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ON SECOND THOUGHT, forget what Montaigne said

Published Aug. 27, 2005

I ignored them at the bank. I snubbed them at the shopping mall. I banished them from the bedside table, the bathroom, the kitchen. Just when I thought I was rid of them, they burst like unleashed pathogens from new hosts: restaurant walls, church signposts, showroom catalogs. Something has to be done about them, I tell you, or I may sicken unto death.

I refer, of course, to Motivational Quotes. Those 10-cent soupcons of wisdom from the great and the not-so, exhorting us to throw off the weights of lethargy, strike out on the road to self-improvement and become the Olympians we're destined to be.

But what if your destiny is to be hounded by Motivational Quotes? It seems as though they've stalked me from the cradle. I've tried throwing out the quote-a-day calendars, I've left the Reader's Digest unopened on the periodontist's table, I've set channel blockers against the Lifetime and Oxygen networks. But nothing has kept me from being waylaid by the forces of improvement. Now, in the most fiendish twist of all, they have colonized the vast and once-benign ether of the Internet. Don't believe me? Just try scrolling through the next e-mail you get from a trusted friend. Scroll . . . scroll . . . yes, keep scrolling . . . riiigghht . . . there! See? At the end, just above the name and identifying data?

The Motivational Quote.

"He who would leap far must first take a long run" (Danish proverb).

Or "Nothing is a waste of time if you use the experience wisely" ( Auguste Rodin).

Or "Difficulties are meant to rouse, not discourage. The human spirit is to grow strong by conflict" (William Ellery Channing).

Do I hear America groaning, or is it just me? Personally, I've had enough Motivation to last me several lifetimes. Not only am I unmotivated and unimproved by these apercus, I am increasingly skeptical of the people who wield them. If someone begins a sentence, "I think it was Montaigne who said . . .," I immediately think two things: 1) This person has read about as much Montaigne as I have, and 2) maybe he's confused Montaigne with Lee Iacocca.

Because it doesn't really matter who supplies the Motivational Quote, a.k.a. the MQ. He (and it usually is a he) doesn't have to be a titan. He doesn't even have to be famous. Who, I ask you, is Earl Nightingale ("We must radiate success before it will come to us")? Or Norman Vaughan ("Dream big and dare to fail")? Or the running, leaping Dane who came up with that damn proverb?

All that matters is that the words give off the same aura of generic authority. In service to this mission, virtually any personage can be conscripted. I'll bet even Slobodan Milosevic could cough out an MQ if you shook him hard enough. ("Don't let anyone say no to your dreams"? "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do"?)

If you have any doubt that we are facing a motivational epidemic, take a trip to your local gym. For me, the gym used to be a reliably disheartening place where I could gaze on bodies more supple and attractive than mine and feel an agreeable sense of slippage. No longer. The gym-cum-spa where I currently sweat has a habit of posting MQs in unavoidable places _ little drumbeats of sagacity, affixed over the water cooler. As if reading Abraham Maslow ("What a man can be, he must be") or Thomas Edison ("There's a way to do it better _ find it!") could make the treadmill any less Sisyphean. As though the pensees of Samuel Johnson ("Your aspirations are your possibilities") or Henry Ford ("Don't find a fault, find a remedy") form a kind of protein shake for the soul.

It isn't so much the monotony that wears me down. It's the thought that anyone encountering these eminences for the first time would think they were put on Earth solely to get us through our lat pulldowns. Goethe, Seneca, Bill Gates, Emmitt Smith . . . . Everyone is enlisted in the long march toward buffness. My own revolt took place the day I stepped out of the shower and found Henry James admonishing me: "It's time to start living the life you've imagined." Can a testimonial be far behind?:

"Hi, I'm Henry James. You may know me as an exactingly subtle novelist who peels away the artifices of European civilization to expose the twitching nerves of the human animal. But sometimes even an expatriate aesthete needs to turn up the screw of fitness! For a while, my gut was looking like a golden bowl. Now I'm an ambassador of abs. And you can be, too. With the help of my Bostonian System, you'll have buns of steel and the wings of a dove! Remember: It's time to start living the life you've imagined."

I suppose the violence done to Henry James' spirit shouldn't really matter. MQs, like condos, are for the living. They are founded on the faith that our dreary existences can, with a well-timed nudge, be made worthy of even the most rigorous high-school-reunion inspection. But ask yourself. Is your life richer for Scandinavian sayings and the truisms of steel magnates or the tossed-off crumbs of Victorian essayists? Are we now a better people? Why haven't all the millions of desk calendars and motivational brochures and Successories posters eliminated poverty, racism, war, Paris Hilton? Why isn't each and every one of us leaving big honking footprints in the sands of time?

Could it be that, despite all the unsolicited inspiration we're getting from every side, some fundamental part of us remains . . . unimprovable?

I have occasion to ponder these questions when I walk my dog through Congressional Cemetery. Here, I think, here is the final station of self-improvement. As the ancients reminded us: Memento mori. And if that qualifies as an MQ, it at least has the virtue of annihilating every other.

"We are made to persist" (Tobias Wolff). Until we die.

"No man can climb out beyond the limits of his own character" (John Morley). Or his grave.

"Be bold, and mighty powers will come to your aid" (Basil King). Or a dog may christen your tombstone.

Well, maybe it's not so grim as all that. People, in their brief spans, do get better at some things (worse at others). Perhaps the time has come simply to put the self back into self-improvement, to see it as a private race with a fixed finish line that no amount of outside exhortation will change. Perhaps we can pass up the pat solution, the easy nostrum, and immerse ourselves, with gratitude, in the complexity, the unknowability, the sheer imperfectibility of our lives.

Perhaps we can live our questions now. And perhaps then, without even knowing it, we will gradually live along some distant day into the answers.

As Rilke once put it.

Louis Bayard is a Washington writer and author of the novel Mr. Timothy.