Making your bed will not help you change the world
The latest trend in self-help books teaches men that mundane tasks are the secret to fulfillment
I cannot remember the last time I made my bed. I suspect that it must have been during the Clinton administration. I could not even say with any certainty how one goes about this particular chore. A cursory search suggests that something called "hospital corners" is involved.
Until very recently I had not thought very much about this personality defect of mine. I had not even considered that it might be a defect. But a chance look at the Amazon bestseller list has given me pause. William McRaven's Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life... And Maybe the World has been on all the bestseller lists longer than my son has been alive. Like a disturbingly large number of popular books these days it has been adapted by the author (with, I suspect, the contributions of one or more hired hands) from a YouTube video.
The premise of the book is exactly what the title suggests — i.e., that the diurnal stretching and folding of linen over a rectangle of polyurethane foam is a task of well-nigh existential importance. Failure to complete it suggests not mere laziness or indifference to real or perceived social norms but advanced, indeed very likely terminal moral decay. McRaven, a retired Navy SEAL admiral, does not so much argue this point. Instead he tells us about how when he was in boot camp he was very good at making his own bed, so good that when his instructor threw a quarter at the mattress it "jumped several inches off the bed." Who could fail to be impressed by an anecdote like that, or the one that follows it in which he makes his bed for the first time after being laid up following a parachute accident? "It was," he tells us, "my way of showing that I had conquered the injury." Not just conquered, I'm sure, but simply annihilated it with that single, Siegfried-like triumph over the unruly sheets and recalcitrant pillows.
At the end of the first chapter he tells us about his experience visiting Saddam Hussein, in whose capture he played a part: "Once a day I would visit Saddam to ensure my soldiers were properly caring for him. I noticed, with some sense of amusement, that Saddam did not make his bed." The road to hell may or may not be paved with good intentions, but the one that leads invariably to illegally annexing Kuwaiti oil fields and gassing thousands of your own people begins with a messy bed.
Bed-making is only one of the inducements in these pages, though if the title is any indication none of the others is nearly as important to the author. Each chapter begins the same way, with an anecdote about McRaven parachuting or deep-sea diving or exercising or capturing a terrorist. These are told in a wayward, curiously affectless manner, so that six pages or so in we are asking what the point is and why we should care about the time he went to "BASIC UNDERWATER DEMOLITION SEAL TRAINING" with his friend Dick until — bam — we get hit with a final paragraph meant to summarize the lesson we did not realize we were learning. The disconnect between the preceding material and the wisdom it is meant to inculcate is sometimes vast. Thus, a story about hostage negotiation concludes rather abruptly with:
Life is a struggle and the potential for failure is ever present, but those who live in fear of failure, or hardship, or embarrassment will never achieve their potential. Without pushing your limits, without occasionally sliding down the rope headfirst, without daring greatly, you will never know what is truly possible in your life.
The problem here is not so much with the advice itself, which hits all the right Hallmark notes. It's that it could just as easily appear in Uncle Rico's high-school yearbook. Attempting to present all of it as the hard-won result of McRaven's military service seems (no doubt unintentionally) to cheapen the latter. But who am I to argue with a man who has written a 144-page book about the number of push-ups he can do?
McRaven is not trying to reach experienced adult readers. His editors either do not know or do not care about the difference between, for example, cumulative and coordinate adjectives, which is why we get phrases like "I ran to the beach with my black, rubber flippers" and "The life jacket was a small, rubberized bladder" within a sentence of each other. I would suggest that this kind of sloppiness tells us something about the moral character of all the parties involved, but I'm afraid I haven't got any anecdotes at hand about Kim Jong Un's devilish propensity for, say, comma splices.
I realize that I will probably be accused of breaking a butterfly on a wheel here. Admiral McRaven doubtless means well in a tough-talking sitcom high-school assistant principal sort of way. If he were working in a vacuum, I would say live and let live. But Make Your Bed is only one example of a flourishing genre of pseudo-hardass commentary that is exercising a massive influence over young men in the English-speaking world. Like McRaven, the Canadian academic psychologist-turned-YouTube superstar Jordan Peterson seems to be under the impression that rote performance of mundane tasks ("Clean your room" in the professor's case) coupled with a kind of vague meta-obsession with purpose for its own sake is a catch-all solution for any number of postmodern afflictions. Joe Rogan, the tattooed podcaster whose stock-in-trade is telling his followers what they should think about whiskey and the keto diet, is another.
I have no doubt that the Petersonists are responding to a real need felt by their audience. The question is whether their answers are the right ones. I am not at all convinced that what lonely disaffected male millennials need to hear most is that performative masculinity will make them feel happy or fulfilled. As I write this, there are hundreds of thousands of American men who, under the influence of these no-BS masculinist gurus, have learned to confuse selecting the perfect razor and using it correctly with a sense of vocation. It is all of a piece with the alt-right; indeed as far as its political ramifications go, it might as well be considered the same phenomenon — a retooled social conservatism in which the issues at stake are not abortion or same-sex marriage but complaints about whining SJWs and "political correctness." The average Petersonist is teaching himself how to use tools and getting really into evolutionary biology and lifting and will tell you all about it over a cigar or a glass of bourbon in his backyard (assuming that he has one).
Don't misunderstand me. I do think it is more than a bit odd that only slightly less than one third of millennial fathers owns a hammer (I suspect that for the unmarried the figure is even lower still). It is also sad that practically none of us can read a map or change a tire, at least not without Googling it first. But ranting about "beta males" while exaggerating the importance of whatever household task you allowed a random dude on your phone to motivate you into carrying out this morning is even sadder.
There has to be some kind of reasonable middle ground between Pajama Boy and the "Tired of not getting the girl?" crowd at iamalpham.com. Figuring out what that looks like and who the models are — Mr. Darcy? Kurt Russell? St. Joseph? — will be difficult in a culture as fractured as ours, where the crudest and most cynical voices are the most likely to be both heard and heeded. But if the other options are having to ask a stranger to help you open a pickle jar or despairing of Western civilization because some people's bedrooms are messy, I think most of us will be up for the task.