Category Archives: anger

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Why did you skip the funeral?

 

Cary’s classic column from Monday, Aug 23, 2010

A tragic death among deeply close friends: Her burial was like a ghost town


Dear Cary,

I want to say, first of all, that I am so happy to hear of your recovery. I always look forward to reading your thoughtful responses to letters.

I have, perhaps, many things I’d like to ask for advice about but for now I will get to the most pressing and troublesome issue:

I hate my friends. Not all of them, just a certain group of my oldest friends — 10 girlfriends, most of whom have known each other since kindergarten, and all of whom went to elementary through high school together. These friends have been neighbors, classmates, teammates and confidantes — we have spent a great deal of time with each other’s families, gone on vacations and to summer camps together, and maintained a very close-knit group for the past 20 years or so (we are all now 24-26 years old).

I never had any reason to doubt that these people would be my core group of lifelong friends up until about a year ago, following the sudden, tragic death of a member of the group, who was also my closest friend within the group. She passed away unexpectedly at the age of 25 under ambiguous circumstances that we will never fully understand as the autopsy results were inconclusive and the acquaintances she was with at the time remain either unable or unwilling to disclose the exact events preceding her death.

I know that often people rave about the departed as though they were saints and eulogies often tend to be excessively laudatory, but for my friend who passed away all of those things would be 100 percent true. She was a beautiful, fun, bright and incredibly loving and open-minded person. It was no surprise when she chose a career as a social worker — she was so warm and generous with her time and her spirit, she was selfless in her work and did not let roadblocks set up by her jerk boss deter her from pursuing a career she loved where she had the opportunity to really make a difference for others. She was a realistic and practical person but also somehow managed to stay optimistic in difficult situations and no matter what was going on in her life she was always there for her friends. If I called her even when she was incredibly busy with something, she would stop everything and talk to me about my problems — she was one of those rare and precious friends who would tell you to call anytime, day or night, and really mean it … and anytime you spoke to her you were in for a good story. She had a gift for storytelling, a propensity for spontaneity and adventure, a great sense of humor and a lighthearted appreciation for all the little silly and absurd moments in life.

Before her death, I thought our group of friends was very structurally sound. We were just beginning, in the years during and after college, to transform our little group from childhood/adolescent friends to adult friends. The 10 of us went to 10 different colleges in eight different states and wound up in similarly far-flung places after college, but we did a very nice job of keeping in touch: made great efforts to spend time with each other whenever possible, often circulated update e-mails or letters, exchanged phone calls and Internet communication, etc. I felt we had strong, irreplaceable bonds to each other that did not seem to dissipate over time or through the distance between us. In many ways she was the leader of our group; she was the one to call when you went home for the holidays because she’d be most likely to know when everyone was getting in and where we would meet. I’ve thought since her death that perhaps she valued and nurtured our friendships more than we did for her in return. When she died, I assumed our other friends would step up and try to fill that caring, nurturing role for each other. I thought in our grief — when most of us were confronting mortality for the first time as adults — we would cling relentlessly to each other for support and kinship, that we would be present for each other and for her family and other friends — to hold each other, to cry together, to show our love to each other and to her, to share our many wonderful memories of her and mourn her death together.

But most of our “friends” were not present.

Not only did only three friends out of the group actually attend the funeral, many didn’t even bother to call or write, save for a text or a quick message on the Internet here and there. Most of our friends were completely emotionally/spiritually and physically absent from the whole terrible situation. It seemed the expectation of those who absented themselves was that we not share with each other the unfamiliar and overwhelming pain we were experiencing, or worse — that they didn’t feel the pain at all or chose to ignore it.

When I expressed to my parents and a few other friends how baffled, hurt and disgusted I was with the lack of support I received from some of those old friends, they assured me things would change with time — no one knew what to do or say right now, our wounds were too fresh, that I couldn’t cast them off yet, they were hurting too. But as time went on and I still didn’t hear from them — as my attempts to call or write either went unanswered or insufficiently answered — I began to sincerely hate them. They weren’t there for me, collectively or — with the exception of two still wonderfully supportive friends — individually. More important, they weren’t there for her family; most important, they weren’t there for her. Almost all of them had managed to make it to her wedding the year before. But weddings don’t require anything similar to the constitution needed to endure a young friend’s funeral. Where were they now? When will they say goodbye? Will they go on thinking and acting as though things are the same and that friend with whom they once shared a life is still here with us now instead of being gone forever?

Despite my hate for them, and it is real and palpable, I still desperately want them to reach out to me, nearly a year after her death (she died in September 2009). I could never forgive them for all the months of abandonment, but I also don’t know that I want to completely cut them out of my life and I think for the sake of our shared histories and the bonds that our families still share back in our hometown, I should make an effort. I still have a certain amount of faith that they will reach out to me on their own and I fear if I say something — even in a very gentle and neutral way — I will lose them completely too, because obviously they’re incredibly uncomfortable with the whole thing. I don’t want to lose them; I’ve lost enough.

One of the other supportive friends from the group and I have talked extensively about how to handle all of this and while we both want the others to know our true feelings we also kind of feel like we shouldn’t have to make that effort because if they cared, they would have reached out to us in some way by now.

So, how do we handle ourselves around them? We all hung out as usual when we were at home over the holidays and I tried to make things as pleasant as I possibly could. We avoided the topic of death. There has been scant communication on the Internet/by phone but still the topic of her death hasn’t been discussed to any considerable degree.

Maybe it’s important that I explain that in other facets of their lives, these old, neglectful friends are very decent people — they hold noble jobs (two whom I consider the worst offenders of grief/consolation avoidance are respectively a child advocate and a youth counselor), are close to their families and are mostly either married or in committed relationships. This is the first time I have ever seen them act in a way that shows they don’t care about others and it has been shocking and all the more distressing to me to see kind, intelligent and sensitive people be so horrible when it comes to dealing with death.

I just don’t know how much longer I can keep my feelings to myself and I know that despite the outcome of whether or not I share my feelings, I could never truly be friends with them again. I want to do something that would have pleased my friend who died. I think she would encourage me to forgive them and would want me to maintain ties with them; maybe she’d even want me to take over her role as the core/leader of the group, but as much as I don’t want to completely lose what were once strong bonds of friendship and as much as I want to do the right thing by our departed friend, I feel like I could explode at them at some point and I have so much anger and hurt, I don’t know how much longer I can act civil, let alone friendly, toward them.

Hurt

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Dear Hurt,

We assume we will behave well when tested. But we are tested when we least expect it — in the middle of the night, in an unfamiliar area, when we are weak or distracted or afraid. If we could study first, we might perform better. But we are never prepared for life’s biggest tests.

We know the right thing to do. Anybody could tell you: The right thing to do is to make the airline reservation, pack the suitcase and show up at the funeral. But in a crisis, a part of us resists.

In our weakest moments grow seeds of doubt and indecision and avoidance … in subtle ways our best intentions are betrayed; we make grievous errors of omission. We become shameful no-shows. We experience memorable failures of moral nerve.

But through such failures we can learn. We fail to show up and we learn: You don’t let things slide. Not again. Next time you show up. Forever after that, you always show up.

That is, you get to learn from this as long as your friends stick with you through your failures. If your friends give up on you because you fail one test, then you may never learn. You push it out of mind. You say screw this, screw them, whatever.

Because of that, you, my friend, have an opportunity here and I hope you take it.

This is a chance for you to do some good. You can turn this around.
I suggest you do the right thing: Open communication with these people.

Reach out. But how? The conversation needn’t be an accusation or an interrogation. You don’t need to air the dark feelings you’ve had. Rather, think of the other person.

What do you say? Well, what you say is not as important as how you listen. Say as little as possible. But here are some things to avoid saying: Do not say point blank that you are hurt by their failure to appear at the funeral. Rather, say that you are still getting over what happened, and would like to talk a little about it. Then just listen. Keep your mouth shut and listen.

If your friend asks you for your feelings, you might say something like, “I really missed you at the funeral. It was hard knowing that you could not be there.”

She might talk about her decision not to attend the funeral, or she might not. I wouldn’t press her. She may feel guilty and find herself becoming defensive. If anything, just ask open-ended questions — how she felt about not being able to attend the funeral, what she was doing while the funeral was happening, if she was thinking about it, how it felt to miss it. Maybe she was relieved that she didn’t have to go. That would be difficult to hear but courageous to say; truth is often difficult to hear. Whatever she has to say, I would just listen and let it sink in.

In this way, you can perhaps let go of some of your anger toward your friends, and take a step closer to them, and make progress toward living with this terrible loss.

Your departed friend was a social worker. She was in service. Being in service means, strangely enough, overcoming other people’s objections to being helped.

We might be inclined to say, well, shit, if you can’t fill out the paperwork, then maybe you don’t really want the food stamps. If you can’t make it to your appointment on time, then maybe you don’t really want the counseling.

But those are our standards and our assessments. We may be like a jury, eager to convict. But we don’t know what’s in someone else’s heart. We don’t know their fears and demons. We don’t know what barriers they face.

Likewise, it is ironic that the child advocate and the youth counselor did not show; you’d think they would be most likely to rise to the occasion. But perhaps their jobs leave them so emotionally taxed that they have nothing left over for moments such as these.

So your friends did not show up at the funeral. They did not rise to the occasion. Yes, that is bad form. Yes, it reveals some weakness in them. But that is what it is: It is weakness. It is human frailty made palpable.

But this was your group’s first experience of death, and you, collectively, had no tradition for such a thing.

So perhaps you may think of this as your group’s first failure, as a passage out of innocence into experience. It was a defining moment; how each person responded to this death becomes a permanent mark.

Maybe you can now rise to the occasion and make something good come of this.

Listen. Try to heal your relationship with each of these dear friends.

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Mad about him

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, AUG 21, 2003

Our love makes me feel part of something bigger, but his anger scares me.


Dear Cary,

I’m in love. Hooray! This is a good thing. It’s beautiful. There is mutual honesty, caring and affection. This man encourages me to think and to explore, and he makes me feel beautiful and loved. Our love makes me feel a part of something bigger, some biological necessity. He’s the first person with whom I’ve ever considered starting a family.

I know all the joys that come with love, and I know that love involves risk and vulnerability. But, we’re fighting. I’m not a good fighter. I am learning to be a good discusser of feelings, but a fighter I am not. My beloved is a fighter.

Rarely (maybe three times in the last year) he gets really angry and blows off steam through a kind of violent stream-of-consciousness spoken fantasy. I’m not frightened or threatened personally; I know he uses those words to let go of anger, and he would never act on his violent thoughts. But I never know how to react to these outbursts. The first time it happened, I tried to talk him down immediately. But after we both calmed down, we discussed it and he said that he doesn’t want to be talked down, he wants to feel that anger in the moment and then let it go. This sounded fine to me. (Does it help to know that he is an artist? The only time I’ve ever seen him like this is when his art is attacked — not just a critical review, but really scathing remarks.)

Recently he had a temper tantrum at my house. His violent stream of vocabulary was really unnerving and disturbing to me. So I told him that if he needed to talk that way therapeutically, that he had to go talk to someone else, because I just couldn’t handle seeing him that way. So, of course, he left.

When we discussed it later I found that he wants me to fight for him, with him, next to him, to be on his side — to be angry at whomever has wronged him. He thinks that it’s him and me against the world, and he doesn’t feel like I “have his back” or support him emotionally.

I want to support him, but I don’t want to be “against” anyone. I just don’t deal with things the way he does. I’d rather sit down and discuss something with someone than tell that person to shove off.

My roommate heard his recent outburst and doesn’t really feel comfortable with him around the house. I think she’s overreacting, but if that’s the way she feels, there isn’t really anything I can do. My boyfriend sees my acceptance of her feelings as a betrayal to him. He thinks I should have told her off and stood up for him. He’s really disappointed.

Is this simply one of those fundamental differences that can’t be overcome? I feel like I would be compromising myself to fake an empathetic anger if I don’t feel it. But on the other hand, I don’t want to leave him stranded, feeling embarrassed and ashamed of his anger. I know that relationships involve introspection and that lovers can teach you things about yourself and help you grow. And I see his point about me needing to “butch up” in certain circumstances. I’m at an impasse. I don’t want this to be a deal breaker, but I’m not going to become an angry person. I don’t want to be one.

Trying to Stand by My Man

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Dear Trying,

What makes the dramatic display of anger frightening to onlookers is the worrisome sense that bones are going to get broken if it keeps up much longer. If you don’t know the guy who’s stringing together a sputtering symphony of profane threats, making withering allusions to sexual dysfunction and raising questions about the phylum and genus of one’s parentage in an often alliterative and sometimes surprisingly musical — if hardcore — way, you might be justified in assuming that the next step is going to be the breaking of facial bones or some kind of epileptic seizure. Especially if you’re in the next room, it’s hard to tell if and when the police are going to be pulling out their tiny notebooks and talking in that strangely repressed monotone that the most violent of public authorities seem to think lends gravitas to their mien. The whole thing is to be avoided if at all possible — as no doubt you’ll agree.

But since you’ve latched onto a man who isn’t stuffing and holding onto his anger like a good citizen but instead sees life as some primal battle that must be fought, us against them, as loudly as possible, you don’t have the option of avoidance.

Feeling as I do somewhat hemmed in by our undemonstrative public culture, I do sympathize with this guy. But, heck, it’s your job to be hemmed in, buddy. Because, look, the rest of us are hemmed in. So what makes you think you can pop off while the rest of us are meekly submitting to the rules of polite society? Because you’re an artist? Ah, go fuck yourself!

That’ll get me in trouble, won’t it? But you see, that’s how I feel, and it’s healthy to just let it out, isn’t it?
Well, no, it isn’t healthy really, because already I’m filled with remorse for my little outburst, as perhaps your boyfriend is, in a mild way, when he realizes that his outbursts aren’t going over in the heroic way he would like.

I think the most important question is: Can he control when and where he has these outbursts? There seems to be an element of conscious choice in your boyfriend’s outbursts. Perhaps he knows where the line is; perhaps he can bring himself to the brink of losing control and then back off, and feels cleansed and powerful afterward. Perhaps, like an actor, he conjures up frightening emotions and directs them for artistic effect. But there is also an element of loss of conscious control, perhaps allied to a longing for primitive power.

The fact that he frightened your roommate suggests that he either is not in control of these outbursts, or that he does not use good judgment. If he can control this, perhaps he ought to find some theatrical environment where he can take it as far as he wants to, without frightening your roommate. If he cannot control it, then he and you have a problem. An outburst could get him in trouble if it happens at the wrong time. He could get shot. Besides, nice people will get the wrong idea.

I’m really curious: Where did your boyfriend learn to talk that way? Did he pick up this stream-of-consciousness angry-man act from his father? Is there a library of tantrums in the closet of his mind, passed on from father to son like a box of porno tapes? Or did he think this all up on his own? Did he grow up rich or poor, on a farm or in the Bronx? Is he Italian or Norwegian? I’d love to know where he comes from, where he learned this.

But the bottom line is: 1) He doesn’t get to dictate how you choose to express yourself; you’re both free to express yourselves in the manner that seems true to you. If he thinks that because you don’t yell, you’re not on his side, then maybe he can’t hear well. 2) He needs to know that under certain situations his yelling and screaming is way out of line and is going to have consequences. 3) You need to look into whether he’s got a history of violence; the yelling and screaming may just be an outlet, but there may be a history of violence, or abuse, behind it. If so, that’s a serious matter. He could be dangerous. If you feel really frightened, there may be a reason.

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I’m losing it in public

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Airport foul-ups, traffic tie-ups, rude taxi drivers … I’ve had it!

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, JAN 20, 2009

Dear Cary,

I am married with three children, and have a responsible and professional job as a writer that puts me in the public eye a bit. The other day I took two of my kids on a weekend flight (to meet my wife and the other kid) and we flew through the Marine Air Terminal at LaGuardia. I chose to drive in part because that terminal has a really cool short-term parking lot, close to the terminal. We could get out, and stroll right onto the plane.

But the parking lot was closed for repairs and it threw me. We had to go to a farther-away parking lot and take a shuttle bus and I couldn’t stop complaining. When we flew back, I couldn’t find the shuttle bus back to the parking lot. I dragged my kids from one part of the terminal to another, complaining to everyone I could find, asking why they had to close the parking lot, how inconvenient it was for me. The signage was unclear, and I sort of knew where the bus stopped, but I insisted on walking over to the taxi dispatcher to find out where the bus stopped, instead of waiting for it, and sure enough while I was complaining to him the bus came and we missed it.

So we took a cab and the cab dropped us off across a busy street and I dragged my kids across and another attendant asked me why the cab had done that. I started ranting, of course, about why they closed the parking lot. He said, “Don’t do this to your kids, man. Don’t do this in front of them. I am 60 and I have grandchildren.”

I tried to argue with him that I was right. That they shouldn’t have closed the parking lot because this was the one time I would be using it.

He said, “Everybody gets inconvenienced. Get over it. Don’t do this to your kids.”

I exploded. “I will NOT get over it!” He gave up listening to me.

And only then — did I feel happy.

Walking the final steps to the car, my oldest child started complaining on my behalf. “They should never have closed the parking lot.”

And only then I was able to say, “No, that guy was right. I was wrong.”

But I know this pattern will happen again. It happens just about every day. Some little thing is wrong with the world and I cannot stop ranting about it. A computer breakdown, a car breakdown, a problem with a call center, a credit card slip-up, a piece of lousy signage. Something. If it doesn’t work smoothly and easily, frictionlessly, I can’t bear it. I only feel better, it seems, when I have made someone else as uncomfortable as I feel.

And then I feel better.

I don’t know how long people will tolerate this or if I’m doing damage to my kids. I know I damaged my relationship with my wife this way. But I don’t want to stop. This seems like a much better way to deal with the problems of life that I can’t control. The only other alternative is to give in, accept it. And I won’t do that. It feels like losing.

What do you recommend?

Ranter

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Dear Ranter,

Well, I’m going to say this to you even though it sounds like a dumb cliché. It’s something those of us in recovery say to each other. We say, “To surrender means to go over to the winning side.”

We willingly abandon “our side” because “our side,” for all our loyalty to it, is given to behaviors that are, at their core, selfish, juvenile and kind of crazy. We are initially afraid to go over to the other side. We don’t know what it’s like over there. Our side at least is familiar. But we surrender. When we find ourselves in intolerable, hellish conflict, we surrender; we admit that the airlines are bigger than us, that the manufacturers of ceiling light fixtures and track lighting are bigger than us, that the designers of mass transit hub signage are bigger than us. We admit that no matter how crazy it seems, maybe there is something to be learned here. Maybe there is something about patience and acceptance.

All the same, I celebrate your spirit of outrage! I do not see how anyone with a critical intelligence could go through one day on this planet without being appalled and outraged at the world’s failures to live up to our expectations — and to its own potential! But the world ignores our memos pointing out its manifest sluggishness to correct deficiencies, its shortsightedness in planning freeway exits, its seeming indifference to quality control and continuous improvement, and the lack of proper signage in public transit stations. The world stares back at us like a sullen teen, reveling in its own incompetence.

I’m getting steamed just thinking about it. Take track-lighting components. It’s a long story, but I’m finally installing some track lighting in the kitchen that I bought three years ago and had installed elsewhere in the house before the remodel. Sunday I was sitting on the ladder looking at two T-connectors I bought three years ago, and I was remarking on how well-made they were — how, in my admiring opinion, they were better than they had to be. I was quietly rhapsodizing about the brilliance of America’s manufacturing tradition, picturing some worker  constantly improving the product, constantly thinking how to keep the production consistent. The T-connector I was looking at was a thing of beauty and utility.

So I go to the store to pick up a couple of straight connectors and the first one breaks. I get it replaced and the new one is completely defective. I attempt to modify it so it will work and the copper tab breaks off. I’m going to have to go to the lighting store on Saturday for the third time. So I look up what I can on the Internet about the company, trying to figure out what went wrong.

I have no idea if the quality of its track lighting components has anything to do with its acquisition by another, larger company, and the departure of its CEO and his replacement by a longtime executive of the acquiring company.  Maybe I just got a bad batch.

But in my head a story forms. Primitive people such as myself are known to make up stories to explain our experiences. In the story I make up, after being acquired, the company had to meet shareholder expectations and consequently the expensive longtime workers were laid off and younger, cheaper workers were hired, and they figured, hey, how hard could this be? They found cheaper, faster ways to make these little straight connectors, which is fine for them and their bottom line except making them that way means they break easily and so people like me buy stuff that breaks and we have to go back to the store three times. And we get angry and who do we get angry at? The store employee? The store employee can’t do anything about it. Maybe we should be mad at the person who is making half a million dollars a year running the company. And maybe we should say a prayer for all the longtime skilled workers who lost their jobs and lost their houses and packed their cars and left the industrial Midwest for California — Cupertino or Mountain View or Hayward. And maybe we should mourn the priceless knowledge and expertise that has been lost in the bullshit diaspora of the skilled American worker, now seeking work in Cupertino or Mountain View or Hayward, because rumor has it they make things there too, and the skilled worker who used to make real things that work well and don’t break is trying to explain why that knowledge is so valuable, and the financial wizard running the company is looking puzzled.

“What did you do in your last job?” the financial wizard asks.

“We made good things that worked well and we sold them,” says the worker.

“What was your growth model? How did you maximize shareholder value?” the financial wizard asks.

“We made good things that worked well and we sold them. What else do you need to know?” says the skilled worker.

But here is the thing, my friend. I share your outrage about shoddy manufacturing, poor transportation services and inadequate signage in public transit hubs. But you and I need to shake it off and move on.

Another example from my recent experience: Over the holidays I was delayed in my  flight a full day each way. Flying from San Francisco to Fort Walton Beach, Fla., the takeoff of the final leg was delayed eight hours, and then, late at night after a long day, after flying an hour out of Houston toward Fort Walton, we turned around and headed back to Houston. Around midnight, we hapless travelers lined up at the customer service desk in Houston. Because it was a weather delay, and out of the company’s control, the person behind the counter handed me a toothbrush and said, Good luck finding a hotel.

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I felt powerless, insulted, deeply abandoned. I was still recovering from surgery and was in pain. It sucked in so many ways I don’t even want to go into it.

But what was my role? My role was to recover and move on. My role was to surrender — that is, to go over to the winning side. And what was the winning side doing? The folks on the winning side were going about their business, treating these delays and mix-ups as the natural friction of the world. That’s what most of this stuff is, I think. It’s entropy. It’s the world’s natural resistance to our will. We push and it pushes back. We work toward order while entropy works toward chaos. Your will works against the grain of the world and the world resists and out of that resistance comes friction, heat and dust.

That’s not to say you have much choice. How can you avoid creating friction unless you are a monk who never leaves the house and never has a better idea for how to do things? The question is: Is your will the harmonious will of a wise self guided by its sense of its proper place in the world? Or is it the distorted will of the ego and its need for symbolic satisfaction? How can you tell? Sometimes through prayer and meditation and the occasional stroke of good luck one can know whether one is just exerting the idiotic, self-important, power-hungry will of the ego, or is doing the right but difficult thing and just encountering the natural resistance of the world. Sometimes.

But sometimes stuff just has to get done, and you will be in chaotic, insane friction with the world, and you have to put on your dust mask and your safety goggles and get the job done. You may be moving a tree stump. You may be creating a new company. You may be trying to get your kids on the plane. There will be traffic changes and holes in the ground. There will be friction as you rub up against the world, as you abrade the world and the world abrades you back. Such is the state of air travel today. Such is the state of home repair. Such is life. You encounter resistance and setbacks and howlingly insane incompetence and covert resentment from service personnel and all manner of cultural revenge and subterfuge and psychological sabotage and you have to take the hits and pick yourself up and keep moving toward that hill. You have to recover and keep going, with a smile. It’s never going to stop. It’s not going to get any easier. We have to surrender, shake it off, remember what we’re here for, and get the job done.

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How do you escape a scary love affair with a powerful married man who is your professional superior, and abusive, and dangerous?

Dear Cary,

I’m a young woman who moved to the US a few years ago to do my PhD (I am currently in another country for a post-doc). I’m in a very difficult situation, I feel so desperate and depressed, like there’s no way out. For more than 2 years I have been in a relationship with a married man, who was my PhD advisor (I eventually switched advisors so that he wouldn’t have to write a letter of recommendation for me to find a job or be involved in my thesis committee). I don’t excuse myself and I know most people would judge me very harshly, and I do too. The guilt that I feel has brought me to dark places I never imagined existed in me, I know the way things happened is wrong, no matter how much love there is. I felt, at the time, as if I had no power to control the feelings I was starting to feel. The connection between him and I was growing every day without us being able to control it, and this was taking me with it. I felt powerless, drowning into something much bigger than me, that was already destroying my self worth. Even though I felt overwhelmed and powerless by my feelings, and I felt as if I had no choice, I do know I had a choice, and I did not handle it well. Being in this situation has crushed my self esteem and sense of worth. I’m drowning, this is all I can think of during the day and is affecting my health, my mind, my whole life.

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For a part of the year he doesn’t live with his wife and we video chat for hours and hours every day, and I travel to see him whenever I can, even going to a different country about once a month, when we live like we were married, only to have to deal with the pain of his absence when he leaves. I’m extremely attached and I drop anything to just talk to him – I stopped doing things to be available to talk to him when he can. I know we have an incredible bond and in his way he loves me deeply, but he has been unable to separate. He’s afraid of hurting his wife even more (she never found proof of the extent of our relationship, but she knows), there’s the effect this might have on his kids (who are not young anymore, but of course this is big), the financial burden of a divorce and how that would affect people’s perception of him. I try to be understanding but living in this situation has been heart breaking for me too.

I love him deeply but I am also worried about how our future would be. There are moments when he gets emotionally abusive and angry and that devastates me. He crushes me with words, also professionally. He’s very possessive and I feel like I have to be careful with everything that I talk to him about and how I say things. He’s much older than me and I worry he’ll get even more possessive as time passes. The fact that we still have work projects together (even after I finished my PhD) makes everything so much more complicated. Our relationship already had a big impact on my professional life, which is just starting, and I’m worried how things will affect it even more, no matter what turn they take. I can’t focus on anything, let alone work efficiently. He is uncomfortable with me working with other people, I feel like I depend on him so much and that he could destroy my life if he wanted.

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Last month I was with him when I got sick. Initially we thought I just had a flu, but my fever didn’t improve as the days went by. He treated me in a horrible way, he got upset because “I ruined the trip”, we couldn’t have sex and I couldn’t help clean the house. He treated me with such contempt and so much anger, he was upset when I asked him for a blanket when I was shivering, he didn’t offer to get any medicine for me or even ask how I was feeling. I’ve never felt so vulnerable. The last day he said he couldn’t wait for me to leave because I am a pain in the ass and he couldn’t stand me like that. When I found out what I have (it’s a virus that will go away on its own, and I’m finally well now after one month) he got out of his mind, repeating “I did this” to him. He blamed me for potentially passing this virus to him, even though it was not my fault I got sick. He couldn’t care less how I felt, he just blamed me and worried about himself. A bit after that I had to move to another city and during this process my car was broken into and half of my belongings were stolen. He keeps repeating to me he wishes I had been more careful, because now he has to deal with me upset about what happened. I can’t believe the man I love so much can say and do these things. It makes me question whether it is not my fault, if I was overbearing, if it’s the situation that’s making him act this way.

Most people would say I’m a pretty, very intelligent young woman, and there are plenty of interesting guys who want to date me, but I can’t bring myself to end things with him (at least until he sorts out what he wants to do). Even after what happened last month, I am still terrified of breaking up with him. I’m so afraid of him, of what he might do to me professionally, of his anger and his reaction, of the horrible things he says, and I feel so much guilt and sadness for everything.

I’m really lost, I don’t know what to do and I’m in desperate need of some advice.

Thank you,
Lost

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Dear Lost,
At first, when reading your letter, I was forming a picture of two flawed adults who have fallen in love in less-than ideal circumstances and are just going to have to make the best of it. Then my sense of it changed when you described his behavior when you got sick. I now think you are in an abusive, dangerous relationship and you need to leave.

I cannot diagnose people. But I can recognize patterns. The patterns here are those of a predatory man taking advantage of his political, social and economic privilege to get what he wants from a weaker partner while protecting his own professional, political and family privileges. That alone is enough to suggest that you must leave. His anger and lack of compassion add an element of danger to the mix, indicating that not only should you leave, but you should leave now.

There are too many areas of asymmetrical power here. Let’s just briefly name the major ones:

Age disparity
Gender Disparity
Power and status disparity
Marital status disparity

All those could, of course, be overcome by two partners of mutual goodwill. But in this case, he is using those factors to his advantage without regard for your well being.

If you cannot leave him on your own then you need the help of a paid advocate. Locate a good marriage and family therapist, psychotherapist or psychologist and explain that you need support and guidance in leaving a destructive relationship. Make it clear that you are not seeking help in deciding what to do, that you have decided what to do and only need help and support in carrying it out.

Do it. It may save your life.

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Grrrr! I’m one angry mofo! How to process my rage?

Dear Cary,

 Please help me process my murderous rage – a rage i suspect others share as well.

I’m sorry you don’t seem to be on Salon anymore. You were pretty much the only reason I bothered with that site so I haven’t been in ages. I’m not 100% sure whether you’re still doing this advice thing or what the new protocol is, your site seems to indicate you’re still accepting submissions, so here goes –

I am a person who possesses moderate to remarkable talents & abilities, a good work ethic, a mostly pleasant disposition, and all else that would be required of a person making their way in life. As well, just like every other of the 7 billion or so of us out there, I need to make a living. I can spend 48 hours straight creating something or reading something or learning something. Even boring routine work I am fairly OK at. But you can’t do anything in this world without having to hustle out the ass – this is where the whole thing breaks down for me.

I am very terrible at selling/promoting anything – even/especially myself. Not only do I find it uninteresting, incomprehensible, and a waste of my time, but having to be engaged in promoting or selling anything makes me very angry, like violently angry – like if I could pinpoint exactly one person who was responsible for my having the sort of life where I needed to go out there & pound the pavement & promote the same thing a million other yahoos was promoting, fighting for the same miserly few crumbs post capitalism has left for us, so that i may buy food or pay down debt or any of the necessary things – why… I would kill them. Violently. Medievally – with lots of screaming, blood, and terror involved.

I can’t pinpoint exactly the source of my loathing because it is so all- encompassing and elemental – but my  best attempt at defining it would be that it is vulgar, a waste of my time & resources that would be better placed doing what I do best – creating. Or other stuff that’s necessary – like cleaning the toilet. Anger that I don’t ask for much – just to sell $100 a week in my art, let’s say – and then progressively have that increase in proportion to people valuing what I do. And maybe that’s a source of anger – the violation of such a simple expectation. I expect that if I do a campaign, for it to work right away – not even in a spectacular way – but in a constant way – I don’t expect people to wanna give me 50 grand or nothing – just to once in a while buy some goddamned thing from me as opposed to that other asshole who doesn’t sell anything much better. It just doesn’t seem like a lot to ask. But even for that small thing you have to practically give blood. 

I am just not that sociable a person. I don’t understand why in this piece of shit world every goddamned thing – even selling something basic like apples – requires some motherfucking Barnum & Bailey goddamned circus act – I really don’t. Is it because there’s just too many goddamned people trying to sell shit? Should we just invite Ebola to America with open arms so we can go back to being able to make a simple living? Should we have our own Bastille Day and kill all the fucks who have parasitically sucked up all resources, leaving us plebes to scrabble for the few crumbs left? Maybe I should just find a way (in spite of zero experience, general cowardliness, lack of a certain sort of intelligence, and ethical makeup) just resort to thieving and assaulting in order to get my daily bread?

I don’t give a goddamned fuck about money. I don’t give a piss about it in any way shape or form. I suspect 80% of the people out there really don’t either. All anyone really cares about is getting laid, having health, enough not-disgusting food to eat, a roof, and as many friends as can be tolerated. News fucking flash – there’s plenty of all that goddamned crap out there. But they’ve set up this piece of shit system where you can’t even get $100 of sales on some crappy craft site without prostituting yourself to hell. If I could live in peace creating my shit, sharing it with whoever wanted it, contributing to my social circle or even the world at large thru art or thru volunteering or fuck knows what, I would be so happy and I wouldn’t need to be angry. I wouldn’t have to feel cancer coming on at just the notion of having to flog the same goddamned garbage nobody cares about — IE my creative work I should care about which i begin to feel acute contempt for due to its invisibility and its inability to get me what i want/need — in the same tired old shit channels nobody looks at.

So there it is, dear Cary – I very seriously hate and feel angry at the whole prospect of selling or promoting myself, as can be seen. And saying ‘get a job’ is really the same, isn’t it? Sell sell sell.

I started out asking, in terms of advice, how can I get past this intense & insane rage & loathing that is clearly holding me back from whatever sort of life is still possible to have… but by now I feel like anything anyone said on the subject would be interesting and worthwhile. I don’t feel justified or entitled to my rage, but I can’t get past it – I suspect I do not possess a healthy or proportionate reaction to this aspect of adulthood.

have an awesome day!!!!

Grrrr

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Dear Grrrr,

Well done. You have spoken. You have expressed what many feel. That was bracing. That was a bracing rant. I feel better already. I hope you do, too.

I feel the same way too, some of the time. And yet I promote myself. I sell. Did you hear me on the radio? I tell the world what I am doing.

I don’t sell that well. Like, if I did, maybe I’d still be at Salon. I forgot that when you have a job, most of what you are doing is selling yourself to your boss. I forgot I had a boss I had to sell to. That’s a lesson if you have a job. You’re always selling yourself to your boss. This guy, he was a new boss I’d never even met. I sort of forgot he was there. My mistake.

Anyway, it was good, because I needed to get kicked out of there. I needed to get kicked on my ass and figure out what’s next.

The truth is, you’re always selling. If you’re in a job you’re selling yourself to your boss. If you’re on your own, you’re selling to others. If you’re a kid, you’re selling yourself to your parents. You’re selling yourself to your teachers. Out on the street and in the bars, we’re selling ourselves to each other. We’re saying the things we think will close the deal.

We’re always selling. We’re Americans. That’s what we do.

All over the world, we’re selling. Sometimes it’s a hard sell, done with drone strikes. Sometimes it’s a soft sell, done with Angelina Jolie. But we’re selling every minute of the day.

Do we hate ourselves for it? Yeah. Maybe. But it’s our nature.

But there’s selling and then there’s selling. If by selling you mean that false, bullshit thing of pretending you’re somebody else and talking somebody into giving you money for something they really don’t want; if by selling you mean feeling guilty because what you have is not worth what you’re asking for it; if by selling you mean cheating people, lying and pretending in order to get them to something; then yeah, if that’s what you mean by selling, then I totally agree. You should feel like shit if you’re doing that. I would, too. I would want to slit my own throat and stomp on my victim, too, for being so stupid and gullible and spineless.

But that’s not really selling. That’s being a con. That’s being a criminal, basically. That’s stealing.

You’re not a thief. You’re a creative soul. You’re an artist. Maybe you’re an artist of anger. I don’t know. But you’re an artist and you’re confused about the terms under which you are asked to do this art. That makes sense. Nobody spells out the terms for you. We’re on our own. Part of learning where we fit in is stumbling around, spouting off. Ranting. Telling the truth about how we feel and watching what happens as a result.

Right now, what you’re doing in this letter is just being yourself. And it’s pretty cool. You’re not conning anybody. You’re just surrendering to your own rage. Some people will be offended or frightened by your reference to violent murder but this is expressive speech. It’s not a threat. It’s expressive speech. It needs a venue.

Here’s the deal about selling: We all have stuff other people want. We all use money as an exchange medium. If you’ve got what I want I’m going to offer you some money for it.

For instance, let’s assume I want to watch you stomp around on stage and act out all this rage. I don’t know what I’d pay. Maybe $5. (Is that insulting? I didn’t mean it to be. I’m cheap. I used to pay $5 to go into a punk club and that was fine. Maybe now it’s more like $20. I don’t really go anywhere so I wouldn’t know.) But it wouldn’t just be me. It would be like 200 people paying $5. That’s a thousand bucks. Give some to the house, but that seems like a workable deal.

Would I buy one of your creations? I don’t know. My house is kinda full of stuff. Would I look at it in a magazine though? Probably. Would I look at it on the Internet and then pay to go see you stomp around on stage and talk about your murderous rage? Quite possible. Because hearing you talk about your murderous rage makes me happy somehow. I don’t know why. Maybe it shouldn’t. Maybe that makes me a bad person.

OK, let’s take this bullshit word selling out of the equation. Let’s talk about being in the world, and playing a role in the culture.

Take me, for instance, and this column. After I lost the job at Salon I kept doing the column for a while but I resented not being paid directly for it. I had a donation button up there for a while but that  felt like panhandling. I’ve done some panhandling. When I was a hippie kid. It’s unpredictable and kind of demeaning.

So I went through all this anguish about it and finally realized, well, I thought about Herb Caen and how much pleasure I got out of his column for the San Francisco Chronicle. I realized I thought of him as a member of my culture, as a voice I depended on to be there. If he had suddenly quit doing that, it would have seemed like a cop out.

I realized I had a cultural role to play, too. It’s that simple. People like reading this column. They’re used to reading it. It’s part of American culture. This column isn’t a job. It’s a cultural role.

I can afford to write it once a week, as long as I do other things too, for money. So I just keep doing it. I like it, actually, if I don’t have to do it five days a week.

That’s really all you have to do. You’re playing a role right now. You might get mad at me for saying that, but you are selling yourself right now, in the sense that you are showing yourself to the world. That’s all it is. Don’t worry. You can’t make us buy your stuff. All you can do is be visible to us. We’ll decide if we like what you’ve got and if we want to engage.

Me, I’d maybe go see you on stage. It’d be satisfying. I might watch. It might make me want to get up on stage too and unburden myself of certain unresolved feelings about certain media personalities the sight of whom incites certain rather acute feelings that could be termed murderous rage. Yes. Could be. I might join up up there on stage.

Also, part of this thing, frankly, part of living with your own rage, involves faith. Not pious, quasi-religious faith. But fuck-it-all, I’m-doing-this-anyway faith. The faith to be who you are, do what you do, and see what happens. Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke faith.

Be who you are, do what you do, see what happens.  Don’t kill anybody. Just get honest and have some faith that things will turn out. Maybe somebody will buy something.

So stop selling. Do more ranting. Get up on stage and express your anger at the system. Maybe bring your artwork up on stage with you. That might be too much like selling. I don’t know. That’s up to you.

I just have a feeling, if you continue to genuinely express yourself, that people who get what you are saying will be attracted to you, and they’ll want the stuff you make, and it will work out.

Some people might tell you to calm down. Some people might want to punch you in the head to make you shut up. But fuck that.

Don’t calm down. Fuck that. Keep ranting.

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I won’t grovel for my mother-in-law!

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Cary’s classic column from

After all I’ve been through, I snapped. I don’t want to apologize, but I want my family back.


Dear Cary,

In the past three years, I have had a great deal of loss. My father, both grandmothers and my 36-year-old brother died. My mother had breast cancer and I had a miscarriage. Plus, two of our family pets passed. It has been a great deal to absorb, especially when the onslaught of loss kept going and going.

When a family member grew ill, or near the end, I relied on my mother-in-law to fly in to help my husband with our kids. She is retired, well off, and visited us often. Most visits with her tended to involve her taking us out for meals and taking us shopping. When I was a stay-at-home mom, I appreciated all the gifts and meals out as a diversion from our otherwise tight budget. Holidays were over the top; she even took our family on two Mexican vacations. We didn’t ask for money, or trips, but we did accept them gratefully.

When my last family member grew ill, I traveled across the country and my mother-in law came to stay with my family. The trip ended up being longer than originally planned because I decided to stay for the funeral. When I asked my mother-in-law to change her plans and stay one more day, she said she had a dentist appointment to attend. Furthermore, she asked if the funeral date could be changed or could someone else bring the ashes home. I was aghast. My grandmother’s funeral didn’t take precedence over a dentist appointment?

When I called my husband later that night, he told me that his mother had been concerned over our finances. She was urging him to look for a better job and asking when I was returning to work. She had been talking finances with him the whole time I had been gone, knowing full well that I handle the money in our family. She talked about feeling unappreciated. She had never brought up any of these topics with me, and to do so while I was gone and in such a dire emotional place, just seemed wildly inappropriate to me. I think she was acting needy when I was in a time of actual need.

In the end, my husband took time off work and sent his mother home in time for her appointment. On a layover, on the way home from the funeral, I called my in-laws and told them that I was canceling our next planned vacation to Disneyland. In part, I was angry over my losses and didn’t feel like “business as usual” after hearing her bemoan our finances. I thought, “Fine, if you’re suddenly worried about my money then I won’t spend any more of yours.” I have since returned to work and it’s been the silent (or martyr) treatment from her for almost a year now.

After licking my many wounds for many months, I realize that what family I have left is small and that I want to be close again, at the very least for the sake of my kids. I am at an impasse with my mother-in-law that I’d like to be resolved, but I don’t feel like groveling or apologizing. I miss our old relationship, when we were close and things were fun, but realize that ship has sailed. What should I do?

Mother of All Mother-in-Law Issues

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Dear Mother of all Mother-in-Law Issues,

What should you do?

Grovel.

Seriously.

Grovel and apologize.

It will feel great.

It’s not that the groveling and apologizing will feel great. But when you finally become willing to grovel and apologize, you will have achieved a spiritual victory. You will be free of your wounded pride.

Before you feel free of your pride, you need to grieve. If you feel you can’t grieve because your mother-in-law has withdrawn her support, then you may well feel angry. Your pride may be hurt. If you are used to being the one who handles the money and someone comes in and starts giving advice, your pride is hurt. When our pride is hurt we want to strike out. When we feel threatened we want to strike out.

But you need to take care of yourself. You have “licked your wounds” but you have not allowed your grief the kindness of time. You may feel that grieving is a luxury, that before you can grieve, somebody has to step in and take care of things and make sure everything is running smoothly. So when your mother-in-law tried to take care of her own needs, you felt panic. How can you grieve, how can you get through this, if there isn’t someone making sure everything runs smoothly?

Well, as you know, death changes all that. Death doesn’t wait for us to clean up the house. It comes and plunges us into grief and certain things just have to wait.

The way we live our lives today, we don’t plan for difficulty. When overwhelming feelings arrive, as well they will, when grief arrives, and it will, when sadness comes, and it will, when the life cycle turns, we haven’t made room for it. We haven’t prepared the house for this new visitor.

So forgive those around you, and accept your own grief. Maybe the house will get messy. Maybe the kids won’t be perfectly taken care of. Maybe a little sheen will come off the glossy finish. That’s OK. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Have some compassion for yourself. You’ve been hurt. You’ve been through hell. You’ve been through hell and haven’t given yourself credit. Possibly others haven’t given you credit either. So give yourself credit. Let yourself feel this. You’ve been beaten down. People you love have been taken from you. You lost a baby, for heaven’s sake! Life has taken loved ones from you. You’ve been torn apart. Let yourself feel this. Give yourself love.

How to repair your feelings toward your mother-in-law? One way is to list all the things you are grateful to your mother-in-law for. List all the things she has done for you, the gifts, the visits, the dinners. Just list all the things you are grateful for. Think of what you would miss if she were gone. And thank her for all these things.

When your mother-in-law said she had to go back, isn’t it possible that she lied, that it wasn’t about the dentist, that she had emotional reasons of her own for getting back home? People do things to meet their own needs. They don’t necessarily understand consciously what all their needs are, or how they’re meeting them, so they say things like they have a dental appointment because they think that’s what they’re supposed to do. So sometimes it comes out sounding pretty lame. And offensive. But it’s very hard in most families for someone to just say what they’re feeling.

And perhaps you need to grovel — not for your mother-in-law but for yourself. Maybe something in you is calling you to grovel, for it is an oft-observed truth that in what we most resist lies a deep attraction. So go ahead and get down on the ground and feel the ground. Grovel and let out your grief. Let yourself do this. A part of you wants to. Your prideful ego wants to maintain its appearance as the completely together entity who’s in charge of the finances and knows what to do in every instance. But it is your prideful ego that stands between you and relief. So let your ego blab on about its resentments and its anger and its refusal to grovel and refusal to apologize.

You don’t need to be afraid. Death comes. The ego doesn’t want to die or accept the fact of death, and so it stands between us and true grieving. In reality we decay. We lose people. Things fall apart. We leave the stage. We make room for more. That’s how it goes. Every life is full of constant leaving. It tears us apart but that’s how it is.

Just let it go, all this stuff. Let yourself break down. Let yourself fall to your knees. You’ve had enough. You’ve held it all together long enough. Let it go.

Let your tears fall. Let your tears fall into the ocean of tears that have fallen for all the departed for all the years that we have been saying goodbye to souls old and young. Let your tears fall into the river of souls. Let yourself fall to your knees and grieve for all the souls that have passed by us. Empty yourself of this grief. Empty yourself. Empty yourself and make room for all the new souls coming into the world.

Welcome all the new souls coming into the world. Make room for the life to come.

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My husband won’t do his laundry

 

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, AUG 23, 2007

We were sharing household duties, but then things got out of whack and now I’m ready to bitch-slap my hubby!


Dear Cary:

My husband won’t do his laundry and I want to bitch-slap him. Yes, this is coming from a middle-aged, professional woman. Here’s the skinny: This is my second marriage, his first. And yes, we went into this marriage nine years ago with shared responsibilities. We sort of fell into a pattern, with him assuming all the lawn and maintenance work and me taking care of the home, including the laundry. We both worked full time and both pitched in to do things like cleaning and food shopping, depending on our schedules.

But back to the laundry. I really didn’t mind doing the laundry and did it all on Saturday morning while I cleaned or we cleaned together. But things all changed last October when hubs lost his job. I told him he needed to pick up more housekeeping chores, including doing his own laundry. He did pick up some chores (only sporadically, as long as they didn’t interfere with his obsession with golf) but was pretty lax about his laundry. He soon fell into the same pattern of piling all of his dirties in the laundry room on Saturday morning … for me to do.

I resent this and have asked him several times to take care of this before the weekend but he never does. He has returned to work, but he sets his own hours and has plenty of time to do his laundry. Things have come to a head here lately since I’ve had to assume full-time care of my two grandchildren, ages 2 and 5, while their mother is sick. These little folks generate tons of laundry, and I am now so mad at hubs that I want to punch him in the face. Maybe he will listen to an outside opinion.

At any rate, at least I got to vent!

Thank you,
Buried in Laundry

 

Dear Buried,

My outside opinion is that you need outside help. You’ve got too much to do. If you can swing it, just hire somebody. If you can’t, then you have to put on paper the number of hours required for all the tasks of running the household, and the number of hours you and he have available to run the household, and stare at the numbers while you weep and gnash your teeth and curse the gods, and then hire some outside help.

Believe me, there isn’t enough time in your week. You may think there is but there isn’t. You may think there would be time, since hubby sets his own hours. You may think it’s a simple matter for him to stop doing what he’s doing. And if you were the kind of person who was very clever about setting up conditioned reflexes in a husband to surreptitiously alter his behavior, you might be able to alter his behavior. But it’s clear from the way you’re approaching this that you aren’t able to alter his behavior. You’ve already lost patience. So stop trying. Maybe in an ideal world he would do what you tell him to do. But I have a feeling that’s just not going to happen. Because at this point it’s not about the laundry. It’s about the power struggle between you two. It’s about pride and ego and unfairness and probably a lot of built-up resentments about a whole bunch of other stuff that you didn’t mention but that you will explain to the therapist you end up going to after this really comes to a head and you throw his laundry into the yard and he runs over it with the mower.

So, what I’m saying is, there might theoretically be enough time in your week if you were different people. If you were people who only did chores maybe. That would mean that you are not really people. That would mean you are machines. I mean, you could cut out rest. Or sleep. Or recreation. Or spiritual time. Or family fun. Or eating meals. Or sleeping in. Or taking care of the 2-year-old, or the 5-year-old. You could cut out all the things that seem inessential and frivolous. But you wouldn’t. You’d do them anyway. Because that’s who you are.

So just hire some outside help. If you don’t have the money to hire outside help, then accept the fact that the laundry isn’t going to get done. I mean, stop doing it. Stop doing his laundry. Leave it on the floor. Let him do it.

You can do that or you can keep doing what you’re doing.

My point is you have to end this thing. You’ll probably eventually have to settle your power struggle with him, but for the time being, use some of that professional salary to get in some outside help. Or just don’t do his laundry.

One more thing: Breathe!

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After my husband died of cancer I found he’d been cheating

 
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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, DEC 13, 2007

We have three small children and I am devastated.


Hi,

I need desperate help, please.

My husband died of cancer a week ago. The day after his funeral, I learned he’d been having Internet sex, which didn’t stop there. He met up with the woman in Hong Kong last year, where he was supposed to be alone, and they were planning another rendezvous next year. This had been going on for two years.

I’m so torn between grief, hatred, sadness and depression. I feel so alone and heartbroken. It’s like I’ve lived 13 years with a total stranger. I feel like dying. We have three young children.

Please help me if you can. Thanks.

Betrayed by Dead Husband

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Dear Betrayed,

You loved a man who was not perfect. You married a man who was not perfect. You had three wonderful children with a man who was not perfect.

You did not live for 13 years with a total stranger. You lived for 13 years with a man who was not perfect.
Death took this man from you and then you learned of his imperfection.

You knew this man, but even after 13 years you did not know everything about him. That’s how it is with people we love. We never know everything about them. All of us have hidden imperfections. You do and I do. You are not perfect and I am not perfect, but no one knows all our imperfections.

Perhaps when we die everyone will know our imperfections, too.

He was not perfect and he had some secrets and now you have been granted knowledge of his secrets. This knowledge makes the grieving sharper. It adds anger to the grief. Grief is enough without the anger, but the anger adds to it, so it feels as if it cannot be borne, as if it will crush you and tear you apart at the same time — the grief pushing you down, wearing you down; the anger tearing at you from the inside, lighting you up, making you want to scream and beat your fists.

The grief is enough. The anger makes it feel like maybe you won’t live through it. But you will. The grief will cleanse you and you will live through it and you will raise three beautiful children.

They will watch you and learn from you how to grieve and how to be strong. They will learn from you how to go on without him.

You will grieve for a long time and life will be hard at times. It will feel sometimes like the grief is not ending. It will feel sometimes like you wish you could slap him.

Through a half-open door during a wake I once watched my aunt berate my uncle’s corpse for dying. It was a good performance, but it was not a performance. We feel these things for real, in addition to what we are supposed to feel; we feel the grief but we also feel these other things. We want to slap the dead or berate the dead or go through their pockets looking for phone numbers.

So be angry at him and pour out your anger at him. Pour out your anger on the ground and light it like a libation. Pour out your anger at him. Pour out your grief.

Take as much time as you need. Grieving is not a test of endurance or a test of fortitude. It is not a performance in a play. It is recognizing the truth of a man’s life: He was imperfect and he died, and after his death his imperfection became known.

It is hard for the rest of us to bear knowledge of his imperfection, but that is the bargain we make: We get to live, and in return we live with the truth. Knowing the truth, we also seek to forgive. Do not rush it, but eventually you will want to forgive him or this anger will harden you and rob you of compassion.

Even the truth we live with is a partial truth. How can what we feel be in proportion to what is true when we will never have anything but a partial truth? Remember in “Casablanca” when Rick is leaving Paris in the rain and Ilsa doesn’t show up? We sometimes suffer more from having only a partial truth.

It is also possible that this thought has crossed your mind: “Everyone will know and they will think what a fool I am. Everyone will know and they will see that I could not control him. They will lose respect for me.”

Such thoughts may run through your head. Let them run through your head. People have all kinds of thoughts. We all do. They do not matter. You know the truth. The truth is that you loved a man and he loved you and you brought three beautiful children to life, and the man was a real man and not a god, and because he was a real man and not a god he was not perfect.

Now it is time for you to grieve him and remember him and raise your children.

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Turning 50: It’s all downhill from here

 

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, OCT 6, 2009

I’ve got only a genetic disease and old age to look forward to


 

Dear Cary,

I have been reading your column for a while and always find your advice useful in a roundabout way, but I especially find it honest.

I’m going to be turning 50 this year and have learned I have a fairly rare genetic disease that will (and, indeed, has already begun to) cause great suffering in the years to come, though it likely won’t end my life prematurely.

Unfortunately, I have seen what this disease has done to my father, who is now in his 80s, and I have no desire to go through the endless hospitalizations, treatments, etc., that he endures just to keep on living. I feel tense and anxious most of the time, and also sad.

I’m realizing, however, that the disease is not the only factor in my feelings. Frankly, life in middle age is a tedious, boring chore. I become sad when I think back to my 20s, which was really my peak — a series of endless mental and physical challenges, pleasures and obstacles to overcome.

I’m stuck in an unchallenging but well-enough paying job that I despise. Leaving it would mean competing with people half my age for less pay, and I probably can never get health insurance again, so that option is out.

My home life isn’t much better. I’m stuck with a partner who offers, at best, extremely mediocre sex once every couple weeks. I watch porn to remember the types of adventures I used to have in real life, but it only makes me more sad, angry and resentful.

I’ve given up most of my hobbies as they were fairly pointless wastes of time. Even volunteer work became unsatisfying. For every person or animal I was able to help, there were hundreds of others for whom I could do nothing.

My one true pleasure, hiking in the hills with my dog for hours on end, ended when the dog became severely ill and I had to euthanize her a month ago. Yes, I could get another dog, and yes, I realize everyone anthropomorphizes their pets, but this dog was indeed unique and irreplaceable and her spirit is sorely missed. Her sweet nature and enthusiasm could melt even the most cynical heart.

Well, I will stop with this pity party, but it seems to me that nature had the right idea with human life spans that used to be so short. Now it seems we get 30 or so good years, then 50 years to sit around and wait for the inevitable.

In youth, there is excitement of the unknown. Unfortunately, at this point, I pretty much know how my life is going to go: a slow, steady, physical decline; deaths of more friends and loved ones; and a relationship that will become nothing more than buried resentment over a complete lack of sexual fulfillment.

Frankly, I see very little to look forward to, and I’m not even sure what I’m asking you.

Nothing to Look Forward To

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Dear Nothing to Look Forward To,

Well, my friend, I don’t have the skills to persuade you of what I intuit, or the power to compel you to do as I ask, nor do I have the kind of deep responsibility toward you that a family member or loved one might feel, so I am just going to say what is clear to me and hope that you can overcome the voices in your own head telling you the contrary long enough to act on my suggestion. First of all, and I don’t know why I really want to say this, but I’m just going to trust the impulse: You are going to be taken care of. You’re on a road. You’re not just a forlorn sack of chemicals in a marriage; you’re a human being; you’re a person; you’re a being; you have a place in this world. I also feel this: I feel that you are grieving. You may be depressed, but “depressed” feels vague. To me, you are grieving. “Depression” feels like the damming-up of that grief, not the grief itself. You are grieving the loss of your dog and your connection to nature. You are grieving the loss of your dog and your connection to nature but you are also berating yourself for your grief, perhaps to protect yourself from its full, wracking extent.

You also sound like you are grieving for your youth. For that I salute you. Yes, I salute you. Why don’t more of us openly grieve our youths? Why don’t more of us admit that when we wake up one day and find ourselves no longer 20 and hard, indefatigable and quick, irresistible all night, a world ahead of us just for the asking, etc., etc., (I’m not trying to lyrically eulogize it; I’m just trying to name it), why don’t more of us admit that we are filled with a deep and painful sadness? Why don’t we have rites for this? Why do we have to say goodbye to our youth alone, in the shame of our advancing decrepitude?

(I tried to do this publicly, in a way, seven years ago, back in 2002, and indeed it did help to acknowledge publicly that I was no longer 20, although of course it did not arrest the arrow of time.)

You are grieving the loss of your youth and the loss of your dog and you are also living in fear of the future.

That makes you a perfect candidate for membership in the moment.

So, my friend, make your application now!

Yes, you, my friend, are a perfect candidate for membership in the moment. There is always room for one more. So welcome. Come on in. Welcome to the now. Welcome to the now that’s up on the trail, the glistening, humming, vibrating, iridescent, incalculable, inescapable now: Welcome to this very moment, wherever you are. Unless one of us is traveling faster than the speed of light, you and I are both inhabiting this mathematical simultaneity we call the now; we are in it, you and I, right now, so it might be said, though it sounds silly, that we are even together in the now, that as I sit near the window of the cafe in early morning, shivering in the first frost (there was ice on my truck this morning, for heavens sake!) and wondering idly why the employees have the windows and the door open (I know, it gets hot back there) that you and I are, in this moment, perhaps sharing a breath; perhaps as I breathe in you are breathing in too, and the innumerable creatures and souls who also inhabit this moment are also breathing in or breathing out, and the unfathomable underpinnings of our enterprise are operable; the equations and magics of chlorophyll and ganglia are in effect; the infinite, expanding factory of existence is running all night; it’s all going on right now. Welcome.

In this moment you have many choices. You can concentrate on the breath alone, climbing the breath like a rope into the heavens, following the breath back to the beginning of time, rising and falling with the breath like a column of smoke, with every inhalation and exhalation rehearsing the beginning and the end, the creation and the obliteration of the cosmos and the beginning and the end of your life, your wakefulness and your sleep. You can do that in this moment. You can do that in this moment and it may free you momentarily from your stranglehold on the future, or the future’s stranglehold on you, or however you want to place subject and verb in expressing that asphyxiating entanglement.

You can also in this moment allow thoughts of your next move to arise. You can, for instance, determine to contact a cognitive therapist and see about pruning some of the vines.

Yes, you can also in this moment choose to contact a cognitive therapist and get to work on that pattern of thinking that has overtaken you like a vine overtaking a healthy tree. You are wrapped in vines of dread, vines of grief. You are wrapped in vines. You have fed them and given them a home and now they are suffocating you. But you are not yet so completely entwined that you cannot reach out just far enough to gain the attention of a skilled cognitive therapist who can show you how to clip the vines back and get some air.

It is both the joy and the curse of this job that I cannot make you do this. If I could make you do this, my job would be unbearable; every time I failed to make someone do something I would be burdened; every time someone exercised their freedom of choice I would be a failure. Every time someone failed I would fail as well. Luckily, that is not the case. I can say what I say and that is that. We are just two living strangers inhabiting the same moment. It is as though you might overhear me in a cafe advising someone else to go get some cognitive therapy to clip back the vines of depression. I am speaking to the wind. That is fine. I am happy doing that. I am happy speaking to the wind.

But I speak hoping you will overhear me and take it to heart.

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I punched my sister in the head. How can I forgive myself?

 

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Dear Cary,

I love reading your column. You write straight to the point with witty remarks yet underline it with great depth and advice. I’m in desperate need of advice.

So, here goes. I’m in my late twenties, done a lot of introspection and I’ve finally forgiven most of my stupidity and traumas. According to my therapist I was just unlucky and met a lot of sadistic people in my life, starting at a very young age. Thankfully I have the parents that I have, without their love I probably would be very different. And not in a good way. There is just one thing I can’t forgive, and that’s myself for what I’ve done to my little sister.

A couple of years ago (she’s in her late teens now) she hung out with the wrong crowd, guys came in the house and stole a lot of things. She kept bringing people who would break stuff, throw cans at my dog, she’d yell at my parents all the time and my father was very ill. One day I just lost it and we fought. I don’t mean sisters fighting, I mean I hit her back with a blow to the head. It was horrible. It was very violent. And I regret it every day. I’ve asked for her forgiveness, and she gave it without question, I love her with all my heart but I can’t forgive myself. We have a history of epilepsy in the family, and I am terrified what I did brought on hers . . . because a year later she started having signs.

I know I have anger issues, and I’m working on them. My older sister (half sister) did the same to me, she was a bit abusive. Mentally more than physically although she also hit me on the head after I broke her sunglasses, since then I suffer migraines.

I could never talk to her, because she’d always get angry at me. When I tried to talk to her about when I had been assaulted or that I was being bullied, about my eating disorder (which I have finally gotten rid off, the need to throw up still creeps back from time to time but I’ve learned tricks on how to keep that at bay), when part of our family was showing me how little I meant compared to her, etc. She would explode. She’s told me ‘she’s sorry she never loved me’ on my birthday and after I told her how horrible a human being she was she acted like a victim from then on. Even when I got very sick, she acted as if I was a total stranger. Today, someone who even smells like her makes me physically ill. I tremble, feel queazy and feverish and instantly dislike that person.

This does not excuse anything in my behavior towards my little sister. I try my hardest to be the opposite of what my older sister was. My little sister is an amazing person, highly intelligent, she’s always been funny and philosophical in her remarks ! I just don’t know what to do, as much as I love her she easily angers me and I’m so scared of being violent again when I lose control. It’s not as often as it used to be but it still happens. The reasons why I get angry at her and start yelling are brought on by the stupidest things, usually at the end of my stay at our parent’s house. Immediately after I realize “What is wrong with me ? There’s no reason ! She’s just being a teenager !”. I’m scared I traumatized her and now, with her epilepsy, I’m scared she’ll end up in dangerous situations because there are some bad people in the world who easily take advantage.

Friends have told me how amazing they think I am or my work ethics blablabla… I still feel like a failure and impostor because instead of protecting my sister, instead of being someone she could trust… I ended up being her biggest bully. She forgave me, but I can’t forgive myself because every day I have this flashback and I feel like I ruined her life.

My mother thought I was bipolar and we checked and that’s not the case. She thought I was autistic, still not the case. I know her “theories” are just excuses, she didn’t even want to help me when I told her about my eating disorders. Don’t get me wrong, she’s very loving and intelligent, she just never could deal with me. To be honest I know what’s wrong with me : I’m just angry. I come less and less to the house because of what could happen. I worry every day for my sister’s safety. If she goes to a concert she gets so tired because of the lights. Her friends smoke weed around her (and she probably does too) which brings seizures. Drinking alcohol is the most dangerous for her, which she still does. It’s normal for a teenager, I did worse ! It’s as if I’ve robbed her of her normal teenage years ! You’re supposed to have fun at that age !

What can I do, why am I so angry at her ? How can I stop feeling like a monster ?

All the best,

Horrible Sister with only one regret

Cary Tennis' Finishing School

Dear Horrible Sister,

Maybe you are waiting for the symptoms of trauma and guilt to go away before you forgive yourself. But it works the other way around. You have to perform the action of self-forgiveness first. Then the symptoms will begin to dissipate.

I suggest you do this: Find a quiet moment when you are alone and look at yourself in the mirror. Really look at yourself. Say to yourself, “I forgive you.”

You must say this: “I forgive you. You did what you did because you are a human and are imperfect but I forgive you.”

Forgiveness does not wipe clean the past. It does not undo what has been done. It does not mean that the symptoms of regret and trauma go away. But it announces that you release the other from your ongoing claim of wrongdoing and continuing resentment. In this case, self-forgiveness means you release yourself of this ongoing claim of wrongdoing and continuing resentment.

It’s not the same as excusing a person for his or her actions. Nor does it relieve all your symptoms. You will still feel regret. You will still be responsible for your actions. How could that be otherwise? You are the one who punched your sister. But you must release yourself from this ongoing claim of wrongdoing and continuing resentment. Why? Why do you have that obligation? Because you are not God.

You were made, by whatever means, an imperfect human. 

Not being God is a forgivable shortcoming all humans share. To blame ourselves for not being God is unwise. We truly had no say in the matter.

Not being God, you make mistakes. Your nervous system is the nervous system of an animal that reacts with violence to preserve its own life. Some of these reactions, honed genetically over millennia, are, in the moment of threat, beyond conscious control. You make errors. You have an ego. You have desire and ambition and fear and anger. You were constituted to respond to threats with violence and you will not always win the battle within yourself about when to respond with violence and when to respond with knowing calm. You are going to make mistakes.

Look at yourself in the mirror and forgive yourself for being human.

Now, it may be complicated. I suggest you also explore what other thoughts you have about why you cannot forgive yourself. For instance, in reading your letter over again, something occurs to me. I wonder if your inability to forgive yourself is related to your inability to forgive your older sister. Maybe you believe that she should suffer for what she did to you, without fully realizing the corollary: That you must suffer for what you did to your younger sister. Think about it. If what you did is forgivable, then what your sister did to you might also be forgivable.

This is a way of opening a door. Forgive yourself. It does not mean you have to forgive your sister. But it may open the door to forgiving others. And that may open the door to greater kindness and acceptance in your own heart.

Sometimes to become able to forgive someone we must first pray for them to get everything they want. Yes, we must pray for them. Pray for our enemies and those who have harmed us. This makes us larger. It makes us benevolent and wise. It elevates us above our own petty concerns. Try it. It sounds crazy but try it. What harm can it do? If praying has no effect then certainly it can do no harm. If it does have an effect, then why should your older sister not get everything she wants? —unless what she wants is to bash your head in. You might include that eventuality in any prayer: I pray my older sister gets everything she wants except if she wants to bash my head in.

It’s worth practicing forgiveness toward people we think don’t really deserve it. What you are really saying with forgiveness is that you accept imperfection—your imperfection and the imperfection of others.

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

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