‘I’m Staring Into the Void!’

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Dear Polly,

I am staring into the void. A bit dramatic, right? I thought so, too. Yet, as I type the words, they feel so real. Let me be absolutely clear, I have never desired the advice of others, until you, Polly. Like a misguided, pathetic, helpless whelp of a 25-year-old man, I submitted major life quandaries to a search engine connecting me to one of the most hopeless, abyssal planes in known existence: the internet. Super-great idea, I know. I waded through cesspools of advice given by youngsters and decrepits alike. Do this, do that, make this choice immediately because you have SO LITTLE TIME!, they said. One after the other, I scrolled through useless, choppy, grammar graveyards trying to get answers to my life’s biggest decisions. My ears pounding, winding me up like a top, preparing to spiral into infinite darkness. Then suddenly, a small ray of light amidst the black. Ask Polly. I scoffed. Another advice column for middle-aged housewives unhappy with their lives, I thought. Boy, I’m wrong or suddenly empathizing with unhappy middle-aged housewives. I instantly found responses similar to my own situation. I read Torn Between Two and Somewhere Between Panic and Dread. Polly, your words leapt off the page at me. Every time I thought you’d give some bullshit answer, you gave the opposite. Every time I thought you’d say something like “Follow your dreams,” you said, “Your dreams may never come true, ever, accept it and live the life you want.” You are the first advice-column writer to reach me, and I have read many. So, naturally, as my weak psyche tends to do, I took it as some grand sign that I should at least attempt to be read by you. Make no mistake, I don’t labor under the delusion that you care about my shitty life or anything that I have to say. But I respect your craft so much that I simply had to try. So, let me get to the question, if you’ve even read this far.

Should I just give up and cast my broken heart into oblivion? I come from what many would consider an extremely privileged family. We were certainly lower-middle class through my early childhood and have progressed to within the realm of upper-middle class. My education, a bachelor’s of business administration, came at no cost to me despite my many fuck-ups and terrible choices. So, I have always had what I needed and rarely had to make a decision on my own. Fast forward to the present day: I am attempting a freelance-writing career after having realized that business (a decision in major that was ultimately mine, but pressured by my parents) makes me terribly unhappy. I’m so early in my career that I’m taking odd jobs for $5 a pop just trying to get experience. I am in a relationship with a fine young woman who would do anything for me, albeit long distance over two years. Yet, despite my choice to pursue my ultimate passion and having the support from everyone around me, I feel empty. Obviously, I am terrified of not being able to succeed in a career that has so many uncertainties. My family would never say it, but I can see on their faces that they don’t believe in me or my passions, same for my girlfriend, honestly. In my life, all I have are my parents and my girlfriend, literally no one else. I am not much like the other people in my age range. I don’t drink alcohol or find sweaty, loud clubs to hold any entertainment value. In truth, I’m fairly socially backward because of this and ultimately find the company of these troglodytes, who claim to be millennials, shallow and pedantic about the people they socialize with. I think it may be important to note that I am not terrible looking by most societal standards, though I’m no Brad Pitt. However, my lack of ability to connect with those of my own age leaves me unable to create windows for meaningful friendship and developing love.

I met my girlfriend in Disney World, working as a character attendant on a college program with the company. She, too, was a program participant, and we hit it off pretty well due to the natural ice breaker that is living with a bunch of young, happy, overly romanticized young adults with common interests. These were some of the happiest days of my life, my two internships with Disney. However, prior to meeting her, there was another. Let’s call her Sierra, after her favorite soda, for the sake of organization. All that bullshit about falling in love at first sight never appealed to me. In fact, I had resigned myself to believing that love was just the dispersion of chemicals and pheromones driving us to mate, or at the very least, a construct to sell copious amounts of candy and keep dentists in business. All that changed when I saw Sierra. My body went ripe with rigor. God, she was beautiful. Slightly crooked nose (from an incident in her youth when it broke), a soft angelic lisp, flowing locks of golden hair, all that sappy load of crap. What they say is true, you know, everything turns into this slow-motion glide and your legs feel swollen like a couple of gourds. Do people say that? Anyway, completely against my character, I approached her and the swarm of hyenas cackling around her. For once in my life, my feelings for something were so strong that I fought against everything I am, and to my surprise I walked away with her number. The next few days were intense. We talked like we were the only two people on earth. We stayed up late swapping biographies the size of novellas through text. It would sometimes be 3 a.m. and we’d both need to be up by 7 a.m. We didn’t care.
Everything was going so gloriously. I had concocted a brilliant scheme to marry this girl and then suddenly the most horrid word in the world was dropped. “Boyfriend.” Sierra had a boyfriend of four years. She was madly in love. The one person in all of creation who shared my every interest, my every philosophy on life, yet maintained sizable differences enough to keep us interested, was gone. She was instantly removed from my world. They’ve been together seven years now. I still think of her every day. Which, to me, makes so little sense because I don’t even speak to her anymore. We aren’t connected on social media, I have no portal into her life other than what I occasionally see by accident from our mutual friends’ posts.

This is why I believe my relationship feels so hollow, Polly. No matter how much my girlfriend loves me and treats me right, something is missing. Often, I think being with her would be wonderful because she’s so great for me and I wouldn’t have to navigate the world alone. I think, if she weren’t here, I’d never meet anyone else. I don’t know how to make decisions on the important aspects of my life. If I fail at writing, I waste my time. If I fail at finding meaningful relationships, I die alone (more so than we do anyway). Right now, I’m at the crossroads of my life story. Staring down the path I choose and the road not taken. Peering into the possible Odyssey or the twisting nether. The Turning Point. I am horrified, because I love both my girlfriend and writing, and want to give up neither. Yet, as I examine my feelings and where I am, I feel wrong, disturbed somehow.
Should I just simply surrender to the mundane and get a normal 9-5 management job, and marry the girl I know will always have my back? Or, do I take that road not taken, take a chance on myself, and forego all safety and comfort to experience some form of thrill and accomplishment?

It must be hard to sit back and watch a privileged young man, that isn’t hideous at least, complain about his pretty gifted life. If you’ve read this thus far, I ask forgiveness from a writer so skilled as yourself for this bitching and moaning. It is unlike me to reach out to anyone, to feel a connection with a person, if only through a couple of words on the internet.
So, please, if you respond, have mercy with your judgment. I am simply lost and I fear that Polly, from a column called Ask Polly on the internet, may well be my only hope of sorting this mess out.

Thank you for your time, if nothing else, I think you have at least one more fanboy now, sincerely,

Staring Into the Void

Dear Staring Into the Void,

Luckily for you, I am both brilliant and merciful. Even though I see some flaws in your worldview, thanks to your healthy doses of flattery before and after diving into your story, I can’t help but see you as reasonable and worthy of my time. So our first lesson today is this: Flattery will get you everywhere you want to go. That sounds like a Visa slogan, but it’s true. I’ve never met a writer who wasn’t drawn to praise like a dog is drawn to something dead stuck to the pavement. Of course the word flattery implies insincerity, but I use it to sum up all praise from strangers, because some part of me can’t stand the idea of becoming someone who takes praise too seriously. I call it flattery so I don’t forget to paint myself as the smug pig in shit that I am.

This leads us to our second lesson, closely related to the first: Even though flattery is by definition both insincere and transactional, and even though people tend to shower praise on a queen mostly so she’ll do them some favor, sometimes genuine praise and admiration get caught up in the same tide. So even as I use the word flattery for all of it, I’m gently bending my personal definition of flattery to include genuine interest and respect. Likewise, even though most of the letters I get begin with words of praise and end with some request involving an outlay of time and resources on my part, and even though it would be easy to view myself, on any given day, as a kind of emotional service provider, which is really just a form of human Kleenex that becomes useless seconds after doing its job, I choose to forge an uneasy path between brilliant and merciful queen and snotty discarded Kleenex. I choose to accept and savor praise while also understanding it as both sincere and insincere, meaningful and transactional. I am very busy and important, and I’m also just an annoying middle-aged woman suffering from delusions of grandeur.

I’m lingering in this land of extremes because you paint the world with the same strokes: You have black paint and white paint. Things are either glorious or useless. People are either ordinary or they’ve got sparks shooting from their fingertips. Seeing the world this way is a gift. It makes you a natural writer. You’re absurdly sensitive and very afraid of the real world. No wonder Disney World was literally the Happiest Place on Earth for you. When you’re pried away from mundane concerns and interactions, you feel like you have supernatural powers. Until the veil is lifted, and then you feel like it was all just a pretty dream and you’re just another self-deluded whelp begging for scraps from some master’s table.

Because you have this magical/pathetic dichotomy seared into your brain, you could only reach out to me for advice because you decided I was worthy of respect, unlike “unhappy housewives” or “decrepits” or “overly romanticized young adults” or “shallow, pedantic millennials.” And even though it would be easy enough for me to tell you something like “Your superiority complex is a way of shielding yourself from the scary and humbling work of connecting with others” or “Every time you ridicule someone else, your self-loathing shows,” the truth is that sensitive, anxious types prone to magical thinking don’t look pathetic and delusional to me, from my pig-in-shit throne. They look like tiny little flower buds waiting to blossom. So instead of scolding you, I want to smother you in the proper variety of shit to make you bloom.

Maybe my two competing impulses match my own black and white palette. On the one hand, I want to tell you to humble yourself, to learn some trade you enjoy that will supplement your writing income and free you from financial dependence on your parents (and free you from the intense emotional servitude that comes with it). I want you to wipe the notion of yourself as “better” from your mind and recognize yourself as just another overly romantic young adult in the herd. I want you to stop privileging this magical Disney princess over the rest of womankind. I want to tell you that your black and white thinking is a manifestation of your depression and anxiety, a way to retreat into a private inner world where you can be safe and special enough to suit your tastes. But on the other hand, I want to acknowledge and even celebrate this romantic, bizarre, sparkly, absurd, black and white wonderland you’ve created in the confines of your mind. You can grow some pretty wild and beautiful flowers in the hothouse you’ve created, with enough rotting leaves and corpses and shit in the mix. By accepting and embracing your darkness and your dramatic impulses and your laserlike focus on love as salvation and your intensity and your obvious distaste for the mundane, you might access the parts of yourself that you already love and cherish the most. You might learn to focus and savor hard work and — eventually — create things that you can feel proud of.

So here’s your sloppy serving of shit, from a pig who enjoys wallowing in it every single day, a pig who doesn’t mind being repellent anymore, a pig who sometimes also feels like a brilliant and merciful queen: I have been humbled a million times over, and it was good for me. You’ll be humbled, too. You’ll benefit from taking a shitty day job that leaves you with not enough time to write. You’ll gain a lot from reaching out to people you feel are both scary and not good enough for you yet, the way you reached out to me. You just need to remember that people don’t have to be gorgeous or special-seeming or popular or even all that clever to deserve your laserlike focus and attention. The more you humble yourself, and admit the enormous shame that goes along with being the kind of romantic you naturally are, and (in spite of all of this knowledge) defend your right to continue being the exact kind of hothouse flower you’ve always been (even as your girlfriend and your parents and the new friends you’re going to make offer up eye rolls and smirks at how INTENSE you can be sometimes), the more you’ll be able not only to connect with other people but also to focus on the hard work at hand.

But you MUST step out into the world and dare to connect. Connecting includes recognizing other people as separate entities with separate feelings and lives that have nothing to do with you. Your Disney princess already had a boyfriend; you had no choice there. Those pedantic millennials around you have their own hopes and dreams and fantastical horizons inside that you can’t even begin to imagine from your casual interactions with them. Young artists like you tend to feel lonely and alienated until they learn to respect and empathize with the people around them, which includes accepting that people are very, very different from each other. The same basic elements exist inside everyone — longing, despair, shame — they just manifest themselves in very different ways.

It’s not enough for me to tell you that. You have to feel it for yourself. You could slowly crawl toward that feeling, but I recommend seeing a therapist now, so you don’t waste years of your life feeling like you have to be “special” and other people have to be “awful” just for your life to have meaning. Believe me, I’ve been there. You have to learn to show your heart, tolerate confusion and indifference, and stand up for what you are and will always be.

Because in your letter, it’s clear to me that what you are is precious to you, and it should be. Other people will probably perceive you as grandiose and snobby and intolerable at times. A lot of really great writers and artists are seen this way. And as much as I’m tempted to say, “Try being less of a dick,” I want you to know that all of your weird flaws and quirks are linked closely to your unique vision of the world. So be as humble and considerate of others as you can possibly be, but accept that plenty of people won’t like you even when you try hard to be liked. Love yourself anyway, and put your focus on other people as much as you can, and some of them will transform into sparkle princesses before your eyes. But protect yourself from indifferent, complexity-and-romance-fearing cave dwellers, too, even as you put yourself out there. You are fragile. Admit that to yourself. Fragility makes you an artist, and it will make you stronger, too, if you admit that this is part of who you are.

What would be the most absurd and embarrassing thing you could write? Who do you daydream about becoming, but you’d never want anyone to know about it? Work toward those visions even as you freelance. Learn to serve up words that people want to buy while also learning to write words (or poems or songs or essays or stories) that make your heart feel full, that embarrass you, that feel wild and strange and right to you, or that simply reflect how pissed off and lonely you are. You have to honor the rare and exotic blossoms in your hothouse, even if it sometimes seems like they could never survive outside in the cold, without a steady flow of your bullshit and darkness to feed them.

You’ve got to do a lot. You’ve got to go out into the world and slog through a job you don’t love at least some of the time, and you have to reach out to ordinary people and see which ones start to sparkle. But you also have to run your hothouse like it’s your fucking job.

The girlfriend or no girlfriend question will answer itself. The only important question is: Are you hiding from the world with her? You might be able to stay with her and stop hiding. But if your girlfriend truly doesn’t see what’s amazing about you, and you don’t see her as anything but a security blanket, then you should move on. Whatever you decide on that front, you have to know that you’re someone who will be loved by lots of people, not just your loyal girlfriend or your family. You have to decide that your crazy demented self-important visions are full of magic and even though they’re close to your flaws, they’re also close to the heart of what drives you forward and makes you who you are. You have to decide to be a pig in shit who sometimes feels like a brilliant and merciful king. You have to accept your creative powers, but you also have to accept your moodiness and your fear along with them. You have to build a kingdom from the ground up. It takes hard work to do that. You need feedback, criticism, input, and coaching — be humble and ask for it. But ultimately, you’re the only one who can make your kingdom what you want it to be.

Walt Disney was a serious asshole, by the way. He could barely get along with anyone. He pushed people away and disrespected them the second they didn’t conform to his perfectionist vision of what he was trying to create. And even though his legacy is a scary corporate consumerist nightmare serving up branded fantasy fare to the masses, who’ve been tricked into viewing their everyday lives as devoid of real magic, the truth is that what Disney wanted, at the start, was a nostalgic version of his small-town Kansas childhood. He wanted a clean, safe, loving, old-fashioned place where regular people could connect and also partake of a little bit of romantic magic. The inherent fear and racism of his vision obviously looks more MAGA than magical from our current vantage point. There was an escapist quality to all of it, an inability to live in the real world with real people that comes with being an abject fucking dick. But Disney was talented, and he was a dreamer, and he built something pretty daring and freakish and incredible.

Disney could never have created a world with so much humility and heart to it (underneath the mountains of overpriced trash) without having some humility and heart himself. Walt Disney was fragile and lonely and self-loathing, and these dark and conflicted emotions are reflected in everything he created, and that’s part of why people embrace him so passionately, even now.

Be like Disney, in the sense that you dare to believe in your fragile emotional vision of the world, the way that he believed in his. Be a perfectionist and a snob the way he was, if it helps you to do the hard work in front of you. Because you’re sensitive and very emotional, you’ll feel discouraged every single day. Believe in your work anyway — stubbornly, tenaciously. But create something that isn’t an escape FROM ordinary life, but a way of rendering ordinary life for ordinary people of every color, shape, size, and background more magical to them. In order to do that, you have to see that every human is divine. You have to see that with your own eyes. It will fuel you, once you see it. The troglodytes and the unhappy housewives and the shallow, pedantic millennials will start to glow and shimmer. Even when we flatter or circle like hyenas, there is something real there, some attempt to feel, to connect, to breathe in a little magic. Even when we start to transact cynically, we can make some sweet, real connection, almost by accident. And even when you reach out the way you did in your letter to me, feeling misguided, pathetic, and helpless, you’re reaching for a way to bring the magic and the darkness you feel in your heart into the real world. Above all, keep doing that. You are divine, and you are surrounded by a sea of divine souls. Let them know that you see their divinity. You have that gift. Take it seriously. Show them that even in the dark, something exotic and beautiful is growing.

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: ‘I’m Staring Into the Void!’