love, to which Donnie angrily replies:

Donnie Darko: "I just don't get this. You can't just lump things into two categories. Things aren't that simple."
Gym Teacher: "The lifeline is divided that way."
Donnie Darko: "Well, life isn't that simple. Who cares of Ling Ling returns the wallet and keeps the money? It has nothing to do with either fear or love."
Gym Teacher: "Fear and love are the deepest of human emotions."
Donnie Darko: "...Okay. But you're not listening to me. There are other things that have to be taken into account here - like, the whole spectrum of human emotions! You can't just lump everything into these two categories and just deny everything else!"

Needless to say, when the gym teacher threatens him with a failing grade, he replies with something that involves shoving a card up where the sun doesn't shine and earns himself a visit to the principal's office.

The Secret isn't just stupid; it's dangerous. Telling people that they will just get things by wishing for them is only moral if you happen to inhabit a Disney movie, and not one of those ones where the parent of the protagonist dies. The idea does work in some circumstances; if you happen to be standing in the middle of the road on a misty day and wish to be hit by a car, you might get your wish, and then Rod Sterling might step out of the bushes and talk to the camera about how stupid you were.

One of the many professors and doctors trotted out on the video was recently interviewed about the infamous "necklace scene" - to which he replied that it wasn't meant to be "taken so literally" and had clearly no idea the lengths to which Rhonda Byrne was willing to take things to sell more copies of her video. She even wound up on Oprah with her new book. Oprah's a fairly intelligent woman (she's very good at making people feel better about themselves, which is a talent), but she has a tendency to fall for literary shysters.

It's one thing to be a semi-talented writer and speaker who knows how to lump extremely conventional wisdom together into a book and have it be a bestseller. It's another thing to tell people that wishes come true.

For everyone's information, we get submissions like The Secret all the time from people who think they have figured out the secrets of the universe or how to do real magic or the date that Christ is coming back and the exact set of things we have to do to bring him along. We call these people "crazy" and trash their query letters. Sure, a couple of them might be written well enough to sell a bajillion copies to, but we like to sleep at night.


John B said...

I've never resented a post I've read on your blog so much before now. How dare you make such snap judgements? My birdhouse lasted two and half weeks before the bottom fell out. Luckily, I don't think any birds noticed it.

Deborah said...

Maybe you're just grumpy because you aren't feeling well, but you've been making a lot of sweeping generalizations lately. There are some good reasons beyond your list to self publish a book, and some people really can buy a book about doing something and learn to do it well. I learned to make cheese by reading a book, and my husband learned to build a house by a reading a book, just to name a couple of things. Yes, my husband built the 2000-square-foot colonial that we now live in, and he's not a carpenter. He learned how to do it by reading books on carpentry, wiring, plumbing, etc.

I do agree with your opinion on "The Secret" though. That book is dangerous. I know that if I just think positively and stare at my milk, it is not going to turn into cheese.

I hope you feel better soon!

Leslie said...

Longtime lurker, first-time commenter. Just wanted to give you an enthusiastic, "HELL, yeah!"

Fantastic post.

The Rejecter said...

Deborah -

Your husband built a house after reading a book? That's awesome. Nice work!

Anonymous said...

awesome post--i love you!

and you quoted DD???

i kiss you!

Seth Christenfeld said...

I work at a [MAJOR CHAIN BOOKSTORE]. This shit makes me vomit.

("This shit" referring to The Secret, not your marvelously written post.)

Anonymous said...

Hoo-ya in re: the Secret, chicky! What a bunch of baloney that thing is. What's sad is how many people actually buy into it.

Marva said...

I saw one of the Secret nitwits on Larry King. Larry asked if the child who was raped and murdered (for which the rapist/murderer was just convicted) brought it to her by her negative thinking.

The charlatan's answer: Yes, then he backpeddled a bunch.

Yeah, some secret.

Anonymous said...

While I certainly agree that you can't heal yourself through sheer will, I do believe the reverse is true: You can make yourself sicker by willing it.
I have suffered from PTSD and panic attacks, both of which I know I cause myself by my own subconscious, but which I am helpless to control once the attacks come. However, even though they are products of my mind, I can lessen the physical problems they cause me by reminding myself they won't kill me. With a positive outlook (that is often hard to keep, though has been easier to maintain lately) I have been able to (over the past few years) nearly eliminate their attacks.

corine said...

Remember the Emperor’s new clothes story? Well, you just pointed out that the Emperor is butt naked. Your post should be wildly unpopular.

Isn't the possibility of a better life though a good attitude greater than through a negative one?

The secret is a crock of shit but I think it is less dangerous than depression and hopelessness. Whatever might pry my fellow man temporarily out of his despair is positive in my book.

Anonymous said...

Well, magic is real - and I have a good agent who is considering my proposal on magic right now. I don't know anything about The Secret, but I took a quick look at your link at Amazon. It doesn't sound like hogwash to me. Why can't intelligent beliefs and education go along with spiritual and magical ideas that have been around for centuries? The core of Judaism, Rejector, is based on magic, as is the core of every major religion. As someone who was born and raised Jewish, I have to ask: Why are so many Jews not open to the true wisdom that founded the now-organized traditions? Why can't intelligence and education work with, and not against, these principles? I could go on and on, but I want to keep this relatively short. Rejector, I enjoy your blog, but you can be very negative. Even the top of your blog begins with a negative statement: I don't hate you, I just hate your query letter. I have seen in my own life and work that this kind of negativity does affect one's health, and I encourage you to open your mind and not scoff at some of these ideas by calling them stupid. I am not stupid, and my book is not stupid. Paul Auster, in his latest novel, has a character say that anyone who believes in Astrology has got to be stupid. Well, at his reading for the book in New York, I asked Mr. Auster if he agreed with this comment. He paused for a moment and said: "Yes...but you're the exception!" Yes, there's a lot of stupid stuff out there, Rejector. But I get the impression from glancing at what The Secret is about, that it may not be one of them. Snobism can really interfere with getting in touch with your psyche, your consciousness - in a true way; and yes, this does affect your body and your mind. I better stop here, I don't want to go on all night. Open your mind, Rejector, otherwise you just might end up rejecting yourself.

Gerb said...

The thing that makes me laugh about "The Secret" is the very idea of calling it secret. This is the same stuff we've heard for decades, taken to an absurd extreme and marketed with conscienceless brilliance.

And Simon and Schuster is printing 2 million more of these books? Are there really that many gullible sheep in the world? (And how can I profit from them? Hmmmm...)

(I also watched the Larry King show. Laughed out loud when one of the interviewees announced there would be a Secret II. 'But,' Mr. King says, 'You've already told the secret.' Interviewee smiles deviously. 'Ah, but there are many more secrets to be told...' Uh,huh.)

Tessa said...

I get upset when I see this stuff pushed on Oprah.
She has such amazing power over so many people, that just a mention, let alone what feels like an endorsement, can legitimize this sort of book.
Perhaps she feels that it may benefit others, because it mirrors her own experience in positive thinking, but people DO take things literally.
Reminds me of The Prayer of Jabez, where you were supposed to pray a specific prayer and you'd be granted prosperity. That one walked out of the bookstores, too.


Anonymous said...

"The secret is a crock of shit but I think it is less dangerous than depression and hopelessness. Whatever might pry my fellow man temporarily out of his despair is positive in my book."

Unfortunately, it would be temporary, and then they'd crash when it didn't sustain. Dreadful stuff for gullible people.

Anonymous said...

Yes, because those people who watch their children starve to death in famine-stricken countries simply LACK THE VISION to attract food to themselves (while rich white people on this side of the globe can wish for gold necklaces and have them appear!)

Theo Katz said...

Many, many years ago I lived with a guy who was heavily into Jane Roberts' "Seth" books. The wisdom he gleaned from them was: "You create your own reality." That's what he told me whenever I had a problem. Now, it so happened that this guy was always getting sick. Every time he'd complain about how sick he was, I'd say: "You create your own reality." Wow, did that annoy him.

I hated those "Seth" books. I'm sure I'd hate The Secret, too, if I read it.

Deborah said...

Thanks! Don't know why I didn't think of this before, but here's a picture so you can see for yourself.

He did everything (with a little help from us and power tools) except for the basement, the insulation, and part of the in-floor heating.

Anonymous said...

I've been reading up on neuropsychology studies. We've known forever that the state of the brain affects the mind, but more recently discovered that mind affects the brain. Even in adulthood, the brain can rewire itself to accomodate learning to, say, play the violin at age 40. They've also found that when depressed people learn, through intense cognitive therapy, to give less notice to repetitive negative thoughts and more attention to positive thoughts, there are physical effects on the brain that are as strong as and more lasting than Prozac.

But... nothing that I've read says thinking happy thoughts will turn off Crohn's disease, stop a Mack truck speeding toward you, add a bonus to your paycheck or keep your house from getting burgled.

I suppose buying into The Secret isn't much different from the teen girls I've known who play at being Wiccans because burning incense and chanting to get stuff they want seems a lot easier than actually having to do some work to get what they want.

fifi said...

Yeah! I agree with you, what a crock "the secret "is.

However, I do think that you can't achieve something you cant actually evisage .Positive thinking is one thing, quasi wish-magic-spirituality is another.

Stephen Parrish said...

Your best post yet. I loved it.

(I don't think you're making sweeping generalizations, as one commenter suggested. I think you're expressing opinions. Keep 'em coming.)

Richard said...

I haven't read the book, but I did see it porminantly displayed near the checkout at my bookstore. I thought it was another book along the line of "The DaVinci Code"

There is a big difference between "wishful thinking" and "positive or affirmative thinking / action"

The first encourages you to remain self-centred and locked in your private world waiting for things to happen to you. The latter encourages you to take more responsibility for you life, get off your butt and "just go out and do it".

writtenwyrdd said...

The Secret isn't bad, or dangerous. But I think the problem is that the idea of thinking yourself to a better life/world/whatever is that people neglect to Take Action. Sure, go ahead and think about world peace; then go and do your part to promote it. Or, to use Deborah's example, you can't stare at whole milk and make it butter by thinking hard. YOu have to churn it.

I hope you are feeling better soon. It sucks to be sick.

The Rejecter said...

Out of curiousity, does anyone understand Anon 5:58's post?

Because I'm stumped.

Anonymous said...

Hi Rejector. I'm Anon 5:58. I'm sorry you're stumped, and I was worried in the last day or so, that perhaps I was too harsh with you. As I said, I don't know The Secret at all, but I've got a hunch that it might be worthwhile, and not stupid at all. I'm going to confess here that I make my living as a psychic counselor - and I'm the first to admit that the majority of people who do this stuff are phonies, and that there's so much BS in this area. However, there is much of great value and true wisdom that can be found. I can't explain it all here and now, but perhaps if this agent likes my proposal (it was agented previously) - I'll get to explain it to the world. Maybe you'll even see me on Oprah then! Just kidding, but I do encourage you and others here to look a minute at what these principles are offering; and to please not call them stupid so quickly.

Dan said...

I guess none of us should be surprised that this sort of book succeeds. We live in a society of instant gratification. Why should you have to actually work towards a long-term goal, when you can visualize it and presto! There it is.

I would hate for my dentist to have attained her credentials this way. I'd hate for the heads of government to, either (while some might argue the point it's already happened).

Work is a four-letter word.

With tv and media in general feeding on people's desires rather than aspirations, we are ripe for every huckster who comes along.

P.T. Barnum would love it.


Kanani said...

Not only do people like boiled down platitudes, they'll spend money on them. The happy face, inspirational posters, mugs, keyfobs, crystals, unicorns, sign up for expensive retreats. I call it Kash for Karma. In addition, if a publisher can find a book that is uplifting, conversant, and whose author is both telegenic and has suffered through some major tragedy, then that's all the better for everyone's pocketbook.

But I think what is consistently overlooked is that while platitudinous self help books dole out advice, is the reader going to turn around and do the hard work that ensures growth, and are they going to be able to not blame the rest of society for when things go wrong?

Wisdom and growth aren't easily gained. Life isn't always a carnival, and it's how we respond to life's stresses that define us. There's pain and sometimes it just sucks!

But here lies the value of the novel. The novel allows us to explore deeper issues, to dispose of the clich├ęs and the platitudes. I think it is the essence of creating a meaningful work, to be able to get close to a character, creating one who thinks and learns something while going through some truly difficult times.

adrienne said...

Thinking positively is a good thing. Having positive goals is a good thing. Thinking you can achieve what you set out to do is good. I agree that the danger with a book like The Secret is that it will lead people into inaction, that they will believe all they have to do is think it and not need to actively pursue anything. But I really do believe in the power of positive thinking. And it is much nicer than negative thinking.

Anonymous said...

And here I thought: God helped those who helped themselves. Silly me; why am I working so hard?

This nonsense reminds me of the evangelicals that hunt me down on a regular basis. They assure me that it doesn't matter what I do on earth. It only matters that I have professed you-know-who as my lord and savior to be guaranteed entry into heaven. Wow! That sounds easy enough.

sd said...

Wow...all of these comments and The Rejecter's post lead me to believe that none of you have seen the movie. I've seen the movie, but not read the book, and nowhere do they say "Think it, and it will come."

The point of The Secret is the law of attraction. What you focus on is what you create in your life, not out of any magic, mystical bullshit, but through focused energy (including the physical)--as Deborah pointed out, if you want to build a house, you can do it. But not if you're sitting around thinking, "I'll never build a house."

Save your opinions for stuff you know about, people.

Anon 5:58 said...

Well said, SD. I just want to add that one of the principles of magic, true magic, is something called Action in Accordance. Very important in the study of magic. For instance, if you're doing magic or visualization or whatever to get your book published, you don't just sit around and think it, or wish for it; you also work extra hard at perfecting your work, writing your queries, sending them out, etc., etc. One's spiritual work (which is not easy, by the way) is then balanced with very hard work on the earth plane, the material plane. The two together create the desired results, hopefully.

The Rejecter said...

I'm not against thinking positively. I AM against thinking unrealistically and expecting things to happen that are downright unlikely even if you do work towards them, because when they DON'T happen, you feel miserable.

If The Secret actually worked, why don't they just drop free copies down on those starving Africans? They can just imagine their food and the laws of positive attraction will bring it to them, like the kid who thinks about a cool bike and then gets one in the video.

Thomas said...

I don't know anything about The Secret. I do know that the wisdom of most of these feel good books can be useful if blended with a massive dose of cynicism.

Boil it down to "Life is crappy. Don't let it get you down."

I'm not sure most people are ready for this world view.

Anonymous said...

I don't really get the distinction between magic and religion. Why is believing in positive thinking stupid, but nitpicking the 39 labors of Sabbath isn't? You say The Secret is dangerous, well what about religions? At least people are not killing in the name of The Secret.
Intolerance, close-mindedness and general hostility towards any beliefs not your own are far more dangerous.

Anonymous said...

Will Ferguson's book Generica (also called Happiness) is a great farce about the publishing industry putting out this kind of book. V. funny.

sd said...

That's just ridiculous.

Maybe the people in Africa can watch The Secret, and vision themselves having food, and come to the sad realization that they live in a freaking desert.

The Rejecter said...

Anon 9:48,

I think there's a clear distinction between a comprehensive set of beliefs that people have shared for thousands of years and a DVD/book-based marketing scam.

Anonymous said...

Norman Vincent Peale's book, The Power of Positive Thinking, was on bestseller lists for years.
There's always a variation on this theme, and it's not bad.

I agree that when it is used as a substitute for action, that is when it gets in your way, and leads to even more loss of faith in one's own abilities to succeed.

There will always be someone who wants a shortcut, or something for nothing. And sometimes people get there, especially if they write this sort of feel-good-about-yourself book.

adrienne said...

Rejector have you read the book?

DementedM said...

I've noticed that The Secret has become the new 'baby dust' with some of the ladies on infertility message boards.

You can't think away a medical problem. But desperate people will try anything and at least it keeps them busy. I guess.

But I think books like The Secret that blame the victim and make it the victim's sole responsibility as to whether they fail or not are evil. You can't fix your life by forcing yourself to be happy. When bad things happen it is NOT always your fault!

Now cognitive restructuring therapy is a different thing. Improving brain chemistry by modifying negative 'tapes' people play to themselves is a Good Thing and different from The Secret. It only purports to improve brain chemistry, not get the inferitle knocked up or funnel money to the poor.

But the general public doesn't know the difference. Worse, they don't care.


Calissa said...

I do believe that some people need to stop thinking about all those negatives in life and do something useful for a change. If The Secret does nothing but get those people to shut up and talk about something else besides their boring reasons why they are so bored, then a-okay.

On the other hand, now I've got to listen to people talk about a 'Secret' (which apparently wasn't so secret) for who knows how long. Maybe if we're lucky it'll grow too big for it's britches and be uncool in a few months... like Toni Basil's Mickey.

Good post. I have to agree with a lot of it. Like I said in my own blog, this advice isn't knew, it's just fancy packaging.

Kim said...

Maybe the people in Africa can watch The Secret, and vision themselves having food, and come to the sad realization that they live in a freaking desert.

Yes- that's the problem - they don't know they live in a desert. Brilliant.

I've never read The Secret, I haven't even heard of it until now. And that's just fine with me. The idea that if you just think happy, all the sucky stuff goes away is absolute nonsense. Yes, a positive attitude makes the suckiness more bearable, but that's about it. And I don't need to plunk down any money to figure that out.

There's good and there's bad. You deal. It's that simple. Besides, without the suckiness, how would anyone know if they had it good?

Termagant 2 said...

The only problem I see with books of this type, is human nature. Everyone wants the "easy fix." If you visualize something (not that you might have to WORK for it) it will come to you. Anyone who points out that the Emperor is nekkid is dissed for having a negative attitude, and will obviously never accomplish anything.

Not so. Fortunately.


Anonymous said...

Wow...can you say 'disappointment', I truly believe in the power of our thoughts, and the power of visualization, but these guys at the Secret have betrayed all of us that thought they had a good idea. They have a program that you can join to be a 'secret agent' for the low low price of (almost) $2000! What a crock!
It has been scientifically proven that there is power to prayer, meditation, even talking to plants, but these guys really missed the point! I am very let down by their antics!

Anonymous said...

Ha! Nice can o'worms you opened up here, Rejector. Can't say that I'd heard of The Secret until now either, but books of this sort have certainly been being published for years and years. Every once in a while one hits the right marketing note and off to best-seller land they go. A few posts have commented on the whole notion of folks looking for a quick fix, which is probably where my opinion falls on books like this. They certainly come from a basis that's helpful, but of course making money tends to corrupt it, and if that whole 'secret agent' thing someone mentioned is true, that's really a sad and pathetic state of affairs. These types of book start hitting the point of being 'dangerous' as has been discussed here numerous times when they reach this level of involvement.

Folks have made lots of good points here and likely, as with most subjects that provoke such strong opinions, the truth of the matter wanders somewhere along a fog-shrouded highway in the middle of it all.

Saipan Writer said...

Thanks Rejector. I hadn't heard of The Secret (book or movie). It's all very interesting.

From what is posted here and at Amazon, the book sounds sophomoric and irrelevant to me.

It also sounds like it's couched in pseudo-scientific terms to jazz it up. The only "law of attraction" I've heard of is something about gravity.

If this "law of attraction" just means that what you put your energy into is what will get done, then-duh-how "secret" is that idea? How inspirational? How significant? The saying "just do it" comes to mind.

So sd and others in praise of the Secret-glad you believe, if you do, that this is something magic. And magic does sound like another type of religion. Just not mine.

But hey, people are buying books! Maybe not a book I would think is good, but a book nonetheless. And perhaps it's generating more conversations like the one here. And that's a good thing in a way.

S. W. Vaughn said...

Thought I'd add to the general sentiment: excellent post. I've got to stop reading blogs today. Everyone is forcing me to think so hard.

Tom said...

i agree this shit is bull

Bossy Chef said...

My friend insisted that I listen to the audiobook. I have never seen a positive thinking book rub me the wrong way more. What a crock of crap! I'm sorry but thinking fat thoughts doesn't make you fat, eating 1000 extra calories a day makes you fat. Ridiculous.

My friends thinks she is going to get out of debt by thinking she's going to get money.... yet you're not changing anything... so where's the extra money coming from? Oh yes, the universe is going to send it to you. I was in a better and more positive mood before listening to this garbage.