Written for my column ("The Tao of Shawn") of the Highlander Newspaper at UC Riverside.
Fight Club PhilosophyChuck Palahniuk hypothesized about the virtues of self-destruction in his novel “Fight Club.” While just about any college student is familiar with the movie or book, and many enjoy it, Tyler Durden’s underlying philosophy is very rarely taken seriously. It’s a difficult notion to digest, given the idea that education and application are the essence of improving oneself.
“Nothing is static. Even the Mona Lisa is falling apart. Since fight club, I can wiggle half the teeth in my jaw. Maybe self-improvement isn’t the answer … Maybe self-destruction was the answer.”
But what the Palahniuk work—and I, for that matter—suggest is that the obliteration of self is necessary to improve. It doesn’t have to involve basement brawls or self-mutilation. Those avenues are tired, lined by the less than ideal adolescent role models with too much black in their wardrobe, and habitually lead to other interruptions into any semblance of growth. Rather, deconstructing the world around you through introspective thought and analysis can greatly improve your well-being and, frankly, your worth to those around you.
Zen Buddhist philosophy emphasizes the importance of meditation and self-examination. What distinguishes the “Zen” from the rest of the dogma is a stressing of sudden enlightenment, an emphasis on the here and now. At one point in life, every man is capable of reaching a sudden realization, an enlightenment, which will allow him to grow. In a sense, it’s like a lifetime’s second wind.
Unfortunately, we as a community are too often content with who we are, shirking introspection for diversion. When Joe Sixpack realizes he’s got a drinking problem, he habitually fumbles with his addiction. When Jane Doe’s grades drop because she’s partying too much, she’ll inevitably fall back into the habit after a week or two. There are tons of self-help sessions offered on campus, seminars designed to aid with your time management, drinking problem, problème du jour. Like enrolling a peewee gangster into AYSO soccer, it doesn’t fix the issue more than it just provides another distraction.
Many people don’t get that second wind. You might know them from high school. They’re working for their dad or uncle and, after a few years of community college, resigned to a career that they hate. But they cling to their hobbies and pastimes, drink too much and reminisce about their high school days. As UC students, we wouldn’t dare categorize ourselves with those types. Unfortunately, we’ve fallen in love with our ideas so much that we fail to objectively critique them when it is absolutely necessary.
Dr. Sam Vaknin’s “Malignant Self Love” contests that the narcissist actually doesn’t hold any love for himself. Because he lives in an illusionary world, full of illusion and projection, and predictably earns the admiration of his peers because confidence is valued so highly by our insecure culture, he can’t love himself because he rightly does not know who his real self is.
The solution lies in self-deconstruction. While Fight Club espouses self-destruction, and other works like I Heart Huckabees adopt the promise of enlightenment through nihilism and emptiness, it’s the removing of layers that allows for growth. Self-improvement is, in fact, masturbation. Partly because the idea connotes creepy images of Richard Simmons and Tony Robbins, but mainly because it masks underlying problems with supposed and accepted social norms, like Kathy Griffin caking on the makeup and pretending everything is all better.
Through self-examination, you’ll probably feel pretty horrible. It is an exhaustive process, one that requires questioning practically every personal practice and relationship. But when that point of realization comes, that sudden enlightenment, it will all be worth it. Most don’t ever try. Many fall into a state of self-loathing and depression. Those that succeed understand its necessity; the deconstructing of a world based on illusion and skewed priority. Too often, it is horrific. Consistently, it is Zen-like sudden. Usually, it comes from an unexpected slap in the face, usually from someone whose judged through a transparent and insecure appearance. It’s a traumatic experience, but one that can yield dividends and ultimately lead to true self-esteem and awareness.
The War on Drugs can never be won. Hip hop has regressed into paltry, repetitive spoken word over monotonous bass beats. Epic Movie was the nation’s top grossing film last week and America’s Funniest Home Videos is still on the air. This nation, as has the media-saturated contemporary world, has accepted base distraction with open arms. We delude ourselves willingly to avoid having to deal with our own issues. And when we choose to finally face them, we too often half-ass it, preferring to not actually fix anything and just distract ourselves with trifling entertainment and supposed “self-improvement.”
“Only after disaster can we be resurrected,” writes Palahniuk.
Malcolm Gladwell, the author of bestsellers “Blink” and “The Tipping Point,” recently defended Enron in an article for The New Yorker. His argument was inspired by the idea that the warning signs for the company’s unethical practices were right in front of an audience enamored with Enron’s surprising growth. All it took was Jon Weil of the Wall Street Journal, looking at reports accessible to anyone interested, to break the story and expose Enron’s crimes. The same pattern exists with the individual. To improve oneself, it doesn’t take a self-help book, counseling, structure or distracting externalities. A dedicated, consistent approach to self-awareness and, accordingly, self-deconstruction are the answers.
While not exactly the best basis for a life-changing philosophy, “Fight Club” still gets a few things right.
"It's only after you've lost everything," Tyler says, "that you're free to do anything."
Rather, I contest, that it is only after you have realized that improving the self first comes with finding its true entity that you are free to grow. As students of different schools of thought, it is first our responsibility to study ourselves and quit playing the tourist of life.