Thursday, January 20, 2011

What A Year in Nepal and Fight Club Have in Common

My favorite movie of all time is David Fincher's Fight Club, and it's not even close- this movie wins for me by a good mile. As a testament to how bad the marketing was for it, I was reluctant to go see it when it came out, believing it to be an action movie with Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. A little bored while in Dublin at the end of a backpacking trip around Europe, Kim convinced me to go see it as she was keen to get a look at a shirtless Edward Norton even if the movie sucked. If you haven't seen it, or if you did and didn't pay attention, you might think the movie is about fighting, violence, and male bravado. It's not. The movie, at it's core, is about someone wanting to change their life and finding a way to get himself out of what he finds as an unfulfilled existence. If you haven't seen the film, or you missed this point entirely, I highly recommend watching it. While Chuck Palahniuk is one of my favorite authors, and the book is quite good, this is the only movie I can think of where the movie is as good, if not better, than the book....and it's a good book.

-Warning: Movie/Book Spoiler-

The narrator, who never reveals his name (though is referred to as Jack from the reading of some Reader's Digest articles about organs written in the first person- "I am Jack's medulla oblongata"), lacks the courage and strength to confront his life, so he creates an alter ego- Tyler Durden. Tyler is everything he thinks he wants to be; smart, confidant, independent, fearless, charismatic and most importantly free from all the burdens that the narrator has come to hate in his own life. Through Tyler the narrator comes to break free from the life he had fallen into and actually takes control of his life, participates in it as opposed to being a spectator, and learns what it means to live. Of course it turns out that his alter ego has some anger issues with society and when faced with the destruction that Tyler has planned and the killing of the girl he realizes he loves (though he has only dared to relate to her in the past as Tyler) he is forced to confront Tyler and take control of his life as himself and not his alter-ego.

So why does this movie connect with me and what does it have to do with Nepal? Because at heart I never found the normal trajectory that people take in American society to be something that seemed very appealing to me. Despite this I tried it. Went back to school, built a house, got married, settled down, worked a good job that followed the 7am-5pm schedule, with most weekends off. I had most things people around the world would kill for, and as much as I liked the people in my life, and even enjoyed it most of the time, there was something that was just not satisfying about it. You can either continue to live this way or you can find what's missing and change your life. While I didn't possess nearly the emotional or father issues that the main character of the film possessed, I did confront the same problem; how do you change your life?

Like the main character I chose to abandon the comfortable life I had made for myself, although I did not use dynamite to accomplish this;

"You give up the condo life, give up all your flaming worldly possessions, go live in a dilapidated house in a toxic waste part of town..."
"What a shit hole.
Nothing worked.
Turning on one light meant another light in the house went out.
There were no neighbors, just some warehouses and a paper mill-- that fart smell of steam that hamster cage smell of wood chips.
Every time it rained we had to kill the power. 
By the end of the first month I didn't miss TV.
I didn't even mind the warm stale refrigerator.
At night Tyler and I were alone for half a mile in every direction.
Rain trickled down through the plaster and light fixtures, everything wooden swelled and shrank.
Everywhere were rusted nails to to snag your elbow on."

I moved to Nepal...I gave up the trips to Home Depot and home improvement projects, gave away and sold most of my worldly possessions, went and moved to a backwater part of the planet. Load shedding, a lack of water, that smell of cow dung in the streets, burning plastic from the trash burning on the side of the road, all make for what on the surface is a less appealing place to live. I don't miss TV, and don't mind the warm stale refrigerator. It's not about the location- it's about what you do with your life. Nepal might not be the cleanest place in the world but it has ample opportunities to do amazing things and meet equally amazing people. It's all about what you really value. Are you doing what you want to do with your life? Are you living life or are you just letting it pass by?

"I want you to hit me as hard as you can."

The narrator in the movie struggles to find what it means to be alive, a big part for him is confronting his safe little life where he never gets hurt, but in avoiding any kind of pain he has avoided any kind of living. In the movie this is brought out through the bouts of fighting between him and Tyler and they break the ice on this issue in the following dialogue;
Jack: Well what do you want me to do? You just want me to hit you?
Tyler: C'mon, do me this one favor.
Jack: Why?
Tyler: Why? I don't know why; I don't know. Never been in a fight. You?
Jack: No, but that's a good thing.
Tyler: No, it is not. How much can you know about yourself, you've never been in a fight? So come on, hit me before I lose my nerve.
Jack: This is crazy.
Tyler: So go crazy, let 'er rip.

It's an even better scene when you realize that the two people are the same person, and that the conversation is more about an internal struggle in a slightly crazy individual. The point though is that "Jack" is beginning to let go, he realizes that living life might mean opening up the possibility of getting a few scars, more importantly he begins to understand that there is nothing wrong with that. Later on after they have been fighting at Fight Club for a while Jack pulls a tooth out and Tyler chimes in, "Even the Mona Lisa is falling apart." That's the point, we are not immortal, and getting to the end of your life in the best condition doesn't win you any prizes. In fact that's counter to what you're made for, it's like all that top end equipment rich folk buy but then never use that sits in an attic or basement somewhere. The top end kayak that never hits the rapids, the lightweight backpacking gear that maybe gets used in the local park. If you're going to live get out there and stop being afraid of actually living.

All of life is to be embraced, and that means the pain with the joy, the hurt with the love. In a scene where Tyler introduces the narrator to chemical burn on his hand, he tries to bring this point home- and as Jack begs for Tyler to stop the pain the following discussion takes place;
Tyler: "Stop it! This is your pain this is your burning hand, it's right here."
Jack: "I'm going into my cave, I'm going to my cave and I'm gonna find my power animal."
Tyler: "No! Don't deal with this the way those dead people do. Come On! This is the greatest moment of your life, and you're off somewhere missing it."

This is it. Each and every moment is all we have and we need to embrace it. Living can be hurt and suffering, but nothing is worse than a life un-lived or one where you have cowered in fear of actually engaging in what you were meant to do. Those painful moments that we try and avoid, those are when we learn the most, and if we're open to them it's when we can see who we really are. Those really are some of the best moments in our lives if you have the courage to face it down and see how you can improve from it. These are teachable moments.

Tying in with all of the above is the realization that you have one shot at life, we are all mortal. That "this is your life and it's ending one minute at a time" and "on a long enough time line the survival rate for everyone drops to zero." As in the west we are rarely faced with our mortality on a regular basis, it would do us all a little good to remind ourselves of it every once in a while and live with a sense of urgency. We always want to put off living or doing what we really want because we always assume we can do it tomorrow. I'd be lying if this didn't play into our thinking when we came out this way. If we didn't do this now, when? You have to make the time in your own life for what you want to accomplish.

Marla and Jack hold hands while watching the financial buildings being demolished.

For me, moving to Nepal has been a way to transform my life to something closer to what I want to live. 'sticking feathers up your butt does not make you a chicken," Tyler tells Jack at one point. And so it is. If you want to live an interesting life you have to go out and make it. Pretending it's the case when you're only doing what you want maybe 1/10th of the year is like sticking feathers up your butt and clucking. If you want to be a writer, you need to focus on writing- not dressing hip, drinking lattes and typing on a Mac. If you want to be a climber you need to get out into the mountains and climb, not just read books and collect the gear. Life is about participating in it, not buying all the stuff so that in theory you could go out and do it. If whatever you're doing works for you, that's great. If you feel like you're trapped in a lifestyle that you inherited and it brings you no satisfaction...maybe it's time you find a way to change your life, because no one else is going to do it for you.

Remember you're not your job. You're not how much money you have in the bank. You're not the car you drive. You're not the contents of your wallet. You're not your fucking khakis. You are the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world.

Thanks Tyler, and thank you Nepal for one great year.


  1. "Living can be hurt and suffering, but nothing is worse than a life un-lived or one where you have cowered in fear of actually engaging in what you were meant to do."

    So when I was editing your book and we were coming at pain and suffering from different angles, this was my point. I should have gone to fight club to make it, but I didn't think of that.

    Great post, but I tend to think circumstances are a lot like zip codes... I've had a lot of friends move to lots of different places over the past few years, pursuing a lot of different dreams and most seem to be discovering that, "Wherever you go, there you are."

  2. Yeah- I actually almost didn't write that line as I did, because it bothered me. There is an important lesson that the Buddha gives in the Pali cannon that we make our own pain worse by mentally reacting negatively toward something that we can't avoid. In this way it is like being struck with two arrows instead of one. The physical pain is unavoidable, the mental anguish that follows is within your control, and need not exist. That's a cornerstone of Stoic thought as well.

    No doubt that you take yourself with you wherever you go, but to ignore the difference in opportunities that exist in some places over others is to turn a blind eye to the reality of vastly different terrain, economic, cultural, and weather differences. I simply couldn't do the things I'm currently doing in the US, I wouldn't have the time that I have, and the costs are much higher. Ultimately different environments allow for different living habits. Now had I not made a drastic move and just went to some other spot in the US, then I would agree, not enough of a difference to really change the circumstances of what your doing.

  3. I don't claim that changing your circumstances can't positively or negatively impact your life. We should all exert all our effort to live the life we want to live... but ultimately if you are satisfied with whatever life you end up with that is a product of how you approach it, regardless of circumstance. In my limited understanding of buddhism, that seems to be a central theme.

    One man's exotic locale is just someone else's backyard. I'm glad you are happy where you are, I really am, I'm just saying that if you are willing to put up with a stale fridge and lack of hot water for extra time in the day, you can pretty much do that anywhere.

    I work all day with people who made the opposite migration and they see the opportunities in exactly the opposite way. I think there is a grass is always greener element here. Knowing you can always return home and be living in the world's upper middle class within 6 months is very different than having that door permanently closed to you.

    Again, I'm not criticizing you personally, I'm just saying that opportunity looks very different depending on where you come from.

  4. And the whole pain thing, no I just grabbed that quote cause it was the beginning of the paragraph. I meant my point about pain was Tyler's. You are talking to a knucklehead who has the same Fight Club scar from a 2nd-3rd degree match burn. I get what he was driving at.


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