How to let go of old resentments

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, JUN 8, 2010

My husband and my brother are estranged because of a business deal


Dear Cary,

Earlier this year, around the time of your cancer diagnosis, you wrote about letting go of a long-held resentment. I am particularly interested in this topic because of a family conflict that has gone on for years in an understated way. Whenever it interferes with my life in a pragmatic way, I get completely stressed out and obsess about it.

My husband was badly hurt by my brother as a friend and business partner years ago. Since then, my husband refuses to be near my brother except on obligatory family occasions. I understand this position as a means of self-protection. My brother is charming and would like to smooth things over but doesn’t want to admit any wrongdoing or participate in the work of real reconciliation, and my husband will agree to nothing less. Frankly, I think they both would prefer never to see each other again.

That leaves me to be the linchpin of a relationship they would prefer did not exist. I feel torn by my loyalty to both of them. On a day-to-day level, it’s not usually a problem. I get together with my brother on my own. I’m a one-on-one sort of person anyway, so I kind of like it that way. Every now and then, though, I fear hurting my brother and his partner’s feelings by not inviting them to be part of our shared social life. I can’t even tell my mom when I’m having a party for fear that she will tell my brother about it or feel sad about my failure to include them.

How would you suggest that I deal with the emotional and pragmatic ramifications of this state? Also, can I do anything to help them resolve their bad feelings about one another?

Thank you for your thoughts.

Stuck in the Middle

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Dear Stuck in the Middle,

Resentments, long-held and seemingly intractable, can be suddenly lifted forever. Yet there is no foolproof method that I know of to make this happen. Time and events seem to work in concert with our own efforts.

No one prescription heals the infinite variety of emotional wounds. Rather, our searing and constant attention on these things seems to work in tandem with unseen currents of mercy flowing among us day and night. Eddies of warm wisdom encounter cold upwellings of  unrepentant prejudice and grudge, and out of that comes change. We struggle for years with a sense of grinding injustice, masticating the tough, fibrous hay of our own indignation, standing chilly in our pastures waiting for someone else to make a move. And then things change. Light comes in.

Meanwhile, though it sounds a little silly, thinking good thoughts about the one we resent, wishing them good fortune, blowing positive breath toward them, praying for them — these odd and counterintuitive actions sometimes have surprising effects. Who knows why.

While we wait for things to change, we envision scenarios: What if we got together at the old house and things would be just like they used to be? What if we went waterskiing? He loves waterskiing! We try to reach inner accommodation through judgment of externals: He is really being unreasonable now! I’ve done all I can do and now the rest is up to him! This can go on for years.

And then one day the two parties meet on the street and it is a sunny day and they have met by accident and it seems like a nice time to go boating.

So what are you to do about social arrangements, you who are in the middle? I rather think the best thing to do is simply invite the people who belong and let them decide to show up or not.

This may be tricky in the case of your husband. To invite your brother may seem like a provocation. But, while showing sensitivity to his feelings, I think it would be best if you simply tell him that your brother is your brother and family is family and people have to learn to be in the same room with each other.

This involves a certain amount of letting go. It involves just letting go and doing the normal thing and letting other people work out their differences.

And let me say this: We get to a point in these long-running disputes where we think, screw it, I’ve done enough and he hasn’t responded, well fuck it, it’s his turn.

But it’s never his turn. It’s always our turn. We’re the only ones whose turn it can be. There is always more we can do. We can always try again. We can always pick up the phone one more time. If we choose not to, that’s our choice. But there is always one more try.

And we find, if we take this approach, that after the 15th or the 20th try, there is a thaw, a lifting. If your brother is not working every day in some way to repair this rift, then he’s not doing enough. Likewise with your husband. Likely as not, neither one of these men is doing all he could do. Neither has made himself vulnerable. Neither has taken a genuine risk. Neither has taken it all the way.

I’m not saying I don’t understand that. I do. We’re sensitive creatures. We don’t like being hurt. I understand how one offhand remark from a family member can put one crooked for days, and how, therefore, we naturally try to avoid such things.

But I also know that we can do it. We can survive such hurts. And good can come of making the choice to endure such hurts and keep working at reconciliation. No matter what excuses we make, we have the choice: We can keep working at relationships or we can claim we have done enough and quit. Once we give up, things just get worse.

We have never done enough. There is no such thing as enough. There is always more to do.

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Bad things

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JAN 14, 2004

I looked at my girlfriend’s text messages and found out she was in touch with an ex. Can we ever trust each other?


Dear Cary,

I have been in a relationship with a woman for a little over four months. In pretty much every respect, it has been absolutely incredible. We spend every night together, we share a lot of common interests, we are alike in all the right ways. We have met each other’s parents and have seriously discussed moving in together. There’s a problem, but the thing is: I can’t decide how big a problem it is.


A few months before she met me, she dated another man for about six months. He was, by her account, emotionally manipulative. When he broke up with her, she was extremely upset. Some time after we began dating, she told me that he had begun phoning and e-mailing her a great deal, even coming to her house and work unannounced. I was uncomfortable with this, but the issue was never really discussed again. Over the next few months, we grew closer and closer. Despite how great everything felt, I was always somewhat suspicious. I chalked this up to my own insecurities, which are admittedly an issue of their own. I could not shake the feeling that despite her interest in me, he was still somehow a part of her life.

A week ago I did what from your archives I understand is a fairly common but very bad thing. While she was in the shower, I checked the text messages on her phone. I’m pretty ashamed at myself for doing it, and though you will have a hard time believing it, I did not actually think I would find anything. But I found a rather unpleasant message. When she got out of the shower, I confronted her with it, and over the course of the last week we have been discussing it a great deal.

He had been phoning her and sending her text messages nearly every day for quite some while. He had even phoned her at her parents’ house at Christmas. He was trying to get her back and also trying to get her to move with him abroad. When we first started dating, she had seen him a couple of times but only for coffee. She told me that she did not answer his calls when he phoned most of the time, but that she did occasionally e-mail him or talk to him. She swore that since she had recently moved and changed jobs, he did not show up at her door anymore.

I feel deeply hurt by this. The trust issues that I had, and which I thought were problems of my own, turn out to have been at least somewhat justified. I do not know what to believe anymore. I have confronted her about secrets and lies before, about trivial things (I thought), and she told me that she would be more honest. So when she told me that she did not want to get back together with him, that she had not seen him except when he unexpectedly showed up at her door, and that she loved me, I wanted very much to believe her. And I think I do. I asked her a number of questions about it, and she truly opened up and told me a great deal. Whether she left anything out I can’t honestly say, except that I believe she is trying to be honest. She admitted that she had not done enough to get rid of him and had partly liked the attention he was giving her when he had once been so cruel.

I told her that if we were going to survive she would have to make a decision — it was either me or him (or maybe neither), but it was not acceptable to continue on like this. I do truly love her and feel that we can get past this, but I have told her that she must work hard to regain my trust, which includes not lying to me and making it as clear as can be to him that she does not want to be contacted by him anymore. I’m afraid she will revert back to keeping things a secret rather than dealing with the problem.

Am I being an idiot in giving her another chance, or am I making things out to be worse than they appear? Is she keeping some sort of contact with him simply out of spite (enjoying watching him suffer, etc.) or is she finding it hard to cut him loose because she is still uncertain of what she really wants? I should also tell you that she fears confrontation a great deal, which is why she tends to hide things. At least part of the reason why she doesn’t just tell him to F-off is because of this, at least I think. Should I stick around to find out?

(P.S. I realize that should we continue on, I will have to regain her trust as well. I do not intend to, nor will I ever, spy on her or check messages, etc., again. Obviously, I’ve got issues of my own that I’m trying to address, the problem being that it’s extremely difficult to do so in the current situation)

Confused and Sad

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Dear Confused and Sad,

First of all, you’ve only been together four months. That’s not enough time to really get to know someone. So your expectations seem a little high, and your fears seem a little exaggerated. “I’m concerned,” you say, “that I will never really get over this. As I said, we’ve talked about this a number of times over the last week…” See what I mean? One week is not much time to get over something.

Nor is talking with her necessarily the way to “get over this.” You don’t really know whether you can believe this woman. So talking with her shouldn’t reassure you. Based on what’s happened, you should feel a little anxious. Your lack of trust, it seems to me, is well-founded. Not only have you not known her that long, but it’s obvious that you’re not the only man on her mind.

I don’t think that means she’s being a bad person. She’s just not a simple person. Besides, you’re making a lot of demands on her for a guy who’s just been around for four months, and you’re the one who snooped on her text messages while she was in the shower.

So it seems right and natural that you two should mistrust each other.

As to the dynamics of your relationship: People tend to repeat certain patterns with their first few loves. That’s only natural — it takes a few tries to get it right. So if she was manipulated by this previous man, she may be setting herself up to be manipulated by you as well.

Not only that, but you and the previous manipulative man may have more in common than you suspect. He may have been cagey and emotional in his manipulation, while you are high-minded and full of principle. He may be a feeling type while you are a thinking type. But you both seek control over this woman.

Beneath attraction and love is often a struggle for dominance. Beneath complaints about manipulation is often a forbidden attraction to surrender. There may be something in your obsession with her behavior and her transgressions that excites her. Otherwise, she would simply defend her private life, tell you that you have no business snooping in her text messages, and that would be that.

So she may be playing a role in the only drama she knows, in which the man exercises authority, setting the agenda, the rules and the punishments, and the woman plays the seductress, subverting the man’s authority while at the same time reveling in his critical attention.

If that’s the game being played, you’re playing your position admirably, attempting to ferret out her secrets and demanding that she adhere to your principles.

You may not realize that your moral and ethical categories are not as real and powerful in the world as they seem to be to you (sometimes our personality types blind us to that). You also may not realize that the strands of rational power you project into the world are like strings others can pull to work you like a puppet.

So let’s try asking this: What does she want? What does she need? You mentioned that she gets satisfaction from this man’s attentions. So she has a need to be desired, to be sought-after. Don’t we all? She was hurt by this man and still has some feelings for him. There is nothing unusual in that. Her feelings are not under her conscious control, any more than yours are.

You may think that your demand for honesty and forthrightness is just common sense and naturally takes precedence over her rather ill-defined needs for attention and secrecy. But your demands are really just another form of irrational, subjective hunger. It is no more her duty to do the things you require than it is your duty to do whatever she wants. You simply hunger for rationality, while she hungers for attention. They’re both subjective hungers. Neither has the greater claim on virtue. But you act like you have a monopoly on reason and common sense.

You’ve made ultimatums and demands that she come clean. But if she were to divulge everything she thinks and feels, would that do? What of the many, many fleeting thoughts and unconsummated desires that make up the daily life of the psyche? Is all that to be cleansed as well, subject to your security review?

I am only hinting around at things here, and it may sound like gibberish to you, but I sense there are important yet hidden assumptions at work here: That there are final ethical and moral categories which, if adhered to fully, will ensure a happy and confident union, for instance. What I’m suggesting is that if you place all your faith in these bright and symmetrical categories of right and wrong, truthfulness and falsehood, “getting over it” and “not getting over it,” you may miss what is actually happening in your relationship.

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How does it work?

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, MAR 19, 2004

As you mature, are you more able to love and trust, or do you become bitter from the pain?


Dear Cary,

Do you think that people become more or less capable of love and trust as they grow older?

I’ve thought about this often, both in the context of relationships I have been in and in general with respect to the human condition. Sometimes I think that as a person amasses experiences, there is more to the person who is doing the loving so there is more that can be given in love. I also know that sometimes painful experiences have made me slower and slower to trust.

There’s a woman I love (we’ve been in a relationship for a while). Sometimes I think I love her more than anyone I’ve ever loved, but other days I think of a woman I loved in college and cannot believe that I ever loved someone so completely. I can no longer imagine the sort of trust and abandon I once knew. I feel that over the years I have been losing the ability to trust naively. I used to fight the loss of this naiveté, but now it just seems like a waste of energy: I am broken and will stay this way, I suspect.

I once was capable of complete love, but I think I had bad luck, or bad judgment, about what relationships merited that level of investment. And others have had bad judgment in trusting me, since I had come to lose my ability to trust naively. Now that I know so clearly the consequences of unwise love, I feel I am capable only of what one might call wise love. Not a bad thing — in many ways a very good thing — but not the stuff of passion either. Some would say that trust that asks for reasons is not really trust at all. But perhaps trust that asks for reasons is just the trust that mature (and fragmented) individuals are capable of.

I want to love more deeply than I do. Is this something that one can will? I am curious what you make of this question about experience and love.

Navel Gazer

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Dear Navel Gazer,

It sounds like you’re talking about the fall of man, about what is lost in the passage from innocence to experience. Those are big subjects. After you’ve read Milton and Blake and Rousseau and, sheesh, I don’t know who all else, I guess the Bible of course, and all we know about adolescent development and attachment formation, and emotional life, wow, you could just go down the list of, basically, all of Western thought, and read everything, and after you’ve read all that and digested it, maybe you could just sit there and go, Yeah, right, OK, I get it.

I know what you are talking about, but I have no more answer than you do. What I do in this column is talk about specific situations, and use my intuition and whatever meager book-learning I’ve got to suggest unseen possibilities. It sounds to me like you have already abstracted your ideas from your experiences and are just offering the ideas. That doesn’t give me much to go on. They don’t have much meaning, detached from the experiences that gave rise to them.

We do not live life in generalities and ideas; we live it in specifics. Each experience has texture, weight, color, sound; I try to take a phenomenological approach to life, which means — to me, at least! — that experience must precede meaning; experience has to have a chance to occur before being smothered by concepts and meanings derived from it. You get what I’m saying? Let’s take a walk and look at the trees. It’s stuffy in here.

I’m hesitant to generalize, as you can imagine. But still, in general, I think as we get older and know more, we can lose the ability to have raw, unfiltered experiences. We start to generalize. And I want to fight that, so I can keep seeing clearly each new experience. I would rather be wrong than be blind, you know what I mean? I’d rather not understand the world than not be able to experience it. I know that sounds like a contradiction, in a way, because here I am trying to codify experience in order to provide direction to others. But more than that I am always trying to direct myself and others to the experience itself, because that is always where the truth lies: How you were hurt, what in particular you believed that turned out to be untrue, what specific decisions you made.

You say, “I once was capable of complete love, but I think I had bad luck, or bad judgment, about what relationships merited that level of investment.” And I sort of know what you mean, but if you are complaining about a lessened ability to feel, you may have to turn away from your abstractions and back to life in its sensual particulars. It might be the habit of mind that you think gives you insight into your problem that is causing your problem in the first place, you dig? Maybe your truth is what keeps you from experiencing life in its full intensity. Maybe you need to balance out that truth with a little falsehood, a little chaos and uncertainty.

Yes, it makes sense that experience would make you more cautious and less naive. But whether experience dulls your ability to feel, I do not know. I do not think so. I think that experience hones the judgment and increases the awareness, so that you are less likely to make certain mistakes or to trust certain people in certain situations. But I do not see why judgment and awareness should impede one’s ability to love deeply. Perhaps you mean not just deeply but crazily, dizzily, insanely, passionately, obsessively, as one loves when one is young. Yes, that kind of love does seem to diminish. Because one grows less crazy as one grows more sane. What can be done about that? What should be done about that?

I don’t know.

It’s complicated.

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The honeymoon’s over

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, APR 28, 2004

I’ve been a wife for a week, but I already feel taken for granted.


Dear Cary,

Well, well, well, here I am, barely married a week. He’s the most kind, calm, sweet person I’ve ever met. Considerate, caring — you know, all those things for which we women cherish men.

He’s also sexy and totally into me. Well, sort of.

He’s got these friends. They get together occasionally (once every six weeks?) and fix computers all night and play computer games and drink themselves stupid. I usually spend these nights home (I’ve got two kids from a previous marriage), kind of waiting it out. Sometimes he comes home early-ish, (2 a.m.) and other times it’s late-ish (5 a.m.). I can’t sleep when he’s gone like this. I worry about accidents and him landing in jail and also what he’s doing. So I stay up and watch TV and feel kind of sick and very uncomfortable. This also impacts me the next day, because I work days. He used to work nights, but quit his job to find a day job, but he’s still on this night schedule, so he can have this night lifestyle and sleep all day.

The past few months, while he was with me making wedding arrangements, I couldn’t have been happier. When he saw his friends, it was usually for a game of disc golf in the evening and then home to me by 8 or 9 p.m. I hardly saw the friends (one came over to help him do yard work at my house, but that was pretty much it). Come the wedding, everyone had a great time, and we were off on our honeymoon.

Last week while on our honeymoon, he made arrangements to see one of these friends, his best friend, the day after the day we would get back in town, for a late-night computer-fixing drink fest.

So last night, he’s off festing and I’m lying in bed, married one whole week. I’m thinking, what is going on here? Is this normal behavior? Do guys just go off on benders so they keep their “one of the guys” status even though they’re married? Is that the right thing? I kind of feel left out too when he does this. (Why should I feel this way? I’ve had him all to myself for weeks!)

Today, I suggested that he “fest” during the day and gave him lots of reasons why. He agreed. Then, like 20 minutes later, he tells me that he and these friends are taking off for a weekend bachelor party camping trip in a couple of weeks.

All of a sudden, I feel like I got relegated to a somewhat derogatory role of “wife” instead of “girlfriend.”

Give me some realistic expectations here, Cary. I don’t want to be weird about this situation. I want him to have a happy life, have his friends, and have his fun. But I don’t want to sacrifice my well-being for sleepless nights either.

And I know marriage is a compromise. I get that perfectly. So — is this the compromise? An occasional sleepless night for me and an occasional night of craziness for him?

What do normal, sexy, happy couples in love do in this situation?

Dazed and Confused

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Dear Dazed and Confused,

Congratulations on your marriage, you blushing new bride. Sounds like you’ve got your hands full, what with the two kids and the new husband and all his friends.

Overall, though, if he’s getting together with his old buddies once every few weeks, it doesn’t sound too out of line. And if he’s still on a night schedule from a previous job, it’s not like he’s some inveterate nighthawk; sleep schedules can take some time to change.

Meanwhile, the key is to figure out what to do with yourself when all members of the family unit are not present. It might help to think back to what you used to do with your kids when you were home alone together, before you were married. Is it the waiting for him to come home that occupies your mind? Try to pretend that he’s away on a trip and not coming home at all. Go to sleep and forget about him.

But he’s not drinking and then driving home, is he? If he is, it’s no wonder you’re worried. I think you should insist that he find some other transportation. That’s something you should be firm about.

But it’s very difficult for a guy to maintain the healthy ties he has with other men once he gets married, and it will probably take some time to find ways that work. Eventually, his friends will get married one by one, and the old group will dissolve. Sad but true. Meantime, he has to try to preserve what is valuable, or sacred even, about his old ties with his buddies, and yet move into a new phase of an adult life of love and commitment. It’s not easy and there’s no set of clear instructions. You’re in a period of transition, so try to set up workable patterns, because whatever patterns you set up will tend to persist.

When I got married, the one thing I wanted to do was somehow involve all my friends in my life as a settled and proper married man — all the punks and anarchists and ne’er-do-wells who seemed to be my soul mates. Well, I didn’t really know how to do that and also achieve some semblance of order and safety in my married life. I still don’t. But I do the best I can. That’s all you can do.

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Should I stick with my girlfriend through her cancer?

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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, JUN 30, 2006

We’ve only been together 10 months, but I love her.


Dear Cary,

I’ve been reading your column for years, and appreciate all the honest advice you’ve given. I’ve thought of writing you before, but the problems seemed to resolve themselves.

Not this time.

I have a great girlfriend. I’m approaching 30 and she’s about five years younger. She has had some rough knocks — lost a parent a few years ago, endured her parents’ divorce before that. We’ve been dating for 10 months, which is my longest relationship (though not hers). We’ve talked about moving in together as a step toward marriage. I’m sure that’s what I want to do — I have a hard time with roommates and am petrified of taking the leap of marriage (with all its social and economic implications) without dipping my toe in and seeing how compatible we are. (Currently we live in the same apartment building and spend a lot of time together, but that simply isn’t the same.)

But that’s not my concern. My girlfriend was recently diagnosed with carcinoid, a form of cancer. The good news is that so far she’s relatively asymptomatic; it’s a slow-growing cancer that many folks have lived long lives with, and she’s getting advice on treatment from some of the best folks in the world. The bad news is that it has metastasized, so some of the common treatments may not be an option. We’ll know in a month what the aforementioned best folks have to say about treatment.

I love this woman — she’s intelligent, funny, enthusiastic, willing to try new things, gorgeous, laughs at the same things I laugh at, whimsical. I’ve “dealt” with the cancer issue by putting any decisions off until we know more. Such decisions include moving in together and her moving back to her family for treatment (and her possibly asking me to move from where we are now, close to my family).

Frankly, I’m scared of continuing this relationship, if she only has, say, five years to live. Do I really want to be a widower at 35? I want kids — can I handle being a single parent? (To say nothing of the emotional trauma.) Or even if she lives a normal life span, but with complications, can I handle taking care of my partner?

On the other hand, this is really good. I felt like I’ve grown more over the past 10 months than ever before. I don’t know whether it will lead to marriage, but there are times when I hope so.

I really don’t know what to do. Any advice?

Confused in Colorado

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Dear Confused,

If you do indeed love this woman, this is no time to be making a calculated exit. I have a feeling that if at the age of 30 you have never had a relationship longer than 10 months, you have been exiting when the emotional costs of the relationship are too high. This may be your opportunity to find out what it means to stick with someone through hard times — to be somebody who guts it out for somebody else and doesn’t ask to be excused when things get tough.

Are you ready for this, the great, defining challenge of your life? Are you ready to accept what life has put before you?

I hope you can answer yes. I hope you can put aside whatever cynicism you have acquired by living in an absurd world and recognize that however absurd this world is, it places before us occasional opportunities to respond with unambiguous moral clarity.

There are moments, if you are actually living life, when cynicism cannot approach or tarnish the grandeur of the real thing. This is your life.

Are you ready?

You might not be. You might not grasp what this means. But I think you do grasp what this means and you are ready and you want somebody to help you do the right thing. Why else would you have written to me? If you have been reading the column all this time then you already know what I think. I’m not going to suggest that you ditch this woman and look for something more convenient. I believe in heroic responses. People often say things happen for a reason. I don’t necessarily believe that. But I believe we must live life as if things happen for a reason. We must create meaning. Otherwise we’re just sick, pathetic, clueless bastards!

What I mean is, we create meaning in our lives by responding with our highest selves. We try to do the right thing. To the degree we fail, we fail. But we don’t just walk away from a drowning lover.

In this case the right thing is to stick with this woman through this life-threatening challenge.

What sticking with her means concretely is what you and she must decide together. If she has a supportive family near good medical care then it would seem to make sense for her to go be with her family.

What you and she decide to do I can’t say. But I would suggest that you give her support yet also maintain some distance. That means staying near her but not yet living together. Even if you want to do this great, heroic thing, you should go slowly. You don’t know what would happen if you moved in together and began trying to cope with this thing together. Living together might make things worse, not better. It might be too much for both of you. But I think you should consider moving to the same town where she will be, so that you can be her boyfriend and be there for her and see where it leads. The more support she has near her the better.

The criterion you should use is: Does your action constitute loving help and support for her, or does it constitute hungry, sentimental involvement in her tragedy? It is easy to confuse these things; we may feel a surge of energy at another’s misfortune and use that energy to satisfy a need for drama. Or we may use it to be a quiet source of support.

How can you love her and be of support no matter what happens? That is your question. I would not do anything hastily. That has apparently been your habit: to get into and out of relationships hastily. This is the time to try doing something differently, deliberately, carefully, with the restrained passion of a great love.

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Is our relationship a tear-down, or can it be repaired?

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, NOV 10, 2004

We bought a house together and it’s tearing us apart.


Dear Cary,

My ex-boyfriend and I met three years ago, fell madly in love, and six months later bought a fixer-upper in a transitioning neighborhood in an inner-city neighborhood. Things spiraled out of control, and we spent the past two-plus years vacillating between some of the highest highs and, alternately, the lowest depths of hellish fighting. At the beginning of this month, we spent a week apart, and on coming back I had decided that I, for my part, had taken him for granted over the past few years and wanted to do what I could to turn things around. But he dumped me.

We still own this house together, and it’s not in a salable condition. So we’re not in a position to just terminate things entirely and have been trying to be friends and working to get the house to a point where we can sell it. We’ve been getting along extremely well, although we don’t see much of each other.

I have spent this month doing a wholesale reevaluation of what it is that makes me happy and have been really embracing that. And, coming off two years of a relationship that left me very unhappy, I’m enjoying myself immensely and am so glad our relationship is over. The thing is, in the process, I have decided that what I really want is a happy relationship with him. I’ve dropped all of my baggage — the things I’ve hated about him, the things he did to me, and the things I thought he did to me. And I think we have the tools to make a good relationship possible, and an unprecedented opportunity to make a fresh start.

We just had a discussion, and he said: “Even though we’ve been getting along so well, every advice columnist I’ve ever read has said that people don’t change,” and so he doesn’t believe that things can be different. And since I know he respects your advice very much (when you ran your series on home ownership, he went so far as to say that you were the same person), I wanted to ask an advice columnist: Can people change? I think he’s misconstruing things — I don’t think you can force someone to change, but people are infinitely capable of change on their own.

Our problem was one of letting all of the little things build on one another, so that we were essentially sweating all the small stuff — a poor choice of words could set off a daylong argument. And I think a lot of this was based on the stresses of buying a house that needed a lot of work (and still does) six months into a relationship and being thrown into each other’s finances and lifestyles and everything else so quickly.

What I’m really looking for from you is insight as to whether what I’m doing seems misguided or naive — and do you believe a relationship can be remade?

K

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Dear K,

Your story is a charming one. You met and fell in love, and within six months you’d bought a metaphor. The metaphor, situated in an inner-city neighborhood, had a lot of possibilities but needed work.

Working on the metaphor was difficult emotionally; it would have been easier if it had simply been a house. But, like me, you are an optimist. You believe that metaphors can be improved and brought to market for a significant profit; you believe, as I do, that improving a metaphor improves its surroundings, and everybody, metaphorically speaking, profits from your labor.

Well, you’re in a tough spot now. While working on the metaphor, your relationship was damaged. People in relationships, like old walls, conceal ancient failures and burn spots, places where the circuits blew and almost caused a fire. People, like old houses, reveal their weaknesses reluctantly and sometimes only after a few blows with a sledge hammer. There might be a break that you can’t see somewhere beneath the floor. You can go a long time pretending it’s not really broken, that it’s just sagging a little. You come up with things to say. You say the joists are fine — it’s just an old floor.

But then the inspector comes and rips things up. Look at this! he says. It’s completely gone! There’s nothing holding it up! Lucky we found it in time! It’s amazing you survived!

Your ex-boyfriend says that all advice columnists say that people don’t change. I dare say in this perhaps unintentional distortion he’s attempting to conceal his own personal fracture, that he himself has reached a point of no return, that he himself feels he can no longer change. Perhaps what he can’t say outright is that he’d rather rip it up and build somewhere new, that your relationship is a tear-down. But he can’t say it directly because you still have a lot of work to do together. So he’s talking in the abstract, hoping to avoid a confrontation. Your partnership has been so volatile, he may feel he can’t take any more stress, any more violent shaking. Once you’re done with the house, that might change; he might simply be unable to see past the dust; he might need some finished drawings to help him visualize the future.

So what I would do if I were you, and I say this with all the compassion I can muster, is I would concentrate on getting the actual house on the market. I would work with him as a business partner. I would concentrate on paint, plumbing and plasterboard. If he is going to change in his feelings toward you, he will. But you have no control over what he feels. That is probably the one thing advice columnists do agree on.

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My son is almost 30 and won’t leave home

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, SEP 4, 2007

I know I can’t support him anymore — I need to save for retirement. What do I do?


Dear Cary,

I’m a single mother with a grown son. I love him more than I can say. He’s a good person, a great guy in so many ways — smart, creative, kind to animals, etc. We get along well, have common interests and enjoy each other’s company. The rest of my immediate family is dead, and he is literally all the family I have.

The problem is that he’s turning 30 and shows no signs of wanting to leave home. He did move out and try the roommate route twice, but both times it did not turn out well and he moved back in with me. This wouldn’t be so bad — we do get along and all — but he doesn’t pay half the expenses, or even a quarter. In fact, he doesn’t pay me anything at all. My frequent requests for him to contribute to the rent and utilities often result in his losing his temper and yelling at me that all I care about is money. He spends his salary on himself: clothes, movies, computer accessories, you get the drift. It’s as if he still sees himself as a teenager with an allowance.

It’s true that he doesn’t make enough money to live on his own. We live in Los Angeles, and the cost of living is pretty high. He would have more options if he had a better job, and this keeps almost happening. And then it’s as if he sabotages the situation. Why? When I was his age, I was supporting myself and raising him, all by myself.

I saw a movie called “Failure to Launch” about this very situation. It was a comedy. But this isn’t funny. I keep thinking that this situation could be a lot worse, but it still just grates on me. The fact that he seems to feel it’s all right to sponge off me hurts; it shows a serious lack of love and respect for me. And yet, he does seem to love and respect me. I don’t get it. My retirement is approaching on little cat feet; I should be socking away any extra cash for myself, not using it to support him. I keep seeing my future self, living on Social Security and my small retirement account, and still supporting him. Or even worse, still working because I can’t afford to retire. I can’t stand it.

Where did I go wrong? What can I do? I can’t throw him out on the street; I just can’t. But not leaving the nest and learning to fend for himself in the world aren’t good for him. I know he wants to find the right woman and get married, too, but he rarely dates. Who wants a man who is still sponging off his mother?

Please give me some advice. I honestly don’t know what to do.

Forever Mom

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Dear Forever Mom,

There really is only one thing you can do. You have to kick him out. That is, in more gentle terms, you have to tell him firmly that he has to find another place to live.

It may be difficult emotionally. So take some time to prepare. Preparation is not the same thing as delay. It doesn’t mean putting it off until you feel ready. It means setting a date, making a commitment and then planning fully and well.

I suggest you begin by writing him a letter, explaining the situation much as you have explained it to me. You will want to tell him face to face about your decision. But writing it out will give you a chance to explore the issues; giving him a copy of it will ensure that you are both clear on exactly what the future arrangements will be.

Take a couple of weeks with the letter. Make a couple of drafts. Delete parts where you find yourself overjustifying, or attacking, or bringing up old hurts and slights. Avoid emotional pleas. Just tell him, as you have told me, that you cannot support him any longer, that you have to be socking away your cash for retirement and that you have set a date by which he must move out. Tell him the date. Make it stick.

You must be definite about the date by which he is to leave. You must be clear about the fact that he cannot return even if the roommate situation isn’t to his liking. You have to stick to your guns. His inability to make a roommate situation work in the past is a concern, but it is his concern, not yours. If he has to live with roommates, he will have to find a situation that works.

You are not just kicking him out on the street. If you want to assure yourself that adequate housing is available in your area, consult ads for roommate situations and do the math. Give him the figures if you like. If his income is not going to be sufficient, tell him that he is going to have to find some way to increase his income. If he needs a loan to make it through the first six months, suggest a way that he can get a loan. But do not make him a loan yourself. You must stop supporting him if you are to meet your own financial goals.

Do not forget to review the laws that cover tenants in your area. Even though this is a personal arrangement between you and your son, it is possible that in the eyes of the law you are considered a landlord and may have responsibilities in that regard. I don’t know about that, myself. I suggest you consult with an expert — either a landlord-tenant attorney or a legal aid agency qualified to advise you.

This is a tough situation. There is no reason for you to kid yourself. It could be one of the hardest things you have ever done. And you will miss him. It would be wonderful if he were to find self-sufficiency, form a family of his own and bring you into it, so that you have a place in a new family. That would be great for everyone. But whatever happens, know this: You are doing the right thing.

As you write your letter and think this through, other small details of the arrangement may occur to you. That is good. No detail is too small to consider and agree about. I suggest, for instance, that you explicitly insist that he perform the physical move himself, or enlist moving help on his own. If he needs furniture and you have some pieces you wish to let go of, offer him those specific pieces of furniture. If he needs dishes and cookware and you have some extra, set some aside for him. But make it clear that once he has moved out, what remains in the house is your property, not his. Tell him that he should not just come around whenever he feels like it and remove random objects.

These are small things, but they are important. Making all these conditions is a way of creating your new independent relations. It will be difficult but it will accomplish the necessary thing: Your son has to separate from you. He has to become independent so that later in life, when the conditions of dependency change, he can offer support to you.

Write your letter. Cook him some dinner. Tell him he has to move out. Give him the letter. Tell him you love him.

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A big black hole

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, APR 30, 2003

I get emotionally and sexually involved with people I care about. But I do it too often and too simultaneously.


Dear Cary,

I’m starting to feel like I’ve got a big black hole in my emotional makeup. It’s a feeling that comes from the way I go about relationships and the way I go about sex. Over the past several years, I have seldom been involved in a relationship without a second or, in one instance, third one happening on the side. If this were just cheap meaningless fucking I might actually feel better about it. It’s not. I get emotionally and sexually involved with people I genuinely care about. But I do it too often and too simultaneously.

It’s become a kind of agony. The women I have relationships with are awfully cool people, people I certainly want as friends and companions. In me, that feeling of friendship bleeds over easily into a desire for intimacy. There’s a part of me, too, that gets off on the idea of coupling, of knowing people I care about in more intimate ways. But my feelings don’t seem to go any further. It’s not that I fall in love but still want to get my rocks off. I just don’t fall in love in any way that would cool my urge to get involved with other people. I try to do monogamy (who knows what love really feels like, after all). I go into relationships as if I’m going to be monogamous. Then I’m not.

This is bad. If I were at least upfront about wanting little more than friendship and casual sex that would be one thing, but I still believe I want something more and can’t quite get myself there. Only, along the way, I end up toying with people who I’m theoretically very close to, end up lying to them. On several occasions, I’ve put myself on the straight and narrow, but it never seems to last long. I miss the intimacy with certain people, miss the emotional high, and next thing I know, I’m running roughshod over our quiet, normal lives.

This is my defect, but I don’t know how to fix it. Maybe infidelity is my way of dodging lasting commitments and deep, under-the-skin feelings. Maybe I’m not selective enough about the people I get involved with in the first place, choosing people (or letting myself be chosen by people) with whom I won’t want to maintain a lasting relationship. Maybe, deep down, I’m a lying son-of-a-bitch with a gift for rationalizing.

In other areas of my life, I’m a considerate, caring person, thoughtful of others’ emotions and interested in their happiness. But in this area I’m feeling like a plastic shell, like an emotional cripple trying to pass myself off as normal. Any advice?

Falling Short

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Dear Falling Short,

I have an elegant, if theoretical, solution: Tell the truth. It may be hard      er to begin telling the truth to those you’ve already lied to repeatedly, because that will involve admitting the harm you’ve done. But you can certainly begin telling the truth to those you meet in the future. Just tell them what you’ve told me.

By giving others the opportunity to make an informed choice about whether to become involved with you, it will give you firm ethical ground on which to continue being as you are. There is nothing wrong with being as you are, or feeling as you do. Your only sin is in deceiving others. There is no standard emotional quota you are required to meet; there is no agency that will be testing you on your capacity for monogamous love. That’s the beauty, and the terror, of freedom.

And here is the bonus: The surprising fact is that the very intimacy and attraction you wish you could feel, if it is going to come into being, may very well come into being out of an assiduous practice of honesty. In other words, paradoxically, by admitting your incapacity for this kind of love, you may end up acquiring the capacity for it.

The reason is that when we are honest and build bonds of trust, a kind of attachment comes into being that is not just emotional or physical, but pragmatic and intellectual as well. By being honest about who you are and what you want, you bring your pragmatic intellectual reality closer to the spheres of the erotic and the emotional so that you, as one undivided person, can make choices that take into account all your capacities — ethical, moral, emotional and erotic.

I’m not saying this is a sure-fire method of solving your dilemma. I’m just saying it’s a worthwhile direction in which to head.

And I’m saying this: The conflict you feel, and your practice of dissembling about it, are one and the same. If you stop dissembling about it, it will no longer be your conflict. By being open about who you are, you become someone else’s problem. That person, wanting you to make different choices, may make your life more difficult. But therein lies a noble social struggle: The quest for freedom and authenticity in the capitalist gulag.

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I’m still angry at my father — what happened in my childhood?

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, NOV 1, 2005

I have certain hazy memories that give me the creeps, but I really don’t know the truth.


Dear Cary,

I’ll try to make this short. I’m a 27-year-old man. I’ve blown every good relationship I have ever been in. Sometimes I wonder if my inability to commit comes from my father, who was married three times and is an extremely self-centered person. I idolized him at a young age, but I can say my hatred for him has been growing at least since I turned 13. I should be over it by now. But my father is incredibly needy and lonely and sad; my brother has distanced himself and gotten married, and I’m increasingly left with the burden of this incoherent, drunk and stoned child who can’t even pay his own bills.

At the same time, since I was 14, I’ve had this suspicion in the back of my mind that he sexually abused me. I never talked about this fear to anyone, and I’ve always thought that this was something I probably invented or a convenient excuse to be annoyed when he tried to hug me. I always figured I’m just a cold person who doesn’t like being touched (though it doesn’t bother me when my mom hugs me.) I just figured I hated him so much for so many reasons, that that was why it bothered me for him to hug me. But I can’t get rid of this idea. I took showers with him until I was 8 or 9 years old. Is that weird? But I remember my mom walking in and out of the bathroom. So nothing could have been happening, right? I don’t know why I think this.

I don’t want a reason to feel sorry for myself, I really just want to know whether a person can make up these feelings.

Crazy?

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Dear Crazy?

First of all, you are not making these feelings up. Your feelings are real. On the other hand, they are not facts. They do not prove what happened or did not happen.

Your feelings may be connected to some traumatic event or series of events. Or they may be the result of a pattern of bad parenting that left you anxious, confused and afraid. Whatever the reason, the important thing, it seems to me, is that you have some feelings that are rooted in childhood that you now are being called upon to understand and deal with in adulthood. You are feeling just as powerless and yet full of rage toward your father today as you did as a child.

A competent psychotherapist could be of immense help in working through this. I suggest you contact one.

I don’t mean to discount the importance of knowing whether you were abused by your father, and I don’t think a therapist would, either. Knowing the literal truth about our past can be powerful and transforming. But your quest would not end with that revelation. For what if that truth cannot be known? It is sometimes the case with childhood memories that you will never truly know the literal truth of what happened. Does that mean you are doomed to your current unpleasant state of mind? I don’t think so. Nor do I think that if you did know with certainty exactly what happened that you would therefore suddenly and miraculously be cured of your difficulties.

So how do you deal with these feelings, if the literal truth of what happened might never be known? One way is to fashion a narrative that is true enough for your purposes and then behave according to what you know did happen. You could say, for instance, I am feeling this way because I was raised in a chaotic, uncertain environment where physical and sexual boundaries were not clear and where my own power was marginal or nonexistent.

Does that seem to fit the facts? Having fashioned a narrative like that, you can then make some common-sense observations: For one thing, you are normal. You are feeling the way anyone would feel had they been through what you have been through. For another, you can now make sense of some of the specific feelings you are having.

For instance, perhaps you fear being in a close and powerless position relative to your father; being in such a position, because it repeats a lifelong pattern, may cause you intense anxiety and emotional pain. So being hugged by him, being in a car with him and having to depend on him for things may all bring up those old feelings. It’s also possible that being close to anyone may trigger those same feelings.

As you start observing such things, you may find it useful to define what is going on, to say that you are in the process of forming some adult boundaries; you are paying close attention to how physical proximity and intimacy make you feel; and you are noticing some discomfort in certain situations. In that connection, you can say, Aha, I’m a child of an inappropriate father! So I have to be careful around inappropriate behavior! I have to be careful when I become intimate with someone — because I can be flooded with feelings of vulnerability or fear!

You are not alone in this. There are many, many people in the world today who experience fleeting memories of early experiences that leave them briefly paralyzed or panicked or suffused with sadness. These feelings are real, and their sources are real, though not necessarily in a literal sense. In other words, you felt what you felt as a child. What you felt was real and true. And how you felt as a child affects how you feel today. But though you may feel a murderous rage today, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you were threatened with murder as a child; you might have responded to a cue from the environment in a way, as children do, that was greatly amplified. You were not an adult, who can weigh the relative significance of threats and respond appropriately. So you may have experienced many things as a child that felt dire and life-threatening.

But you are an adult now. So your task, I think, is to remain open to these feelings, not to deny them, but to work to get to know them, to get used to these feelings, to try to understand their language. Your feelings are, after all, not just a distraction; they are also a source of intuitive knowledge about what is actually happening around you. There may be times in your life when people actually are too close, and you are right to feel uncomfortable. As you come to know and understand these patterns of feeling, ideally you will extend your new understanding to other people who have been through similar experiences.

You cannot change what was done in the past. But you can change how you are feeling in the present.

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How do I overcome the inertia?

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Cary’s classic column TUESDAY, MAR 21, 2006

I have so much potential I can’t decide what to do!


Dear Cary,

I’m 23 and panicking.

I’ve been working at a fairly small company in New York for about two years now. Immersed in my studies during my senior year at college, I hadn’t looked very hard for employment and landed this job a few weeks after graduation almost by accident. It has been good for me in some ways; I’ve learned new skills and improved others (both professional and social), and with the luxury of never having to take work home, I’ve been able to spend my limited free time pursuing numerous hobbies and projects. The pay could be better, but I’m living at home with minimal rent and other expenses and the salary is enough that I can afford to feed my book and movie habits and to travel when I can get the time off. However, I’ve long since hit the top of the learning curve here, there’s no opportunity for advancement, the hours are long, the work endless and repetitive with ever-decreasing time to do what I was hired for (writing) — and I’m restless to the point of desperation. I frequently feel burnt out but don’t want to stop what I do outside of work because that’s what really makes me feel alive.

My family, friends and even some co-workers are trying to convince me to quit. I know that’s the right thing to do. If any of them were in my position, I’d tell them in no uncertain terms that it was time to move on. But I can’t seem to do it, despite feeling overqualified and stagnating in my current position, if not decaying. I’ve started filling out grad school applications only to leave them half-finished. I’ve idly looked for jobs online, but the activities I do after hours to keep me sane (writing/presenting papers for conferences, for instance, and running a Web site) are convenient excuses preventing me from conducting an intensive search.

Part of the trouble of being stuck in this job (or seeming to be stuck, or self-defeatingly sticking) is that the number of possibilities once I leave are daunting. Although I’ve considered myself a writer for as long as I can remember and know that I will be writing for the rest of my life no matter what else I end up doing, I’m an intelligent young woman with varied interests and the potential to succeed in just about any field I choose. I was an excellent student (straight A’s, double major, Phi Beta Kappa, the works) with one of those ludicrous laundry lists of extracurricular activities, an itch to stay busy and intellectually stimulated that hasn’t left me (hence the aforementioned projects and hobbies). I can think of a dozen careers and academic disciplines that I might enjoy. So I ask myself: Should I apply to grad school? In what subject? Move somewhere new? Take a new job? What kind? Where? Quit for a set period of time and write? Travel? And so forth. For months I’ve been caught in circular thinking patterns and a paradox of atheistic mortality: I only have one life and want to choose carefully, so I’m putting (too much) thought into the next step — yet it’s only one life, so why am I wasting time at a job that has nothing left to offer me? I am terrified of death and recognize that refusing to move forward is like refusing to accept my mortality, but shouldn’t that very realization somehow enable me to overcome the problem?

It also doesn’t help that I feel under a good deal of pressure to achieve something significant. Like anyone, I want to make a difference, create something I’m proud of (a book, I’ve always assumed), leave a legacy. At school I was part of a community where expectations for our futures were discussed on national or even global scales. Such ambition is pretty new for me, and it’s very stressful to be fueled by this desire to achieve without knowing where to direct it.

Almost everyone I’ve asked for advice has said I should “just choose,” “just take action,” that things will work themselves out, that I’m young and have lots of time, that people go through multiple career changes nowadays and you never know where you’ll end up. One perceptive friend pointed out that I don’t have as many choices as I might like to think, and that by the time I narrow down all these possibilities to realistic opportunities (e.g., getting accepted to particular programs or landing specific job offers), the choice among them will be easy. I know there isn’t one “right” path and that a job or degree doesn’t define me as a person. I just don’t know where or how to start. How do I overcome the inertia?

Paralyzed by Potential

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Dear Paralyzed,

I could give you a to-do list and some deadlines. Would you like that? OK. Sketch out three possible book ideas — one or two paragraphs for each book idea — and send them to me by April 1.

Identify five graduate programs you are interested in and rank them, with explanations. Send that to me by April 15.

Also, on the work front: First, back up your contention that there is no upward mobility at your present company by explaining why that is. Are you sure that your company isn’t going to expand in some way that might accommodate you? Then identify five other jobs you might get. Send that to me by April 30.

There. That should justify your existence to God for six weeks or so. Oh, but you don’t believe in God. Well, I kind of don’t either. It’s complicated, no? But we’ll get to that.

I’m serious, by the way. I mean to see if this works. If it does, I can say to readers, here is something you can do with your own friends: Give each other deadlines. Help each other when you are stuck! This is the action approach — the part of the action approach that is crucial. It is not enough to simply say, do something! One has to find out a way to make something happen.

People who say, “Relax, just pick one, you’ve got plenty of time,” may not remember 23 — may not remember just how important the world is at 23, how limitless is the horizon, how fresh is the air, how ready the mind, how spirited the walk, how eager one is to begin. At 23 I rode the hippie bus from Manhattan to San Francisco and ended up in a falling-down Victorian on Fulton and Baker one floor up from a deadhead with bad teeth named Sunshine.

I thought I had it made.

I note with interest this sentence: “I am terrified of death and recognize that refusing to move forward is like refusing to accept my mortality, but shouldn’t that very realization somehow enable me to overcome the problem?” If you think about it for a minute, you will realize the limited effectiveness of such insight. Recognizing you have a broken leg doesn’t cure it. It’s just the beginning of a process of understanding.

But my guess is it’s not really mortality that terrifies you. At 23, I thought I was terrified by death, but the actual things that terrified me were less impressive: failure, weakness, shame, appearing to be mediocre. I romanticized my fears. What I actually feared was not death, but the risks one takes in living.

It was fear of failure, and fear of being judged. It was fear of being mediocre, of joining the human race and being a worker among workers, of not being special, of turning out to have all the same problems and limitations as everyone else. To avoid facing those things, I avoided doing many things. I chickened out. I walked off the ice (I am still lacing up my skates on the sidelines, slowly watching the action out of the corner of my eye.)

So, using my experience as a guide (even though we are different in many ways), I would try to locate some fears closer to home. These actual fears may be harder to accept, though they sound less powerful: fear of choosing the wrong occupation, fear of not living up to your “potential,” fear of wasting these precious years, fear of not being as happy as you are right now.

I did have one thing at 23: I knew without a doubt that I wanted to be a writer. So, it seems, do you.

So why not just write the book? Wouldn’t that be enough right there?

That brings to mind another danger of believing the whole “You’ve got so much potential” thing: Actual accomplishments are much harder than they look. Not only does the world itself seem to resist our efforts to accomplish even the smallest objectives, but you will resist yourself; right now, theoretically, you could do a million things. But in reality you can’t even quit your job. That’s what I mean. Even easy things are hard to do.

So send me your assignments. And if this works, I will recommend that readers do this with each other. I already know that it works in many settings where one gets stuck. I hope it will work here.

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