What's to live for?

I'm 20 and I've seen enough of life. Why shouldn't I just check out?

Published April 7, 2005 9:00PM (EDT)


After 20 years of being told that I have my whole life ahead of me, I already feel like I've seen enough. I don't have it in me to pursue goals for their own sake -- I have no motivation to finish college, look for a better job, or do any of the things that keep my contemporaries occupied. I get up and go to work and to class because it's easier than not going, but I know that soon it won't be.

I feel as though I'm broken on some fundamental level. I can't connect to people. The one person I've considered a friend is leaving me soon and has said plainly that she doesn't plan to keep in touch. I've tried dating and met some interesting people, but it's incredibly easy to just let the phone ring when they call. I feel bad, but not bad enough to call back. It's been years since I can remember looking forward to anything. About the only thing that keeps me alive right now is the fact that I don't want someone else to be stuck boxing up my apartment, and there's a lot of packing to do. That, and the vague sense that there's something I'm missing. It sure seems like no one else has trouble finding reasons to get up in the morning.

There's a lot of debate over the rights of terminally ill people to die when they choose, but why is it automatically irrational for a young, physically healthy person to decide that enough is enough? When there's nothing I want to do and no one to be hurt when I go, it's hard not to resent the people who tell me how selfish and stupid I must be.

I guess I'm still human enough to want to reach out to someone, or be reached out to. For the record, I've been through drugs and therapy without seeing any lasting change, and I'm not inclined to try again. I just want to know why this is so easy for everyone else and so impossible for me.

What's the Use?

Dear What's the Use,

Let me suggest this to you right now: Think of a happy time. Come on, I know you can think of one. I know it's in there. You may know of it but not want to think of it. Think of it anyway. I know that as soon as I say "happy time" there is at least one that comes into your mind. So go ahead. Stop what you were doing and just think of this time. Remember it. Remember the sounds, the sights, the smells, what you were feeling and saying, who was there. Sit down. Linger on it. Do that for a few minutes. Let the memory suffuse your body. Let it envelop you and flow through you as though it were an expensive perfume or an elixir in your blood. Close your eyes and remember it in as much detail as you can. Take as much time as you need.

When the memory fades and you begin to feel exhausted or sleepy (it's tiring to remember with intensity!), don't do anything for a few minutes. Just let the happy event settle back into your consciousness.

Over the next few days, consider that happy event. Turn it over in your mind. Is there some reason that such a happy event could never occur again? Did it occur in a country that has been blasted off the face of the earth? Are all the people who were there now dead and gone? Have you yourself been maimed or blinded so that you could never experience such a thing? Or might there be a possibility that such happiness might be found again?

Now do something else. Think of more recent times, when you were fully engaged in something and forgot yourself and your many troubles. It may have only lasted a minute or two. Perhaps you were having a conversation with a friend. Perhaps you were finding some information on the computer. Perhaps you were walking along and noticed a bird or a building or a book in a window, or someone passed you whose face reminded you of the face in a book you'd read, or a man reading a newspaper looked like Jack Webb of "Dragnet," or you thought for an instant that was Tobey Maguire sitting at a table, or the cab that passed you gleamed in the rain like a cab in a 1970s television show, or you passed a girl on the street and imagined, with alarming vividness, undressing her in a hotel room in Tokyo.

Having thought of these things, consider this: What is to prevent you from filling your life with more events such as the ones you have just recollected, so that your life is charged with such moments? Would that not be the life of a happy man? It's not all that mysterious. String atoms of happiness together like beads, and you can have a happy life.

I'm curious about something. Is there by chance some ugly, frightening voice in you that has utter contempt for the kind of happiness we're talking about? Does a part of you feel that happiness is delusion, unworthy of adulthood, that to be a man is to brood ceaselessly, to be inconsolable and wan, to let your damp hair flap in your face as you sit in a cafe staring at the tabletop, drowning in deep, impenetrable suffering? Is that what it means to be a man?

Did something happen that time you were so happy to destroy it? Was there a father who appeared, telling you you were lazy to be enjoying the sun? Was there a teacher or a disciplinarian who shamed you out of your enjoyment? Did your peers mock you for your transparent joy? What took that happiness away, and what has happened in the intervening years to prevent you from regaining it or experiencing it again?

You have tried drugs and therapy and say that did not work, but there are many kinds of therapy and many kinds of chemicals. If you've been drinking and doing a lot of drugs, or if you're nutritionally unbalanced, your brain may not be working right as of late. Does it feel as though there is a layer of cardboard between your thoughts and your sensation? People write to me and suggest all kinds of things for what you describe -- fish oil, for instance, and vitamin B. They write and say, "I was awful and then I started taking these amino acids!" Who am I to doubt them? There are all kinds of reasons why we don't function right. It's amazing what the right chemistry can do. Ask yourself what you need: Protein and vitamins? Salmon and greens and rice. A steak? Some lentils? Whatever pops into your mind. Go take a run. Lift some weights. Take a swim. Go hear some music. Take yourself out of yourself.

I say to you, my young friend, two and a half times your age in my exhausted and ravaged serenity, that these things take years to unravel. We encounter blazing moments of ecstasy and then the sun goes gray.

Is it worth it, you ask? Would someone be hurt if you were gone? Of course someone would be hurt. But I think you are only asking when dinner will be served, if there will be a game on tonight, if someone will come by to comfort you in your vague but overwhelming sorrow. I am here to say yes, dinner will be served this evening. Someone will appear eventually. You just have to wait.

It is not easy, at 20, to wait. Waiting is what the hunter does, and the poet and the slugger. He waits for the moment of inevitability and fate and then he swings, or shoots, or takes up the pen to put down a line. They don't teach us to wait in America; they teach us to grab. But waiting is what we do when we are looking for something beautiful, when we are looking for an end to our sorrow. Nothing is infinite in life, not even sorrow. You just have to wait.

So maybe you are feeling the sadness of the one who waits. It is a sadness, that's true, but it's tempered by the sure knowledge that eventually a Buick will pull over and a stranger will give you a ride.

Not to be trite, but some people say, "Stick around for the miracle." I would say, if not the miracle, at least stick around for the Buick.

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