(Author’s note: This post appears to be written largely in the 2nd person singular, but it’s the Royal You, so I’d be grateful if thou wouldst chill.)
Self-help is kind of new, historically speaking. I haven’t run the numbers, but here’s a hypothesis you can take or leave: as people have become less concerned with survival, they have become more concerned with the hows and whys of their own existence. The big question shifts from how to stay alive to how to live well. A thousand years ago, plagues and even garden-variety infections were a big deal, a bad harvest could give you painful weeks or months to stare starvation in the face, and there was nowhere insulated from war, which was much more dangerous anyway (in the sense that casualty rates could hit 60%, there was little distinction between civilian and soldier, and battlefield medicine didn’t exist until about Napoleon). There was nowhere to hide, and since the dangers were outside, that’s where people looked. They countered tragedy with religion, religion was something external – not some personal philosophy everyone made up for himself – and they looked to outside circumstances (e.g. weather, God’s will, King’s edicts) to explain their plight.
You can see the difference now across space too, depending on how modern the society is. There are far more psychiatrists in the US than in Lesotho or Bhutan. There are far more priests in Bhutan, though. Latin America is getting richer, and centralized religion (i.e. Catholicism) is making way for the a la carte, choose-your-own-afterlife palette of new evangelical churches. Ditto Russia. (NB: characterizing a country/society as less modern isn’t the same as calling it backward; I’m just using it here as a relative measure whether people are more worried about the event of death or its [lack of] meaning, but there are pros and cons to both.)
The less you have to worry about survival, the more you will worry about existence. Neurosis is the modern plague. You’ve heard this before. It comes up in questions like ‘what matters more: happiness or meaning?’ The only people asking this a thousand years ago were clerics because they had the luxury of living off the tithe. Unless you broke happiness down to booze, sex or freedom from want and meaning down to not going to hell, nobody else could have even made sense of the question. Louis CK provides a classic example:
So people used to have external problems, and they met them with external solutions. Now people are afflicted by an internal problem (neurosis) and are meeting it with solutions directed at their insides: psychiatry, self-help, psycho-pharmaceuticals – prescribed and otherwise, and a bewildering variety of new religions tailored to every social prejudice and eschatological fetish. A fellow poster and all around clever fella, FrugalStoic, recently tweeted that nothing external matters, but people have been discounting external stuff and sure, they’re alive, but miserable. So what’s up with that?
Here’s the deal: internal stuff is what’s eating you up inside, and the only way to scratch that itch is through external stuff, but it has to be the right kind of external stuff. Specifically, it has to be external stuff, and you have to make it, because you can only see what’s outside of you, but it’s you that you’re looking for. Let me break it down.
The internal stuff that gets you down on a day-to-day basis is all about you. Neurotics don’t know what they’re worth. You don’t even know who or what, exactly, you are. You have fantasies, sometimes right after you’ve watched a movie with a compelling (i.e. schizotypal) character, and sometimes you make them up where you’re the one facing down incredible odds of saving the girl, compelling her to love you, and getting her to do that special thing, oh, and especially that other thing you saw in a different movie. But you know that isn’t you and isn’t even close. You also have the fantasy that one day, under the right circumstances, you would know kung fu, the special powers would kick-in, and you could do all of those things (if this sounds familiar, here’s an anonymous reference from one pseudonymous Guy to another).
But you don’t admit that you hope these fantasies might come true, and you refuse to admit these fantasies are actually concrete wishes for a reason. At some level, it sounds just like someone trying to counter a well executed wrist-lock with the Primordial Dragon summoned by a 12-sided die. In other words, it sounds too ridiculous to say, and more importantly, if you said it, you’d also have to face the painful fact that you simply don’t have the resume. Yeah, you took some karate lessons as a kid, but you do know that anybody you would be inspired to hit does MMA or ol’ fashioned no-rules street fighting, and he does it often enough to make your rusty brown belt look pretty useless. Admitting the hope that one day the NSA or MI6 might call (sure, you’d turn them down, but it’s the call that counts) also makes you face the fact that you got a C in calculus and can’t lie without smirking. Asking the hottie at the bar out would make you confront the fact that you don’t know how many push-ups you could do, but you hope it’s at least double digits, and have the gut to prove it. So you don’t ask her, and you tell yourself it’s because ‘she’s a slut’ – as if you’d say no if she propositioned you for a blow job and breakfast. Women probably have equivalent neuroses and fantasies, but I won’t dare to speculate about their content.
That’s what’s eating you. You don’t know who or what you are, but since you know you’re not what you secretly hope to be, you avoid any real test. Test? Who said anything about a test? This is a test? (Protip: yes, it’s a test. Everything is a test.)
Quick recap: your society has sabre-tooth tigers and bubonic plague under control, you’re pretty comfortable, but you’re still miserable because of your existential uncertainty – an internal thing if there ever was one. So where do the external things come into play?
Well, they can help you, they can be benign aside from making you poor, or they can make you more miserable and make you poor. Let’s start with drugs. Narcotics just deaden the feeling, and they definitely make you poor. You’re too busy to worrying about Cheetos vs. Doritos, or what you can sell for the next genocide of the synapses, to really care about who you are, where you’re going, or what you’ve been up to the last year. How about self-help books? They’re like yo-yo diets. You read one, and it seems really insightful, but two or three months later, the dread is back. That’s because the active ingredient in self-help books is the message that you’re not a bad person after all, that there’s a precious essence dying to get out, and it will if you follow the recipe. The recipe is misdirection, and you are in fact just interested in the idea about the precious essence. But as soon as that message confronts reality, and you see that you’re still not James Bond, it fades. Rinse, wash, repeat.
Video games are another route to deaden the dread, and they come in three kinds. 1) They can be a pure escape, like drugs. Think Angry Birds and Tetris. 2) They can claim to be a mode of self-improvement, like the Sudoku on your phone or the educational apps you got for your kids. These, in fact, are a distraction and an excuse to avoid doing things that actually matter. You play Sudoku so that you don’t have to learn calculus. You do brain training so that you don’t have to read and read and read and discuss and draft and write and calculate and… 3) They’re your surrogate character, your alter ego. They offer a world where your fantasies are accessible because you don’t actually need to join the marines or learn kung fu or invent a spaceship with a hyperdrive. The girl is necessarily a princess, pretty desirable, and she either wants you to start with or you have all the awesomeness you need by level 5. Think CoD, Skyrim, and Super Mario Bros.
Probably the most popular way to soothe an itching existential itch is to buy your identity. Your phone isn’t broken, but you buy a new one that can do exactly the same things as the old one, and you do it because it’s what everyone wants, and what everyone wants must be worth wanting. But that’s unfair, isnt’ it? You want something special. It’s not like your parents care about that phone. You’re buying something to mark who you are, and you can dial it in perfectly to reflect your precious essence. After all, that’s what people mean when they say someone’s got style, right? There are 2 problems with this strategy: 1) your parents are doing the same thing, but their world tells them that it’s the car or the kitchen appliances that will reveal their precious essences, not phones, but it’s the same deal; 2) that kick will only last until everyone has that phone, which is why you aren’t interested in buying that same model used in a year. Making sure that everyone buys it, i.e. sabotaging you, is also exactly the goal of the people selling it. (That’s why it’s called ‘mass production’, which is even how most ‘custom-made’ stuff is done nowadays.) If you have something truly original that nobody else has or wants, how can it be worth wanting? The deck is stacked. If you sit down at the table, and you don’t know who the sucker is, it’s you. Better cash your chips and leave.
Thou will never find yourself in anything mass-produced. Why not? Because there is no you in it. And that’s the point. That’s the difference between external things that matter and external things that just give you a quick high: the external things that matter are things you make, and that can be a painting, a well planned and cultivated garden, a blog, a relationship, a circle of friends, a useful dataset, a manifesto, whatever. It can be anything that you put yourself into and that reflects yourself back to you. It should be obvious how that applies to creative work, but what about relationships? It takes two, right? Yes, it takes two, but you didn’t get stuck with your partner on a deserted island; you chose each other. You’re getting what you want from that relationship, so if it’s a crappy, miserable relationship, it’s what you built with a person of your choosing, and it very much reflects who you are. (NB: relationships with family are different, because you don’t choose them, and you enter them at the most vulnerable time of your life, and you’re generally stuck with them. That’s why psychoanalysis tends to treat family relationships as causes and adult relationships as symptoms.)
Don’t worry. I’m not an internet guru peddling my own ‘subjective’ view of the world. This idea is Hegel’s (i.e. it’s his own ‘subjective’ view of the world. Does that make it more credible?) It’s part of his master-slave idea. The Wikipedia explanation is terrible, so allow me to supplement: 1. Master and slave exist; 2) master is pretty much pure power and gets slave to make stuff for him; 3) slave acquires self-awareness and freedom because he sees himself in the things he’s made; 4) master loses because he gets nothing from his relationship to slave, since slave is in bondage, and slave’s freedom doesn’t help, because it only relates to the stuff he’s made but not to master at all. Even though master can do what he wants with slave, he gets no worthwhile recognition and is left hanging, but slave has made something, so he can at least recognize himself.
But is there no essence, no soul? Who knows? It doesn’t matter because you will never find it. You can get an aura photo, but that’s self-help, just a quick hit of the I’m-okay-you’re-okay dope. Even if there is a precious essence, you have no access to it aside from seeing it reflected in your actions, and neither does anybody else. So if you have to work hard to see tangible proof of your essence in the world you create around you, which is what you would have to do if there was no essence, it really doesn’t matter if it exists or not. Pondering the soul is interesting, but it’s not important. It’s a philosophical parlour game, like the ontology of holes (my personal favourite). Pragmatically speaking, it won’t get you anywhere. In fact, getting stuck on that question can be an excuse to avoid doing anything worthwhile. It’s sudoku sans arithmetic – just what you’ve been waiting for! Isn’t delaying activity because you’re pondering whether you have the necessary substance to act a kind of professional procrastination? Most obstacles are excuses.
Also beware that there is no way to cheat, because you can only cheat other people – never yourself. If you take lots of vitamin-S, you won’t let yourself take credit for 24-inch pythons, and you’ll need to get the reinforcement from, say, Facebook, and you’ll get really pissed off when people mock you, which they will. If you’re really ripped, or really accomplished at anything, you’ll be able to deal with criticism because you’ll know what you’re worth, what you’ve done, and how far you still are from perfection. If you’re pumped on roids or you’ve plagiarized or just generally full of bullshit, you’ll get seriously unnerved when people challenge your identity, when they seem not to be buying your story about who you claim to be. That’s what insecurity is: uncertainty about who you are. Even if you don’t express it outwardly, the wrath will be at a rolling boil under the surface because you have no evidence to submit to the court, so your only option is to discredit the plaintiff. Everywhere you look, the world is full of sluts and cocksuckers who will cut you down if you let ‘em, isn’t it? How long do you wanna live in that world?
Let’s look at some examples of how cheating always fails. The first is Facebook. Quick diagnostic: is Facebook more like A) a telephone/PA/bulletin board, or is it more like B) a display case or C) mirror. If you chose B or C, you’re probably not terribly satisfied with your life. Facebook is a decent, if compromising, means of communication for broadcasting messages, and that’s about it. What about the mirror? What about seeing yourself in the world you create? Simply, Facebook is the wrong place for anything like that. You don’t make the resort in Phuket, you just rent the experience. You didn’t make that tan, you were just lying there. You know how meaningless it is to click ‘Like’ on others’ posts, so you don’t buy it when other people like yours, which is why you can never get enough Likes. Just like the attempt to buy yourself into existence, this process is inflationary and relative. Getting back to the courtroom metaphor, if you’re looking for evidence of who you are, everything on Facebook is hearsay and as such, is inadmissible. The jury (i.e. you) has already been instructed to ignore it. The second is trust-fund kids/the recursively famous. Trust-fund kids and those who are famous for being famous, not for having done anything (think Kardashian – any one, Hilton, Michael Douglas’s kid, etc.), are pretty much always miserable as long as they’re just riding the wave. The only ones who can look themselves in the mirror without pills are the ones who’ve used that privilege and opportunity to make something of themselves. But even celebrities who have done something but only get positive white noise as feedback from the world or who have cheated and know it lose their shit sooner or later. Think Charlie Sheen or Whitney Houston. If all you hear is that you’re wonderful, even though you know that you’re a wreck; if people are still buying tickets to see you perform even when you’re obviously stoned, then you will fall into the abyss of uncertainty. (Parents: pay attention.) And when you’re already convinced that you’re a god, as proven by your multiple live-in pornstars or people saying you had pwnd Aretha Franklin at 18, where do you go from there? You will lose yourself. Aimless is an adjective; it describes the purgatory of the living.
Of course, the inflationary logic applies to the things you make too, and this is obvious. Michelangelo wasn’t commissioned to paint the horsies and sailboats he had mastered at 6. You probably don’t care much for your aunt’s painting-by-numbers masterpieces, and you’ve probably never paid to listen to a musician play ‘Ba Ba Black sheep’. At some point you should stop saying to yourself “Man, some of these blogs are great. I could do that” and actually get down to posting. Ahem. This applies to relationships too: dating should lead at some point to sex, which should lead to commitment, which should lead to kids, though not necessarily in that order. (NB: Commitment can be marriage or not. If your girlfriend is bugging you about marriage, it’s because you’re not committed, she knows it, and she wants some kind of sign, some evidence, to the contrary that she can post on Facebook. You can get by without marriage so long as neither of you thinks s/he needs it from the other. Marriage is probably a good idea, as the near-universality of the ritual and institution would seem to indicate, but the perfect time to get married is, paradoxically, when both of you think it would be superfluous.)
But there’s a big difference between the inflation involved in creating things and the inflation involved in accessorizing and publicizing your identity, and it’s obvious too: the former is called ‘growth’. No number of pictures of trips to Cabo or San Tropez will ever indicate growth. In fact, most travel is probably pretty close to mindless entertainment and should be treated as such. You might grow during a trip, but if so it’s because of something you did, like learning a language or some other skill, and you’ll know it was worthwhile because it took effort, and it changed you for the long term. Just being there is of no use. Doesn’t MTV still have coverage of spring break. Save yourself some money and stay home. It’s not like you were going to approach the wet t-shirt contestants anyway. But if you’re a painter, you can and must become a better painter. If you’re a CSS monkey, your misery will be proportional to the number of pages you are commissioned to design that are supposed to look like the market leaders, which are all the same anyway. That’s the Sisyphus aspect to a meaningful life: once you start doing something worthwhile, you are condemned to seek improvement forever, or you shift your attention elsewhere after having gone as far as you can go (not after quitting because it was hard).
So how do you help yourself? Here you go: 1) do things that are worthwhile (i.e. are important and reflect who you are); 2) bust your ass. Obvious, isn’t it?