Review of Rebecca Niazi-Shababi’s Ich bleib so scheiße wie ich bin: Lockerlassen und mehr vom Leben haben (München: Piper, 2014)
Rebecca Niazi-Shababi is fed up. The world around her is caught up in an ultimately narcissistic dance of self-optimisation: going to motivational seminars that help you land that high-powered job, working on your relationship until you and your perfect partner glow with harmonious satisfaction at home, then onto the running track to acquire that perfect body and finish off the day with a good book to acquire the perfect mind. Niazi-Shabibi is having none of it: she’s firmly digging her heels in and refusing to join in the self-optimisation culture. Why? What’s wrong with working on yourself to become a better person?
“Wie würde es sich anfühlen, wenn Sie mit einem Schlag jede Verbesserung Ihres Charakters, Ihrer Situation, Ihrer Ehe, Ihrer Kinder, Ihrer Freundschaften bleiben lassen könnten? Wäre das nicht ein Zustand, den man mit Fug und Recht als Freiheit bezeichnen könnte?”
‘How would it feel if you, in one fell swoop, could stop any improvement of your character, your situation, your marriage, your children, your friendships? Wouldn’t that be a condition you could justifiably call freedom?’
Well, on the face of it: nothing. There’s nothing wrong with identifying an issue that ‘needs work’ and addressing it. What is, however, wrong, according to the book, is the cult of self-optimisation, which leads us to internalise externally imposed goals despite our own natures and inclinations. Which in turn leads to permanent unhappiness as we drag ourselves away from the telly and to the fitness centre, impose faddy diets on ourselves, read a heavy tome when we’d rather read a crime thriller and go on endless searches for faults in ourselves, our attitudes, our bodies, our relationships that must urgently be ‘worked on’.
The author explains that this trend is partly historical, partly social: an inheritance from Aristotle (your goal as an intelligent citizen is to search for happiness) via Calvinism (you must work hard to prove to yourself that you’re among the elect that will go to heaven). The crux is that today we (at least those living in the rich West) have internalised the notion that we’re responsible for our own fates: for centuries we used to create perfect societies in literary Utopias in which the individual could flourish, whereas now we’ve channelled such Utopian thinking into our own atomised lives. We create our own personal Utopian life and then fail to live up to it because we are, after all, only human – we are lazy, we have faults, we lack willpower and so on. And so we end up renewing that gym membership, even though we hate the gym, we never go and are unhappy because we never go. ‘Stop this nonsense at once!’ says Rebecca Niazi-Shahabi – relax, and live with yourself the way you are.
This is important not for the sake of our sanity: it is a little bit subversive, too. After all, Niazi-Shahabi writes mainly against externally imposed goals. Here her analysis of self-optimisation in the working environment is especially important: the state is suggesting to us that our failure to get a (better) job is due to us not being skilled enough, not having done enough (unpaid) internships, not being ‘work ready’ (whatever that means) and has nothing whatever to do with the structural problems and inequalities of capitalism. Oh no.
Her solution is simple:
“Wenn man mit dem, was man gerne hätte, erpresst wird, dann ist die erste Maßnahme, um seine Autonomie wieder herzustellen, auf das Gewünschte zu verzichten.”
‘If one is being blackmailed by the thing one wants, the first thing to do in order to re-establish one’s autonomy is to renounce the thing wished for.’
Just don’t do it. Don’t go to the motivational seminar. Don’t ‘work on your relationship’. Don’t diet. After all, what can happen? Well, one might not be one of the leaders and heroes. But what’s wrong with being an ordinary person – who might, it turns out, have much more time and leisure to enjoy life. Just live your life, not the one society, your parents, your friends expect you to live.
I kind of agree with most of this analysis. And yet I find myself coming back to the title. Do I really want to ‘remain as crap as I am?’ I’m not actually sure I am crap. Just because ‘solutions’ peddled by the self-help industry (like positive thinking, which has a lot in common with magical thinking) often don’t work, does that mean that I should do nothing? To be honest, that’s not my nature either. I enjoy striving to be better at some things. I don’t think that all attempts at change are doomed to failure: it really depends on where your motivation comes from. If I do want to be better at my job than I was five years ago – that’s ok, surely? As long as I understand that getting promotion or a better job does not necessarily follow because I have control over the one and not over the other process. Also: what if you are at the beginning of your career, you’re anxious and you need to make a living. Do you actually have the option to say no to sometimes atrocious pay, fixed-term contracts and less-than-perfect working conditions? Really?
But back to the things we have control over. It seems to me that it pays to examine why we want to do things, why we want to change, why we want to work on ‘issues’. If we’re not sure, if the thing/issue in question is actually out of our control, and if we’re not really that motivated and the goal is unclear then we shouldn’t bother. We should also stop castigating ourselves if we fail to get that job/reach our target weight/don’t meet new friends and influence people. Maybe it’s just time to examine the goal again and perhaps chuck it out of our lives if it’s not productive and only serves to make us unhappy. Which means we’re back with Aristotle: the way to happiness leads to contemplating life and having practical wisdom.