It might seem strange to be reviewing a self-help book in the pages of this paper, especially one that includes chapters called “Focus on the Negative in Your Life,” “Suppress Your Feelings” and “Dwell on the Past.” But Svend Brinkmann’s “Stand Firm,” as you might guess, is an anti-self-help book. It offers the kick in the butt you might need to resist the self-help culture’s call to make yourself the center of your life. Pursuing endless growth and development by any means necessary could come at the cost of forgetting that other people exist. The way to “self-actualization,” says Brinkmann, just might be through helping and caring about others.
If you’re exhausted by constantly striving to improve yourself; if you’re burdened by a mandate to find something positive in the horrific; if you’re wondering how the pervasive definition of success — doing whatever you want, whenever you want, with whomever you want, however you want — is different from the definition of sociopathy, this book will validate your socks off. If you’re despairing over relationships that feel transactional and ephemeral, and you feel like you’re being blamed for having “standards that are too high” when you expect people to keep their word, Brinkmann’s words might even heal you a bit.
Brinkmann is a psychologist and philosopher who was catapulted to fame in Denmark in 2014 when “Stand Firm” was first published. He calls out this culture’s focus on self for what it is — narcissistic, empty, ineffective — in a way reminiscent of psychologist James Hillman and novelist Michael Ventura’s 1992 book “We’ve Had 100 Years of Psychotherapy and the World’s Getting Worse.” Like Ventura and Hillman, Brinkmann argues that focusing on the self, acting on our gut feelings without question, and chasing after personal development is leaving others, whom we actually do have responsibility to care for, and the world in shambles. Brinkmann suggests that maybe the essential unit of life is not the self but connections we make. Maybe the way to “live the good life” is to maintain a sense of integrity, which requires that we resist the mobility craze that tempts us to keep our options open and never commit to anything, and to help other people whether it feels good or not. This, he helpfully illuminates, requires that we redefine good as “moral” rather than “full of hedonistic pleasure.”
One of Brinkmann’s recommendations is “read a novel — not a self-help book or a biography,” because novels are more realistic in that they are layered, complicated and less straightforward than the way most biographies are written. He’s a pragmatist who asserts that arguments against limitless growth that economists and environmentalists are making also apply to the realm of the psyche. Too much growth can actually be bad for you. If that’s unclear, think about it this way: Unfettered growth is how cancer grows. Brinkmann says that what we do instead of unceasingly focusing on discovering and developing ourselves is to learn to live with ourselves as we are so that we can fulfill our duties to each other and live within the limits of being human.
Brinkmann is human, too. His arguments are not flawless. But he refreshingly acknowledges the weaknesses he sees even in his clipped, directive voice. Still, this work is a balm for those disoriented by the unmoored fixation on the self that’s destroying relationships and leaving the world to clean up its own messes.
Brinkmann himself makes the best case for reading this book: “Fundamentally,” he writes, “humans are vulnerable, not strong and self-reliant individuals. We are born helpless children, we often fall ill, grow old and perhaps helpless and eventually we all die … while we are vulnerable and mortal, we are these things together. This realization should rouse our sense of solidarity and encourage us to care for our fellow human beings.”
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