One of the more interesting genres of books are books that are labeled as self-help books, whose goal it is to improve your life in some fashion. What makes this sort of book different from most types of books is that the goal of the book is to improve the way you live your life and to affect your behavior rather than simply entertain or inform you. Most books are a form of entertainment or education, in that you read the books and they tell you something you want to hear or that you want to know. As edifying and worthwhile as I find the literature of Jane Austen, for example, the book’s moral improvements were something that came along in addition to the book’s obvious value as witty and enjoyable literary and romantic fiction. Jane Austen did not write her novels so that people would be better at conducting their efforts at courtship, which is for the best, because if they had been written with such a didactic aim, my own signal lack of success in such a field would be distressing and lead me to have ambivalent feelings about it. On the other hand, there are books whose purpose is to help improve the way one lives, and to some extent these books are worthwhile to the extent that they encourage you to act upon them.
Today I had occasion to spend my time talking with someone who, like me, shares an interest in a certain subgenre of self-help books whose interests are in encouraging the reader to develop the mentality of the wealthy and successful. Whether or not someone is in fact or considers themselves to be wealthy, there are habits of mind and behavior that are involved in growing rich. Quite a few of these attitudes are somewhat obvious, including developing an attitude of gratitude towards the blessings that God has given us, as well as a recognition of our interests, gifts, talents, and abilities and how these can be useful in a world of scarcity and suffering and lack. Similarly, it can be helpful to know what we have to offer others and what we can bring to a world that can make the world a better place and can serve the needs and interests of those around us, even as we look to obtain that which we need and want for ourselves. There are a great many people who are recognized by others as being prosperous and blessed in many ways even if they themselves may not think of themselves as particularly rich or famous or notable, because they are too busy serving to admire their reflection in the mirror.
It must be remembered, however much one enjoys reading such books, that they are designed with the purpose of changing the behavior of the person reading them. For example, the book Who Moved My Cheese?, as silly as the book’s premise is about mouse dealing with the inevitability of change in the world is, clearly is written with a very clear agenda in mind: to drive home in its readers the understanding and insight that we are like the mice in the book and cannot rely on conditions remaining in a way we have become accustomed to. As one of my pastors used to say often, “Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be bent out of shape.” We live in a world of change, and as beings resistant to change but at the same time who need very desperately to change for the better throughout life, cultivating an attitude of flexibility and of acceptance of inevitable change is a way that we can live happier and more successful lives. After all, change will happen to us whether we like it or not, and being able to successfully cope with it and appreciate its benefits allows us to profit from change rather than suffering from it. It is not so much that the author of such a book seeks to gain our intellectual assent about such matters, but rather that our attitude be changed. And so we are not simply told that change is inevitable but we are given a story where the framing of the plot earns our assent that change is arbitrary and unavoidable and that the mice need to accept that reality and deal with it, all the while realizing, whether it is pleasant or not, that we are like those mice who are similarly helpless to create the reality that we want but having to cultivate the frame of mind that allows us to deal with reality that we cannot bend to our will and wishes, but cannot safely disregard either.
Any book that desires to improve our lives and to shape our behavior and attitudes has a much higher burden to clear than the ordinary book. If we come across a book that seeks to make our lives better and we find the book interesting and entertaining but are not changed by it, the book has not served its purpose. The purpose of the book was not to make us more knowledgeable people, but to make us better people. It was not designed to confirm in us our attitude of superiority to those who do not know the right way to live, but to encourage us and push us and prod us to live the right kind of life. And if we only pat ourselves on the back that we are wise and discerning people but do not live wisely, we have not gotten what is truly valuable about that sort of material. We have only become self-deluded philosophers convinced of our own intellect without having become good people whose behavior sets a proper example for others to follow. A book, for example, that gives wise advice on the sort of diet that someone suffering from gout needs to follow in order to avoid an attack is useless if it only gives information and does not encourage the reader of the book, presumably a sufferer of that dreadful disease, to follow its advice on how one can eat a varied diet while avoiding the misery and suffering of a gout attack. And such examples can be multiplied.
After all, that which is truly worthwhile in life is that which is practiced and not merely that which is known or that which is speculated. The life of contemplation offers many pleasures, but such contemplation is worthless if it does not lead us to become a better person. The man who pours forth is heart in praise to God on a Sabbath or a Sunday and who beats his slaves and servants or berates and belittles his employees, or family members on a Monday is well recognized as a hypocrite. The man who claims to know how important face and honor and reputation are to the people around him but who does not act in a way that respects the face and honor and reputation of those around him will not be praised for his knowledge but rather condemned for his poor practice. And none of us will entirely escape the rebuke of such judgment. All of us know things that we should do or should not do where our practice falls short of our own ideals and our own knowledge and our own intellectual assent. None of us lives a life that matches our ideals and our beliefs. We all fall short of that which is glorious and honorable among humankind, much less the honor and glory of God, in whose image we were made and whose character and likeness we have been called to attain in our lives. How to move from where we are to where we are called to be requires a lot of pushing and prodding from outside, for if we were capable of making ourselves righteous through our own efforts, some us might have been able to hit the target, as opposed to our consistent record of failure throughout the entire melancholy course of human history.