Ask Polly: Aren’t Some People Just Doomed to Be Miserable?

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Photo: Paul Mckenzie/Getty Images

Polly,

Okay. From time to time I read your entertaining column and especially enjoyed reading your book based on your column. Please tell me if you hear from the letter writers, and if so, has your advice helped? I ask because I am not as certain as you are that there is little “wrong” with most people and all that many of them need is a new perspective. I think in the department of giving “new” perspectives, you soar with your advice. But, in a most humble and respectful opinion, I differ with you. Sadly, I think there are some people who make extremely poor and flawed choices because there IS something wrong with them. As many letter writers’ chief cheerleader, I admire your optimism. But, I do wonder if some of your humanistic optimism is detrimental.

I have a close friend who raised a miserable daughter. At no point in her daughter’s 33 years can I recall the daughter being anything other than miserable. When the young woman was at the very tender age of 8, I recall saying to myself that that child was miserable and I had hoped that she’d grow out of her miserable temperament. I could go on and on about this young woman, but I think you get the point. I think for some individuals, there is little to say to them that can help them enjoy life and the company of people around them.

What really breaks my heart is watching my friend deal with her own misery caused by her daughter’s unhappiness. I understand her misery because I have children as well. There is an expression that mothers are only as happy as their least happy child. Whoever was the first person to realize that was clearly a genius.

I hate to be Debbie Downer, but I have seen many babies turn into grown men and women and most are well adjusted and happy. Others? Their futures were cloudy and the path toward sunshine is nowhere to be found.

Realist

Dear Realist,

I appreciate your letter so much, because even as you try to close the door on this subject, all you do is succeed in opening more doors. Isn’t it strange how that happens? It’s as if, whenever you want to have the last word, a million contradictory words rise up in revolt.

Let’s start with the words “miserable daughter.” You knew this girl from a young age, and, by your account, it’s not that she was often sad or that she struggled with depression. She wasn’t disappointed in the world around her. She simply arrived into this world, fully formed, as A MISERABLE PERSON. She was miserable, and she was the cause of her own misery. She carried her misery around with her, and she handed out misery to anyone who tried to help her. Think about what it means to give a young child that kind of responsibility. Think about what it means to look at someone so young and instead of saying to yourself, “There must be a way to help this kid,” saying “This human is doomed and she smells like doom and she brings doom with her, everywhere she goes.”

Let’s also talk about the poor mother who is plagued by her miserable daughter. Not only was she powerless from the first moment her daughter was born, but she would be a fool to believe she could change her daughter’s fate. Every effort to help would be a wasted effort. And here’s the real kicker: This mother is powerless to change her own reality, too! “There is an expression that mothers are only as happy as their least happy child,” you write. “Whoever was the first person to realize that was clearly a genius.”

In other words, even the most joyful life can be transformed unexpectedly into a steel trap with no escape. The daughter was born not only to torture herself but also to torture others. She is misery, and she brings misery wherever she goes. Her mother can only match her misery step by step. There is no alternative path. Mothers can neither help nor step away. Their agony is fated from the start.

Whether you know it or not, Realist, your philosophy is not a philosophy of realism; it’s a philosophy of fear. You are afraid of the things that skittered out of your hands and spun wildly out of your control. You are afraid of the people who contradicted you and challenged you and told you that you made big mistakes along the way. Things were supposed to go smoothly. You were supposed to be adored and cherished. Your children were supposed to be happy and grateful for all that you did. Instead, other stuff happened.

You couldn’t look back and say, “What happened there, exactly?” or “Did I miss something?” A part of you felt too responsible, too guilty to reconsider or ask questions. I feel you on that front: You assumed it was your fault, and that was too much to tolerate. So you told yourself another story, just as damaging and inaccurate: We are never in control of our fates, so caring deeply about ourselves and others is a mistake. Caring deeply and investing in an uncertain outcome is the path of fools, the path of suffering. Caring deeply brings misery. And this philosophy leads us to an old familiar trope: Because mothers are built to care deeply, they are also built to suffer.

Stop and ask yourself, though, why a mother must blithely sign on to the misery of her children without taking charge of her own happiness. Ask yourself why the miserable daughter holds the most responsibility in this picture, while the mother passively suffers through no fault of her own. Ask yourself why, in your binary world, some people are “well adjusted and happy” while others are miserable, and the miserable ones are the only ones who can be said to “make extremely poor and flawed choices because there is something wrong with them.”

Here is my alternative to your story: There is something wrong with all of us, and there is nothing wrong with any of us. These two notions don’t contradict each other. We all have a wide range of complicated impulses and emotions onboard that are interpreted sloppily by our confused culture. Many of the well-adjusted, happy people you describe aren’t as well adjusted or as happy as you imagine them to be. These apparent “winners” make bad choices repeatedly, but they’re very good at hiding their mistakes. The appearance of well-adjusted happiness is very important to these “winners,” that’s all. Likewise, the miserable people you describe are not nearly as miserable as they might seem; they are merely people who value appearances far less than others. These so-called miserable losers are just people who are actively, openly searching for ways to be happier.

The so-called losers didn’t resolve to power down their emotions in service of a story that would petrify their wildest desires and dreams into something like a guiding philosophy, one built to keep them safe from the unpredictable, scary darkness of reality. Meanwhile, the so-called winners kept telling themselves, “I am a winner who makes good choices,” but those growing feelings of dread still kept them awake at night.

“She is a loser who made bad choices all her life,” the so-called winners say of their miserable daughters. “All of my unhappiness starts and ends with her. She is the external cause of my unhappiness. If my unhappiness came from within, then it would be MY fault. Luckily, SHE is the cause, so I can remain blameless.”

So-called winners live to remain blameless. But the world is filled with demons and darkness that the winners can’t understand, can’t control, can’t battle openly. “This is how the story goes,” they say. “Good battles evil,” they say, not noticing that they’re putting on a black hat instead of a white one.

I want to be clear about something, though, lest we spin off into the upside-down binary world where the so-called losers proclaim themselves winners and everything devolves into a bad scene from Trainspotting. The world is not split into two factions. Life is not that simple. There are not only The Miserable and The Not Miserable. We are not seekers or clones, free-wheeling dreamers or starchy followers, selfish babies or martyrs, the damned or the blessed. All people struggle. It’s hard sometimes for seemingly miserable dreamers to shut down their overactive brains and live in the moment. It’s hard sometimes to put their feelings aside and be capable and fight for a cause much greater than themselves. Sometimes it’s hard for them to call their mothers, in spite of what calcified assholes their mothers can be sometimes, just to say to them, “I’m grateful for the sacrifices you made, and I love you.” They don’t always know how to show their love, in part because they’re exhausted by this fucking maternal story about how every single choice they ever made is a shitty choice, because they’ve always made shitty choices because THEY WERE BORN THAT WAY.

But here’s my belief: Dreamers are called to rise above the mire, to be big and generous and kind in spite of their anger and resentment and damage. Dreamers (see also: losers, ha!) are called to lead. Even though we often feel weak and pathetic because we feel our feelings a lot, thanks to years of searching we know ourselves and we are more courageous and capable than we give ourselves credit for, and we’re spilling over with gifts that we need to share.

For example, I got into it with a troll the other day. He wasn’t remotely worth my time, but I like a good fight. Afterward, though, I felt guilty for being prideful and for smashing his face into the ground. Who even knows what that guy is going through? Who knows how lonely or angry he is, thanks to being treated without empathy his whole life, thanks to his habit of never, ever, treating himself with empathy? I abused my power. I’m a happy person who’s procrastinating. But he’s a guy who’s so unhappy that he’s looking for trouble from strangers online. I could’ve tried to reach that guy, but I didn’t help him at all.

Realist, I’ve used your letter to address a rigid, pessimistic way of looking at the world that I strongly dislike. In my opinion, you’re telling yourself a safe story about winners and losers and learned helplessness: Some people are just fucked, and there’s nothing any of us can do about it. You’re telling me that you could recognize a miserable loser from a mile away, from the age of 8, and you could write her entire story, start to finish, before you even knew another thing about her. That makes me want to run out and find this so-called miserable daughter and save her from your fucked up story. (My savior complex is a whole different kind of pathology, no doubt about that.)

Optimists, in your view, are fools. Sure, you write “I admire your optimism,” but then you quickly ask, “Has your advice helped anyone, really?” and then come out and say “I do wonder if some of your optimism is detrimental.” This progression of sentiments feels so familiar to me: “You are such a gift to the world! But are you really helping anyone? I think you might be hurting them, actually.”

As often as I write that people hate pessimism and wishy-washiness, some people really hate optimism, too. I run into this all the time these days. One friend of mine in particular is very conflicted about what I write. To her, everything I believe springs from the fact that I got lucky and married a great guy. She thinks I tell people to hold out for something that’s rare, when in truth almost all marriages are shitty.

But to me, her worldview springs from guilt. Her deepest, truest belief is that she fucked up her whole life. She blames herself for every false move she’s made, so she compensates by telling a repeating story about how everything is doomed from the start. It must be doomed, or else she has to contend with all of her guilt over her imperfect life.

Sometimes I want to say to her, “My life is imperfect, too, but I have worked really fucking hard to get here, and I want you to see how hard I’ve worked instead of believing that my husband wandered in and made my life magical.” I’m grateful for my luck, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know shit about suffering. We all suffer in our own ways. The world is not split into two factions, the magical and the doomed.

But because I’m happy and I’m grateful for that happiness, I know that it’s not my job to say “You’re wrong about me” to my friend (or anyone else). It’s my job to say to her, “It’s not your fault.” She needs to know that things go wrong sometimes, but that doesn’t mean she caused those things. She didn’t fuck things up that I got right. I’ve fucked up a million things. We all fuck up. She needs to stop blaming herself, so she can open herself up to the possibility that we’re not all damned for all time. There is always hope. Things can always twist and change, even by accident. What you have, however twisted and sad and stupid and regrettable it may be, also contains brilliance and warmth. There is an uncanny kind of elation that comes from looking at the truth without blaming yourself or anyone else for it.

So this is what I want to say to you, Realist: Things go wrong sometimes. Stop trying to remain blameless, and you might just be happier than your least happy child. You also might discover that your least happy child is happier than you think. You can accept some of the blame without deciding that every single thing that happened is your fault. Our misery is not written in the stars. There are many, many paths that lead away from misery, toward sunshine. You don’t have to stay here forever. You don’t have to dedicate your balance of days on Earth to convincing people that their optimism is an ill-considered delusion. You have other choices.

Polly

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