A few weeks ago Netflix released the documentary, “I Am Not Your Guru,” a great behind-the-scenes look at the life and work of Tony Robbins. Robbins refuses to call himself a motivational speaker or a guru and yet he must know that’s exactly how he functions for people. He has made millions selling meaning, fulfillment, self realization, and the motivation and “skills” to attain these things. If that’s not a guru or motivational speaker, I don’t know what is. To be fair, I think Mr. Robbins does a lot of good. I like how he calls people to practice radical honesty with themselves and others, work hard, and take personal responsibility. But let’s be clear, that’s not why he can charge $5000 for his conferences.
While watching it, I couldn’t help but feel like I was watching a prosperity gospel preacher. The correlation is uncanny. The technique, rhetoric, and larger-than-life personality is all the same. Prosperity gospel can be best described as a cocktail of Christian theology and Western consumerism. The idea is that if you just have enough faith, righteousness, and tithe, God will give you a blessed life and this in turn will fulfill you. This is essentially the message in two of the best selling Christian books ever: “Your Best Life Now,” by Joel Osteen, and, “The Purpose Driven Life,” by Rick Warren. Robbins’ ideology is similar in that it promises one can achieve their dreams and goals if they follow his ideas and that this will in turn fulfill you. While I’m sure Robbins never makes such a dubious claim outright, it’s implied in almost everything he says and does. This is why he can charge $5000 for a six day conference called, “Date with Destiny.” Even the title of his conference reminds me of countless sermon titles I have heard before. But the implied promise – fulfill your dreams and be fulfilled – is a lie and actually quite oppressive.
It’s oppressive because it tells us to be unhappy until we obtain what we desire. It fuels discontentment and makes us feel like we are missing out. This message is everywhere, especially in advertisements. Commercials often subtly imply that by consuming a product or service you will have more fun, be cooler, prettier, and have more sex. All this can be translated into simply – buy this and you will be fulfilled. Thus, we live under constant pressure to do so. Here we see how corporations, churches, and Tony Robbins all impose this oppressive message on us.
Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek says, “Do not fulfill your dreams. Fulfilling your fantasy may induce a waking nightmare.” Part of why Zizek says this is because once you fulfill your dreams you realize that they are unable to provide the meaning and fulfillment you desire. It’s not that they don’t offer some sense of fulfillment, it’s just never near complete and that can be devestating.
As someone who feels like he has fulfilled a major dream, being the pastor of my own church that I love, I can tell you it comes also with a sense of emptiness. In short, it doesn’t fulfill me and that brings some sadness because I believed it would. It’s when we fulfill our dreams that we are left with the potentially shattering realization that nothing can fulfill us. In fact, our lack and emptiness is often only magnified after we obtain what we desire, not before. We see this all the time with people who win the lottery. They obtain the ultimate dream – wealth and a life of ease. However, many are ruined by it and left worse off than they were before. Thus, our dreams can contain hidden nightmares.
The solution is to embrace our discontentment and lack rather than fight it. Pete Rollins puts it better than anyone, “The individual who is able to loose themselves from the notion that there is some ultimate purpose to their life frees themselves from the negative melancholy that comes with being unable to find that purpose (or the naïve optimism that comes from thinking that they will). The secret, as John Caputo would say, is that there is no secret. Instead the challenge is to discover and deepen love. For love not only affirms the world, it produces a surplus in that joyful affirmation: acts that enact liberation.”
Here we see that there is a kind of fulfillment to be found by embracing our unfulfillment. We can make peace with the truth of our lives and find healing and hope. We can find the courage to be, as theologian Paul Tillich put it. Thus, Tony Robbins and pastors should be telling people that they have no secret to offer them, no special insights to help them unlock their dreams and destiny. We should be telling people – make peace with the fact that nothing and no one can fulfill you the way you want. Something tells me that people won’t pay $5000 to hear that.