There is an almost-unquestionable assumption baked into modern western culture and stretching back at least as far as the 18th century’s “Age of Enlightenment” that things can, and should, get better.
But is it? Just because it’s a cultural assumption doesn’t mean it’s correct, or helpful or life-giving.
Of course, it’s great when fewer people die of starvation or dysentery or violence. Or when things get better for people who have been excluded and marginalized and oppressed.
However, acknowledging and celebrating improvement is different than making it the teleological imperative of humanity.
The problem is that the constant pursuit for better is exhausting and, frankly, depressing.
Which I’m pretty sure is not better.
There’s money in them thar neuroses!
The US market for self-help books has nearly doubled since 2013. In 2019, 18.6 million self-help books were sold. The entire industry is projected to grow to US$13.2 billion by next year. In Canada, book sales in the self-help/personal growth category increased 22% between 2016 and 2017.
That’s a lot of people who are not as happy or well-adjusted or successful or beautiful or enlightened as they want to be or think they should be.
We live in an insane economy, where economic growth is supposed to continue every year, forever. Apparently, the same holds true for people: “Every day in every way, I’m getting better and better.”
The advertising industry has tapped into this, manufacturing discontent for several generations: creating deficiencies here and inadequacies there which they (coincidentally) have a product to help with …
It begs the question, are we getting any better?
Social media (if I may jump on the dogpile of social media bashing for a moment) encourages people to project unrealistic lives into the universe for the rest of us to envy.
Does anyone ever post a picture of the completely average-looking lunch they’ve eaten four times this week – because it’s easier than trying to come up with something new and exciting every day?
Or the pictures of themselves looking terrible? Or of their child doing something completely unremarkable and mediocre? (“Oh, look, Johnny got a C minus on his book report! Better get that up on Instagram!”)
Between advertising, social media constantly reminding us how unremarkably average most of us are, and a multi-billion-dollar self-improvement industry selling us ways to make our lives better, the pressure is on: improve.
Or else what?
Ignoring reality doesn’t eliminate reality
The constant push to improve is not only exhausting. At its extreme, it is counterproductive and even dangerous.
Entropy is built into the fundamental structure of reality. Things fall apart. In physics it’s called the Second law of thermodynamics. In Buddhism it’s called niazi. One can choose to be depressed about it, or just accept that this is how the universe works, and that, being part of the universe, we are not immune.
Add the cultural emphasis on improving everything with the unalterable fact that things fall apart, and we risk setting ourselves up for disappointment.
Taken to an extreme, one might conclude, as some have, that their failure to measure up to an impossible version of themselves is evidence of their own inferiority.
Try to diet and don’t lose weight? Or a body building program that just gets you injured? Try a new career path or business that doesn’t work out? What happens when we buy into the cultural bias toward growth and improvement and it doesn’t work out?
When not firmly anchored, the honourable desire experienced by many to be and do better can be exploited by the unscrupulous, or derail into something ironically worse than where they started.
How much of the epidemic of depression and misery is due at least in part to people being unsatisfied with what they have, and unsuccessfully trying to chase down the elusive “better”?
Been there … done that …
The irony of a coach, spiritual director, and organizational consultant (me), who has made the personal and professional goal of my life helping people to improve their lives, writing about the downside of self-improvement is not lost on me. And I’m not planning on throwing in the towel and heading off to live on a Caribbean Island (before they disappear).
I am one of those people who possesses a strong inclination to see what is wrong with the world before I see what is right with it. Wanting all to be right, I want to fix what I think is wrong.
On a really good day, I might bat .225. And most days are not nearly that good.
Without throwing in the towel (or the baby out with the bathwater), I just want to acknowledge the hamster-wheel shadow side to this whole self-improvement thing. And I’m not alone.
No less a human than Mark Manson, who you might remember from such timeless self-improvement classics as The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck and Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope, is making a living out of working with this idea – and good on him.
A real alternative
The good news is that an alternative already exists.
A contemporary interpretation of the Rule of St. Benedict, the constitution and handbook for the (believe it or not) Benedictine monastic order, begins this way:
“These words are addressed to anyone who is willing to renounce the delusion that the meaning of life can be learned; whoever is willing to take up the greater weapon of fidelity to a way of living that transcends understanding.
The first rule is simply this: live this life and do whatever is done in a spirit of loving kindness.”
Wanting things to be better, wanting to be one’s best self – these are noble aspirations not to be derided. And, the Way of Wisdom bequeaths us senses and a heart that do not ignore the beauty and perfect imperfection of what is, for tomorrow’s unknowable dream of what could be.
In When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, the Tibetan Buddhist nun and spiritual teacher, Pema Chödrön, writes:
“To think we can finally get it all together is unrealistic. To seek for some lasting security is futile. To undo our very ancient and very stuck habitual patterns of mind requires that we begin to turn around some of our most basic assumptions. Believing in a solid, separate self, continuing to seek pleasure and avoid pain, thinking that someone out there is to blame for our pain — one has to get totally fed up with these ways of thinking. One has to give up hope that this way of thinking will bring us satisfaction. Suffering begins to dissolve when we can question the belief or the hope that there’s anywhere to hide.”
Both … and …
The most profound truths come to us gift-wrapped in paradox. When it comes to the both/and of self-improvement, it is this:
Improvement is, to a point, a noble goal insofar as it reduces suffering and makes the world a better place. The human animal has evolved the desire and the ability to improve things.
the danger of the compulsive desire to improve things (without really inquiring into whether new is the same as better) is that we seduce ourselves into believing that we can improve ourselves out of our basic human condition, and escape fear and suffering in the process.
The tragedy happens when we fail to hold both these ideas together at the same time: to understand and accept that fear and suffering cannot be outrun or out-engineered. Trying to do so only makes them worse.
The answer is to acknowledge that there is nowhere to hide, and that the ultimate response to fear and suffering is to face into them with acceptance, together.
In the coaching I do, I help people look at the stories they are telling themselves about themselves and the world, because the meaning we give to events and the way we interpret our lives and our surroundings, plays a tremendous role in determining our happiness, effectiveness, and well-being. I believe that if we always tell ourselves that we are not enough, or life is not enough, or whatever is should be something else, we help to create the life we say we don’t want. What at some point might motivate us to change, easily becomes evidence … and then proof that change is impossible.
The great human wisdom technology, also known as the Perennial Tradition, appears to agree: learning to discern what parts of reality are fixed and constant (like fear and suffering in general) from those parts of reality which can be made better (like malaria and bad coffee) – and learning to accept the former and work for the latter – would go a long way to making life better.
Maybe we could all work on that.
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