Striving

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A friend recently sent me the link to the New Yorker article: “Improving Ourselves to Death.” It’s a witty critique of the onslaught of self-improvement regimens that is part of the air we breathe in today’s world. The author of the article writes:

In our current era of non-stop technological innovation, fuzzy wishful thinking has yielded to the hard doctrine of personal optimization. Self-help gurus need not be charlatans peddling snake oil. Many are psychologists with impressive academic pedigrees and a commitment to scientific methodologies, or tech entrepreneurs with enviable records of success in life and business. What they’re selling is metrics. It’s no longer enough to imagine our way to a better state of body or mind. We must now chart our progress, count our steps, log our sleep rhythms, tweak our diets, record our negative thoughts—then analyze the data, recalibrate, and repeat.

 

You have only to make a few clicks around my website to see that I have bought into this idea of self-improvement hook, line, and sinker. I’m more on the snake oil than the impressive academic pedigree’s side of the continuum, but regardless, I drank the Kool-aid of self-improvement years ago. When my life as I knew it started to unravel, and then fully spiraled into despair, there was nowhere to go but up. Self-help (and help from many others) was a survival necessity. But somewhere along the way, I regained my footing. I stopped spending days crying in bed, and rejoined the land of the living, and my life returned to some semblance of normalcy with life’s regular highs and lows.

But the self-improvement regimen did not abate with this return to normalcy. It’s such a part of my internal philosophy now that I no longer even think about it. Much of my personal quest has been about living an examined life...about truly understanding what Thoreau meant when he talked about “sucking the marrow out of life.”

Of course, I know Thoreau didn’t have a shelf of self-help books in mind when he talked about “living deep,” and he certainly would have abhorred the idea of a Fitbit or an Apple Watch, charting your every step…your every heartbeat. But the gadgets and promising titles gleaming on the bookshelf are tempting, and compelling, and sometimes, maybe, even helpful.

Only perhaps I’ve gone overboard on it. I was looking at my kindle library and saw that self-help books outnumber novels four to one. And this afternoon I quite literally dusted off my guitar to play a song. It’s been languishing in the corner of my living room for months. Meanwhile the keys of my computer are greasy with food residue, because I’m so busy getting things done that I rarely pause to eat a meal without my computer as a companion.

So, maybe it’s time to really practice the wisdom I’ve read time and time again in my many Buddhist based self-help books: to take the middle path. To find balance between the extremes. Perhaps it is time to take a break from my Fitbit and go back to my analog watch—to remember that my steps still count even if nobody’s watching, and to put down the self-help books and just read a novel.

The fear that lives behind these humble aspirations is this: If I stop striving, will I just let myself go? Is chucking the Fitbit a slippery slope to laziness? Will I get a taste of pleasure and then just wallow in it, letting all of my ambitions float away on the wind? And the answer, is no. I’m not going to do that. It’s not in my nature to do that. It’s in my nature to have a kind of puritanical drive to do more and be more. Softening that edge won’t make me soft; perhaps it will just make me more pleasant.

Normally when I dive into experiments I go all in. Why be a vegetarian when you could be a vegan? Why run a 5k, when you could run an ultra-marathon? Why go for a day hike, when you could spend a month living out in the mountains? So, in order to not feed this particular personal tendency, I’m not making any grand plans for how things are going to go tomorrow. But for today...for right now...I’m taking off my Fitbit, and I'm putting a novel on my nightstand.