June 25, 2015

Unlikely Spiritual Guidance for Young Men.


In a recent article I discussed the difficulties we as a society face, in engaging young men in conversations that really matter.

Traditionally, young men are extremely uncomfortable talking about concepts that involve self. Attempting to broach the topic can often lead to a brick wall of resistance. However, I have recently stumbled upon a novel approach that has helped me to bridge the gap and open the dialogue with numerous young men.

While pondering my own journey of self-discovery I realized that I first learned the foundations of self-awareness at age 17, while watching the film Fight Club.

I realise how strange this may sound, considering the 1999 film, starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton, is describes by IMDb as, “an insomniac office worker looking for a way to change his life crosses paths with a devil-may-care soap maker and they form an underground fight club that evolves into something much, much more…”

If you haven’t seen the film yet, I’d highly recommend it. Despite its disturbingly violent nature, the film was voted #10 in Empire magazine’s 500 Greatest Movies Of All Time (Sep 2008). In any case, fear not, there are no spoilers or obscure, unexplained references in this article.

Consider this an exploration of an alternative take on how spirituality is portrayed in a modern day context, through a modern day medium.

I am not suggesting that this is a perfect solution, but rather an example of how alternative means might be used as tools to reconnect with young men. From personal experience, indirect methods such as this can be extremely effective in raising a variety of important issues.

So, why Fight Club?

The film follows Edward Norton (The Narrator) as he battles against the internal turmoil that comes with pondering the nature of one’s own existence. His journey poses questions of materialism, perceptions of self, mental illness, the nature of social and romantic relationships, and finding ones ultimate purpose. These are the very same issues teenagers seem to be struggling to deal with.

The Narrator begins the film as a corporate clone. He is the perfect product of a consumerist society. He works a stable job, pays his taxes, collects IKEA furniture and ticks all of the standardised boxes of success. 

However, he finds himself growing increasingly disconnected with the outside world. At times he even ponders his own death in a surreal fantasy dream state. While this may seem a little hardcore for teenagers, when you consider that a recent nationwide survey of high school students in America reported that 16 percent had considered suicide, this is an issue that clearly needs addressing.

Following a sequence of traumatic events, and a period of chronic insomnia, The Narrator meets Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt).

Tyler is the exact opposite of The Narrator. He refuses to conform to social norms – living in a filthy abandoned house, working random odd-jobs and selling homemade soap. His life is driven by pure instinct, resulting in a raw, emotive and slightly strange existence.

When The Narrator meets Tyler, he is intrigued. Tyler has accumulated none of the traditional hallmarks of success, yet he takes on the appearance of pseudo-enlightenment. He is, for lack of a better term, free, in all the ways that The Narrator is not. This is what ultimately makes The Narrator question his own perceptions of what it means to be a real man.

As the film progresses, Tyler begins teaching The Narrator his philosophy, one of which is –

“Reject the basic assumptions of civilization, especially the importance of material possessions.” He reinforces this ideology with a rousing speech to a group of wannabe fight club members—“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.”

Sound familiar? Cussing aside, Tyler’s philosophy closely resembles a philosophy found in Buddhism.

Before we look at how the film depicts a number of Buddhist concepts, a quick word on the violent nature of the story. While it is easy to view the fight scenes as brutal, animalistic and somewhat pointless, I believe they are meant to represent self-induced suffering.

The fights, in some ways, are a form of meditation as a means of mental purification. Some have even been compared to the self-induced suffering of fasting, isolation and solidarity taken on by Siddhartha in his quest for enlightenment.

In a similar light, the fights draw an interesting comparison to the support groups The Narrator attends at the start of the film—men, helping other men to discover internal truth about their nature. Both groups have well defined rules and boundaries, and both require vulnerability and self-exploration. The only difference is that one group uses their words to be vulnerable while the other uses their animal instincts.

It should be noted that none of the violence is directed at unwilling, non-members of the club. There is a scene where members are given an assignment to pick a fight with a stranger, however, they are instructed to lose on purpose. And, as the narrator points out—“most people… normal people, will do almost anything to avoid a fight.” Thus, no one is ever the victim of violence—they have to choose to be a willing participant.

In an interview published shortly after the film was released, Edward Norton discussed the links between the film and Buddhist philosophy:

“In Buddhism there’s Nirvana, and then there’s Samsara, the world of confusion and disharmony. That world is our testing ground, where we have the experiences that help us become enlightened. I’m not saying Fight Club is The Book of Living and Dying, but it was kind of that idea: You’re challenging yourself to break out of the world.”

I believe that if you are willing to push past the graphic exterior of the film, what you will find is a philosophical depiction of spirituality that raises important question relevant to modern day society.

When prefaced with the notion that the fight scenes represent suffering and self-exploration, and the interplay between the two main characters (The Narrator and Tyler) represent our internal battle between instinct and socialisation, the film provides an interesting platform for discussion.

It is clear that we need to consider a new set of tools in the quest to engage with the male youth of today. While this film might not be the answer, it does pose the question—what alternative methods could be used to help open the dialogue with, and between, young men?



The Dharma of Fight Club.


Author: Garrick Transell

Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Fair Use/Creative Commons

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