A friend of mine is a ‘Coach’ who helps people ‘be all they can be’. In other words stop diddling, throw off insecurity and self-doubt, realize your full potential, define the world in your terms, and take charge of yourself and your own personal destiny. He makes a lot of money and coaches everybody from shiftless teenagers to corporate executives who mumble their speeches.
I heard all this ‘potential’ nonsense from my parents who hectored me every time I took a nap or read a comic book. They weren’t worried so much about my self-confidence, for in their opinion I had too much of that already. I was arrogant, self-centered, and a testa dura. “He doesn’t listen to anybody” intoned my mother, “let alone his parents. He does what he pleases and thinks only of himself”.
They were worried that I didn’t have what it took to survive in the hyper-competitive, individualistic, aggressive, dog-eat-dog world of America where “nobody is going to hand it to you on a silver platter”. All their worries became realized when the Sixties hit our little conservative corner of Connecticut. Not only had I become even more insufferably arrogant and intolerant, I “did my own thing”. My parents were convinced that sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll would be the end of me.
Now, apparently, old-fashioned parental hectoring has become big business in the form of ‘coaching’. If a parent can’t be bothered with their layabout, indulgent, and indifferent children, give them Ritalin and then send him to a Coach.
The Ken Blanchard Companies, one of many private coaching services, describes their goals this way:
Coaching is a deliberate process utilizing focused conversations to create an environment for individual growth, purposeful action, and sustained improvement. It is designed to help people focus on what they need to do more and less of to achieve their goals.
Coaching breaks down barriers to help achieve greater levels of accomplishment. It is a process of self-leadership that enables people to gain clarity about who they are, what they are doing, why they are doing it, and where they want to go.
In other words, there is nothing wrong with you that a little coaching can’t fix. Your lassitude, mental slowness, tics, nighttime fears, and intemperate stubbornness are not deeply-rooted, genetically programmed, socially case-hardened negative traits that others say. Just the opposite. They are part of the real, authentic you. Once you realize that your lazy indifference is nothing but a Buddhist-like acceptance of adversity; your intellectual dullness only a careful pondering of the world around you; your tics signs of legitimate impatience with fools; your nighttime fears the product of a vitally active imagination; and your stubbornness a sign of commitment and perseverance, you are on your way to greatness.
Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster have written about “The Gospel According to Me” in the New York Times (6.30.13) and observed that this narcissistic search for personal authenticity has a very dark side:
Many citizens have [abandoned] their singular, omnipotent (Christian or Judaic or whatever) deity reigning over all humankind and replacing it with a weak but all-pervasive idea of spirituality tied to a personal ethic of authenticity and a liturgy of inwardness. The latter does not make the exorbitant moral demands of traditional religions, which impose bad conscience, guilt, sin, sexual inhibition and the rest.
In other words, by substituting a New Age spiritual individualism – the result of the Existentialist 50s, indulgent 60s, and acquisitive 80s – for a much more traditional and rigorous religion or moral philosophy, we reject order, discipline, social responsibility, and ethical action. The new search for personal authenticity risks eroding the foundations of cooperative society. No one argues for traditional social values better than Ulysses in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida:
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office and custom, in all line of order;
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthroned and sphered
Amidst the other; but when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues and what portents! what mutiny!
What raging of the sea! shaking of earth!
Commotion in the winds! frights, changes, horrors,
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
The unity and married calm of states
Quite from their fixure!
O, when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick! How could communities,
Degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenitive and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place? (I.iii.540)
Self-actualization, however, if used as a means to a higher spiritual end, can be a good thing. Hinduism is based on such principles of self-realization; and more than any other religion stresses the importance of the individual. Only through a personal spiritual odyssey through many lives and reincarnations can one finally attain Enlightenment. Family and human society are merely constructs – the architecture which provides the framework for individual spiritual progress but of no intrinsic value. They mean nothing in and of themselves. Looked at one way, Hinduism is the most narcissistic philosophy going. Looked at in another, it stresses the evanescent and illusory nature of the world in which the only validation of the individual is through the rejection of Maya.
In other words, there is nothing wrong with focusing on individual, personal development if it has a purpose – and a goal other than simple pleasure. Avoidance of painful responsibility and moral choice in the search for personal gratification is wrong.
Critchley and Webster reflect this idea:
In the gospel of authenticity, well-being has become the primary goal of human life. Rather than being the by-product of some collective project, some upbuilding of the New Jerusalem, well-being is an end in itself. The stroke of genius in the ideology of authenticity is that it doesn’t really require a belief in anything, and certainly not a belief in anything that might transcend the serene and contented living of one’s authentic life and baseline well-being. In this, one can claim to be beyond dogma.
This focus on a “collective project” is, in my opinion, still too secular and narrow. Hinduism’s valuation of selfish individualism is of a different and even higher philosophical order. Hinduism is often ironically criticized by Western ‘progressives’ and social reformers for its focus on individualism. In Western eyes it is selfish indifference, consigning millions to poverty and destitution, and more than anything else depriving them of their liberty. In Hindus’ eyes, however, the caste system removes the illusion of secular attainment and ‘progress’. The more one’s life is ordered and predictable, the more one is able to concentrate on spiritual attainment.
Critchley and Webster argue that the search for ‘authenticity’ is a defense mechanism for avoiding the unpleasantness of the world:
In a seemingly meaningless, inauthentic world awash in nonstop media reports of war, violence and inequality, we close our eyes and turn ourselves into islands. We may even say a little prayer to an obscure but benign Eastern goddess and feel some weak spiritual energy connecting everything as we listen to some tastefully selected ambient music. Authenticity, needing no reference to anything outside itself, is an evacuation of history. The power of now.
I disagree. The search for ‘authenticity’ is a perfect expression of the materialist, individualistic times of today. Coaching to help clients realize their potential sanctify the quest. If one can throw off externalities, unrealistic and selfish claims by family and society, antiquarian religious injunctions, and the narrowness of a bourgeois social order, there is no end to the material success possible.
America and India couldn’t be more different, and it is vanity to hope that we will become more spiritual and progress towards higher goals rather than flounder in the marketplace. It is also unrealistic to assume that we will become more ‘collective’ any time soon. If there was a glimmer of social conscience in the 60s, it is long gone. ‘Authenticity’ will remain the name of the game for the foreseeable future.