I knew a man who went into therapy about three years ago because, as he put it, he couldn't live with himself any longer. I didn't blame him. The guy was a bigot, a tyrant and a creep.
In any case, I ran into him again after he'd finished therapy. He was still a bigot, a tyrant and a creep, but . . . he had learned to live with himself.
Now, I suppose this was an accomplishment of sorts. I mean, nobody else coule live with him. But it seems to me that there are an awful lot of people running around and writing around these days encouraging ue to feel good about what we should feel terrible about, and to accept in ourselves what we should change.
The only thing they seem to disapprove of its disapproval. The only judgment they make is against being judgmental, and they assure* us that we have nothing to feel guilty about except guilt itself.
It seems to me that they are all intent on proving that I'm Okay and You're Okay, when, in fact, I may be perfectly dreadful and you may be unforgivably dreary, and it may be - gasp! - wrong .
What brings on my sudden attack of judgmentitis is success or, rather, "Success!" - the latest in a series of exclamation-point books all concerned with How To Make It.
In this one, Michael Korda is writing a recipe book for success. Like the other authors, he leapfrogs right over the "shoulds" and into the "hows." He eliminates value judgments and edits out moral questions as if he were Fanny Farmer and the subject were the making of a blueberry pie.
It's not that I have any reason to doubt Korda's advice on the way to achieve success. It may very well be that successful men wear handerchiefs stuffed neatly in their breast pockets and that successful single women should carry suitcases to the office on Fridays whether or not they are going away for the weekend.
He may be realistic when he says that "successful people generally have very low expectations of others." And he may be only slightly cynical when he writes: "One of the best ways to ensure success is to develop expensive tastes or marry someone who has them."
And he may be helpful with his handy hints on how to sit next to someone you are about to overpower.
But he simply finesses the issues of right and wrong - silly words, embarrassing words that have been excised like warts from the shiny shurface of the new how-to books. To Korda, guilt is not a prod, but an enemy that he slays on page 4. Right off the bat, he tells the would-be successful reader that:
"It's O.K. to be greedy."
"It's O.K. to look out for Number one."
"It's O.K. to be Machiavellian (if you can get away with it)."
"It's O.K. to recognize that honesty is not always the best policy (provided you don't go around saying so)."
"And it's always O.K. to be rich."
Well, in fact, it's not O.K. It's not O.K. to be greedy, Machiavellian, dishonest. It's not always O.K. to be rich. There is a qualitative difference between succeeding by making napalm and by making penicillin. There is a difference between climbing the ladder of success and machete-ing a path to the top.
Only someone withthe moral perspective of a mushroom could assure us that this was all O.K. It seems to me that most Americans harbor ambivalence toward success, not for neurotic reasons, but out of a realistic perception of what it demands.
Success is expensive in terms of time and energy and altered behavior - the sort of behavior he describes in the grossest of terms: "If you can undermine your boss and replace him, fine, do so, but never express anything but respect and loyalty for him while you're doing it."
This author - whose "Power!" topped the best-seller list last year - is intent on helping rid us of that ambivalence that is a signal from our conscience. He is like the other "Win!" "Me First!"" writers, who try to make us comfortable when we should be uncomfortable.
They are all Dr. Feelgoods, offering us placebo prescriptions instead of stron gmedicine! They give us a way to live with ourselves, perhaps, but not a way to live with each other. They teach us a whole lot more about "Failure!" than about success.