Friday, November 30, 2018

What Should She Do with Her Shame?

Imagine that you have made a mess of your life. You are 35-years old and female. You thought that life was an adventure, so you went out to seize the day. You seized the day, day after day… and you have ended up with nothing. You feel that you have failed. You feel like the life is draining out of you.

Let’s say that you want to top it off with one last futile gesture. What do you do? Why, you write to the notably mentally challenged advice columnist called Ask Polly. (via Maggie’s Farm) You must know that Polly will come up with something soul-deadeningly stupid. You will not be wrong.

And yet, if you think that Polly can will help you, then we should start by questioning your judgment.

Anyway, here is the latter, written by a woman who calls herself Haunted:

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?

One feels, because one does have a few feelings, that Haunted was living the life that therapy had prescribed. And that feminism had been touting. She was liberated from classical roles. She made her own rules. She went for the gusto and she just found out that this new lifestyle, this new life plan, was a ruse to dupe the gullible. She discovered that it does not work.

Of course, she does not know that it didn’t work. She does not tell us who led her down this path. She threw off traditional rules and rules, only to discover that this left her with nothing.

Dare I say, Polly does not understand any of this. Polly does not even consider why this woman feels like a failure. Polly thinks that it’s all about shame… presumably because Polly read a book about shame. Since said book, I assume, was as vapid and worthless as the average Polly column, she found it illuminating. To the point where she feels qualified to pontificate on the subject… the better to make Haunted’s life worse.

As for Polly’s inability to understand shame, she wants to make friends with it. She wants to show this woman how to diddle with her shame in the dark. And Polly has no idea how to overcome shame.

Anyway, here is a snippet of her heartfelt response:

Shame is the opposite of art. When you live inside of your shame, everything you see is inadequate and embarrassing. A lifetime of traveling and having adventures and not being tethered to long-term commitments looks empty and pathetic and foolish, through the lens of shame. You haven’t found a partner. Your face is aging. Your body will only grow weaker. Your mind is less elastic. Your time is running out. Shame turns every emotion into the manifestation of some personality flaw, every casual choice into a giant mistake, every small blunder into a moral failure. Shame means that you’re damned and you’ve accomplished nothing and it’s all downhill from here.

You need to discard some of this shame you’re carrying around all the time. But even if you can’t cast off your shame that quickly, through the lens of art, shame becomes valuable. When you’re curious about your shame instead of afraid of it, you can see the true texture of the day and the richness of the moment, with all of its flaws. You can run your hands along your own self-defeating edges until you get a splinter, and you can pull the splinter out and stare at it and consider it. When you face your shame with an open heart, you’re on a path to art, on a path to finding joy and misery and fear and hope in the folds of your day. Even as your job is slow and dull and pointless, even as your afternoons alone feel treacherous and daunting, you can train your eyes on the low-hanging clouds until a tiny bit of sunlight filters through. 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. You can build a new kind of existence, one that feels small and flawed and honest, but each day you accumulate a kind of treasure that doesn’t disappear. Because instead of running away from the truth, you welcome it in. You don’t treat what you have as pointless. You work with what you have.

All sensible thinkers know that the way to get rid of shame is to apologize and to get back on the road to propriety. Has this woman been acting indecorously? Has she been engaging in too many hookups? I suspect that she has. Women feel ashamed of themselves when they give it away too cheaply. Haunted does not mention it. Polly does not mention it either. So, I assume that Haunted is ashamed of her behavior.

What do you do when you are ashamed of your behavior? You do not diddle with the shame. You change the way you behave. You begin by learning to play by the rules. You might even buy a copy of a much and unjustly derided volume called The Rules. She should try dating and courtship.

Surely, Polly understands nothing of this. She thinks that shame is like something you look at under the microscope, like an amoeba:

Living in reality means becoming a scientist of shame. It’s an investigation. I can look at my shame, consider it, lament it, celebrate it, treasure it — how it changes the atmospheric pressure, how it makes it possible for me to reach out, to other people, in the hopes of making some connection, how it opens my eyes to the beautiful little awkward minutes of this day. My shame is the fuel that keeps me writing. My shame is the fuel that makes me exercise. My shame gives me a lens for understanding my husband and my kids. My shame makes my work possible. My shame — when I invite it in and forgive it — builds my empathy for others.

You should certainly rid yourself of shame. You do not do so by making it into art. You cannot do so by toying with it. In the end, it will beat you. It counts as the most corrosive emotion, but it cannot be dealt with by introspecting and feeling your feelings.

When you get caught with your pants down, you feel shame. You should not contemplate the experience, and become a scientist of shame. You should not even make it into art. You should, if you have a modicum of good sense, pull your pants up. If you don’t, if you decide not to do so, but prefer to get in touch with your feelings of shame, you will be defeated, if not destroyed. That's what happened to Haunted. She does not understand it. Polly understands less.


Doug Cranmer said...

Where do these people learn to talk like this? To write like this?
God. This is how they really think. They really see the world and their role in it this way.

Shaun F said...

Few people remember or discuss that from a theological perspective - Satan is the father of lies. And the four biggest institutions of deception are the government, education, Hollywood, and the media. All amplifying and reinforcing the same messages using technology(which may contribute to all of them using the same language). Really the odds are pretty stacked against people – especially the secular humanist atheist. BTW – I thought finding some self respect (repentance and atonement) would be the opposite of shame. Polly must be using CIA grade weed to believe what she writes.

David Foster said...

A sad story. Practical questions to be asked: Why did her relationships end? What are her skills that might allow her to pursue a more interesting career? The columnist evidently has no interest in this sort of thing.

Stuart Schneiderman said...


Sam L. said...

Haunted did not answer any of Mr. Foster's questions, so Polly was just riffing on nothing.

Anonymous said...

Will second Mr. Foster's practical questions, and add...

Haunted seems:
1) jealous
2) ungrateful
3) unwilling/unable to take responsibility for HER choices.

Jealous, because it seems her friend' lives are her metric for "where she should be" and "what she should have".

Ungrateful, because any number of people have had less opportunity and variety in their lives...

And Irresponsible in taking ownership
of her choices. Were she to move in an opposite direction,she might develop some discipline to organize her life and give it a constructive focus...she seems currently to have a refusal to recognize her agency...which is at the core of her inability/potential to change.

Anonymous said...

She is experiencing what most of us know, that a job is not always the brilliant fulfilling career she was promised by popular culture. Yet despite obviously wanting a family and children, this fantasy job takes up much of her mental energies, energies that could be directed at finding a good guy.

Once again, the collision between natural inclination and conforming to external directives (from popular culture) results in an internal conflict that damages her mental well-being and also her prospects to achieve what she wants out of life.

Portlandmermaid said...

"When you’re curious about your shame instead of afraid of it, you can see the true texture of the day and the richness of the moment, with all of its flaws. You can run your hands along your own self-defeating edges until you get a splinter, and you can pull the splinter out and stare at it and consider it.

Huh? That's meaningless.

Shame is a guide, it's not your friend.