I have a close friend who recently had a personal set-back. A romance had gone sour, releasing into the air like so many toxic spores all the bitter recriminations, lamentations, regrets, guilt, anger, sadness, and denial, that go along with such things. He first blamed her, then blamed himself, then blamed her again, said it was the end of the world, then said maybe it would turn out to be the best thing ever to happen to him.
I know a little bit about these things. What those confusing emotions usually boils down to is “Fuck! She’s probably with another man!”
So my friend took to social media, specifically Facebook, to chronicle his ordeal in a meticulous moment-to-moment account of every emotion that passed over him for weeks after the break-up. Eventually the expressions of guilt and rage were replaced with expressions of hope and desire. My friend was determined to make himself a better man, to avoid anything like this from happening again.
As so began the macrobiotic diet, the protein shakes, the personal trainer, the 12-step program, the personal support group meetings, and eventually the shedding of material possessions. My friend had set course on a personal improvement journey!
I don’t mean to make and example, nor certainly a mockery, of my friend’s situation. We’ve all been through shit and we’ve all set out to be better people, whether it means losing weight, reading more books, being more attentive to our friends and family, juice fasts, working less, working more, giving up booze, doing 20 push-ups every morning, or learning a foreign language. The problem with all of this is that most of us embark on these journeys for all the wrong reasons, thinking that if we do these things we’ll get the girl back or get a promotion at work or look better in a bathing suit.
Then there is the thorny issue of who exactly is improving whom. Most of us think of our “self” as some vague presence that sits right behind the eyes, gazing out at the world, processing stimuli in the immediate environment, and dictating actions accordingly. This is the internal dictator that we all turn to when it’s time for a little self-improvement. The coach yelling at us from the sidelines. But if you yourself are fucked up to begin with, and to some degree you must be if you are looking to make serious corrections, why trust your own fucked up self to make those decisions? Why listen to that coach?
But the biggest problem with “self-improvement” is that we see it as a means to an end. Throughout our lives, we grasp after things that we think will bring us pleasure, and sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t, and sometimes they bring us problems. And when they bring us problems, we grasp after solutions.
I read once something about how to capture a monkey using a devise called a “monkey hand trap”. The theory is very clever: you carve a hole in a gourd just big enough for the monkey to reach his hand inside, then you bait the trap with a banana. The monkey reaches inside, grasps the banana, but can’t extricate himself from the trap because he refuses to let go of the banana.
Life can seem sometimes like that monkey hand trap. When the nights and days grow long with our desires and regrets, with our losses and missed chances, instead of grasping at some miracle solution, maybe all we really need to do is let go of that damned banana.