Everyone knows “self help books” make up the biggest section in the bookstore. I’ve been assisted by them. I was a child of alcoholics. I’m disabled and I strive for emotional intelligence. As a stepdad of two teens I’ve read about “the launching years” and “mean girls.”
Because I hold many of these books in high esteem I’m reluctant to criticize the genre. (I’m a poet and once many years ago I had literary friends over for dinner. One guest saw “Weight Lifting for Dummies” on a shelf and sniffed loudly about our lowbrow habits. I said no one lifting weights is a genius and that ended it.) Of course smart people do lift weights but it’s good when you’re a novice at anything to acknowledge you might be a clod-pole.
So I believe in the self help category at least to an extent. Like the first rule of medicine a book should do no harm. (One can imagine parodies like “Go Play in the Traffic” and “Just Pretend You Have a Parachute.”
It’s good to critique a cultural norm even if it does some good. One huge drawback to self help books is that they generally avoid the subject of groups. This makes sense because Americans view pursuing happiness as a matter of individuality. You have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit, not the whole village. In turn small “d” democracy is understood in very subjective ways.
Because I’m disabled I’ve been asked many times to talk about disability as a factor in understanding diversity and inclusion. The disabled are part of every identity and rather significantly. Diabetes is the number one cause of blindness in the US and poverty heavily impacts this. Those without health care are far more likely to lose their sight.
When I talk about this I find myself thinking that where diversity and inclusion are concerned we often think in the manner of self help when what we really need is group help. How would group help differ?
I’m not saying diversity and inclusion programs should become group therapy. Perish the thought. I’m talking about curiosity. Let’s say group help is the art of taking true interest in the people around us. Too much diversity and inclusion work stops at “we’ve diversified now let’s get on with it” and therein lies a problem.
As a blind man who’s been in countless board rooms and meetings I know there are tons of people who’ve thought to themselves: “There’s a blind person. Nice dog. Good that he’s here.” This happens to members of each outlier group in any work setting. We’re in the room. The room is now inclusive. Down to business.
Group help means doing the work of diversity. It means taking the time to know where we’re from, what our interests are, what art forms do we like, what obstacles and triumphs have we had? We should admit we don’t know much of anything about our co-workers and moreover we’ve no experience with how to know each other. Personal questions are often offensive or racist, sexist or transphobic or ableist–it’s best to ignore our differences. Personally I’ve taken offense when the first thing a near stranger says to me is “how did you go blind?” There are of course a million variants of this. That person may be an ableist of course but it’s also possible he or she has no idea how to talk to people. I think Americans have almost no clue how to talk to each other. You can joke and say we’re better off not doing so. But if we want a civic sphere that’s rich and fascinating and yes, celebratory of our diversity we have to learn a few things about group help.
Here are some thoughts on the matter:
- We need to be curious about others in generous ways. Remember that the people around you are not the supporting cast in your personal drama. (This is a major principle of emotional intelligence.)
- Being curious doesn’t mean asking personal questions like “how did you go blind?” A better approach when you’re meeting someone who isn’t like you is to take what I like to call the “paper airplane gambit” which means asking someone if they’ve ever been successful making one. (You can come up with your own subject matter. I’ve never made a paper airplane that didn’t crash straight to the floor.) Group help means sharing small things that might be quirky and letting things go where they may.)
- Though number 2 above seems to belie this, group help isn’t a game. How many Human Resources events have you participated in where knowing others is turned into charades?
- Group help means knowing your students and co-workers are deep people, often heroic, marked by tragedy and occasional triumphs and yes, each and every person around you knows incredible stuff you don’t know. We’re very weak in this area in the US.
- Respectful curiosity makes working with others more interesting. The more one learns the more empathetic he becomes. Empathy is one of the prime antidotes for anger. Again, we’re very weak in this area in the US.
- True curiosity without vanity leads to reciprocal self-disclosure. Who knows you might make friends.
If you go looking for group help books you won’t find any. But our national effort at understanding diversity and inclusion (launched far too late in our democracy as I see it) may lead to a new section of the bookstore and take emotional intelligence to a whole new level. Nowadays when I speak to groups I aim to promote curiosity and its best practices because as I see it the pursuit of happiness lies in this direction.