The ProsenPeople

Ask Big Questions: Why Bother?

Thursday, December 18, 2014 | Permalink

The Jewish Book Council is delighted to publish a continuing blog series in partnership with Ask Big Questions, an initiative out of Hillel International aimed at getting people to talk about issues of heart, soul and community. Each month, Ask Big Questions will feature a JBC author on their blog, shared here on the JBC ProsenPeople blog page, and in campus programming reaching over 10,000 college and graduate students.

Jessica Lamb-Shapiro is a fiction and non-fiction writer, currently touring through the 2014-2015 JBC Network with her memoir, Promise Land: My Journey Through America’s Self-Help Culture.

“To bother” is an odd verb. I usually think of it as synonymous with Why make an effort? It has come to mean that, but it also has a more specific origin. The verb “bother” dates back to the 1700s, and means to trouble, worry, or pester. It can also mean “to trouble oneself with thinking.” To make a fuss, to be troublesome. It has a meddlesome quality.

As children, we’re often told not to bother people. When children bother, they ask unending questions, or poke their sibling in the eye. “Stop bothering me!” says the child or adult who is fed up beyond politeness. How do adults bother? We both bother to dress and do work and fulfill responsibilities, but we can also protest and meddle and irritate. When we see injustice, we can still poke at it. Instead of fingers we use words, our thoughts, our physical presence.

A quick survey of the last few weeks of news are enough to make even the most resilient of us run for the fainting couch. The repeated failure to indict police in the prevalent shootings of unarmed black men. The unravelling Rolling Stone UVA rape story, which threatens sexual assault victims’ future credibility in the future and shifts attention from the serious and real issue of campus rape. I saw a fake New York Times issue where the lead story was titled “Everything’s Fucking Awful”. Headlines included “Seriously You Get Punished More for Jaywalking Than This Asshole Did for Shooting an Unarmed Kid”; “Oh, and Don’t Even Bother Escaping to the Arts Section, That Loveable Comedian We Grew Up Watching Basically Raped Everyone For Fifty Years”; and “Pizza Causes Cancer”.

Oh, and since I wrote the previous paragraph, 148 people have been murdered at a school in Pakistan, most of them schoolchildren.

It’s hard to feel like anything one might do would matter. Multiple distresses and disappointments have a way of piling on, and making one feel overwhelmed. Being meddlesome takes time and effort, and as we grow we understand that our time and effort is limited.

Every day, we make choices about which things to bother with, and which things to leave alone. Today I bothered to take a shower. I bothered to eat three meals and walk my dog. I read the paper. I did some work and I talked to a friend on the phone. The roof leaked; I put a bucket under it. Those things are normal and expected, but could we apply the same logic to larger issues? What is the bucket that we could put under this particular leak?

For a second I actually believed I might answer that, but the truth is I have no idea. I do think it involves bothering. It involves, at the very least, troubling ourselves with thinking. It may involve being meddlesome and troublesome. That behavior may look different on different people. This is how I bother: I write things. It feels useless and futile sometimes, to be sure, but I do it anyway.

Children understand that being bothersome is part of being alive, and that bothering is a kind of power. When they play the irritating “I’m Not Touching You” game, they are asserting themselves, and rejoicing in their ability to annoy without explicitly breaking rules. Bothering can be fun. What if we could bring the joyful irritant energy of “I’m Not Touching You” to bear on something powerful?

Bothering is an act of defiance. It is an assault on futility and hopelessness. It is a recognition that we live in a society, that our actions affect others, and that our lack of action also has consequence. If you bother, someone benefits. If you don’t bother, someone also benefits. Opting out is a false concept. You have opted in simply by existing. Perhaps the right question is not why bother, but how bother?

Jessica Lamb-Shapiro is the author of Promise Land: My Journey Through America’s Self-Help Culture and a former fellow at the MacDowell Colony and the New York Foundation for the Arts. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, The Believer, and McSweeney’s.

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Yahrzeit

Thursday, August 21, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Jessica Lamb-Shapiro wrote about writing a book on self-help. The book, Promise Land: My Journey through America's Self-Help Culture, is now available. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Religion kept coming up in my research into self-help. Some religious texts were used as self-help (there is even a self-help edition of the Bible). Books like The Power of Positive Thinking (1954) combined self-help and religion to popular effect; so did forgotten titles like Pray Your Weight Away (1929). A conference I went to led by the author of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books had the feeling of a tent revival. I often saw self-help referred to as “America’s religion, ” and at times I wondered if self-help, for some, had taken the place of religion.

My own ties to religion were weak. My grandparents had been religious Jews, but my father was an atheist. He even asked the Rabbi (also his brother-in-law to be) who performed his and my mother’s wedding ceremony not to mention the word G-d. As a result, my contact with Judaism was largely cultural: holidays spent with my grandmother, foods l loved like matzo brie and brisket.

If someone had asked me if I was Jewish, I would have said “yes,” but we had lost contact with most of our traditions, rituals, and history. My father wrote self-help books and was a child psychologist, and I think he believed we could figure out everything we needed for ourselves. He was wrong.

After my mother took her own life, my father was so angry and upset that he stopped talking about her. I was only two years old, and wasn’t allowed to go to the funeral. I was never taken to visit her grave, or taught how to grieve for her. By the time I was twenty-six, I felt completely lost. That summer, the week of the anniversary of my mother’s death, I broke down completely.

My paternal grandmother was the opposite of pushy, the kind of person who just wanted everyone to be happy, but for once, she intervened. Her confession: Every year, on the anniversary of my mother’s death, she told me, she burned a yahrzeit candle. My grandmother never told my father or me that she observed this ritual because she didn’t want to upset anyone. Yet, counter-intuitively, once I was given a way to grieve, I stopped feeling upset. From that year on, I have always lit a yahrzeit candle for my mother on July 27th. The ritual comforts me, and gives me a way to remember her. I light one for my grandmother too now, both to remember her and to remember the time she returned to me a tradition I didn’t even know I’d lost.

Jessica Lamb-Shapiro has written for the New York Times Magazine, Time, and The Believer. She has been a fellow at the MacDowell Colony and the New York Foundation for the Arts. She lives in New York City and Columbia County, NY. Read more about her here.

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What's Your Book About?

Tuesday, August 19, 2014 | Permalink

Jessica Lamb-Shapiro has written for the New York Times Magazine, Time, and The Believer. Her book, Promise Land: My Journey through America's Self-Help Culture, is now available. She will be blogging here for the Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series all week.

This is the question I used to dread, and, if I’m to be honest about it, still dread. It’s quite possibly the only thing I’ve gotten worse at after practicing more.

I didn’t like to answer this question because my subject was self-help, and New York Literary Publishing People would rather get hit by a bus wearing dirty underwear than with a self-help book in hand. I wanted to write a smart book about self-help history and culture, but sometimes just the words self-help seemed to cause a hysterical blindness in editors. Several rejections from publishers explained, “I don’t publish self-help books.”

“It’s not a self-help book!” I always felt the need to exclaim to my agent, who obviously already knew this.

But the funny thing is you never know what your book is about until you’re finished. When I started my research, I read self-help books on grieving. The exercise had been academic, but it suddenly became personal: I had grief. I had unresolved grief. My mother had committed suicide just before my second birthday, and my father and I almost never spoke about it.

The irony was almost unbearable – my father wrote self-help books, and my mother couldn’t help herself.

Once I incorporated my mother’s death into my book, the story became much more personal, and the “about” of the book changed. Looking back, it’s hard for me to imagine how I didn’t see this coming. It’s partly the powerful nature of denial, but it’s also the pleasure of discovery. Writing about my mother’s death helped me work through it, and so my book did become a kind of self-help book – for me.

Jessica Lamb-Shapiro has been a fellow at the MacDowell Colony and the New York Foundation for the Arts. She lives in New York City and Columbia County, NY. Read more about her here.

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