Religion can help in the desert of the lonely crowd

June 6, 2008
The Bright Sun Blue Sky Clouds
Published in The Times, 6th June 2008

Here self-help books dominate the bestseller lists with titles such asThe Power of Now, The Secret and Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff. They’ve become the wisdom literature of our age.

Yet in many of them one thing is missing; necessarily so, given their frame of reference. By this I mean the help that does not, cannot, come from the self but must come from someone else: family member, friend, neighbour, mentor, even a stranger, anyone so long as it is not me. The Talmud tells us about Rabbi Jochanan who lived in the third century. One of the greatest scholars of his day, he was a man of extraordinary beauty. Also, he had the gift of healing. His touch cured.

One day he fell ill. One of his colleagues came, gave him his hand, and cured him. The Talmud asks the obvious question: “Why, if Jochanan was a healer, did he not heal himself?” Its answer is striking: “A prisoner cannot release himself from prison.” There are some conditions from which we cannot cure ourselves, at least not swiftly or easily. It takes the touch, literal or metaphorical, of another.

There are times in the life of anyone who tries to lead, create or innovate when you encounter turbulence. An initiative may fail; a gesture may be misinterpreted; you are hit by a wave of criticism. That is the occupational hazard of anyone who takes a risk. You can do the wrong thing, or the right thing at the wrong time, or the right thing that is seen as the wrong thing. The chorus of disapproval can be deafening.

What do you do in a situation like this? You can carry on regardless, which is dangerous, because they may be right and you may be wrong. You can take the criticism seriously and be devastated by it, so much so that you decide to resign and lead a quieter, more risk-free life. Or you can read one of the self-help books that teach you how to re-frame.

Actually, for most of us, the single most powerful cure is to seek out someone we trust and talk it through with them. In ten minutes, if they are wise and good, they can lift us from despair, reassure us of our worth, tell us that, whether we got it right or wrong, we were not wrong to take the risk and restore our faith in ourselves. That is the help that can only come from another.Back in the 1960s an American scholar, Philip Rieff, made a penetrating observation about the difference between traditional and contemporary therapies. People have always known that tragedy, bereavement, crisis and depression turn an individual in upon him or herself. In traditional societies, the cure is to reintegrate the individual with the community.

In Judaism, and doubtless in most other religions, the community takes it upon itself to visit the sick, comfort the bereaved, give hospitality to the lonely and help to those in need. The therapy comes in the knowledge that the sufferer is not alone. Indeed, the first time the phrase “not good” appears in the Bible, it is in the sentence: “It is not good for man to be alone.”

By contrast, modern therapies tend to seek a solution within the self. It began with Rousseau, who thought that individuals were good and society bad, and it has continued unchecked ever since. Nowadays we are led to believe that it is we alone who are masters of our fate, we who preserve our freedom by steering clear of the entanglements of commitment and community. Hence the idea of self-help. But sometimes staying within the self is not a cure but the problem itself.

One of the great blessings of religion is that it moves us beyond the self. It bonds us to others and to God. It trains us in the habits of loving kindness. It teaches us relational intelligence. It sustains oases of community in the desert of the lonely crowd. It supports the kind of friendships that can heal broken hearts. Sometimes, along with self-help, we need a little help from our friends.