The Wisdom of the Ages

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The Wisdom of the Ages (1998) Wayne W. Dyer

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A confession is in order at the outset of this review. I’ve been a student, and avid reader, of self-help books for over sixty years. Yet it was only a few months ago that a colleague drew my attention to the writings of Wayne Dyer and suggested that his book The Wisdom of the Ages should be included in our short list of influential, self-improvement manuals. This suggests that his books are probably better known in Los Angeles than Luxembourg, Lisbon or London. With their idiosyncratic mix of pantheism, folk psychology and homesteading homilies they seem tailor made for an upwardly striving US audience. Maybe his instructions, when regularly repeated, act as psychedelic spells which have the power to turn the great American dream into the great American reality. In case of doubt, Dyer offers his own life story as living proof of their effectiveness.

Born in Detroit, his father played no part whatsoever in his upbringing, either because of his early desertion or demise. As a result when his birth was registered his surname was recorded as Dyer, his mother’s maiden name. At the time, John Wayne had just taken the cinema-going world by storm with his starring role in Stage Coach, one of the classic Western movies. This may well be why his mother chose to call him Wayne, in the hope that he too would grow up to be strong, dependable, famous and rich. Being unable to support the child herself, he spent his adolescence in a Detroit orphanage. The need to survive in a insecure social environment no doubt helped him develop an intimate understanding of human relationships. This pragmatic insight was furthered strengthened when he left high school and enrolled in the US navy, where he spent four years in close cahoots with a dichotomy of friends and foes, buddies and bullies, principals and peers. After quitting the forces, he gave this intuitive understanding of human psychology an academic underpinning by enrolling at Wayne State University where he gained a doctorate in educational counselling. His writings are based on this accumulated experience: the understanding he gained by being a counsellor in schools and the lessons he learnt throughout his life from his interactions with his three wives and eight children.

Like most self-help gurus, Wayne Dyer had always been a gifted motivational speaker as well as a persuasive writer. When he gained a post as associate professor of counsellor education at St John’s University, New York, his lectures became as popular with outsiders as with enrolled students. With their heady mix of positive thinking, autosuggestion and New Thought spirituality, they attracted the attention of a literary agent who persuaded him to turn them into a book, to which they gave the catchy title Your Erroneous Zones. Even though the work was slow to sell, its super-confident author had the courage to quit his day job and go on a coast-to-coast publicity tour. Living out of the back of a station wagon, he resolutely engineered media interviews and bookstore signing sessions. In time this led to appearances on some of the major TV chat shows, which brought him to the attention of the country’s evangelical Christians and New Thought devotees. Sales soared, and Dyer, the once impoverished orphan, gained affluence and acclaim. To retain his place at the top of the greasy pole he embarked on a gruelling programme of writing, lecture tours and radio and TV appearances. To underpin his newly found security he also created a successful business making and marketing audio tapes and video cassettes. To keep himself fit he became a marathon runner. Over the course of the next thirty-four years he wrote thirty-four separate inspirational books, which sold a combined total of more than fifty million copies.

Success of this magnitude breeds success, but it’s also provokes envy and criticism. One fellow writer accused him of plagiarism, saying he’d purloined two hundred lines of his interpretation of Taoist wisdom. In the Wisdom of the Ages he provides a commentary on the teaching of sixty of what he describes as ‘the great spiritual leaders’ of the last two-and-a-half millennia. Here he’s on safer ground, because people like Confucius, Epictetus, Shakespeare and Jesus Christ are unlikely to sue him for copyright infringement. But his choice of mentors might be questioned. He includes Dorothy Parker among his great religious icons, possibly as an excuse to enliven the text by repeating one or two of her witticism, like her famous response when told that President ‘Keep Cool’ Coolidge had died: ‘How do they know?’, she replied. But surely his supreme mistake was to include himself as one of the world’s greatest religious teachers. This must strike the impartial reader as a tad immodest. This was certainly the reaction of a Canadian newspaper critic who wrote: ‘This is self-actualization guru Dyer at his presumptuous best, capitalizing on the wisdom of others and devoting his final chapter to himself as a master worthy of the last word.’

So he provides the climax to the book, and when I say climax I don’t mean the book’s pinnacle or peak, but a literal account of Dyer’s sexual coupling with his wife. According to his blow-by-blow account this was a road to Damascus experience: a moment when he ‘felt and knew absolutely, beyond any doubt, that there was a force at work in the universe that I call God.’ He was on a speaking tour of Australia with his wife and two youngest children, and after delivering a lecture in Brisbane he retired to the family’s twin-bedded hotel room. His wife was in one of the beds with baby Sands, who was still being breast fed, while he was in the other with three-and-a-half-year old Serena. At 4.05 precisely – one remembers the exact time of these flash moments – something happened ‘that had never happened before or since.’ His wife put the two children into one bed, and then clambered into her husband’s bed. There was no risk involved in this act of sexual provocation because he was exhausted, she had had gynaecological surgery which made her infertile, they were practising birth control, and to be one hundred percent safe he withdrew before he climaxed, all of which is related in graphic detail in the book. Nevertheless she conceived and in time gave birth to their seventh child. This is as near as one can get to an immaculate conception, and for Dyer it provided positive proof of the love and power of the almighty God force. To capture the moment he wrote a fifty-nine word poem called Awe, which while not of the same quality as the works of the great English poets he quotes earlier in the book – Shakespeare, Blake, Shelley, Longfellow and Keats – has the great merit of being mercifully brief. I hadn’t read any of Dyer’s work before, and somehow I think it unlikely that I’ll read any more in future. It’s not Awe – it’s awful.

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