This short book could count as a “how-to” as well as a “happy” category book. The title might lead the reader to think it’s a funny send-up of self-help books, and while it is frequently funny, it is actually a very helpful discussion about finding the right values to guide you in life. It’s about prioritizing and recognizing that a good life is not an easy one and that you shouldn’t strive for easy. This is really a great book to be reading in 2020, and I can think of a LOT of people who would benefit from reading this.
When Manson talks about “not giving a f*ck,” he is not talking about living a life of self-absorption and indifference. Quite the opposite. He sees one of the problems in our society today being that people give too many fucks about too many things, and too many of the wrong things at that. Especially today with social media and a bombardment of messages about having it all and being successful and being great and so on, the focus on personal happiness turns into a constant futile striving that only increases one’s unhappiness. If you care about everything, you risk seeing any adversity as injustice and can turn into an entitled jerk. The solution is to figure out what is really important (personal values) and understand that pain and uncertainty are part of the deal. Growth can only come from dealing with problems, pain and suffering. Solving problems and getting through the suffering can actually lead to growth and happiness. But once problems are met and handled, we should expect new problems to take their place in an endless cycle. This is a good thing and can be managed if we have the right values to guide us and are willing to be uncomfortable and fail, which is inevitable.
Manson starts off by asking the reading to engage in some self-assessment. First, do NOT bother with the question of what you want out of life, as most people answer that the same way — money, happiness, success, love, etc. Better questions are what kind of pain do you want, and what are you willing to struggle for? The way you answer these questions tells you what you give a fuck about, ie, what your values are. Second, in the chapter entitled “You Are Not Special,” he tells the reader to consider how s/he feels about the negative aspects of themselves.
“The problem with the self-esteem movement is that it measured self-esteem by how positively people felt about themselves. But a true and accurate measurement of one’s self worth is how people feel about the negative aspects of themselves.”
Most of us are average, not “exceptional,” but we are inundated with information about the extremes — the extraordinarily good or bad, which can lead us to conclude that what is average and normal is somehow a failure. The reaction to this can be extreme in either direction; some see themselves as extraordinarily talented and entitled, others see themselves as extraordinarily victimized and oppressed and entitled.
Manson then goes on to discuss what makes for good versus bad values. Good values are reality based, socially constructive, and immediate and controllable. Values should not be dependent on what others do; so, for example, popularity would be a bad value since it depends on things outside your control — other people’s thoughts and opinions about you. Honesty, self-respect, humility, creativity etc. are appropriate values. Manson’s discussion of “five counter-intuitive values” is especially enlightening. Here, he points out the difference between fault and responsibility (things that happen to you might not be your fault, but how you respond is your choice and responsibility); the necessity of accepting uncertainty, failure and rejection (they’re unavoidable); and the need to contemplate our own mortality. Knowing you’re going to die is frightening but it also can help keep your values in perspective.
Manson is an entertaining and informed writer. As he makes his points about prioritizing and setting good values for yourself, he tells some really fascinating stories from his own life and historical figures’ lives to illustrate them. Reading this book in 2020 is a great idea and I have to admit that while I felt like I was already doing much of what he recommends, I have also found myself increasingly worried and uncomfortable not just with what is happening in our country, but also with what I see happening in more immediate relationships in my life. The sections of the book that deal with “Victimhood Chic” and “The Dangers of Pure Certainty” are quite relevant. In the disability community among caregivers, I have noted for many years that there seems to be, for some, a competition to have the worst/hardest life. It has always driven me crazy. You mention an issue you are struggling with and these people jump in to tell you how they have it worse, or they bring up a problem and when offered suggestions on how to deal with it, they’re never acceptable. It’s like they want to be miserable and get a prize for it. Usually, I tell myself that it’s uncharitable for me to be critical, but I am seeing that this kind of behavior from others makes me feel like I have to censor myself or play a role that I don’t want to play; I can’t be honest, and that’s a sign of an unhealthy relationship. The same thing is happening in other relationships due to the horrible political situation in our country. If you are on social media, you might have friends or family who don’t want to talk about politics at all or who simply don’t want their politics challenged. Yet we are living in a time and place where everything has become political — testing for COVID, wearing masks, opening schools, etc. When a “friend” tries to suppress you from expressing an honest opinion, maybe that’s a sign there is no friendship. Healthy normal relationships involve disagreement sometimes, and for those relationships to grow, there needs to be open honest dialog about problems. Perhaps it’s time for me to make some drastic changes in these relationships. It’s kind of scary, but in the long run it’s probably for the best.
I’m hoping that one day we will look back on these trying times and see that there were opportunities for improvement and that we took them, that whatever pain and uncertainty we endure will have led to growth and happiness. In the meantime, we have pain, uncertainty and struggles. That’s life. Buckle up!