So many people I’ve talked to over the last few weeks have reported that February’s been a slog. I have felt this, too. It seems to take extra energy just to maintain my regular rhythms of life, meaning that I can forget about attempting to do anything “extra” or ambitious. I strongly suspect that this phenomenon is not limited to my social circles, and is in fact extremely widespread.
And that’s okay. It’s not unheard of for things to get dreary during the last days of winter, especially in the upper Midwest. What’s different this year is that the weather has been drearier and much more full of snow than usual. Another difference is that we’re still recovering from the traumatic political events of the past few months, which were never really resolved (and the debate over what it would take to resolve them is ongoing).
Oh, and there’s still a pandemic. When I started writing these emails 51 weeks ago, I never imagined we would essentially still be in lockdown. It’s true that we’re turning the corner on vaccine distribution, and that’s amazing, but we’re also at the point where both of these things are true: 1) the pandemic is at its most normalized, and 2) the pandemic’s cumulative effects are at their highest. And, at least until we hit a much higher vaccination rate, those things will get more true every day.
In addition to everything above, this might be the single biggest factor making these doldrums so profound and pervasive.
Maybe I can demonstrate it better with a graph!
This is a dramatization, especially with respect to anxiety levels, which in many situations are still quite high. What I wanted to get at is that by now, many of us are just accustomed to the new way of operating. We now take for granted precautions that felt like massive burdens in April 2020, and that were unthinkable in December 2019. We’re all much more resilient and resolved.
Normalization is a natural and necessary psychological adaptation, but what is normalized is not negated. All this has to have taken a big toll on us, and I’m sure there are scientists out there refining theories and collecting data in order to show us just how vast this toll is. The only thing I’m really sure of is that we’re seriously underselling it.
Novel Advice is not the first compilation of letters to an advice columnist, nor is it the first in which the columnist adopts an alternate persona. But it is almost certainly the first book in which all of the letters are written by characters in famous novels and plays, and in which the advice columnist is herself a renowned character from Greek mythology. That’s a neat enough trick to hook someone like me: I enjoy a good advice column, but I rarely seek them out.
The letter-writers hail from across the Western canon and beyond. They include both protagonists and villains, the beloved, the infamous, and the inscrutable. Even when the appeals come from the inhabitants of books I dismissed in high school as hopelessly dated, they’re never boring. Credit author Jay Bushman’s knack for pinpointing and exquisitely rendering so many of the most fascinating and relevant conundrums in literature. What makes these people leap off the page, though, is their unique vulnerability: as Bushman points out in the preface, not only are these advice-seekers all in the throes of various thorny dilemmas, but they are also trapped in a meta-dilemma that they’re not even aware of—the fact that they are characters in a story.
It’s really not fair. Their problems are laid out for all to see, and we readers often have far more insight into these poor wretches and their desperate situations than they do. We can see all the forces arrayed against them. We can sometimes see the invisible strings connecting the characters to the hands of the author, who guides the story’s inhabitants to and fro like puppets around a stage. They have no idea this is going on. They don’t feel that their actions are predetermined, that their fates are already inscribed on the following pages. In their minds, they are not heroes or villains, not tragic figures and not comic relief. They are people with problems. Just like us.
The wisdom-dispensing marvel of Novel Advice is Aunt Antigone—Antigone, from Greek mythology, and Aunt, as a play on the “agony aunt” sobriquet for an advice columnist. She is forthright in her assessments, yet throughout the book, she observes the unspoken rule that she must not tell these characters the full truth of their predicament: they’re not to know anything about their status as literary icons, and they can’t be informed as to what will happen to them as their stories unfold. That would be too much; I couldn’t imagine living under that kind of pressure. Better to believe that the next page of my life is as yet unwritten.
As I read the queries and responses in Novel Advice, I found myself making a list of the books and plays I was feeling the most excited to check out. Some, like Hamlet and Moby-Dick, were no surprise; these are the ones I have plenty of experience pretending to have read when they come up at parties—or I would, if I went to parties where people discussed classic literature. My interest in several old favorites, like Catch-22 and To Kill a Mockingbird, was also rekindled.
I noticed a surprising commonality between the three books at the top of my list…
I love it when people who are much more accomplished than me say what I’ve been saying! Leo Babauta is founder of Zen Habits, one of the most popular blogs in the world, and in this brief piece, he explains how he went to incredible lengths to create an “ideal version” of himself, with many stunning achievements along the way. After years of this, he took stock and realized that the self-dissatisfaction that was driving his striving was still as strong as ever.
He decided that creating more meaning in his life was what mattered to him, not knocking out goals, and this meant he needed to become more familiar with the concept of “being enough.” Goals can be helpful, but not for their own sake. He used mindfulness techniques to recognize his “improvement” urges when they arose (it’s a mistake to think you can eliminate them). Instead of pursuing them, he sat with them a bit, and then watched them fall away.
My life isn’t more awesome after achieving the goal. I always learn something from these pursuits, but the result isn’t the life that I fantasized about. I ran the ultramarathon, did the Goruck Challenge, got the leaner body, learned a bit of programming . . . my life isn’t any better. The fantasy was never real.
The pursuit doesn’t result in anything meaningful. Going after these achievements, always looking to improve myself . . . they don’t result in anything that brings meaning to my life. They’re all about fantasy, not about creating meaning.
That’s all I’ve got. Please take care, write back if you can—tell me your favorite sign of spring—and I’ll see you next week.