My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I’d call it a masterpiece. Why not? Kishimi breathes new life into the uncle that foundational psychology keeps in its basement, Alfred Adler, in the form of a dialogue between a whiny-ass college student and a supercilious old Zen Stoic master.
The kid rails on about the injustice of the world and how terrible and evil it is to everyone, but him specifically, as 20something My First Nihilists are wont to do. The old man is smug, Socratic, and avuncularly pedantic over the next 300 pages as he gently explains why the kid’s worldview sucks.
Psychology was founded by three deeply disturbed Eastern European physicians. You’ve heard of Freud, inventor of Yo Mama jokes. You’ve probably heard of Jung, who was functionally a witch. Odds are you haven’t heard much about Adler, considering I did two degrees worth of psychology and the extent of my exposure was two PowerPoint slides about his birth order theory.
Adler pushed individual psychology, so called because the individual was the smallest component a mind could be reduced to. None of that “id ego superego” horseshit here. Adler wasn’t a big believer in the subconscious as a separate entity, like some frothy little anxiety-inducing daemon rubbing his shady little claws together. Trauma wasn’t real relevant either, which is about as far from psychodynamic theory as you can get.
You can’t explain Adler by outlining what he wasn’t, which Kishimi understood, and that’s probably why he presented this in the form of a dialogue. The format is something like this:
Kid: Bitches incessantly.
Old Guy: Presents contradiction gleefully.
Kid: Overreacts to what he perceives as a slight.
Old Guy: Tells kid to calm down, presents Adlerian concept in matter-of-fact way.
Kid: Presents contradiction. Angrily.
Old Guy: Further explains Adlerian concept, provides some examples, says more nice things to kid.
Kid: “I see. How interesting.”
This allowed Kishimi to address all of the points of argument that would be raised by anyone versed in Freudian (or, to a much lesser extent, Jungian) psychological perspectives.
Adlerian psychology is complex in that it has a lot of simple concepts that interlock. The first point introduced by Kishimi is that you can’t care about praise or conditional positive regard from others. Everybody likes it, but it’s not a guarantee and it doesn’t last. No matter what you do, in a crowd of ten people, at least a couple will always hate you. Nature of the beast. That’s their task, and trying to live to “correct” that in them and sucker them into liking you is a con that sacrifices your own freedom. Disloyalty to the self at the expense of free will is ultimately not worth the price of admission.
The reason you’ll never get everybody to love you is called “separation of tasks”. You get to decide what you do, but you can’t decide what other people do. How other people feel about you is their task. Your task is acting with honesty and integrity. If they don’t like it, okay. Cool. None of my business. Not my pig, not my farm, hoss.
This is not to say we’re incapable of adjusting things we don’t like about ourselves. No pulpy determinism here; in fact, this is about as far from callow reductionist self-excusing that you can get in early psychology, or even modern psychology. If you don’t like something about yourself, stop actively deciding to behave in a way that supports that trait every moment of every day. It falls away without its base and makes room for your next incarnation, no less a “real you” than the current one, but a you that didn’t have an opportunity to thrive, choked as it was by the thorns of your miserable old habits.
Throughout the book, the oldo says “decide to be happy” and the kid responds with high-pitched Lemongrab screeching, for obvious reasons. That doesn’t mean anything! “Happy” is something you aim for, like sanity, but it has no standardized definition outside of self-report, and even there it’s chosen only by the obnoxiously religious. How the hell?
Adler suggests a formula for happiness, or at least for a general sense of contentment that will move you beyond the realm of the big fat sweaty depressive. There’s only two steps.
1. Rely on yourself.
2. Live in harmony with society.
The obvious issue here, especially for anybody who follows my own brand of green-and-black Magic deck doomsaying, is that society is an absolute mess and living in harmony with it makes you complicit. And that’s true, within the paradigm that defines society as “7 billion people drawing invisible lines then drone striking across them”. Living in full-on harmony with our quotidian calamities, ranging from casual Skull & Bones war crime right on down to the antinature of a 40-hour workweek sitting in front of an LED screen, could only make you more miserable, more depressed, possibly even sweatier.
When Adler or Kishimi talk about a society, or a community, their definitions are more flexible and require more input on your part. You choose your own communities, and your communities become your society. If you decide “my community is my school”, that’s too many people, too much data to try to parse, and you’ll retreat from it. If your community is your circle of friends, co-workers you see every day, maybe some local chapter of a club devoted to a shared hobby, that’s manageable. You could live in harmony with these fellas, just as the human animal was programmed to live in harmony with their tribe. (Based on modern hunter-gatherer models, a tribe probably consisted of twentyish roving “bands”, each band consisting of around 25 people, which means you’d have 500 people to choose from but would probably only deal with a maximum of 150, which gives us Dunbar’s number. Neat.)
I’ve tried to adopt this way of thinking in how I spend my money, especially in light of the Coronavirus’s wholesale slaughter of small businesses. Living in the city, you’re surrounded by people you don’t know and businesses that you might not care for, all of which technically make up your neighborhood community. With an Adlerian approach, nope! Target might be closer to my house than Doggie Style Pet Supplies, but that doesn’t mean I accept Target as part of my community. They both carry chew toys. Doggie Style might be slightly pricier, but I’m no longer subsisting off canned tuna and Burger King tacos (who remember?) as I did in my wasted youth, and I’d rather pick and choose what I allow into my definition of community. This is, after all, my task.
This contribution, monetary in this example, is how I give back to this aspect of community. I internalize that I’m able to pick and choose. That’s self-reliance. I give money to Capitol Beer and Sushi, rather than Applebee’s. That’s contribution. If you have self-reliance and contribution, you have all the ingredients for happiness.
Obviously, that’s writ on a detached, macro, somewhat ancap level. It’s less messy when applied to personal relationships, like with your family. You need to know you’re not helpless, and you need to contribute to your family in some way, even if its something as subtle as with positive presence. Otherwise, you’re going to feel bad. Them’s the breaks.
One of my favorite bits is Adler saying “all problems are interpersonal relationship problems”. A sort of shiny spin on Hell being other people. Without other people gumming up the works, our problems would pretty much just be getting food. A life without other people wouldn’t be much of a life, but they certainly bring with them their cost.
I could go on, but won’t. Read the book. Here are some of my favorite excerpts.
“No matter what has occurred in your life up until this point, it should have no bearing at all on how you live from now on.”
Your past trauma, however developmental, is irrelevant. Each moment of a choice you make to continue living the way you always have. If that way isn’t working, choose to live differently.
Trauma is powerful, but only because we empower it with the meaning we extract from it.
“What kind of meaning does one attribute to past events? This is the task that is given to ‘you now’.”
What happened, or happens, to us is beyond our control. The meaning we ascribe to it and how we proceed from that point decides how we will feel, and how our life will go.
As Adler says, “Children who have not been taught to confront challenges will try to avoid all challenges.”
And they become adults who won’t deviate from their comfort zone, and languish in prisons of their own design.
An adult, who has chosen an unfree way to live, on seeing a young person living freely here and now in this moment, criticizes the youth as being hedonistic. Of course, this is a life-lie that comes out so that the adult can accept his own unfree life. An adult who has chosen real freedom himself will not make such comments and will instead cheer on the will to be free.
They are just jealous of your righteous teen styles. Up tha punx.
If you are thinking of school as being everything to you, you will end up without a sense of belonging to anything. And then, you will escape within a smaller community, such as your home. You will shut yourself in, and maybe even turn to violence against members of your own family. And by doing such things, you will be attempting to gain a sense of belonging somehow.
There’s always going to be a larger community, and you need the refuge of people you can trust within it, whichever one you choose.
There are two objectives for behavior: to be self-reliant and to live in harmony with society. The two objectives for the psychology that supports these behaviors: the consciousness that I have the ability and the consciousness that people are my comrades. … In other words, “to be self-reliant” and “the consciousness that I have the ability” correspond to the discussion of self-acceptance. And then “to live in harmony with society” and “the consciousness that people are my comrades” connect to confidence in others and then to contribution to others.
You need to have faith in others to be able to feel good about contributing, otherwise you’re just going to feel like you’re allowing yourself to be taken advantage of. Faith is predicated on trust. Trust only comes with the belief that they’ve got your back, that your quid will be pro quo’d. Hard to apply to humanity at large, but necessary to apply to whatever your community is, if you don’t want to be nuts.
Life is simple, and the world is, too.
Life is a series of moments, which one lives as if one were dancing, right now, around and around each passing instant. And when one happens to survey one’s surroundings, one realizes, I guess I’ve made it this far. Among those who have danced the dance of the violin, there are people who stay the course and become professional musicians. Among those who have danced the dance of the bar examination, there are people who become lawyers. There are people who have danced the dance of writing and become authors. Of course, it also happens that people end up in entirely different places. But none of these lives came to an end “en route”. It is enough if one finds fulfillment in the here and now one is dancing.
An old chestnut, but a good one. The journey is the destination. Having goals is fine, but your life isn’t achieving those goals. It’s living to see them achieved. Or not. Maybe it’s changing your mind along the way. Deciding that is your task, and you get to, because you’re free.