A good word to describe my life right now is pathetic. I graduated with my master’s degree from one of the best universities in the world. I worked HARD to get there. I had emotional support from my mother but aside from that, my parents are not rich nor are they well-networked. They work hard-labor jobs so I knew coming out of college it was going to be difficult to get my foot in the door. But I didn’t know I would lose the will to live. I have had a bunch of interviews and nothing is working out. Trust me, I’ve reconfigured my expectations. I’m not expecting my dream job right out the gate. “That’s not how it works,” they said. I KNOW. Despite this, I’m networking. I’m shamelessly asking around. I’m working on myself. I currently have a corporate job that sucks the soul out of me. It doesn’t pay that well (I’m an intern). It means I’m a little broke, but surviving. I try to enjoy myself there and learn skills that I wouldn’t elsewhere. But I hate it so much. I hate everyone that works there. I know I have so much more to give.
People in my life complain about the problems in their lives, but honestly I look at them and think, but it’s not that bad. It could be worse. Something I often hear myself saying in therapy is, at least other people have something to keep them going. They have a coping mechanism. Even if it’s an “unhealthy” mechanism, they have something to keep them going. They have some real human serotonin-inducing shit in their lives. They have a partner or a ton of money to fuck off somewhere and bury their feelings for a while. Everyone else gets to complain about their problems and go home to fuck and cuddle with their partners and live in their own private ecstasy while I cry myself to sleep remembering how disgusting and poor I am.
Anyway, the point is, I have nothing to keep me going. When I read your column and hear parts of your own struggle, I can’t help but think that she has a career, a partner, and a family. That must be so, so comforting on a basic primal level. I tell myself that if I had a glimmer of hope that I too could have one of those things in my future, I would feel better. I would have a reason to keep fighting. It wouldn’t radically solve my problems, but I know things would be lighter and I would be able to take a second to breathe. So much of your advice is about taking the present moment and accepting your shame and living in it for a while. I think that is excellent advice and I try to do that every day. But I picture you making it through the lake of shit that is life on a boat. Sure, you still have to smell the shit and be a part of it, but others have no choice but to swim, alone and lost. My question to you, Polly, is how does one swim in a lake of shit without deciding that swimming in a lake of shit is an activity they’d rather not partake in?
Dear No Name,
Do you think I’ve been in this boat my whole life? At your age, I was working as a temp secretary at a bank where I hated every single person I interacted with, every single day. I was living with a boyfriend who didn’t love me anymore, and then he dumped me and I had to move in with complete strangers who found me hopelessly mediocre and a little depressing. I had very low self-esteem and I was depressed and I had bad skin and a drinking problem. One winter, I went on a trip with the ex-boyfriend who didn’t love me and his friends who didn’t love me and I got wasted and made a fool of myself and I woke up the next morning to the sound of them, upstairs, talking about what a pathetic, sorry whore I was.
When I read your words and I know that you can’t see me clearly, when I can tell that you assume that I had well-networked parents instead of two wildly dysfunctional misfits who were raised by well-meaning but belligerent drunks, that drains my compassion for you. I feel a little bit angry and misunderstood. Like you, I went to a good college. But there are levels of dysfunction that destroy a person’s ability to network with anyone, anywhere, ever. My parents were smart, funny, loving, brutal people who had a violently bad marriage. I grew up at the center of their hurricane.
I have trouble feeling compassion for you when I focus on how little compassion you have for me. I only want to defend myself and blame you for seeing me as some pathetic soft-pawed lady in a perfect little boat. You can have all of the advantages in the world and still feel lost and fucked in the head. After my parents got divorced, I was raised by a single mother who was constantly in debt. I was deeply lonely and confused as a kid and also as a teenager and also as a young adult. I didn’t get a master’s or work in a corporate office doing something even close to what I wanted to do with my life because, after that bank job, I decided that I hated offices and people and cities and corporations. I hated my roommates on most days. I hated the men I slept with and the men I dated. I hated myself and I hated everything else. All I wanted to do was write songs on my guitar — songs about feeling depressed and hating everything.
Was that my boat? Maybe it was, but I abandoned it because I was embarrassed by it. I was embarrassed by the one thing I loved the most, so I stopped doing it. Think about how pathetic you have to be, to do that.
Patheticness is the outward manifestation of a chronic lack of compassion for yourself. You describe yourself as “disgusting and poor.” Poor and disgusting are not synonymous. Only self-hatred mixes them together. Our culture encourages people without much money to blame themselves for it. When you’re struggling, you ingest this message and carry it with you for so long that you can no longer distinguish what you ate from the cells in your own body.
Likewise, having everything under the sun is not the same thing as feeling good inside your skin and feeling connected to the people around you. I am writing these words from a posh resort in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, because a much-wealthier member of my family planned a wildly overpriced trip and I want to spend as much time with my now-77-year-old mother as I can, and I’m willing to take some financial risks to do so. But even if I could afford this easily, would I wake up every morning in this beautiful place with my beautiful husband and beautiful children feeling perfectly joyful and at peace with every choice I’ve ever made and will ever make?
Apparently not. I’ve been sleeping horribly for something like a month now, and this morning when I crept out of my hotel room, trying not to wake my husband and kids, I felt heavy inside. I had to work hard not to immediately blame myself for this feeling. The past two mornings I’ve been so happy — writing furiously, inspired, thrilled to be here. But this morning I felt a little sad for no reason. I felt lonely. Sometimes I feel like I can’t get anyone in my life to meet me where I am. I want to share my intensity with other people and connect with them on some warped, poetic landscape, and that’s just a hard thing to pull off. I probably need to see my novelist friend more often, because she’s easier to meet on that terrain. I probably need to invite my very emotional writer friend to visit soon, because she lives on that landscape — and often suffers for it.
Life doesn’t become easy and stay that way. Life can get easier. But when you’re a sensitive, moody, strange, mortal human on this planet, you never turn into a ball of light and magic that floats above the world. The very common perception that this is how it works for those with good careers and some money to spend couldn’t be more warped. I know tons of people who have a lot and they’re still deeply lost. I know people with a lot of love in their lives and their deeply ingrained loneliness or depression or anxiety just doesn’t seem to lift, no matter what they do. And they blame themselves for it.
I’m happier than ever, and I still feel sad and lonely some days. My understanding of myself has never been more solid, yet the ground still shifts under my feet. I have experiences that truly confound me. I am caught off guard. I am not remotely in control of the things that I thought I would be able to control by now.
I don’t want to discount how hard your situation is. I just want to explain that feeling secure doesn’t automatically turn your life into one never-ending orgasm. I have been through many different flavors of hell. I have been deeply depressed for years and also mildly depressed for over a decade, in ways that kept me hiding from my own life and everyone in it. My path here was arduous. I was sad and angry and confused and I didn’t even know it. Privilege doesn’t fix that. Ask a trust-fund kid — they are some of the most depressed, anxious, fucked-up humans you will ever meet in your life.
You can make that into a moral — people should appreciate what they have! — but that’s really easy to say from a distance. You don’t know how it feels inside someone else’s skin. Even when everyone around you is telling you to appreciate what you have, there are times when your body, which is weak and unpredictable, cannot get in line with your ideals. It stubbornly clings to an alternative timeline, a fantasy, an escape route, a path of destruction.
When I started writing this column, I got paid $150 a week for it. Most of my friends thought that was pretty pathetic. In 2012, the year I first pitched this column to The Awl, I had a great writing career but I couldn’t seem to make a living from my work. My family was sinking into debt. But I decided to believe in this column, because I loved it. I forgave myself for dragging my family’s finances into the red. I did have a husband. I did have advantages by then. But I also took a leap of faith that was real. I was embarrassed by this column, too, and I decided not to let that stop me this time. I forgave myself for doing something slightly squishy and touchy-feely and underpaid and shameful. I forgave myself for taking a deeply uncool path with my writing.
It’s hard to take risks — to know which risks are good for you and which risks are destructive. People destroy their lives in new ways every day. People with everything do this and people with nothing do this. It’s time for you to start to cultivate compassion for yourself, above all else, so that you can slowly start to feel compassion for the people around you. That was my path out of hell, and it can be yours, too. But in order to get on that path, you have to stop feeling like shit about where you are, and stop telling stories about how you’re disgusting and pathetic and uniquely fucked. You are not uniquely fucked. Your fucked-ness level is as common as mud, as was mine. I was fucked for different reasons than you are. At age 24, one of us might’ve been more fucked than the other one. We can’t determine that from our circumstances on paper. Trust me on that.
Two very rich — palpably rich — people are sitting next to me right now, a husband and a wife. First, the wife was lamenting that they didn’t have any dinner reservations for tonight. She said this like the world was ending. Now they’re bitching at each other, and they’re at a complete standstill over a decision involving their close friends or family. There is something the husband wants to pay for, for someone with less money, and the wife wants to say no way, to draw a line in the sand. These two very rich, very good-looking people are in paradise and they’re miserable and they really seem to hate each other.
Can we blame them for being loaded and unhappy? Yes, easily. We can think of the children drowning in the Mediterranean as we speak, and we can think of the children who will continue to drown all over the planet, as the tides rise and cities are submerged and huge crowds of humans leave their homes forever in order to survive. When I think of that, I hate the people sitting next to me and I also hate myself for spending even a cent of money to sit here with these miserable fucks, staring out at the Pacific Ocean and using the too-much-time they have to bicker about the too-much-money they have.
Maybe these people give half of their salaries away every single year to fight climate change. Maybe she was molested by her uncle when she was 5 years old. Maybe he was raised by a nanny he doesn’t know anymore, but he still misses her. Maybe they’re just average levels of sad and depressed, propped up by various pharmaceuticals in order to function. Maybe they’re racist as fuck. Maybe they kick their dog in the face every night when they get home. Maybe she wakes up every single morning and stares out at the sea and she can feel herself growing older and older by the second, and soon she’ll be dead, so why is she still with this terrible unforgiving man, who seems nice to everyone else but who doesn’t listen, who doesn’t see her, who doesn’t notice that she’s dying inside?
“Just finish the email,” the wife says to her husband, who is typing into a laptop now. “We’re just stating the facts here.” They are asking someone to pay for something, together now, as a team.
As I listen to this couple talk, I have no compassion for them at all. All I can see is their boat. This is what I keep thinking: These people with tons of money are choosing to use their valuable time in paradise to nitpick about money over email. These people believe that a big chunk of their worth is constructed from the money they have. These people believe that all anyone else can see is their money. So they want to avenge that, using words. They can’t just let the money be wasted. They can’t just let it go. They can’t imagine taking advantage of someone because you’re a tiny bit desperate, or angry, or sad, or careless. These bad people lack compassion, I tell myself. But I myself am assuming things I can’t know, filling in the gaps in their story however I want, out of my own biases and lack of compassion.
But let’s just pretend for a second that these people are as confused and as bad as they seem. Let’s pretend so that I can beg you to reconsider your definitions of disgusting and pathetic. Because no matter how pathetic your life feels right now, it couldn’t be as pathetic as having all the money in the world and writing an angry email about a small amount of money while you’re in paradise. I was trying hard to keep money out of any moral verdicts in this reply to you, but this is what life does when you open your eyes and your ears: It surprises you. You start down one path and there’s an obstacle you can’t climb around, so you have to back up. You think you know what’s up and it turns out that you just don’t.
“New paragraph there,” the wife just said. “Just say ‘We want you to replace it.’ Just say ‘We want you to buy a new one.’ Period. And then just leave it at that.”
I have a job that’s all about tackling complicated questions with inspiring, ever-so-slightly reductive answers, and here I am in the middle of a murky bog. I am guilty and everyone else is guilty of being shitty and lazy and terrible, of fighting stupid fights intead of lifting each other up, of running with the worst, most merciless interpretation instead of spreading mercy, instead of giving generously, instead of living humbly, instead of reaching for divinity however we can, every day.
I just want to say that the act of trying very hard to feel compassion for those deeply irritating people pried my heart open a little. Granted, my heart closed again after they started talking about their stupid email. (Which, obviously, I don’t know anything about! But I still hate it!) But for a minute there, I felt sad for them. I had compassion for them. And that compassion spread out in every direction (as compassion often does) and I had compassion for myself for feeling misunderstood about how real my struggle was for decades. And I also had compassion for you, an intern at a corporation, lonely and lonelier every day, pathetic in your own eyes, with your whole life stretched out before you like miles of blue ocean, and all you can see is how unfair it all is.
That’s what connects you and this busybody couple and me and everyone else alive. Every single day, we turn our backs on the heaven inside of us. We close our eyes to the miles of open ocean in front of us, in order to focus on small, dark rooms inside our minds. Until you can feel how full of brilliant light you are, every goddamn day, until you refuse to define yourself and your life as pathetic, you will never have a truly seaworthy boat to keep you above that lake of shit.
So now I’m crying for you right here in paradise, but it feels good to cry for you and for me and this petty woman and her dumb suggestible husband. Compassion turns a lake of shit into the open ocean. Forgiving yourself, every day, every minute, every second, builds you a seaworthy boat. You can have everything you want. Believe that, because it’s true. Your fate is far from sealed. But you cannot build this boat out of dollar bills or love or status or rage or blame. You will sink. You have to build it out of forgiveness. You have to build it out of love for yourself and everyone else in the world. They are much more like you than you think they are. They need love just as much as you do, too, even when they look like they have more love than they can stand. We all need more love, every minute. Believe that. That’s the heaven inside of us talking. Heaven wants us to look past this scary, sordid hour and recognize the divine in each other’s eyes.
Now I’m back in my hotel room, and outside, there are gardeners trimming tropical plants together, and they’re talking and laughing as birds around them chirp and sing. Question everything you know. Question all of your assumptions. Look for heaven.
Polly’s evil twin Molly has a newsletter; sign up here. Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?, here. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.
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