Each of us is an expert in the self—1989
The good advice business has never been better. It is a seller’s market. Counselors of all sorts are multiplying like rabbits. Everywhere you look there are experts on every subject straining to tell us what to do. Whatever the problem, of the body or mind or spirit, they are ready to give us the answer.
Once we were exposed to such well-intentioned admonitions only on Sunday in church or in a weekly advice-to-the-lovelorn column. Now we cannot escape it. Advice pours out of the radio. It fills the newspapers. It is the best-selling staple of every bookstore.
And to what avail? How much of this good advice is good for the individual? If good, how much is followed? If followed, how much does it change a person’s life. The answer to all three questions is very little. Virtue cannot be taught. Experience must be experienced. No one can be quite sure whose life is a success and whose is not.
This does not stop the preachers from preaching. The sowers of the word are always with us. There is always the possibility it will fall on good ground. And there are always listeners. “There’s a sucker born every minute,” P.T. Barnum said. They are people who seek help for choices they have to make themselves, people who even pay for the help that is offered.
Theodore Roszak, a perceptive observer of our culture, has commented on this phenomenon. “We go to doctors and physiologists to learn what’s going on in our organism,&rldquo; he says, “and that cuts us off from any direct experience that we can have, with a sense of certainty that we know what’s going on and that we are indeed the best authorities over our inner life and our bodies.”
Let that sink in. We are the best authorities. That does not mean we do not need information. Even the pope has his experts to give him information, and to educate him on those things that can be found in the books. All of us require some sort of storage and retrieval system, whether it is a person or a computer.
All of us are ignorant, and profoundly so, in some field. Most of that, we can leave to others. There is much to know that is not worth the time spent getting to know it.
What is essential for us to know, we call education. We must have adequate information to live in this world. But information will never replace experience and the wisdom that follows. “The vice of living in a highly artificial social order,” says Roszak, “is that you experience through media, through literature, through books, rather than in a raw and direct way.” There comes a time when you must be your own teacher, your own coach, your own clergyman.
We need not ask another person, “Who am I?” If we do, we will never engage in the adventure of self-discovery. We will live another and false life. Do not mistake yourself for anyone else, the average American man, the ordinary inhabitant of this globe or the common-variety human being. They exist only on charts.
We do share a host of attributes with others: drives and desires, instincts and longings. Under precisely controlled conditions our overall responses to certain stimuli can be statistically predicted. But we are not statistics. Under precisely controlled conditions, we will, individually, do as we damn please, and fortunately, that is precisely what we should do.
We must have a healthy distrust and a healthy cynicism for the experts, and for authority in general. Each of us is an experiment of one. Each is an expert in the self, a witness of a personal truth, our own best authority.
My advice to these advisors would be. “Do not tell me what to do, tell me what you do. Do not tell me what is good for me, tell me what is good for you. If, at the same time you reveal the you in me, if you become a mirror to my inner self, then you have made a listener and a friend.”