In a former life, I believed in reincarnation. Concepts of karma and past lives intrigued me and I thought of myself as the latest installation in an ancient tribe of one. Then I met Sedata. She was a lovely Bosnian woman with two young children. Her story was, unfortunately, a typical one for women in conflict. Her husband had been killed during the war; she had been raped. With two small children and the stigma of rape hanging over her, it had been difficult to find another husband. The one she finally found was no prize. He drank and would beat her. When they were finally able to move to the States, the drinking and the violence intensified. Fearful for her life and the lives of her children, Sedata fled once again.
Several years later, I sat and drank a cup of tea with her and she told me her story. We talked for a long time and finally the subject drifted to religious beliefs. We discussed our understandings of Islam and Christianity and then I mentioned my belief in reincarnation. Her entire demeanor changed and her hands began to shake. We sat in silence save for the sound of her cup clinking against the saucer. Then, her face contorted in rage, she slowly spat the words at me, “What…did…I…EVER…do…in…a…past…life…to…deserve…THIS?”
And I was born again into a cosmovision marked by lives locked within the confines of the present and without a logic of coherent reciprocation. One of the most difficult realizations of childhood is that life is not fair, that we do not get what we deserve. Much of adulthood is spent searching for ways to reject the lessons that our parents hammered into our heads as children. Religious tenets and ideological precepts are used to rationalize unjust pains and equally unjust gains. The advent of pop-psychology and its progeny, the self-help book, is just the latest in a long line of existential attempts to explain the unexplainable and new-age author and television producer, Rhonda Byrne, is the latest prophet.
In the best-selling book, The Secret, Byrne collects the wisdom of her co-inhabitants in the rough and tumble genre of self-help and creates an easy-to-follow formula for success for readers and her bank account alike. Byrne’s understanding of the world is simple. Like attracts like. We get not what only what we deserve but also what we want. In such an environment, individuals must be careful what they wish for. While aspirational thinking for wealth, health, and beauty will be rewarded in kind, negative thinking is not suffered lightly. According to the Byrne theology, Sedata would not have rated as a victim of the unfortunate human tendencies towards anger, greed, and violence but instead would only have her self to blame for a fate created by a lack of positive thinking.
The Secret has been a massive international success. Byrne has been graced with Oprah’s suburban seal of approval and Larry King has sung her praises from his throne of prime-time banality. It is not surprising that her philosophy would be embraced by such a large and far-flung flock. Easy answers to complex problems tend to be popular fare and Byrne provides the perfect recipes to nourish tribes of solitary individuals. One would hope that a cup of tea with Sedata would cure the most ardent Byrne supporters of their belief in the wisdom of The Secret. Unfortunately, Oprah hasn’t yet invited Sedata to share her wisdom with the world.