I'm 38, nearly a Ph.D., in despair

I compare myself to others; I feel behind, overwhelmed with debt and fear

Published February 14, 2011 1:01AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I was wondering if you could please help me. I'm 38, and in my (hopefully) last year of a science Ph.D. program. (I worked for a few years between undergraduate and grad school.)

I sometimes think that I don't really have parents, although they are alive. My mom is mentally ill, and my dad divorced her and is doing his own thing. My dad and grandmother gave me a few thousand dollars of financial support this year, because I don't have time for a second job outside of school as I finish my last year. I also got a loan. I have always had either two or three jobs otherwise. I will repay them, next year, but otherwise, my parents do not provide any sort of mentorship, guidance or support. My dad actually takes quite a lot more than he gives.

I'm scared. I am single and lonely. I have to find a job. Some days, I hate working. Other days, I feel fine. I feel like I have a lot of responsibilities and commitments I can't get to. I'm a male, by the way. I often want to work all day on a project then realize I've wasted the day, or would have wasted the day even if I did the project. I'm falling behind and have a sinking feeling. I'm jealous daily of people who seem to have parents/wives/etc., or who were born into a social class where they're comfortable and didn't have to try to grow from their roots. I'm jealous of my exes, their brothers and certain friends.

I feel scared, like with a blindness. I'm blind to the facts of the current situation, from what the job market is doing to what a particular friend thinks to how an e-mail was received. I'm blind to which of my dreams are actually possible and to what to do to get there, or what I might be doing wrong. There are too many facts to process and much of what matters is unknowable by one person.

I have various pains that aren't healed, but then again, don't all adults? I see my friends getting married and raising families, and I am not there yet. They have jobs. They have LinkedIn networks, children and retirement funds. They post their milestones on Facebook. I participate, but I haven't achieved the milestones they have achieved, often years ago. Some days, I have trouble dredging up the motivation to do the 5,000 mundane tasks that are already halfway done and the many I haven't started.

I provide mentorship, guidance and support to four of my five younger siblings (the fifth sibling is doing fine), because our parents are mostly absent.

Some days, I realize that I have not had a conversation with anyone all day. I have woken up, done solitary work, maybe written a few e-mails, and continued working on this and that until sleeping.

I have expenses on the order of $30,000 ahead, for various things, some elective. For instance, I decided to get surgery on my jaw because I have a problem with my lower jaw, which I think is off-putting to others and has impacted my life, but maybe it hasn't. My teeth did not fit together. How should I know whether I should have done it? I did research and got advice, and took a leap. I don't have trusted adults, so I made a $15,000 decision, just like that.

Four years ago, I was healthy and at my peak of vitality and energy, and I had a girlfriend I thought I could marry. She broke up with me, citing fear of commitment, then she started dating someone else weeks later and is still with him. Painful shock, one of several. Now I'm starting to date and sometimes people ask why I haven't found a girlfriend and what's wrong with me, and my years for finding someone great and having a family will be over if I don't get to it.

Overall, I just feel overwhelmed. At the same time, I am apathetic. I have this deep belief that every human situation is basically the same, regardless of outside circumstances. God loves all his creatures equally, or put in a less religious way, humans adapt and everyone is on the same hedonic treadmill. Everyone has good days and bad days. So it's all good. Nothing matters. I came to that conclusion when I was suicidal a while back, and it pulled me back into trying to stay alive. However, at the same time as holding that belief, I'm scared of giving in to it because what if I'm wrong?

I'm at a turning point -- the beginning of adult life. Yes, at 38! Trying to complete my long haul (though worthwhile, I believe, scientific training), a long-term job in industry, a relationship (I hope -- one day), a place to live, a community and the habits of a fully independent, or interdependent, person. I feel like I'm doing it all alone. My best friends have moved out of town recently. I have a brother in the same city, thank goodness, but he's much younger.

Please help me navigate. I know that to get to new places, you have to lose sight of shore. I feel that I've lost sight of shore and I've been unanchored for quite a few years. I feel scared sometimes. Can you give me any sort of advice? I have been reading your column for years.

Thank you,


Dear Me,

I have been thinking about your letter for a couple of days and this morning it occurred to me that your thoughts sound like the thoughts that swirl around a person who is meditating.

Your concerns as outlined here resemble the free-floating worries that we observe and let go as we sit attempting stillness. Though the real-world issues exist, the mental phenomena attached to them do not matter. That is why we let them go. What we try to do by meditating is locate ourselves in a still, untroubled nucleus of breath. We locate ourselves in breathing and watchfulness and attentiveness to the buzz of the absolute moment.

The difference between a person who is meditating and a person who is beset with anxiety seems to be that the person who is meditating becomes aware of these anxious thoughts and then lets these anxious thoughts go. The person who is meditating continues meditating and after a while goes on with the dishes or the writing or the paying of bills.

I'm writing this on Feb. 11, 2011, or 02/11/2011, a nice number that many will remember as the day that the Egyptian people did something amazing. As I walked to the bakery, I had my second significant thought about your letter, which was that rescue from our anxiety can come through meditation and it can also come through impassioned participation. Seeing the beautiful faces of the Egyptians, I feel uplifted. It reminds me of a time when a fever of common consciousness passed through my own generation and we went into the streets knowing only that we had to go into the streets. How does such consciousness come into being? It seems to be a thing of nature like a thundercloud. Like a thundercloud it is beautiful and powerful. In the overhead photos of the crowd kneeling for prayer there is something of natural beauty like a flock of birds or school of fish.

So what do these two observations say when put together -- that your state of mind is the state of mind of all the nervous, anxious thoughts fluttering through the mind of a person who is meditating, and that this is being written on 02/11/2011 when the Egyptian people have done something miraculous? It says to me, Here is a gift to you.

You must do the work, but here is your gift. First, you see from the ecstatic occurrence in Egypt that you have many riches you may be overlooking. You have been given as a birthright what these people have struggled 30 years to achieve. You can pursue your chosen profession in science free of state oppression. You are at this moment safe, housed, in possession of a little money and free from hunger. You are free to meditate and pursue your interests.

This is true. You are free to do this. You need only investigate a little to find out exactly how this is done. It may take some practice. You may need to combine your meditation with some exercise to strengthen your body so that you can sit easily. You may need also to change how you eat so that your body is not a constant enemy to the serene enjoyment of your thoughts. I don't know much about physiology but I do find that daily exercise is essential. Without it, I become an intolerable grouch; I become depressed and miserable. I still meditate even when I am in that state but it is a grudging and difficult practice, and sometimes does not really relieve me of the existential anxiety that seems to be my baseline state.

Speaking of depression, it does sound like you have had bouts of depression, and for depression I recommend cognitive behavioral therapy, as described in the book "Feeling Good" by Dr. David Burns. While meditation teaches us to let our anxious and destructive thoughts pass by, cognitive therapy gives us ways to scientifically demolish those thoughts, by testing them against the rules of logic and evidence.

Family, money and career are real things in the world. You do have a family and you must earn money and so forth. But you do not have to focus on them the way you are. How you manage these thoughts is something you have some control over. That is where meditation and cognitive therapy can be valuable. When you notice that your head is spinning and full of voices and your breathing is quick and shallow and you feel panicked, that is the time to exercise and meditate, and to use methods of cognitive therapy to interrogate these thoughts and determine their truth value. You should do this every day. You will have thoughts that say not to do it. I suggest you treat all such thoughts as simply more of the fluttering mental junk that passes in front of us and swarms around us as we sit meditating.

So please take some time to celebrate the miraculous achievement of the Egyptian people, read the Burns book, and sit quietly for as long as you can, breathing in and out, paying attention to your breath.

The sources of ecstasy are unexpected.

Oh, I had one more thought -- actually this was the first thing that occurred to me when I read your letter a couple of days ago. What about art? I think you need art in your life. Remember when you used to get excited about art? I sense that you are capable of having ecstatic experiences with art and suggest that you begin attending events in your favorite art form. Think back to a time that you experienced high moments looking at a painting or listening to music. Is it opera? Is it symphonic music? Is it painting? Drama? I strongly suggest you begin attending your favorite art form. You need to be reminded of majesty. This will provide what is lacking in your science.

That is all I have to say. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to rummage about in this way, letting ideas come and laying them out. It is truly amazing that I am allowed to do this, to pursue a vocation of the mind at play on a playground occupied by so many other interesting minds. Today is a day to remember. We are privileged to see the occasional miracle. Let's think about the Egyptian people and let their example warm our hearts.



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