(got a question? email email@example.com. questions will be kept confidential and may be edited for length.)
It’s about to be New Year’s Eve, and everyone is posting their #instagrambest9 and making resolutions and so forth and I mostly want to hide under my bed. The world is a shit fire, I’ve had a really hard year personally, and also things have been SO BAD for SO LONG. Companies rob us blind. Elections are rigged (have a look at that gerrymandering map of North Carolina if you don’t believe me). And then personal stuff too, like my mother has cancer. It’s exhausting and I don’t see any improvement on the horizon anywhere. People keep saying “work for something! make change!” but I don’t feel like it. Behold the field in which my fucks grow and see that it is barren.
I know what I “should” do: bathe homeless penguins, lose ten pounds, learn to speak Greek, call my grandmother more often so I can speak to her in Greek. But really I just want to go live in a cave and read weirdo magical realism books and get high a lot. Is there a compromise position here? Am I just doomed to keep grinding in this exhausting reality that I really just Do Not Want?
Dear Brave Correspondent,
As it happens - and I hope this will be a comfort to you - I have a dear old friend who describes himself as “your friend who has dropped out of society to read more.” This is, in fact, is the basis of his Patreon, on which he posts excerpt of things he’s writing sometimes but mostly reads and writes long, newsy, intimate letters to his Patrons about what he’s reading - like a travelogue of obscure literature. So it actually isn't out of the question that you could retire to a cave (or a small, cave-like room), read, and self-medicate. I mention this because you write about it like it’s a ridiculous idea and I don’t actually think it is - it’s a real choice. I’m not sure it would work for everyone, but it can be done.
This feels relevant because I am at my absolute worst in situations where I feel like I have no choices, big or small. When I get my head set that I have to take two busses and a train to the airport (which is cheaper by a good bit) and cannot get a cab regardless of weather or arthritis pain levels it feels awful and I am angry and resentful and snappish. When I give myself permission to choose to get a car if that’s what I need to do, there’s somehow more room in my world to choose the transit option as well. So in saying “it is actually possible to drop out of society and read more and I know someone who has done just that,” I am mostly trying to say:
1. Your needs are valid and should be attended to.
2. You have real choices here.
Which, come to think of it, is more or less all of my columns all the time, but here we are. Onward. Let us take these in order.
Because honestly, it is very valid to feel like things are awful and there’s no hope so why not just stay high and read? Who cares about penguins or grandmothers under these conditions? No combination of mindful breathing or jade yoni eggs or pedicures or cleansing fasts or other “self-care” is going to fix the real problems in the world, right?
Well? Yes and no. Because the truth is, you are also the world. And so are your friends and family. So there’s every reason to feel like none of the things of which you are personally capable are going to magically fix everything AND, it is my opinion (and also a long Jewish tradition) that every bit of mending helps. No act of kindness is wasted. Even if you call your grandmother one time more in 2018 than you did in 2017, that’s still more joy for her, and more good feeling for you. Even if you only bathe one penguin, imagine how important you are to the penguin!
Honestly, Brave Correspondent, I think this is how I and many of us and maybe you are going to get through 2018: one penguin at a time.
The value of this method, for me, is that it keeps me from getting completely overwhelmed at the enormity of the problems in the whole entire world, both in terms of what I can fix and in terms of what I can accept. Can I solve the electoral crisis or police violence against Black bodies or the resurgence of Nazis or the rapidly dwindling Arctic ice or creationism being taught in schools or oil pipelines? I cannot. It’s not because I am insufficient, it’s because I am just one human. Even when it seems like one heroic human is saving something or solving something? There are definitely an absolute ton of other, unacknowledged people who are working away at that without whom no solving could even begin. So let me first gently lift you down off the chilly metal hook of feeling like fixing things is your personal job, and instead introduce you into the slightly chaotic but much less exposed ball crawl in which this is all of our work. You are not responsible for every single penguin by yourself. You just commit to bathing one penguin and seeing how it goes. You can put your penguin down if you’re not up to it today. You can hand off the penguin you’ve been bathing to another volunteer and take a break. That’s what it means to do work in community.
Also, not for nothing, you too are a penguin. You need bathing and tending and careful warm towel rubdowns and a little sweater lovingly hand knit for your comfort sometimes. I completely get why a cave sounds great, especially if it had WiFi and even half-decent delivery sushi available, and the idea of having nothing but leisure to drift floatily through the day on your own schedule, reading and snacking, sounds heavenly. I would sign up for two or three weeks of that in a heartbeat, sweater or not, and I 100% encourage you to go do it - even if other people think it’s self-indulgent, so what? You‘re worth indulging. You don’t have to be useful or diligent all the time. Take your turn to be slow and quiet and engaged only with things you find restorative even if it means calling in every favor anyone has ever owed you and promising future ones to make the time and find the money. You deserve that.
And even though weeks of Not Today might seem ideal, you may find that it’s too much idleness once you’ve caught up on sleep and put on a couple pounds of milk-and-cookies weight and re-read through both of your favorite series. Keep the plan flexible. Maybe you will find yourself on day ten downloading Duolingo and doing a couple of leg lifts. That’s the great thing about choices, Brave Correspondent - when you can choose what seems immediately gratifying it also means you can choose what’s gratifying later on.
It’s very good to care for yourself. It’s very good to care for others. There are always going to be a ton of penguins to bathe, and for sure it seems overwhelming because who can even imagine the completion of these tremendous tasks? The trick here, Brave Correspondent, is going to be following the advice of Anne Lamott and taking it ”bird by bird,” or, as discussed above, One Penguin At A Time (with a side order of remembering that being a penguin is also very important and should not be neglected no matter what you have internalized about what it means to “be good” or “do it right”). Have work and have leisure. Tend and be tended. Be curious about the people bathing penguins alongside you, learn from them and let them learn from you. Nothing is really going to be “okay,” but it never has been - not for everyone - so keep your hands as gentle as you can, even on yourself, and we will all just do our best, okay?
love and courage,
Do you enjoy Ask Bear? Do you want it to continue, and grow wings (and a tail, and also probably a podcast)? Become a patron! The rewards are nice, including that this column will keep happening.