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Couldn’t Be Me: Why is living so hard?

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In this week’s advice column: How to make the consuming nature of life seem manageable.

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Welcome to Couldn’t Be Me, a weekly advice column where I solicit your personal dilemmas and help out as best as I can. Have something I can help you with? Find me @_Zeets.

There’s a self-help book called “Life’s Missing Instruction Manual: The Guidebook You Should Have Been Given at Birth,” and like all self-help books, it reduces life to a mere problem of personal responsibility and a game to be won, rather than a complex, absurd, wonderful, and utterly ridiculous experience to be lived. But the book gets at one particular problem of life: there’s no real guideline on how to live.

Many books have tried to fill that hole; the existence of philosophy is based on the question of how to live a good and moral life. But even in the best books, the experience of life is simplified, individualistic, and particular, and beyond a few guidelines we are still left to feel for ourselves, to struggle with life in totality. Which is to say, that life is so damn hard, and has so many unique problems, that it can often feel overwhelming.

There’s no theme in this week’s column, insomuch that the fact of the difficulty of living can’t be considered a theme when it’s perpetual. This week, the overwhelming experiences range from trying to be hopeful for the future when everything in the present seems awful, trying to find love when one is afraid to be lonely, and dealing with the reality of a loved one with a terminal illness being very far away.

We can’t pretend that the problems of a person in such a complex world can be handled with cliches from self-help books. Hopefully, in this column, we did a little better than that.


Matt:

How can I feel hopeful about the future considering the leaders and priorities in society. While this is specifically in reference to climate change this can also be considered more generally. I am sometimes consumed by this while thinking about the global reach of these issues but am also personally concerned despite living in one of the countries least impacted.

CBM:

To me, when it comes to the survival of the planet, or fighting for a better future in general, feeling personally hopeful doesn’t matter. The problems are just too big.

An imagination and sense of justice are more important. You don’t need personal hope that the world will be better, but you need imagination to see things differently from the status quo, and a sense of justice to fight for that better world, whether it’s in small community acts or voting out politicians who deny climate change. You don’t need to be assured that things will be different or better in the future, but you have to approach everything as if it can be.

So many things that we fight for in our lifetimes will not benefit us, but will make life better for generations to come. There are endless hordes of ghouls, grifters, and banally evil people who love nothing more than to profit from the destruction of the world, but they’re not part of the world’s natural laws, nor have they ever ruled unopposed. For every generation of evil, there’s a generation of good, and fighting against the sludge is a matter of obligation to humanity, rather than hope.


Mohamed:

I have some thoughts about attachments and how I can’t get the hang of it. I tend to get easily attached to people I just met and have a hard time dealing with it and letting it go. I often tell myself to focus on myself and first get my life sorted (as it is a giant mess) but since I’ve never been in a relationship as a 22 year old, I tend to gravitate towards people I like a bit too much and think to myself, ”this might be it”. This has a lot to do with my awkward, weird, depressing, sad years in college where I just put it simply; did not like myself.

With all of this, I start thinking about the new people I met on a regular basis. And I know that it will hurt so much in the long run and that I should probably move on.

Have you been in this situation before? If you have what did you do?

CBM:

This sounds like a problem of loneliness and a fear of solitude. Like Nietzsche said, “The lonely one offers his hand too quickly to whomever he encounters.” But I think Andrei Tarkovsky had the best advice for this:

Learn to love solitude, to be more alone with yourselves. The tragedy of today’s young people is that they try to unite on the basis of carrying out noisy and aggressive actions so as not to feel lonely, and this is a sad thing. The individual must learn from childhood to be on his own, for this doesn’t mean to be lonely: it means to not get bored with oneself, because a person who finds himself bored when he is alone, it seems to me, is a person in danger.

Tarkovsky is saying that what you need most of all is to learn to be alone, and to be comfortable with yourself alone, to like yourself, and if not that, then to at least forgive yourself, so that you’re not always looking for people to avoid loneliness.

As you are now, it seems that you’re trying to attach yourself to others to avoid yourself. And that type of attachment will always lead you, that relationship, and your partners to ruin. There’s no set time on when you should be in a relationship, but to be in a healthy one, you have to become comfortable being whole by yourself.


Arielle:

You speak about grief sometimes on Twitter, and it really resonates with me currently, as my grandmother just took a really bad turn with a terminal illness. It’s the first time I’ve ever had to deal with the idea of losing such a close family member, and I feel like I am in shock most of the time. I feel bad for not really reacting, but I honestly don’t know what to do. She lives very far away and I am also in school, so I don’t/won’t get to see her often as her illness worsens. To compound this, I have a really good friend that was sort of the only person I felt like I could talk to about it, but we got in a bit of a fight. I feel like the fight was my fault and I’m trying to give him space, but I really miss him and don’t know what to do about that either, because I feel like he’ll never speak to me again.

So, basically, I guess my question is, how do you deal with someone close to you dying when you’re not able to be with them? Plus, how do you fix a friendship that you value so much but have really messed up?

CBM:

In terms of friendship: I talked about this in the last edition of this column, but the unfortunate thing about being the person at fault for messing up is that you’re powerless from that point on.

If you’ve hurt someone, it’s up to them to decide whether they forgive you and want to be close to you. They have no obligation to forgive you or to do it at a particular time. The most you can do here is apologize, let them know what you’re going through, that you would like them to be there for support, and hope that they forgive you.

In terms of grief:

The shock is fine. That’s a normal part of finding out that someone you care about is dying. Because no matter how expected death is, it feels surreal and absurd. An unexpected death is nearly impossible to deal with — one day a person is there, and then the next day, for whatever reason, they’re not. But the expected death can feel like torture. Never knowing which day could be the last, but still knowing that every day could be it. The process drags on for maximum pain, and at the same time you wish that it would drag on forever so the person can remain with the living, in whatever capacity.

There’s a wonderful movie about that grief of watching someone you love die from a terminal illness called “A Monster Calls.” But a situation like yours is complicated because you can’t be present. Because of school and distance, it seems there’s no one you can see to fix the secondary pain of separation. You could take a few days off from class to be with your grandmother. You never know what day could be the last, and spending a few days with her will far outweigh the time missed from school.

But if that route is blocked, you could video-call and see her, or just talk to her on the phone. The point is to be with her in some way, no matter how limited it may be. Every moment in life is precious, but those moments become more pronounced when someone is terminally ill.

Grief is, of course, something that will stay with you after this. Some people see grief as a sadness that can be overcome. What they often miss is that the space the individual had in your life can only be filled by their presence, and it will forever be empty. There’s nothing causing sadness beyond the simple fact that the person you love is no longer with you, and there’s no remedy for that pain. The pain is to be lived with, not cured. Not that you need to wallow and let pain paralyze you, but there’s no sense in pretending that by simply accepting the nature of death, the pain of missing someone can be exorcised.

I send my friends my favorite piece of writing on death and grief when something like this befalls them. The “King of Terrors” was a sermon delivered by Henry Scott Holland after the death of King Edward VII, and it gives a lovely conception of how awful death can be, and yet, how incredibly insignificant it is.

In the sermon, Holland says:

But, then, there is another aspect altogether which death can wear for us. It is that which first comes down to us, perhaps, as we look down upon the quiet face, so cold and white, of one who has been very near and dear to us. There it lies in possession of its own secret. It knows it all. So we seem to feel. And what the face says to us in its sweet silence to us as a last message from the one whom we loved is: “Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room. Nothing has happened. Everything remains exactly as it was. I am I, and you are you, and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged. Whatever we were to each other, that we are still. Call me by the old familiar name. Speak of me in the easy way which you always used. Put no difference into your tone. Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me, pray for me. Let my name be ever the household word that it always was. Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it. Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was. There is absolute and unbroken continuity. What is this death but a negligible accident? Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am but waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just round the corner. All is well. Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost. One brief moment and all will be as it was before. How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!