Will I ever find happiness in the U.S.?

Write for Advice

I could not have stayed in my country of birth, but I feel like my life in America is just unlucky

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JUL 1, 2010

Dear Cary,

I am so glad you are back. Thank you for still caring deeply for others while you are battling your health issues. I really need some advice at this point in my life and I need it to come from somebody who does not know me.

The problem is probably more pervasive than I can describe here but I gotta start somewhere. There is something really wrong with me and I don’t know what to do! I just can’t seem to be happy. Don’t get me wrong, I am usually a fairly funny and upbeat person and I always help people with their problems. I can hold myself together for long stretches of time, but I eventually always end up in the same state of mind again.

Let me describe:

I grew up in a different country under a fairly strict regime. Let’s just say that criticism is the choice of communication over there; not as much anymore, but still considerably. As I got older I did poorly in school; I barely made it out of there, had to repeat a grade, and I was a huge disappointment to my family. The focus in the classroom was on repeating prepackaged information and in that circle of negative feedback I always felt out of place. I started not seeing any point in living at around 16. When my parents had me they weren’t even in their 20s yet. I understand that they didn’t have the time, energy or experience to deal with a depressed daughter who couldn’t fit in. This is where I learned not to show any of my weaknesses because my family was overwhelmed with everything anyway. My issues in addition to theirs would have killed them.

As soon as I could leave I did. I came to the U.S. a little bit after graduating high school and it was awesome. It was new, I was independent, and I found some new friends. I finally felt like there was a place I could … maybe … possibly call home. Even though I only stayed for one year (visa regulations) I knew I’d go back eventually. After working my ass off and being put down constantly in an ungrateful job for a few years back home, I finally tore down all the bridges, I sold everything I owned, got rid of my apartment and moved back to the U.S. I moved in with a guy I had met online and figured I could go from there. I won’t even describe the disaster that this turned out to be. Can you tell I sometimes make irrational decisions? Well, it sure shocked the hell out of my family.

Anyway, I am a little better now in the sense that I cleaned up my life a little. I got rid of the guy and went back to school here in the U.S. My relationship with my family is fine. I graduated college at the top of my class, and I am now in a graduate program at an Ivy League university. Needless to say, I have no money whatsoever. Everything I make goes straight into my education. Everybody around me is in the midst of living life. All my friends have spouses, houses, children, jobs, and they deal with their little issues. At the end of the day they go back home and they sit down for dinner. They plan vacations and they decorate their homes. They bring their car to the mechanic and they drive to the grocery store to buy some bread.

And at age 32 I have nothing. I have no house, no apartment, no car, no husband, no nothing. I am alone. I rent a room. I scrape by from day to day. I can’t legally work as much as I would like to and I am losing my patience. Nobody wants to hire me full-time because then they’d have to sponsor a work visa for me. I will be graduating next spring with a master’s degree and a lot of knowledge about research and I don’t even know what to do then. Nobody even responds to my applications for summer jobs! What’s going to happen when I attempt to get a real job? The uncertainty is killing me. What did I do all this work for?

And here is the real bummer. Even though people tell me that I am attractive, smart and funny, I can’t seem to find a guy who wants to be with me. Seriously, I think I am like chopped liver to men. They stare at me on the street but they never talk to me. They ask other women out and bring them flowers, but they never do that for me. I have dates but we never seem to click (I do, but they don’t). They marry cute little women, but apparently not somebody who is freakishly tall like me. In short, nobody ever truly wants to be with me.

Honestly, Cary, I am back to zero here. I just want to cry all the time. I feel like everywhere I turn I get roadblocks. I am the ugly and dumb kid in high school again. I watch while other people date and get A’s. I even went to see a therapist a year ago, but if anything, she was predictable and forgetful and I’m not going back there again. She, like many other people in my past, made me feel unimportant and uninteresting.

So what the hell is wrong with me? What am I supposed to do to crawl out of this hole? I am worried that I will always be alone. I’ll never find somebody who loves me for me and enjoys my company. I want to get married and have children. I want to have somebody I can rely on. At night I want to go to bed with someone I trust. Why is this such an impossible thing for me to find? Other people do!

Thanks for listening.

Unlucky at Cards and Unlucky in Love

Dear Unlucky,

As I mentioned the other day, I have been reading some stories by Richard Ford. They were mostly stories, though one was a selection from his novel “Independence Day” and one, the one I read this morning, was “My Mother, in Memory,” a memoir.

So the thing I like about Richard Ford’s writing, and I hope I do not lapse into imitation of him as I say so, is that he struggles, as writers are supposed to struggle, to sum up, or crystallize these vague and insubstantial notions we have from time to time about what a life is or should be. He gropes to find a shape for life. And one thing that emerges from that seems to me to be an abiding sadness. But it is a serious sadness, a sadness that is responsible and clear, that does not arise from unconsidered expectations but inheres in what we can observe and experience. Thus there is some nobility and promise in the sadness. There is the promise that we will come to know life as it is, on its own terms, and when we do that, we can stop grinding our teeth and tearing our hair out and just live out our days with some abiding simplicity and peace.

To you I would say, under the spell of Richard Ford, as he says of the wordless understanding that passed between him and his mother regarding the mystery of what life gives us and does not give us, “Yes. This is what it is.” Your life as it has come so far is the life you have been given, and it is not inferior to the lives of others. In some ways it is magnificent; it involves significant overcoming, significant courage; it involves your recognizing that there was some stuff you just would not take, that you did not have to take; you realized that you could do something about it, that you didn’t have to have things as they were. You needed things that weren’t available to you in your family or your town; you didn’t belong in that kind of life so you set out to find a life you did belong in. And you found it. You found the kind of life you belong in.

You haven’t gotten everything. And perhaps you are aware that expecting to get everything is an error, an indulgent error that you have allowed yourself. Well, you’ve suffered enough, why shouldn’t you get everything, the boyfriend, the money, all of it? But in allowing yourself this indulgent expectation you are only torturing yourself. There’s no guarantee that you’ll get the boyfriend and the money and the apartment. Nonetheless, you have done something to carry you forward. You have done something wonderful and admirable. You have saved yourself. You have escaped the major, soul-killing awfulness that drowns so many others. You have carried yourself out of hell and found a place for yourself that is mostly OK.

Those of us like you and me who were not OK where we were and had to wander, we don’t completely belong anywhere. We suspect that we’ve blown it somehow. So it helps to remember that we did what we did — leaving family, leaving our birthplace, our origins — to save our lives. It was not an amusement. It came from a deep place. We knew we did not belong where we were so we set off to find someplace where we would feel more at home. I came to San Francisco. It was my kinda town. But I’m not completely at home. I have done well in certain ways. But there is always a nagging suspicion. I can let it nag or I can try to dig deeper to honor the larger story: that I was in a place I did not belong, that I felt if I did not leave I would be missing out on some life that was waiting for me to live it, like a suit of clothes hanging in a cabin across the mountain, waiting for me, and me alone, to mount the steps of the cabin and step inside and put on the clothes and find that they fit perfectly, and then to step out on the porch of the cabin and join a life. Something like that was the notion I had, that a life was waiting for me. So I went west and sort of found it, only it was not really what I had imagined. Instead of becoming a novelist and short story writer, I found myself writing these letters to people; instead of becoming a professor and conveying the words of others to people, I found whatever I can convey about the world comes from my own hard-won experience. I do not so much teach as commune with others in mutual learning. Still, that is what I did. So far I have done what I had to do, and life has turned out as it did. That is all I know.

What you need to get through this period is courage and self-regard. You need to know that you have already rescued yourself. You have done what you needed to do and you can be proud of that. One of the hardest things to do is take at face value — or value highly enough, or honor, I should say — the ways in which we rescue our own souls. It sounds so kooky to say that! It sounds kooky to say you rescued your own soul. There are other ways to say it but that is what I most want to say, because that is what I really feel about such actions: Something in us needs to leave where we are, so we pack up and go. And then later maybe we pooh-pooh what we have done, saying it turned out badly. We forget how desperately important it was to do what we did; we forget how much it seemed an act based on a high truth; we forget how right and noble it felt. And I think it right true and noble because it was. We confuse taking such true and noble action with how it all works out in the end. How it works out in the end is not our problem so much. Our problem is to follow our deepest instincts and intuitions and do what we have to do, because in that way we are taking care of our souls.

That’s how I see it anyway. I know the language is a bit corny but it will have to do.

So what you need now in your life is some peace, and some self-kindness, and I hope you can go through your days with the inner knowledge that what you have done already is enough for now, that you have gotten yourself out of a terrible land, and you have rescued yourself, and the rest will come in its own time. The best thing you can do now is find some peace, and be patient, and know that so far you have done the right thing. Wait for the next right action to occur. If you are in the habit of praying, ask for the next right action. Or just wait for it. Just know that the next right action will come to you if you wait. It will come to you. Trust it when it comes. You might not recognize it. It might surprise you. That is OK. Often the next right action comes as a surprise to us, and we do not trust it at first. We don’t see where it is leading. But trust it. You’ve been OK so far. Trust it in this time of difficulty, and wait.