Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Book Review: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*CK

I didn't want to read this book. When my husband first told me about it I was immediately disdainful and defensive. "Give me a break! Like our society needs MORE encouragement to care about nothing!" My husband said that's not what the book was actually about, that it was a great read and everyone could benefit from it because we're all paying attention to the wrong thing and putting our priorities in the wrong order. I took that personally, too. "So you're saying my priorities are wrong?"

Well, turns out my book club decided this would be a good read. I procrastinated as long as I could, which wasn't hard because the wait list for this book at the library is so epic I could wait years and still not be #1. But I was determined. I said to myself, "I am NOT spending money on this book!"(Read with the same intonation as Paul Giamatti insists he's not drinking a merlot in Sideways.)

Hence, with less than a week until book group, I put out an appeal on Facebook for someone to lend me the book, and a friend told me I could get the audiobook for free from Hoopla.

Faced now with the reality of having to either listen to this book, or admit to myself that I was willing to judge it without actually reading it, I downloaded the audiobook and started listening.

As it turns out, I love this book. Yes, it has a few flaws. Yes, it has a lot of f-bombs.* Sure, there are a plethora of eye-rolling, clickbaity chapter titles and one-liners. But I have now read/listened to this book in its entirety, with an open heart, and I have to say the truths are meaningful enough that I give it my endorsement. I think everyone should read this book.

Why, you ask? Well, let me tell you! Because it takes the fundamental, proven truths that philosophers have uncovered over centuries of human experience and repackages them in surprising ways. For instance:

Problems never stop; they merely get exchanged and/or upgraded.
Happiness comes from solving problems. The keyword here is “solving.” If you’re avoiding your problems or feel like you don’t have any problems, then you’re going to make yourself miserable. If you feel like you have problems that you can’t solve, you will likewise make yourself miserable. The secret sauce is in the solving of the problems, not in not having problems in the first place.
On the surface, this isn't all that deep. I think most people would acknowledge in their heart of hearts that there really isn't any "perfect life" where they won't have any problems and be perfectly happy at all times. I mean, that's not realistic.

And yet it's evident that our society is obsessed with avoiding suffering and eliminating problems. The fallacy surrounding us is that if only we had enough money, or the "right information," or knew the "right people," all our problems would be solved. The idea that our entire lives are going to consist of one problem after another is anathema to the comfortable life we think we want. As Mark Manson puts it, though:

I can ask you "What do you want out of life?" A more interesting question, a question that most people never consider, is, “What pain do you want in your life? What are you willing to struggle for?” Because that seems to be a greater determinant of how our lives turn out.
I love this. What we are willing to endure is the determinant of our happiness. Roger Federer genuinely enjoys the pain associated with tennis. He enjoys training, studying other player's technique, thinking about tennis, preparing for a match, playing the match, and analyzing his performance afterwards.  Obviously, winning is much more enjoyable than losing, getting muscle cramps, or sweating while repeatedly practicing a serve. But if there isn't a sort of pleasure in the pain, even achieving winning status won't actually make him happy (see Andre Agassi's autobiography Open.)

Or here's another bit that I want to print out and frame:
The more we choose to accept responsibility in our lives, the more power we will exercise over our lives. Accepting responsibility for our problems is thus the first step to solving them. ... But there are also problems that we aren’t at fault for, yet we are still responsible for them.  ... 
Here’s one way to think about the distinction between the two concepts. Fault is past tense. Responsibility is present tense. Fault results from choices that have already been made. Responsibility results from the choices you’re currently making, every second of every day. 
I have never heard it put this way before. This has always been something I struggled with: it's just not FAIR that someone would have to bear the burden of another person's bad choices and mistakes! True. It's not fair. But it happens, and what we choose to do about it is what matters. We can't abdicate our responsibilities just because they're not our fault. We think we should be able to pass off the problem to whoever is at fault for it, but that doesn't actually work to our benefit the way we think it should. Often, the main argument here stems from the fact that whoever is taking the responsibility has to also bear the suffering associated with the situation. Well, that's actually okay, too. In fact, the suffering can be good.

Here's the essential corollary: 

Suffering without purpose is meaningless. 

But what gives you purpose? Ah...see, here's one of the greatest truths and biggest flaws in this book. Mark Manson says that purpose comes from knowing your values and making choices that are in line with those values. So if you value having lots of free time to create art, you will choose a job that doesn't require a great deal of time or mental energy. It's likely that you will suffer for a long time being bored at your job and living your life without financial security, but the suffering has purpose. It's supporting your ability to create art, and art is more important to you than financial security. So you actually love your suffering, and find it beautiful, because it's through that suffering that you are attaining the freedom that truly fulfills you.

These sorts of analogies are ever-present in the book, and all stem from the core advice he's giving the reader: to be intentional about what you value. The flaw in this is that it's very easy to spend your entire life pursuing the wrong values. Manson acknowledges this, and he does have a section where he advises the reader to consider their values under the following metrics:

Defining Good and Bad Values
Good values are 1) reality-based, 2) socially constructive, and 3) immediate and controllable.
Bad values are 1) superstitious, 2) socially destructive, and 3) not immediate or controllable. 

When I say this is a flaw, I don't mean that Mark Manson is wrong in his approach. But he's left out something that I consider to be of such fundamental importance that to omit it compromises his effectiveness. When he talks about whether a value is "socially constructive or destructive" he doesn't define the society he's trying to construct. He leaves it to the reader to determine whether the value is constructive or destructive, based (I assume) either on its results or its perception among like-minded people. This is likely because he comes from a humanist perspective rather than a religious one (in fact, the book makes it quite clear that he distrusts the faithful because of their  blind "certainty" which is another word for "faith.") In other words, he argues that what makes a value good is its independence from anything outside the reader's own self, but the truth is that goodness CANNOT be subjective.

Some examples of good, healthy values: honesty, innovation, vulnerability, standing up for oneself, standing up for others, self-respect, curiosity, charity, humility, creativity.
Some examples of bad, unhealthy values: dominance through manipulation or violence, indiscriminate fucking, feeling good all the time, always being the center of attention, not being alone, being liked by everybody, being rich for the sake of being rich, sacrificing small animals to the pagan gods.
You’ll notice that good, healthy values are achieved internally. Something like creativity or humility can be experienced right now. You simply have to orient your mind in a certain way to experience it. These values are immediate and controllable and engage you with the world as it is rather than how you wish it were.

From my perspective, there isn't a way to judge the merits of a value unless there is an external morality to hold it against. How can innovation be a value in and of itself? Innovation doesn't always lead to good things. The atomic bomb was an innovation. So was communism. Same thing with self-respect. I commend self-respect and believe all people should have it, but what does it do? Unless it's based on the truth that we are children of God, created in His image and therefore worthy of human dignity, AND THEN that truth leads us to the knowledge that ALL humanity is therefore worthy of human dignity, AND THEN we afford ALL PEOPLE that dignity, our self-respect is nothing more than a limited value which has no meaning outside our own experience of it.

Most societies have a complicated and not always well-defined set of social mores. Manson makes it the point of his book to challenge these mores and give his reader the tools to critically analyze the assumptions and values imposed by society, but stops short of providing an external system upon which the reader can then base their revised values.

The result is what Manson has observed about his own life's journey: he goes from one focus to another, likely drawing nearer and nearer to the truth, but never actually finding it, because real truth cannot be found within us.

Despite this, his advice is essential for those struggling with finding a constructive way to work through life's disappointments. It is the antidote to the "you can be anything you want, the sky's the limit, just believe in yourself and pursue your dreams!" false empowerment of the 80s and 90s that, from what I can see, has led to disillusionment when children grow up and discover that achieving their goals doesn't bring the happy ending they were promised by Disney, just more and different problems to overcome. Manson says, "That's ok! In fact, it's good!" Life is about meeting challenges and growing/learning/trying. There's no endpoint where the struggles are over and you just enjoy life like a Sultan in a fairy tale. Instead, choose the right struggles, and you'll enjoy the problems.

*Don't try to listen to this book in the car with kids. :)