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On Self Help

Klaus Kinski - Fitzcarraldo

There is a man who is driving a caravan into town. He sets up his booth in the square and the public begins to gather around him. Already, he has paid off a few people in town to give the himself the appearance of legitimacy. The banner above his booth reads Kure-All Tonic. He says it is the type of stuff that doesn’t go down easy but cures what ails you. He starts in with the usual foundation. The foundation of pain and suffering. The first noble truth. Do you have back pain? Liver problems? Are you waking up tired and going to bed anxious? Are you unhappy in your career? Do you want to extract more hours out of a twenty four hour day? How about your wife, would she like more precious moments? Do you need direction in life? Are you floating in the sea? Here is a buoy in a bottle. Most of the crowd begins to nod in approval. One from the back says: I want so much! I can’t fulfill my dreams! Nearly everyone acknowledges that the problems and difficulties this man has mentioned are their own problems and difficulties. Yes! I am tired! My spleen feels off! When I touch the stovetop I burn my hand! Then there is the next bit in this well structured drama. For the sake of showmanship and brevity, the man skips over the second noble truth, understanding the cause of suffering. He moves right into the third noble truth, that there can be an end of suffering. Kure-All Tonic will do the trick. It doesn’t go down easy, one has to do the “hard work” of imbibing the thing, but it’ll fix you up. A man in the crowd with new bills lining his pocket speaks up: It’s true! I was walking on all fours, now I’m a tree climbing kind of man, a real sensual biped! Another from the back row: Cured my worry, cured my cankles. By now the crowd is wide-eyed, fixing their attention on the man and his product. The bottle is well designed, with a clever slogan that packs a sharp punch. The colors are current and it feels light and portable in the hand for healing on the go. Breaking the enthusiastic chatter, someone’s voice rises above the crowd: I bought an elixer back in ninety two from someone lookin’ just like  you! Didn’t do nothing. For this the man has a good answer. Oh of course, we’ve tried everything in the past, this program or that potion, but this one here is different. You see, this one is based on the wisdom of the old. This one has proven ancient formulas, refigured for our modern times. Everyone agreed that the past holds the answers to our current well being. If it has ties to those far gone civilizations, then it must be one hell of a tonic, not some new trendy concoction. The presentation seems to be over and it has made quite an impact on the crowd. A whisper could be heard: He seems very legitimate. Look at that lovely sign he’s made. The price is cheap: try it before you buy it. Except for a few rebellious types, everyone in the town signs up for a life long subscription.

Some weeks went by and sure enough, Kure-All Tonic worked wonders. Townspeople immediately felt lighter, more fresh, minds empty and bellies full. The old men threw their canes in the gutters and danced in the moonlight. Even a letter was written to the congressman: We would like to suggest that May be the month of Kure-All Tonic! The townspeople enjoyed many healthy and prosperous years all thanks to Kure-All. The headline of the local paper read: Suffering At An All Time Low. Years went by and trouble seemed a memory. People no longer felt the need to discuss their problems. What was there to discuss? People no longer felt the need to seek out new ideas. What good were new ideas? Local artists began to take it easy. Local authors began to enjoy the good life without an audience. The town’s church was boarded up with a sign that read simply: Time Management. Forever, the townspeople moved briskly through their years in sharp productivity. Decades without incident, decades without conflict, deathless decades. Of course there were a the few rebellious types who didn’t imbibe Kure-All Tonic. They were reported to have gone through some of life’s usual struggles. They felt out of place, hanging around for a while and watching the ease of it all, murmuring to themselves streetside. These few eventually left altogether. Many years later, in a nearby town, one could be heard: Well I guess they finally did it. It was what they wanted all along really. Good for them.

The structures remain the same and the man is still riding into your town, still following the old formulas and still convincing nearly everyone that there is a way around life. There are thousands of “entrepreneurs” who use the town square of the internet to push their programs and potions. The methods have become much more convincing and subtle, but as with most threads of tyranny, the archetypes remain. Some of these programs have vague references to spirituality, or mention tenets associated with philosophies of the East. Zen, Taoism, even the ghosts of Seneca and Marcus Aurelius are brought along for the ride. Students of these philosophies know that the depth of our old teachings is explored through practice and community, not a collection of quotes or techniques to incorporate into your busy workday. This sort of lifestyle branding is a perverted distillation of eternal wisdom.

A trend in self help that has been exceptionally exploitative is the manufacturing of false desires. One underlying theme is that nine to five jobs are the devil’s work. Dayjobs lock  you in, they prevent expression and growth. The real freedom will come by quitting and starting a blog. Go ahead, write about something you care about. Generate good fresh content. It might take a year or two, but you’ll get an audience. This is what you need to feel good! This idea is reckless. People derive real joy and strength from their jobs and colleagues. It is unfortunate to direct someone otherwise. There will always be something difficult to work through in any job, not matter how rewarding. In life, there will always be times where we ask is this right? especially when made aware of so many possibilities. These moments of doubt become amplified by a massive amount of misinformed, patchwork content that hints at a vague idea of personal freedom and creativity. Who are these false teachers to throw around would be life paths with authority? It is the illusion of authority, the as seen on TV authority. They have done calculated work in structuring the illusion so that one feels there is some weight behind it. Look closely, behind the slick design elements, below the email newsletter form where you can receive free and useful content, next to the As Seen in the WSJ, there is a toothgapped barker stretching his neck out of a booth screaming It worked for me!

Somewhere in a dark room a man doused with energy drinks came up with the term “Life Hacking.” The concept is far reaching with thin limbs, but it centers around efficiency and maximizing time and effort to gain definite results. This is the fleeing from fear and the tackling of time. This genre of self help exploits the powerful anxieties we have surrounding purpose and mortality. They begin with premise that certain things must done to feel accomplished and satisfied with life. This is a fictional standard of living, designed to get you to act. Act now! If you act within the next thirty minutes you’ll have done something before you die. For distraction, they will flood you with performance charts and diagrams and measurements. These heady materials obscure the lack of heart and thoughtfulness here. Life does not respond to forcing. These are structures you are laying on top of a natural flow, building a house on a river. The structures will eventually float away even with an well-worked and well-checked to-do list. This does not teach letting go. Life itself is a continual process of letting go and no amount of applied technique is going to say otherwise. There is also immense guilt associated with follow through and failure. Discipline is not for everyone, not everyone is built for the same parade. Time well spent is listening to the natural rhythms of your own life, not some regime that takes stabs at a false notion of discipline. The magic and synchronicity of life, creative wandering and spontaneity are disregarded, as if these actions weren’t purposeful, no matter how seemingly benign. The idea that every moment must be used is directly against life’s balance of action and rest. Time must be taken to settle and integrate experience. Creativity can come from a place of stillness. Of course they will tell you to schedule in a little stillness too.

Behind all of this, from our side, from the person who might be processing through life’s difficulties, one must take the correct view. The incorrect view, represented by screen to screen internet salesmen, is that difficulties in life are unnecessary and to be avoided. The opposite is true. For any development or growth, difficulty is part of the process, the birth canal. The suffering is a foundation of compassion, forgiveness and gratitude. Sometimes these qualities lay dormant in us and must be unearthed, this process requires some difficulty.

Life is the teacher. Forgive your mistakes for they aren’t really mistakes at all. The expectations of the internet salesmen do not hold for you, they are fictional and designed to perpetuate content. Stay with the process, love your false starts, there is good work being done behind the scenes.

photo Klaus Kinski in Fitzcarraldo 1982

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