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The Thaddeus Gazette

Dr. Burns Goes To Washington


Where can be found a more fertile market, a more fecund abundance of snake oil than the self-help publishing field? Here the venerable formula is refined to perfection, products which are all sales pitch and no substance at all, like homeopathic remedies diluted to submolecular densities. The lack of accurate critique and potential for profit is conducive to an enormous and shamelessly indiscrete competition, a fact once verifiable in any bookstore and still in evidence online. The vast migration of shenanigans to the virtual realm ensures that it's nearly impossible to throw a stone at an internet scam without hitting two others enroute.

So in this age of Weird Old Tricks and {$authority} Hates This! popups, it's a bloody Purim miracle to stumble over a self-help book that not only looks, smells and quacks like The Sons Of Norman Vincent Peale but actually bears evidence of, uh, genuine efficacy But that's exactly what Ada found for me this past anniversary honeymoon vacation (#4 in a series—collect them all!).

It's called Feeling Good, by one Dr. David Burns, originally published in 1980, and it bears the distinction of having been subjected to four (count 'em) controlled studies in which it appeared to be as effective as newfangled psych drugs at countering chronic depression in its many neurotic forms. But while it presents on the surface as just another smile button with soft covers, strip away all the glad-handing and you-can-do-it rhetoric that books like this appear to require the way an assistant manager in a fast-food joint always wears a tie and what's left is a well-known and widely implemented counseling system known as cognitive therapy.

In some respects, psychological talk treatment has always had a bit of a voodoo to it. Freud himself, commendable though he might be for having come up with the idea in the first place, was desperately hit-or-miss in his diagnostics and theories, some of which appear, so sorry, laughable from a modern perspective. Down the years any number of peculiar ideas have been dollied out and humped around the therapy circuit, dream analysis and primal scream and EST and golly. Throughout the whole sideshow, though, the notion has persisted that, maddeningly inconsistent though it might be, sometimes it helps.

Cog therapy, like so many surprisingly innovative things, got its start from a very simple premise regarding mood disorders: your feelings are determined by your thoughts. What you think is what you feel. And, as a direct derivative of this axiom, change how you think and you'll change how you feel.

Now this ain't nothing fresh and breezy, certainly. Any number of methods to Build Your Inexorable Will Through Cosmic Mind Control have popped up with the spring rain over the centuries. Burns himself traces the idea back to the ancient Greeks. The difference in cog is all in the implementation, the how of thought process revision. And therein lies a most interesting and illuminating rub, one that speaks worlds about the state of modern politics.

I've long maintained (and, naturally, come to find out that I didn't invent this idea) that bald apes like you and me have two—two—two ways of thinking, both inhabiting the same fragile shell of skull and competing for consciousness-stream: normal everyday thoughts, given to imagining and distraction and odd connections, handling events as they come up in a relative and comparative fashion, making the best of incomplete or incompatible observations and muddling through to decisions and actions, and a more critical, hardened, simplified mode that takes issue with any ambiguity and insists on fictional binary concepts like True And False or Right And Wrong. The fuzzy sort of thinking is better at dealing with normal modern life, while the didactic model is perhaps a holdover from times past, a way of keeping killer apes from becoming cat food.

Cog therapy's claim to fame is that it seeks to counter absolutist, all-or-nothing thoughts in the style of "I'm no fracking good" with nuanced, relative thoughts like "I'm not completely bad—I'm better at some things than others, but I do many things well." This sort of dialog, which can be done with a trained therapist or in the comfort and privacy of your own hovel, is said to lead to better thought processes and thence to better moods, which can lead to a better life as well. And yeah, they've got studies that back up their assertions.

Using this contrast of thinking styles as a backdrop, it's downright fascinating to look at the state of national politics. Governance is, or should be at least, a pinnacle of fuzzy thinking, hair-splitting, bean-plating and all. Government's ostensible role of "the greatest good for the greatest number" demands nuanced cooperation by all parties.

In electoral politics, however, there's a strong current of black and white reasoning, an us-vrs.-them mentality that owes as much to partisan considerations as it does to the need to get people pissed-off mad or pissed-pants scared enough to actually get up off their duffs and vote. Left to their own devices, voters revert into fluffy precious kindasortaland and might not come to a decision at all. So every issue becomes life and death, every election is a watershed event, every candidate is a shining knight in combat with Forces Of Evil and everything gets all melodramatic.

Now you might think that saner heads within the political establishment would have enough sense to save all this idiocy to entertain the peasantry and get back to business afterwards. Instead, all too often these days (and, sad to announce, in times past as well), even inside the capitol there's a preponderance of yelling and screaming and principled stance no matter what the facts may say and a general tendency to prefer pamper-pooping and heel-dragging to constructive bargaining and compromise.

What those gladsome boys and girls need is a spoonful or two of Dr. Burn's Miracle Soothing Syrup. I mean, what could it hurt? And it might even help. Because SCIENCE!

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