“Hitting bottom isn’t a weekend retreat. It’s not a goddamn seminar. Stop trying to control everything and just let go.”
- “Fight Club,” 1999, Chuck Palahniuk & Jim Uhls
A couple of friends have recently been extolling the virtues of “The Landmark Course,” a weekend self-improvement seminar that, from what I can ascertain, focuses on getting the most out of your life and clearing away the excuses for your bullshit (maybe).
I’m automatically suspicious of any self-improvement, because of the impression it gives that self-improvement consists of the duality of:
A) taking responsibility for your life and wanting to change it, and
B) (as Mr. Palahniuk contends) masturbation.
I’d be as simple, self-serving and masturbatory as the seminar-goers Mr. Palahniuk vilifies, if I were to dismiss out of hand anything that seeks to improve you. But the number of relentlessly happy people that inhabit the land of self-improvement make me wary of it. We’re not designed to be happy all the time. What made us doesn’t expect relentless cheer from us. It’s not a failing to experience, acknowledge and validate sadness, melancholy or doubt. It’s a failing to never feel them.
Which makes me wonder whether the things that you seek to improve are really things to remediate at all, or whether the situation is more complex than that. Certainly, our society glorifies qualities of extreme self-confidence, happiness, vigour and positivity, which is the reason why the self-help industry exists: to exorcise the demons of doubt, introspection and melancholy. Most people want to be around happy people – morose people are usually tedious company.
But what if those less-shiny qualities, however problematical they may be, are actually the ones that make us complex and human? What if that extreme of self-confidence and unquestioning happiness is actually a soporific, a plaster we apply to our lives in the mistaken belief that attaining those qualities represents a victory over the darker, more problematic qualities that unsettle us, but which (perhaps) ultimately make us more real?
What if self-help seminars address the symptoms, but not the underlying state? What if they anaesthetize us with surface treatments that avoid us having to confront the deeper, darker, more complex states that can’t be solved in weekend seminars and retreats?
What if we can only confront and understand those things by hitting rock bottom?