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Saturday
Jan192013

De-Motivational Quotes

(I wasn't going to post this as it's a teensy bit off-topic, but this week it's what I got. I'll write something about fat loss next week - Zack)

This weekend I read Mortality by Christopher Hitchens, a collection of his final essays for Vanity Fair documenting his experience with oesophageal cancer. It's a moving and thoroughly unsentimental book, an antidote to the mawkish likes of Randy Pausch's Last Lecture.

Hitchens illustrates (with greater style and persuasiveness than I could muster on my best day, despite being monged out on radiation and chemo while writing it) the biggest gripe I have with the portrayal of cancer victims in the media.

They're brave heroes in a battle we're told, "fighters" who can "beat this thing".
It's well meaning and quite natural to want to offer encouragement to someone in a terrible situation. But it has some ugly implications, for example -

If cancer is a battle, a fight one either wins or lacks the grit to wage, then doesn't that make you a loser if you die from it? Is cancer a meritocratic disease, only taking those who give up?

It strikes me as a patronising way of talking about something we all feel uncomfortable around, offering a simplistic narrative framework; good versus evil, hard work versus seemingly impossible odds. And it ignores the stark reality of the cancer experience which, for Hitchens at least, is passive, dreary and often humiliating. An ordeal he often wasn't sure he had the will to continue.

Hitchens spends one chapter debunking the phrase "what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger", which he had often trotted out to make light of his monstrous booze habit.

(By the way Nietzche, who first wrote those words, contracted syphilis. The illness left him blind, demented and paralysed and his later work was severely compromised as a result ...didn't kill him though).

As Hitch listed the many and various reasons why this platitude was incorrect, it provoked a few thoughts (Aside from the obvious, that debating him must have felt like trying to arm wrestle a gorilla even if the motion was "is water wet?" and you were arguing the affirmative) about motivational slogans in general.

If the goal of these phrases is to encourage hard work, to provide the get up and go necessary to achieve great things, then more often than not I feel it has the opposite effect. Is it truly motivating to read yet another clichéd quote telling us to work harder? Or another example of some long dead VIP who failed a few times before succeeding on a massive scale? The fitness industry is rife with this kind of thing. An endless procession of dead politicians, athletes or authors queue up to chastise us from beyond the grave, telling us to pull up our socks and “never, ever, ever give up”?

I don’t know about you but I think if I was lying on a hospital bed dosed up on radiation I’d get a little sick of it all, and perhaps feel entitled to be down in the dumps occasionally. Sadly in the case of cancer, research has shown that those who chose to “fight” die just as often as those he adopt a more passive mental affect. Yep, I’m just a barrel of laughs today. But wait, there’s more.

The philosopher John Stewart Mill said; “ask yourself wether you are happy, and you cease to be so”

The problem with much motivational imagery is it paints the future as some far away place where you are always happy and fulfilled, always have enough money and never experience stress.

But it’s never the future, it’s only ever now. Focusing on those future goals inevitably means focusing on what you lack. Looking to high achieving people for inspiration means dwelling on the shortfall between yourself and another supposedly more successful person. These are fast routes to unhappiness.

Words are powerful , and we should be mindful of the ones we fill our heads with. Hitchen's knew it. He fought against the tide of inanity to redress the balance in favour of intelligent discourse. We are as much what we read as what we eat. So if inspiration is your goal try skipping the nutrient-poor fast food of motivational quotes in favour of a heartier intellectual feed.

There are a range of emotional states out there from blissed-out euphoria, to melancholy, to fired-up and fully engaged creative flow. A fully rounded human experiences the whole gamut, not shying away from complex or even (gasp) occasionally "negative" feelings, but not dwelling on them either.

If I was to offer a cliche of my own that chimes with my feelings it would be - "This too shall pass". Though often offered as encouragement in times of sadness, the real message is a philosophy of non-attachment. Sad feelings will pass, true, but so too will happy ones.

I'm with the Stoics and Buddhists on this one. If anything, happiness seems to retreat in response to being chased. Serenity is really where it's at. And when you get there happiness seems more likely to come find you anyway.

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