Dear Cary Tennis,
This needs to be put bluntly. This needs to be put straight. I think something is wrong, very wrong, but there is not a lot that can be done about it. You see, I don't even know if there is anything wrong, or if I'm being silly and need just to pull myself back together and carry on as before. The only problem with this is that on the outside the surface would be as calm as the sea on a good summer's day, and yet underneath there is only rubble, as if the sea had come and washed away a solid civilization that once existed there. I cannot find the power or the effort to begin the rebuild -- that is, if rebuilding is possible.
All of this has been going on for many years. The rubble may well have started appearing when I was a young teenager at school, and now that I am in my mid-30s everything seems to be finished. This is it. I never in a world of wonders thought it would ever be like this. After all, I am well educated in the liberal arts. I am not a drug addict. I was never abused as a child. My parents have always been loving, although they have never been the sort one could take your problems to. I've had a good upbringing. Yet now as I write this letter I feel exhausted, shattered, mentally pushed to the limits, as if the limits of my own personal strength fail me. This has happened before. I have always been a very self-supporting individual, but have always been able to turn myself around: Only this time I don't think this will be possible.
Over the past six months I have fallen out of sympathy for the people around me: friends, work colleagues, even now family. I have always been more than willing to offer an ear to their problems, and have sat there and listened; but now I just don't want to know. I just let the groaning and moaning wash over me and say little, because I know if ever I wanted to talk there would never be any reiteration. After all, I am the one who just sits there and listens. It is a case where, maybe, I just can't cope with this sort of vampire emotionalism anymore. I have been sucked dry and have nothing left to give, and am now running on cold -- even shutting down completely.
I am more than aware that people change, but I can't help thinking that this change that has passed over me has happened too fast. It is as if I have become lost, and the rubble remains on the ground. I just can't this time pull everything back together. Of course this could just be the process of getting older, or the case that the civilization that was once there is now gone. The only problem I now have is how do I go ahead and rebuild -- a rebuild that seems to take longer, and requires more effort, every time I try to begin the process.
Need to Rebuild
Dear Need to Rebuild,
In a practical sense, you seem to have reached emotional exhaustion and the edge of some realization of your own limits. This can be a good thing. Relax into it. Recognize that you have taken on many burdens and that you may put some of them down now; you can let some of these burdens fall; it is not all up to you.
You can ask for support; you do not have to be completely self-sufficient.
What you have been doing has worked OK so far but it has been a kind of compensation; it has been in reaction to the way things have been, and it can only go on so long; you have been carrying more than your share. So let it go.
The fact that you do not spell out specifics makes your situation all the more intriguing; you are describing the bare bones of the emotional and spiritual moment. There is rubble; a city was destroyed. That is a rich image that no doubt carries implications both psychic and historical.
We are all in need of help. Sometimes when we reach a crisis we are lucky enough to know what kind of help we need, or to be in the presence of loving and supportive people who provide that help. But if we reach a point of exhaustion such as yours and do not know where to turn, we have to just make our best guess and call out. We find the world is full of help that we had previously ignored or turned up our noses at, believing ourselves to be self-sufficient, believing that only weak and pitiable others avail themselves of such help -- medical help, spiritual help, intellectual help, employment help, help with psychological problems, help with substance abuse. One need only utter the word "Help!" and some kind of help soon arrives. One need only tell a friend, "I need help," and one is on the way to acquiring some help. It is that immense first step of asking for help that is so life-changing and takes so much courage. But when you reach the end of your rope you just do it. You say, out loud, to someone, anyone, a cop on the street, the waitress at your diner, your postman, a cabdriver, anyone: I'm at the end of my rope. I need some help.
Self-sufficiency is an illusion. I too was taught to be self-sufficient and carried out my self-sufficient project to the point of exhaustion. It was not my cultural norm to ask for help; but then, it was not my cultural norm to live in isolation either. The illusion of self-sufficiency is much easier to maintain when one lives closely in the bosom of family and culture. It is the kind of thing one boasts about when one is, paradoxically, safe and secure in a social network. This "self-sufficiency" people talk about is a cultural style. It isn't literal. (This, too, is somewhat abstract, but perhaps you will sense what I am talking about, the Anglo family drama.)
So ask for help. Go ahead. This isn't the 1860s. Ask for help. Don't worry about what kind. Don't worry about making sense. Just begin looking for help. It is the strong thing to do.
And consider this: Perhaps you have spontaneously encountered the chaos and emptiness that underlie our reality. Perhaps that's what it is. If so, you may be on the verge of enlightenment. You have struggled for years to reinforce the illusion that there is something there underneath it all, that appearances do matter and that being a person who plays by the rules and does his part is enough to supply some kind of substance or reality to the beyond. But now you sense that it is not -- that playing by the rules and managing your own affairs are no guarantee against the reality that there is nothing there. I wholeheartedly agree with you. We pass through history and are gone. We witness the rise and fall of governments, the building and demolishing of cities, the appearance of rainbows and the murders of children. All this we witness and then we are gone and that is the reality that exists beneath us every second; every second of waking consciousness is the consciousness of our own impending nonexistence. So why should we be surprised or upset if every now and then we glimpse the hopelessness of our situation and feel the terror of it all? Who should be surprised? One would have to be terribly blunt-headed not to notice the hopelessness of our situation.
You describe it beautifully -- and strangely, too, as only you as an individual could do: Something is very, very wrong, but there is nothing to be done about it. And you say you must be blunt about it. Quite so. It is quite a blunt truth. And yet, because it is such an all-encompassing truth, one could equally say that something is very, very right, and there is nothing to be done about that either. There is nothing to be done about the way things are. That is about all we know. Something is something. That is all we know for sure. What is what we do not know. We only know that something is something.
Such thin knowledge sustains us for a while. We know that something is something. But beneath the surface, life is an unending mystery, and all the tales we tell ourselves are just beautiful lies. It is all quite exhausting. It is all quite exhausting fabricating one beautiful lie after another until we collapse into sleep and dream of endless waves.
"Since You Asked," on sale now at Cary Tennis Books: Buy now and get an autographed first edition.
What? You want more advice?