A reader writes:
Some acquaintances on twitter and I were discussing this piece today; the letter itself is particularly emblematic of the problem many of our millennials face. It will only get worse as they age.
The piece is a letter to “Polly,” the pen name of Heather Havrilesky, New York magazine’s advice columnist. I’m going to post the entire letter here. You will need to follow the link to read Polly’s advice, which is truly horrifying. First, the letter, headlined, “I’m Broke And Mostly Friendless, And I’ve Wasted My Whole Life”:
I feel like a ghost. I’m a 35-year-old woman, and I have nothing to show for it. My 20s and early 30s have been a twisting crisscross of moves all over the West Coast, a couple of brief stints abroad, multiple jobs in a mediocre role with no real upward track. I was also the poster child for serial monogamy. My most hopeful and longest lasting relationship (three and a half years, whoopee) ended two years ago. We moved to a new town (my fourth new city), created a home together, and then nose-dived into a traumatic breakup that launched me to my fifth and current city and who-knows-what-number job.
For all these years of quick changes and rash decisions, which I once rationalized as adventurous, exploratory, and living an “original life,” I have nothing to show for it. I have no wealth, and I’m now saddled with enough debt from all of my moves, poor decisions, and lack of career drive that I may never be able to retire. I have no career milestones and don’t care for my line of work all that much anyway, but now it’s my lifeline, as I only have enough savings to buy a hotel room for two nights. I have no family nearby, no long-term relationship built on years of mutual growth and shared experiences, no children. While I make friends easily, I’ve left most of my friends behind in each city I’ve moved from while they’ve continued to grow deep roots: marriages, homeownership, career growth, community, families, children. I have a few close girlfriends, for which I am grateful, but life keeps getting busier and our conversations are now months apart. Most of my nights are spent alone with my cat (cue the cliché).
I used to consider myself creative — a good writer, poetic, passionate, curious. Now, after many years of demanding yet uninspiring jobs, multiple heartbreaks, move after move, financial woes, I’m quite frankly exhausted. I can barely remember to buy dish soap let alone contemplate humanity or be inspired by Anaïs Nin’s diaries. Honestly, I find artists offensive because I’m jealous and don’t understand how I landed this far away from myself.
Also, within the past year I’ve had a breast-cancer scare and required surgery on my uterus due to a fertility issue. On top of that, I’m 35 and every gyno and women’s-health website this side of the Mississippi is telling me my fertility is dropping faster than a piano falling out of the sky. Now I’m looking into freezing my eggs, adding to my never-ending financial burden, in hopes of possibly making something of this haunted house and having a family someday with a no-named man.
I’m trying, Polly. I am. I’m dating. I’m working out and working hard. Listening to music I enjoy and loving my cat. Calling my mom. Yet I truly feel like a ghost. No one knows who I am or where I’ve been. I haven’t kept a friend, lover, or foe around long enough to give anyone a chance. What’s the point? I don’t care for my job. I’m not building toward anything, and I don’t have the time or money to really invest in what I care about anyway at this point. On top of that, society is telling me my value as a woman is fading fast, my wrinkles require Botox (reference said poor finances), all the while my manager is asking for me to finish “that report by Monday.” Why bother?
My apathy is coming out in weird ways. I’m drinking too much, and when I do see my friends on occasion, I end up getting drunk and angry or sad or both and pushing them away. And with men I date, I feel pressure to make something of the relationship too soon (move in, get married, “I have to have kids in a couple of years”; fun times!). All the while still trying to be the sexpot 25-year-old I thought I was until what seemed like a moment ago.
I used to think I was the one who had it all figured out. Adventurous life in the city! Traveling the world! Making memories! Now I feel incredibly hollow. And foolish. How can I make a future for myself that I can get excited about out of these wasted years? What reserves or identity can I draw from when I feel like I’ve accrued nothing up to this point with my life choices?
Go here to read Polly’s response. Trust me, you need to do this.
The reader who sent me the like calls Polly’s response
some of the most tone-deaf advice I’ve ever read. She literally doubled-down on the poison that was causing such grief to the letter writer.
About Havrilesky (“Polly”), the reader writes:
A woman who gets paid to write for The Baffler and The Atlantic, who sells books titled “What If This Were Enough?” tells a woman who cannot afford a hotel room for two nights to live in her shame, allow it to make her a true artist, that she still has time for a family, and oh then she plugs her book. She actually wrote:
“You are alive and you will probably be alive for many decades to come. The numbers on your credit-card statements can feel harrowing, but you can take that feeling and keep it company instead of letting it eat you alive. You can walk to the corner store to buy a newspaper and pull out the weekend calendar section and circle something, and make a commitment to do that one thing.”
It’s just such a perfect encapsulation of the priests of the high culture, and that’s what the media is: the disseminators of the new religion. No wonder the wealthy urban residents have so little understanding of cause and effect. They cannot conceive of consequences. They cannot conceive of being cornered in; their money buys them out of every problem.
The poor letter-writer needed good, solid advice: you’re drowning, and you realize it, but you need to hold onto that thought: keep your hand out and beg for help. Who is a rock in your life? Go find that person. Retrace your steps. Where did things go wrong? Were there things you could have made last that you didn’t? What expectations were you bringing to relationships, jobs, and friendships that need to be re-shaped? Are the things that are bringing you comfort numbing you and destroying your ability to get oxygen? The roots of her dis-ease come from what she was promised by her education and upbringing; she needs to take a step back from places like The Cut and look elsewhere for healing.
Things will get worse in some ways for the letter-writer before they get better, but that pain would also be the beginning of healing. She was at her greatest risk before writing that letter; if she listens to Polly she will get even worse. And this woman’s story is the story of so many men and women I know. They’re told to code, to be free, to give themselves over to their passion, to have Netflix and chill, to enjoy the childfree life, to check out the new wine bar, to “take a chance on themselves.” This is liberal-capitalist pablum. Joy and peace come from taking a chance on others, of giving to ourselves, of accepting restrictions so we can grow roots. How can this woman grow roots? That’s the question that needs to be answered, but the woman with the book deal told her to “All you have to be is a human being, haunted.”
That’s the problem. We don’t know how to be human anymore. And we’re making it more difficult to understand what it means at every moment.
God, yes. Seriously, go read Polly’s advice, and realize that this is just about the best that our secular liberal capitalist culture can come up with for this poor woman, Haunted. Havrilesky’s latest book is an essay collection, the connecting thread of which is her attempt to convince people to be satisfied with their lives, and to quit desiring what they cannot have. That’s a good baseline, I’d say, but judging by what she told Haunted, she’s trying to convince people to settle for something unworthy of human dignity.
I’d like to know what you think about Polly’s advice. But if you’re game, I’d also like to know what you would advise Haunted to do about her situation. Don’t write too long — remember that you are an advice columnist. And please, religious believers, don’t say, “You need Jesus,” or something like it. I’m a believer too, and I agree, she does need Jesus. But respond as if you were writing for a mainstream secular publication.
From my perspective, it’s hard to improve on the reader’s alternative advice. Off the top of my head, though, I would say:
You bought the Big Lie of our culture: that life should be experimental, and that passions are a sufficient guide to life. It turns out that boredom is not the root of all evil after all. You feel like a ghost because you have lived a life alienated from commitment to something greater than yourself. Life is paradoxical: only by losing it can you hope to gain it. That is, only by orienting yourself to something beyond satisfying your individual desires can you discover who you are and what you are meant to do in life.
Nobody lives an “original life.” There is nothing more conformist these days than the idea that you should live an original life. You should live a good life, which is to say, a life of virtue. The great religions — not the invented-five-minutes-ago-in-California pseudo-religions — all have something important to say about that. So does classic philosophy. The wisest men who have ever lived, no matter where and when, all agree that a life lived in service of the Self is a dead end.
Unfortunately, you live in a culture that expects you to bear the entire burden of creating meaning for yourself. This is why you sought to live an “original” life. You know now that that goes nowhere.
You should also know that you do not have time to undertake a thorough search for the Truth. Nobody can fully investigate every religion and philosophical tradition in the world, and make a rational, objective choice from them. The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard was right: Truth is subjectivity. He did not mean that there is no such thing as objective truth. Rather, he meant that the kind of truth for which a man could live and die can only be known by taking it into one’s heart and living one’s entire life by it. The trick is, you will never really know what the life of commitment is like until you live it from the inside. As Kierkegaard said, the trouble with life is that it must be lived forward, but can only be understood backward.
You might choose badly. There is that risk. Some have given their entire lives to serve the poor and the defenseless. Others have given their lives to serve insane cults or hateful ideologies. You must choose carefully, but choose you must. There are great books that can help guide you — here’s Part One of the greatest account by a man who lost the straight path, and found it again — but you won’t find them in the self-help section. A more practical strategy would be to think of the people in your life that you admire most — not the wealthiest or most professionally successful, but the ones who seem humble, and to whom you would turn in a crisis. Ask them what guides them through life. Then listen.
Think too about the men and women from history who have lived admirable lives. Why are they icons to us today? How can you imitate them?
The main change you can make right now is to fundamentally re-orient yourself: to stop being a tourist, and start being a pilgrim. A tourist has nowhere particular to go, and simply flits from here to there, moving on when he has sucked a place dry. A pilgrim, by contrast, is headed some place definite. He is traveling on a well-worn path, along with other pilgrims, and he looks for signs along the way to keep him oriented towards the destination, and to remind him of why it’s important that he keep moving there. You are going to have to take on faith that there is Truth outside of yourself, and that you are called to unite yourself to that Truth, through both action and contemplation.
Seek and you shall find. You will have to become a pilgrim in a world of tourists. This won’t be easy. But you have been living the alternative, and where has that gotten you? You will cease to be a ghost when you make commitments, and live by them, no matter what. Ghosts do not get blisters on their feet on the road to deliverance, nor do the taste the sweetness of a cup of cold water from the hands of a companion on the trail.
That’s my attempt at general advice for Haunted. What do you say, reader? What would you tell her? Again, if you are, like me, a religious believer, please discipline yourself by not telling the reader to convert to your religion. Write as if you were giving the advice in a general-interest magazine.