(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

I'm haunted by a strange, intense yearning

My problems are few, but something mysterious is tugging at my sleeve

Cary Tennis
December 8, 2011 6:00AM (UTC)

Hi Cary,

I've drafted a lot of little notes to your column over the years, but never sent them because they seemed silly once I reread them: first-world fabrications, especially compared to the lives of my grandparents who lived through revolution, famine, mass hysteria and the convulsive changing of a world order.


There really aren't many problems that I've had that couldn't be mitigated by the application of common sense and some personal discipline.

Some background -- I'm in my mid-20s, a few years out of school, working in a high-powered analytic job during the day and on a modest artistic portfolio at night. I love what I do, and have worked really hard to break into and establish myself in a career that I could see myself doing for another four decades. My family is not without its problems but we care for each other and try (mostly successfully) to avoid letting familiarity breed contempt. I've got a number of intimate friends, and I keep active when I can.

So what's my issue? Recently I've been experiencing this sense of nameless want/longing/desire (??) and it's interfering with the rest of my life. It's stupid and I should be able to examine it and let it go, but it's this thorny, clinging thing that finds me playing solitaire in the middle of the night on a work night. Everything I create is derivative and uninspired, I can't get up the motivation to start studying for a part-time degree, and I'm not doing as much as I should at work, as much as I know I'm capable of. Let's establish that I have no desire to quit my job and hare off to Cancun to "find myself" -- I like what I've accomplished and I like my fat little benefits package with the start of a healthy nest egg. There's a time for impulsive, career-imploding choices and this current economy isn't it.

Last night I went for a midnight walk in sub-zero temperatures until even my teeth ached with the cold and I couldn't feel my face anymore. It was the most focused, most balanced I'd felt for months. I went home and burned through 20 pages of reading that I'd assigned to myself. I did some concept work that I could actually stand, about the subjective nature of authenticity. It was lovely. But it didn't last. And I damn near got frostbite to boot.

Cary, I'm at the end of my tether with myself. I can't reason with this feeling, I can't exorcise it with exercise or art. I don't even have the words to describe what I'm feeling to friends and family. Honestly, I feel ridiculous even writing this letter when so many other people have real problems and I know that I can solve this problem if I tried harder. I've beat depression, I've beat social anxiety, I've beat the threat of unemployment. Why the **** can't I beat this idiocy?? Would appreciate any insight you and the commenters have.

Frustratedly Yours,



Dear Sehnsucht,

This "thorny, clinging thing" is not a problem to be solved by common sense and personal discipline. This is a visitation. This is a message. Your job is not to figure it out or solve it. Your job is to just listen to it.

Shift your focus. Recognize that this is a visitor whose outlines you have not yet discerned.  Give it space. Give it time. Allow this visitor to speak to you.


The ways it will speak to you are many but you might not realize when it is speaking to you at first. In fact, it was just speaking to you, just now. Who was it who suggested you finally write me a letter? And who was it that just took you for a walk in the freezing air? Perhaps you couldn't hear what it was saying. Perhaps it wasn't speaking in words. Perhaps it was showing you things on the road. Perhaps it was guiding you to retrace certain steps, to pick up things you missed.

Find the receptive part of you, the part that listens. Turn your antenna toward this new visitor and just listen. Accommodate it. Do what it suggests. It's not going to spell it all out for you. Instead, it's going to make suggestions. They may come as odd notions -- such as the notion to take a walk, or play solitaire. It's going to say things like, let's take another walk. It's going to speak to you in riddles and metaphors. Solitaire, for instance, is an obvious metaphor, so obvious it's embarrassing to point it out. But this part of you is not trying to be clever. It's being rather direct, actually: It is saying you need to be alone more.

I have an intuitive guess that it is also speaking to you of some kind of unfinished business. It is also telling you that you are exhausted. You don't think you have time for it. That's exactly the point. It has your interests at heart. It's taking your time but that's a good thing. It will reward you if you pay attention.


Write down what it says. Write down your dreams. Write down the things that are coming to you.

The essential thing is this: Your job is not to figure it out but just to listen to it. It will take care of the rest. Its meaning will unfold over the coming months. Watch for it in the shadows. Relax your eyes and look for its outline in the clouds, in the fog, in the chilly dark.

Cary Tennis

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