I'm wandering the halls of life on a visitor's pass

I've tried to do the pragmatic things, but I can't connect, I don't belong.

Published January 15, 2009 11:20AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

This is probably a long shot, but I've run out of sensible ideas. I'm not a pragmatic person by nature. But I've been struggling to become one, in hopes of finding some kind of niche in the world. I've read all kinds of advice geared toward people like me and tried to follow it. And after about eight years plugging away at this approach, I'm exhausted. It doesn't seem to have worked.

Actually I shouldn't say "people like me." That's the thing: I've almost never felt a sense of belonging anywhere, and never a solid membership in any community. It's not that I don't like people, because I do. But it's wearing me down, always being the outsider: the friend at someone's family holiday celebration, the transfer student, the new employee, the temp, the guest. It feels like I'm wandering through life with a visitor's pass.

My family wasn't great; not my fault, but I looked into everything I could -- early cognitive development, CBT, PTSD, the family tree, my parents' divorce papers, Freud, Sophocles -- and talked to a therapist.

I don't have a purpose in life; OK, no one's fault but mine. But I took online assessment tests until my eyes crossed. I went to Borders, stood there next to the future doctors and lawyers, read books about "finding your path" and parachute colors (and, yes, "Choosing a Career for Dummies"). I polled friends and acquaintances. At the end of it all, I know plenty of things I shouldn't do. And I learned tons of interesting things about what other people do.

But I'm still confused, and I'm losing faith. "The future" is no longer this pleasant mist on the far horizon. I know my single friends will start to vanish, and the window for no-strings hookups will close someday; I won't know whom to call if I get too sick to tough it out. It's dawned on me that, while I thought I didn't mind giving up my B.A., I might in some ways. That I'm not cut out to be a bartender (so much for Plan B), and that health insurance actually isn't optional.

Worse, I'm starting to develop a chip on my shoulder. I laugh less than I used to. I read something the other day and caught myself identifying with Karl Rove. Karl. Frickin'. Rove.

I don't know how to be any more pragmatic. I gave up on starting a family (fine) or getting married (slightly less fine, but it's grown on me). I told myself that if I was meant to finish college I would have by now; if I was meant to join a profession, it would be clearer which one I could belong to.

You don't even know me, so it's not like I expect you could know those things. It's just, I've run out of stuff to try, and I feel like there must be something else I should change, but I don't know what it is.

Thanks, enjoy the column,

What am I doing wrong?

Dear me, dear me, dear me,

I'm not sure you're doing anything wrong. You might not be the problem.

Of course this "approach" doesn't "work." That's not how the universe is structured, my friend. We don't "work" it. It isn't something we control and manage. That's a view of reality based in the industrial world, and the world is not industrial. It is in fact magical and mysterious and if you don't do something soon it is all going to be over and none of this will have mattered and you will have run around trying to fix something that can't be fixed and trying to control something that can't be controlled and create some kind of world that can't be created because you, my friend, are not in control of these things, and all these people you see around you who seem to have it together have no better idea than you do how to actually live a meaningful life, but what they do have is some prior operant conditioning that took well, and the good luck to have fallen onto this mottled surface more or less shaped according to the slots currently existing for them, which is fine if you want comfort and a good slot to fit in. But otherwise what good are they going to do? What are they going to discover, what are they going to create, and why are they going to go through their whole lives having never glimpsed the existential terror that you, my courageous voyager into the heart of the beautiful and terrifying and meaningless,  have made yourself contentedly comfortable with (as comfortable as one can be with the screamingly terrifying and chaotic knowledge of the void)? I picture you, for all your carping about how uncomfortable it is, as a settled English gentleman (or gentlewoman, I presume, in your case) reading the Times of London and chuckling about the madness of it all while the world crumbles around you.

You seem to be at home in this although it terrifies you, is what I'm saying. As a clinical suggestion, I would say you need to put a floor in. Do not let this take you all the way down. When it grips you, acknowledge it, nod to it, say good morning, let it know that you know it, but do not let it take you all the way down. Refuse the complete journey. Just know it is there.

You have the right to do this. This may be indeed considered your destiny. Try taking this approach: that your life is not supposed to be a success in the way in which you conceive it. Try doing the opposite. Your concept of a successful life is for other people, who are not so intensely tuned in to the futility and uselessness of most life's endeavors, who are not tuned in to the endgame, as it were, as you appear to be. It is too bad indeed that you were not in a different era, an era of the celebration of despair and hopelessness, say, you could be a hippie or an existentialist and say, "None of this crap means anything to me," and people would say, "Of course, I dig you, I know where you're coming from, come live with us on our commune," or even a bunch of punks might have embraced you for your nihilism and hopelessness at a time, but you landed here in a strangely arid intellectual and spiritual moment when everyone is making money and the young have been taught badly.

Well, that whole faux-happy moment appears to have expired. So you are right where you should be: full of trembling and dread, eyes wide open, unable to filter out the chaos of reality.

So, as protection, take up meditation. Spend many hours meditating. Cut down on the coffee and exercise more. See about your metabolism. Make sure you have a floor, a baseline of functionality. But don't stop thinking these thoughts. These thoughts are your gift, your lifeblood, your connection to what is real.

You're not a pragmatic person by nature, and yet you're trying to be so pragmatic! No wonder it isn't working. Stop using your weak side. Play to your strengths. If you're not pragmatic, don't try to be pragmatic. Be magical. Dress the way you want to. Let the world come to you. Perform your magic, your incantations, your strange songs.

So you don't have a purpose in life. Well, a "purpose in life" is just something you make up to get through the day. That's all it is. It's a construct. We make these things up because we can't handle the terror of the abyss of purposelessness that is really just beyond the curtain we fear to draw back. Who can know what his purpose is? Now, we can do things that make us feel good and call that purpose. That's what I do. I do this and that because I enjoy it and other people seem to enjoy it too, and I try to keep the mortgage paid, but to say that I have found some magical purpose in life, the answer to it all, is just to invite a huge and surprising disappointment ... and to invite those who see more clearly and searingly into the abyss to call us deluded fools.

I think you're on the right track. Read some Thomas Bernhard. Read "The Loser." Don't give up. Stop trying to be pragmatic. Throw out the pragmatic and go with what you know, the magical, the crazy, the searingly truthful and devastatingly honest assessment of meaninglessness and the void.

Go for it! Rip it up! Go onstage. Write it out. It's refreshing. We're all so soft and thin-skinned these days that we have to make up these notions of purpose and meaning, but it's just a fabricated protective balm. We can't handle the fire we walk over. We can't handle the heat of the coals. So we make stuff up. That doesn't mean what we make up is actually there. We're just trying to shield our eyes from the blinding truth of emptiness.

Ha ha. That was very refreshing. Now I'm wrapping it up. I've got to set some rat traps. Seriously. I'm just the handyman. I write on the side. So hang in there. Stay healthy. It's a lot of work, and very taxing, standing right there in the center of the maelstrom. So take care of yourself. And don't expect it to abate. Once you've glimpsed it, it doesn't go away. You just learn to live with it.

So if it helps, do this too: Pick a god. Any god. Believe in it. Ask it for help. Tell this god you're done, you're through, ask it for guidance. Just turn it over. Ask the god about its schedule. When does it pick up burdens? When does it come down the street in its gargantuan but silent vehicle of restoration, redemption and forgiveness, and when does it come and pick up your stuff? Get your stuff ready and put it on the street. Don't wait up. Take all your stuff and throw it out on the street. Go to sleep. When you wake up, if the god wasn't unforseeably detained (or just messing with your head, as gods will do), it will have picked up your stuff and you will be delivered for a period of time.

Give it a try. Worse things could happen. Pick a god. Any god. Turn it over.

You're not the problem. You're just aware of the problem.

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By Cary Tennis

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