The Durden Dilemma
Starting April 6, for the next 30 days, I’m writing a brief essay every day and posting it to my Medium account in an effort to get off social media and focus on doing something good for me, both personally and professionally. To read my last essay, click here.
When David Fincher’s Fight Club came out in 1999, it didn’t make much noise at the box office, leaving studio execs to lick their wounds. Yet similar to movies of its time like Donnie Darko and American Psycho, the film went on to gain a cult following amidst a successful DVD run, eventually defining a crop of Gen Xers who had come of age in an era of mass consumerism and advertising.
In Fight Club, the criminally-underrated Edward Norton plays the Narrator, a simple man named Jack who works a boring white collar job. You probably know what comes next: he meets Brad Pitt’s swaggering soap salesman, Tyler Durden; together, they create that first rule you’ve heard a million times over but still aren’t allowed to talk about; Durden takes things a little bit too far in an attempt to disrupt what he perceives as the social order; and eventually, we figure out alongside Jack that Durden was a figment of his imagination, representing everything that he wished he could be in order to break out of his boring day-to-day life.
Fincher touches on a ton of themes that seemingly everyone has discussed, from academic types reading way too into it (It’s all about the journey from stagnation to rebirth, duh) to the too-drunk frat bro who hasn’t left the couch in the last three hours (And at the end of it, the whole thing was, like, a commentary on capitalism, bro! By the way, did you hear back from McKinsey yet?). But what’s often misread with the ending — where Jack shoots himself to “kill” Durden, then proceeds to make out with Bellatrix Lestrange as buildings holding credit card records tumble to the ground — is that not only is Jack disenchanted when seeing Tyler’s true colors show themselves, he’s become satisfied in figuring out who he is as a person.
The Narrator had idolized his counterpart because he represented everything he couldn’t be: free, motivated, purposeful, even violent. And while part of him deep down yearns to become Tyler Durden full time, he realizes that by taking incremental steps towards assuming his own individuality as opposed to toppling society on a large scale, he’s grown into the person he wants to be, not the person he “should” be.
What do I mean by that? This core idea is something I think about on the daily. Fincher may take things to the extreme in portraying a world where skyscrapers explode and fight clubs go mainstream, yet he’s speaking in plain terms by saying that the most important thing we can do is focus on improving ourselves and taking control of our own lives. You can wear your pair of Nike Air Force Ones and drink your Starbucks cold brew, sure, but do that because you like them, not because someone’s telling you to like them. Do that because those products actively improve your life, Fincher says, not because you think the act of purchasing them will make you feel complete.
I’m often bombarded with idealized versions of who I “should” be. Some days, it’s an outdoorsman who shuns the trappings of our digital world by unplugging — literally — and spends his time and dollars exploring our natural world. Other days, it’s the complete opposite, a constant creator on the #grind striking deals with big name-brands and amassing a dedicated following. There’s even the times I think I should be some great entrepreneur, donning turtlenecks and pitching something that “will save the world,” whatever that means.
Yet we also have to know who we are and learn to be compassionate with ourselves. I’ve been told various versions of the phrase “You are enough” a lot, and I think it’s really valid when considering who we want to be and what we what to represent to the world. That doesn’t mean we can’t aspire to take on some traits from our idealized versions of ourselves; just like Jack, we can all stand to gain more confidence and search for more meaning in our lives. There’s a balance inherent here in this dilemma, though — after all, I don’t believe the answer to breaking out from monotony is to spend your Tuesday night beating up Jared Leto in a grungy basement.
Fight Club was intended to touch on the zeitgeist of the time, the first generation of kids that grew up soaking in the lives they were being sold by advertising on television. Its commentary on the emptiness of capitalism may have taken time to fully resonate with viewers, but when looking back on it (and movies like American Psycho, which followed a sadistic and murderous Christian Bale as he trudges through life on Wall Street), the film’s message has only evolved with the times.
It will be interesting to see what entertainment, stories, and art will expand on Fight Club and come to define our current generation of young adults, as the world of paid digital advertising has exploded and we find ourselves glued to our phone screens, scrolling past targeted product after targeted product on our Instagrams. The lifestyles sold to Jack and his peers might have seemed impossible to escape two decades ago, but it pales in comparison to the constant steam of media we now consume daily and the thousands of points of data companies wield to predict what we want before we know we want it.
Nonetheless, I believe we can all learn from the Durden dilemma by focusing more on small scale changes in our lives and less on all-encompassing intrapersonal revolution. And for the record, I’m ruling out pursuing interpersonal revolution to the extreme, too — I think we can all agree that you shouldn’t go exploding buildings just because you had a tough Tuesday at work.
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