Some years ago when a friend of mine was going through a very painful divorce, a neighbor dropped off a basket of items with a gift tag marked “For Self-Care.” I happened to be visiting when my friend discovered the basket on her doorstep, and I watched as she opened the accompanying handmade card: “Take a bubble bath,” she read aloud. “Sip a glass of wine while watching the sunset. Curl up with a good book. Meditate—”

Somehow I knew the next word was going to be “Masturbate,” and when I spoke it before she did, we both burst out laughing.

Though I myself have found both comfort and counsel in the realm of self-help, there’s often something in the language that makes me cringe—and it was present in the gift basket. As my friend read the list of tips, I recognized that utterly bland yet emphatic voice of authority, dispensing its one-size-fits-all advice without any regard to a hierarchy of value, as if getting a brow wax or a pedicure really was equivalent to forgiving your enemy or volunteering to work at a homeless shelter. Feeling blue? Pamper yourself. Get a facial. Treat yourself to a new set of towels. Organize your closet. Join a walkathon to help combat a disease of your choice.

It’s no coincidence that lists have a special place in the literature of self-help. After all, the very ground of self-help is a Can-Do approach to life, and if you’re a Can-Do kind of a guy or gal, then you’ve got to go around and collect your strategies. Once you’ve collected them, it’s like being a child with a bag of Halloween candy: you’ve got to sort through your stash, counting out the Tootsie Rolls, the gummy worms and licorice coils. Even the titles of a lot of self-help books entice us with their magical numbers: the Seven Habits, the Four Agreements, the Six Pillars of Self-Esteem. Once my sister and I discovered a book that had been left behind in a rented cabin in the redwoods, and we read it avidly from cover to cover. The book was about finding your soul mate, and it included a list of some 100 ways to conduct your search. Of all the tips (“Take your laptop to the local coffee shop,” “Strike up a conversation at the laundromat”), our favorite was “Organize a parade.” Now, whenever one of us is feeling stuck, she is apt to tell the other, “Why don’t you just go out and organize a parade?”

Stuckness, in its myriad forms, is the raison d’être of self-help. Whether you’re stuck in the muck of low self-esteem, addiction, dysfunctional relationships, financial insecurity, or a chronically cluttered house, you can reach for the ladder of a list and pull yourself up, rung by rung. Meditate, masturbate, organize a parade. . . . There’s something in the very nature of a list, with its simple trust in the power of addition, its optimistic belief in mobile, open-ended experimentation (“Try this! Now this!”) that offers itself as antidote to the fixed, consistent nature of stuckness.

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