Yesterday, an email arrived in my inbox from a popular “lifestyle design” website. This sales letter encouraged me to become a rebellious Jedi Knight and design my life on my terms by joining a mentoring and training program along with like-minded revolutionaries. The pitch contained the following hilarious typo (emphasis mine):
The [product name removed] is the belief system (or faith) that underpins an accomplished, virtuous, successful, and joyous life – a life free from the tyrannical oppression of independent thought and independent action.
Ah, finally some honesty in advertising. For what is the consumer of such a personal development product really wanting than a guaranteed blueprint to self-actualization, a life free from the oppressing existential dread of having to make decisions amidst a backdrop of groundlessness and meaninglessness!
Ordinarily we think of freedom as an unequivocally positive concept. … Yet freedom viewed from the perspective of ultimate ground is riveted to dread. In its existential sense “freedom” refers to the absence of external structure. …the individual is entirely responsible for…his or her own world, life design, choices, and actions. “Freedom” in this sense, has a terrifying implication: it means that beneath us there is no ground—nothing, a void, an abyss. A key existential dynamic, then, is the clash between our confrontation with groundlessness and our wish for ground and structure.
~from the introduction of Existential Psychotherapy by Irvin D. Yalom
The ebooks, video courses, life coaching, blogs, and email newsletters of many a budding personal development guru largely aim to provide a pain-free “paint-by-numbers” structure for one’s existential condition—all the while promising liberation that can only come from a direct confrontation with that groundlessness and desire for stability.
In fact, for all the talk of freedom, liberation, creativity, meaning, and purpose, few if any bloggers in our community seem to be wrestling with the existential dilemmas that give rise to such: the inevitability of death, the burdens of responsibility, one’s feeling of existential isolation from others, feelings of meaninglessness, existential anxiety, despair, and dread. While personal development and even lifestyle design promise solutions to existential problems, the cult of positivity prevents even the most superficial discussion of the underlying issues that might lead to their resolution. Indeed, considering existential questions is not something one does in polite company. It’s as if we fear that if one stares into the void too long they will be transfixed as if by Medusa’s gaze, unable to look away, trapped forever in overwhelming despair.
The title of this blog post was of course a joke. Years ago I remember reading about Albert Einstein and becoming inspired by his creativity. I remember clearly having the thought “I want to be creative—just like Einstein.” I laughed out loud at the absurdity! Clearly if I was creative in the same way as Einstein then I was a copycat and thus not creative at all. I hope more and more people will wake up to the absurdity of attempting to solve one’s existential dilemmas with a $47 ebook or the equivalent. Perhaps such products, failing to resolve the problems of the human condition, will also lead some of us to face our lives with resolute courage, allowing us to finally come to terms with the deepest struggles of being.