The Big Sandy Mountaineer -

Patching Cracks


November 20, 2019

The treadmill was originally invented as a torture device for prisoners. Prisoners were chained in place on a cycling belt that simply continued to move. The prisoners were forced to run or walk in place for hours at a time as a form of torture. It’s a pretty ingenious torture device, if you think about it. You work all day, exhausting yourself, but never accomplish anything for your efforts. After sweating and straining all day, you are still standing in the same place you were when you started. I recently read a book by a philosophy professor named Svend Brinkmann about the self-help industry. In it, Brinkmann argues that the world of self-help is a little like a treadmill. The underlying assumption that makes self-help work is the idea that you are not good enough as you are and therefore, must work to become something better. The problem is that the ideal version of yourself that we are told we should be like is an ever-changing and shifting target. There is no absolute “good” version of ourselves presented in these books, so we often end up running forever after goals that are simply unreachable. Fitness and weight loss are one good example of this. The ideal version of what we should look like is pretty unattainable because it is almost always an airbrushed photoshopped version of a person who is a member of the genetically blessed .001 percent of people that are astonishingly beautiful no matter what. As a result, no matter how hard we work out or how healthy we eat, we will never be that person. It’s simply not possible. Fitness isn’t the only example of this phenomena, though it is certainly the biggest. Self-help gurus and life coaches dangle the promise of happiness and peace through better organization, assertiveness, stress free living, and a million other things as an enticement to sell books or listen to advice all the time. In reality, the problem with these goals is that happiness is not a state that can be grabbed hold of or held on to. For the most part, when we begin to approach the ideal version of ourselves that we think we should arrive at, the goalposts move. I’ve spoken to so many people that think that if they could just be thinner or the perfect mom, then they’d be happy. When they get closer to their goal, the habit of constant self critique and labeling ourselves “not good enough” doesn’t stop, resulting in discontentment. Self-improvement is a bit like a treadmill in an old prison. It never stops, and we don’t usually get anywhere doing it. Brinkman argues that the key to achieving happiness in light of this sad truth is to aim your efforts outward and help others. He also argues that we should become stoic and simply accept that our lot in life is what it is and that we should be content with it. I’d argue that he’s partly right. He assumes that we have no actual purpose in life because life is essentially meaningless. I would argue that we were created by God with a purpose that is the key to living a content and joy-filled life. God designed us to live in a way that is focused on having a relationship with Him, loving/serving those around us, and enjoying His creation. There is a place for self improvement in this perspective, but it is based on being better so we can serve him better. This may seem odd, but I’d compare it to my relationship with my wife. She wants me to be healthy and in a generally happier mood. I’ve found that daily exercise accomplishes these goals and has a few other benefits. So, I work out every day. I do it, largely, because it is good for my family. This way self improvement is focused on other people, rather than some vague idea of the self. Focusing on a larger purpose is the key to finding contentment and fulfillment in life. It is a part of our design, but is not typically the way our culture operates, mainly because being yourself and focusing on expressing yourself is worshiped in our day and age. The problem with this is that there is nothing bigger or better to be found in the self. When we focus


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