Column: Self-Changes

by Heather Dockray

This Little Milquetoast Goes up to the Biker, Looks at Him Sort of Sad Like, And Then Karate Chops Him Into A Quivering Pulp
In the back of every American bookstore—whether it’s a big-city independent or a small-city mega-chain—there’s a small, lonely shelf, optimistically titled “Self-Improvement.” No matter what part of the country you’re in, the people brave enough to visit this section all look similar: sweaty palms and crossed arms, shifty eyes and low-slung guts, desperate not to let anyone know they’ve turned to Who Moved My Cheese? for relationship advice. Meanwhile, cynical MFAs over in “Poetry” belittle the iamb while praising the trochee (without actually knowing the difference between the two), and hardnosed high school kids loafing around “Fiction” blaze through the Cormac McCarthy canon while remarking that the William Faulkner classic assigned in Lit class is “fucking retarded.” But every person in this store has come here for the same reason—they all want to hear a story about change. Whether it comes in the form of a 10,000-word Aramaic epic poem, or a 30-page pamphlet on “Communicating in the Workplace,” we’re all in love with the same narrative formula: An individual faces great obstacles, and through hard work is able to see results, to produce product, and to change. If characters can change, then so too can everyone in this dying bookstore. It’s always for the better.

The idea that humans can change, and that change equals progress, is a relatively modern and deeply American way of thinking. In medieval Europe, individuals were predestined to end up in either Heaven or Hell, and no one had much choice in the matter. To the modern ear, that might sound limiting—but just think of all the stress it would’ve taken off. If you were damned, you were damned—but hey, there’s nothing you could do about it! Eat as many trans fats as you like. Rape and pillage. You’re sentenced to burn in Hell for eternity—no need to throw a shilling in that medieval tip jar. You’re free, at least for now.

Over time, the West came to believe in the triumph of the individual, to adopt a certain school-bus encouragement—if you do enough push-ups and read enough books and eat all your broccoli, you too can change, grow, become the next President. While the myth is liberating, just think of all the anxiety it added to our daily lives. Didn’t make it into Harvard? Blame your tortured extracurricular history. Didn’t get drafted by the Dallas Cowboys? You’re worthless, and your father doesn’t love you. Stuck in the ghetto, the freshman class, the subway train? It’s your fault, your failure, your loss. Blame your family all you like, but at the end of the day, you’re the only one who knows just how to tie those bootstraps. Loaded with anxiety, Americans turn to self-help books, Yahoo! Answers, and life coaches, looking for someone to help them change their way of changing. No matter where they look, everyone’s got the same advice: Go to the gym! Set goals! Eat salad! And no matter how hard they try, people always end up with the same results: Watch TV! Give up! Eat cheesecake! The reason Americans fail has less to do with their bodies or their diets. Their Internet mentors and quick-fix charlatans have all sold them the same cheap vision: Self-change is possible, self-change is good, and the only thing stopping them from becoming the next Justin Bieber is their really bad Supercuts haircut.

The truth is, Americans are neither predestined to swing dance in heaven, nor free to breakdance over death. We’re stuck in the milquetoast middle, given just enough freedom to walk to our schools, but not enough to fully change them. What drives us to glory is what drives us to death: the same advice-column fantasy of self-transformation. In A.A., they say that change includes relapse, relapse includes recovery, and recovery doesn’t fully exist. People can best change if they give up their idea of it. We’re all in the bookstore for the same reason, there’s no need for any of us to pass judgment.