‘What If This Were Enough?’ is self-help for the world

Tuesday, November 27, 2018 - 1:44pm

I love the genre of self-help. I love its relentless optimism, its fundamental belief in our ability to cultivate positive change and the way it encourages us to see ourselves as active participants in our lives rather than as victims. In an age of overwhelming anxiety, I love being told that the problems of the world are simple and individual, and that if only I were to meditate / journal / pray more, I would be able to insulate myself against universal human emotions like fear, anger, insecurity and loss.

But I don’t entirely trust self-help, for exactly these reasons: its oversimplification, its insistence that we exorcize our uncomfortable emotions and the way it puts the onus for change on the individual rather than on the society. The “self” in self-help is important, even essential, but in a world where we are hyper-connected — our circumstances largely dictated by power structures beyond our control — it can’t be the whole story. Don’t we have a responsibility at some point to stop navel-gazing and help the world around us too?

Heather Havrilesky’s latest collection of essays, “What If This Were Enough?” does exactly that, directing the introspective and philosophical tools of self-help not only at the individual, but at the society at large. Havrilesky’s project is simple in theory, but fascinatingly nuanced in practice: to diagnose our shared cultural values, anxieties, obsessions and illusions in order to better understand the way they influence our individual emotional landscapes.

The essays in this collection are richly layered, emotionally evocative and often profoundly funny. Havrilesky focuses mostly on popular culture as a medium for our shared preoccupations, and moves nimbly between analytical investigations of what our cultural artifacts tell us about our priorities and deeply personal reckonings with how those priorities infiltrate our psyches.

In “The Smile Factory,” she explores how the phenomenons of Disney and Buzzfeed have created a culture of obligatory cheerfulness and constant distraction. In “The Land of Heroic Villains,” she connects our narrative fascination with antiheroes to the elevation of figures like Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump. In “The Popularity Contest,” she analyzes how the numbers game of social media has warped the way we evaluate our own worth. Other essays, like “Adults Only” and “Playing House,” take a more personal turn, recounting Havrilesky’s own experiences with hard-earned wisdom and haunting vulnerability.

Pulling together all these loose threads is Havrilesky’s overarching emphasis on mindfulness and gratitude — not in the shallow, gimmicky ways these terms often get thrown around in the rhetoric of self-care, but as the only logical remedies for a sick culture. She encourages us to be more cognizant of the ways we’ve internalized our society’s poisonous values and assumptions, and crusades against distraction, asking us to look closely at our difficult experiences and emotions rather than pathologically turning away from them. Havrilesky’s insistence that we face this darker side of our humanity might come across as depressing if it wasn’t such a refreshing change from the enforced perfection we so often experience, and if it wasn’t balanced with an unrelenting compassion for our shared humanity.

Again and again, she comes to the conclusion that the only way for us to live full, meaningful lives is to do what we can with what we have, to live for the present and to “embrace the conflicted nature of humankind.” Ultimately, she writes, “We have to rediscover how to navigate each day. We have to learn how to embrace the imperfection of the present moment and accept the wide range of experiences that fall between happiness and sadness, success and failure, true love and hatred, popularity and invisibility.” Only when we release our belief in perfection and get comfortable with that uncomfortable middle-ground will we be able to see that what we have right now, in this moment, is enough.

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“What If This Were Enough?”

Heather Havrilesky

Doubleday

Oct. 2, 2018