I feel awful about my affair

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, MAY 2, 2012

It was stupid, cruel and unsatisfying, and now I’m miserable


Dear Cary,

I really need you to tell me how to forgive myself, and how to carry on after I had an affair. I’m sorry if this ends up really long and please edit however you need to. Basically, I have been married for 15 years to a man who really is a fundamentally excellent person. We were married quite young for a couple in our socioeconomic bracket, and have been together since college. Like any couple that goes the distance, we have been to (relative) hell and back, most of which was the byproduct of trying to make our careers fit together, dealing with each other’s families, family money issues, etc. Totally run-of-the-mill problems. I have had my doubts, at times over the years, whether we were “meant for each other,” which we have discussed openly and honestly several times throughout our relationship.  We always come to the conclusion that we just do not want to break up. We love each other and we love most things about the life we’ve built.

Two years ago I entered an extremely challenging graduate program, which also wreaked havoc on our lives, and therefore, our relationship. Though I knew that all last summer and fall was an especially low point in our communication and in our overall happiness with each other, I’m still shocked and gutted whenever I “remember” that I cheated. Which is several times a day.

There was this other man, I’ll call him X, whom I had been acquainted with for several months. One night, while out with a group of 10 or so other friends (my husband went home early that night, the rest of us were celebrating exams being over), he paid special attention to me. At the end of the evening I acknowledged to myself that X was maybe more interesting and intelligent of a person that I’d formerly noticed. Still, I was extremely surprised later that night to receive a borderline flirtatious text from him.

I kind of hate myself for returning the attention. Looking back, I realize that I was just so flattered. No one tells you when you get married that you become invisible to other men, and it’s not that I think I’ve been out there looking for inappropriate attention …  but I found it surprisingly welcome when it came. And that’s how it all began. I’m so ashamed that it took so little, so very, very little, to tempt me into cheating on my husband.

Looking back at last year, I know now that there was something really wrong with me, for awhile. I was at least depressed, and actually I have begun to wonder if I even might have had a manic episode.  I suddenly was drinking often, and a lot (which I no longer am). I know that the pressure of my schoolwork has been affecting me in all sorts of ways that I don’t seem able to recognize in myself until that “phase” is over and I’m in the next one. However, even though I know this is a factor, I just don’t think any amount of stress is an excuse for what I did. Though my husband and I were having trouble connecting last year, and we were seriously considering a trial separation, that shouldn’t and doesn’t matter.

Because my husband and I are really open-minded people, each with friends from both genders, and neither of us prone to jealousy, I never even told one lie. There were a couple of lies of omission, but I think I was able to live in a little bit of denial for awhile just because I really never had to be sneaky, or make up stories. I just kind of detached from him, for a few weeks. Since I’ve been living in the library and so preoccupied with school the last couple of years, he didn’t notice.

The affair really only lasted a month and was much more of an emotional affair than a physical one, although the relationship was consummated, once. I have not confided any of this experience to anyone.  After sleeping with X (it makes me nauseated just to type this), even during, I knew that I really wasn’t attracted to him at all, and I just immediately realized what a mistake it all was. I got myself out of there, and began the process of ending it. Which is when I of course finally realized that X’s own mental and emotional stability was, well, compromised.

I just can’t believe how stupid I was, from the beginning. It’s hard to believe I deserve any credibility, but please know that I am usually a very perceptive, very self-aware and intentional person. How was I able to just take leave of my senses, for weeks? It is legitimately scary.

When I broke things off with X, firmly, he actually tried to physically keep me from leaving his house. Of course, nothing could have convinced me further that I wanted nothing to do with him EVER again.

Even though it all ended months ago now, there are still some things that keep me up at night. First of all, the clarity that comes with the regret of doing such a despicable thing is kind of a gift. I was able to wholeheartedly throw myself into my marriage again, and this year, 2012, my husband and I have felt closer than maybe ever. But of course, he doesn’t “know.”  We had actually discussed adultery a couple of times over the years, when we’ve seen friends or friends’ parents go through it, and we decided, each of us, that we did not want to ever know if the other had cheated on them! I know now that neither of us ever believed it would actually happen, but just by having those talks, I’m pretty sure he really doesn’t want to know.

In the beginning, I wanted to confess. Now I really don’t, and instead live in fear that he’ll hear it through the grapevine. As I hinted, X has done some things that made me realize, way later than I should have, that he is manipulative, needy and self-centered. Since he still asks me to meet him out socially on occasion, and often expresses his disapproval when I decline, I know he is not as “over” me as I pray for him to be. He can be a bit delusional. I am afraid that he will someday find justification for spilling the story to one of our common friends. I don’t know for sure that this hasn’t happened already.

What is worse is that he has a number of really incriminating and embarrassing texts from me on his phone, that he could show to anyone, at any time he felt like it. Sometimes I think I’m being paranoid when I play this scenario out in my mind, but at the same time, this is a man who pursued a married woman, the husband of whom he professes to like and respect, ensured she got drunk any time he was around her, and balked when she ended it after a few weeks. He is no saint.

Here are the issues that might be slowly killing me. How can I live with myself? My husband really is a great person, and the love of my life, and just because we were going through some doubts and hard times, I did something that would absolutely break his heart into a thousand pieces. One of the things that also stops me from confessing to him is that, if telling him destroyed our relationship, I’m scared it would also prevent him from ever trusting anyone else. I know he thinks I’m this great moral person and if I were able to betray him like that, then there’s no one who wouldn’t.

And it’s not just that I cheated on him that is so disturbing, it’s that I didn’t even choose someone, for lack of a better term, more worthy. X is just not a person I would even date, if I were single. I just feel pathetic. How can I call him needy, when I was so taken with the first person to pay me a compliment?

Sometimes I struggle with all of this even being real. Even though I might not have earned any credibility here, please believe me that this is very out-of-character for me. Now that the fog has lifted, so to speak, my memories from this affair seem like a movie that I watched, instead of a time that I lived through. There is another time in my life that feels that way, when my mother almost died after a terrible accident, and was in the hospital for months. So I know that in a way, it’s kind of a protective mechanism, but how do I make sure nothing like this ever happens again? Right now, nothing repulses me more than the thought of doing something like this again, but . . . I know now that I’m capable of really terrible things. I never knew that before.

Mostly, I’m just sick that I can’t undo this. I’ll always know. I’ll always know that I “ruined” our marriage, even though my husband (hopefully) won’t ever have an inkling. There was just this pure thing, this devotion, that we had, that we had promised to each other, and I was so ready to throw it away. And he never would. I don’t deserve him.  Living with this regret is just so unbelievably harsh. I’m pretty sure time is making it worse. It’s like the longer I “get away with it” the worse I feel. Is my whole experience just a total cliché anyway? Does everyone who cheats on their partner end up feeling this way?

I’m realizing that it’s taken me this long to even write this letter, to reach out to someone, because deep down, I still need to punish myself, and prolonging the bad feelings is the worst punishment I can inflict, that doesn’t also hurt my husband.

What do I do? How do I try to let this go? I’ve never, ever had such a low opinion of myself.

Hindsight is 20/20

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Dear Hindsight,

It will take time for you to forgive yourself. It will take time for you to sort out what kinds of unhappiness led you to make this mistake.

But that’s fine. You have time. You have a pretty good life in most ways. There is just some unhappiness in your life that you have tried to ignore. This affair was the result. Once you begin looking at your unhappiness, things will start to make sense, and you will find some compassion for yourself and will begin to forgive yourself.

It just takes time.

You can begin by contacting a marriage and family counselor.

If you do nothing, it’s likely that over time the severity of this event’s impact on your emotional life will lessen. But your marriage will probably end badly.

It will end badly because as you withhold your emotions the marriage will offer less and less satisfaction until it is practically worthless as a life-supporting partnership. It will become just another burden to maintain, just another life-sucking routine.

But it doesn’t have to end badly.

A decent marriage and family counselor can help you.

Your main hurdle may be in shedding your current frame of reference long enough to begin to look at what actually happened. For instance, you express amazement that this happened, and yet empirical evidence is that it happens a lot. So, in rational terms, your error was in excluding yourself from the set of people capable of having an affair. Every married person is capable of having an affair. There was really no basis for excluding yourself. You are human like everyone else. The intensity of your desire to stay true to your husband is obviously not a guarantee of success. It is only a wish. You just made a common human error in thinking: With no basis for doing so, you excluded yourself from the set of people capable of having affairs. Similarly, I excluded myself from the set of people capable of having cancer until I got cancer. It’s a common mental error. If you go back and examine your life to find the basis for your belief that you would not cheat on your husband, you will probably find the same kinds of baseless beliefs that millions of other people have also had. So I suggest you bring some academic rigor to your examination of your own life. But don’t try that on your own. It’s too painful and destabilizing. Do this only under the care of a therapist. Because you may make a second mistake: You may blame yourself. You have to do the opposite of blaming yourself. You need to forgive yourself. That may take some time. You haven’t been taught how to forgive yourself. You will have to learn. A therapist can help you with that.

This is not a puzzle or theorem but a wound. You can put off the actual work of recovering for quite some time. But eventually, you will have to begin.

Why not begin now, while you are still in fresh pain, while you are still motivated, while you still feel that it is an intolerable moral burden to live with? Emotional pain is a great motivator.

This can be fixed. Your marriage can survive. You can forgive yourself. But you need to begin.

My mom left my dad in a nursing home and lied about his chances of coming home

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, AUG 22, 2008 02:50 AM PDT

He thought he’d be returning home to die. But she just strung him along until he was gone.


Dear Cary:

My elderly father had been ill. After improving, he went directly from the hospital into a nursing home.

We never told him he was never coming home.

My mother said keeping up some sort of illusion of his eventual return was a way to keep him busy there, but it ended up being something that seemed so cruel in reality. With that “return” in mind, my father would plan to the best of his ability in order to be prepared for the big day. For instance, my mother would keep telling him he would have to do an increasing number of stair climbs to be allowed home, so he would do as she said — working up to 20, 50, finally 100 and more, as many as she required — and talk excitedly about how, when he had met her goals, he would get to go home.

For my part, I just felt like a coward in this whole situation. I had no power of attorney and no decision-making authority in any of this, and my mother had the legal power to place him straight from the hospital, even though I offered to try to find in-home care if anyone felt it was needed for any rehabilitation. I feel that she charged ahead with the nursing home plan, in part because she was bitter that he had frequently left her alone when he traveled for his job and she had found an ideal, ironic opportunity to get back at him (a lonely divorce-by-nursing-home: something his nurses told me was more common than anyone would believe).

My father never complained, but he would sometimes ask me if I knew when exactly he was going home. I always said that he would have to ask Mom (who never visited, but spoke with him on the phone about his “progress” and whether it was good enough for him to return). But I was just too weak to say anything else.

My father finally died after two years in the nursing home, having received the best care possible from his nurses, but never having heard the truth from us. Would he have been better off knowing he’d never go home again?

I hope I’m not the only one affected by this dilemma, and that others may be helped by your advice. On the other hand, it would be nice if I really were the only one who has had to deal with something like this. Thanks.

Powerless Daughter

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Dear Powerless Daughter,

This is one of the saddest things I have ever heard.

But in this story can be heard the laughter of the gods. Hear me out, please. I mean no offense. Laughter and death go hand in hand.

Day after day a dying man dreams of going home. He wants to die among his loved ones, near his daughter, his wife, his family and his cherished possessions.

He is glad that his wife and daughter are taking care of things, making arrangements for him to return home. He is grateful to them. He imagines them fighting for him with the nursing home staff. No doubt, he knows, the nurses would like to keep him there. They’re making a pretty penny off him. But his wife and daughter are going to get him out. They’re working night and day to get him strong enough to return home.

It is painful and exhausting to do the exercises. But he completes them.

Some days, he feels himself getting stronger and thinks, Any day now, I’ll be going home. Other days, he feels weaker and hopes they don’t think he’s not trying. He is trying. He is fighting. He’s going to get out of there and come home.

It’s his final battle and he’s determined to win.

How long has it been now? Why haven’t they come for me?

One day he takes a turn for the worse. He grows weaker and no longer can perform the exercises. If he can’t perform the exercises, he’ll never get out. He tries harder but he can’t even get out of bed now.

How long has it been now? Why haven’t they come for me?

One day he finally understands: He’s not going anywhere. He never was. This is where he has been taken to die.

The true horror of it strikes him. One day, she used to say, she’d … one day! She wasn’t kidding, was she! He always dismissed her complaints about his work-related travel. True, some of it was required, but some trips he could have turned down; at times he took the trips as a welcome respite from a difficult home life. And he lied to her about those. Of course he did. It was a marriage and a love affair but it was also a battle. Marriage is not just a partnership, he thinks. It is a battle. It is a battle to the death.

Amid his horror at what she has done comes a flicker of admiration. She has done it! I should have known she would! She has finally done it! She’s having her revenge!

It comes over him in an instant. He gets the punch line of the world’s longest joke. He is so weak that he can barely make a sound, but he begins to laugh. Maybe it happens in the middle of the night as he lies awake hoping for a sign from the heavens; maybe it comes in nearly inaudible shudders as those standing around watch, asking, Is he trying to say something? Maybe it is in a dream that the laughter comes to him. But rest assured that at the end, when he understands that his brief imprisonment in a nursing home is just one more blown scene in the blooper reel, he laughs and he hears the angels singing — for this quality of hers he loved, too: He loved her treachery as well as her virtue. He can laugh about it. He is free. It is the funniest thing he has ever heard.

It may not be not as funny to us as it is to him. We are of course still constrained by our sense of taboo, and our grief, and our loss; we are still striving for a sense of the sacred, and we tread carefully lest we offend. But to him, who stands on the precipice of that very sacred leap, who is leaning over the edge and letting go of all that is burdensome and illusory, to him it is beyond hilarious. He thought he was going home! What a joke! He can scarcely imagine anything more ridiculous.

In the end, it all comes home to him.

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My brother brutally murdered two people

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, MAR 2, 2011

Should I approach his victims’ families? Can I help in any way?


Dear Cary,

My brother brutally murdered two people and now faces the death penalty.

There are many issues I am dealing with so this really jumps around a lot but it is the best I can do right now.

I have generally been in favor of the death penalty as punishment for the crime of murder. Now the killer is one of my siblings and my perspective has changed. I know that if he was someone who killed my partner or best friend or someone in my family or anyone else I would probably not be forgiving and would want him to suffer and pay.

But he is my brother. The same brother who told jokes and liked to have fun. The same brother with two children who are now devastated by what he has done. The same brother who killed his fiancée and another man he found her with.

I wonder about how much he is suffering right now. I know that he is not a sociopathic monster. It is almost certain that he was on drugs when he committed the murders.

The homicide detective wants to fly across the country to interview me, because I had spoken with my brother a few hours after the murders. My brother did not confess to the killing.

I feel really bad for my mother and what she is going through, and for myself and the rest of my family. But I have reminded everyone that we will not suffer even close to what the families of the murder victims are enduring. They are living in hell and it very likely will destroy at least a few of them.

I was going to specialize in forensic nursing at one point with an emphasis on effects and treatment of homicide bereavement. I have volunteered for a national organization of survivors of homicide victims. One of the issues I helped co-victims of homicide address is whether the victims suffered, how they died and if it would have been possible to save them for those who made it to the hospital. I helped them process the fact that the murderer usually was the last person who got to be with them and that it is unrealistic to believe that they should have been there to protect the victim. I helped them process the horrible emotion of feeling like they want to kill another human being (the killer).

Even with a perspective of homicide and its aftermath not shared by most people, I do not want to be used by the prosecution to help make a case for first-degree murder against my brother. The crime scene was very bloody. The DNA evidence was all over the place. The prosecution wants to try to get me to prove that the murder was premeditated and coldblooded. I cannot offer what I do not know. I do not want to look at my brother in the courtroom and testify against him. I believe the prosecution does not need me to prove its case.

As horrible as this crime is, I still care about my brother and I want to let him know that I am there for him in any way that I can be. I will not be there to help him get away with the crime — as if that would even be possible. He made a horrible mistake and I believe he would take it all back if possible.

I have already replayed the scenarios of visiting my brother one last time before he goes to the execution chamber. Things I would tell him:

That organized religion and concepts of hell and all of that other garbage is a bunch of shit.

That I have been with many people at the time of their death from traumatic injuries and natural causes and that I have an inner knowing that we all go to the same place/transition regardless of how we lived on this planet.

That one victim of a brutal attempted murder left her body briefly before she was resuscitated and stated that she felt bad for the man who had just strangled and stabbed her and left her for dead as she looked down on her body. She said that she felt bad that he had gotten to a point in his life that he could do that to another human being.

I saw an online memorial for one of the victims. There were family pictures of him from birth to just before his death. His family looked like our family. A lot of people really loved him. The victims were also on drugs but they were not to blame for this and they did not deserve it. Their families did not deserve this. My family did not deserve this.

Something else that troubles me is that I cannot find anything online to offer support to families of the killer. I never really thought much about it until now but we have our own issues, too. This has really generated an incredible amount of emotional pain for my family as well.

One last really shitty thing that I need to mention. I was notified of this while I was at work around 3 a.m. I told a few co-workers about it while I was in shock. I was fired the next day for bullshit reasons. It was a temp job so it was easier than usual to fire me.

Thank you for any guidance you can offer.

Am I wrong for not wanting to speak to the homicide detective? Am I wrong for wanting to support my brother through his own personal hell and the aftermath of making one of the worst mistakes a human could make? Am I wrong for even asking you for advice on how to help myself and my family through what we are going through when the pain of the other families is much worse?

Would it be inappropriate for me to contact family members of the victims to offer any support or answer any questions that might help them process their grief?

Brother of the Murderer

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Dear Brother of the Murderer,

You have many profound and searing questions. But let me focus on just one: whether you should approach the victims’ families.

But before I do, let me just say this: No, you are not wrong. You are not wrong for any of this. You are innocent. You are the brother. You feel what you feel. You are not wrong for feeling any of this. The task before you is one of action: figuring out the right course of action.

Let me also, in advance, offer you this suggestion about support for the families of perpetrators. You might try the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated, and look at their Directory of Programs Serving Children & Families of the Incarcerated

As to reaching out to the families of your brother’s victims, if you feel called to do so, I think it can be appropriate and healing. But only after careful thought and preparation.

The questions you must answer for yourself are, Who and what do you represent? What are you offering? And what do you want from them?

As far as what you have to offer, I would not suggest trying to help them process their grief. That is not your role. Their grief is their concern. If they want help, they can seek it from others.

You are an emissary from a party that has taken something from them. You are therefore on a delicate mission. So I would suggest approaching them in a spirit of recompense, of returning, of giving something back. What you give back will of course in no way compensate. It will not be proportionate. Yet it still may be correct emotionally and spiritually. And it may also be practical.

Victims’ families often suffer tangibly as well as emotionally.

“Homicide survivors may lose much more than their loved one following the murder,” says the National Center for Victims of Crimes. “There may be a significant loss of income in the family, especially if the victim was the primary ‘breadwinner.’ Other family members may find they are unable to go to work because they cannot concentrate or because they need to be present at court hearings and may subsequently lose their jobs. There may be loss of the family home if mortgage payments cannot be made. Plans for school may have to be postponed because of financial difficulties or because survivors cannot concentrate on work or studies. If the victim survived briefly before dying, extraordinary medical bills may have been incurred for which the family may not have had sufficient insurance coverage.”

So I suggest you learn as much as you can about their situation so you can think through what you might offer them. Talk it over with people who know them, or with people whose sense of how to approach such things is well developed. Perhaps if they are suffering financially, a fund of some sort can be created, or if it already has been created, then you could contribute to it, or solicit funds for it. Or your gift might be something more concrete and personal, such as food, or toys.

Think carefully about where. Rather than approaching them at their house, you might attend a church service they attend, if they attend church services. A gift and a brief word of condolence, in such a setting, might have a greater chance of being received.

In spite of how well you prepare, you never know how people will feel or what they will think. No matter what you do, it won’t be easy. But you are motivated by compassion and conscience.

Your impulse is to reach out and console, to share, to be another witness to the awful. It’s a righteous impulse. But your motives are not pure, nor could they be. You want something, too. If you bring to them your own guilt and your own need for forgiveness, they may be offended; this they cannot offer you and it is inappropriate for you to ask them to. In doing so, even inadvertently, you would subtly place your own claims to loss against theirs and be found monstrously wanting. You don’t want to do anything to make it appear that you equate your suffering with theirs. Your sufferings are of a different kind.

In fact, you don’t want to be asking anything of them. You just want to give, simply and clearly. I suggest that you focus only on what you might offer them, and make it tangible and simple.

For instance, if your brother kept anything that belonged to his fiancée that has not been recovered as evidence, you might give that to the family of the fiancée. Or if there was anything of his that you know she wanted. It might be a small act of justice to say that after all he has taken from you, here is one thing returned, one tiny thing, but still, something is returned, something is restored.

In particular, if he or you had any photographs of her, you might return those to the family. Likewise, if he had any letters from her, and so forth.

What are the risks of approaching the victims’ families? Well, murder stirs our savage nature. We react with primitive, raw emotion. We may seek vengeance on the kin of the perpetrator. We may see the brother of the murderer as a stand-in for him, and want to vent all our rage on him. So be prepared for such a thing.

Imagine the victims’ families. In each of their hearts a battle rages. Each heart contains conflicting forces, or actors. Which actor takes center stage? Will it be the thoughtful and moral actor, who counsels forgiveness? Or will it be the warrior? The warrior says to the moral actor, Your high-minded morals are fine for times of peace, but this is war; one of ours has been slain; in war, we burn the village and slay the family!

Each of us has a warrior in us. His savage energy carries us through many a battle. We do not want to stifle that warrior. So be prepared to meet the families’ warrior spirits, if you venture onto their porch or into their church.

You, too, have a warrior spirit, and it may talk to you. This warrior spirit is wise not only about victory but about surrender. It is wise about defeat. It knows defeat and can walk many miles barefoot in the rain after its village is burned. This may be the spirit that you go to the family with: The spirit of a warrior in defeat. Go to them knowing that your own kin has done wrong and now is the time to surrender. Surrender is appropriate. For though you too are a warrior you do not want war. You want peace. They also want peace. They want peace but they also want justice.

If you can give them both, you will have done an honorable thing.

So you think well about what you offer them. You choose your gifts wisely. You take your shoes off before entering, if that is the custom. And you do not stay too long. If they offer you tea or coffee, you accept. But you ask for nothing. You only give. And you do not stay too long.

My next-door neighbor died and I didn’t do a thing

Write for Advice

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, MAR 29, 2006

Am I a terrible person, or just a normal American?


Dear Cary,

Before I begin, I want to preface this by explaining that by nature, I’m a fairly shy person. I hate calling people, I hate confrontation; I prefer to keep to myself. It takes a bit of coaxing to get me out of my shell.

The reason I’m writing is that my next-door neighbor died last night. I’ve lived next to her for two years. We rarely spoke: a few words over weeds in the summer, stories exchanged while passing out Halloween candy. She’s a nice woman, but we don’t have much in common and I could never imagine myself going next door to visit. She never made any overtures, either.

My neighbor was older, but by no means elderly. However, she was in poor health. About a year ago, she developed heart problems and we didn’t see her very often. My husband and I could some nights through our open window hear her coughing at all hours. I should have gone over to see how she was, if she needed anything (she has a huge family that visited frequently), but I could never get up the nerve to go.

A few weeks ago, the neighborhood block watch woman called to tell us our neighbor was in a nursing home recovering from surgery. I made noises about going to visit or send flowers, even though the idea scared the crap out of me. But then my husband got sick with the flu that’s going around, and then I got sick, and we were both out of work for a week … and then we got the phone call that our neighbor died.

I don’t know what I’m feeling about this, or what I should be feeling. On the one hand, I hate myself. I’ve always imagined — no, presented — myself as someone who could be relied on in times of trouble. And even though my neighbor never reached out to me, I never made any move toward her. It makes me sick to my stomach to think she was that sick — I guess I assumed she would be around forever — and I feel like I left her to die. But on the other hand, I didn’t know her; I doubt I could call her an acquaintance. And yet I get angry all over again that I didn’t make that effort to befriend her.

I don’t know exactly what I’m asking. We live in a society that’s so cut off from everyone. It’s amazing I even knew her name. I don’t know the names of anyone else on my street. Hell, I’ve never known the names of my neighbors in any of the places I’ve lived. We don’t live in a world where most evenings are spent outside chatting on the porch past dusk. But I never thought I’d be one of those people who never lifts a finger, who says, “Thank God the postman noticed the overflowing mailbox and knocked!” I guess I’m looking for absolution that she wasn’t my responsibility. But in my heart, I know in part she was, and I failed her. I’m a horrible human being for ignoring her suffering and doing nothing.

What Do I Do Now?

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Dear What Do I Do Now?

Calm down and stop calling yourself names. You’re not a horrible human being. You’re just a normal person. You may not be heroically civic-minded, able to rise above the inertial isolation of typical American life. But you’re no monster. You’re just an American living by the norms of American society.

In certain other places and times, instead of ignoring the neighbors one might report their habits of worship to the bishop, who would then consider, at his leisure, whether to have them burned or beheaded. Or you might give their names to a faceless man in a long coat, who would add them to the list he keeps in his decrepit office of death. In other words, at the risk of sounding corny, one might say that this cold anonymity is one of the costs of an extraordinary degree of personal autonomy and freedom from authority of any kind, governmental, religious or social.

If you ask me, and you sort of did, this society is while quite free also quite cold, certainly dysfunctional, and curiously unable to meet certain basic human needs that are easily met by aboriginal tribes, orders of religious nomads and even probably some packs of more civilized dogs: When someone in our midst dies, we want to acknowledge it openly.

That is normal. But if our options are not spelled out, who among us is bold enough to wing it? The solemnity attendant on death tends to discourage the improvised lament. If there is no protocol, one is at a loss. And in this case, as far as you could tell, there was no protocol; no elder of the church called on you; no notice was posted announcing a memorial; no one phoned and requested your presence at a funeral or a wake.

So you naturally were in conflict. Your instinct was clear: My neighbor is dead. I should do something. But what? Dress in mourning? Wear an armband? Raise a banner in front of the house?

So let this be a lesson to you: Always send a card when someone is sick.

And get to know your neighbors. It’s the neighborly thing to do.

That way, if one of them dies, perhaps your name will appear in an address book, or your card will have been filed away by a family member, who will contact all the senders of cards and all the people in the address book, and thus there will occur the ritual acknowledgement of death that is so longed for.

What can you do now, if anything? Try to find a way to make some expression of condolence. To whom? Why, to the family, of course. Find out from the neighbor who informed you where condolences may be sent. Send condolences. Say that you were the neighbor, and while you were not close, you will miss the departed one, and you send your heartfelt condolences to the family and loved ones she left behind.

This is the way we live today. Perhaps it is a shame. But this is the way we live.

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My aunt lent me money … with one condition

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I desperately needed money so I agreed to her terms, but I find them chilling and bizarre

 Cary’s classic column from  Sunday, Nov 21, 2010

Dear Cary,

Almost 10 years ago my wealthy aunt loaned me some money. I have not seen or spoken to this aunt in many years now, nor have I repaid the money. I would very much like to repay her, or at the very least set up a payment plan so I can begin paying her a little at a time, but so far it hasn’t happened.

I am deeply ashamed that I haven’t picked up the phone or written a letter to at least acknowledge the situation, but so far I haven’t been able to bring myself to do so. This is partly because of the money and the length of time, but more than that it’s because of the circumstances of the loan. At the time, I was desperate for the money because I was trying to escape my abusive ex-husband, as per his parole officer’s recommendation.

My family has never been close. It is one of those families where there is a history of mental illness and everyone is always not speaking to everyone else. It took a lot for me to ask anyone for a loan at all. I was very scared and nervous about it, and the first relative I asked turned me down, which made it especially difficult to work up the nerve to ask my aunt but I was desperate.

My aunt immediately agreed to loan me the money, but the conditions of her loan broke my heart. Rather than requesting your standard IOU, she made me write and sign a form stating that if I should meet an untimely demise she would get her money back from my estate. At her request, my IOU specified that I might die soon. She was worried that my husband would murder me and she wouldn’t get her money back.

I was so anxious to get away from my husband that I wrote and signed whatever I had to, but I was stunned and hurt. I kept thinking of my own nieces, knowing that if one of them came to me with a situation like that, the very last thing that would ever cross my mind would be concern that I would not be paid back if she were murdered. My aunt did not even so much as ask if I was OK. My aunt does not love me. No one in my family loves anyone else, it seems, and that has as much to do with the fact that I haven’t seen or spoken to anyone in so long as any of the rest of it.

My horrid, vindictive mother insists that I not repay my aunt (her sister) because of what my aunt did, but I don’t want to be like that. I don’t want to keep her money as payback for being cruel to me. She doesn’t owe me that money for revenge purposes. I would like to pay her back in full, but I am not interested in a relationship with her, or with anyone else in my family for that matter, including my mother. I have thought about it very seriously for a very long time, and I have decided that they are too far gone. The dysfunction is too severe and too deep. There is not one single relationship there worth even trying to salvage.

I am in serious financial trouble, to the point that I left the U.S. entirely because I could no longer afford to live there. Despite this, it’s been so many years. By now, had I even paid her $10 a month, I would no longer be in debt to her.

I like my new life in my new country, where everyone else seems to be as poor as I am. I am happily remarried and I have two baby sons. I am now a part of an extended family who does love each other very much. My own family is a part of my past that I’d like to forget, but I can’t stop thinking about the money. I need to pay it back, but in order to do that I have to make contact. I have to write or call my aunt and potentially open myself up to even more pain and humiliation.

I am in so much debt. I owe thousands of dollars to stateside hospitals for the baby I recently gave birth to and also for the baby I lost before him. I haven’t even been able to keep up with any kind of payment plan for those bills, and I can’t imagine where I’ll find the money to pay my aunt. For years now, every single time we are tallying up our bills and our debts and trying to figure out what to do about it I tell my husband, “And my aunt … don’t forget I need to pay my aunt.” Invariably he reminds me that it’s not a priority. He has seen very little of my family, and what little he has seen was enough for him to realize he didn’t want to see any more.

When there is so little money, and so much emotional and literal distance between us, I am not sure how to go about even beginning to pay my aunt back. Where do I start? What do I say? Should I just stick to the finances and not mention to her how it felt to realize that she would be willing to take money out of my traumatized and motherless children’s hands? Several years ago when my grandparents were terminally ill and their dryer broke, this same aunt bought them a new one, and she made my grandfather sign a paper stating that she got to keep the dryer after he died.

I keep thinking of things like this, and of the way my family works, and it’s making it so hard to pick up that phone. I have struggled so long to rid myself of the pain that comes with being a member of that family. I don’t know how to protect myself, other than by staying away entirely.

Thank you for your time,

G

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Dear G.,

It’s clear that you feel it’s important to pay the money back. But I don’t think that’s the most important thing right now. I think, rather, the most important thing right now is for you to take care of yourself and your kids.

So I suggest you not think about the money right now, but about the emotional content of what happened when you went to your aunt for help. What happened was bizarre and shocking. Of course, it was shocking that you were fleeing for your life as well. But your aunt’s coldhearted requirement was shocking. I mean, in a way, it was rational. But it was inhumane. It must have felt inhumane to you. It must have felt like some way of lowering you, diminishing you, to treat your life so cavalierly, as nothing more than a ledger line in her budget.

Of course there may be more to the story. Your aunt may have previously lent money that was not repaid and decided on this policy to protect herself. You say there is a history of mental illness in your family so perhaps there is a history of money being borrowed and not repaid. Perhaps your aunt has her share of problems as well. But you came to her in a moment of crisis and were presented with this morbid requirement. It must have thrown you.

So I can understand why you have not been able to touch it, and why to this day it lingers in your mind. I can see why you’d want to close the books on it.

Maybe you can close the books on it without reentangling yourself in this painful and destabilizing drama, at least for now. How? Well, one way might be to write your aunt a letter telling her all about why you came to her and what has happened in the interim and why you haven’t paid it and asking for her forgiveness.

Writing it to her might help you focus your feelings and uncover feelings you may not have realized you have. And it could be a way of saying goodbye to that chapter. You could even tell her, in the letter, that the reason you are writing it is that you just can’t deal with the craziness of your family right now and you just need for it to be over. You could declare it over.

Then maybe read the letter aloud. Maybe read it to a picture of your aunt. Light a candle and lean her picture up against the candle and read your letter to her and, I don’t know, burn the letter, or bury the letter. Just don’t send it to your aunt.

Write it but don’t send it.

Do a ritual that brings you some peace. You could use some peace.

And then, if you still want to pay your aunt back, open a savings account and begin putting money in the savings account. Put in whatever amount you can afford to put in regularly. Give this savings account a name. Call it Aunt Payback or something, so that it’s clear it’s an account to pay your aunt back. Just keep putting money in it. It might take years. But when it’s full, you can send the money to your aunt.

And, to return to that utterly morbid requirement in the IOU, I suggest you put instructions in your will such that if you should die before the payback account is filled and your aunt has been repaid, and if your aunt should indeed show up with her IOU demanding repayment from your estate, then whatever is in that should be used to settle her claim. That way, it’s sort of an insurance fund, so neither your kids nor your husband will be fully liable for this debt, should it come due.

You know, there’s a lot of talk about symbols in psychology and literature. And you hear people talk about what something is a symbol of. And maybe some symbols are like letters of the alphabet, in that they always have the same meaning. But it seems to me symbols are more like tools, or weapons, whatever is at hand for the psyche to serve her current purpose. If we are sad, deeply sad, ineluctably sad about how our family turned out, and if we grieve for a life that will never be, and if we grieve for many hurts and slights and insults received over many years, and if we go through a number of shocks and hurts and upsets and dislocations until we are thoroughly rattled, and we are always wishing that there were some solution that would ease the pain and bring back a sense of ease and delight and calm, then we may indeed come to seize on some object or idea and believe that it is the central object or idea, and that if we can just accomplish that, our other problems will evaporate.

It doesn’t matter what that symbol is. We’ll take whatever is available. For me, once I became attached to a truck and it symbolized everything I needed at the time. At other times I will become attached to money, or to a past event that I feel I must rectify, or to … oh, I don’t know, like a child believing if he gets a train set for Christmas he’ll be happy for the rest of his life and if he doesn’t nothing will console him.

So the work we must do as adults, in untangling all the threads of our tangled lives and emotions, the work is to take each piece and deal with it as it is, knowing that no one magical act can transform everything, knowing that there is no magic fix, but that if we patiently perform the painstaking operation of untangling each thread, we will make progress, and we will find increasing calm and order and hope. So we have to do the hard work of deciding which strings we are going to untangle first and which can wait and which ones we are just going to let go of.

Some strands we just leave tangled. It isn’t worth it. It may be appealing to perform one dramatic gesture that sums up the whole of our voluminous complaints and past injuries and imagine that if only we did this one thing, we would be in the clear. But that’s not how it works.

It’s too bad. I generally want to fix everything right away. That’s my nature. Believe me, it has not been easy to learn new ways of thinking. But I have, to some extent, and I think you can, too.

So there’s two parts to my suggestion. One, I’m serious about doing the ritual, to get to an emotional peace with this event. And then the other part involves practical action, because crazy as it is you apparently did incur this debt and it’s good to do what you can to repay such things and to prevent their becoming a burden on your children or husband, in the case of your death.

And then, do me a favor? Just try to enjoy your life? You’ve been through enough. Find some time to relax and enjoy your life. Don’t let this thing hang over you. Say goodbye to it. Bury it. Burn it. Let it go.

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I should have gone to my aunt’s funeral

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I could have gone, I should have gone, but I thought about the money and my other plans!

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, APR 25, 2008

Dear Cary,

I just got done listening to this beautiful essay on NPR. Someone wrote in to say, “Always Go to the Funeral.” I’m writing you because I didn’t go, and I feel terrible about it. My aunt Miriam just passed away. She wasn’t really my aunt. I never knew how she was related to me. I used to call her “Grandma Miriam,” and later it was “Auntie Miriam.” She always gave me good Christmas presents.

I wanted to go to the funeral. Part of me did, at least, but part of me thought of all the obligations and plans I had already made (training course, baseball game, weekend at my boyfriend’s) and I didn’t want to cancel all these things. And then there was the money. I live in New York and most of my family is in New Mexico. I tried the bereavement rates and the discount carriers, and the cheapest flight I could get was $470.

I told myself, “Put it on your credit card. Think of all the useless crap you waste your money on every day, you can afford this.” But I didn’t want to spend the money. And then I thought of the dozens of times I had promised myself, “Always put friends and family before money.” And I asked my boyfriend for advice, and he said, “That’s a lot of money. It’s OK not to spend it.” And I asked my sister, “Is it OK if I don’t go? It’s just so expensive.” And she said it was OK. So now here I am. It is the morning of the funeral and I feel awful. I should have gone.

I could have afforded it. I’m loaded with credit card debt, but I waste my money on so many unnecessary things. This would have been a lot at once, but it wouldn’t be outrageous. Hell, I’m planning a summer vacation in New Mexico where I plan to stay at a fancy multi-star resort. I could have afforded it. And yet I didn’t go. And now it’s too late to change my mind.

I feel so much regret. And this regret makes me turn inward. I look at my life, and I wonder what I’m doing here. I love New York, but things like this make me wonder how I can survive so far away from my family. I miss them all the time. I don’t know what I’m doing in this city, in this job, so far away from everything. I earn money, and I spend it on rent and food. And the food is terrific, but what am I doing here? Why didn’t I go to the funeral? I want someone to say, “It’s OK.” But then I would know that they were just lying to soothe me.

Coulda Been a Mourner

Dear Coulda Been a Mourner,

When we are stung with regret about an action we have taken or failed to take, often our first thought is, Why?! Why did I do that? Why did I not do that?! Why?!

Why is not always the best question to ask. It is often better to first ask, What? For Why? presumes we already know the What? but we often don’t. Not really. Not fully. Not in the deep and lasting way fitting to an occasion we will remember the rest of our lives. Much of the Why? can be answered if we fully explore the What?.

So let’s ask, What? What happened? First, your aunt died. Your aunt died and news reached you — a relative called you and told you, or you received an e-mail. And then what happened? What did you do next? Did you sit down and feel sad? Where were you? Did you feel fearful or conflicted? Did you call someone close to you to talk about it? What feelings came up?

Write about that moment when you got the news. Put aside some time to do this. If it is hard to find the time, then consider the hours or days you would have put aside to go to the funeral, and put aside just a fraction of that time to write down your recollection of events. Put aside, say, just two hours when you can be alone and recollect it. Begin writing and do not be concerned about the quality or accuracy of what you write. Just keep the pen moving, or the fingers typing. Try to move forward in time through the events. Write about how you got the news, and what you thought about, and who you talked to, and what you remembered of your aunt. If things from the past occur to you as you write, put them in, but keep moving forward. Write about the activities you had planned for the period of time your aunt’s funeral would have been — the baseball game, the training course, the weekend at your boyfriend’s. Do not shame yourself for wanting to do these things. They are good, human activities. Write about those activities and how much you like them and how much you were looking forward to them. Also write about the $470 ticket to New Mexico, and your experience talking to airline reservation agents about bereavement fares.

It may help to write this in the form of a letter to a friend or relative. Or you may want to address it to your aunt. If you find you have specific things you want to say to your aunt, you can address her in the course of writing the letter even if the letter does not begin, Dear Auntie Miriam. Just say, by the way, Auntie Miriam, I wanted to tell you this. That way you can say things to her in the letter that you might have wanted to say, and if you want to ask forgiveness for not attending the funeral you can ask her forgiveness. She would probably understand. The dead are wise. But they don’t know everything. She might have been wondering where you were. So just tell her what happened.

Don’t worry about being correct. Just be complete. Put it all down: when you got the news, in what manner the news came to you, what you were doing when you got the news and where you were, who told you, what you felt and what you did. Try to remember the feelings you had and what went through your mind.

When you have written all this, then find a time to read it aloud to a close friend or family member, someone who will not judge you but will thank you and support you. Or, if you prefer, read it aloud alone, perhaps addressing our aunt as you read.

The simple truth is that you are experiencing deep regret and deep loss and you are trying to handle it. Funerals are one way to handle this but not the only way. It isn’t that you made the right decision or the wrong decision. You can’t change the fact that your aunt died and that you did not attend the funeral. This is what regret is like: Something has happened that really, truly, utterly cannot be changed. It is done. It is over. And we played a part in it. We chose a path and that choice cannot be changed either.

You are experiencing the loss of your aunt. But consider this: Losing someone is more like missing their funeral than attending their funeral. So what you are feeling is closer to the raw, irrevocable realization of death than what you would be feeling if you had gone to the funeral. In making this little mistake you have gained something irreplaceable that will serve you the rest of your life. Now you see why we have funerals. They help us get over it. They replace the dead with a convocation of the living. They help us avoid the true irrevocable silence and absence that is death. So it is good to go to the funeral not because we offend the dead with our absence. Funerals are very boring to the dead (they laugh about it later, at the after-party, and they make fun of our clothes). Instead it is good to go to the funeral because then we do not have to face the terror of our ultimate nonexistence alone in our apartments.

So next time someone close to you dies, you will know: Take the easy way out. Charge the bereavement fare to your credit card. Go to the funeral and be among the living. But please know that you are not a coarse, unfeeling person, that you have not offended her, that you are not lacking in human decency. You have done nothing wrong in missing this funeral. In fact, by writing out what happened, you can memorialize this event and honor your aunt in a way that is unique and that adds to her memory.

So think of it this way: Rather than attend the palliative event like the rest of the family, you unwittingly stuck your head out the window of the car and took in a full face of death at 70 miles an hour. Now you know what that’s like. It’s better to go to the funeral. But the funeral is not for the dead. The dead don’t need funerals. We the living do.

I forgot to tell my wife I have a 12-year-old daughter

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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, JUL 8, 2005

I fathered a child when I was a screwed-up loser and kept it secret all these years.


Dear Cary,

Boy, did I screw up.

About 13 years ago, I fell for a friend of my sister’s and got her pregnant. I was at this point in my life a loser. I had no job, no home (I was living with my father), no car, no license (never had it), no complete education, and absolutely no prospects. Her family, predictably, hated me.

After a couple months of unremitting and conflicting pressure from our families, she “realized” that I was a loser and she cut me loose. No contact, no nothing.

The last night that we ever discussed the baby was the night she gave birth. I got raving drunk and never discussed it again. My very WASP-y and remarkably repressed family followed suit (or was it I that was following suit?) Either way, the topic was off limits, that part of my brain and my heart was blocked off with yellow tape, and everyone moved on.

She married and her husband adopted the baby. I turned my life around materially and spiritually (education, wonderful wife, good job, house, etc.). I never tried to contact her or the baby. I told myself that I was only a “donor” and that I would only screw things up for her and the baby. Eventually, my wife and I bought a home not too far from my daughter and her family.

I dealt with the issue alone, fighting the late-night demons and doing everything I could to hold the situation at bay.

Years passed. A mutual friend of the family ran into the woman and told my sister that my daughter is 12 now and asking a number of questions. The resemblance is unmistakable and her parents have done a wonderful job (I am thrilled for them and her ). Faced with this, and only because I was faced with this, I decided to tell my wife about the situation.

Predictably, my wife is furious and feels (rightly) that I have violated her trust. We are just about to start a family of our own, and now everything in my life has been thrown into play. I don’t know if I would have been able to reveal this if not forced. Now that it is out in the open, the events are painful and crushing.

I’m scared, I’m confused, and I suddenly feel every bit as worthless as I felt all those years ago. I don’t think that my wife is going to leave me (we are looking into starting some kind of couples therapy), but I feel like I am still paying for not being good enough all those years ago. I am starting to get angry at those folks who are angry at me.

I have written a letter to my daughter’s mother and adoptive father, explaining where I am in my life and that we are very open to contact and a relationship, once rules and boundaries have been established; but my primary concern is my wife. I do not want to lose her (or her respect) over this.

Three days ago I had a normal life, and I feel like I am never going to have that again…

What a tangled web we weave…

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Dear Tangled,

I do not think you will lose your wife over this, or that your life will fall apart. You will get into counseling and learn about family systems and the keeping of secrets. You will work out some arrangement with the family of your daughter, and your wife will look at you with unfathomable anger for an indefinite period, and if you are good and do not completely freak out, eventually the normal life you had three days ago will return. But I hope out of this comes some thinking about how you have been living and where the secrets come from and who this person was who so many years ago fathered a daughter and kept it secret from his wife. I detect in your letter perhaps a lack of empathy for your earlier incarnation, and I would like to share a little about how I, who was also a bit of a loser and somewhat out of control, have come in middle age to regard my earlier self.

It has been helpful for me to see that I did some of the things I did because I was trying to do the right thing, strange as it appeared. It has been of great help to me to realize that I have often been an innocent actor, naive and lazy and deluded but not malicious. Like you I was trying to survive. I was doing what I had to do at the time. It has been helpful in considering why certain episodes went wrong to consider what I was running from and why I kept so many secrets and why the truth seemed unsurvivable. Was there some knowledge so corrosive that the silence in our household was a kind of insulation, a balm to naked skin?

What truth was so terrible at the time that it could not be uttered in the house? That you had sex without love? Is love a pair of handcuffs that must be worn every time? Is it a sin to do something simply because you really, really want to and it feels really, really good? Was it a sin to make love to your sister’s friend? Was there no one else around who could take you by the hand and show you what you then had to do? Was this all up to you? Are you the sole perpetrator of some crime? Must you punish yourself now for rest of your life?

It has been of great help to me from time to time to conjure up this innocent being, this young boy who was simply trying to express love and wonder, and later this young man who seemed to be in trouble but was not robbing houses or hitting people on the head. I suggest you do not hate this younger man, this fuck-up, this version of yourself. I suggest, instead, that you learn to love this nasty little fuck-up that you had to leave behind. I suggest that you offer a hand of forgiveness to this nasty little fuck-up. He was a guy trying to figure it out. He was a guy trying to get along. He was a guy trying to live with whatever it was that hurt. What was it that hurt? Who ever knows what it is with a young guy that hurts so much? We don’t talk about it among ourselves, although always there will be a stoned glance or a touch between young men, high on this or that, that says I know the crazy hurting thing too, it’s a motherfucker. So you followed the trajectory of your hurting and you got drunk the night your daughter was born.

Fathers have been getting drunk and leaving town for centuries when their babies are born: In spite of our storied propensity for engendering life, we do not always welcome it when it arrives, we kind of wish it would go away, we want to be left to our tools and our greasy hands and our shade trees, our violent metal and brief explosions, our gray primer and rust, our certainty of objects. The birth of a child means more life, more crying, more questions, more hunger, more lying and walking away, more required courses, more questions we cannot answer, more tests, more tedium, more teachers, more classroom sitting, more desolate afternoons, more diapers and howling, more unbridgeable gulf, more rules, more discipline, more silence. We do not like life in a lot of ways. For some of us men we like a few books, we like a little racquetball, we like maybe a sauna and some swimming, we like a long drive down a leafy road in a good truck, but we did not sign on for the entire program and it tires us out, frankly, and after the truck is parked we just want to lie down and go to sleep, and it is like this day after day for many of us men, which is why we father kids and go off into the woods, never to speak of it again until it comes up by a careless word or two in the supermarket, and there we are again, saddled with ourselves, bending under the incomprehensible load of what we have done — given life to a child who now looks out at the world and says, I don’t know, man, what you’re all so fucked up about, this looks pretty good to me. Just wait, we say. Just wait.

What I mean is, you need to conjure up some compassion for the teenager you once were, this wayward loser without a home or a job. You need to do this in order to stop hanging your head in shame for having been simply young and confused and unsure what to do. My sense of it is that your keeping of secrets arises out of intense shame. You need to replace that shame with some compassion and respect. To do that you need to go back down some of those same old roads and find out what you were really looking for back then.

I can’t do that for you. But my guess is that you were looking for a way out of WASPish silence, the long tradition of family secrets, the code your family lived by. You were looking for a more authentic way of feeling and being. Making love and getting drunk seemed like ways to get to something real. But at the crucial moment, when your waywardness truly bore fruit, it was a forbidden fruit it bore, so you turned away in fear. You turned back to what you knew best: the keeping of secrets, the silent bearing of shame.

Now, as an adult man, it’s time to pick up where you left off. It’s time to finish what you started — not with teenage acting-out but with a sober acknowledgment that wild, untamable passions are as important to your life as oatmeal for breakfast and plenty of life insurance.

You’re married now. You’ve got a house and a job. You’re safe. It’s time to hold your head up and acknowledge who you were then and who you are now and make the best of a pretty good situation.

I hope you get a chance to tell everything. Sometimes, after a life of secrets, telling everything helps.

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I feed the poor but eat with the rich

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, AUG 21, 2007


We do our Christian charity and then drink mimosas at a fancy hotel up the street. And that just seems so wrong!


 

Dear Cary,

A few months back, I joined a church group that goes to a homeless shelter once a month to prepare breakfast for about 200 street people. This group has been doing this for several years. The work is hard: We get up early and shop for all the food, haul it to the shelter kitchen, and prepare the meal, serve it and clean up afterward. We spend a good four hours from start to finish. We make cauldrons of coffee and juice, large casseroles of scrambled eggs, sausage, and cheese, plus toast, pancakes and fruit. The food isn’t fancy, but the people we serve seem to like it and appreciate our efforts.

The 10 of us in the breakfast group are good friends, and we are the typical white upper-middle-class liberal do-gooders. My problem is that after we finish serving and cleaning up, no one eats at the shelter or even really associates with the clientele. It apparently is a tradition that once the kitchen is cleaned up, the whole crew walks several blocks from the downtown shelter to a very nice hotel, where we pay $30 a person for a fancy brunch buffet. The price goes up if one orders mimosas and Bloody Marys, and most people do.

I suggested that after we have served the last person in line, we should prepare a plate for ourselves of the food we cooked and join our clients out in the dining room. The response I got from my fellow crew members caused me some dismay. Nearly everyone curled their lips and acted as though I had suggested that we lick the floor. “Eeeyew, I don’t like the cheap cheese in the casserole.” “I only eat low carb (low fat, low calorie, low whatever).” “After four hours, I just want to relax and let someone clean up after me.” “I figure that after a morning doing this, I deserve a reward.” Frankly, I think that most of the group is scared of street people and only want to hide in the kitchen or behind the service counter … God forbid they sit elbow to elbow with someone who hasn’t bathed in a week.

This seems horribly patronizing or condescending or “Lady Bountiful” to me. We are good enough to buy, prepare and serve you food but we are too good to eat it with you. The irony of us making cheap food for 200 (and yes, we buy discount ingredients … generic brands, not brand names) and then dropping the same amount of money or more for a white-linen brunch for 10 seems to be lost on my co-workers. I have begun boycotting the brunches and joining the shelter folks for breakfast, but no one from the crew has joined me.

Am I being a pill? Is it any of my business where my do-gooder friends want to eat, or how much they spend on themselves? I don’t want to stop working at the shelter; these people need to get fed, but I hate the feeling of us-and-them. I wonder if I am being hypocritical, thinking that it is noble of me to spend an hour chatting and eating with homeless people instead of eating off china plates and sipping really good coffee, and then getting into my hybrid and driving across town to my house.

Bleeding Heart Liberal

Dear Bleeding Heart,

I’m not a religious person but I’ve heard a few things about Jesus.

Jesus stood alone, and that is part of his allure. He stood alone against the crowd and he stood with the poor. There was a higher principle at work than the principle that governed the flow of money and goods in society. It was something about how every person no matter how low has a chance for transformation and miraculous salvation. About the eternal life bit, you believe what you like. To me it sounds as if he was offering a second chance, how everybody no matter how fucked up has a tiny speck of divinity that you can see if you look for it and hear if you listen.

So about the whole going for mimosas after feeding the poor: It isn’t about whether it’s noble of you. This is not salvation on the points system. There is something more profound at work here, and I admire you for being open to it.

A good and just society would feed and house all its people. A society that is rich and powerful and has not found a way to use its great wealth and power to feed and house all its people fails this fundamental test in a spectacular and historic way. I fear that such a civilization will be mocked and scorned by future generations.

Since our government is the principal organ by which we exercise our vision of a good and just society, this failure is primarily a failure of our government. So any institution outside our government that steps in to help is to be commended. What that institution’s members do after providing this service to the country is no concern of those of us who are not dishing out the food. They can go bowling or go fishing or get drunk and pick up hookers. They’ve done important service and we owe them gratitude.

That is the big picture. You are doing a good thing and where you eat afterward is up to you. But what is important is that you yourself are feeling a pang of moral conscience. It isn’t so much about these other church folks. What they want to do is their business. What’s significant is that you feel the tug of conscience and you have a spiritual thirst.

So the question is, what good will it do to sit down and eat a meal with some people who don’t have enough money to keep a roof over their heads? Why would you do that? Would it be an act of charity or an act of ego? Is that even a meaningful distinction? Would you be appreciated or would you make everyone uncomfortable? Would you be eating with the poor just to show up your church buddies? Would you be doing it to achieve some kind of moral street cred? Are those meaningful distinctions? And would you be able to restrain yourself from picking food off other people’s plates? And is that a meaningful distinction or just some nonsense thrown in so this doesn’t sound hopelessly grave and pompous?

Well, bottom line, I think that when such moments arise we trust our instincts. Because as humans we seek integration of the vast, many-faceted pattern that is our being. And the parts of us that we don’t fully understand, or that are buried or undeveloped, signal us in primitive ways, through signs and encounters, through instinct, through happenstance and mishap and magic. In the struggle for integration of the self we proceed by signs. Sometimes it’s moving too fast to work out on paper. A highly intuitive person, for instance, may see in a flash that his place is alongside the poor, not in the hotel with the mimosas. He may see it all in a flash and have to go with it. There’s no time to explain! Just stay here! Really, though. There’s no time to explain! Really.

Anyway … I got off track reading Jack Bauer lines. Look: We all get off track sometimes, OK? I’ve got to sit down and eat with these people! There isn’t time to explain!

The thing is, what you may not have considered is that while you think you’re the one who holds all the cards, the topsy-turvy truth is that these people at the homeless shelter have a lot to offer you. You already know how to drink mimosas. But do you know how to stay dry in the rain? Have you ever known hunger? It is a good thing to know, what hunger feels like. It is good to know the terror of finding yourself alone on the street with no food and no money and no idea where you are, knowing no one, having no phone numbers to call, having no sister or brother to drive and pick you up, having no parents to call upon, no children to call upon, no friends, no employers, no agencies. That’s a good thing to know. It is a good thing to know what it feels like to wait and wait on a corner until you finally just fall asleep there on the cold, hard sidewalk. It’s good to know when was the first time you realized you didn’t have an address. These are things you might talk about as you eat your substandard cheese.

It’s good to acknowledge, also, that what you are talking about is revolutionary consciousness. You are having a moment of revolutionary consciousness, in which higher principles have come to life for you, and you see them in conflict with how life is being lived, and you ask if you have the courage to follow these higher principles. I think you do. I think it is a revolutionary consciousness that can be expressed in a quiet, humble, Christian way, just by sitting down and sharing food with people.

My boyfriend lied about his debts and now he’s couch surfing

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Cary’s classic column from

But he’s an artist. Should I boot him?


Dear Cary,

My boyfriend and I have been together for over a year — my longest and best male/male relationship. Right before we met, he quit his lucrative job in retail to go back to school in photography, a longtime passion. He simplified his life: he bought a motorcycle outright, moved into a cheap downtown apartment and got a part-time job that would be flexible with his class schedule. I think this was brave and admirable. He made the right decision, such is his obvious talent. He’s 31 and I’m only 25, we’re both artists, and both getting started in our careers.

A month ago he came to me and told me that he’d incurred some reasonably large debts, and that he was being evicted from his apartment. He cried through most of the discussion. He’d known about the debts (some was money due to the IRS for a year, some was more recent) and hadn’t told me. In fact, he’d hidden them from me. When I first heard of the “possible but unlikely” eviction, he attributed the trouble to a party we’d thrown at his place that had upset the neighbors — a party I’d thrown for my birthday. But he was evicted for simply not paying his rent. His lies (he says he never lied, just didn’t offer the information) were instantly forgiven. His raw emotion took me over (I love this man!) and I switched into my “solve it” mode.

One month later, most of his stuff is in storage and he splits his time between living with me and driving his now impractical motorcycle 35 miles to his family’s home and sleeping on the couch. I live with a roommate and — though I feel guilty about it — I haven’t told him of my boyfriend’s eviction because I’m afraid he’ll be angry and say he doesn’t want to live with two roommates (which he’d have every right to say). My boyfriend allowed me to plan a $1,200 vacation to visit my family, so now he owes me money he can’t really afford to pay back either (I feel guilty taking his money when I know he still owes a landlord). Basically, I feel guilty all the time.

After four years living in a big city and making just enough money to survive, I’m finally making enough to go to out to dinner every now and then. But this relationship is financially draining me. My credit card debt has grown to a level it’s never been at before, and I’m making more money than ever. I love this man and I know he’s being sincere when he says if the roles were reversed he’d take care of me in any way he possibly could. But I can’t have him living with me in this situation and I feel guilty when I make him drive to a house I know he hates. Worst of all, he just doesn’t get it. He thinks, with all his heart, that love conquers all. How can I make him understand that this is tough for me, too, when things are absolutely 100 percent tougher for him right now? Am I just a selfish person?

Selfish and/or Guilty

OnlineWorkshopAug6

Dear Selfish and/or Guilty,

You feel guilty because you’re doing something wrong. Isn’t that wonderfully simple? You’re allowing this person to lie to you, steal from you and mistreat you. It’s wrong to allow that. You know it’s wrong to allow it. That’s why you feel guilty. You’re not helping anyone by letting it continue. On the contrary, allowing him to continue makes you an accomplice. Standing up for yourself in such a situation is the farthest thing from selfish: It’s a selfless act of courage, a gift to the world. If you stand up for yourself, you stand up for your roommate and for your families. When you stand up for yourself you stand up for us all. You stand up for the weak, the elderly, the frightened, the codependent. You set an example of strength, moral clarity and courage. You add to the store of goodness in the world. You teach others by example. Even for your boyfriend: By standing up to him, you also stand up for him — for the good part of him who needs to know that what he’s doing is wrong, and can only lead to debasement.

It was courageous of him to go back to school and follow his talent. But it’s wrong of him to lie about his debts and become a mooch. His art can only suffer. If he quit a lucrative job to go back to school, he’s going to have to learn to live cheaply on his own. He already has an obvious problem telling the truth about money. Do not play into it. Do not feed this problem of his.

Do not think of what you personally may lose. Think of all the other people he is manipulating, and act on their behalf, not your own. The only power he has over you is your fear that if you stand up to him you will lose him. That is your weakness. You must think in larger terms: of your very self, your pride, your sense of fairness to others, your place in the world of family and roommates and friends.

Being a creative person does not mean that right and wrong do not apply to you. Because you have a larger, more profound gift for the world does not mean you get your bread for free. We should not pamper our artists and our stars. The more we pamper those we admire, the more we rob them of their belonging in the world, the more we feed their addictions, the more we blind them and render them ignorant, and thus destroy their ability to tell the truth through their art.

So do us all a favor. Stop letting this guy walk all over you. Tell him to pay his debts and get a place of his own.

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