Many pop psychology books are like the colored wooden beads children string on ropes -- one red, one yellow, one green, or two reds, two yellows, two greens. Whatever the order, the strings all look alike.
I'm afraid Maxine Schnall's "Limits: A Search for New Values" strikes me the same way.Here's a little Sigmund Freud, quite a bit of Rollo May, and a lot of Erik Erikson, but it's the same old story -- we are told we are a sick society bent on a narcissistic search for personal fulfillment.
What Ms. Schnall says we need is a sense of our own limits: to know what we will and won't do regardless of what our culture says we should or should not do.
That doesn't sound very new to me, but then I don't meet many people suffering this particular malaise. Ms. Schnall does. In fact, much of her documentation is based upon case studies of people who have sought her counselling. That's one of my quarrels with "Limits," I do not think it fair or scientific to conclude that the histories of admittedly troubled people reflect all of society.
Ms. Schnall, like many psychologist-writers whose books have a way of becoming best sellers, perpetuates the glib news-media-descriptions of the last few decades -- the restrictive '30s, the conformist '40s, the togetherness '50s, the revolutionary '60s, the me-generation '70s. Such generalizations are too easy; they simply don't fit.
Was there, for example, really a "me generation," or did that idea arise from the titles of books, many by psychologists, such as "Pulling Your Own Strings," "Looking Out for Number One," and "How To Be Your Own Best Friend." And after having helped promote the idea that the self is all and deserves all, is it fair for these psychologists to then say people don't know their limits or that they are narcissistic? I think not.
Narcissism is not new. Ever since the days of Greek mythology, when Narcissus was condemned to admire his handsome body forever in the reflection of a pond, there have been among us those whose worlds revolve solely around their own images. But to indict all of society and conclude that masses of people are swept up in a drive for self-gratification and must search for values because they have none -- this overlooks, I think, the way most people live.
Most people lead quite ordinary lives with ordinary expectations -- studying, working, raising families, caring about their country, their hometowns. They have been beset with depressions, wars, crime, and all manner of disasters and still they hold to a basic belief in the goodness of humankind.
The vast majority, I venture, are not searching for new values because they have found the old values to be enduring. They do not talk about them. They simply live them.
This is not to say we are without our lonely, frightened, troubled, hurting people. We have only to read the news and study the statistics to know there are millions without jobs struggling to keep afloat, single parents trying to raise children alone without enough income or help, older people living in wretched poverty, youths committing suicide because they are engulfed in despair.
The fault here is not narcissism. As for values, this is where they are most in evidence. It takes great dignity and faith to live through the ordeal of watching the factory where you have always worked shut down. It takes enormous courage to lose a child in battle or to a killer stalking the streets.
These are the real people, not case histories. Their stories, too, need telling, but they are more apt to talk to a Studs Terkel than a Maxine Schnall -- or perhaps it is that Studs Terkel is more apt to talk to them.
More Studs Terkel, please.