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‘Are You Happier Than You Were in Your 20s?’

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Dear Polly,

Does it ever get better? I feel like I’m just walking in circles, forgetting each step as I take it. I’m relearning the same lessons over and over again, and there’s so much to remember. Do you feel better now than you did in your 20s? Does anything make more sense? My friends and I are all struggling, all sad, and all hoping for a time when we don’t feel like we’re frantically juggling all the shit and trying not to let too much fall.

Yeah, yeah, it’s another indulgent 20s letter. I don’t know who I am, blah blah. I got out of my first relationship this year, and I’m having a hard time believing that so much can be for nothing. Not just with him but with the friends I lost along the way. What was the point of it all? What benefit is there to the memory of him looking at me in that particular way when someone really sees you for the first time? What the fuck?

I want to be less guilty and mean and scattered. I have hurt a lot of people this year, and a lot of people now see me as someone I don’t want to see myself as. I didn’t mean to hurt them, so I’m trying to never do it again. I have tried to make lists about all sorts of things: things I’ve learned, things I know not to do again, the ethics I want to live my life by, things I now know about myself. But there’s so much, and learning all of it makes me feel like I don’t have a personality, like I’m just an assortment of outside information that I keep forgetting.

Do you know who you are, pretty much? If you’re in a tough situation, can you rely on your own intuition to guide you, rather than trying to figure out the right course based on what you think you should do but don’t trust yourself on, because doing what you thought was right at the time was actually really selfish and inconsiderate and wrong and you’ve really hurt people? I feel like I was born without a compass that other people have. A lot of the time, I feel confused about what the right thing to do is, at all. It’s like I now approach every question with all my lists and with opinions from everyone else and try to figure out the best way forward. But I never know which way is the right way, and which way will cause the least harm, and yeah, sure, which way will convince everyone I’m still a good person. (I’ve done enough therapy to know that’s embarrassingly important to me. Especially with now-ex-friends, and especially with now-ex-boyfriends that I’m still in love with.)

This is all sounding very forward, but I feel like I should say that I’ve been crying for six months straight and losing people left, right, and center. I feel at the very bottom of the heap.

So I mean, yeah. Who are we? How the fuck do we know? When the fuck did you know?

I don’t know you, but I do love you and have loved you for years. You’re smart and kind, and you do the hard yards that no one else wants to do. And you phrase it all so well — just low enough to reassure us we aren’t alone, just high enough to make the world sparkle.

Help

Dear Help,

Your letter made me cry in the physical-therapy office. My neck is fucked up because I have shitty posture, so I have to drive 20 minutes twice a week to have a male stranger rub on me and then make me do torturously hard exercises. It’s like half awkward paradise, half awkward hell. And there I was, gearing up for awkward catharsis, in my bad running shorts, one eyelid bruised to a plum color because I had an eyelid cyst removed last week, crying and dabbing my eyes under my glasses over and over again. And how did that feel?

It felt amazing. I had chills. I felt fully awake and alive and happy to be there. I know I’m at risk of making you ill now, but I need you to understand: There was a woman a few feet away from me, and I did not turn to her and say, in a jittery voice, “Sorry, I know this is weird.” If she had asked me if I was okay, I would’ve said, “Oh, I do this constantly, I like to cry. Thank you for asking, though.”

So your answer is that yes, it does get better. If you let the world in without fear, if you learn from your mistakes without defining yourself by them, it gets much, much better. When you are shattered and pieced together again and you know it but don’t blame yourself for it, it actually feels good. You are a million tiny shards of light, fragile, and formidable at the same time. It feels like Mozart’s Sonata No. 11 in A Major for Piano, 1. Andante grazioso. But it feels that way only after you know that we are all in this together. Even that realization feels terrible for a long time, and then it gradually starts to feel like pure fucking sunshine.

Andante grazioso means “at a walking pace, gracefully,” by the way. Appropriately, I am walking on my treadmill desk as I type these words, because along with the physical therapy and the Clockwork Orange–style eyelid procedure I recently endured, I also require some movement while I write. This way, I don’t get all crumpled up until I can barely get up from my chair and I can eat what I want because I walk until my ass hurts every day. All of these facts sound wretched, of course, but they’re facts that can also sound hilarious and perfectly fine if you see them in the right light. Likewise, struggle and not knowing what comes next can also feel like the most important and beautiful things in the world, once you’re slightly less afraid and worried that these things define you more than YOU define you.

Sadness doesn’t define you, either, even though it feels like that right now. I cried in the PT waiting room partially because I remembered how sad it feels to be young and afraid. I was so incredibly sad when I was your age, and I didn’t even know it. I hated not knowing who I was or what I should do next, and it made me feel weak and scared and also enraged. I was so angry that I sometimes lashed out and hurt people. I didn’t even register other people as “hurt” because I was too focused on my own hurt. I was so angry that I drank too much and had sex with ugly drunk morons. I accepted condescension and indifference into my life, over and over again. Of course, when you’re young, the world is MADE of condescension and indifference. You can’t really avoid it. That would be like trying to save your mother’s back by never stepping on a crack. And I actually think it’s harder for young people today in part because they believe that they can avoid these things when they just CAN’T. Thanks in part to parenting culture that’s high on idealism and low on emphasizing the joys of hard work, and thanks to social media and the reigning psychobabble of the moment, there’s a kind of shared religion these days of never compromising and never accepting less than you deserve. In some ways, that’s fantastic, but our culture can’t always deliver on those promises. The world outside rarely matches the world inside your heart. I feel happier than I ever have, but I still don’t get to be treated with respect everywhere I go. I’m a middle-aged soccer mom, for fuck’s sake, which makes me trivial and worthy of disdain, somehow. If I didn’t know who I really was, if I weren’t sure of what makes me who I am, I might be very sad indeed.

But I do know who I am. And it does get better — better and better and better. You have to cultivate an open heart and embrace the truth about who you are. But look at you, making your lists! You want to know the truth. You have no compass and you know it. (That’s some odd twist of fate caused by your home life as a kid, and it’s not your fault.) You’re sad and you know it. You’re fucking up and you know it. This puts you many miles ahead of where I was when I was your age, and many miles ahead of most of your peers, too. But what will actually make you FEEL better?

Continuing to feel what you’re feeling without judging it as a personal moral failure will make you feel better. Yes, you may be depressed, and you should probably go back to therapy if you quit at some point. Maybe you’re afraid of the world like I was. Maybe you need a million and one other things beyond just feeling what you feel without judgment to feel better. Look how much I have to do, 20 years down the line, just to feel good! It takes so much goddamn work every day. I have to commit to exercise, sleep, eating well, writing a lot, spending time with a lot of people who need me. I have to tolerate a world that believes that assertive women — particularly assertive middle-aged women — are repulsive. And I also have to have random dudes rub my flesh professionally, or yank my eyelid inside out and then put it in a metal clamp, motherfucker! Yes, while I’m awake, motherfucker! It’s not all sunshine and moonbeams, to be sure. If you ask me at the wrong moment how I am, I might answer, EGGY WEGGS? I WOULD LIKE TO SMASH THEM! (Go watch Clockwork Orange.) (Actually, no, don’t do that.)

But more than all of these rigorous exercises, I have to forgive my wretched self that is so stubbornly whatever it is at any given moment. I know myself, sure, but I betray and confuse and surprise myself all the time. The key is to refuse to make moral judgments about the ever-shifting nature of the self. You are lots of things, some of them admirable and some of them deplorable. Your job is to resist overinterpreting the supposedly bad self that disappointingly pops up over and over. If you limit this to an intellectual project and go looking for empirical evidence of who you are, you’ll end up like the violent protagonist of Clockwork Orange, with unchecked impulses and a personal religion of I Am Bad and I Can’t Be Fixed.

You also can’t crowdsource a path forward. No one else truly knows your heart or what you’re attempting to touch or feel when you get lost and lash out. You have to follow your feelings, follow your big heart, and examine your dreams. Who do you want to be? What do you value already? What do you come back to, over and over, in quiet moments? What you value when you’re vulnerable, or joyful, or melancholy, even, is what you are. Celebrate THAT self, as much as you can.

I love your lists because they show how thorough you are and how deeply you care about being responsible and growing and seeing yourself accurately. But you need to know that an intellectual exercise alone — making lists — will not make you feel better. If the subtext of your lists is “I’m sad now, and that’s a moral failure on my part, but when I fix these things, I won’t be sad anymore,” then your lists won’t help. That’s like trying to train a fearful dog by hitting it more often. Your lists need to say, at the very top: IT’S OKAY THAT YOU ARE FUCKING UP. IT’S OKAY THAT YOU ARE EXACTLY WHO YOU ARE. STAY VULNERABLE.

Too many lists and too much intellectualizing and not enough forgiving yourself and feeling your way forward will only take you further away from a state of walking slowly and gracefully forward. You’ll lose your precious Andante Grazioso! You don’t want to lose that. Graceful patience is everything for you, right now. It’s forgiveness. It’s embracing what fucking exists for you in this moment, THIS ONE, instead of always wondering anxiously what comes next. Can you feel that? Reread what I just wrote again and try to really feel where you are: your breath, the sounds outside, your longing, the imperfection of everything you see. Feel all of it, good and bad, without judgment and fear. Embrace this moment and savor it.

Don’t live in some AFFRETTANDO AGITATO (becoming hurried, agitated) or ALLEGRO SCOMODO (fast and awkward) state! If you dash forward out of fear, you’ll try hard to learn but you’ll keep forgetting everything, over and over again. You will be cramming for a test you really don’t want to take. In order to learn things at least semi-permanently, you have to crave learning and savor it every single day. Learning is messy and sad sometimes, and it’s also glorious and it never ends. It’s not about taking a test, getting a gold star, and then being done with learning forever.

When I was younger, and for a while somewhat more recently, I was as Allegro Scomodo as a motherfucker. That means I forced everything and apologized for myself constantly, but I also felt angry at people for not understanding me or seeing me or liking me all that much. Time spent with people who didn’t understand me or like me enough felt like a total waste (instead of feeling like a valuable and sad way to learn and inch forward more gracefully). When you run awkwardly, though, people truly do hate you on sight. Watching you is like listening to a really terrible pop song: All effort, all imitation, no soul. But even if you’re stuck in that space — and who among us is above it? — you have to love your sad, sorry ass, scurrying like a roach through the world, full of terror, all elbows and knees, wanting so much and not knowing a thing about what you should do to get it. You have to learn to see your scared, hideous self — who fucks up so publicly and repeatedly, who feels so far behind the crowd — as a lovable thing. That’s not delusional, to be clear. You are a lovable thing. But you can’t wait for the world to recognize that. The world is fickle. The world is indifferent. The world is Allegro Scomodo as a motherfucker, too. You have to do the hard work of seeing your own terrible, awkward beauty BY YOURSELF.

Start by learning how to cry without apology and how to breathe in the good feelings that go along with the bad ones when you cry. Walk gracefully into the future, at a patient pace, with your eyes wide open. Welcome every chance to learn something new, even when it hurts, and welcome each new moment of being shattered into a million shards of light. Know that you are glittering with promise, pure potential, fully alive, and I love you, too, like crazy, like the world might end tomorrow and it wouldn’t matter. Can you feel that insane, glorious, random, outrageous feeling that we’re sharing, that springs straight out of your bravery in reaching out? Because I’m so glad I met you here. I’m so glad we had this fucked-up, melancholy time together. Please keep doing what you’re doing, but feel it, without worrying that how you stumble and fall today will define you forever.

And when you do fall, say to yourself, patiently, “Let’s try that one more time. With feeling.

Polly

Order the 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: ‘Are You Happier Than You Were in Your Twenties?’