“Life is a game — and you will either be a player or be the one played.”
Those sound like fightin’ words from Dr. Phil. He’s the Oprah-branded psychologist who’s usually so mellow he could open a practice in Lake Wobegon. Seems Phil has been doing some research that’s really gotten his dander up. “I was livid with myself,” he said, after acknowledging that in his many years of professional practice he hadn’t noticed that all “jerks” are basically alike. An armchair epidemiologist, Dr. Phil has determined, “We have a world infected with a fungus of certain human beings whose primary purpose in life is to get up every day and take advantage of others.” Move over Ebola, here comes Jerk Fungus—somebody call the CDC! This isn’t to be taken lightly. Dr. Phil’s research has been exhaustive and included a literature review of Amazon.com. Not to worry, though. Dr. Phil will teach us the “Evil Eight” characteristics of jerks so we can spot them “coming down the pike,” and the “Nefarious 15” tactics they use to get under our skin. This, Phil assures us will result in a lot of forehead slapping and utterances of “Man, oh, man.” Lest he be perceived as too negative, he’s also been studying the “good guys” which by implication includes all of us. He’ll be teaching us the “Sweet 16.” These are the things that successful people do to “win.” (He seems to be hinting that while we’re good guys, we aren’t successful and we aren’t winners–ouch.) Mastering these 39 things will help make you the “star of your own life.” And in case you’re wondering what that means, it means “putting yourself first and going after what you want and need in life.” Dr. Phil can be forgiven the hyperbole—he is after all hawking a new book—but his claims for new insights fall flat.
After wading through Dr. Phil’s nefarious, fungus riddled jerks and his good guys starring in their own lives, you come back to the 21st century’s mantra: take care of yourself first! This bromide has become so common that we take its wisdom for granted. But should we and what does it mean? For Dr. Phil it involves managing relationships. Others think it has to do with everything from getting enough sleep to smiling a lot. One strident soul proudly proclaimed, “I did something radical, I took my own needs into account.” What was this brave deed? She didn’t attend her friend’s wedding. Now before raising an encouraging “huzzah,” consider why she didn’t go. She’d just returned to New York from an exhausting week-long trip, she had a broken ankle and a sprained back, the wedding was in California, it was sudden and her friend encouraged her not to go. If ever there was a reason not to attend a wedding, this was it, but instead she felt defensive and characterized a reasonable decision more adamantly as putting herself first.
That’s the problem with this “me first” chatter. It encourages defensiveness when none is called for. And it’s defensiveness that makes Dr. Phil wrong. This isn’t a “play or be played,” world. We don’t exist to “look out for number 1.” It’s not “us or them.” Often we do things that will generate feelings we’d rather not have—regret, sorrow, embarrassment. When it happens, we need to accept it and keep moving through the day rather than issuing me first manifestos to mask our discomfort. We’re inherently a social and spiritual people. We thrive when participating in something bigger than ourselves. It’s common sense and completely reasonable to be good stewards of our physical, social, mental and emotional gifts. But life’s meaning is fulfilled when we direct those gifts outward to a world hungry to receive them. Take care of yourself, of course. Not because you’re first but so you’ll have something to give. —Ebert