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Anne Barbeau Gardiner on a Psychology for Utopia
I was recently a guest at a meeting of women educators gathered to discuss a book that had enjoyed a long run on the New York Times best-seller list: Spencer Johnson’s Who Moved My Cheese? In the discussion, these fifteen or so well-mannered women congratulated themselves on overcoming fear of change when their “Cheese” had been moved, that is, when they had faced new textbooks and classes, and they were surprised when I observed that the author had, under the guise of giving psychological guidance for success, actually written a how-to book for opportunists.
The book is a little fable about adapting to change. There are four small characters who live in a maze and require Cheese for survival: two mice and two little people named Hem and Haw. The mice have simple brains and look for Cheese by instinct, while the little people have brains stuffed with old “beliefs” that complicate their quest for Cheese—which for them also means security and success.
Throughout the book, “old beliefs” threaten their survival. They make the little people too secure at Cheese Station C, so that they build a social life around their Cheese and show off to friends until one day the Cheese disappears. While the mice run off in search of “New Cheese,” the little people are paralyzed with fear and anger, because of their old belief that they are entitled to Cheese. One of them later realizes he should have relied on instinct like the mice, expecting change and adapting on the spot.
Hem & Haw
In this fable, Hem never learns to cope with the Cheese having been moved because of his “complicated brain with its huge belief system.” He believed he would find Cheese at Station C if he worked harder, or else that someone would “put the Cheese back” if he waited. But Haw entered the maze and saw that he now needed “new beliefs” for “new behaviors.” Johnson uses the word believe four times on one page to hammer home the point that Haw had a simple choice to make between believing that change should be resisted and believing that change should be embraced. There were only two options.
How does Haw practice his new beliefs? He creates an “image of himself finding and enjoying the New Cheese” to replace his former “fearful beliefs,” and he often pauses in the maze to “paint a picture” in his thoughts, because “the more clearly he saw the image of himself enjoying the New Cheese, the more real and believable it became. He could sense that he was going to find it.” Reality is a mental construct: The clearer the fantasy, the more real it is; and the more real and believable it is in the mind, the more it is sensed that it will be found in the maze.
While explicitly denouncing old, “fearful” beliefs, Johnson introduces such new beliefs as the key to personal success. Again and again, Haw “used his imagination” to see himself “savoring New Cheese” and “envisioned himself—in realistic detail” tasting it, until (as in a fairy tale) he found New Cheese at last. He need not have gone through all that but could have moved instinctively like the mice. Eventually, Haw decides to imitate the mice in not letting old beliefs make him feel secure at the cheese station.
In this fable the author co-opts some of the good feelings associated with trust in Divine Providence, but he wants us to believe we can have such feelings while embracing unlimited change, with no underlying principles to guide us. He tells us that “going for it” in a maze full of blind and empty alleys produces joy, confidence, and exhilaration.
Besides new beliefs and New Cheese, Johnson seems to have New People in view. The first time Haw ran out into the maze, he was hampered by old, fearful beliefs, but he soon discovered “what nourished his soul. He was letting go and trusting what lay ahead for him, even though he did not know exactly what it was.” In Boethius, King Alfred, Dante, Chaucer, and other great authors, such trust would be called belief in Divine Providence, belief that the God who oversees all will provide for one’s preservation day by day in the journey through life. But Johnson wants us to believe that what nourishes Haw’s “soul” is the exhilaration of change itself: He realized “how much fun it was to go for it.”
In brave-new-world psychology, going with the flow is its own reward. One of Haw’s maxims is, “Be ready to change quickly and enjoy it again and again. They keep moving the Cheese.” So the moral is: Be ready to enjoy being the plaything of Chance and to rejoice at the freedom of being tossed up and down on the Wheel of Fortune.
In the chapter that ends the book, several individuals discuss the fable. Hem is seen as an “anchor” who slows a company down and has to be let go, while Haw is a valuable asset because he will “paint a realistic vision of New Cheese” and bring about change.
In addition, Haw’s way of “seeing” and “imagining” New Cheese “lightens everything up,” because employees who hold “a picture of New Cheese in their minds” will feel better and find it easier to cope with stress. If laid off, they will be able to laugh at themselves like Haw, launch into the maze, and be able to imagine a better job so clearly they will do better at their interviews. One individual notes that peer pressure in a company normally fights change, but when workers are made to assimilate this little fable, none of them wants to look “like Hem,” and peer pressure goes in the opposite direction. The story “works.”
A Clever Tool
There is something sinister about using psychology to indoctrinate people into an uncritical adaptability to change. This fable works because it exists in a vacuum, with no relation to religion, philosophy, or history. It is a clever tool to instill new attitudes towards the future, without any ballast from the past. In Stalinist Russia, those who would not adapt to new beliefs were classified, like Hem, as people foolishly resisting change, stupidly clinging to “old thinking,” and needing to be coaxed to assimilate utopian fantasies about New Cheese, that la-la land of classless society. Psychology was certainly effective for brainwashing those recalcitrants who loved Old Cheese.
In like manner today, those who cling to time-tested principles are labeled “extremists” and are barely tolerated. Never mind that a certain form of family has ensured human survival for more than 2,000 years. That’s Old Cheese. We are to imagine clearly and vividly a New Cheese in the maze—a family by happenstance, a society where nothing is rooted and everyone lives joyously in a state of flux. What though such a society never existed before? Keep envisioning it till it becomes real and believable.
When the women educators discussed this book, I was surprised to see that they were not half as afraid of change as they were afraid of continuity with the past. They were quick to insist, when asked, that they could not possibly use something like Aristotle’s idea of virtue in the classroom. They could not teach about temperance and prudence, because parents would surely complain. I made a nuisance of myself arguing that this book was a how-to for opportunists, that it reduced people to a material level and made them accept ceaseless change with nothing in view but private gain.
Sadly, even an elderly teacher who was raised on a farm and educated in a one-room schoolhouse had swallowed Johnson’s message hook, line, and sinker. I tried to win her by asking about the readers in her one-room schoolhouse. She said that they were McGuffey readers, very different from the modern ones because they built “character” and taught “virtue.” I replied that virtuous characters like those formed in her one-room schoolhouse were just what society needed today, not more people who embraced unprincipled change and risked losing their identity, dignity, and mental balance by running in a maze without a map or rational plan.
Throughout the book, Haw writes a series of maxims on the wall about how much he enjoys adapting to change, leaving a “marked trail” behind in case Hem should come in search of New Cheese. The author calls these maxims “The Handwriting On the Wall.” He has no clue that the original handwriting on the wall, found in the prophet Daniel, chapter 5, announces the fall of a kingdom.
And so, Spencer Johnson speaks truer than he knows. For if such maxims should be applied nationwide as well as implemented in all those corporations listed before the title page, they would be the Mene, Mene, Tekel Upharsin announcing the fall of our civilization. Those who embrace change like mice in a maze and are willing, for the sake of personal survival, to adapt uncritically to any alteration of circumstance, however inhuman, will never sustain our nation’s laws and liberties.
Anne Barbeau Gardiner is Professor Emerita, Department of English, John Jay College, City University of New York. She is the author of Ancient Faith and Modern Freedom in John Dryden?s The Hind and the Panther (Catholic University of America Press) and a regular reviewer for New Oxford Review.