My life is a failure

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JAN 27, 2005

Like a man waking up from a coma, I suddenly realize in my 40s: My life is a sad, painful, ugly ordeal!

Dear Cary,

This past year has been pretty painful. I feel that I have lived a failed life. About a year ago it was like I woke up from a long coma and for the first time clearly saw my life for what it has been. I started looking back on what I wanted when I was 14 or 15 and what I thought my life would be, and it was like a jolt from wherever that I had not achieved the things I wanted the most in my life.

Due to a variety of family problems, personal problems, illnesses, stupid mistakes, bad relationships and just plain bad luck that I don’t want to detail here, my life has been a sad, painful, ugly ordeal. Therapy and medication only helped me so much. Most of my problems were in the social and emotional areas. I just didn’t get the development and life experiences that most people get. A painful childhood led to an even more painful adolescence. I had a brief respite when I was around 14 or 15, but I wasn’t able to completely get over the obstacles.

I also wasn’t able to help my younger siblings avoid the same problems and pitfalls I faced. It was a nightmare watching them go through the same things. I had also hoped to have a family of my own, but I was not able to overcome my social problems to do that.

I have done OK in some areas. With some difficulty I was able to go to college, hold jobs, and maintain my own home. I am surviving, and there are things in my life I enjoy, but I also know I will never be completely well and normal and feel whole.

Going back over my life, I have been seeing very clearly how this problem led to that problem, this mistake led to that mistake, etc. I know part of it is probably my age; I am in my 40s, a time when you look back. But am I also going through the grieving process for the things I have lost in life? The pain has been acute. I don’t think therapy will help. You can’t go back 20 or 30 years and change things.

Lost Dreams

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Dear Lost Dreams,

No, I don’t suppose you can go back and change things in the past. But if you are willing to seek a happier life, your analysis of your past behavior could prove a starting point for changing things in the present. Perhaps you can identify ways you might do things differently today. The question is, how, in practical terms, do you accomplish that? How do you apply your insights? How do you translate them into behaviors? What concrete actions can you take to put into effect these insights you have gained? And also, what might stop you? What lies between your insights and their application, between theory and practice? What further, perhaps hidden, personality traits or beliefs might work to stop you from changing your life, in spite of all you now know?

This would be a great time to put down on paper specifically what actions you might take today to change your life. Since you have not provided specifics, I can’t know what those things might be. But one of them might be that, in the very beginning, you will first refuse to rule out anything. That would, I think, include the refusal to rule out further psychotherapy. But it would not be a prescription for it, either.

It would be nice if there were specifics to work with. But at least the refusal to rule anything out leaves you the widest selection of options. Let’s play a little game with that, just to be sure it’s clear what we’re talking about. For instance, if it turns out that you need to run for president in order to have a happier life, will you be willing to do that? What if you have to stop eating asparagus? Meatballs? Tuna? What if it turns out that you need to get up at the same time every day and to exercise three times a week on strength equipment? What if you have to give up coffee? Will it make any difference to you what you need to do? What you need to do might seem surprising; it might not make sense; it might offend your sense of who you are and what you know. I’m suggesting that you be prepared for that.

Your ruling out certain possibilities may be a protective device. But what further is there to protect yourself from? You have already suffered deeply in the failure to become what you desperately want to become. So I would abandon all caveats at this point. I would abandon everything. I would continue walking into whatever crazy flames you’re in. I’m one of those people who believe that deep change comes through difficult surrender, surrender of protection, surrender of the sense of knowing what we’re doing; I believe in shamanistic transformation through trial and madness. It sounds to me as though you have come very close to a painful madness of truth; you have seen the tragic dimensions of your life. Many, many people never get this far. You, in your comprehension of your own failure, have gained a valuable bit of wisdom. To have fully grasped the way our dreams don’t pan out, the way the water always rises around us, to be standing now, in your 40s, waist deep in the flood asking the most fundamental, searing questions about life — you are very close to some kind of transformation anyway. So please do not give up. Please do not foreclose on any option available to you.

While you have taken brave and difficult measures to discover the reasons for your unhappiness, you may also have boxed yourself in by limiting the kinds resources that you believe might get you over the top. When you say, “I don’t think therapy will help,” you may be right; but it also sounds a like a prophetic proclamation without much practical meaning; you may be doing what a lot of us might do in a similar circumstance — to attempt a kind of preemptive walling-off of further emotional or spiritual discovery. Because, of course, the whole thing can be quite painful. If you just mean that you don’t think much pointless psychobabble about the past is likely to help, I would agree. If you should get into therapy and find it’s pointless psychobabble, please have the courage to follow your instincts.

But, having had these difficult insights about your life, and being left with many practical questions about how to put them into practice, you might benefit from some concrete assistance making specific present-day changes in your behavior. You will have to seek the relevant know-how to make those changes. Whether that know-how is in the hands of psychotherapists or economists or general contractors or plumbers or hypnotherapists or Buddhist monks I have no way of knowing. All I know is that most big projects require some kind of help.

So rather than tell you what I think you need to do, I will just plead with you to keep going, to hang in there, to find a way to apply your insights to your current life. Whatever is of use to you, use it. Whatever is of no use to you, let it go. But keep going, keep struggling to understand your life, and don’t rule anything out.

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