When Fight Club came out in theaters I was quite enamored with it. Tyler Durden was an anti-hero inspiring to many of my cohort, but ultimately we were enamored by a more surface level reading of him – especially considering none of us read the book. Tyler has enjoyed somewhat of a resurgence (if he ever left the cultural scene of young “adult” men) in places like internet memes and edgy personal investing blogs.
While I still find many aspects of his philosophy appealing, I no longer find Tyler Durden inspiring. I doubt that anything but a surface reading could find him so. The values we are force-fed by our culture and peers are often empty and lead down paths of meaningless pain and suffering; I’m with him so far. We surround ourselves with consumerism chasing fame, fortune, and as many creature comforts as we can manage – I agree. But Tyler’s solution replaces those values with their destruction, which does not change the paradigm and is itself easily co-opted by culture and consumerism and the rest.
“We’ve been all raised by television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars, but we won’t and we’re slowly learning that fact and we’re very, very, pissed off.”
There are two lies there, but he only focuses on one – hence the anger. It’s true that the vast majority of commerce sells you the lie that they have just the thing to make you feel like a rock star, but the second and more insidious lie is that fame and riches would lead to happiness and fulfillment. Are money and fame ultimately meaningful? Do millionaires and movie gods and rock stars really live better lives, or are they on average as miserable (and happy) as the rest of us? I could quote you the satisfaction studies that show making over $75,000 a year ceases to increase happiness, but you won’t be convinced by statistics. In your mind you think yourself immune to hedonistic adaptation. Perhaps you should try a thought experiment.
So if the creators of television or advertising are doubly lying to us, don’t worry to much about the injustice; they’
“Do you know what punishments I’ve endured for my crimes, my sins? None. I am proof of the absurdity of men’s most treasured abstractions. A just universe wouldn’t tolerate my existence.”
– Brent Weeks The Way of Shadows
I think there is a punishment this character neglects to mention. He must live as the person capable of such crimes and sins. Don’t you see? He knows that he has done bad, evil things, he says so himself. No amount of rationalization will make that okay, especially in his own eyes. Does that sound like getting off easy to you?
For a moment, imagine that money and fame are really all that important, who then can blame anyone for lying, cheating, and stealing in order to get that which is Good? There is something intuitively higher, something more important than money and fame so that we inevitably seek justice when it has been violated. But how do we usually seek retribution? By valuing the same things as the wrong-doer! If integrity and having a fulfilled and meaningful life are the point, the highest Goods, we should realize that those things have already been taken from him. Who dispensed this karmic justice? He did, on himself, in the moment he acted. To go further back, it happened in the moment he chose to value something as “good” above integrity and fulfillment; the act was an inevitable consequence of the misjudgment.
Some people respond to a perceived lack of meaning in the world with the idea that we must create meaning for ourselves. But I don’t think this is entirely correct, we already know what we should do and what we should value. There are minor individual variations, but in general we find meaning and fulfillment through mastery of skills, personal relationships, and altruism. This is the way things work, a recognition of the reality of being human.
What about psychopaths? Those that seemingly feel no pains of conscience? Perhaps some people exist that through biology or choice have suppressed these negative emotions (a goal some have mistakenly attributed to Stoics, I note). But do we envy these people? Why do we instinctively refer to such people as “miserable” human beings? And what does any of this have to do with such people, when we’re talking about you and me? If you don’t recognize yourself or your understanding of your personal reality, I trust you will correct my misunderstandings in the comments.
Still not convinced and hung up on psychopaths? Let’s take a real life example, the iceman killer. He isn’t haunted by all the killing unless he thinks about it, which means always. There are many interesting aspects of this man, but I will only point out a few. When he felt weak, he used his anger to physically assault people to feel powerful. He became addicted to this because not only did it get him respect, eventually he made money to support his young family. In the interview, he wishes he could have chosen differently, but says that he didn’t feel like he had a choice at the time. That’s because the decisions that count were made when he assigned value to material wealth and power above compassion and integrity toward other human beings. If wealth and power are ultimately important, or if we are somehow free to decide what is best for each of us, who can blame him for the choices he made? But hopefully it’s clear that he misunderstood what is truly good and bad.
Surely there is some cabal at work here, brainwashing us all into misunderstanding what we should value and thereby controlling us. Something more nefarious than just plain advertising. The new world order or the Illuminati – an unknown secret force working against us. In truth, there is something lying to us and it is a powerful secret that endures even after discovery: ourselves.