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Monday, September 17, 2007


Yo, rabbit!

In one of your recent conversations, you talked to the no-boundaries guy, and suggested he'd learn how to lead a good life. Can you tell me how this is done? I have no will-power or passion, at least not consciously (sometimes, when I talk about a certain book I read I catch myself being passionate). I am in love but very very joyless in my life. I should shave, but don't, because -- what the f***? Wouldn't make a difference. I know I should eat better and take care of me in order to care for the ones I love dearly, but can't. Instead I feel guilty for being such a failure in being me (since I don't really feel me, I can always blame me for that -- being shitty in being me). It all seems so pointless. I have a shrink and suffered from chronic anxiety and depression and am still on meds (for over a year now). I am outwardly successfullish, I guess, being the CEO of a creative agency (don't know either), yet fail to develop any drive or hope for my future. I feel deeply loved by my family (who I see too little) and friends, but withdraw more and more. I bought this book Cary Tennis recommended -- The Lifelong Activist -- and its the saddest experience ever for me to read it. I don't care enough to be active or I care too much, I don't know anymore. I just feel like a statue of salt.

Problem is: I am not twenty, I am 33 now. I should have figured all this out. Instead I have been turning in circles for the last 10 years. I feel like such a bore, because of it

Hey, but I like reading your stuff! You are a dreamboat!

Chapeau and all,

Being Bad Being Me

Dear Bad Me,

First, and most importantly: When you wake up in the morning, before you let any bad thoughts enter your head, get up, get out of bed, and go work out for at least 35 minutes. You could run, but if I were you, I'd get in the car and either go to the track, go to a running trail, or go to the gym. My feeling is that depressed/anxious people need to be around other people when they work out, because they need distractions to keep their bad heads busy.

You won't like this advice, I know. Working out seems pointless, you have no will power, or you already work out a little but you bail a lot then hate yourself for it. It's a drag, it hurts, and you've never liked it the way other people do. Plus, isn't it beside the point?

No. If you're depressed at all (or if you're unemployed, retired, a writer, someone who works from home, even if you just happen to have a slightly flexible schedule) you MUST start your day with a workout 5-7 days a week. You can talk all you want about why you aren't happy and what might make you happy, but I'm telling you: Depressed people have to work out, period. You must work out. All that talk is wasted unless you at least commit to working out.

Yes, I get it. You're too depressed to work out and eat right. Very interesting. I know how you feel.

But you have to work out. I don't care how you eat. Just work out.

Yes, you have to. Make a commitment right now to work out almost every day, first and foremost. You can't skip this step. It's just an unfortunate aspect of your chemical make-up. Some people don't require it, but you do.

Next: Stop freaking out about how bad you are at being alive. Stop feeling shitty and guilty all the time for being lazy and negative and wishy washy. I do this, too, and it's really tedious and such a waste of time. Of course, thinking that it's tedious and a waste of time adds to the problem, so when I'm really, really annoyed at myself for being lazy and lame, when it's starting to make me anxious and weird because I feel ashamed of myself for being such a freak about the smallest things, then I force myself to do two or three things I've been dreading (I'm down anyway, how bad will it really feel to do something annoying?). Then I promise myself that after that, I'm going to take an hour or two off work and do the laziest, lamest thing I can think of, like going to the mall or eating a hamburger or getting a pedicure. There's something about doing something really pointless that helps when you're feeling avoidant and down on yourself. It sort of defies logic, but it does work.

Now of course you're going to say, "But I don't even care about hamburgers or pedicures! There's nothing I want to do."

The point is that you have to create a little bit of time in your life when you're not supposed to be doing anything else. There's no goal. You have plenty of time. You're just existing. You're eavesdropping on conversations, but you're not comparing your lackluster attitude with the enjoyment and enthusiasm of others. You're just hanging out, listening, taking it all in.

OK, here's the other thing: The book about activism. I totally understand why Cary would suggest this -- it makes sense. He probably thinks you could benefit from having an outward focus. He wants you to stop thinking only of yourself. I also understand, personally, why it would depress you to read it.

The other day, I was reading a special "Family" issue of "Real Simple" magazine that my sister-in-law gave me because she was done reading it. She said there were some good quick recipes and cool ideas in it -- and there were. But when I looked at the pictures of cute families, along with their first-person descriptions of "bedtime challenges" and possible solutions, when I perused the easy birthday party ideas and the cute star-shaped waffles and dinosaur-shaped quesadillas, I wanted to jump off the nearest cliff.

It's not just that I don't feel like I'll ever be the kind of mom who can make dinosaur-shaped quesadillas. I never expected to be that person. What's odd is that, when I look at those pictures, I imagine those mothers, with their clean houses, cool clothes, and well-adjusted children who never have the hardship of eating a quesadilla that isn't shaped like a dinosaur, and I feel sorry for them. I picture those moms cutting out the dinosaur part of the quesadilla, and then eating the non-dinosaur part themselves, and I want to cry. There's just something so sad about so much perfection. On the one hand, I feel bad that my family life will always include dustbunnies and dull lunches. On the other hand, I can't even aspire to doing better, because it looks so freakishly cheerful and wrong to put in so much effort. It's like I think that life's big disappointments will only be made worse if the house is perfectly sparkling clean and even the food is relentlessly cheerful.

And yet, some part of me feels that I should want these things that I don't fucking want.

These are, admittedly, the neurotic tics of Westerners who have the time and money to think that they should be solving problems that no one else in the universe considers problems. In the rest of the world, if you've got something to feed your kids, life is good even if it looks like a pile of dung .

What I'm trying to say is, it's the notion that you're not living well that drives you into the ground. You have to let go of this idea that you have everything you want and you're just an ingrate who can't enjoy it. You should be an activist, you asshole! That's just another "should" to add to your long, guilty list.

Psychologist Victor Frankel had a program for depressed clients that was a lot like a labor camp. Inevitably, hard work and very little free time would cause these people to enjoy their free time more and more. That's not a value judgment, mind you, it's a statement of fact: People do better when they don't have the time to let destructive thoughts and comparisons rattle around in their heads. In other words, your problems will not be solved by thinking. You need a very practical plan.

You have to impose some unbearable, taxing structure on your own life: First the workout, then you do a few things you've been dreading or avoiding, and then you take a break and do something lazy. All the while, you're not allowed to think about the past or the future, and you're not allowed to compare yourself to the imaginary happy, effective people in your head. A bad thought comes, and you say, "I'm not thinking that way today." and push it away. Some therapists will have you believe that you have to go with your feelings. Maybe, but it sounds to me like you don't need that right now. You need more good habits, and less bad thoughts.

Just start small. Work out, do 2 or 3 hard or pesky tasks (maybe one of them is shaving? whatever you want) and then stop in the afternoon and do something pointless. Go to the drug store and wander around reading labels. Go see a movie. You don't have to like it, it just has to be something a little bit new, and you can't think heavy negative thoughts while you're doing it.

Do this every day. Then, in a week or so, pick up a copy of "The Power of Now." The language will turn you off, but you just read it from cover to cover anyway. This book doesn't hold all the answers, but you need to know what it means not to think. You need to hear about what it means to be alive, pure and simple, and you need to understand that, if you live in the past or the future, your thoughts will naturally wind their way into a knot and torture you.

You sally forth without your bad habits - bad thoughts, self-hatred, etc - and you'll be amazed that life is actually reasonably interesting. And you will be passionate some day. But stop thinking about passion now. Passion is a lot to hope for, it really is. Most people never manage it. People out there aren't that incredibly happy, don't be fooled. It's sad, but true. You have to work hard to be happy -- you don't work hard at being happy, you just work hard, period. Lazy or not, if you don't want to feel shitty all the time, you have to get off your ass and go through the motions as much as possible. Follow instructions, read, sleep, get up, sweat, do more annoying tasks, etc.

This advice is probably a little bit jumbled, but I do feel strongly that this existential angst that you describe is solved not by coming up with some reason for living or trying, anxiously, to locate your passion. I think the solution lies in very mundane, practical changes to your habits.

Good luck with it, and please let me know how you feel after a week or so.



11:24 AM

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staff writer at salon.com, co-creator of filler, author of the memoir disaster preparedness due from riverhead press in fall 2010

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