Ask Polly: Should I Help Others or Be an Artist?

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Photo: Marcus Rudolph

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Dear Polly,

I am so tired of helping people. I feel like I’m burning out.

I’m the oldest girl in my family, so I was the one who had to keep my shit together through everyone else’s problems (domestic violence, alcoholism, playing marital counselor and finding out things I really did not want to know). I knuckled down, got straight-As, and took a scholarship to a different country to study speech pathology (scholarship funded by the health service).

I had the same boyfriend for five years, until last year. He KNEW he wanted to be an actor, and I spent a lot of time supporting him, I guess — telling him he was amazing, picking him up whenever an audition went badly. Looking back, he used to tell me I was “intelligent, but not creative.” And I wish I’d spent this time doing art — acting, writing, painting, anything — but I was scared that if he found out I sucked, he’d lose all respect for me. Any art I did (not much), I lied about and hid from him. We eventually broke up, and now he’s a successful actor, playwright, and filmmaker. His career skyrocketed.

I got the scholarship because I showed academic promise and a real passion for helping people. I’m nearly at the end of the course, and I’m so exhausted. I’ve spent the last four years floundering on the course. I’m paddling like mad just to keep my head above water and my grades above failing.

When I was applying, I chose this college because it had so many great arts and theater societies, but I’m working so hard to pass the course (and as a waitress part-time to cover what the scholarship doesn’t) that I’ve barely been involved with them. I’m really good at the practical side of my course (because it relies a lot on being kind and supportive and a good listener), but I’m really just not enjoying it. I feel so guilty that I’m not in it for the “right” reasons, that I don’t “really care” about my patients because I’m so jealous of everyone who is out there making intelligent, challenging theater, getting naked as a life-drawing model, painting things that “aren’t nice.”

I worry that doing anything controversial will torpedo a career in health care, but I’m so sick of trying to be a saint all the time. All the advice is that helping people will take your head out of your ass and make you buck up, but the more I give, the more exhausted and resentful I get. I’m so, so scared that I will find out that really, I do suck at art. I feel like if I were any good, I would have made it work — applied for art programs, told my ex-boyfriend where to shove his assumptions about me, got involved in more student theater. I know it’s my own shitty choices, but I’m so scared that I will suck and everyone will know.

I wish I could kill the dream or embrace it, but at the moment I’m doing neither and it’s eating me alive.

Sincerely,

Mother Teresa Is Losing Her Damn Shit

Dear MTILHDS,

The way adult life is structured, you’re supposed to choose one thing or a set of closely related things, and focus on that. Get your degree, get a job, then do that same fucking thing forever and ever.

But human beings are not built that way. We like lots of contradictory stuff. This is the problem with external pressures to remain “on brand.” This is the implicit mood of social media. You’re supposed to promote your shit and stay on message, always. But seriously, what kind of rigid, colorless cyborg is always, always delivering the same goddamn message? Every single morning I wake up a different person, one who very often dislikes and even resents the person who was there the day before. I stumble on my old tweets some days and think, “Who is this earnest truth teller and how do I murder her in her sleep?” And other days I think, “Who is this seething queen of darkness and how do I get her storm clouds from casting shadows on my good life?”

We contain multitudes. Our moods shift like the weather. Our desires change every millisecond. If you contradict yourself constantly, to me that’s proof that you’re living out loud, exploring, daring to invent and search and discover new ideas and feelings in the moment. You know who’s consistent? TV pundits. Really crappy teachers. Tedious, repetitive, unimaginative motherfuckers. Likewise, people who expect the same thing from an artist or a writer or a musician or any human being alive are people who treat art like it’s a McDonald’s hamburger. “Give me the same fucking thing no matter what.” Everything has a category. These are people who struggle with the concept that every discipline is interdisciplinary. These are people who can’t integrate a wide scope of information and feeling into one coherent, interesting, living conglomeration.

This morning, I woke up and sat down at my desk, determined to write a new column. Creatively, I’m doing great lately. I have lots of ideas and my writing is flowing like never before. I’m also loving this column so much, and I almost always want to write it instead of meeting another one of my deadlines. But this morning, I didn’t feel like helping anyone. I wrote a draft of a column yesterday about death and mourning, and I didn’t want to edit that one. But I also didn’t want to reply to the woman dating the older man, or the woman with the shitty friend, or the 32-year-old man with zero love on the horizon, or the woman who just got separated from her husband of 20 years and misses him but knows that he’ll make her miserable again if she takes him back. People often ask me if my Ask Polly email gets too heavy for me sometimes, but generally speaking, I love that stuff. I love other people’s troubles. They don’t even feel that heavy, necessarily, because I believe that I can help someone out there in some tiny way, even if it’s not always the letter writer. Writing an advice column is creative and it’s also a way to connect with people. It brings together two pretty different skills.

But today, the whole thing felt hopelessly gloomy. I cued up Kendrick Lamar’s “The Recipe,” and as Dr. Dre intoned “Livin’ in California, everybody want to visit for: women, weed, and weather, women, weed, and weather,” I wanted to do anything but answer a letter about someone’s dipshitty noncommittal boyfriend. I haven’t personally smoked weed in far too long, and I would love it if it rained more here in L.A. But there are just those days when I look outside and I see that blue, blue sky and I think, “Today, if I were living my best life, I wouldn’t be sitting inside in my fucking soft pants, tapping out cloying words about honoring your fucking soul. Instead I’d be rolling around town in a convertible, high as a kite in the sunshine.”

And then Dre goes,

It’s a beautiful day, I guess 

For a bitch to roll with Andre, I guess

Pull it up baby, come on lift that dress, then

Roll it up for me when I’m stressed.

I’m a feminist and this is Dr. Dre, a man with a complicated past, calling ladies bitches and telling them to offer up their asses as stress relief. But no one has a voice like Dre. No one. The one downside of having kids, for me, has been not being able to play The Chronic, one of my favorite albums of all time, out loud, in my living room, over and over and over and over, because I can’t imagine watching my kids suddenly grasp the meaning of “Bitches ain’t shit but hos and tricks, lick on deez nuts and suck some dicks.”

Sick and wrong. But human beings are complicated. Sometimes you love stuff that’s not right. Sure, it’s probably better to never play music with such a deeply fucked message at its core. But I like knowing what I’m up against, and refusing to acknowledge the harshness of this world makes me feel crazy. Oh, also, the idea of women rolling up their dresses for Dre is hot. I simmered in a pretty odd soup of influences as a kid growing up in Durham, North Carolina, in the ‘70s. I subconsciously believed all kinds self-hating stuff. My sexuality, my identity, my emotions, my darkest thoughts are all inextricably tied up in all kinds of sick shit.

We all grow up in a crazy stew of influences, and pretending that they aren’t a part of us, or pretending that we can expunge all “bad” and only be good, or believing that principled people have to stand for justice and stand against every single dimension of injustice, in every trivial or nontrivial form, or thinking that “creative” people are less “generous” than those in the helping profession – these are pretty simplistic beliefs. Humans are complicated. They contradict themselves. Art is complicated. Artists are complicated.

All you can do is keep learning. All you can do is keep asking yourself what darkness, what sickness, what toxins you have onboard. You keep interrogating those things, and you consider their consequences, on yourself and others. Sometimes you say, “I hate this darkness.” And other times you access your darkness and it feels goooooood.

To turn your back on your full self is not only unrealistic, it’s anti-human.

So let’s talk about you. You’re a generous person and you’re also an angry person and you’re also a creative person. That’s not an uncommon mix. I don’t know that many people who want to help other people who aren’t also anxious about what’s going wrong in the world. They’re anxious about the state of the world and they’re angry at the world for being so fucked. They’re angry at themselves for being so fucked. They feel guilty. But they also want some cathartic release for the anger, for the rage they feel toward the world and toward themselves.

My guess is that you need to express these darker, wilder parts of yourself, somewhere, in some way, in order to enjoy helping people again.

And some dark part of me definitely wants to travel back in time and tell your boyfriend, who told you that you were “intelligent, but not creative,” that he can go suck a fat dick. That’s how the motherfuckin D-R-E from the CPT would put it, anyway. What the fuck does he know about your creative potential? Only an idiot would claim to know such a thing – and it’s always the idiots with the very fragile egos who pull this shit, because they want to claim ALL OF THE CREATIVITY FOR THEMSELVES. Likewise with the people who march around, announcing casually that this or that amateur art hanging in a coffee shop is BAD, BAD ART. I mean, sure, we’ve all seen terrible messes of clashing color vomited onto a canvas. We’ve all heard very bad poetry and listened to pretentious but utterly flat, cliched prose. The world is filthy with navel gazers who claim the valiant crown of Creative Person.

I used to like to stick my glock in the mouths of these amateur creative fucks and let the hollow points commence to pop, pop, pop, mostly because I had a fragile ego and the scarcity mentality that goes with it. I’m not talking about being a critic. Writing and reading cultural criticism is still one of my favorite things. I’m talking about how I once believed that people who are trying creatively but haven’t really succeeded at making anything amazing yet SHOULD QUIT. I’m talking about my belief that these people shouldn’t be encouraged, my belief that there was something wrong with people who tried, tirelessly, to learn more and improve and find new ways to express the volatile emotions and untested ideas they carried around inside.

I still notice when this or that poem or bit of prose or song or work of art is crappy. I am still a judgmental human being, and I always will be. But I cannot fucking believe that I used to think that people who are doing creative stuff not all that well should stop wasting their time. Because only one person gets to decide whether or not their time is being wasted, and that’s the person who owns that time to begin with and can waste it however the fuck they like.

Digging into your madness is good for you. I’m not saying people who don’t care about that should do it. I’m saying that if you do care, if you feel that you have worlds inside of you that you know aren’t served by your current career path, then you should explore those worlds. Get a job in your field and commit to sifting through these creative impulses at the same time. COMMIT. You need this indulgence, in order to balance out your generous side. And in a few years, you may need your generous, helping side to be expressed through volunteer work or the like, because your paying gig will be in a creative field you discovered while you were a speech pathologist. My guess is that you want to do both things. You want to help others and you also want something that is dark and weird and wild and very selfish. You want explicit permission to be selfish. Give yourself permission to be bad at this creative stuff while you’re at it. If you’re ever going to be good at anything, you’ve got to grant yourself the right to be bad at it first.

Will your art ruin your career in health care? Of course not. Choose your employer carefully, though. You have to work around people who honor their own complex, contradictory natures, people who embrace and understand art but also want to help others. There are more people like this in the world than you may know. It’s not always clear when you’re young just how complex real-life humans are — openly so! Go out and find a job among great people, and your worries about the demands of self-compartmentalizing are likely to evaporate into thin air.

Or, don’t get a job in health care at all. Risk it all and eat dry beans to work in the theater. If you want permission to do that, I give you permission. It’s your life! Do exactly what you feel like doing. What about a part-time job in health care and some experimenting with theater the other half of the time? Don’t say that’s impossible. Make it possible.

To do any of this shit, though, you must believe in and embrace your own contradictory impulses, your inspired streaks, your rage, and your longing. I woke up this morning and I was angry at myself for not wanting to answer any advice letters. I forgave myself for that. I was a little bit annoyed at myself for wanting to smoke weed in the sunshine instead of writing. I dealt with this guilt by listening to “The Recipe” 15 times in a row. I swear, this song is perfection. 2012 this song was out, and I heard it for the first time last week. I am so late to the game. I’m old and slow. I forgive myself for that, too. Kendrick Lamar is so good. And I love Dr. Dre, that bass line — nobody does it better. I get that it’s not cool. Seriously, though, kiss my ass. I like what I like. I’m not apologizing anymore. Instead I’m saying:

Time and I got time, and I know that I’m in a position of controlling anything

I buy that ocean, I’m a boss I’ll buy that ocean,

Ain’t nobody fucking with this 

You know what I didn’t want to do this morning? I didn’t want to inspire anyone. Sometimes I’m not inspired, and the last thing on Earth I want to do is tap out some fake, hollow inspiration. So I’m just going to roll with this instead. Do you see what I’m saying to you? You can care a whole hell of a lot about people and their problems some days and not care about them other days. Neither of these things defines you.

When you’re young, though, you think that every single mood you have will determine who you are forever and ever, and if you have clashing moods, you’re a fucking loser because you can’t manage to do one thing and think one thing and be one way, day after day after day. But I say only tiresome humans live that way. I say the most interesting people are all over the goddamn map. That’s the way of the artist. Darkness and madness and joy, blended together. I am not a living, breathing Hallmark card. You are not a saint. I am never going to be 1 thing, or 2 things, or 15 things, even. Neither are you.

A few days after my dad died, I went to his condo to look for some documents, and I found a coffee cup with stains in his sink. Seeing evidence of his last cup of coffee crushed me into the ground. But then I went upstairs and I found a note he’d written by hand in blue ballpoint pen on a little piece of ripped paper, that he’d stuck onto the mirror of his bedroom dresser. It said, “All of heaven is within you.”

All of heaven is within you, my angry Mother Teresa. Heaven isn’t just fluffy clouds and nothing else, either. Heaven is everything in the universe. Don’t waste your life trying to be a saint and nothing else. Be a saint and a devil, the pope and the president, a savoir and a snake, a feminist crusader and a bitch who rolls up her dress AND the guy who tells her to roll it up. If somebody’s got a problem with that, say what Dre says: “I shall proceed, that’s me, motherfuck your opinion.” All of heaven is within you.

Polly

Order the new Ask Polly book, How To Be A Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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