Category Archives: Advice

Advice and things about advice

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I want kids, but he doesn’t. What could be simpler?

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, JAN 31, 2005

Should I break it off now and look for a man who wants to raise a family?


Dear Cary,

I’m a 31-year-old smart, cute, funny, perennially happy physician who is in love with a 38-year-old chemistry professor. He is everything I want in a man. He’s warm, kind, caring, handsome, intelligent (some of our most interesting conversations are about quantum physics … grrrrr) and crazy about me. He has never been married and had a happy childhood. We can discuss any topic under the sun — conversation and silences are both filled with pleasant comfort and warmth. He is a liberal, an environmentalist, funny and wise about life and otherwise inexplicable things like taxes and stocks and — oh! — the sex rocks! In all a perfect package, except he does not want kids and I think I do.

We met online five months ago on a dating site as I was going through my divorce. I was not heartbroken about the divorce, as I had an “arranged marriage,” we never fell in love, the ex and I were totally mismatched and it was a relief to get separated. When the chemist and I started dating, it was supposed to be a testing-the-waters type of thing. He was, after all, the first guy I had ever dated. (I’m from a culture that frowns on making out with boys you are not married to.) But he feels right and I’m happier than I’ve ever been.

So, where do I go from here? He likes his quiet time, is a bit of an introvert, likes to hike and travel, and does not think that he can sacrifice all of this for 18 years to raise a child who may or may not turn out to be a fine upstanding citizen. (These are scary times, you know.) He’s got a point there. I like sleeping in on the weekends, not having to worry about nannies, day care, poopy diapers, pediatrician visits, the Family and Medical Leave Act, teenage angst and whatever else is inevitable. But I’ve achieved a lot in life, I’m going to be financially secure, I have a wonderful job I love and a great family (who are overseas), and in two or three years I may yearn for the pitter-patter of tiny feet.

So before I fall deeper in love, should we break up, cut our losses and run, or should we let time decide? Should I let someone who seems to be “the one” go and hope to meet someone else who will be a better “one”? If we took care to arrange for adequate day care, to ensure that he and I went on a “date” once a week without the little one and took vacations just by ourselves to keep the fire kindled, would that give me the best of both worlds? Or is there a chance that I would doom the relationship to failure by making him compromise?

Looking Ahead

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Dear Looking Ahead,

If he doesn’t want kids and you do, then you should break up with him.

There, that was simple, wasn’t it?

So, if it was so simple, where have I been for the last hour? Why have I been thinking about probabilities and branching courses of action?

I got caught up in this notion of “the future.” The future is unknowable. Everybody will tell you that. So why do we spend so much time thinking about it? Knowing we can’t know it, we attempt to know it anyway, and then we start to feel like we can’t know anything at all, not even the present, because who knows, we might turn into chickens, or we might open a soft-drink bottling plant!

“Soft-drink bottling plant?” “Chickens?” Why did such notions enter my mind? Those are images out of rural Florida and Alabama. Those are images out of my childhood. (See the hour-glass bottles of Coca-Cola clinking along the conveyor belt; see the man in overalls pick up a bottle, open it and take a swig; it looked like the best job in the world!)

Why did those particular examples arise? What is going on here? Ah! Now I’m remembering. When I was a kid, we lived in the future. You never knew when something might happen to alter the way things were, so the way things were wasn’t really the way things are, so you couldn’t make any plans. We didn’t open boxes and put things away because we might be moving. We didn’t throw things away because we might need them. You never knew. Anything might happen. Best to leave your options open. Why even leave the house? You might get polio. Then again, you might not. Who could know?

The notion of an unknowable future became a source of paralysis for me later in life. So there I was again just now, the happy writer, trying to live in the moment, sitting at the computer, luckiest guy alive, getting paid to do what I love, and getting all paralyzed and confused about a simple yes-or-no question — because it involved the problem of the future! (Apropos of nothing — except perhaps the humorous synthesizing powers of the unconscious — what came into my mind, actually, was the phrase “software bottling plant.”)

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So how do you make this issue of the future concrete enough to make a decision about it? You stop thinking about wanting kids in the future and think about wanting them right now. You want kids right now. You are practical enough to realize that you can’t attend to them right now, but you want them. Likewise, you can treat his lack of desire for kids as a definite trait. If he wanted kids he would probably have made some by now. He would have gotten married.

So it’s not that mysterious.

Ha ha. Watch out. Everything is that mysterious.

We move from mystery to clarity to mystery. We embody paradoxes and contradictions. We express them in dramatic symbols; we act out the ineffable. He is a chemist. You are a doctor. You enjoy great chemistry together. Quantum physics excites your molecules. You understand how something can be indeterminate, can become its opposite, can change shape, can be unknowable in one way and knowable in another. I suggest that you determine that you want kids and he does not. But I acknowledge that in the act of determining, you may alter what you determine. You are both scientists of life and matter. States of matter can change. Water becomes steam. Water becomes ice. Elements influence one another. When the conditions are right for life, life sometimes appears.

Knowing what you want and what he wants, I think it is appropriate to acknowledge that certain combinations of people create unforeseen reactions. So before you break up with him, have a very frank talk. You may have awakened something in him. He may have awakened something in you.

It’s not so simple after all. Sorry, but that’s life.

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All my traveling makes my husband jealous

 

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, SEP 4, 2008

He seems to believe that when I travel I must be sleeping with my boss.


Dear Cary,

I married my second husband in 2002, just a couple of months after completing chemo treatments for ovarian cancer. We’d been together a year and a half before I was diagnosed. Several times during the time I was being treated, he made the suggestion that we get married and I said no each time.

I was a little anxious after my sixth and final chemo and my oncologist prescribed an antidepressant to take for six months. Everything seemed so much clearer once I was taking the drug and I actually told him that I would indeed marry him.

I stopped working for nearly a year during my illness, but when we met, I was selling software and traveling very much. But, honestly, I have always traveled since I was 14 and I lived more than a decade in the north of Italy. I speak fluent Italian and French, some Spanish and Portuguese.

Initially, he was fine with my travel, but after six months or so, he would just go crazy when I would have to take a business trip (this was where my reluctance to marry him came from). I’m embarrassed to say that once, before leaving on a two-week business trip to South America, I didn’t tell him until I walked out of the door with my suitcases. I found that telling him ahead of time to prepare him only made him bitterly angry for the entire time before I needed to leave — he’d stop speaking to me. It is incredibly stressful.

Cut to six years later. I’ve been working for a fantastic software company for the past four years with very smart people who are at the cutting edge of our industry. I am again selling software but have been promoted and am also leading a team. I’m making a lot of money — almost twice as much as him. Our two salaries give us the ability to do nearly anything we want and save much of what we earn. We have a lovely home that we enjoy retreating to. We have everything anyone could want.

I have really tried to curb the amount of travel I do because I know it distresses him, but there are at least six or seven overnights a year and a few day trips that I must take, otherwise I’m not doing my job properly.

Between the trips, we get along fine. I say fine as opposed to fantastic because, frankly, each time he wigs out because of a business trip, I feel far less willing to give him any sort of benefit of the doubt, or trust. I mean, part of me thinks that anyone so suspicious of business trips has to be totally screwing around while away. Note that while he travels far less for his job, he actually does have to go away, and I suspect he limits his trips because of me, and that this actually causes him some issues. (I love when he goes away; I get the house to myself — I am free for a while!)

I become more immature in my dealings with him when he acts like such an ass — I hate that because I vowed to myself that this would be my last marriage and that I would act in a way that was as mature and loving and supportive as possible.

So, yesterday I got up at 6 a.m., caught an 8:35 a.m. train to New York, arrived at 11:20 a.m. for a noon meeting that lasted about two and a half hours. My boss was with me at this meeting. I invited him to come — it’s an important potential account for us and I felt that it was important that he join me. One of my sisters happened to be visiting NYC with my niece, so immediately following the meeting I caught a cab (sans boss) to meet them to say hello. I told my boss not to worry, to just catch the train home. He said he’d wait and we agreed to meet back at the station to take a slightly earlier train.

There was a ton of traffic yesterday and cabs were few and far between anyway, so I decided to walk to Penn Station and arrived only four minutes before the train left; my boss was waiting there for me. I told him I hadn’t changed my ticket, and neither had he, so we decided to stick with the game plan and take the 5:39 train. Neither of us had eaten anything the entire day. So we sat at the bar at Hooligan’s in Penn Station for an hour, had a drink and a bite to eat. My husband called me while we were eating but I didn’t answer. There was music in the restaurant and I didn’t want the hassle of him asking me where I was (I guess eating and drinking is foreplay — whatever). I called him immediately after we left the restaurant and were about to board the train. He asked me if my boss was taking the same train and I said yes. He said he should have known I was “out drinking” with my boss, implying as usual that I was committing adultery. By the way, the thought has crossed my mind to tell him no, I’m by myself. But for chrissakes, I have nothing to lie about. (Sometimes I’ll ask him to look me in the eyes and tell me he honestly believes I am having an affair — he can’t.)

I have spent three or four days away on business without ever speaking to him — he won’t call. He used to make repeated calls, like 30 calls in a row and when I would answer he’d scream so loud that others would hear, so I don’t trust him enough to answer the phone unless I’m alone. Once he canceled the credit card we both had an account on, so my card was denied. (I immediately got my own account following that episode.) When I do arrive home I am so happy to be there. I have two border collies and I love them; they are so happy to see me. But upon my return, my husband and I will go days and days and days without speaking. Life is too short for silence. And marriage is hard work; you can take baby steps forward and giant leaps back. These periods of silence are the giant leaps back for me.

I have repeated over and over again to him that I have never conducted myself in a way that could even be remotely construed as undignified — and it is the truth. I want to work hard, make money, come home to a supportive companion, be an honest, loving companion, be with my dogs and feel peace.

But this situation leaves me feeling as though I have no peace.

We have not seen a marriage counselor; however, I’ve tried other things, like laying out in advance the trips I know I’ll be taking. It doesn’t help for long, and he reverts to this outlandish behavior.

What do I need to do?

Dispirited, Disgusted, Distraught

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Dear Dispirited,

One possibility is that your husband lives in mortal dread of being deceived by a woman. This dread may derive from experiences in his romantic past as well as from his childhood, and is probably part of a lifetime pattern of relationships in which he does not feel secure. Because this fear is so ingrained, and not actually conscious, he may not be able to see how stifling his behavior is; he may believe he is simply showing concern about your whereabouts as a normal precaution.

If he were to become conscious of this, like a man awakening from some kind of foggy dream, he might be able to say to you, I’m sorry, my love, I have been acting like a crazy man, and this is why: because I live in deep, mortal fear of abandonment and betrayal, and I’m sorry, I’ll try to stop acting like such a crazy man, I’ll try to get a more realistic view.

But until he becomes conscious of what he is doing, he will not be able to shine any light on this for you. Instead, he will keep you a prisoner of his fear.

Another possibility is that he himself is either involved or contemplating becoming involved in an outside affair. If this were the case then we might say he is projecting onto you his fear of discovery and his guilt about his dishonesty; he is seeing you as the untrustworthy party, the one who is deceiving him. He is projecting.

That sounds sort of clichéd but a friend told me a story, a very strange story, of just such an incident. A man she knew suddenly cut off all contact with her and began acting very crazy because he believed his wife was cheating on him. He believed this because he was cheating on her. There was no evidence that she was cheating. It was all because he was cheating and believed, therefore, that she must be cheating also. Very strange but true. He was imagining her to be having the same thoughts and feelings that he was having, and then he responded to her as though these projected thoughts and feelings were hers, not the products of his own guilt-driven imagination.

So such things are possible in our world. You will have to discover what is driving him. Is he simply afraid that you will abandon him, or is he himself being somehow unfaithful?

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But even after you discover, through couples counseling or principled individual struggle with him, what exactly is the basis for his behavior — insisting, that is, that he tell you the unvarnished truth about his life and not relenting until you get what you feel is a complete and satisfactory answer — you have only begun to solve the larger issue.

Because here is what we do in a marriage: We try to protect what we have. We see where things can lead. So we guard ourselves against the weak moment, the seductive situation, the enticing opportunity; we avoid them. Of course we do. We screw ourselves down tight.

But in doing so we risk cutting ourselves off from our very sources of vitality and beauty and pleasure. We turn away from the life force that created us in the first place and which is the only thing that can sustain us.

We try to shut out danger but we shut out life. We shut ourselves off from the source of our energy and beauty. We shut out eros.

We all want to survive. We all want to avoid pain. We all want to avoid situations in which our wives are fucking strange men doggy style in high, luxurious rooms in hotels in faraway cities and not telling us about it until the day they decide to pack a suitcase full of lingerie and perfume, and we sit on the bed watching in a rage of paralysis and incomprehension, flooded with emotions about the packing of the suitcase, baffled by why the suitcase full of lingerie and perfume is being packed right at that moment, baffled about what specifically might be wrong with us physically or psychologically that caused the wife to pack the suitcase full of lingerie and perfume on that particular afternoon when we might otherwise be watching television or eating or watering the lawn.

We all wish to avoid such moments. So we seek safety and routine.

But in seeking safety and routine we court death. In seeking safety we cut ourselves off from the wealth and abundance of life forces that created us in the first place and that will sustain us only if we expose ourselves to them. We cut ourselves off from temptation and we cut ourselves off from life. We bloom a suicidal purity. We blossom dead flowers. We kill ourselves to keep ourselves safe. Such murder flows from deep distrust. It is not just distrust of you. It is broader. It is a distrust of the enterprise of living. It is a wrong relationship to the world. It is a relationship to the world premised on illusory control. We forget that we are not our own creators. We forget that our blood is a gift, that our brain is a gift, that our water and sweat and semen and tears and arm hairs and tongue, teeth, gums, jawbone, epiglottis, eustachian tubes, nose and throat and eyes, our spit and our urine and our shit, our hipbones and toenails and kneecaps, that all of us is a gift, that we have a source in the world, that cut off from that source we die. We forget this. We have to be reminded now and then. So we go out into the desert and somehow we are reminded.

My trip to Burning Man has reminded me that it is good to go outside our situation to see our situation. This is the beauty of it: Put people together in the desert without social rules and restrictions and what do they do? They make things and help each other. This human goodness, this desire to make things and help each other, if given a time and place, seems to arise spontaneously.

How easily we can become accustomed to thinking of our relationships, our philosophical posture and our behavior as things that we control and so must constantly work on! And of course this is not a bad thing to do, to ceaselessly struggle to find a right way to live and a right way to behave. But in the struggle we can forget about the source of all that we are. We can forget that underneath our effort and our conflict there is a bubbling spring of goodness, creativity, love, light, desire to help, kindness, wit, humor, warmth, togetherness, grand vision and fine craft, deep humanity, which requires only that we partake of it, only that we give it a little space to bloom. We forget that we are not in charge of these human qualities but that we are the recipients of them. We forget that we have to reach outside our sphere of domestic arrangements to something mystical and beyond us.

You faced death and you endured illness. In this you perhaps came in contact with this force outside us; you felt it; you felt the life force bubbling up through you of its own accord: the life, the priceless force.

So I sense that the solution to your conflict lies not just in solving the immediate conflict about your travel but in the two of you finding new sources of life and vitality that can flow into the marriage and make it richer and fuller. You already have such sources — in your work and your travel. These things give you energy and inspiration. He must find such things as well. And he must find out what has happened in his past to make him so afraid. Each of you has to find strength enough to endure the other’s absence, or the marriage bed will be a prison cell, stifling and dead.

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It’s a beautiful day and I’m happy to be alive

Dear Reader,

Today is Wednesday. Wednesday is advice-column-writing day. Usually I write a column by answering a letter from someone looking for advice.

Today is a little different.

I have a friend who is dying. He hasn’t asked me for advice and I haven’t offered any. But all I can think about is how this friend of mine is dying.

I could try to answer a letter on another topic. But it’s hard to keep my mind on other things. That’s what happens when a friend is dying.

The sky is blue. Life is beautiful. A friend of mine is dying.

It makes me think: How marvelous it is to be alive, to walk down the street breathing air, to see all the colors around us, to hear music!

It makes me realize something else, too. I have offered advice to people on how to deal with the deaths of others, but no one has ever written to me saying, in effect:

Dear Cary,

I’m dying. What to do?

Signed,

Dying Too Soon

How could I possibly reply to such a letter? I could suggest that one accept the fact of death, etc., etc. But I try to offer practical solutions, and not pat answers like, Yawn, Death is a natural part of life, etc., etc.

So, not meaning to be flip, I might write back saying something like this:

Dear Dying Too Soon,

If you are dying and are unhappy about that and want to change it, the first thing you need to do is travel back in time. Once you have traveled far enough back in time that your dying does not seem so immediate a problem, just begin living your life as you were before.

If, however, there is no affordable time-travel service in your area, then simply find the disease or diseases that are killing you and cure them. After that, you should be fine.

That does sound flip, doesn’t it? I’m trying to make a point. You get the point, right? I don’t have to spell it out? Because you’re smart and you know what I’m getting at, right?

I know a little bit about dying. When I was diagnosed with cancer a little over five years ago, I got ready to die. Then I didn’t die. But I got ready. I’m still ready.

What I’m not ready to do is undergo treatment again. There were times  undergoing treatment when I wanted to die. I can see how, having been sick a long time, a person might long for death with the same fervor with which he once longed for life.

If it weren’t for the problem of timing, though, nobody would feel like they’re losing out. We wouldn’t be missing you, and you wouldn’t be seeing us out here smiling and playing badminton while you’re slipping into the great unconsciousness.

Anyway, my dear friend, it looks as though you are going before the rest of us. That is not surprising. You were the first to do a lot of things. You were the first with a motorcycle, which you promptly wrecked, and broke your leg. You were the first to build a van so we could all pile in and travel the country barefoot and long-haired. You were the first to go to Europe when we all wanted to go. You were the first to kiss certain people we all wanted to kiss. You ended up with the best motorcycle and the fastest car and the biggest house. You were the tallest and the best looking and we were all proud to call you a friend. You were always a little ahead of the rest of us and we didn’t mind that. It seemed only proper. You’re ahead of us again.

Figures.

Go in peace, my friend. We’ll be right there behind you.

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My thoughts of the past are tormented by the present!

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, MAY 16, 2005

I’m finally ready to deal with a long-lost love, but a recent breakup seems to be all I can think about.


Dear Cary,

I recently went through a breakup of a very short affair. Three months after it began it was completely over, by her choice.
I went into this believing it might have a long lifespan. Mostly I was drawn to her because being with her reminded me of the life I’d previously led, a life with a wonderful soul mate who died many years ago.

This fling woman (she is newly out as a lesbian, and I was her first physical relationship with a woman) behaved badly while breaking up with me. I’m not faulting her for that. My problem is that the grief that has surfaced with this breakup is clearly tied to the lingering grief of losing my first and only love, long-ago soul mate, a man who died of AIDS. When I try to bring up how that original loss feels, so that I can deal with old feelings of losing a boy who A) was in my life for 18 formative years, B) I lost to a devastating battle with AIDS, and C) whose death has colored my entire life, I find only this fling woman comes to mind.

How do I reach past this buzzing annoyance and get to the harder, still half-buried, deeper grief? Why am I allowing myself to dwell on a short-lived mismatch? Is the harder stuff so painful I can’t bear to look it in the eye? Can anything so old (two decades now) be so strong that I need to avoid it with this distraction, even when I’m actively trying to access it?

I’m ready at this late date to deal with this first grief, yet my mind will only come up with these sloppy seconds.

Tormented by the Present

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Dear Tormented,

Whereas usually it’s the past intruding upon the present that troubles us, in your case it’s the present intruding upon the past. In fact, you are troubled by the fact that the past won’t trouble you enough. You finally feel ready to deal with the past, but it doesn’t want to deal with you. So let’s talk a little about what you are trying to accomplish. What is it about that old loss? Why are you trying to get to that “harder, still half-buried, deeper grief”? I would suspect that if you are not actively troubled by painful memories today, and if it is difficult to vividly recall the poignancy of the loss, then perhaps you have indeed dealt with it, in the sense that it has mercifully receded from consciousness over time, as it should. Your preoccupation with this more recent event may be quite natural.

So what is it really that troubles you so? Perhaps being over that grief is itself a kind of disappointment; perhaps you long to feel full-force that grief once again, because the grief itself is a luxuriant, intoxicating sensation.

Which leads me to ask, at the risk of being presumptuous, if perhaps you aren’t hungry for an annihilating intensity of grief, grief as a drug, old grief, in fact, used to push aside your current feelings. In which case it would be your current feelings that are actually pushing to the surface for good reason — because your mind is telling you that in spite of what you might wish, these are important feelings, that in spite of its brevity, for whatever reason, such are the mysteries of physical love, this affair affected you deeply.

For instance, you mention that she did not behave well but you claim that doesn’t matter to you. You also mention that you thought this affair might really turn into something, but it didn’t. My guess is that what you’re feeling is anger and disappointment over this recent affair. My guess is that you cared for her more than you let on, and that her rejection of you hurt more than you care to admit. So why not permit yourself the leeway to feel these things more deeply? You may need to grieve this relationship with the same intensity that you grieved the other one; that it was short and intellectually inconsequential may make scant difference to the heart.

If you also wish to pursue the neurological phenomenon, to study how the brain prioritizes memories, that might prove fruitful. I have read that scientists are making great strides in understanding the mechanics of memory; those mechanics may have a lot to do with how we end up feeling happy or sad. I myself don’t understand much of that. But it can’t hurt to look into recent discoveries by neurologists. Just don’t neglect the fact that, for whatever reason, you were apparently affected quite strongly by this recent affair. If you honor that, you may be rewarded with a new appreciation of your capacity for love.

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People think I’m fine but I’m not

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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, OCT 14, 2011

I may seem like I’m OK, but I’m hiding in my dorm room crying


Dear Cary,

I have been wanting to write to you for a while, but I always put it off because I think I can fix it myself or that the feeling will pass. As time wears on, I no longer believe that I can.

I am soon to graduate from a big, expensive university with a middling GPA. As I slog my way through this semester, I find myself feeling ever more hopeless and withdrawn. Upon arriving on campus freshman year, I promptly had a complete nervous breakdown. I was a thousand miles away from home, surrounded by all these golden children of Westchester and Greenwich, and I couldn’t handle it. I begged my parents to withdraw me from school, but they couldn’t comprehend why I would react in such a way. I stuck it out through freshman, sophomore and junior year at the same school. I was miserable each and every single day the entire time.

I have hardly made any friends during my time here (and I imagine that I must be the only person at this entire university with such an accomplishment). I never have any weekend plans and I stay in my dorm room most of the time. I don’t have such great grades, and particularly this semester, I find it increasingly hard to even make it to class or hand in assignments.

Why didn’t I transfer? It’s hard to say. I have this knack for appearing exceptionally functional. I can act peppy and upbeat all day long, but I will absolutely collapse in my bed sobbing every night. I imagine that the only event that can possibly remove me from this blanket of anxiety and fear would be total unconsciousness. A while back, I saw a therapist at my university for a few sessions. I couldn’t articulate any of my feelings to her. All that happened was that she commended me for being a “mature young woman.” That’s what I must seem like on the outside, I guess.

I’m submitting my résumé to various jobs now, and my application often gets denied with nary a first-round interview offer. I imagine how things will be post-graduation. I have no great hopes of being a high-powered executive or a successful writer. I have no dreams about white picket fences, 2.5 children and a loving husband. I desire absolutely nothing, except to live comfortably without anxiety.

While I don’t want to hurt myself, I find it just so difficult to make it through each day. I feel positively alone and exposed. I just don’t know what to do with myself except lie in my bed, browsing the Internet for hours upon hours until I fall asleep. While I know that if I just continue to eat, sleep and breath, this semester will be over and I will finally graduate, I worry that the future will only hold much of the same. I don’t remember ever feeling truly “happy” outside of fleeting moments of fun and laughter. How can I stop being so alone and miserable?

A Pretender

SoldOut_Jun13-22_2015Dear Pretender,

I would say the best way to stop being so alone and miserable is to begin an unflinching and courageous study of yourself. Through this you will learn what is happening to make you feel and behave the way you do and how to change.

It’s as simple, and as difficult, as that. Its results can be instantaneous and also can take a lifetime. It is the true calling of humankind: to know ourselves.

It is unfortunate that universities do not concentrate on this essential task as much as they might; many universities are little more than vocational training grounds for the elite vocations of leisure and power. They are not the sanctuaries for personal growth and learning that they might be in a more enlightened society. It sounds as though you have gone to such a university and it has been pretty much nonstop torture.

It is time for the torture to end. It is time for you to begin your true course of learning.

I can make some guesses, but I am just a guy who set out to be a writer and ended up answering people’s letters for a living. I’m not trained in clinical psychology or philosophy.

Still, I can notice a few things. To me, it sounds like you have a lot of anxiety.

So, the short answer would be, to accelerate your study of yourself, that you begin learning as much as you can about this thing called anxiety: what it comes from, how it is treated, what steps you can take to lessen its impact on your life. Not all therapists are equally skilled. The one you consulted apparently did not identify your problem. No doubt you are skilled in masking your problems, but the job of a good therapist is to gently, skillfully, firmly, with compassion, help us take off the mask. Many therapists  would more or less instantly grasp your situation and guide you through this difficult time.

You can help, of course, by learning about your condition.

This does not have to be a sad and frightening time. It is a time for discovery. You have nothing to fear. Once you begin to grasp your true nature, you will find an abundance of joy and pleasure in life. You are not far from the prize. You are just beginning.

I am not going to try to tell you very much. I am just trying to give you a gentle shove in the right direction. But I can tell you this, which may give you some hope: I have learned some techniques for dealing with anxiety. You can learn those techniques, too. I did get counseling and therapy, and you can get that as well.

One of the most important things I learned about anxiety was something a therapist said to me more-or-less offhandedly. He said, Well, you know, anxiety is often a method of warding off feelings. I thought, wow, that’s odd. I had never thought of anxiety as an active strategy, a creative act. But when I saw myself using anxiety to ward off feelings, I found I could direct my attention to the world, and what was going on, and to what feelings those might be that I was warding off, and I could see that my head would not explode if I just let those feelings come, and that things were basically OK minute to minute in spite of whatever feelings were washing over me.

Here is an interesting page to look at. I was searching for “therapeutic methods for dealing with anxiety” and I found this page. Its heading says, “Coping Skills for Trauma,” but it’s a really rich page full of suggestions for people who may be having anxiety and would like to get back into the present moment. What a wonderful set of suggestions!

In fact, I just did one of the exercises suggested on that website, and it was pretty calming. I looked around the room and saw an abstract expressionist painting by Judith Lindbloom, framed by my sister Melinda in her shop in Lynchburg, Va.; a table lamp bought at Target; a box of thumbtacks used to post fliers on billboards; a pair of reading glasses bought at Walgreen’s; a pass to the Litquake after-party. Those are five things just sitting here within easy view. Looking at them reminded me of my connection to the world, to my sister and my friend Judith, to our enterprise of doing workshops and posting fliers about them; to our shopping trips to Target; to my eyesight; to my participation in Litquake. It quickly grounded me. It brought me back into my life, the life that I’m living — the only life I’m living.

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So these techniques can quickly bring us back into the life we are actually living. And when you think about it, it’s amazing how little attention we may be paying to the life we are actually living. And it’s often surprising how rich our lives are, when we stop to inventory what is in our lives. Your life, I feel sure, is very rich, too. Your problem is that you cannot experience it because you are warding it off. But this can change.

So, let’s just be honest. I’m a champion at warding off feelings. It may be because as a kid I was the kid who always was having too many of them — too many feelings about too many things; and feelings that were not simple, either, but required explanation and analysis, or simply needed to be said. That wasn’t working too well in my family, I found at an early age. Being the kid with feelings was not really the way to go. So I don’t know exactly what I did, because I wasn’t there. Or I can’t be there now. I can’t remember exactly what I did, what I decided to do. But I do know I learned to act quite analytical about my feelings, as though they belonged to someone else. And I learned not to say what I was feeling but to say something else — that the president is a numbskull or that certain chemicals are fascinating, that there will be a full moon tonight or Did you know…

You get what I’m saying? And I connect these two things: I connect learning at an early age that direct communication about my feelings was not welcome or appreciated, and also that by side-stepping that, and stating factoids, or stating opinions about politics, or the weather, I could avoid the scorn, derision or sheer incomprehension that would appear on the faces of the people around me.

Meanwhile I was bursting inside! Meanwhile I had all these secret longings and fears! Meanwhile I lived an inner life of strange abundance and richness. Meanwhile I was the kid wandering around wondering about God, about plants, about the sun, about evolution, about raindrops and fusion energy and girls. In a nutshell, I guess … I was full of feelings and that made it hard. So anxiety became a way of of freezing the moment and directing attention away from the flow of feeling.

So now it has become important to find ways to get back in the flow of feeling even when those around me are not receptive. So I have a rich inner life and I am often consumed with my own thoughts and feelings. Anxiety is just one way of responding to the flow of consciousness and feeling.

So that is just a little bit about anxiety. For you, what I can say is that if you begin a study of your own nature and history, and find what characteristics you have, and then find a therapist or psychologist who can become your partner in helping you understand your own nature and your own history, and you continue this study on your own, unflinchingly, courageously, then you are well on your way to becoming a happy and fulfilled person. It isn’t easy or magical, but it is the way to a meaningful and happy human life.

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I’m a college student with no natural social skills

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, APR 3, 2008

I’m 21, female, and I don’t know how to talk to people!


Dear Cary,

I’ve recently come to the realization that I have no natural social skills. This is not really much of a surprise, considering I spent most of my childhood wondering if my classmates were, like me, sentient beings. While these days I can usually understand why people are doing what they’re doing, I still have a lot of trouble communicating, especially if there’s more than one other person involved in the conversation. Knowing what to say and when to say it is somehow really hard for me, so I frequently avoid situations where I have to talk to people. Since I’m female, and girls are supposed to be good at all that stuff, it just makes me that much more awkward.

I’m in my second year at a not very socially cohesive university (read: not typically American, students “seen and not heard”), and while I could never give up my program, or my life in this city, I sometimes feel really isolated, and this bothers me. I live with two lovely roommates, who are good friends, but one is moving out soon, and the other one, like my family, has her own “issues” to contend with, for lack of a better word. I’ve joined a school club and met some people there, but it’s only helped a little.

I’m also worried that my lack of social skills is preventing me from really growing up. Although I’m working now, finding jobs has been a problem, at least partly because I’m really not good at interviews. Also, I would someday like to think about dating — a euphemism, since I don’t think people my age really go on dates. The first and last time someone asked me out (to watch a movie in his dorm room), I wound up, for some reason, declining and telling him all about my German class, because I erroneously believed that he was very interested in studying German. Naturally, we didn’t get very far, and it was well after the fact that I realized his real intentions.

Now, at this point in my life, I really want (and possibly need) some practical advice, nothing about “meeting the right person” or “coming out of my shell,” or … you get the idea. I’m 20 years old and I’ve been this way my whole life, almost regardless of external circumstances, and I know I’m not likely to change radically any time soon. I’m just afraid that my life is going to be diminished by something I intuitively feel is not really under my control.

Some Weird College Kid

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Dear Weird College Kid,

I appreciate your taking the time to write.

The most practical advice I can give you is to learn all you can about the psychological phenomena of introversion and extroversion.

You’re not weird at all. Most likely you are strongly introverted. Many famous, brilliant and successful people are strongly introverted. It poses challenges, but it also gives you special powers. Your role in life, should you choose to accept it, is to learn to use those powers for the good of mankind!

That’s how I see it, and the sooner you find out about this the better off you will be.

Since Jonathan Rauch published his now-famous Atlantic essay “Caring for Your Introvert,” thousands of people who formerly considered themselves just weird and geeky have discovered that they are in fact introverts. Read the ongoing discussion about introversion and Asperger syndrome. Steve Silberman’s Wired article about the connection between Silicon Valley geeks behavior and Asperger syndrome is also quite interesting. My decidedly unprofessional view is that extreme introversion and Asperger syndrome exist along a continuum — at the edges of which they share certain characteristics. I am by test a highly extroverted male, but under stress I tend to act a little like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man.” So don’t be scared or start thinking you have a disease. We’re all a little fuzzy on the edges.

The discussion the Jonathan Rauch article generated shows that you are not alone; your personality type is familiar to many; it is predictable and manageable. You aren’t crazy. There’s nothing wrong with you.

To say there isn’t anything wrong with you is not the same as saying you don’t need help. We all need help. That’s what education is. It’s help. So you have to educate yourself.

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It’s not true that introverts do not like to socialize in groups. They do, in small doses. But the activity drains them of energy. “Jonathan Rauch’s article highlighted the most important phenomenon associated with introverts,” writes a commenter at the discussion mentioned above. “It is not that they cannot socialize in groups, it is just that it exhausts them to their core to do so. This is why they are so misunderstood, and, usually, grumpy. People meeting my husband in a social setting at first do not realize he is such an introvert — he can be witty, extremely bright and engaging in short bursts. However, we have never, ever, in eleven years of dating and two years of marriage, attended a party or event in which he did not want to leave before I was ready to go. He just cannot sustain that level of interaction for more than a couple hours, even then needing several breaks to recharge.”

If this sounds a little like you, take heart. It is normal for an introvert.

As to the challenge of being an introverted woman: “On ‘is it harder for a woman to be introverted,’ I suspect yes,” writes another correspondent in the Rauch discussion mentioned above. “Women are expected to be warm, nurturing, ‘people’ persons, willing to talk and listen to others for hours. As a female in management, I have been criticized for not being like this at work. As Mr. Rauch said, one becomes very good at putting on the social act, but it takes energy. I need hours and hours alone to recover.”

The key is to learn to take care of yourself.

I would like to focus just a little bit on one sentence you wrote: “I’m also worried that my lack of social skills is preventing me from really growing up.” The American bias toward extroversion as a sign of maturity is a dangerous but little-discussed political phenomenon.

Let us consider how dangerous this bias is. It requires that the introvert abandon her particular genius in order to join the crowd. Consider the extroverted leader who values loyalty above clear thinking; consider the dangers we are led into by a coarse, unsubtle extrovert who distrusts the loner, the doubter, the thinker. Consider recent history. Consider the appalling behavior of Congress leading up to the Iraq war. Notice how our political system rewards extroversion and punishes introversion. If there were more introverts in Congress, unconcerned with how their fellows vote, might we see this country on a more balanced and thoughtful course?

But that is a larger, more long-term question. For now, we ask: What can you do to get through your college career and find productive work and a happy life? You can forge ties with other introverts. You can begin learning all you can about the joys and pitfalls of being an introvert. You can use the Internet. One of the best tools for understanding the interaction of various personality traits is the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator, based on psychologist Carl Jung’s theories about personality type. Just for fun, you might consider taking this short test, and see if what it says makes sense to you.

Life is harder in certain respects for deeply introverted people but it is not a disease or malady; it is simply a way of being.

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I’m still grieving over my childhood home

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Dear Cary,

It’s been over a year since I moved from my childhood home. It’s been sold–the only home I knew for 20 years.

Before I left, I read your advice column on letting go of your childhood home. It helped, and I did sit on my porch, and I wrote a letter and placed in a box and buried it under my old swing set.

The excitement of moving into the city has surely passed and every few months I find myself taking a drive out to see my old home. I just can’t seem to wrap my mind around the idea that it’s not really my family’s anymore. Every time I drive by and see the gate shut,  the thought that some other strange family lives in there saddens and confuses me terribly. The fact that I can’t drive in and run up my stairs into my bedroom anymore haunts me. I thought that by now I’d hardly think of my home and be over it and have moved on, but I still miss it so much. I just don’t know how to officially move past this grieving process and truly let it go.

Missing My Home

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Dear Missing My Home,

The last line of that column you mention was, “And then let it go.” I think that’s the part you’re stuck on now. In that column from August of 2010 (only 8 months after my cancer surgery, which means my brain was still a little scrambled) I invented some clever rituals, and that was nice and poetic. But I also meant to say that there is a moment at the end where one truly lets go of the house. Continuing to drive by it and think about it is not letting it go. Every time you drive by you bring to mind all those feelings and make them fresh and new and vivid. It’s time to stop driving by it every few months.

But driving by it is a bittersweet pleasure, too, isn’t it? So it’s not easy to stop doing that. It means accepting the absence.

I wish I could fix this but I can’t. All I can do is say Yes, I know how gut-wrenching it can be. I know how thoughts of what has been lost can obliterate everything else. All I can do is seek peace within myself, and that means searching for ways to stop obsessing about things that I have lost. How I do that is by reading poetry and sitting still. How I do that is by asking other people, How do you do it? How do you get through a day? How do you live with loss? How do you not break down and fall to your knees? How, when you are filled with grief and rage, do you resist the impulse to do something rash and stupid and destructive but very satisfying and attractive?

I keep asking and I keep getting answers from poets, from therapists, from addicts, from novelists, from my wife, from people who write to me. And the one lesson that stands out is this: The task of being fully human is our major task. It is more important than earning money and maintaining a reputation and giving proper greetings and being on time and polite and staying in our lane when we drive and waving to neighbors and thanking cashiers.

FranceAd2015Our major task is the simple task of being fully human. That means accepting that in this moment, right here, right now, we are not the suffering and the anguish, we are not the loss of a house, we are not the memories of family, we are not the unfortunate real estate transactions and lost investments and bungled business ideas and erratic moves that characterize our lives. We are just specks of light illuminating a small section of darkness. We are just points of awareness in a vast and majestic universe.

If I can hold that thought even for a second or two I can be OK. I am not my pajamas. I am not my trench coat. I am not my hands or my computer or my losses or wishes or the airplane flying overhead or my feelings or my former drunkenness or my rage at not getting what I think I deserve, or my sadness at the things my father wanted and never got, or the tragically shortened lives of my dogs, or my vast need for recognition and acknowledgment. If I can know for just an instant that I am not any of that, that I am not my sadness at the loss of a family home or my worries about how my family will live in the future or my anticipated grief at the coming death of a dear friend, then I can get up and keep living, and I can make my appointments and I can comfort my wife and I can see my friend for lunch and I can keep working on the novel and I can even ignore the maddening thunk of a child practicing a barely-in-tune piano next door.

And that — especially the last part — is a miracle.

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Can we flee my husband’s family?

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, SEP 3, 2009

They’ll drive us crazy if we stay. We want to move to Colorado!


Dear Cary,

This is hardly a new topic, but here goes.

My husband and I have been married about a year and a half. We met, instantly fell in love and got married a short time later. We are in our mid-30s and know ourselves well, so there was no reason to wait. And we are crazy happy with each other. Unfortunately, this whirlwind courtship and wedding situation didn’t give me as much time in retrospect as I could have used with his family. Not that I would have ditched my honey, but I probably wouldn’t be living where we are now, which is the crux of the problem. Here’s the cast:

His mother: where fun goes to die. Literally. My husband’s father, whom he dearly loved, killed himself about 15 years ago rather than continue being married to her, although only my husband knows this and she wouldn’t believe it anyway. She is the typical old Catholic, martyr, misery-loves-company type. Refuses to say anything positive to my husband. Couldn’t congratulate him on our wedding day, much less contribute a dime toward it and she is very, very comfortable financially. I am polite to her, but I don’t see us getting particularly chummy when every time I see her, she unloads about something my husband did 20 years ago. She’s 70 years old and no, she’s not mentally ill — she’s just a bitch. When I lost my job about a year ago and our fridge died in the summer, we asked for help. Her answer? “Well, you’ll just have to wait for a sale and get it yourself!”

His brother: AKA Golden Boy. Which I find ironic since he has done nothing of note in his entire life except get married in the Catholic Church and pop out a couple of kids, so he gets the lifetime free pass for whatever bullshit he wants to pull. He’s lazy, uneducated, a freeloader, thief, cheats on his wife, and everything out of his mouth is a lie. His best skill is probably getting his mother to pay for whatever he wants by pointing at the kids and saying, “I really need ____, but it’s so expensive with the kids …” Total con man and he plays his mother like a fiddle. He just stole my husband’s golf clubs out of our garage and I can’t wait for how his mother justifies it so it’s my husband’s fault.

His maiden aunt: She owns the house we rent. She’s pretty nice although she believes family comes before all else, meaning we should dismiss every stupid thing the brother does because “That’s just the way he is!” She’s 75.

So we all live about two blocks apart. We moved into this house because it was sort of a wedding present from the aunt, the rent was affordable, and we were planning on having kids. Not a good idea in the 450-square-foot apartment we were already sharing with two cats in the city. Now, after a year and a half, we are ready to bolt. Except that we can’t just yet — any apartment we can find is even more per month. So we are saving our money and plan to move to Colorado in a couple of years. Great, right?

Except that MIL and aunt are expecting us to hang around and take care of them in their old age like they did with their mother. MIL can kiss my ass and we have no problem leaving her to Golden Boy — he more than owes it to her. But the aunt … she’s kinda nice and we don’t know how to handle that. She HAS given us a place to live and all. Should we be preparing her for this ahead of time (which will undoubtedly lead to endlessly complaining about how we don’t appreciate family and more of the MIL’s bitching) or just keep it all quiet and tell them after we’ve bought the house and the moving truck is packed? The grandmother died at 95 and there’s no way in hell I’m staying here 20 years in this situation. And I know this sounds really petty, but let’s be honest — the aunt and MIL make it very clear that my husband and I just don’t “count” as much as Golden Boy because he has kids, so you know where the inheritance is going.

So do we prep them or gleefully skip out?

Desert Gal

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Dear Desert Gal,

I hear something in your voice. I hear a self-assured quality that seems at odds with what you are actually asking, or saying. You are saying that you have married into a family that you find intolerable. It is not something you can gleefully skip out on, even if you go to the moon. Nor can these characters be neatly labeled and placed in boxes. You can divorce your husband if you want out of the situation. But otherwise, you’re in. This is the family you married into.

So here is what I first suggest. Take the long view. And try the high road.

Your mother-in-law may be a truly impossible individual. But try the high road. Go to her and say that you love her son very much, that you recognize that you may not live up to her ideal of a daughter-in-law, that you would like to be accepted as a part of the family, but that your dreams for such a life are taking you to Colorado. Tell her that you recognize that she and the aunt (her sister?) will need some help in the years to come, and ask her if there is a plan in place, and what her hopes and expectations are for your role in that plan. Tell her that if she hasn’t thought it through yet, that you hope she will. Offer to help her come up with a plan if she does not have one.

Give it a shot. Like many people, she and her sister might prefer not to think about the future and plan for it but just wait until it happens and then hope their families take care of them, and make life holy hell for everyone just on general principle. But you have a chance, now, to put everything on the table and see what happens. You have a chance, now, to start the conversation. You can offer to help by creating a plan. And you can make it nonnegotiable that you and your husband are moving to Colorado.

I also hear something else that I think is significant: Your husband’s father killed himself when your husband was a teenager or young man. It is understandable that because of the enormity of this event one might wish to reduce it to ironic dimensions: that he killed himself, literally, to get away from his wife. But suicide reverberates through a family in many ways no matter what explanation we give it. Each person in this family was without a doubt affected by his suicide in ways that they may not understand and probably cannot or will not communicate. It is there, that suicide, in your husband’s psyche and in the dynamics of the family.

You say you and he know yourselves well, so there was no reason to wait to get married. But if you truly knew yourselves well, you would have known that, perhaps because of the pain and chaos of your early lives, you tend to make impulsive decisions. Knowing that you tend to make impulsive decisions, you might have waited. But you plunged yourselves into a situation from which you now wish to escape. So you want to escape to Colorado. That may be yet another impulsive move. So if you truly want to know yourselves well, you should know this: that you tend to make big decisions on impulse.

It sounds like I am scolding you, doesn’t it? I apologize. I have no place to scold. I have no right. Let me try to get at what truly bothers me. My guess is that your husband was deeply affected by his father’s suicide, and that it is present in your relationship today in ways you are not aware of. And I sense that this unresolved pain is pushing you to vacate the premises. But it will go with you. Unless you and he examine how his father’s suicide has affected him, and how his current family relationships are affecting both of you, my guess is that no matter what you do, eventually you will experience emotional upheavals that seem to come out of the blue, and you will not know how to deal with them.

I feel this in your tone: You want a quick solution. And yet your actual situation calls for exactly the opposite.

I’m not saying don’t move to Colorado. By all means move to Colorado. Get out of there. But no matter where you go, you will be blindsided by events in the evolving family drama unless you begin working now to understand how that dynamic operates.

How about this: You have the conversation with your mother-in-law, the two of you move to Colorado as planned, but then you promise me to embark on a course of self-exploration so you can bring to consciousness the ways that his father’s suicide is operating today in your relationship.

Here is a very quick gloss on that. You say that your husband shared a secret with you, which is that his father killed himself to get away from his wife. If your husband is relying on such a story to cover over the enormous feelings he must even to this day be experiencing as a result of that suicide, then he has some work to do. It will be painful but liberating work. It will involve facing the loss of his father. It will involve facing his own guilt about the ways he might have prevented that suicide if only he were a better son, if only he had loved his father more, etc.

If he clings to this story that his mother is to blame for his father’s suicide, then in the years to come when his mother truly needs his help, it will be hard for him to play the role of loving caregiver and son, of protector and provider. Unless he takes some action to reconcile, he may also feel constant guilt for having, in a sense, abandoned his mother after his father’s suicide.

This sounds fine on paper. It is easy to say but hard to get. You have to get it.

For instance, a few months back I was driving the truck along Lincoln Boulevard by Golden Gate Park in the fog, bellyaching to myself as usual, when something “became real” for me. I felt in my chest something that I had perhaps known intellectually for some time: That my frail, demented 85-year-old father was never going to get up out of his bed and give me the warm, encouraging pat on the shoulder or the wise, clear, practical advice that I for so many years resented him for not giving me. Holy shit. What have I been thinking? There was no more father out there to blame. The only father I had was within me. The only father I needed, also, was within me. Whatever fatherly support or strength or advice I felt I needed, I would have to create for myself, or find somewhere within me. I had to embody that strength.

It was a visceral thing. With agonizing slowness, the heart learns.

That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about. You can know the facts of this suicide, but certain things must be felt. So I suggest you find someone to help you and your husband work through his father’s suicide now, so it doesn’t creep up on you two for the next few years until you feel like you are losing your mind because lately you’ve been breaking down in tears at unexpected moments and some depression has overtaken your husband and he’s angry and resentful and drinking too much and getting violent and suicidal and you cannot find him in the gloom and you are wondering, where the hell did this come from?

Don’t wait for that. Confront this now. Go ahead and move to Colorado and find somebody to work with about this. You can have a good life and make all this work out. But you cannot ignore it. It will not work itself out on its own.

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An unmarried woman, unhappy in India

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Hi Cary,

The theme of my letter is no different from the ones you probably receive by the dozens every day. I have gone through your site every morning devouring citations by troubled souls. But even when I spot some common patterns, I’m not sure why I feel my own problem is unique and quite frankly, I need your help.

I guess I should start with an introduction. I am a professionally qualified, independent woman living in a large metropolitan city in India. Most would say that I am quite accomplished. I enjoy a good position in a very large multinational corporation, I have a house of my own and I am seen by people as a warm, intelligent, mature and sensible person. My circle of friends and family is small but very caring.

Of course there is a catch. I am also single, have been so for most of my life. This is considered a disqualification at my age in this country. At the very least it makes me an oddity. People wonder why I am single and when they find no apparent reason, they often wonder aloud if I am ‘too independent’ and if I ‘scare men off’ with my financial independence and self-reliance.

I used to find this irksome in the beginning. As far as I was concerned, being single wasn’t a permanent choice I had made in life. I was simply waiting for the right man to arrive. Arranged marriages are quite the norm in India, even now. And in my twenties and then in my thirties I met quite a lot of men. But the ‘system’ left me aghast. Taking a lifelong decision over a cup of coffee with countless prying relatives and middlemen seemed so much at contrast to the careful, considerate approach I had otherwise formed in life with respect to most things. I found the process insensitive, intrusive and invasive. And even when I went through countless organized meetings with prospective grooms, I realized I was just not cut out for it.

On the other hand ‘love’ didn’t happen to me either with the exception of a very intense relationship that ended quite abruptly at a young age. It was a long distance affair that wilted and died a slow motion death. After that there were close encounters — men who fell in love with me, whose love I couldn’t reciprocate. And then those whom I felt I could have loved but they were with other people.

By and large, even in the midst of a suspecting world that cannot fathom why and how a girl like me is single, something tells me this can happen. Oh hell, there are worse things that happen to people in the world, like hunger or poverty or disease. And an educated person like me cannot lament the lack of love forever. So mentally, I am quite prepared to not hang my boots just yet. Except, emotionally, I feel a little rudderless.

Gradually as time is passing by, I am wondering what am I doing with my time and life? What is the purpose of building this home I have spent years paying a mortgage on? And after I die, who shall inherit it? Is this all there ever shall be? Will I ever be able to share the inconsequential details of my days with anyone? And why this daily grind? Who do I strive every day for? I do a lot of problem solving at work, Cary. And clearly I know there is a problem here. My heart and my mind are in conflict. And I’m not in a happy place.

What’s your advice to women like me? We’re traveling far and wide in life, making small strides every day. We’re career women. We have financial and social standing. But still, it’s not enough to keep us from being vulnerable. If love and companionship are going to be elusive, how should we placate our hearts? And what should we make our next goal?

Maybe your advice can help me find my way from here.

Sincerely, Lost Somewhere in the Middle

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Dear Lost in the Middle,

Your letter led me in several directions, and was not easy to answer. I started thinking about consciousness and selfhood, and horizontal identity as talked about in Andrew Solomon’s book Far from the Tree, and the status of women in India generally and Indian culture, and the problem of abduction and forced marriage …

So it took me a couple of weeks. But I’m going to finish up today and see if I can boil down my thoughts to a few simple paragraphs.

First, and most generally, let’s talk about the things you have in common with all people. I think it might help you to see your feelings in a broad human context, and think of yourself not specifically as an unmarried professional woman in India but just as a person. Just as a person you may feel lonely. You may wonder why you have done the things you have done, and what the future holds.These are not feelings limited to you. I suggest that you place yourself in a broad context and approach your life questions broadly. For many of the answers are the same regardless of your status and culture. If you are lonely, seek friendship. If you have tax and inheritance questions, consult an attorney. If you wonder why you have done certain things, if you want to ponder the meaning of your life with a wise and sympathetic witness, then seek a wise and sympathetic psychotherapist and begin examining your life. If you are troubled by the cultural attitudes that circumscribe or limit your life, then become active in Indian cultural affairs. These are things that you can do. You have money and friends and a house. You can begin this journey.

You can begin this journey and it will help if you do not seek answers quickly. Rather, become active in the search. For the search itself is the answer. The activity is the answer. To be swept up in the stream of life is the answer. If you decide you want to change attitudes and laws regarding the status of women in India, then dive in; join a group of women or form a group of women and see what you can do. The activity will change your life. It will deepen and enrich your life.

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OK. That’s two paragraphs. Now I want to say one thing about Andrew Solomon’s book Far from the Tree. But I don’t want to talk about it too much. I actually want to recommend that you read it. Then you can talk about it with other people. The reason I want you to read it is that I want you to think about your horizontal identity as a single woman and how that conflicts with your vertical identity as a daughter and citizen and employee. I have a feeling that you have a very particular sensibility and you have made choices in your life in accordance with that sensibility. You have, in other words, honored your true being. In doing so, you have made sacrifices. Or rather, you have refused to make sacrifices and those refusals have in themselves been sacrifices. That is, you decided you weren’t just going to turn your body over to the state, as it were, the state of men. You weren’t just going to say, Oh, Gee, I’m a woman in India and women in India marry so I must marry. You said, Wait a minute, this doesn’t feel right, I think I won’t do this. Not until it feels right. And that was a sacrifice because in doing so you ran the risk of never marrying.

That is the cost of being true to oneself.

The reason I think of your horizontal identity is that I think you may gain support and a feeling of belonging if you will seek out and bond with other single professional women. For you have distinct qualities that will unite you. You will understand each other. There may not be such “fraternal” organizations readily available in your area. I don’t know. When I search on the Internet under “single professional women in India” of course, no surprise, I find dating sites. Which tells us a lot, doesn’t it — that your status is viewed as a lack, a state of incompletion that must be completed by supplying a mate. As, in the case of the deaf, people think it’s a state of incompletion that must be remedied. Whereas, surprisingly if you don’t follow it, a good number of deaf people do not want to be made into hearing people. They want to preserve their identities. You may, similarly, not want to be “completed” by the addition of a man. You may want, actually, to remain as you are but not feel you are incomplete.

Do you feel incomplete? Maybe you do. We all do from time to time.

So I think I addressed consciousness and selfhood by suggesting that you think of yourself broadly and link your feelings to larger humanity. And I mentioned  Far from the Tree and horizontal identity. And, finally, as you may know, India ranks 114th overall in the 2014 World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report, while at the same time ranking 15th in the category of women’s political empowerment. So clearly there is a gap between the attainment of women in the realm of politics and the way women are treated in other areas of Indian life. This schism may be a clue to how you are feeling: You have done well, and yet in your day-to-day your accomplishments are not valued and or your status does not reflect your accomplishments.

Finally, I would just ask in general, What are you missing, in particular, that can be traced to your individual choices? What is that thing that is missing? And how do you find it?

Good luck! You are not alone.

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How to eulogize the dad no one likes?

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JAN 31, 2007

My friend’s father is just one more reason feminism exists — but can we say that?


Dear Cary,

I have been friends with my best friend since we were 15 years old; we united because we both had crazy-ass parents. Hers was an abusive alcoholic dad, mine was an undiagnosed borderline personality disordered mother who wreaked havoc on my life by playing constant mind games.

They’ve both aged. My mom has mellowed, and until recently, so had my friend’s dad. But now he’s had a few mild strokes, seems to be slipping into dementia or possibly Alzheimer’s, and is back to drinking and attempting to be the big, tough guy he always thought he was. He’s driving everyone insane. Conversations between us often turn to talking about his funeral (which I think many in the family are hoping will happen sooner rather than later), and recently we came upon an interesting dilemma: Who will deliver his eulogy? And is there an obligation to be nice?

I’m a writer by trade, so I think there’s hope I’ll come up with something good. A nice compromise, if there’s one to be had. There probably won’t be many people at said funeral, but still, we were brainstorming ideas of what to say and came up with pathetically little:

He always tried to tell a good joke.

He is the reason why his daughters are such strong feminists today.

He didn’t ruin any of his daughters’ weddings.

He liked to be involved in the community.

We got some good black humor belly laughs out of the conversation, but now I think we could really use some advice. Should the eulogy be avoided? If someone in the family insists on one, should it say only nice things? I know it would be totally inappropriate to say, “Good riddance,” but that’s about the only thing I can think to say.

Blocked Writer

TuscanAd_Jan2015Dear Blocked Writer,

The dead, however monstrous in life, are finally defenseless in death. This seems to inspire a certain mild scruple in the rest of us.
It is safe to say that not all his survivors despised the deceased. So however much you may wish to take a last backhanded swipe at the man, or deliver a devastating closing argument, I would not advise it, not in the eulogy at least.

In a eulogy for a man whose life you did not admire and can only weakly celebrate, a recitation of the facts and accomplishments would suffice. He was employed. He supported his family financially. He graduated from some kind of school. He did things for the community. He liked to tell a joke. He was a father. That’s enough. Or at least it’s something.

I have recently had occasion to observe that when someone dies, events are set in motion that are unexpected in certain ways and beyond our control. We really do not know all that we will feel and do. So things come up that you did not expect. And people step in. Someone other than his daughter or you may rise to say a few good and surprising words. Everyone may learn some things about him they did not know.

It is a time to remember the good in a life.

That does not mean that in private you cannot exorcise your demons. Death, in fact, does offer an occasion for the living to settle accounts — in private. So if you must — and it sounds like your razor wit is being sharpened on his withering torso even as we speak — go ahead and deliver those few choice words you’ve been saving up for him. But do it while alone with the corpse.

Being alone with the dead levels the playing field. It is easy to heap scorn, like clods of dirt, while we all stand around together, powerful and united in our vitality. But get alone with the dead and see what happens.

Even in death those who were tyrants in life hold surprising power over us. And they sometimes manage to best us even from the grave: They leave odious instructions we feel honor-bound to follow. Oh, the dead are clever beyond measure!

Preferable to all this ghoulishness, of course, is a settling of accounts with the living. You know better than I how things stand. It may not be possible to talk to him openly. But if it is, if you see a chance, if there is something you need to say to him while he can still hear you, I hope you will say it.

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