The subtle art of Mark Manson

Life, sometimes...I have a healthy skepticism towards anything labelled a “self-help” book – especially those that aim at making your life happier or more fulfilled through some fad, superstition or pseudoscience. I am, as you know from this blog, cynical towards the unending volume of New Age woo hoo, fads and pseudoscience that pollutes bookstore shelves and the internet.

I’m more of the “life’s a bitch and then you die” outlook kind-of-person than someone in search of a happy-platitude guru. I don’t post pictures of kittens, puppies or angels on my Facebook timeline. I’ve never been into that cosmic happiness-bucket list self-esteem-boosting selfie thing. Even in the Sixties when Timothy Leary was leading the charge for better living through chemistry, I was skeptical about claims of instant gratification available through the all-of all-the-answers-to-be-found-within-my-(book/religion/teaching/drug/politics) outlets for mass gratification.

Or mass gullibility. But people want answers to the meaning of life, and in our culture they want them quickly. Sometimes it’s easier to just take what you’re fed than work them out the hard way. Take the red pill and I’ll give you all the answers you need to know. Religion has been handing the red pills out for our entire history. Self-help or self-improvement books have been close behind, with us ever since the dawn of writing.

“Self help” books are really oxymorons: they’re someone else telling you what to do. They’re author help, not self help, like the old paper Arthur Murray dance steps on the floor which you carefully step across without the music. Life lessons on how to live, love, shop, drive, code, wash your dog, plant your garden. Often these books are little more than sales pitches for more of the same; for subscriptions, or additional products. Snake oil wrapped in cotton candy.

But some run deeper. Some are lessons in philosophy and politics drawn from personal experience and deep thought. Some aren’t as much step-by-step lessons as invitations to think about the options and consequences. True, not many today, because thinking is too hard for the selfie generation and interrupts their obsessed gazing at their smartphones, but now and then a book pops up in the self-help section that makes me look twice. Such is the case of Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck (HarperCollins, 2016).

After all, isn’t that just what you feel like sometimes? Not giving a f*ck. I know I sure do. Especially after an hour on Facebook or watching Collingwood Council drag us into municipal despair.*

I had to buy a copy with a title like that. But what really sold me was the chapter titled “You Are Not Special.” Yep, I need to read that one.

I’m tired of the ‘I’m special, you’re special, we’re all exceptional’ folderol, the awards for losing instead of winning, the deflection of constructive criticism in case it dents a bubble of precious self esteem and the claptrap about indigo children. No, you’re not special. Neither am I. Indigo children are just spoiled kids with loopy parents. We’re all just one out of seven billion. There weren’t angels attending your birth, the gods don’t favour you and unicorns don’t follow when you commute to work. Get over it.

Mark Manson is a blogger of some enviable skill, with an often humorous bent towards profanity, but I gotta admit I wasn’t sold by this self-aggrandizing intro on his website:

I am a bestselling author, blogger and internet entrepreneur. I specialize in personal development advice that doesn’t suck. Some people say I’m an idiot. Other people say I saved their life. Read and decide for yourself.

Sure, we all puff our CVs, but “saved their life”? And “personal development advice” just sounds like more New Age life-coach-guru codswallop. I can only assume he’s being tongue in cheek (my own CV will soon feature my trip to the moon where I rescued the astronauts…). And his ex GF certainly has some uncomplimentary things to say about him, calling him a “master manipulator” among other things. But I’m not really concerned about his sex life or his past, sleazy or otherwise. I’m curious about his philosophy.

He’s cynical. And I like that in a writer because I am, too. For example, after he receives the, “…11,504th email this year from a person telling me that they don’t know what to do with their life,” Manson comments:

…what I want to say to these people is this: that’s the whole point — “not knowing” is the whole fucking point. Life is all about not knowing, and then doing something anyway. All of life is like this. All of it. And it’s not going to get any easier just because you found out you love your job cleaning septic tanks or you scored a dream gig writing indie movies.

The rest of the piece continues in the same vein, with the occasional digression into sappiness counterbalanced by his trademark profanity. I can forgive him both now and then. Okay, some of his posts aren’t the sarcastic, cutting, poke you in the eye with a sharp stick sort that I prefer to read. Some are actual advice and even reasonable commentary on the condition of existence. I’ll forgive those, too. Mostly because he says this in the pivotal article on which the book is based (and is reiterated in chapter one):

SUBTLETY #1: NOT GIVING A FUCK DOES NOT MEAN BEING INDIFFERENT; IT MEANS BEING COMFORTABLE WITH BEING DIFFERENT

Okay, you sniff some Stoic philosophy here? A little hint of Marcus Aurelius maybe? Me too. Stoicism is what I’m spending a lot of time reading about these days because it dances well with what I have learned about Buddhist mindfulness. Possibly I’m reading too much of it because I sometimes forget to read literature, history, politics, science and poetry or to watch QI on Acorn. That means I get grumpily serious. Life isn’t about being grumpy. Well, not all the time, so I’m told.

Manson says this on his website (spoiler alert):

…most of us struggle throughout our lives by giving too many fucks in situations where fucks do not deserve to be given. We give a fuck about the rude gas station attendant who gave us too many nickels. We give a fuck when a show we liked was canceled on TV. We give a fuck when our coworkers don’t bother asking us about our awesome weekend. We give a fuck when it’s raining and we were supposed to go jogging in the morning.
Fucks given everywhere. Strewn about like seeds in mother-fucking spring time. And for what purpose? For what reason? Convenience? Easy comforts? A pat on the fucking back maybe?
This is the problem, my friend.
Because when we give too many fucks, when we choose to give a fuck about everything, then we feel as though we are perpetually entitled to feel comfortable and happy at all times, that’s when life fucks us.

Of course there has to be more content than the title of the book suggests. After all, just not giving a f*ck is little more than a bumper sticker on a pickup truck. Life is a lot more complicated than simple epithets can capture. Even Marcus Aurelius had to do some ‘splainin’ about what he meant.

Manson invokes the memory of Charles Bukowski on page one. Kee-rist – Bukowski? I can’t imagine anyone more the antithesis of the tanned, buff, selfie-snapping, designer-footwear-clad personal life coach than Bukowski. He was a drunken, dishevelled, chauvinistic, pessimistic, lecherous writer. Great talent as a writer, mind you, albeit a bit raw, but not the sort of lifestyle self-help authors advise you to emulate. Okay, Manson, you got my attention.

Bukowski’s claim to fame in Manson’s eyes was not his shambolic life or writing, but what it says on his tombstone: Don’t try. Another bumper sticker, but Manson fleshes it out not only through the rest of the chapter, but the whole book. Stop trying to be successful, rich, pretty, powerful or indigo as your source of happiness. Pay attention to you here and now and learn to live with who you are, not the Pavlovian you who you’ve been conditioned to aspire to.

Well, nothing new there. Back in 1971, Baba Ram Dass said pretty much the same thing in his book, Be Here Now. Manson’s words aren’t sheathed in the Asian philosophy and religion that Ram Dass used, but they say pretty much the same thing. Well, except that Manson writes f*ck a lot more than Ram Dass.

And it’s also the point of Buddhist mindfulness and the core of Zen (in fact, Manson opens chapter two with the Buddha’s story). As the parable goes in Paul Reps’ Zen Flesh Zen Bones:

A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming
to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him
from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, mother tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine
sustained him.
Two mice one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near
him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!

The take-away from Manson’s first chapter – and basically the rest of the 200-plus pages – is simply to choose appropriate things to give a f*ck about. Pretty much what was in the Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff books, shorn of the saccharine hand-holding, life-affirming goo.

And if you’re like me, you really don’t want to read the gooey bits. I’d rather take my lessons straight, no mixer, no ice. No matter how thick the goo gets spread, no matter how sweet it tastes everyone’s life is overruled by one simple fact: we’re all going to die. Manson reminds us that on page 13 and several other times in the book. Start with the inevitable, accept it, and the rest is easier to work out.**

Thumb through the book and you’ll read:

Not everyone can be extraordinary – there are winners and losers in society, and some if it is not fair or your fault.

So if that’s all it is, you ask, why read the rest? Just a bunch of aphorisms that will pair well with a picture of a kitten on Facebook? Well, because like I said: life is more complicated than bumper stickers lead us to believe. Everything doesn’t happen for a purpose: sometimes the toast lands jam-side down just because. It’s nice to have someone else reaffirm that. I mean aside from Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and the rest of the dead philosophers. Someone more recent, written in a language that doesn’t sound fusty. And Manson is never fusty.

But to appreciate Manson or anyone today professing a philosophical bent, you have to know at least a modicum of what the classical authors wrote. They have a clarifying effect on our thinking and help us strain the modern works through the bullshit filter. And we need that filter increasingly these days, it seems.

Besides, reading someone like Marcus Aurelius has a nice calming effect after your blood has become heated by reading someone like Manson. He’s my go-to guy at the moment – Marcus, I mean (but beware: many of the so-called quotes from Marcus found online are mis-attributed or simply made up. Go to the source, or Wikiquote, not the phony quotation sites for real content). But I’m willing to share my bookshelf space with contemporaries like Manson.

Manson’s final chapter (9) is “And Then You Die.” You might jump ahead a few chapters to read it before you finish the rest. We’re a culture and time that isn’t comfortable with death; more focused on what we can buy, eat, screw, or read (well, in my case). But that may be changing as Boomers increasingly occupy the grey zone and contemplate the end of life as part of the process. Or they may be thinking about how to squeeze another six months in a Florida condo. I don’t know. I can only speak for myself, one of those greying Boomers.

The Stoic attitude is that what we do now, when we’re alive, matters more than what happens when we die. Which as far as I’m concerned means becoming worm food rather than some celestial throne in an indigo heaven. But neither matters in that our beliefs cannot change the result.

My personal “not giving a f*ck” is dying. Not that I want to, or have it all planned out, but since it’s unavoidable, no amount of worrying will change the inevitable. What matters is how we behave today: what we do for others, what we contribute to the world, not what we take out of it.

Manson writes: “Thinking about death forces us to zero in on what’s actually important in our lives and what’s just frivolous and distracting.” Again that echoes what Marcus Aurelius wrote “Since it is possible that thou mayest depart from life this very moment, regulate every act and thought accordingly.” What the Chinese call Ke ji feng gong: work unselfishly for the common good.

I’m not saying Manson merely plagiarises Marcus or the Buddha, just that he says a lot of the same things. But that’s okay: he’s not the first and will certainly not be the last writer to take to heart the Stoic views and rewrite them into modern idiom. Every generation finds these truths for itself. He may be the snarkiest of late, but not the first. And his in-your-face, intellectual wedgie approach is, if nothing else, refreshing.

But like all self-help/self-improvement books, Manson can only offer general advice, not specific. Your life is not found in his pages, merely some parallels, common anecdotes of fellow travellers, some parables. Soul searching is a private experience: each one of us has to go through our own ‘mene mene tekel upharsin’ and decide for ourselves how to redress the balance in our lives.

~~~~~
* As models of this philosophy, The Block should be recognized: they have collectively mastered the art of not giving a f*ck about anyone else but themselves.
** Stoics don’t have the monopoly on a pragmatic attitude towards life. Epicureans have their views. Existentialists say much the same thing, but they’re latecomers to the party. A millennium ago the Rubaiyat offered a Stoic-like vision in verse 51:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

That sounds pretty Stoic to me. Then there’s my favourite verse :

Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring
The Winter Garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly—and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing.

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