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In this week’s advice column: Yes, life is full of contradiction and absurdity. That’s the point.
Welcome to Couldn’t Be Me, a weekly advice column where I solicit your personal dilemmas and help out as best as I can. Have something I can help you with? Find me @_Zeets.
Questions this week had a lot to do with the dualism of life: The reality that opposing feelings and concepts can exist in the same person and their experiences. One question deals with work/life balance, another with forgiveness, but within these questions is the struggle for not just balance, but a clear idea of life.
Though so many elements of life seem contradictory to each other, the truth of life is there is no real contradiction. The absurdism of conflict is a natural part of the lives we live. There’s so much depth to our existence that we will inevitably find ourselves dealing with problems in which there are no clear answers, and even times when every available answer is equally good and bad.
Jeff: I had an excellent Labor Day weekend spending time with people I love, only to be confronted with “post-festival depression” — i.e., the massive dopamine drop-off upon returning to work Tuesday. How does/should one cope when they fly high one moment before dropping down to earth the next?
CBM: I don’t know if there’s a way to actually fix that, because the core of the problem is that, oftentimes, the parts of life we enjoy and the work we do don’t mix.
I know many people believe the perfect balance is to have a job you enjoy so much it becomes a fun part of life. I even know some people who have achieved this to some extent. But, and this is just me, I’m not a fan of making your work and your life the same.
That mix closes off your world, so that all of your experiences, friends, and ideas are in one place. There’s nothing wrong with being a specialist, but it seems like a shorthanded way to deal with the root cause of that dopamine drop-off.
To me, there’s nothing wrong with that drop-off. Work is work, and should be seen as work, even when you truly enjoy it. It takes a different mentality to do work than it does to enjoy life away from it. When you’re at work, there are external and internal pressures to complete tasks. There are obligations, and a lingering threat of losing work and having life disrupted. Even at its best, work is tense, and everyone is well aware of that tension the second they clock in.
Spending time with people you love doesn’t have those tensions. There are different obligations, but the best moments of spending time with people close to you — and, I think, of life in general — occur when you’re doing nothing of real note. When you can relax. When most of the pressures are gone and you’re just with people you enjoy. In work, you live by the clock. When you’re enjoying life, you almost forget time is even a thing. You let it drift by.
I know that answer isn’t for everyone, and there are people who don’t like that relaxation, who are much happier when they’re working and completing tasks. But for you and your problem of post-festival depression, I think the best way to cope is to make those moments of closeness and relaxation part of your everyday life more often. Planning for those moments and having them alongside work will help balance that frustration of going from a world of leisure to a world of tension.
Anonymous: Who are your favorite writers?
CBM: Some time ago, one of my friends wrote a blog in which he said, roughly, that youth is the time to read many different books and authors, and old age is the time to realize who your favorites are and go back to their books more often. With that, I’m not sure I can properly answer your question.
But, one of my favorite books recently is Lina Meruane’s Seeing Red. The book is written from the perspective of a woman who is going blind, and I enjoyed one passage in which she is speaking to her husband. After describing how her blindness made her so dependent on him — making him both a victim and dictator in their relationship, because his life is now centered on taking care of her — she holds his face and says to herself he could and should leave her. She ends with, “Open your eyes, Ignacio, you still have time.”
I love lines like that, in which the fever of stress and words before it builds up so much that such a simple expression becomes heartbreaking. The passage also illustrates a double-blindness. The main character can’t see because of a medical condition, and he can’t see his escape because he loves her and is her caretaker. Then there’s the way in which she takes on the dictator role by assuming he doesn’t know he can leave, that he isn’t choosing to stay with her in her disabled state. It’s a wonderful book.
Matt: I remember the article that you wrote about your father, but there is still something that I am struggling with. In what way can forgiveness be achieved? Along the same issue, how can I come to terms with the love that I may have for someone whilst still harboring all kinds of disgust from a deep betrayal? I just don’t know how to express myself in this situation, what constitutes hypocrisy, etc.
CBM: To begin, I don’t think there’s hypocrisy in your situation. Life is infinitely complex, and part of that complexity is that there are times when you can love someone and be disgusted by them at the same time. There’s a Shakespearean sonnet about forgiveness that I’m fond of, that goes:
”Tis not enough that through the cloud thou break,
To dry the rain on my storm-beaten face.
For no man well of such a salve can speak
That heals the wound and cures not the disgrace.
Nor can thy shame give physic to my grief;
Though thou repent, yet I have still the loss.
The offender’s sorrow lends but weak relief
To him that bears the strong offense’s cross.”
In particular, the last three lines speak so much to the difficulty of forgiveness. An apology from the person who has hurt you doesn’t undo what has been done, and so the apology is weak relief. It tells you the person cares about you and is ashamed to have hurt you; but what is done is done, and you can’t pretend that it wasn’t so.
What comes after is whether you decide to forgive them. You have no obligation to do so, regardless of how close the person is to you, and especially if the betrayal is deep. You are well within your rights to still have love for that person, or to even forgive what they have done, and still decide it’s better to keep a distance between yourselves. There’s no weakness in protecting yourself and having boundaries for being hurt.
But if you do still want this person close, both of you will have to live with the fact a deep betrayal did occur; and rather than try to soothe or reverse that betrayal, you have to build off of it. The person has to understand themselves from that event, from the pain they’re capable of inflicting on someone who they love, and use the event as a starting point to becoming better. And you can also investigate the pain to learn what it has to teach you about yourself.
Again, there’s no contradiction between that love and disgust. The inexpressibility of it is the expression of the frustration. The situation is absurd, just as Fernando Pessoa once wrote that he was at the “bottom of a bottomless depression.”
You love and hate the same person. You can forgive them without wanting them close to you, or you can also not forgive and not want them close, or you can forgive and try to find a way forward together to salvage the relationship. All of those options are open, but you’re not under a time limit to choose. It’s your hurt, and you can take as much time as you want to find your path forward.