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The State Religion is Constant Self-Improvement

Photo by Flickr user rivieramaya26

Bookslut writes about Judith Warner’s column on “yoga memoirs” like she took the words right out of my mouth.

“It was with joy/frustration/hilarity that I read, then, Judith Warner’s piece in the New York Times about the rise of the yoga memoir. And how it ties into the death of feminist political action, because all anyone wants to do anymore is “find themselves.” These days that means in the yoga studio, in the bedroom, in their home, rather than in their community, their job, their consciousness raising group. I read a list yesterday of the whatever 11 resolutions all women need to make for 2011, and of course it was nurture your soul, find time for yourself, not let’s go out and rally for real political change, or let’s protest our banks’ behavior by taking our money out, or let’s establish a community garden so that we make sure our children, regardless of financial situation, are getting nutritious, fresh food. No, let’s light a scented candle and talk to our inner child.”

Ha!  Look, I’m not going to make the case that yoga is bad, because obviously it’s really good and good for you and more importantly, I happen to enjoy it and feel better when I do it.  And I’m not going to make the case that having a clean and organized home is bad.  I’m sure if I could ever figure out how to have one I would really enjoy that too!  And I’m not going to make the case that all the “real” feminism happened in the 1970s, because there is a vast and diverse community of brilliant men and women figuring it out in front of us as we go.  I’m also unsure about the whole take-all-you- money-out-of-the-banks-by-way-of-protest thing, because it makes me think of the guy in my hometown who has Revolutionary War cannons in his front yard and once put a baby raccoon into my trick-or-treat bag.  I bet he took all his money out of the banks years ago.

But I’m thinking back to Brene Brown’s talk, and how one of the things we do to numb ourselves against fear and vulnerability is to “perfect.”  Sometimes the world really makes me scared and angry, like when the financial industry runs a protection scam on the entire country, or we start a bunch of wars that we don’t know how to get out of. It makes me really scared and angry when we torture people – even really bad people – because I think there are things that humans should Just Not Do Ever.  I should totally do something about all of that, after I find an exercise regime that really works for me and find a way to pare my wardrobe down to a few elegant and perfect essentials and try out some meditation and relaxation techniques so I can become more centered.

There is this amazingly powerful idea at the center of American culture that we are in charge of our own happiness.   We are responsible for creating our own lives.  We are the Captains of our Fate and Masters of our Domains Souls.  This narrative leads to, for some people, just…indescribable amounts of prosperity, freedom, creativity, invention, and the courage and power to bring about progress and change in the world.

But I think that there is a way that this gets twisted that is not to our collective benefit.  It leads to something that I’ll call The Duty To Be Okay that is so pervasive that it can be found in our most innocuous of every day interactions. Try this:

Person: Hello!  How are you today?

You: Really good, how are you?

Person: Great!

The ritual has been completed.  You can now safely continue with your interaction.  Contrast with this:

Person: Hello, how are you today?

You: Eh, not so good.  I feel a migraine coming on, and I don’t have any retirement savings, so I’m afraid of being old and sick and poor.  Also that shooting in Arizona the other day has me thinking about how we could die at any moment, and I’m really angry about politics.

Metallic Female Voice: “Warning!  Social contract broken!  Warning!  Social contract broken!”

What’s important is not how you actually are.  What is important is the ritual.  “Hi, we’re two Americans, and we’ve both signaled our understanding of social norms and worthiness to be included in the group!”  Barbara Ehrenreich writes about this cultural duty to think positive thoughts and express only positive emotions in her book Bright-Sided, which I swear I will totally get around to reading soon.

When there is a cultural duty to be okay – to be prosperous, healthy, grateful (we could also add “white” and “thin” here, if we wanted to start a big Internet shitfight, which…don’t rule it out.) – when something in your life is not okay it must be your fault.  Because you can improve, if you just try and believe!  And buy this stuff! Or this stuff! Or this stuff! Or this stuff! That’s our America right now, that’s late-stage-capitalism.  “If you don’t feel okay, it’s your fault. So buy this stuff, and work on your problems, because you have a duty to the republic to be happy and productive, and if we can just find just the right formula of insecurity, motivation, and products to buy we can create a constant cycle of self-improvement that will create such tunnel vision in you that you will stop thinking about injustices and savage inequalities and bad news altogether and all your anger will be turned against yourself and those last 5 pounds that you can never quite lose.”  Your self-hatred is very, very profitable for corporations and the ruling class.

And like, you can probably change a lot of things about your life with the right mindset and a lot of hard work.  I’m one of those people who has enough privilege and education that I have few excuses for not Being My Best Self.  But….sometimes I’m sad, really, really sad. And sometimes that’s a factor of brain chemistry and the unceasing Chicago winter, and sometimes that’s because things are really fucked up in a way that I can’t defeat with eating These! Top! Five! Power! Foods! Changing the world means thinking about the world and your connection to other people. It takes collective action.  It takes patience and perseverance and hope and luck and time and effort and getting outside your comfort zone and a whole bunch of other qualities I possess in a limited amount so I hoard them for my own personal improvement.

And god, there are so many traps.  Like, I don’t want to fall into the trap of beating up on lady writers who write about yoga, like, “God, stupid yoga ladies, how dare you be so fucking trivial and self-involved that you write about your own experiences in your own way instead of focusing on Important Issues that I, A Very Serious Important Person (Usually A Dude or a Lady Who Belittles Other Ladies To Obtain Approval From Dudes), Decide are Really Important When It Is Convenient?”  Jane Austen wrote about novels about medium-pretty women of medium intelligence and medium social class trying to get married that she based on her own experiences and observations.  They are fucking awesome.  As the great Rebecca Traister said, “”We have to remember: There is nothing wrong with women writing about themselves, their youth, their indiscretions, their habits and values and personal development. Men have been writing about this stuff for thousands of years; they call it the canon.”  And I don’t want to fall into the trap of beating up on you, Dear Reader, who are just trying to carve out the happiness you can in this mixed-up crazy world.  My biggest accomplishment today was eating enough servings of fruit and vegetables and calling out another advice columnist for something she wrote about anal sex and seeing that, as of now, 13 people who are not me have read it.  It’s hard enough to make time for yourself to exercise without falling into that other great LadyTrap:  Feeling guilty about the things you do for your own pleasure.  I keep a blog where I take pictures of pretty food.  I hold the moral high ground over no person.

Which is why I really loved this post by La Belette Rouge“I’m not happy unless I am dissatisfied with something: Self-Help meets Psychoanalysis.

“…when I get to a place of satisfaction or contentment( two words that I hate; I also hate the words ‘average’ and ‘ordinary’) I start to feel bored, depressed and unsettled. And so I start looking for something to fix, change or improve. A gazillion years ago…I was in a short-lived( pre-Jungian therapy) Anthony Robbins phase( I can’t believe I am admitting to you that I owned and listened to the Awaken the Giant Within series—-oh,the shame!). Tony was big on acronyms. One of this mighty redwood of self-help’s favorite acronyms was “C.A.N.I.” which stands for constant and never ending improvement.  I have forgotten most of what Anthony said on those tapes….(but) I have, ever since listening to Tony, been a convert to the idea of constant and never-ending improvement. And while that is all well and good it is also not so good and not going so well.

There are times when N.I.B.I.H. would be better. What does N.I.B.I.H. mean? I didn’t expect you to know because I just made this up. N.I.B.I.H. means ‘No improvements because I’m happy.’ Yeah, it seems rather lame compared to C.A.N.I. and yet I think N.I.B.I.H. might be something that I want to consider. Change is good. Striving is fantastic. But shouldn’t not stiving and enjoying what is be good, at least once in a while?”… I know that my conversion to C.A.N.I.-ism likely came to me so easily because I tend to feel like I am not enough…”

I chopped that up horribly to remove references that might only make sense to La Belette’s regular readers, so go read the whole thing. She’s great.

We’re back to Brene Brown’s great TED talk, right?  We feel vulnerable, and like we’re not enough, so we try to perfect ourselves.  The problems of the world are too overwhelming, and believe me when I say I am a huge news and politics junkie and even I got to the place where “I can’t listen to the news.  It’s just too depressing and I can’t do anything about it anyway” right around January 20, 2001 and stayed there for most of the next 8 years.

I want to exercise, and eat right, and be a better person.  But I guess what I want is to not use those things to hide from the world.  I don’t want to take the anger I feel about things in the world and turn it on myself for not feeling 100% okay all the time.  I don’t want to do that stuff because of messages in the culture and my own head that tell me constantly:  “You are not enough.”   I don’t want to lie to myself that if I just achieve a perfect body and an organized closet and become debt free and figure out how to have more orgasms that it’s a substitute for getting angry at things that deserve my anger.

So I think my own test for myself, just a baby step for right now, is to separate “should” from “want to” when I think about things that are good for me.  “I should volunteer more” leads to “What’s wrong with me that I don’t volunteer more?” leads to depression and inaction as I think about all the things I selfishly do instead of volunteering.  “I want to volunteer more” leads to “Where should I volunteer?” and maybe leads to actual volunteering. Or at least Googling places I might volunteer.

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5 comments
  1. geekgirl99 said:

    Wow, that “yoga memoirs” thing really struck a chord with me. It’s true, where are all the New Year’s Resolutions to go kick up some activist dust? This whole entry really resonated with me; thanks for sharing these thoughts!

  2. Virginia said:

    So I think “broken social contract” is one of the reasons why folks are terrified of grieving persons. Sometimes a person in grief is not able to say “Fine, thanks, and you?” Sometimes the very best thing you can say is “Still hanging onto the edge of the cliff.”

    • JenniferP said:

      I wish that you were able to just say “I’m still pretty sad about my Dad’s passing, thank you for asking, and how are you?” and break the social contract. You’re not looking for anything from the other person, you’re just saying the truth of what is and inviting them to tell you the truth back, but, we’re American and that’s too hard.

      • Virginia said:

        You know what? I have started saying that kind of thing. I try not to be a dick about it, but I’m not going to carry another person’s burden of their discomfort at honesty.

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