Lessons from self-help land

How to manage what we care about

Even though the US Declaration of Independence says that human beings should be free to give themselves to “the pursuit of happiness,” it turns out that happiness may not be a goal worth pursuing.

That’s at least according to a spate of recent books that are crowding the self-help shelves in our bookshops and turning into best sellers.

It is hard to separate out the important from the trivial. Our emotional selves aren’t wise in what they choose to care about.

This is going to be an awkward article to write for Eternity, because the title of more than one of these books contains words that don’t as a rule appear in these pages. I am talking about Mark Manson’s book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F **k, Sarah Knight’s book The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a F **k, and Fabrice Midal’s book The French Art of Not Giving a F*ck. The in-your-face titles are unmissable and very successful marketing. It’s hard to miss them in the bookshop!

But they also tap into a sort of repressed anger and anxiety in potential readers – an emotional cluster that is part of the zeitgeist. We feel trapped by the demands that are pressing in upon us from all sides, unable to declutter our timetables, our homes, and even our heads. So many things worry us: Will my daughter get a job? Will it turn out that I’ve worn the wrong thing today – gone too informal when I should have put on a tie? What if I don’t get the best deal with the phone company? What if that person goes uncorrected on Twitter?

It is hard to separate out the important from the trivial. Our emotional selves aren’t wise in what they choose to care about. I can lay awake at night worrying about my friend’s cancer; or I can toss and turn fretting about what to have for breakfast. (Or is this just me?)

You are not exceptional. And especially, you are not entitled to a happy and prosperous life without doing what it takes in terms of hard work and sacrifice. And even then, you are not entitled to it.

So what’s to be done? What is the new life philosophy that is being suggested by these books? I thought I’d dig down into just one of these, and see.

Mark Manson’s book The Subtle Art of … is a confronting read, especially if you don’t like the F-word. But it is also personally confronting. This is not fluffy self-help. It’s direct and at points brutal. We need to understand some pretty blunt truths. For example, you are not special. What! That’s right. Manson challenges one of the dogmas of our age, namely, that each of us is special and has a special calling in life. From about the 1970s on, parents and teachers were told to concentrate on building the precious self-esteem of the children in their care. Christians even got in on the act, as Manson notes: “Pastors and ministers told their congregations that they were each uniquely special in God’s eyes, and were destined to excel and not be average” (p. 43).

The trouble with this is obvious. First of all, it isn’t true. Secondly, it is a very damaging philosophy.

You are not exceptional. And especially, you are not entitled to a happy and prosperous life without doing what it takes in terms of hard work and sacrifice. And even then, you are not entitled to it.

I encounter this sense of entitlement and deluded self-belief all the time, in grown-ups who should know better. There are people I’ve met who are in their mid-40s who are still chasing the dream of an easy but wealthy and famous life, but who don’t appear to be doing anything much at all. As Manson says: “People who feel entitled view every occurrence in their life as either an affirmation of, or a threat to, their own greatness.”

What Manson shows is that it’s our emphasis on feeling special and good about ourselves. It makes us unable to actually look at the negative parts of our character and improve on them, because we have been educated to deny that they are actually there.

Failure is good. Suffering is valuable.

This has also led to the alarming lack of resilience amongst a generation of students, who can’t bear to read books that they may deem offensive. If we measure everything by how it makes us feel, then when we encounter a view that upsets us, we start to act as if our human rights have been denied.

Emotions, says Manson, are overrated. This may be the most “blasphemous” thing he says in the whole book (despite the stream of profanities!). We make them the measure of our self-worth. Many of us overidentify with our emotions – which, as Manson argues, means that we justify everything on the basis of them. But, as he says: “Decision-making based on emotional intuition, without the aid of reason to keep it in line, pretty much always sucks” (p. 35).

Emotions don’t last, because the chemical states in our bodies that give us those emotions don’t last. That means that happiness is only ever something we have fleetingly. Which means that we will always be chasing the next thing that we think will bring us happiness. We are better off realising that ultimate happiness, complete fulfillment, and an end to suffering are, humanly speaking, out of reach.

Happiness, says Manson, requires struggle. We need to fail. We need to consider the process of achieving a goal, not just the desirable goal. Do you want a great relationship? Then you need to be willing to go through the painful process of confronting the truth and having the awkward conversations. You want to be fit? You need to embrace the gym. And so on. What Manson writes is actually not new. He draws on ancient teaching, like the teaching of Buddha and the Stoic philosophers. Not giving a f**k is not about not caring about anything. It is about choosing to care for the right things. I think there is much that is wise here, and in part an antidote to soul-pain of contemporary life.

We can’t walk around with a “don’t give a  f**k” attitude, because plainly, we are supposed to. Aren’t we?

You aren’t special. Feelings are fleeting. Failure is good. Suffering is valuable. But Manson’s life-philosophy also is familiar to readers of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. From the Teacher, we learn that the things we dedicate ourselves to pass like the morning mist. Our lives are often filled with frustration and sorrow; and pleasure, when pursued, is like a cul-de-sac. We are forgettable and easily forgotten. Everything that so occupies us now will pass away. Learning these truths is, paradoxically, the path to being satisfied with what we do have.

But there’s a theological edge to Ecclesiastes that is missing from Manson, Buddha and the Stoics. While all of these writers are refreshingly realistic about death, in Ecclesiastes death is not the end in itself. Death opens us up to the judgment of God, who places the limits on our existence. This, says Ecclesiastes, “is the conclusion of the matter: fear God and keep his commandments, for this is duty of humankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment” (12:13-14).  This means that there is a significance to what we do, since God will judge it. What we do in life more than “echoes in eternity” (to quote the Stoic philosophy of the movie Gladiator). It is remembered by our maker. It is not we who give meaning to things. Rather we submit to the meaning that God gives to things.

We are in one sense “special” since God made us in his image and Christ laid down his life for us. But this is never to lead to a sense of entitlement, since the model we have of Christ teaches us to give up our entitlements. When Jesus rebuked James and John – who were after the best seats at the table in Jesus’ kingdom – he overturned the notion that anything in the Christian life could look like the personal exceptionalism of our contemporaries.

But there’s one thing that I think Christians do find very difficult. And that is: we are those who are supposed to care. We are told not to refrain from love, but to love expansively. And I think we need to think more carefully about this, because we tend to carry the burden of caring about everything and everyone. We are not to be uncaring about the suffering of the innocent, or the injustice that blights our world, or the inequalities in our own neighbourhoods. We can’t walk around with a “don’t give a  f**k” attitude, because plainly, we are supposed to. Aren’t we?

Manson’s response would be “caring that much is killing you, and so you need to be selective.” That’s wise. But Christians have another way to manage caring. When we recognise that we serve a God who is both sovereign and loving, we know that we don’t have to be sovereignly loving. God has his eye on what we don’t. We don’t have to bear the burden of the lost world on our shoulders, since he has it in hand. We can cast all our anxieties on him, since he cares for us (1 Peter 5:7). And this actually liberates us to join with him in his work to transform the world and to experience his joy, even amidst many trials.

Michael Jensen is the rector of St Mark’s Anglican Church in Darling Point, Sydney, and the author of several books.

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