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Issue No. 67 (April 15, 2005) -- Mark Satin, Editor
The radical middle is more than a politics
It is also a psychology whose texts leave most of today's self-help books in the dust
The “radical middle” is more than a politics. It has its own sensibility, its own psychology.
Radical middle psychology is pragmatic and ethical, realistic and humane. It is tailor-made for those of us who are committed to being fully present for each other while doing great things in this world.
Its most effective champions right now are the therapists Robert Karen and Terrence Real, authors of a number of self-help books.
To better appreciate their views, it's helpful to look first at a couple of conservative and liberal self-help books [but if you don't care about context, just scroll about halfway down this page to the sub-head that begins, "Radical middle self-help"].
Conservative self-help: So sue me
Conservative self-help is instrumental. It helps people “win” at life. The classic text is Robert Ringer’s Winning Through Intimidation, one of the most popular self-help books of all time, recently given a 30th anniversary makeover and republished as To Be or Not to Be Intimidated?: That Is the Question (2004).
Although Ringer’s title and to some extent his prose have taken on the sweeter colorations of the upper middle class, nothing’s really changed. We’re still told we’re students at “Screw U.”; we’re still told “It’s a Jungle out there”; we’re still advised that “In every area of life -- whether business or personal -- getting paid is the bottom line.”
You can’t reject Ringer’s perspective out of hand. Probably all of us know people who’ve been used and abused because of what they like to think of as their kinder natures. Robert Karen, one of the radical middle psychologists, puts it well when he says, “There are programs that toughen people and help them forget their self-doubts. Such programs may help us succeed at certain tasks, but they also make us less human and more prone to dominate others.”
Another prominent conservative self-help author is Dr. Wayne Dyer, author of the mega-bestseller Your Erroneous Zones and the more recent follow-up Ten Secrets for Success and Inner Peace (2001). Dyer’s politics are in fact liberal, but his approach is as instrumental as they come.
His basic message is that your thoughts make you unhappy, and you can change your thoughts by force of will. In Ten Secrets, an undersize, pastel-colored, glossy-papered book you can easily fit in your purse or briefcase, you’re given 10 sayings (“secrets”) you can mull over again and again until you’ve thoroughly incorporated them. For example, “Have a Mind That Is Open to Everything and Attached to Nothing.” Or, “Wisdom Is Avoiding All Thoughts That Weaken You.” Or (my favorite), “Give Up Your Personal History.”
Far be it from me to frown on anything that’s comforting and harmless. But is that Pablum really harmless? Here’s Robert Karen again: “The mind is a powerful tool but it cannot will away the damage of childhood or the power of others. Nor can it undo the injuries we inflict on ourselves through bad habits and unwise relationships. . . . The pains and struggles of life deserve more respect than this, and so do the people around us.”
Liberal self-help: I’m OK, you’re -- who cares?
If conservative self-help is meant to stiffen our spines, liberal self-help is meant to comfort our egos. The basic stripped-down message is, We’re often victims and it’s usually other peoples’ fault. Another way of putting that is, We’re OK, in fact, more than OK, and anyone who doesn’t get that is outta here.
The 1980s and 1990s saw a spate of books with titles like Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them. But those books were actually quite balanced and sensible compared to their current progeny.
Far and away the best-selling self-help book of our time is He’s Just Not That Into You (2004), by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo. The book’s principal message is that if a guy experiences doubts or ambivalence about a woman, or feels he needs to give his job priority sometimes, or isn’t willing to devote himself to pleasing her at all times, then there’s something wrong with him and (therefore) he should be chucked overboard ASAP.
“Don’t waste the pretty,” the authors say more than once. And, “Why stay in some weird dating limbo when you can move on to what will surely be better territory?”
It is true that women can come up with some bizarre excuses for men’s misbehavior. Reading Behrendt and Tuccillo will certainly help stop them from doing that!
But it’s also true that -- as radical middle self-help author Terrence Real stresses -- women sometimes fail to express their real feelings or wants or needs to men until the relationship is virtually over. Also, building a life together is hard. Life is just infinitely more complicated than Behrendt and Tuccillo allow.
So unless you’re looking for an excuse to go through a lot of [censored] without a qualm, this book is about as true and useful as NARAL’s John Roberts ad. And it traces back to the same professional-victim mentality. Don’t address the real issues. Whine and MoveOn instead.
Even more disturbing -- because more sophisticated -- is Sasha Cagen’s cult bestseller Quirkyalone: A Manifesto for Uncompromising Romantics (2004). Quirkyalones are, she’ll have you know, men as well as women -- all those who are willing “to step out from the crowd to follow one’s own instincts.”
So far, so good. But there’s a hitch, as you can tell from the subtitle: Quirkyalones suffer from “R.O.,” romantic obsession. “[Q]uirkyalones, for all their independence, also have a tendency to be swept away when they get close to love. We are passionate, romantic characters. . . .” In other words, victims of their own goodness.
If this book were for the teenagers and twentysomethings who are (one hopes!) Behrendt and Tuccillo’s principal readers, I wouldn’t sweat such passages. But it’s clear from Cagen’s text that her principal intended audience includes folks in their 30s, 40s and even 50s. And it’s just so sad to imagine people that age -- my age -- presumably people with careers, educations, already too many notches on their sexual belts -- striving to turn each other into fantasy figures (and so setting each other up for disappointment and resentment).
Radical middle to quirkyalones: Life is short! Try to connect!
And it gets worse. Ms. Cagen offers various “remedies” for when “Mr. or Ms. Wonderful does not measure up” and you still can’t shed your R.O. One such remedy may be the cruelest single thing a person can do to another: “Cut off communication.” Like, totally. Freeze the loser out. And don’t look back . . . in another little while, as spring follows winter, another R.O. will be on the horizon. . . .
(Sigh.) Is that anything like what Betty Friedan wanted for us when she wrote The Feminine Mystique? Doris Lessing when she wrote The Golden Notebook?
It’s enough to turn any sensitive person into a fundamentalist Muslim.
Radical middle self-help: beyond suave intimidation and romantic victimhood
Fortunately, there is an alternative to conservative self-help, liberal self-help, and enrolling at a madrassa.
There isn’t a name for it yet, so let me christen it “radical middle self-help.”
It’s for those of us who sense there’s more to life than manipulating others for our short-term benefit.
It’s for those of us who crave intimacy, self-awareness, worldly competency, and joy . . . and who are willing to devote considerable time and effort in pursuit of such goals (including making a difficult “journey within”).
It has many practitioners in the U.S. today, but its two greatest practitioners -- its two greatest writers, anyway -- have seemed clear to me for some time: Robert Karen and Terrence Real.
Karen’s first book, written while he was still a graduate student in clinical psychology at CUNY, may be the most excruciating-to-read self-help book I’ve ever read, Top Dog / Bottom Dog: Coming to Grips With Power at Home, at Work, and in the Sexual Arena (1987). His elegant essay “Shame” was featured in the Atlantic Monthly in February 1992. If his latest book, The Forgiving Self: The Road from Resentment to Connection (2001), had sold half so many copies as He’s Just Not That Into You, then this country really would deserve to be the leader of the free world.
Karen worked as a journalist in New York before settling on psychology as a profession; Terrence Real spent his entire 20s messing around and writing unpublished fiction. Now he’s a member of the senior faculty at the Family Institute of Cambridge, Mass., and author of two books that are richer and more moving than anything you’ll find on the contemporary fiction shelves today (I’ve got to admit, I cried while reading them):
I have no idea whether Karen and Real know each other. You never see their names linked in the press or on the Web, and neither of them has used the phrase “radical middle” so far as I am aware.
But both of them are in the ballpark, so to speak. For example, Karen’s first book carried jacket blurbs from three subscribers to my first newsletter. And two of Real’s colleagues at the Family Institute were longtime supporters of the print version of Radical Middle Newsletter.
Much more importantly, their written work is driving at exactly the same things, the same hard psychological truths we need to know now. (Is it only a coincidence that both of them write beautifully? Karen writes like Chekhov, quiet, delicate, haunting, and Real writes like Dreiser, his prose driven by huge gusts of emotion you can only marvel at.
(And is it only an accident that both of them share personal stories in their books, a practice still somewhat frowned upon by Important Professionals from the Northeast? Or that both of them end books watching over their dying fathers and mourning the connections that were never made, never there?)
What they carry
Here is what these extraordinary teachers / therapists / authors have to give us:
A home in the “third way.” Both Real and Karen reject the extremes of the dominant culture. Real strives to avoid both “manipulation” and “accommodation.” Karen points to a path beyond “unnatural goodness” and “churchy moralism,” and laments both the “political correctness of the left” and the “moral righteousness of the right.” Real’s guiding vision is pure radical middle:
Now more than ever, in this uneasy time of transition, men and women in our society must be encircled by a third force, larger than partisanship to either sex, a vision beyond blame, nostalgia, or platitudes about immutable differences. . . . This is not feminist work, any more than it is “masculinist.” It is the next step for all of us.
A celebration of sensitivity. Robert Bly was wrong, Real says. What boys need from their fathers isn’t “masculinity” but “affection,” pure and simple. Karen feels we desperately need to learn to “accept vulnerability as a more constant factor” in our lives.
A path beyond victimhood. Karen argues that “we collude in or have some sort of responsibility for much of what befalls us.” For many couples, he says, the turning point comes when one or both parties move away from playing the wounded victim and realize their problems are an “‘us’ issue.”
Real urges his clients to change the way they think of their life stories. For example, “In the new version that gradually evolved, Henry was not a loser; he was a quester.”
An acknowledgement of the complexity of things. In a hundred different ways, both authors urge us to welcome and even embrace complexity. For example, Real wants us to acknowledge that closeness will always trigger discomfort, even trauma -- it’s “inescapable in close relationships” -- and that we need to learn to give our partners “space to recoup.”
Karen says that “openness to complexity” is a big part of personal growth, not to mention mental health. His book on forgiveness teaches that a “totally forgiving posture is neither possible nor desirable” -- claims that forgiveness “can be as much a self-betrayal as seeking revenge” -- and even defends a person’s occasional “islands of resentment.” (How far we are, now, from the likes of Wayne Dyer and Greg Behrendt!)
An acceptance of ambivalence and imperfection. Real says we never really resolve grief, we simply learn to live with it. He also says we get “something” in a relationship but not “everything,” and that the question we need to be asking ourselves is always, “Are you getting enough?” If you are getting enough, then you’ve got to learn to mourn what you’re not getting -- not resent your partner for not having it to give.
Karen is equally accepting of ambivalence and imperfection. You’ll have ambivalent feelings in any relationship, he says. Not everything can be therapized away. The “ability to live with ambivalence -- with both love and hate but with the love predominating -- is perhaps what most distinguishes the forgiving from the unforgiving personality.”
A road to connection -- the alternative to “romance.” Karen says that many of his clients can’t love others unless those others are perceived to be near-perfect. He also says this sort of idealization inexorably leads to resentment and even hatred later on.
Real describes how “connection” is often tragically “usurped by romance.” In place of romance he wants “growth in connection,” aka true intimacy, characterized not by downward spirals of puppy love / nasty resentment but by upward spirals of harmony / disharmony / repair.
A gathering of worthy goals. Real wants people in couples to open up to one another -- women to dare to speak their truths to their partners, men to dare to commit to giving their relationships the importance they deserve.
Karen says that love requires first “self-acceptance” and then “connection,” a state in which “our fundamental caring position toward the other person [comes] from an inner place of secure attachment: I am good, I belong, I have power, I am a Have in the realm of love. I don’t need to revert to an infantile binary state and excommunicate your badness from my life.”
The psychology makes the politics
A psychology that’s in love with binary conceptions (good vs. bad, romance vs. freezeout, etc.) will sustain a politics of extremes -- a politics where the warring parties are barely able to hear one other, let alone empathize with one another. Does that sound like anyplace you know?
But a psychology that’s in love with complexity, ambivalence, and connection can sustain a radical middle politics -- a politics where everybody’s best ideas are melded into the mix.
Conservative self-help and liberal self-help have “helped” turn us into a nation of manipulators, quick fixer-uppers, and veteran victims. Our public policies both at home and abroad now mirror those traits to an embarrassing degree.
Terrence Real and Robert Karen aren’t just offering us another and more mature version of self-help. They are offering us the psychological underpinnings for a new and better way of doing politics.
They are prophets, and we need to listen to them if we want our political efforts to yield something other than more of the same.
ABOUT THE RADICAL MIDDLE CONCEPT
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