I’m 29 and have been through an enormous amount of shit that is both situation-specific and universal; I am not unproud that I’ve made it this far, considering. I’m in therapy and have been off and on since I was eight, looking for a way to beat back some severe depression and find good reasons to keep doing normal people things that actually feel excruciating. I’m on some meds now that make me not feel like I’m walking around without any skin, but I know that’s just about getting level and now I’ve got actual work to do. I just have no idea where to go or what to do next.
I’m committed to not being a sadsack asshole anymore, and I’ve learned so much. I’m trying to stay away from both tepid and unhelpfully intense relationships that remind me of my fucked up childhood. I’m looking for ways to dive deep and be okay with metaphorical heat and darkness and actual solitude and uncertainty. I want so much to hold on to what I like about myself—my bravery, my depth of feeling, my brutal, nasty intelligence—while also learning to be an actual regular person who can do things like enjoy basic times of friends without boozing myself into maudlin unbearableness, or getting so discouraged at my job that everyone wonders what I’m even doing there until I get fired. It’s like I keep figuring this shit out, and then forgetting it immediately.
I guess, I just can’t find a good middle ground about anything? When I imagine what my “best life” is, it’s only possible through a time machine. I don’t want to write, or be a writer, I want to have already published a barnstorming first novel at seventeen that made me universally adored and celebrated. I don’t daydream about meeting a good dude and making it work, I lose hours imagining having never met the asshole abusers or lukewarm Mr. All Wrongs. I’m so lonely, because I’m never as kind or gracious to myself as I am to my friends, but every chance I get to make a connection, I cock up with try-hard nonsense or totally losing my shit. I try to make plans, try to remember that good people with good lives have to work for them, but I almost always feel like I have missed the boat for any of the normal stuff people do or enjoy. I want to want things for myself, but can’t follow through on anything, like I already think that I’ve failed and should just bow out, or second guess if I really want those things or can make them work until opportunities have sailed right on past.
This attitude made more sense, I guess, when my dreams were so big they were laughable. I’m barreling down the road towards middle age, the time to become a child prodigy or set myself on the path to run the world or start an epic hundred-year romance are gone. I’ve tried to lower my expectations for myself, to accept that my big dreams, or even normal-sized ones, aren’t in the cards, but I can’t shake the sense that what I want and what I can achieve are so far apart that even tiny things feel beyond reach.
Writing to you feels like a cop out, because it seems like you’ve addressed all of these things before. But seriously, how do you love yourself? How do you accept your flaws and strengths and offer your best to others while trusting they will make allowances for your worst? How do you be a person? I’m struggling here to make any reasonable plan, or even take a simple positive step, to being happy and whole.
I know there’s no secret, and I don’t really want to live in a Jules Verne novel, but seriously, how does someone actually get to a place where they can combine and use all the good advice they’ve been given, and just live a life?
I Need A Meaning I Can Memorize
It’s funny that I should stumble on your letter today, because I’m sitting down for the fiftieth time to write an introduction to a potential Ask Polly book, and I’m pretty sure that I’m going to fail, yet again, to come up with a clear, coherent message, a MEANING TO MEMORIZE.
Because you can’t sell a book today without a short, snappy, memorizable meaning. I’m not sure you can sell anything without a zippy message attached to it. Literary agents, publishers, publicists, talent bookers, lifestyle magazine gurus, opinion page honchos, network executives, TV producers, studio heads, investment analysts, local politicians, world leaders, archangels, God, Yoda, Darth Vader? They all want a concise, coherent, provocative, urgent, necessary, salty-sweet message-nugget, and they want it delivered from the head of the Great and Powerful Oz, flanked by flamethrowers aimed at the sky.
At the very least, they’d like you to smile a little more often, and flat-iron your hair.
Helpful, regular people might say to someone like me (or you!), someone with enormous expectations and weak follow-through and brutal, nasty intelligence and a tendency to dive into maudlin unbearableness, “So, smile more and flat-iron your hair, for fuck’s sake. What’s the big deal?”
What do we say to that? Because “Smile and flat-iron your hair” is a meaning we can memorize, right? Just hide your wishy-washy self behind the fucking curtain, aim the flamethrowers at the sky, and speak into the Mr. Microphone with the All-Powerful Deity effect turned on. This is what our skin-deep, tl;dr culture appears to want from us: distilled three-second tidings. Slap your long-winded ass in a saucepan on medium heat until the confusion and the second-guessing burn off, but so do the complexity and the unanswerable philosophical questions and the soaring but somewhat vague epiphanies.
Instead of reading like a cry for help, though, your letter sounds almost like a mission statement. Because, even though you feel isolated and lonely, even though you’ve drawn circles around your so-called “bad” behaviors and said, “I need to do less of this,” even though you’re ready to get on the “right” track and start feeling happy and “whole,” you also paint a pretty compelling portrait of how it feels to be a complex person in a world that embraces forced smiles and simpleton wisdom and bulletproof solutions, a world that kicks the wishy-washy and the maudlin to the curb. In some ways, your letter sounds less like “Here are my many fucking problems” and more like a kind of rallying cry for complicated, sensitive, brutally smart human beings who crave a meaning they can memorize but who are also severely allergic to memorizable meanings.
Likewise, I think I’m struggling to write a general-purpose introduction that encapsulates the kind of snappy, three-second messages that signal a saleable product for the same reason I struggled to tolerate annoying jobs and half-assed relationships and passive-aggressive friendships when I was your age. I got all weird and wishy-washy or I cocked up with try-hard nonsense or I totally lost my shit. I knew that I should smile more and flat-iron my hair, but even thinking about these things made me want to show up unshowered and ramble incoherently about all of the reasons everything in the world was bewildering and wrong. Somehow KNOWING that there was ONE right answer only made me want to offer up five hundred wrong answers instead.
Right now, you are the living, breathing manifestation of five hundred wrong answers. Your letter, if you reread it with the right spirit of appreciation, is a paean to wrong answers.
But listen, I’m not sure you have a big problem with follow-through, or long-term commitment, or wholeness. I think your problem is about introductions, literal and figurative. Regular life was excruciating up until not so long ago, right? You are just starting out on a smooth path. You clearly don’t love your career, and maybe you suspect that your friends, what few friends you might have, are incapable of understanding you. You haven’t really dated a man who’s healthy yet. Give yourself a break, because you’re only twenty-nine years old, and YOU JUST GOT HERE, to a place where you’re not an unhinged, severely depressed, unstable human attracting other unhinged, severely depressed, unstable humans. Also, beginnings are not easy, precisely BECAUSE they demand that we get behind the goddamn curtain and act like we’re simpler and less conflicted than we are.
Just as you believe that you should somehow retool yourself to be more resilient and optimistic and tenacious and THEN life might be ok (but you are still, somehow, resistant to being retooled), I imagine that any Ask Polly introduction I write will get flat-ironed until I don’t recognize it anymore. I might start with something dark and digressive on the outside with a chewy optimistic center, but eventually it will be hammered into a less dark and digressive state.
That’s a problem. Because the real value of this column and the reason it could only thrive on the weirdo terrain of The Awl, is that it’s exactly as unwieldy and rambling and flawed as it needs to be in order to kick up some tiny speck of redemption. Maybe there are coherent messages along the way (DARE TO BE “THAT WOMAN.” KICK TEPID MEN TO THE CURB. Or my personal favorite: COME ON HIS HAMPTON BLOUSE AND MOVE ON), but if you cut straight to that message, why would you even care? I wouldn’t. Who wants to sound just like every other little digestible square of upbeat text in the world, the text of cereal boxes and lifestyle magazines and yoga retreat pamphlets and TEDx talk summaries and organic tea bags?
Although I do think that we’re stumbling half-blind into an era of newfound indifference to memorizable messages and the Great and Powerful in general, it’s hard to know what we should put in place of the simpleton wisdom and the well-styled gurus. For example, I just watched five new TV comedies and dramas that will air soon, and every last pseudo-subversive one of them either features blood and gore and worms crawling out of eyeballs, or nasty people who insult each other and talk about masturbation and what’s going to get them off around the clock like overgrown, angry teenagers (see also: a real-life version of that TV show “Just ‘Batin'” from Idiocracy.) Even when culture rejects the zippy, Live Your Best Life, self-improvement-as-extreme-overachiever-sport messages out there, the results aren’t all that appealing or meaningful. A few minutes in, someone smashes someone’s head in with a tire iron or makes some casual joke about anal sex, and the carnival’s over before it even started.
So this is what I have to say to you: Forget easy slogans. Your tendency to think of yourself as a damaged, sad misfit who might never fit in or be happy, who needs to be fixed? It’s understandable, but it needs to change. Even though you had to identify the extreme duress of your past and locate the ways in which these traumas formed you; even though you STILL need to be wary of tepid men and intense overbearing people who will use your scars to bend you to their will; even though you will probably ALWAYS, in some tiny corner of your brain, suspect that you’re too fucked by your circumstances and chemistry and nature to ever be a regular person in the world with an equal shot at happiness as everyone else, you also have to, simultaneously, try to let that stuff go. You have to learn to take all of these ways you bungle your introductions, with darkness and digressions, and embrace them a little.
Because it’s pretty fucking hard to follow through with things that start with forced smiles and flat-ironed hair. You have no way of knowing how good or bad you are at sallying forth from a point that feels authentic and gratifying and real, whether it’s a job or a friendship or a love affair. Personally, I’ve been amazed at how easy I find it to be married to someone who’s actually interested in me, insane rambling wishy-washiness and all, and I’ve been surprised at how hard I’m willing to work at a career that feels meaningful (occasionally!) and offers chances for me to delve into complex subjects without glossing or reducing or oversimplifying (sometimes!).
You write, “It’s like I keep figuring this shit out, and then forgetting it immediately.” That’s not your strange little personal problem. That’s not what makes you uniquely fucked. That’s a universal truth, a fundamental dimension of the human condition. You know who feels that way? You, me and everyone we know. Fucking OPRAH feels that way, or she’d have fallen asleep while interviewing Deepak Chopra a long, long time ago.
So: We can all continue to be controlled by the ILLUSION that this is not how it is for everybody else. We can decide that we hate our jobs because we are SINGULARLY stubborn and lazy and bored. We can decide that we quit things because we are UNUSUALLY unable to deal. We can get angry at ourselves, over and over again, because we are uncertain and full of longing. Or we can wake up and notice that this is a common thread of human existence, easily traceable through history (although perhaps less true of people who had to, say, wake at dawn and plow the fields, which is why Viktor Frankl always advocated structuring a depressed person’s day with lots of hard labor and very little time to reflect).
Did I mention that we’re in conflict with ourselves? We’re in conflict with ourselves because we want A MEANING WE CAN MEMORIZE, but we also DISTRUST ALL MEANINGS, memorizable or otherwise. In other words, we are like Goths in black leather with pretty highlighted, flat-ironed hair. We are huffing spray paint and watching Oprah. We are Hannah Montana, skipping and chewing bubble gum, and we’re also Miley Cyrus, fondling Alan Thicke with a giant foam hand. We are Julie, cruise director of “The Love Boat,” smiling and gushing about bingo on the Lido Deck, and we’re also Khaleesi, Mother of Dragons, growling, “I will answer injustice with justice!”
We are angry and hopeful and disappointed and we want more. We also blame ourselves for wanting more, as if we should’ve been stronger inside than to be molded by a culture that trains us, from the moment we’re conscious, to want more, more, more. As if we could simply shut out decades of snappy three-second messages that remind us, over and over again, of our hunger and our thirst. As if we could endure a non-stop media barrage of sexy Amazonian humans with flat-ironed hair who never age, repeatedly saving the day on our big screens and saving orphaned children in our magazines and speaking in snappy messages and trading in a five-million-dollar beach house for a twenty-million-dollar mansion on the Italian Riviera every few milliseconds. As if we could encounter these frothy, airbrushed fairy tales for most of our lives and emerge feeling peaceful and satisfied with our frizzy hair and our imperfect love lives and our mountains of debt.
Of course you don’t want to write. Who wants to sit and try at something and rarely get paid for it and possibly fail at it? I don’t want to do it a lot of the time. We all wish we’d published a barnstorming first novel at seventeen that made us universally adored and celebrated. OK, I would’ve been fine with that happening at age thirty-seven, actually. Age forty-seven would be ok with me, too.
But I also know that I wouldn’t be completely satisfied with that. Even if I were to publish a brilliant bestselling novel, I’d be halfway through the book tour (hating it, like the fucking ingrate I am), and I’d already be wondering if I’d ever publish anything half as brilliant as my first novel. I’d already be plagued by worry over whether I could pull it off all over again.
And even though there are some people reading this who are thinking, “OH FUCK YOU PEOPLE, I WOULDN’T BE LIKE THAT AT ALL, I’D FUCKING ENJOY EVERY MINUTE OF UNEXPECTED LITERARY SUCCESS!” most of those people would be running in some other form of tiny circle, worrying about something else, like we all do.
The only thing you gain as you get older is the ability to look around you and say, “This is pretty much what I get, and I’m not going to have this forever. I’d better really enjoy it.” But don’t get me wrong, I’m not all peaceful and satisfied. I’m just thrilled to be more peaceful and satisfied than I was ten years ago. I can go on vacation without getting twitchy. I can hang out with my kids without playing Candy Crush or impatiently scanning the news, sometimes.
What I’m trying to tell you is that life is fucking hard and messy for everyone, and there is no quick way to memorize a little motto or jingle that will see you through the messiness and the melancholy. No one will save you. No one will make you feel whole. I personally knew a guy who published a barnstorming first novel at seventeen that made him universally adored and celebrated, and his life has been a rollercoaster of highs and lows since then, just like the rest of us. I don’t know if he’s happy or sad, but he definitely never wrote another novel. (That might mean he’s very happy, mind you. I don’t know. But that first celebrated novel certainly didn’t solve everything.)
Success at writing rarely adds up to anything you can touch. You either write because you enjoy writing or (more commonly) you like how it feels to have written something. These are merely things you do with yourself. Even if, by some miracle, you become Jennifer Egan overnight, you still have to face the same question: Do I want to practice my craft today or not? Can I find meaning here? Does it feel good to do this, even when I fall short? Can I accept that I will usually fall short, that it takes a ton of work to gently massage a bad thing until it becomes a good one?
Because even though you might think you don’t want to work hard at anything, I think you’re wrong. You worked very, very hard to get here. Clearly, you enjoy hard work a lot.
Go watch that documentary about Jerry Seinfeld returning to stand-up comedy after making something like eight hundred million dollars from his sitcom. Because in the end, even for a megarich megastar, it’s all about craft. And WHAT is harder than trying to make a joke funny enough to make a room full of people—PEOPLE SKEPTICAL ABOUT MILLIONAIRES—laugh? Why would Seinfeld try to do something THAT DIFFICULT, that embarrassing and possibly catastrophic? Because the alternative was to retreat to Neverland and hire a doctor with a fondness for propofol.
If you’re not dodging chemical bombs or walking five miles through the desert heat to find potable water, you have to wake up and shut off your bad brain and work. When your work is done, you have to figure out how to shut off your bad brain and relax. You have to recognize and accept, in your bones, that accomplishing everything you’ve ever dreamed of (like Seinfeld) feels a little bit like never having accomplished anything. You will still have to inject meaning into your life every day, somehow, some way.
Speaking of “celebrity” profiles, the other day I saw a teaser for a TV special about that guy who says “Let’s get ready to rrrrrrumble!” at big events. In the teaser, Rumble Guy describes that fateful day when he tried out a bunch of different stupid catchphrases, and landed on the one that was stupid enough that stupid people might get all frothed up every time they heard it. Then Rumble Guy’s brother, who is or was his manager, talked about how they were extremely strategic about building a gigantic fortune around this one stupid catchphrase. I assume they made sure that NO ONE ELSE COULD EVER SAY this stupid catchphrase, except for Rumble Guy. That way Rumble Guy could spend the rest of his life flying around the country, uttering this one stupid catchphrase, and then taking home a giant bag of cash.
In contrast to the Seinfeld documentary, this story epitomizes the absurd Dr. Seuss-like world we inhabit today. Because not only did Rumble Guy have the gall to trademark his shitty catchphrase, not only did he have the gall to charge millions for it, but he also had the gall to sit around in front of the camera and smugly discuss what a fucking genius he was for coming up with that one enchantingly idiotic idea—not even an idea, really, but a string of five pointless words. I don’t mean Rumble Guy is a bad guy. Of course not. But can you FUCKING IMAGINE being that guy, and happily riding the fumes of something that stupid for the rest of your life?
It takes a special kind of a person to do that. And honestly, when you present me with your string of difficult questions, this is what I think about. I think about hard work and the ability to suspend your disbelief, how those two things are really what constitute follow-through—with love, with your career, with your friends. You ask me, “How do you love yourself? How do you accept your flaws and strengths and offer your best to others while trusting they will make allowances for your worst? How do you be a person? I’m struggling here to make any reasonable plan, or even take a simple positive step, to being happy and whole.” All of these things mostly boil down to hard work and suspending your disbelief. You have to be a little bit like Jerry Seinfeld and you have to be a little bit like the Rumble Guy. Because even though one guy gets up in the morning and does something really challenging and maybe even embarrassing (and then, yes, eats delicious fucking meals and flies places in his private jet) and the other guy just mutters five empty words (and also, yes, eats delicious fucking meals and flies places in his private jet), both of those guys know how to do something very important: They know how to shut off the part of their brains that say things like “Oh my god, I made the world’s best sitcom and maybe I’ll never create anything that good for the rest of my life!” and also “Oh my god, I’m just a cheesy dude with a spraytan and a growly voice!”
It goes without saying that these people have their problems. We all do. Do they love themselves? Do they offer their best to others? Can they make plans? Are they happy and whole? Who the fuck knows? What the fuck is “whole”? What does happiness look like, exactly? They do what they do and they don’t question it. Or, they mute the questions for just long enough to get ‘er done.
THAT SAID, my guess is that you won’t be able to suspend your disbelief and shut off your bad brain until you let your disbelief and your bad brain have their time to shine. Again, you are grappling with introductions, with trying to appear smooth and kind and not-maudlin and never-brutal. What you really need is space to be maudlin but not unbearable, brutal but not nasty, dark and digressive but not self-destructive, rambling and vague but not impossibly self-involved. You are a good writer and you should write more, because it will allow you the time and space you need to let everything out. In my opinion, when you’re complicated and smart and damaged and sensitive and self-conscious, you can’t just “accept” your flaws, you have to embrace them.
Embracing your flaws is, paradoxically, closely related to suspending your disbelief. It’s about rejecting the snappy message that the world wants snappy messages. It’s about daring to be fucking “tl;dr” in order to also access “win” and “yaaasss” and the “omg.”
You will never be the polished, one-dimensional person this world desires. Let the world have their airbrushed, frothy sloganeers. You need to make messes and embarrass yourself. When you stick your neck out and open up and embarrass yourself, lots of people will find you intolerable, because lots of people don’t like half-formed, wishy-washy, scattered introductions. The more you accept that and let your hair down anyway, the less you’ll compulsively try too hard, hide, drink too much, hate yourself, cock it all up, etc.
You must stop trying to fix things, and start trying to love what’s not completely fixed. You must be flawed and scattered, in as active a way as possible. Your work is to find some place for flaws and maudlin scatteredness. Find your own craft, and maybe even find your own messy fucking catchphrase, too.
In fact, maybe snappy messages and catchphrases aren’t so bad after all. Maybe we hate them because most of them feel so willfully blind to how it feels to be a person in the world. But maybe you can cobble together a message that you really believe in. Maybe you can look at what you fear the most in yourself, and love that part of you instead. You may not feel love, but you will be resolved to show yourself love anyway. You will stop using harsh terms to summarize your glory — your unique, off-kilter glory. Or maybe you’ll still use harsh terms but you’ll imbue them with glory, somehow. You’ll appropriate the most soul-sucking messages that were ever used against you: YOU WILL COME ON THEIR HAMPTON BLOUSE AND MOVE ON.
Let yourself ramble. Let out the full scope of who you are. Find your own meaning, and memorize it. Let your meaning be scrappy and misshapen enough that you can feel love for it. Get up in the morning and open the window and say:
I AM MAUDLIN AND BRUTAL AND BRAVE.
Say it like you mean it, until you mean it. Suspend your disbelief. Then get to work. Let your flaws lead you past the awkward beginnings, past the skin-deep introductions, past the clumsy trying-too-hard greetings, to the good part, to the bad part, to the real thing. Just keep moving forward, breathing in and out, trusting that darkness and digressions will lead you to love, bright and pure and real. Follow your best intentions and your worst fears and feel how excruciating it can be, to simply endure the beating of your tender heart. It hurts, and you’re exhausted. Look around you: Everything is beautiful, right now. Smudgy and melancholy and incomplete and unbearably beautiful.
Are you a three-second memorizable message and want to be tl;dr? Write to Polly and discuss!
Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is The Awl’s existential advice columnist. She’s also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses.
Photo by Jay Aremac