The other day, while looking for ideas for a coffee table I’m planning on reworking, I stumbled onto a hotbed of what I call “Pinterest Spirituality.” Essentially, this fake-deep #inspirational #content is just a more aesthetically pleasing version of those empty motivational posters your guidance counselor used to have hung up in her office when talking to you about why you should drop pre-calc. You know what I’m talking about: the pretty quotes written in flowery script or bold typography that tell you to Forget Your Fear And Live Beautifully, or to Picture It, Build It, Live It. Or maybe it’s about ~living simply~, getting back to what matters by ~reducing the noise~, I assume in a way that doesn’t prevent the reader from logging onto Pinterest for more motivational quotes.
It’s an odd mix of capitalist hustle and a messy tapas made out of cherry-picked eastern religions. We take a major world religion from another part of the world, throw out the parts of it that don’t jive with our lifestyle, weirdly mix it up with keeping your email inbox at zero and turning off your cellphone, and put it on an inspiration board that is meant to get you to achieve your professional and financial dreams. The Inspiration Industrial Complex isn’t really interested in consistency, it’s just interested in giving half-baked and often misleading advice that doesn’t hold up to even a few seconds of scrutiny.
For me, the litmus test for inspirational advice being total fucking bullshit is really twofold. One, does it only apply to people who are already middle-class, healthy, and looking to fix a relatively minor existential problem (like boredom in a career field), and two, would it be something you’d be ashamed to say to someone with actual problems? Chances are, even the most delusional Lululemon yogi would have a hard time bringing her mantras about “change your perspective and it will all fall into place” to someone who was wondering how they were going to feed their children before payday.
And look, I’m not immune to some good design, or a moment of inspirational escapism. I have an inspiration board, even if most of it is comprised of images I find pretty or pictures of family and friends. I get that sometimes we don’t have to be so serious, and that we can take a little boost wherever we can get it, even if the advice in question doesn’t actually help us. But one thing I’ve learned in making some real, hard-earned progress this year — on things like raising my credit score, changing my career, building a business, and dealing with a sick family member — it’s that the things that actually help you are the things that never sound good on paper. “Cutting out the noise” was not an option, nor was “chasing my dreams.” The advice that mattered was hard, boring information from family, paid professionals, and rejection emails. I didn’t improve my credit score by learning to Let Go Of The Material, I improved it by using credit cards in a very strategic way and paying my bills religiously for the first time in my life.
And beyond that, I don’t delude myself into thinking that my business endeavors have anything to do with spirituality. It’s a particularly American phenomenon to conflate our business strategies with some kind of purer, higher living. Just because you have the privilege of retreating to your cabin to do your best work and dispense advice on how to organize your schedule like you were reciting a religious text doesn’t make you some kind of shaman. It’s no longer enough to stick to our basic Eat, Pray, Love, rich-white-woman-finds-herself narrative, we have to take it to the next level and turn it into fake-deep-business-guru-teaches-us-how-to-hustle-spiritually.
Aside from just being gross to rifle through the thrift store of eastern religions to find your freelance strategy, it is also actively harmful to the people who have an actual, meaningful relationship to the whole of these cultures, instead of just the most convenient parts. As my friend recently told me,
“My family is Indian and I have a small tattoo on my foot, with a traditional henna design. Originally, I wanted to make it bigger, and feature an Om. But, my issue is, with the west’s newfound obsession with Indian culture, everyone has an Om, and I would feel like one of the masses, using it as a random symbol, as opposed to having it as a celebration of my culture. I wear an Om necklace, and whenever I go to yoga, people ask if I’m a well-practiced yogi, or what not, and like… no. I’m just Indian.”
We all need meaning, and we all need motivation. And I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with pairing your hard work and focus with a little bit of fluff. But as someone who used to take all of this shallow advice to heart, and wonder why “visualizing” or not owning a smartphone wasn’t helping me be any more productive or put-together as a person, I know how dangerous it can be to surround ourselves with that particular kind of wisdom. It’s inspiration porn for people who already have pretty much everything going for them, and want to delay reality a little bit by seeking the feel-good mantras instead of the hard advice they need. I know this, because I used to be the same way.
And because of that (as you can tell), I’ve come to resent the whole phenomenon of Pinterest Spirituality, of taking so many things that are so profound and important in life — working hard, religious observance, self-empowerment, empathy — and jumbling them up into a package that has the staying power of a stick of Zebra Stripe. If we separate the sentiments out, we can find some use and meaning in the individual ideas of focusing on what we desire, eliminating the things we don’t need, streamlining our workflow to create more quality time, and looking for some peace within ourselves. Sure. But this can’t and shouldn’t be summed up in a self-help listicle or a curlicue quote that steals from a religious text we’ve never read.
We deserve better than empty motivation. We deserve to actually make these things happen in our lives, and to do it intelligently. We deserve to speak to ourselves and each other like competent adults, instead of spoiled children who just want to play tourist with inner peace. We don’t need the truth to be sugarcoated or to fit neatly into Oprah’s Book Club. We can make something really wonderful happen in our lives, but like anything else, it’s likely going to take a lot of hard work and planning. And we don’t need to drag a grocery store generic brand of enlightenment into everything to get it done.
Image via Unsplash