By Zach Schepis
There is a deranged lunatic riding a city bus, muttering to himself between flashes of light while him and his fellow passengers throttle headlong into the darkness of a sprawling urban scape. The man is engaged in a heated philosophical conversation with his alter-ego, which it turns out is far wiser and more rambunctious than his “normal” self. The two observe a Calvin Klein advertisement of a model sporting a pair of tight-fitting briefs. Is that what a man looks like? The first asks. A moment of contemplation passes before the second chuckles. Self-improvement is masturbation, he muses.
You might recall this exchange from David Fincher’s 1999 cult-classic Fight Club, in which the unlikely hero Tyler Durden, played by both Edward Norton and Brad Pitt simultaneously, grapples with the forces behind self-image and insecurity. The film is adapted from a novel by Chuck Palahniuk which too seeks to explore these themes (Fincher, however, altered the quote to make it more risqué for audiences).
The moment is a brief one and could be easily glanced over by an inattentive viewer, but the statement remains wholly integral to the film’s message regarding self-realization. More importantly, such a message remains especially pertinent to our current societal outlooks on self-worth and image. Perhaps Tyler Durden wasn’t such a lunatic after all, but you don’t need to detonate corporate skyscrapers and rain hellfire upon a city to realize that there is something horribly amiss with the way we have come to define ourselves as individuals.
Walk into the nearest Barnes & Noble and browse the aisles. You’ll encounter the usual suspects – row after row of fiction, some graphic novels, varieties on crafts and hobbies, memoirs, an assortment of photography anthologies. Yet another section lurks among all those pages that you might have once overlooked, but has become almost impossible to ignore.
Image courtesy of The Guardian.
How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. What Every Leader Needs to Know by John C. Maxwell.
That’s right folks. We’ve just ventured into the land of Self-Improvement.
I’m not sure what scares me more – the sheer, daunting abundance of titles in this section (everything from improving sex to stress to waste management) or the fact that there is enough of a demand for new ones to be perpetuated at an alarmingly increasing rate. Odds are most likely that you’ve picked up one at some point in your life. Maybe you gave it a thumb-through when the answers seemed just a bit out of reach. In all likelihood you’ve at least considered it.
I’m not casting stones here. Besides, I want to help you. I want to help you because you are too dumb to help yourself.
Well, that didn’t sound very nice.
I only wish that books written under the moniker of “self-improvement” could be so blunt. Because every time I pick one up, I’m struck by the same dumbfounding realization: people blindly gravitate towards these titles because they feel helpless to change, and more importantly, feel as though they need to change. This isn’t change for change sake though. The problem goes much deeper than that.
Our Western world has always been branded by the burning ideal of progress; progress at all costs, even if we have no idea what we might be progressing towards. Time moves in a straight line and so do we, shuttling us ever closer to our ultimate goals, our hopes, and our dreams. Compare this cultural perspective to the one that was held by the real forefathers of our country, the Native Americans. For them time was a circle, not a straight line. The very notion of progress and dominance was nothing more than folly – the real importance was to embrace harmony and gratuity.
In 1934, long after uprooting and eradicating the wisdom of these peoples in exchange for more land and power (improving their lives with our Western ways, surely), the organismic theorist Kurt Goldstein published his theory of self-actualization. It has become a staple of our day-to-day living and the model of aspirational behavior in our society ever since. The prescription is undeniably simple. You must seek to improve yourself to actualize your true potential. The idea caught like a bug and soon infiltrated all manner of leadership, from business to politics to education and eventually advertising.
That’s why we’re all self-help junkies: we search to discover our true potential but aren’t sure how. So we seek the guidance of someone with more authority, more credentials, and more wisdom than us to shine light on what is wrong with us. That way we can fix it and become all that we are meant to be.
Herein lies the problem. We actually believe there is something wrong with us that needs to be fixed. The very nature of self-improvement implies this. But why the dissatisfaction? What happened to being grateful and appreciative of the self in the moment?
Why do we enjoy a practice based around the revelation that there is something inherently wrong with us? Because we enjoy prescribing ourselves to be less than whole, and will do nearly anything to feel a fleeting and empty sense of “more complete.” It feels fleeting because it is; there’s no substance to it, nothing to tether it to. Only you can create happiness for yourself. It’s all a matter of perspective and nothing more. Only you hold the key that can unlock the door to your outlook.
(Shit… I’m beginning to sound like one of them.)
Part of it has to do with our vanity. It has to do with a tendency towards narcissism that even the most selfless Americans secretly fear. It has to do with marketing, with what we believe to be beautiful, with demands thrust upon us by society, whispers boring into our ear that demand, “Better, better, better, you must do better.” Part of it has to do with discontent, with disillusion, with loneliness. Sometimes it’s just plain old boredom.
By all accounts self-improvement is a modern disease, and it’s at war with happiness. If you’re happy, odds are you won’t feel the need to fix anything. So then I guess most of us aren’t happy. But why the hell not?
I think of my father – the archetypical middle-class suburban bread winner who buys a beautiful old house for his family because he believes that is what is expected of him, that it is his role to fill. He spends the next thirty years of his livelihood repairing the defiant monstrosity; breaking his back in the process, pouring every ounce of effort into keeping the walls up around him. There is no end to the progress.
Everything the man does contributes to maintaining a tiresome stasis rotten inside and out with dissatisfaction. It is an uphill battle that he has no hope of winning until the day comes where he either moves on, sets fire to the house, or lets his bones crumble to dust along with the foundation.
As creatures who must inevitably face death, the uncertainty of letting go can become one of life’s most dominating fears. We must not let ourselves be afraid of self-destruction, or anything else for that matter. A wiser being than myself once said that you must lose everything before you can be free to do anything.
In the end it’s not about fixing, but rather discovering. What ever happened to our desire to be explorers? Wouldn’t life be much duller without chance? In an age of convenience would we really rather trade in our sense of adventure for our comfy armchair and bag of Doritos while our reality-program radiating televisions rob us of mental fortitude?
If there even is such a thing as progress, I can assure you that it can’t be learned from having all of the routes paved for us.
We must never forget the importance of thinking for ourselves. I will always be wary of that which may serve as an excision of consciousness, that which may strip us little by little of what Nietzsche would so boldly proclaim to be our “will to power.” The potential for change doesn’t exist somewhere out of sight and out of reach, it is every passing moment. Acceptance precedes change. We are beautifully imperfect, and that is precisely what makes us perfect.
Don’t take my word for it. Don’t let this become another doctrine that teaches you the way that you should be. Call me an imbecile. Tell yourself that I am nothing more than a rambling pragmatist. Burn up these words. Hell, in retaliation go out and buy every self-improvement book that you can get your hands on. Do anything that you want – but do it for yourself.
with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is
lacking, the whole world belongs to you.
~ Lao Tzu