Advice from Cary: Service to others helps us feel whole

Dear Cary,

A friend just posted an old family pic on Facebook of her and her mother on a swing in the woods. My friend’s legs were wrapped around her mother’s waist, and her mom’s hair was flying like a black silk cape on the downswing, the look on her face the essence of motherly adoration. They were fully engaged in life and love. I commented, “They say it’s never too late to have a happy childhood. Is it too late to have yours?”

She replied, “I already had one! And I’m still happy!”

I clarified, “No, dear, is it too late for ME to have yours?”

“Oh….happiness is a choice,” she reminded me. “I forgot it was that easy!” (She “liked” that.)

Is it, Cary? Is it that easy? Because when I look at that picture I am delighted that such motherly love exists for some lucky folk, but mourn my own lack of it when I needed it most, in my infancy and young childhood. All the love my mom tries to heap on me today does nothing to fill the hole of not being given the love that we all deserve as our birthright, upon our entry into this world, without, perhaps, every understanding why. The details don’t matter. She was distracted by other things, other people, other agendas, and I was left in the cold, feeling unloved, unwanted, and unworthy.

I have felt alarmingly alone all my life–and that has both strengthened me and saddened me. There was no one to consult about why I didn’t fit into my own family. I’ve cultivated an interesting life for myself, mostly because I’m willing to take chances and risks to remove myself from situations I don’t want to be in–my family, the city of my birth, jobs I’ve hated, relationships I was done with, etc. But every day I awaken with the same feeling of the emptiness and loneliness of the unloved. It’s not true! I am loved. I am blessed with great friendships worldwide. But I shy away from intimate, romantic relationships and truly prefer to be alone. But can I claim to be happy?

No. I’ve been under medical treatment for bipolar disorder and attention deficit disorder for nearly 20 years. I have many interests and passions, and feel positive and hopeful about the future, although I am unable to pay my October rent and may have to leave both my apartment and San Francisco any day now. I am self-employed with a variety of talents, but the SF cost of living is what it is. So what advice do I seek? Upon your recommendation I picked up David Burns book Feeling Good–and it does make me feel better, now and then. I had made some strides with cognitive behavioral therapy, but for all of 2013 I have been unable to find part-time work … not because I am unqualified for the many openings I’ve applied for … but because I’m pushing 60. I was outright told I’m “probably not a good fit” by a manager whose staff of 55 includes not one face over 30.

And again, for all the wrong reasons, I am feeling unwanted and not a good fit, despite copious evidence to the contrary, and all my resources are tapped out. I have no idea what the future brings — no one does, but most have a pretty good idea what the Tuesday following this Monday will be like. I do not want to be forced out of this city, and I can’t just walk away; I have a family of three cats. I’m looking for a roommate. But always underneath it all, however strong or adventurous or bold I have been in my life, how seemingly confident or aggressive or vivacious, I get laid low by feelings of worthlessness. Do I really just need a strong dose of attitude adjustment? Is it that easy to be happy, Cary?

Desperate in San Francisco

Dear Desperate in San Francisco,

I know this feeling you speak of, and have found ways to live with it and counteract it, by performing acts that take us out of worthlessness into hope and out of loneliness into community. Helping others is one such act. It kindles gratitude in others, which fills us. Yes, helping others can do that. Being essentially immature and self-involved, I spent my youth wondering why people bothered to bring hot dishes to neighbors and help old ladies across the street and ladle out noodles to ragged beggars in worn church kitchens. But now I sort of know:

It’s like a bucket you fill with gratitude. People say thank you and the bucket fills one drop. People say, you helped me and the bucket fills another drop. If in the evening you recount to yourself the ways you have been useful during the day, before falling asleep, in the morning you will awaken with a different feeling.

It’s true. So find ways to voluntarily help other people. In this way it is possible to forget the self, that grinding pit of insufficiency. For the self will never be filled. Yes, your friend says her childhood was happy. There is nothing that can be done about that but to work in the present, feeling what you feel now, and reaching out your hand to others.

I could go on and on about our contemporary obsession with self and safety, and I do fear that on our deathbeds many of us will see mainly how much music and dancing we missed, how many times we might have gone to the zoo. But it is a relatively simple thing to fix. If you were an addict it would be simple: Just join a 12-step recovery group. If you are not an addict you can still identify maladies of the self sufficiently grinding and painful to justify enrolling in a 12-step group. Our grinding maladies are so numerous and we are so inventive in labeling new ones that there must be something you could use to join a 12-step group. If your life has been at all touched by the alcoholism of others, or even in general their insufficiency to your needs you could probably find welcome in an Al-Anon group. Just go and announce yourself as someone trying to get over a lifelong sense that you missed something in childhood. For at the root of all these 12-step groups is the essential human condition of powerlessness and obsession, obsession with impossibilities, the impossibility of changing others, the impossibility of changing the past, the impossibility of being enough onto ourselves without community and reverence.

I do not have the mental illnesses you have but I do know well that presence of absence, that melancholy, that aching for something, that loneliness that walls us off from others, that ever-present lack, that dim certainty that in some primal moment of loss we were tossed out of salvation into this grinding pit of cold, echoing solitude. I know this pattern of longing for completion, this need for some enveloping touch or presence, this raging and implacable incompleteness, and I like you have sought ways to slake it, to fill it, to cover myself in enveloping warmth, to fill myself, to find my place, to be loved, to be comfortable, to just relax for one moment in a room and feel at home. And like you I have had mixed success. There have been days when I wanted to kill myself but those days would pass and mostly I have gratitude for love and color and comfort and beauty.

I, perhaps like you, have tried many things to have this wondered-at and intensely imagined state of well-being and peace. I have tried many things, indeed. I still do.

Now, to some people, such words sound silly and self-indulgent. They will say that everyone feels this way, that you and I are no different from anyone else, that there is no help for this universal feeling and the only responsible thing is to get on with life, that to concentrate on these feelings is morbid and self-indulgent.

But I don’t agree. Rather, I think this exploration is our task here on earth, that by exploring these feelings we will eventually discover our true condition and purpose. And what is that? Our true condition? Our true condition is one of powerlessness over a vast universe we scarcely know. And our purpose? Well, judging from how effectively service to others ameliorates our pain and isolation, surely part of our purpose here is just that: To be of service to other humans and to the planet, to be useful, to be part of what is going on around us

Seriously, I suggest that you become involved in a 12-step group. Not so much because of the 12 steps as because it is one of the few enduring institutions in our culture that can provide the community and connection you so desperately need. If you do not have one of the major qualifying troubles, come up with one. Identify yourself in a way that will open up the 12 steps to you. Because the 12-step life, the practicing of the 12 steps and following the principles embodied in 12-step literature is a workable way to manage the existential state of loneliness and worthlessness. And it is generally free of charge, except for the voluntary donations most 12-step groups accept from their members.

For instance, since you are intensely focused on your past family life, you may be a good candidate for Al-Anon, the offshoot of AA that was originally for family members of alcoholics but has expanded somewhat to serve as a group supporting troubled people through a variety of trials and obsessions. Through doing the 12 steps in Al-Anon, it is possible to free yourself of attachment to old family expectations and resentments, to see the full pattern, to say goodbye to it, and to find some other, outside power in your life that you can rely on.

In short, I think you can live a reasonably happy life if you find a way to be of service to others.

As to the economic pressures on all of us in San Francisco — the rising cost of living, the cost of housing, and changing demographics, especially for minorities and the elderly — well, we are lucky in San Francisco because at least we have advocates. At least we have a dominant and progressive social consensus that is different from the cruel individualistic consensus found in many other parts of the country. We have advocates for affordable housing and for minorities and those who would be discriminated against. If you feel vulnerable there is lots of free or low-cost help. And this help is predicated on the notion that we love our diverse population. This is actually a city of love. It changes but it welcomes newcomers with love.

So now I will close this very first column on my own site by noting that I am glad that the column has moved from Salon.com to here. Already I feel freer to advocate for specific things, and to communicate one-to-one with people. I feel I can be more open about who I am.

This is only the first day so there is much work to be done on the architecture of the site. We will see how the comments section works, and perhaps build a FAQ and other elements to make this a good home for the column.

For now, thank you for writing, and congratulations on being Letter Writer No. 1!

Yours

Cary T.

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