In the aftermath of the year 2020, with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and many, many other issues to worry about, some of us may be asking ourselves: What’s the point of all this? Questions of this nature seem particularly important for younger people. According to sources like the Annie E Casey Foundation, “only 45% of Generation Z individuals say their mental health is good or excellent. That is 11% lower than the next closest generation, millennial—those born between 1981 and 1996.” As someone born after 1996, I often question why life seems to be so absurd and meaningless sometimes, and I have also sought means to answer that question. Unfortunately, one of those means has been self-help articles.
If you’re like me, you probably see at least one of them every time you open up your internet browser: the title and thumbnail of an online article with an enumerated list of quotes, goals, or tasks that will help you get your life in order. The list usually comes from some famous person. Perhaps there’s an article about Ursula K. Le Guin that will help you appreciate fantasy more, or maybe these five tips from Einstein will really help you organize your workflow. Of course, if the answers to life’s problems were that easy, none of us would have problems, would we? While the content of these pieces has served me well as a backup conversation starter, it has never helped me in any practical way, and I doubt it would help anyone else. To demonstrate why I think this is, I will do as these articles do and bastardize the life work of my personal favorite thinker, existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre.
In the book “Existentialism is a Humanism“, Sartre writes of a student of his who once came to him for advice during World War II. The student’s brother had died during The Battle of France in 1940, and he wanted to join in the fight against the occupying, German forces to avenge his sibling. The catch was that this student was his mother’s last son. If he left for England to fight, he would probably have broken his poor mother’s heart, but, if he stayed to take care of her, he would have abandoned the effort to free France. So, the young man came to his philosophy professor to see if he could get some sage advice. The problem is that even Sartre thinks that there is no clear answer to this young man’s problem.
According to Sartre, every moral perspective he can think of fails to answer the student’s question. The old adage “love thy neighbor” doesn’t help because the kid doesn’t know which “neighbor” is more important, his mother or the French citizenry in general. Maybe he should care about “the greater good” and join the war effort because he would be helping more people overall? No, because the student isn’t even sure if going to England will wind up with him in combat; the Brits may just make him a pencil pusher instead of an infantryman, which wouldn’t really be helping fight the good fight. The student did, however, know for a fact that he’d be helping his mother if he stayed home, so maybe he should have chosen to do the lesser good he knows that he can do rather than the greater good he might only be able to do.
Ultimately, Sartre tells his student that there is no code of ethics that can tell him what to do; he has to invent one for himself. What Sartre teaches us is that, in the end, we can only make decisions for ourselves. Even if we seek out others for help, we are still choosing to ask them for advice and, furthermore, choosing to take it. We cannot really ask for the answers from someone else—we can only take responsibility for our own choices.
This is why the self-help article has never really helped. They try to give easy answers to problems that no one has ever been able to figure out. A simple to-do list tricks people into abandoning self-reflection in the hopes someone else can do it for them. The thing is that I know this when I choose to read self-help articles. In the book, Sartre says that “to choose one’s adviser is only another way to commit oneself” and I commit myself to a worldview where there is an identifiable set of lifestyle changes I can adopt to improve everything. I seek easy answers sometimes because I want to believe that the answers are easy. I really want to find some meaning in this world, but I’ll have to figure it out myself.