You are listening to a programmes from BBC Radio 4.
My friend has a smart watch that displays his pulse rate, how many steps he’s taken that day, and hours he’s slept. It’s all about maximising his fitness. As he shows it to me he starts saying how, during a very stressful meeting, his heart rate tripled. Even as he is recalling this story his pulse rate starts rising. And I wonder if the app is a help or a hindrance to his goal of achieving physical perfection.
At the start of the year, many of us experience an inner battle, between the self that has over-indulged and feels dissatisfied, and the self that wants to be, as Radiohead’s song puts it, ‘Fitter, happier, more productive, not drinking too much, taking regular exercise.’ And by now many of us have instigated self-help strategies to achieve that lower pulse, deeper sleep and greater fruitfulness. Or, what some call ‘self-optimising’.
Authors – Andre Spicer and Carl Cederstrom - have explored this desire to be ‘the best me I can be,’ as well as the pressures that self-improvement puts on people; and they suggest that the punishing ideals of this culture are unhelpful – even detrimental to our well-being. Their own experiment of trying to improve a particular area of their life each month ends with them discovering what we all know: that saying is easier than doing.
But this desire to be a better version of ourselves is more than faddish; it’s fundamental and it raises important questions: ‘what is the best I can be?’ ‘Can I do it on my own? My annual attempt at self-optimising usually involves negotiations around bread, beer, watching sport, taking exercise and a resolve to feed the soul. The latter is always the one I find hardest. I have a Bible designed to be read in a year and every year, to quote one of its proverbs, I return to my same old ways, ‘like a dog returning to its vomit’, and fail to get past January.
Curiously, it’s this failure that can lead back to the source of the perfection being sought. The Benjamin Franklin quote that ‘God helps those who help themselves’, often mistakenly attributed to the Bible, is really the opposite of what scripture is saying.
Scripture has much to say on self-help and its pitfalls. It may point to a perfection – to holiness. But achieving it doesn’t depend on helping myself but on asking for God’s help. When I fail it encourages me that ‘The Lord is my helper;’ and rather than seeking my own improvement it teaches me ‘to lay aside my old self’ in order to be renewed in mind, body and soul.’
Trying to be the best version of ourselves is a worthy aim, but it involves more than achieving a low pulse rate and higher productivity. It requires a trust that people find their best selves when they give up the self-help and look, instead, to the source of the perfection they desire.