The great practical philosophers have always written self improvement, or self help, literature - books and essays and letters to friends, which end up being gifts to all of us. And yet, there are people in our day who sneer at the self improvement section in the bookstore, and sometimes it seems they think such matters are either beneath serious intellectual interest, or perhaps too obvious to belabor in book form. This attitude is a stark departure from the sentiment of the centuries on such matters.
I've quoted Vincent Van Gogh already once this week. Let me do it again. In this passage, he expresses a healthy attitude toward our need for advice, and toward those who would give it so us.
“Improvement in my life — should I not desire it or should I not be in need of improvement? I really want to improve. But it’s precisely because I yearn for it that I’m afraid of remedies that are worse than the disease. Can you blame a sick person if he looks the doctor straight in the eye and prefers not to be treated wrongly or by a quack?” - Vincent Van Gogh
Life is supposed to be a series of adventures. And really, shouldn't every adventure be a source of positive personal growth? Shouldn't we desire to improve our selves, our minds, our hearts, and our characters through these adventures? And it's natural to look for help in doing this. Van Gogh's passage here expresses well our need for growth and improvement and yet, he is also right that we should approach every advertised physician of the soul with wariness. We don't want the advice of a quack. Positive growth doesn't directly result from folly and falsehood. And there are certainly quacks among us who look like the true doctors of the soul they purport to be. Yet, there are also real sages as well. And not just the sages of past ages who have left us the treasure of their wisdom, but there are everyday sages around us now, some of whom write down their insights for us, in books, or blogs, or notes. There are many whose thoughts can help us on our way. But there are many others who are themselves lost and muddled while claiming to have just what we need.
When you go to the grocery store, you pick through the fruit and vegetables for good specimens. As long as you do the same in the bookstore, or library, or online, you can gain great help for that improvement that we all need, day to day, and that we all should seek.