To scroll through Heather Havrilesky’s “Ask Polly” columns for The Cut is to peer through a window into a house of pain — marital strife, familial injustices, career disappointments, toxic friendships, childhood trauma revisited.
“I am exhausted, and I feel like everything I do is wrong,” a recent inquiry began.
Havrilesky answers the queries with empathy and nuance and length. Her answers aren’t pithy. They wend and weave and search.
“I want you to stop trying to catch up with that perfect ghost they sing about in your church, and join me here instead,” she answered “All Wrong.” “Let’s be broken and cold and anxious and sarcastic together. … Revel in who you already are, effortlessly, and leave your imaginary impossible self behind forever.”
She’s a beautiful writer, in addition to a thoughtful dispenser of sage advice. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and The New York Times Magazine, among other outlets.
She’s just released a collection of essays, “What If This Were Enough?”
“Since I’ve become an advice columnist, my thoughts are not to just observe the cultural kaleidoscope of poisons we’re ingesting and bringing back into the world with our disordered behavior, but also to try to gesture in the direction of a remedy for that poisoning process,” she told me by phone recently.
Her book taps into the underlying sense of malaise and disconnection that colors so much of our day-to-day interactions with other humans.
“Day in and day out, through aspirational products and heartfelt-seeming commercial messages, in the psychobabble of gurus and the motivational rhythms of Facebook testimonies, between the lines of pop songs and the dialogue of TV comedies, we are taught to communicate triumph while privately experiencing ourselves as inadequate and our lives as disappointing,” she writes. “Day by day, minute by minute, we are robbed of the present.”
And yet, it’s so hard to look away. From Facebook. From push notifications. From our phones.
“Face-to-face, real-time connection to others feels fraught and awkward compared to the safe distance of digital communication,” she writes. “We maintain intimate virtual contact with strangers but seem increasingly isolated from our closest friends and family members.”
Leaving us feeling less alone than we probably are.
“Our worlds exist on our phones, which feels like a very isolating experience even though you’re connecting with other people and can see other people are outraged with the world and what’s happening in their lives,” Havrilesky told me. “It can feel like an isolating thing to experience these tragedies or catastrophes as your own private hell that you have to metabolize on your own, even though they’re things happening all around you. You’re like this strange, isolated spectator surrounded by all these strange, isolated spectators. It breeds a certain level of madness.”
The logical thing would be to put down our devices and commit to a life lived in the moment, eye-to-eye. But it can feel a little irresponsible to turn away from the bad news.
“It can feel guilt-inducing to step back and cultivate the intuition to slough off what’s happening,” she said. “Obviously it’s a privilege to be able to do that, and a lot of people feel like they don’t have the right to do it. But you’re not going to do anything good in the world if you stay dragged into that matrix all the time.”
Havrilesky writes about taking walks and letting herself feel grateful, but also ticked off.
“That’s my territory: gratitude and anger, anger and gratitude,” she writes. “It’s an important place to live.”
“You have to take care of yourself, and that means protecting yourself from too much poison,” she told me. “That means honoring how you feel, which is an incredibly difficult thing for women, especially, to do. But you shouldn’t feel guilty about exploring ways out of the (mess) we’re in, even if those ways don’t involve changing the world.”
Havrilesky’s book isn’t a set of operating instructions. Her essays ruminate and reflect and nudge us toward a less frantic, distracted way. Mostly, they made me feel less crazy for feeling a little crazy all the time.
“I don’t think I wriggled my way out of my own traps until I could accept that things will never feel perfect and what really feels good is noticing how imperfect things are,” she told me. “We shouldn’t be striving to get better and better each day. We should be savoring all of it. My emancipation route is to live in reality, the good and bad and ugly and beautiful together.”
Heidi Stevens is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @heidistevens13.