Ask Polly: What Did I Do to Deserve This?

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Hi, Polly,

I love your writing. It calls to me, your writing, your vulnerability, your truthfulness. Speaking of the last two, I have been in this wonderful relationship these last 15 months. She is warm and funny and has showed me the joy of being open and hurting and vulnerable to another human being. And yet, it is hard. Two gay women in India — no walk in the park. So I must ask, if you do publish this letter, please let it be anonymous.

Anyway, we are so perfectly imperfect that it is delicious. And wanton and soul-searing. And there are moments I would rip open my chest and hand her my heart if I could. And then there are moments I could crush her head against the wall. And people tell me that it is normal. That the ones closest to us bring out our dark sides. They press all our buttons because they can and they know how to. And there are moments where she feels the same.

I don’t know why I am writing. Maybe I am writing because something in me wants to be acknowledged and seen by you. You, whose craft I admire and whose opinion I value. And maybe because in one of your articles, you mentioned a friend who married her wife at 36. And you said it with such ease and familiarity, and my heart ached because I want that too. Now. Here. In my country. And I can’t. And it hurts, like a motherfucker. And I wonder, why me? What did I do to deserve this? And then I think, I didn’t do anything to deserve this gorgeous girlfriend either. So maybe we have to just make do. Paraphrasing Tony Horton, we just need to show up and keep pushing play.

Burning

Dear Burning,

You wrote me this letter almost a year ago. I remember that I read it very early in the morning, on my phone, and it made me happy and then very sad, and I wanted to send you a reply immediately, something like, “Let’s find a way to get you to America, where you and your girlfriend can live out in the open!” But I knew that was absurd and naïve and it made me angry at myself, for being such a fucking child, for believing in the endless possibilities of the world simply because I grew up in a place and time that afforded me that luxury.

This morning, when I remembered your letter and read it again, it struck me as even more naïve to tell you, “Too bad you can’t join us here, in America, where everything is perfect and we can all live free, out in the open, without fearing for our lives!” That feels beyond deluded and naïve now. Orlando reminded us that even when we think everything is changing for the better, some sad creature will still try to turn back the clock. It reminded us that basic freedoms can never be taken for granted, because someone somewhere will want to take that shit away from us, to snatch it out of our fucking hands without warning. Privilege makes you feel invulnerable and tricks you into thinking you’re safe.

Meanwhile, public officials stand idly by and watch as a reckless politician — one who’s repeatedly demonstrated that he’s governed only by his own narcissistic, self-serving impulses and his grandiose delusions — stirs fear and paranoia in a populace that’s already angry, afraid, and armed to the teeth.

We’re watching something terrible unfold and people are still trying to pretend it’s business as usual. That’s privilege. That’s a luxury, to tell yourself that it’s almost sort of okay and normal for a presidential candidate to stand over 50 dead bodies and say “I called it.” When a human being is capable of that, it tells us that he believes that some people are disposable. When a police chief stands up in front of his city and, without crying or hanging his head in shame, explains why a 12-year-old with a fake gun milling about aimlessly in a park was assassinated by an angry, paranoid cop, we know that he believes that some people are disposable. More important, we’re reminded that our country has been fundamentally warped by systems built around the disposability of ordinary people. So how can some of us move on from this devastating event so easily?

Understand, I hate writing that indulges this kind of guilty privileged hand-wringing, this pious fucking “I know how incredibly lucky I am” horse shit. It’s not enough. Forgive me for dragging out your letter now, for my purposes. I was feeling bad and I remembered it and maybe I just wanted to say “Well, at least we have it better than they do in India.” Maybe I wanted to use your ACTUAL LIFE as a big woobie, to comfort me that it could be worse.

Your letter matters more to me than that. I’ve been carrying it in my heart for almost a year now, feeling inadequate in the face of what you’re going through, not knowing how I would ever reply to you but knowing that I should. I want you to know that I see you, but I’m not giving you power by seeing you. You’re giving me power by seeing me. The fact that you see me matters to me a lot. Your letter is not just another letter to me. The way you describe your love makes me want to love more deeply. Some days I think I’m too busy and distracted to lay myself bare like that, but being vulnerable with another person is everything. Your letter reminded me that when you’re open and hurting and vulnerable with another person, the way you are with your girlfriend, you matter. You matter not because of your value or your words or your power. You matter because you are reaching out, imperfectly. You are worthy because you are reaching out. You are worthy because you try, against all odds, to love in spite of huge obstacles.

So this is what I want to say to you and to a world that feels like it’s about to spin off its axis: We have to stay vulnerable to what’s happening around us. When you want to crush your girlfriend’s head against the wall, that’s you protecting yourself from feeling how deeply you care about and depend on her. That’s you wanting to bash your own head against the wall, for opening up and trusting someone else enough that you could be destroyed by it. When we look around us and we see a culture that treats us as disposable, we want to bash some fucking heads against the wall. When we see a motherfucker who not only holds forth at length on how it’s logical and right to be suspicious of people based on the color of their skin and their religion, but also asserts his intention to form policies around such profoundly racist, misguided notions, it’s natural for us to want to burn everything down to the fucking ground.

We can’t burn it all down, though, and we can’t close our eyes. We have to take action, but we also have to stay vulnerable. If we’re vulnerable to the truth of what’s happening around us, if we treat the 50 people assassinated in Orlando as human beings and not disposable casualties of a greater struggle, if we take the risk of feeling the full force of this event, then we can’t help but take action. There is something to be said for being open and hurting and vulnerable together without bashing anyone’s head in.

I know that these words are inadequate. There’s no way for anything I write to be enough. I can’t do this very well, and I’m honestly not sure I deserve to try. I used to write to writers I loved, too, hoping to be seen. The fact that I’m on the other side of things now feels like an accident of fate. The fact that I wasn’t in some nightclub when a gunman arrived feels like an accident of fate. And I wonder, why me? What did I do to deserve this? What did Eddie Justice do to deserve his fate? 

We can never let our privilege trick us into thinking that those who suffer deserve their fate. We should never trick ourselves into believing that everything glorious around us is our own creation. We have to resist the urge to stand on the shoulders of giants and declare ourselves very, very tall.

If that feels unnecessarily dramatic, well, I’d argue that this is a pretty goddamned good time for us to acknowledge the drama of what’s unfolding around us. We have to stay vulnerable and look at these events with clear eyes. Before you decide to bite your tongue because it’s somehow unseemly to talk politics publicly, before you encourage your employees to keep their political views to themselves, consider just how high the stakes are right now. Remember those Germans who figured speaking out against the menacing rabble rouser in their midst was unseemly or wasn’t in their best interest, so they bit their tongues until it was much too late. Lots of people fought very hard so we could stand where we’re standing now. But history also tells us that basic freedoms can never be taken for granted. We are vulnerable. We can’t stop fighting. We have to be vigilant.

Humility is crucial. Asking “What did I do to deserve this?” is fundamentally important. We are in this together. We are linked to the past and the future, together. The actions we take matter. No one is disposable. When they tell us that some are disposable, it’s our duty as human beings to raise our voices and object. When we speak up together, our voices form a symphony.

I’m sorry that you have to stay hidden, Burning. Please know that the strength of your heart comes through loud and clear in your words. Being vulnerable to the truth in front of your face is unbelievably brave. It matters. That’s true for all of us, no matter how passionate or enraged or weak or small we feel.

We don’t have to feel unworthy because of what we have, or unworthy because of what we don’t have. We are worthy because we reach out to each other. I see you. You see me. We are humble reflections of each other. Together, we feel stronger and more alive. This is all we have, and this is everything.

Polly

Order the new Ask Polly book, How To Be A Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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Ask Polly: What Did I Do to Deserve This?