Confessions of a Laid-off Lawyer

Just Your Average Joe Blogging Away His Debt—In One Year or Less

Hay & Hokum

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Total Black: $65.20
Total Red: $230,481.61

I picked up a copy of a free local newspaper today: The New York Press.  I’m not sure why because I don’t read free newspapers.  I guess I find them slightly suspect.  Is their news reporting being slanted by their advertisers?  Then again—aren’t all newspapers affected by whomever pays them?  But I digress.  An article in the newspaper caught my eye, “What the Hay?” by Ethan Epstein.  The article begins: “It was a crisp Sunday morning in September when people began to file into the Javits Center for a dose of hope.  The ‘You Can Heal Your Life’ seminar is just the sort of optimistic approach these 2,000 women and men—mostly women—needed.  And it almost seemed possible since personal finance superstar Suze Orman was there to shore up the more dubious self-help nostrums.”  How could I resist reading that article. 

Epstein takes Orman, and the publishing company Hay House—what he labeled “a hotbed of hokum and enough pseudoscience to make even the author of The Secret blush”—to task for putting on a presentation in that fuzzy, feel-good ilk: taking control by using positive thinking to improve one’s lot in life.  Unlike Epstein, I don’t dismiss outright the possibility that thoughts can affect our circumstances.  In fact, in Positive Thinking I took issue with another journalist for her negative thinking.  And in 危 機 ≠ Opportunity I fleshed out a bit how blindly following positive thinking can lead us down the wrong path.  Some pros and cons to it depending on how deep you go and how blindly you tread.  But what I don’t understand is the outright disdain for viewing things positively.  Isn’t positive thinking pretty much the same as viewing the glass half-full instead of half-empty?  When we pray—and I mean in the very Catholic sense of petitioning God for some redress not the more fundamental prayer where one praises God.   But yeah . . . when we pray, aren’t we envisioning something good or helpful or beneficial like the curing of a disease or a successful performance on a job interview—isn’t that just intense, focused wishful . . . er, I mean . . . positive thinking?

Not for Epstein though.  “Despite the fact that Orman was billed as a ‘finance expert,’ she spent more than half of her allotted time dispensing platitudes about the importance of ‘feeling powerful’ and avoiding the trap of thinking of yourself as a victim. ‘You are not victims!’ she hollered.  It’s a nice message, and one that people (and in particular women, it appears) deeply crave: a sensation of control, of agency.”  And?  So?  What’s wrong with craving a sensation of control?  And why is this newsworthy?

I don’t understand Epstein’s derision.  Of Orman in particular he wrote that she “understands how to work the recession to her advantage. Along with bankruptcy lawyers and Wal-Mart executives, the recession has probably been best to her.  Indeed, the personal finance guru has become, according to a profile earlier this year in The New York Times magazine, something of a ‘trusted national advisor’ in these troubled times.  Her books are mega bestsellers, she’s a frequent presence on TV gabfests like Larry King Live and the ratings for her own Saturday night CNBC show are now higher than those of the Wall Street cheerleaders who crowd the rest of the cable network’s schedule.  Orman is the epitome of sound, right-thinking Midwestern common sense, according to the Times and others.  She’s just what the spendthrift commoners need.  Our cultural gatekeepers, one suspects, have not spent much time at Hay House events.”

Or maybe she’s just right?

Maybe Orman’s appeal is so popular—not because she’s milking the Great Recession and frightened Americans—but because the advice she gives is generally sound and on-point.  Maybe there IS something to be said for banishing negative thinking and inviting in some positive thinking.  And if people get an uplift from it—who cares?  The money isn’t come from my pocket?  And Americans pay for all sorts of feel-good functions: spa visits, training seminars, boot camps, vacations, and so on.  If attending a seminar once or twice a year that helps us feel better about ourselves, reminds us to right our course and steer our own ships—and not let them be simply tossed about by the various tides at sea—then what’s wrong with that?

Clearly Epstein has a resistance to this sort of seminar series.  I can appreciate that.  I didn’t attend so I certainly can’t speak to it.  But a few of the other presenters he chronicled—the heal-your-cancer-with-positive-thinking proponent or the disarm-Iran-with-positive-thinking presenter—they too would get my Ponzi scheme antennae up.  Having been a white guy at a predominantly black university I also know that squishy feeling inside when things start to get too touchy-feely.  Some in the African-American community are big on feeling their way to success.  But that’s not to say I didn’t feel better after a prayer was spoken aloud before law school exams.  (And that I didn’t laugh out loud just now when I remembered someone voicing opposition to it and the praying student saying “OK” and just continuing on.)  But Epstein did not attend this seminar as part of an undercover expose of yet another in a long line of quackery, preying on the downtrodden.  No, no, no.  To his credit, he does pepper his article with prescient observations: “The fact that many who attended the seminar obviously knew each other from previous events left me wondering about the efficacy of Hay House’s purported healing powers.”  Good point.  Not that any “healing” ever happens in one dose.  But that’s not why he attended or wrote this article.  At least that I can tell.  And isn’t he, himself, using this seminar as a way to chronicle the Great Recession, thereby milking it too.  Guess he took one lesson away from Orman.

But Epstein’s secondary, masquerading-as-primary, point is well worth considering: why do some people return each time?  Perhaps for one simple reason: it makes them feel good, feel better about themselves.  Isn’t that, in part, what church does too?  Why do we “return” to church or temple every week?  Shouldn’t we have gotten our fill after a few visits?  Shouldn’t it have worked already?  I mean, God can’t seriously by that egotistical that He needs us to give Him praise every week, right?  That’s just a human invention.  Or is it a human need?  Maybe the hay and

Epstein concluded his article on a flat note: “All of this, of course, leaves me wondering about the efficacy of the Hay House method. One would think that, at a certain point, one would no longer need to heal one’s life.  But many of the women at ‘You Can Heal Your Life’ have attended Hay House seminars for years.  Maybe that’s to be expected.  At the end of Cheryl Richardson’s speech, which was ostensibly devoted to describing how to ‘heal your life,’ she shouted, ‘See you next time!'”

Maybe Epstein needs another time.

Total black hasn’t changed, nor has total red.  Otherwise, no real updates either to speak of.  Work is coming along.  Ah, one good point: my mother and sister visit tomorrow.

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