In the movie "City Slickers," a serene old cowboy tells an anxious 39-year-old advertising man that life doesn't take on meaning until a person finds "that one thing." Wisely, the old cowboy declines to say what that one thing is.
Perhaps not so wisely, psychiatrist-author Michael Lewis thinks he knows what it is, and he's eager to share his insight. In "Shame: The Exposed Self" he offers not only a diagnosis of America's social ills, but also a prescription to cure them.
Joining such authors as historian Christopher Lasch ("The Culture of Narcissism") and linguist Deborah Tannen ("You Just Don't Understand"), Lewis, a professor of pediatrics, psychiatry and psychology at New Jersey's University of Medicine and Dentistry, gives an old idea a new psychological twist while analyzing America's troubled soul.
The problem with Americans today, Lewis says, is that they have taken individual freedom too far. In their struggle to liberate themselves politically, economically and emotionally, they have launched themselves into psychological deep space, thus subjecting themselves to an overwhelming personal isolation.
Lewis' proposed cure for this national malady is devotion to something outside one's self. "Commitment moves us from the mirror-trap of the self absorbed with the self to the freedom of a community of shared values," he writes.
Lewis asserts that most Americans have sought help from the worst possible source, a controversial school of psychology, and have been led onward and inward toward self-destruction. This school, variously called "human potential," "humanistic," "self-actualization," or simply "growth," holds that the average, mentally healthy person is living a needlessly humdrum life. With proper guidance, this person can enjoy, in a phrase of founder Abraham Maslow, frequent "peak experiences"--intellectual and physical pleasures of nearly orgiastic intensity.
But as Americans are pursuing peak experiences, they are also murdering, raping, assaulting and abusing one another at a record rate, Lewis notes. He believes this increase in social brutality can be blamed on mass narcissism and the consequent feelings of shame, mostly unacknowledged, that permeate American culture.
Looking at American culture through Lewis' idea of shame is like looking at a car from inside its trunk--much must be taken on faith. For instance, Lewis distinguishes between shame, an unhealthy state, and guilt, a healthy state as he sees it. A guilty person focuses on the wrong committed and tries either to remedy it or compensate for it. But shame, Lewis says, simply paralyzes the sufferer.
Building on that idea, Lewis asserts that social conditioning produces women who typically feel shame and men who usually feel guilt. If the reader wonders who is committing all the violent crimes--if not the paralyzed, depressed women or the do-gooder guilty men--Lewis offers little illumination.
The author prefers to analyze smaller social units. Marriage, he says, provides rich and varied opportunities for shaming. In a common scenario, the husband criticizes the wife, thinking he is simply giving her some useful advice--advice that he, in her place, would welcome. But the wife feels shamed, so she sulks.
The well-intentioned but obtuse husband, feeling guilty for upsetting his wife, tries to justify himself by explaining his position more fully and clearly than before. The wife, stung by what she interprets as condescension and now convinced her husband is shaming her deliberately, snaps at him.
A fight is on.
But not to worry, says Lewis. A therapist employing some basic psychology can easily iron out the problem by showing the man and woman how their emotional needs differ.
At the societal level, Lewis is even less convincing. His solution to the problem of shame--"commitment"--seems naive, if not dangerous. He should perhaps be reminded that the social value of commitment depends on the object of that commitment.
Hitler's Third Reich, Stalin's Soviet Union and Mao's China suggest what can happen when individuals hand over too much of themselves to the wrong cause.
Next: Jonathan Kirsch reviews "Private Eyes" by Jonathan Kellerman (Bantam).