Even so, those whom corporate trainer and management consultant Chérie Carter-Scott would call "negaholics" will take glum comfort in the news that some Americans seem to be tiring of the Pursuit of Wow. Maybe it's the foul aftertaste of all that New Economy hype gone sour. Or the psychic collateral damage inflicted by 9/11. Or the recession. Whatever the reason, something seems to have taken the Wham-o! out of all those high-fiving raps on the joys of Constant And Never-ending self-Improvement. Anthony Robbins's Coué-esque axiom that "the only true security in life comes from knowing that every single day you are improving yourself in some way" rings hollow in an America where everyone's wondering if the twitchy guy in the aisle seat has a nuke in his carry-on luggage.
There's an trendlet now, evinced by books such as The Power of Negative Thinking: Coming to Terms With Our Forbidden Emotions, by Gerald Amada, and The Positive Power of Negative Thinking: Using Defensive Pessimism to Harness Anxiety and Perform at Your Peak, by Julie K. Norem, that dismisses what Norem calls the "oblivious optimism" of the Don't Worry, Be Happy wing of pop-psych as unrealistic, even unhealthy. The psychologist Lauren Slater thinks self-esteem, the accepted foundation of a sunny-side-up attitude and hence of success, is overrated. In her essay "The Trouble with Self-Esteem," she quotes researcher Nicholas Emler, who claims that "there is absolutely no evidence that low self-esteem is particularly harmful. . . . People with low self-esteem seem to do just as well in life as people with high self-esteem. In fact, they may do better, because they often try harder."
Maybe it's time we outgrew our thumb-sucking self-absorption. Maybe we're ready to question our reflexive equation of personal growth with Constant And Never-ending Improvement, of life lived deeply with Having a Nice Day. Maybe we should ask ourselves: What is our manic pursuit of happiness a flight from? What are our daily affirmations a lucky charm against?
Ask the aptly named Brother Void; he's been there, he knows. Void is an ironic mystic whose pitilessly sardonic yet heartachingly sincere philosophy of "compassionate nihilism" and "negative thinking" ("an eclectic collection of discredited left-brained problem-solving strategies, including debate, disagreement, criticism, and analysis") is what the world needs now. In his recently published book Daily Afflictions (Norton, $11.95), Void recounts the soul-curdling moment of existential vertigo when, "without smoking anything," he suddenly felt "the bottom of whomever he was [fall] away":
Eternity was gazing through him, a terrible immensity annihilating him, demanding his surrender, and yet, in some strange way, requiring him for its own integrity. . . . His whole life seemed a lie, an elaborate sleight of hand. Every aspect of his personality was little more than a blind slab of psychic armor, a false self, a pretension, a self-deluding vanity. Paradoxically, seeing himself this way felt like the first true moment in his life. He was being summoned. He was being called to embrace the terrifying Otherness all around him; embrace the world's horrors and hopelessness; embrace all that he feared and all that he had ever pushed away.
In the ego-shriveling furnace of this encounter with the Mysterium Tremendum, the titanium-hard insights Brother Void calls daily afflictionsósteely words of wisdom that arm "the individual for the jungle of existential terror and paradox that awaits with each new day"ówere forged. Whereas daily affirmations "promise that you can attract what you wish for by visualizing it," writes Void, afflictions "remind you that when you feel desperate and alone, you are. . . . You can't avoid suffering. The right affliction, however, can make your suffering more meaningful. It won't tell you the answer, but it can deepen an unresolvable question; it won't help you find yourself, but it might help you to realize that you are irretrievably lost. . . . For only in darkness, light; only in paradox, truth; only in affliction, affirmation."
Daily afflictions such as "I will find that special person who is wrong for me in just the right way," "The future is full of possibilities that I must shoot in the head," and "I set aside a little time each day to die" turn the self-improvement movement's cherished faith in the spark of the divine within each of us inside out, forcing us to confront the dark matter we all harbor. Throwing open the door to the starless existential emptiness behind the world of appearances, Brother Void exposes us to a soul-sucking spiritual vacuum that strips us, in an instant, of our positive thoughts, creative visualizations, and Transformational Vocabularies, leaving us naked and trembling before the deeply meaningful meaninglessness withoutóand within. The choice is clear: Face and embrace the brutal truth that we are motes in the unblinking eye of a godless cosmos or be crushed by the infinitely dense black holes of our collapsing selves. In that moment, self-esteem will be the least of our problems.Mark Dery's latest book is The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink (Grove Press, 1999).