Monday, October 31, 2011

You Can Create an Exceptional Life by Louise Hay and Cheryl Richardson

I read this book in two ways.  The first, I tried to be objective, reading this book as if I were a fan of either Louise Hay or Cheryl Richardson or even both.  I wanted to write a review that someone who genuinely likes their teaching would read without taking offense. 

However, I also couldn’t help reading it from a subjective perspective, one that is frustrated with easy faith, even to the point of being angry by how hurtful these teachings can be. 

And so I offer both an objective and distanced review of this book and a subjective one in which I pretty much say what I really feel.

The Objective Review

You Can Create anExceptional Life by Louise Hay and Cheryl Richardson is a very short book in which these two teachers discuss the principles that both have taught for years—how our thoughts affect our reality.  When I read the description, I thought the book would be written as a dialogue, an engaging interaction between the two.  (Not unlike Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell in The Power of Myth.)  This is not the case.  Instead, it is written from Richardson’s perspective and she shares with the reader what Hay says to her during several scheduled meetings. 

It’s a good idea but the book fell flat for me. 

For one thing, Richardson’s narrative voice is not fully-fleshed.  There is a detached tone that never engaged me and, although she told me about her enthusiasm or curiosity, her voice never allowed me to feel what she was feeling.   Even when she tells the reader that she is feeling deeply sad, enough so to cry, I personally never felt drawn to sympathy.  Basically, she broke one of the number one rules of creative writing:  don’t tell, show; the entire book reads more like a pragmatic and prolonged interview one would find in a magazine than a book both inspired and inspiring.

One could argue, of course, that this is a nonfiction book and does not lend itself to creative writing the way a novel does.  However, I can’t help thinking that there have been nonfiction books about a dialogue between two people that are, if nothing else, emotionally driven.  (Tuesdays with Morrie immediately comes to mind although there have been others.) 

Perhaps because I expected more, my disappointment colored my appreciation.  I even set the book aside for a couple of days so I could approach it with acceptance.  So what if it was not what I expected and did not live up to my hopes.  Does this mean it isn’t a good book, even a great book?  A few days later I was prepared to find out. 

What I found is that most of the ideas shared in this book are pretty much a rehashing of what both teachers have said before in previously published books.  In other words, these are the same lessons/ideas/truths in a slightly different package.  There’s nothing especially wrong with that.  Many spiritual teachers return to the same things because this is their message, the truth they have found that works for them.  (Anyone who has read more than one book by Thich Nhat Hanh knows that he often returns to the same mindfulness practices time and again.)

While I may not understand why this book costs so much given how little it has to offer (both in new teaching and in length), I won’t say that this book is not a good one. Anyone familiar with the teachings of these two women will not be disappointed nor surprised.  And true admirers and followers may not even think that the price is a bit high.  So I guess my feelings are qualified.  If you like what Hay and Richardson have to teach and you want more of the same then you’ll probably enjoy this book.  It’s not going to challenge your expectations (unless you go into it thinking it will read more like a true dialogue which, if you’ve read this review, you won’t do).  If you don’t appreciate their teachings or even agree with them then you probably shouldn’t buy this book, let alone read it.  Of course, someone who doesn’t probably wouldn’t read this book anyway.  Right? 

Subjective Review

Wrong.

Clearly I read this book and believe you me, I am not who appreciates these teachings. 

There is an example of post hoc ergo propter hoc that pretty much summarizes how ridiculous I find most of these “law” of attraction teachings.  In the book, Richardson describes being in a supermarket looking at orchids and thinking about how nice it would be to bring one home.*see footnote  While standing there, she becomes distracted and does not buy herself an orchid.  The next day, however, she comes home from being out and what does she find but a flower delivery on her doorstep. 

Now I don’t know about where you shop, but when I see orchids in a supermarket it typically heralds my seeing orchids everywhere.  You can hardly turn around without seeing orchids on display.  Even big box stores will have orchids available for purchase.  So forgive me if I find it unremarkable that Richardson sees an orchid and someone she knows (implying that the person is aware she likes flowers) buys her a flower that is not only in season but ubiquitous. 

To be honest, I would have found this story better evidence if, let’s say, Richardson stood over an orchid and thought about how much she loves lilacs, how pleasant it would be to have some lilacs and then someone managed to send her lilacs.  This would have been remarkable because orchids and lilacs are not in season at the same time so for a friend to send her an out of season flower, one that is hard to find, is certainly noteworthy. 

But really, how unremarkable and, unless you are determined to believe that this is not a coincidence, even an obvious one, you probably recognize why I mention the logical fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc in this context. 

(Those interested in other arguments might consider researching spurious relationship and magical thinking as well.  The former is another logical argument problem and the latter is a long recognized psychological belief that is illogical and often results in superstitious beliefs.)

Unfortunately, few and far between are those who are familiar with logic and rational argument and thought.  This, however, doesn’t bother Richardson who says, “While science may ignore anecdotal evidence from people who experience the healing or creative power of thought, the stories are important” (31).  She believes and trusts her readers to do so, not bothering to offer more than her own experience as proof for the universal truth of her belief.   

Here is a longer quote, one where she reiterates how unnecessary science truly is:
It’s easy to get caught up in a debate about how this principle works, whether or not it works, or the validity of thoughts creating reality.  But debating these ideas is like expending precious energy arguing about how a radio works rather than simply turning on the station to enjoy your favorite program, or questioning the legitimacy of the Internet instead of using it to communicate or gain information.  At this point in time, using spiritual rather than intellectual tools requires faith and an open mind.  Spiritual tools make life easier and more rewarding.  (40)
Obviously, this quote is so pathetic as to be laughable because science can clearly explain how a radio works and my experience of turning one on and hearing my favorite program has nothing to do with my faith, my believes, or my thoughts.  And whatever Richardson may or may not herself believe, science can also explain the internet. 

Being dismissive of “intellectual tools” is not unique to Richardson, Hay, or anyone else teaching on the “law” of attraction.  The fact is, intellectual tools are rarely called upon where faith is concerned.  Many religious teachers and leaders, when confronted with scientific evidence, are disinclined to listen. 

But notice how casually she implies that if you do not agree with her experience, if you too do not believe, then you are not open minded.  Ironic that someone can be so closed-minded towards scientific evidence (*cough*magical thinking*cough*) should suggest that it is because she is so very open minded that she does not need science.  Is this even logical?

Nothing in that paragraph is logical and it smacks of manipulation. 

This is not to suggest that I don’t see a germ of merit in some of what Hay, Richardson, and their ilk teach.  Science has shown that our past experiences can affect our physical well-being in the present.  Traumatic experiences in childhood and possibly high levels of stress occurring over a long period of time can manifest as cancer.  Our emotions have a causal effect, releasing hormones or compromising the immune system. 

(And for some scientific and not merely experiential evidence I offer the following:

So I do believe that using affirmations can help.  Do affirmations affect the world in which we live?  To the extent that a positive person tends to have a more optimistic outlook on things, is more inclined to look for the silver lining than sink into utter despair, yes I see how our thoughts “create” our reality.  Science (and experience) has, however, proven that if you ask different people to describe the same thing, say a crime scene or a painting, you will receive different descriptions, some even contradicting one another.  Our perceptions create our reality but they do not define another person’s reality.

My perspective does not define Richardson’s reality no more than her experiences determine what I should or should not believe myself.  If her faith goes so far as to suggest that what she thinks can influence another person’s actions, inspiring them to give her flowers or be more kind where there was previously conflict, so be it.  And if I think and believe that such things are foolish and insulting to my intelligence, then so be it.  Obviously I believe that what I think doesn’t affect my world to such a degree that she, or any of the other teachers who believe these things, will suddenly change her way of thinking.  If my thoughts could, these stupid books wouldn’t be published, read, let alone believed.

* Oddly enough, I recently read a different person’s story that goes very much along the same lines. She is in a store admiring orchids when another shopper asks her a question.  In the time it takes to help this other shopper, she has forgotten about the orchids and continues on with her own shopping.  Moments later the interrupting shopper comes up and gives her some orchids.  The teacher said that this was a result of her own desire, that the “law” of attraction worked and her desire for an orchid, which she says she had completely forgotten was fulfilled through this surprising stranger.  Visualize me rolling my eyes as I type this because even when I read it my thought was 1) the stranger saw her looking at the orchids and 2) there are actually generous people in the world who do things like buy someone flowers as a way of saying thank you.  Yes, even strangers will do nice things for others.  The action (post hoc) did not have any relationship with the teacher’s action (propter hoc).

2 comments:

  1. I had a "friend" in college who was a huge proponent of The Secret. Hearing him drone on and on about it made me want to scream. Books like that are all predicated on the idea that there's a sucker born every minute and it appears that this book is no different. I'm always disappointed by how many people buy into ideas like this, especially when there are so many other ways of being a good person and having a good life (like, I don't know, volunteering, educating yourself, working hard, doing something nice for someone without expecting something in return, etc., etc., ad nauseum). Whatever happened to the days when people just lived their lives without a manual and didn't let people dictate who they were based on a book that cost just about as much as a full tank of gas?

    Great review. When you mentioned it on my blog, I knew I *had* to read it. :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. You know, when I wrote the review I was thinking: Read my blog. Read my blog. Read my blog.

    It works! It really works! My thoughts made you read my blog!

    Wow. Now I need to change my review entirely. Gee . . . .

    ReplyDelete

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