You Just Try Shit and See What Works (My Byron Katie Detox, Part Fourteen)

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One afternoon, I was taking a walk with a friend I’ll call Julie. Julie is beautiful, out and in, and I think highly of her. Despite this, we have a problem: sometimes (okay, more than sometimes), I feel compelled, almost beyond my ability to control it, to give her advice. (She is not the only person I have this problem with.)

On the day in question, Julie was upset, which to me is a wide-open invitation. Walking is a great activity for conversation, and that afternoon, a secondary benefit didn’t escape my notice, either, namely: the person you’re with is basically trapped.

You’re walking already. What’re they gonna do, run?

So, Julie was upset, and I was talking and talking, trying to come to some useful conclusion. Then suddenly, it hit me: this time, she had real problems. Problems I had no idea how to help with. So I stopped mid-oration, and tried to listen instead.

It was her job, she said. She hated it but she’d hated all her other jobs, too. She didn’t know what she wanted to do. Plus, she was broke. And her roommate was annoying her, and she disliked her apartment, and last week she’d run out of her medication.

It was rough.

As she continued to describe the situation, we passed the last stand of trees and I realized that soon, we’d be at our cars. I wanted to say something, offer something—anything. So, I threw out the only relevant remark I could come up with.

“There’s no right way to do this, to figure out what you want to do, you know? There is no blueprint for life. Life is like a game. You just try shit, and see what works. That’s it. You try shit, and see what works.”

I don’t know what effect the words had on Julie. But I do know what effect they had on me. Right after I said them, a bunch of my memories rearranged themselves in my brain, memories like the night in Bogota with Dave. I thought, too, about the spirituality books I’d been reading since my deconversion, books like Conversations with God and The Power of Now, and even some law of attraction stuff.

That’s it, I realized. Life is a game. There are no rules. You just try shit, and see what works.

And with that thought, my new life philosophy had words.

Since that day with Julie, I’ve clung to these words. Now, it’s time to question them.

Stay tuned for Part Fifteen of My Byron Katie Detox: One Year of Questioning Everything I Believe.

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My Boyfriend Won, and Easily (My Byron Katie Detox, Part Thirteen)

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I met my husband, David, on my first night in Seattle, after moving here to start my freelance writing career. On our first date we went to a coffee shop, then to a restaurant, then to a beach, then to another restaurant, then to a park, and since that night I’ve never been alone.

From the start of our relationship, everything was easy—talking, not talking, going places, staying home. It didn’t just feel good to be with him; it felt right.

I had never felt that way about a partner before.

There was only one problem: David was an atheist. And dating him made me question my faith even further. How can I marry someone who isn’t going to heaven? I wondered. Someone who will teach our children there isn’t a God?

It was a tricky situation, but not an unexpected one.

Many years–crucial years–had passed since those lovely evening talks with my dad, and many more lessons had been learned. In college I let go of the belief that the Bible was the literal truth and that it contained no mistakes. And in the years since, I started questioning the idea of Hell, too. I’d also stopped attending church regularly, and on the rare occasions on which I did, it no longer felt like it used to feel. It didn’t feel authentic.

And now I had David. And so, after five years in that nebulous non-practicing state, it was time to figure this religion thing out. So, I returned to church. I joined a Bible study. More important, I started asking questions.

Maybe I went to the wrong church. Maybe I asked the wrong questions. Whatever the case, I didn’t like the answers I got. After a while, I started feeling it: awkward tension. Judgment. Even fear from people who barely knew me.

A few months later, I stopped going to that church, and the battle between religion and boyfriend came to an abrupt end.

My boyfriend had won, and easily.

I’m still not sure if it was dating David that caused me to give up on Christianity for good.

But it definitely didn’t hurt.

***

A year into my relationship with Dave, we took a bus to Bogota, Colombia, our seventh city in as many weeks. We were on an extended backpacking tour of South America, and it was a rough patch–several months in, with both my tolerance for foreign discomforts and my Spanish skills strained to the breaking point.

As our bus neared our hostel, I had to negotiate yet another Spanish conversation involving complicated (okay, not that complicated) directions. I was hungry and tired and way out of my language depth. And so, right there on the bus, I lost it.

Tears don’t come easily to me. When minutes before arriving at our stop I started crying in front of this stranger, it took me by surprise. I was embarrassed, but the teenager who’d been helping me—one of those kids you just know has a very proud mom somewhere—was amazing. He looked at me with the most understanding eyes. No awkwardness. No awkwardness. David said, “She’s tired,” and the man nodded and said, “Yes, I know.” When we got to our stop, he got off and walked us to our hostel.

Before going in, we sat on a nearby bench to rest, and David held me a while without saying anything. I still wasn’t ready to talk, but I felt much better.

My mini-breakdown was over.

David and I liked the hostel we’d found—in fact, it was our favorite of the trip so far. We decided to slow our pace a bit, stay for at least a week, and spend more time hanging out there rather than traipsing the streets, crazed tourist-style. We cooked all our meals in the hostel kitchen, ate in the large shared dining room. We talked to fellow travelers, read a few books.

It was the respite I needed—until it wasn’t.

On our second evening there, Dave and I got into a fight with a stranger about politics.

I’ll spare you the details. Here’s what you have to know: Dave isn’t shy, and neither was she. Also, she was a feminist and didn’t appreciate—okay, hated—everything either of us said about gender differences.

Yeah. It was one of those conversations.

The conversation involved both of us, but it was mostly Dave’s argument (and it’s worth noting that he never raised his voice or even got upset, and I admired him so much for that, and still do). So, after a while, I left him to it and went back to our room to take a break and journal. The heightened emotions I’d been experiencing of late, combined with my physical exhaustion and the adrenaline rush from the conversation, necessitated some quiet alone time. I started writing.

I wrote about how even though the past year, my year with Dave, had been the happiest of my life by far, I was a little lost, too. Was I still a Christian? Was I still spiritual? If not, what was I living for? Our future family? My career? Nothing in particular?

I thought about Dave defending our traditional she-cooks he-works relationship to the woman in the other room and her shocked, judgmental reaction. I thought about how much my love for Dave had given me already—how much it had changed my life to be his partner. Other than my short marriage to my first husband, I’d been single nearly all my life till then (thirty years).

Finally, I had someone to love, and it was so nice.

I loved the companionship, the feeling of being loved, but more than all that, I loved being needed. I loved making David’s dinner, getting him glasses of water without being asked, scratching his back, listening to his stories.

I just really loved loving him.

And that’s when it dawned on me. Oh. Oh, wait. Maybe that’s my purpose in life. Maybe I don’t need to be spiritual anymore—not if I don’t want to be.

Maybe I just need to love.

Here’s part of my (admittedly dramatic) journal entry from that night:

“Religions fail. Utopias fail. Ideas and ideologies fail. Even friendship fails. I will just try to live well.

“In fact, that’s my new philosophy—my new purpose in life: to live well, no matter how different from other people that is.

“I don’t need a religion. I don’t need a theology. I don’t need to understand everything or even to try to understand everything. And I definitely don’t need to be perfect.

“I just need to take care of myself and the people I love. And for me, for now, that is enough. In fact, it’s more than enough; it’s all I can do.”

Echoes of Dad’s advice from over a decade prior. And yet, this realization went beyond simply loving and accepting myself. In that moment, without knowing it, I came upon a whole new-to-me fundamental spiritual belief, the second of my list of seven.

It is that life is a game.

Admittedly, it was several years before I found the words for this philosophy. But that moment at the hostel is when it became part of me. When I decided not to float anymore, to pin down the meaning of my life, what I was really doing was finding a new game. For two solid decades, my game had been religion, and that wasn’t cutting it anymore. I had to live for something, though. Everyone has to live for something.

Everyone needs some kind of purpose.

The quest for ultimate truth? Naw. Too frustrating. People who make finding it their purpose get closer than the rest of us, but I don’t think they ever grasp it. Money wouldn’t do. Service was close. But love—well, that felt more doable. So, that’s what I’d be about. Loving David. Loving people. That, and working really hard.

Stay tuned for Part Fourteen of My Byron Katie Detox: One Year of Questioning Everything I Believe.

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Books I Want My Kids to Read Someday #15: “Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life" by Byron Katie

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Dear kids,

Loving What Is is one of the first books I read of Byron Katie’s, and it is probably the most topic-focused. Pick it up when you need to remember that you can’t control other people. You can only love other people, and control yourself.

Favorite Quotes:

Choosing which quotes to share out of a Byron Katie book is like choosing which of your children is your favorite. They’re all my favorite–but for different reasons.

Nevertheless, here are the ones that made the cut. They are all taken from in-person sessions between Byron Katie and the people she’s helping through the process of inquiry:

  • “We can all relate to that. I hear that it really is true for you. In my experience, it can’t be your husband’s breath that’s driving you crazy; it has to be your thoughts about his breath that are driving you crazy. So let’s take a closer look and see if that’s true. What are your thoughts about his breath on the phone?”
  • “Okay. It helps if we stick to one written statement at a time. Can you see a reason to drop the thought that he should stop breathing on the phone? [This is an additional question that Katie sometimes asks.] For those of you new to The Work, if you hear that I’m asking Mary to drop her story, let me make it very clear: I’m not. This is not about getting rid of thoughts or about overcoming, improving, or surrendering them. None of that. This is about realizing for yourself internal cause and effect. The question is simply ‘Can you see a reason to drop this thought?'”
  • “Can you see a reason to drop this thought that you don’t love him? And I’m not asking you to drop the thought. Mary: Yes, I can see a reason to drop it. Katie: Can you think of one stress-free reason to keep the thought? Mary [after a long pause]: I think if I keep my story, then I can keep him from wanting to have sex all the time. Katie: Is that a stress-free reason? It seems stressful to me.”
  • “The Work is merely four questions; it’s not even a thing. It has no motive, no strings. It’s nothing without your answers. These four questions will join any program you’ve got and enhance it. Any religion you have—they’ll enhance it. If you have no religion, they will bring you joy. And they’ll burn up anything that isn’t true for you.”
  • “The only time we suffer is when we believe a thought that argues with what is. When the mind is perfectly clear, what is is what we want. If you want reality to be different than it is, you might as well try to teach a cat to bark. You can try and try, and in the end the cat will look up at you and say, ‘Meow.’ Wanting reality to be different than it is is hopeless.”
  • “After I woke up to reality in 1986, people often referred to me as the woman who made friends with the wind. Barstow is a desert town where the wind blows a lot of the time, and everyone hated it; people even moved from there because they couldn’t stand the wind. The reason I made friends with the wind—with reality—is that I discovered I didn’t have a choice. I realized that it’s insane to oppose it. When I argue with reality, I lose—but only 100 percent of the time. How do I know that the wind should blow? It’s blowing!”
  • “People new to The Work often say to me, ‘But it would be disempowering to stop my argument with reality. If I simply accept reality, I’ll become passive. I may even lose the desire to act.’ I answer them with a question: ‘Can you really know that that’s true?’ Which is more empowering?—’I wish I hadn’t lost my job’ or ‘I lost my job; what can I do now?'”
  • “I can find only three kinds of business in the universe: mine, yours, and God’s. (For me, the word God means ‘reality.’ Reality is God, because it rules. Anything that’s out of my control, your control, and everyone else’s control—I call that God’s business.)”
  • “A thought is harmless unless we believe it. It’s not our thoughts, but the attachment to our thoughts, that causes suffering. Attaching to a thought means believing that it’s true, without inquiring. A belief is a thought that we’ve been attaching to, often for years.”
  • “Thoughts just appear. They come out of nothing and go back to nothing, like clouds moving across the empty sky. They come to pass, not to stay. There is no harm in them until we attach to them as if they were true.”
  • “No one has ever been able to control his thinking, although people may tell the story of how they have. I don’t let go of my thoughts—I meet them with understanding. Then they let go of me.”
  • “I have never experienced a stressful feeling that wasn’t caused by attaching to an untrue thought. Behind every uncomfortable feeling, there’s a thought that isn’t true for us. ‘The wind shouldn’t be blowing.’ ‘My husband should agree with me.'”
  • “It is easy to be swept away by some overwhelming feeling, so it’s helpful to remember that any stressful feeling is like a compassionate alarm clock that says, ‘You’re caught in the dream.’ Depression, pain, and fear are gifts that say, ‘Sweetheart, take a look at what you’re thinking right now. You’re living in a story that isn’t true for you.'”
  • “If you put your hand into a fire, does anyone have to tell you to move it? Do you have to decide? No: When your hand starts to burn, it moves. You don’t have to direct it; the hand moves itself. In the same way, once you understand, through inquiry, that an untrue thought causes suffering, you move away from it. Before the thought, you weren’t suffering . . .”
  • “If you are new to inquiry, I strongly suggest that you not write about yourself at first. If you start by judging yourself, your answers come with a motive and with solutions that haven’t worked. Judging someone else, then inquiring and turning it around, is the direct path to understanding. You can judge yourself later, when you have been doing inquiry long enough to trust the power of truth.”
  • “Don’t worry about whether The Work is working or not. You’re just beginning to learn how to do it. It’s like riding a bike. All you need to do is keep wobbling on. You’ll get a better feel for it as you read the dialogues that follow. And you won’t necessarily be the first to notice that it’s working. You may find, as many people have, that it doesn’t seem to have any effect now, but you have already shifted in ways you can’t feel yet. The Work can be very subtle and profound.”
  • “You’ll notice that I don’t always ask the four questions in the order you’ve learned. I sometimes vary the usual order, I leave out questions, zeroing in on just one or two, and sometimes I skip the questions entirely and go directly to the turnarounds. Even though the usual order of the questions works well, eventually it may not be necessary to ask them in order. You don’t have to begin with ‘Is it true?’ You can start with any question; ‘Who would you be without that thought?’ might be the first one, if that feels right. Just one of these questions can set you free if you inquire deeply from within.”
  • “Sometimes I also ask two subsidiary questions: ‘Can you see a reason to drop that thought?’ and ‘Can you find one stress-free reason to keep the thought?’ These are follow-ups to the third question, ‘How do you react when you think that thought?’ They can be very useful.”
  • “I remember sitting on the living room couch with my eyes closed, and Paul came into the room and saw me, and he stormed up to me, shouting, ‘Jesus Christ, Kate, what the hell is the matter with you?’ It was a simple question. So I went inside and asked myself, ‘What the hell is the matter with you, Katie?’ It wasn’t personal. Could I just find an answer to that question? Well, there had been one instant when I’d had the thought that Paul shouldn’t have been shouting, though the reality was that he was shouting. Ah. That’s what was the matter with me. So I said, ‘Sweetheart, the matter with me is that I had the thought that you shouldn’t be shouting, and it didn’t feel right. Thank you for asking. Now it feels right again.'”
  • “People often ask me if I had a religion before 1986, and I say yes—it was ‘My children should pick up their socks.’ This was my religion, and I was totally devoted to it, even though it never worked. Then one day, after The Work was alive in me, I realized that it simply wasn’t true. The reality was that day after day, they left their socks on the floor, after all my years of preaching and nagging and punishing them. I saw that I was the one who should pick up the socks if I wanted them picked up. My children were perfectly happy with their socks on the floor. Who had the problem? It was me. It was my thoughts about the socks on the floor that had made my life difficult, not the socks themselves. And who had the solution? Again, me. I realized that I could be right, or I could be free. It took just a few moments for me to pick up the socks, without any thought of my children. And an amazing thing began to happen. I realized that I loved picking up their socks. It was for me, not for them. It stopped being a chore in that moment, and it became a pleasure to pick them up and see the uncluttered floor. Eventually, they noticed my pleasure and began to pick up their socks on their own, without my having to say a thing.”
  • “I can go outside and attack them and their ideas about me in the attempt to change their minds and keep my lack of awareness, or I can go inside and search for a new truth that will set me free. This is why I say that all war belongs on paper. Inquiry takes me to the answers inside.”
  • “I came to see that there was nothing to forgive, that I was the one who caused my own problems. I found just what you’re finding.”
  • “Marisa: I see. So…we cause our own problems? Katie: Yes, but only all of them. It’s just been a misunderstanding. Your misunderstanding. Not theirs. Not ever, not even a little. Your happiness is your responsibility. This is very good news.”
  • “Can you see a reason to drop that thought? And I’m not asking you to drop it. You didn’t bring it about, so how can you drop what you didn’t cause? In my experience, we don’t make thoughts appear, they just appear. One day, I noticed that their appearance just wasn’t personal. Noticing that really makes it simpler to inquire. I only want to know if you can see a reason to drop the thought that he isn’t a friendly child.”
  • “Reality, for me, is what is true. The truth is whatever is in front of you, whatever is really happening. Whether you like it or not, it’s raining now. ‘It shouldn’t be raining’ is just a thought. In reality, there is no such thing as a ‘should’ or a ‘shouldn’t.’ These are only thoughts that we impose onto reality.”
  • “Here are some ways to coax your thoughts out into the open, to prompt new statements that can allow inquiry to go deeper. And it means that _____ Let’s say you wrote, ‘I am angry at my father because he hit me.’ Is it true? Yes: you are angry, and yes: he did hit you, many times, when you were a child. Try writing the statement with your added interpretation. ‘I am angry at my father because he hit me, and it means that _____.'”
  • “Another way of prompting yourself is to read your original statement and ask yourself what you think you would have if reality were (in your opinion) fully cooperating with you. Suppose you wrote, ‘Paul should tell me that he loves me.’ Your answer to ‘What do you think you would have?’ might be that if Paul told you that he loves you, you would feel more secure. Write down this new statement.”
  • “A fourth useful prompt is to look for a ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ version of your original statement. If your anger arises from the belief that reality should have been different, you might rewrite the statement ‘I am angry at my father because he hit me’ as ‘My father shouldn’t have hit me.’ This statement may be easier to investigate.”
  • “When Paul insults you, for example, how many times do you replay that scene in your mind? Who is more unkind—Paul (who insulted you once today) or you (who multiplied his insult over and over again in your mind)?”
  • “The point is not to find the most turnarounds, but to find the ones that set you free from the nightmare you’re innocently attached to. Turn the original statement around any way you want to until you find the turnarounds that penetrate the deepest.”
  • “Let’s play with the statement ‘Paul should appreciate me.’ First, turn it around to yourself: I should appreciate myself. (It’s my job, not his.) Next, turn it around to the other: I should appreciate Paul. (If I believe it’s so easy for Paul to appreciate me, can I appreciate Paul? Can I live it?) Then turn it around to the opposite: Paul shouldn’t appreciate me. (That’s reality, sometimes. Paul shouldn’t appreciate me, unless he does.)”
  • “Be willing to go inside with each turnaround, and ask if it’s as true as or truer than the original statement. Find at least three specific, genuine examples of how it is true in your life. Own it. If that seems difficult for you, add the word ‘sometimes’ to the turnaround. Can you own that it’s true sometimes, even if only in the moment.”
  • “The Work is not about shame and blame. It’s not about proving that you are the one in the wrong or forcing yourself to believe that someone else is in the right. The power of the turnaround lies in the discovery that everything you think you see on the outside is really a projection of your own mind.”
  • “All my job-related angst was about thinking that Frank should be competent. The truth is that he’s just not competent. The piece that I added, which made me nuts, was that he should be competent. The fact is that I’m going to do what I have to do. I’m going to backfill until he’s not my problem anymore. I’m just going to do it.”
  • “Sometimes replacing the word ‘I’ with ‘my thinking’ will bring a realization. ‘I am a failure’ becomes ‘My thinking is a failure, especially about myself.'”
  • “The thought of not having to make decisions sounds glorious. Katie: That’s my experience. I don’t make decisions. I don’t bother with them, because I know they’ll be made for me right on time. My job is to be happy and wait. Decisions are easy. It’s the story you tell about them that isn’t easy.”
  • “It was real clear to come here. I didn’t have to think, ‘Should I, shouldn’t I, should I?’ It was ‘Mmm, yes. You’re available then. Go.'”
  • “There is no thought or situation that you can’t put up against inquiry. Every thought, every person, every apparent problem is here for the sake of your freedom.”
  • “If you aren’t completely comfortable in the world, do The Work. That’s what every uncomfortable feeling is for—that’s what pain is for, what money is for, what everything in the world is for: your self-realization. It’s all a mirror image of your own thinking.”
  • “We can never know how much we have received when we’ve finished a piece of honest inquiry or what effect it will have on us. We may never even be aware of the effect. It’s none of our business.”
  • “Reality is much kinder than our stories.”
  • “So you experienced that for two weeks, and you’ve lived it in your mind for how many years? Willem: Fifty-five. Katie: So the bombs have been falling inside you for fifty-five years. And in reality, only for part of six years. Willem: Yes. Katie: So who is kinder, war or you? Willem: Hmm.”
  • “And is it true you need your father? I’m asking you for the truth. Willem: I’ve grown up without a father. Katie: So, is it really true you needed him? Is it true you needed your mother until you met her again? In reality? Willem: No. Katie: Is it true that you needed food when you were hungry? Willem: No. I didn’t starve.”
  • “After you’ve been doing inquiry for a while, if you have the thought ‘She doesn’t love me,’ you just get the immediate turnaround with a smile: ‘Oh, I’m not loving myself in this moment.’ ‘She doesn’t care about me’: ‘Oh, I’m not caring about myself in the moment I think that thought.'”
  • “I want Mom to admit that she was wrong and to apologize to me. Katie: Is that true? Is that really true? Diane: I think so. Katie: And if you think it would hurt her, if it’s a little more than she can deal with now, do you still want her to apologize? Diane: I don’t want to hurt her. Katie: No. That’s usually why people don’t apologize, it’s just too painful to face what they’ve done.”
  • “How could I ever possibly have time to investigate all my beliefs? A: Don’t worry about undoing all of them. Just investigate the belief that’s causing you stress now. There is never more than one. Undo that one.”
  • “It doesn’t matter how often you need to do it. You’re either attaching to the nightmare or investigating it. There’s no other choice. The issue may come back a dozen times, a hundred times. It’s always a wonderful opportunity to see what attachments are left and how much deeper you can go.”
  • “My answer to ‘Can I absolutely know that it’s true?’ is always ‘No.’ Is there anything we can know for certain?”
  • “Until you can see that there is nothing to forgive, you haven’t really forgiven. We’re all innocent; we hurt others because we believe our unquestioned thoughts. No one would ever harm another human being unless they were confused.”
  • “The world is the mirror image of your mind.”
  • “If you think you’re enlightened, you’ll love having your car towed away.”

Jump down the Byron Katie rabbit hole at:

Love,
Mom

Depression Success Story: "My Daily Recipe for Staying Mostly Depression-Free"

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Contributor: Mollie Player

So, let’s be real: There’s no cure for depression. At least not one that works for everyone. Medication works a bit, and exercise helps a ton. But none of these things–even lots of meditation–won’t get you all the way.

However, in my experience, there are cures (note the plural): complex, sometimes time-consuming combinations of factors that can work together and give you relief.

Here’s my depression success story and the particular combination of coping mechanisms that work best for me.

Once upon a time, I was four years old. And even then, I was the serious girl. Nothing wrong with that–my mom called me “sensitive” and my dad said I had a “cute, worried expression.” But right before their eyes, and without any of us knowing it, I started, slowly, to withdraw. In the second grade my best friend moved away, and I had very few others as backups. I became shyer and shyer till, caught in the coming-of-age pre-junior high school years (fifth and sixth grades), I was really suffering. I hated how I looked. I had no close friends. At recess I hid in the bathroom or under the schoolyard stairs. I didn’t want anyone to see me sitting alone, but I didn’t want to talk to anyone and face rejection.

In Junior High School, I realized I had a problem. It wasn’t their fault that I was shy; it was mine. I went to a new school, made the same mistakes, and the outcome was the same, too. In the eighth grade, I hid in the bathroom every day, and though I made a few friends, they weren’t close. One day I read an article in my aspirational reading of choice–Seventeen magazine–about a girl who realized she had depression. She said that she figured it out after while riding a city bus, she burst into tears for no reason.

That’s ridiculous, I thought. I do that all the time. It sounds pretty normal to me.

But the thought sunk in, and soon after that, I realized I was depressed, too.

My first attempt at overcoming depression was a spiritual one. As a fundamentalist Christian, I knew the answer to all pain, all difficulties was faith. I also knew that I wouldn’t feel better until I got on the right path, and stayed there. If I only prayed enough, read the Bible enough–really committed to God–I would feel the love and job of knowing him. And the depression would be gone.

The plan didn’t succeed.

High school passed in perfectionistic frustration. Then college, then a few lovely years after graduation. My determined mindset helped me get rid of my shyness completely, and pursue a few other goals successfully. I got a job I love–waitressing–as well as a college degree and a house. And I started liking myself a lot more–even how I looked. I gained confidence, but my ultimate goal still eluded me–that of fully overcoming depression.

I still haven’t fully overcome it.

And yet, I have overcome a lot of it. Most of it, in fact. And I did it in two major ways. First, I dealt with the basics: I got a job, independence, a few friendships, a place to live. After that, I started refining my methods.

Here is my daily recipe for my mostly happy, sometimes joyful, and always deeply grateful state of mind.

  • I exercise most days for at least forty minutes. Sometimes, I exaggerate. Like the other week when I told my friend exercise is a cure for depression. It’s not. And yet, it sort of is. Because without my long walks, I’m not sure I’d be able to stay mentally healthy. For me, this is the absolute number one technique I recommend to overcome depression–even more so than spiritual practice. My personal habit is to take long walks with my kids. I often carry the baby and push the two-year-old on the stroller while my five-year old follows on his bicycle.
  • I get outside for at least an hour most days. Rain or shine, outside time is a must. I feel better almost as soon as I step out onto the porch. I take the kids to the park or we walk to the store or to a play area. In fact, I almost never drive a car, even though I have one.
  • I meditate briefly each day and pursue other spiritual practices. My meditation practice consists of repeating a loving mantra several times for several minutes, or just allowing myself to sit still and notice the thoughts that come, then refocus on my “inner body”–the sensations I feel in my hands and feet and breath. I also try to consult my inner guidance on a daily, sometimes hour by hour basis as I consider what to do next, or what decision to make. This helps me greatly. Finally, when a thought comes that is particularly stressful, I journal it, Byron Katie-style. For more information on all of my spiritual practices, see my Spiritual Practice Success Stories and Depression Success Stories on mollieplayer.com.)
  • I limit my junk food intake. Healthy food tastes good, too. It really does. I don’t limit fat and I focus on protein and vegetables. (I allow myself a few treats, too.)
  • I have hobbies I truly love: reading, writing, and gardening. The value of having at least one endless project cannot be overstated. I love feeling productive, and all three of these hobbies feels valuable and fun. I get the pleasure of the activity itself, plus the knowledge that I’m doing something worthwhile. If you don’t have a job, at least get a difficult, long-term, highly involved hobby.
  • I keep my house clean. For me, cleaning is relaxing. It gives me a sense of control and order. I love home organization, too.
  • I only wear clothes that feel good on my body and that I feel I look good in. This is huge, and took me a long time to learn. I hardly ever wear those “cute” clothes that other people say look good on me. I wear a uniform every day: black pants, a crisp T-shirt and maybe a sweater.
  • I keep my weight down. For me, feeling bloated causes anxiety. Though I don’t necessarily think extra weight looks bad on other people, I choose to do what it takes to keep my weight down (i.e. diet). For me, the tradeoff is worth it.
  • I take medication. Does it work? Yeah, a little. This is especially important and helpful in the winter.
  • I work hard. I stay busy. Staying busy is huge. Huge! The days fly by, and in the evening you can look forward to a TV show or a good book knowing that you did your work for the day already.
  • I do work I love, namely, writing and being a mom. For people with depression, work enjoyment is even more important than for others. I don’t make a ton of money, but I wouldn’t trade my work lifestyle for anything.
  • I spend time with good friends several time per week. Ah, friendship. This is a hard one for me. I’m a busy mom, after all. But I fold my friendship time into my mom time with lots of play dates, and once a month we have family friends over for dinner. Such an uplifting experience.
  • I don’t overschedule my days. I try to take things at my own pace, and the pace of good parenting. If you are prone to anger or anxiety, overscheduling is a huge problem. Though I love to keep busy, I choose projects that I can do at my own pace and on my own schedule. I only schedule one outing per day with the kids, and I make it a life rule to rarely leave the house in the evening. (Family time!)
  • I try not to yell at anyone. Conflict is such an emotional drain. Most of my relationship difficulties are handled in a calm, low-key manner. I just hate being in a fight.
  • I prioritize sleep. I don’t have a TV or computer addiction. In fact, addictions of all kinds scare me. I watch TV a few times a week, and go to bed at the same time my kids do. For alone time, I get a babysitter three times per week.
  • I try to do all the little “shoulds” we all have for ourselves, while also trying not to do too much. It is a balance. Such a tricky, precarious balance. But I’ve found that for me, there’s no way around it.

So, the list is long, I know. Maybe even a bit intimidating. Depression is such a huge, demanding thing.

There are no easy answers. But there are answers. And hey–that’s better than nothing.

Besides, all this self-improvement stuff? It doesn’t just keep my depression at bay. It makes me a better person, too. Most of it is stuff even someone who doesn’t have depression would benefit from. The main difference is that I feel I have no choice. Drop the ball on any two of these, and rough days are ahead. It’s not a self-pity thing; it’s just true.

I do remain hopeful that one day, my depression will be healed entirely. It happened to my dad and many others. Either way, I (mostly) accept myself right where I’m at. This is my life, and it’s a good one.

I’m blessed.

Mollie

Books I Want My Kids to Read Someday #14: "Many Lives, Many Masters" by Brian Weiss

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Dear kids,

You asked for it, you got it: evidence for some of the crazy spiritual stuff I believe in, like reincarnation. (Okay, admittedly, you haven’t asked for it. Yet. But I have a feeling you’re going to.)

You’re welcome.

Many Lives, Many Masters: The True Story of a Prominent Psychiatrist, His Young Patient, and the Past-Life Therapy That Changed Both Their Lives by Brian Weiss is the book to read on past lives. It’s a personal story, not an information-heavy treatment, but we don’t always want to read those anyway, do we?

To get the book, go to:

Love,
Mom

Books I Want My Kids to Read Someday #13: "Lucid Dreaming" by Robert Waggoner

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Dear kids,

Lucid dreaming is when you are dreaming while aware that you are dreaming. And who wouldn’t want to be able to do that? Spiritually-minded people can get a lot of mileage out of something like this. The subconscious is rife with insight, after all.

Lucid Dreaming, Plain and Simple: Tips and Techniques for Insight, Creativity, and Personal Growth by Robert Waggoner is a practical, well-written guide. Probably the only book you’ll ever need to read on the subject. I tried it and it worked–though only for seconds at a time. If I committed to learning the technique, I think I could get much better.

To learn how to have a lucid dream (really!), see:

Love,
Mom

"The Emergency Diet" is free today

Unsurprisingly, The Emergency Diet is my most popular book. And I’m okay with that. I worked hard on it, and harder still to devise the diet in the first place.

Here’s what you need to know: First, This diet is completely original to me. Second: It’s difficult. Third: It’s worth it.

Get your copy for 99 cents on Amazon.com today, or on Smashwords or Project Gutenberg for free. Then let me know what you think, or ask me a question at mollie@mollieplayer.com.

Here’s one of the more recent review from Amazon:

“First off: This diet works. And the book is extremely helpful in managing all the details and the psychology of starting – and sticking with – a challenging program.

“When I first started reading this book, I was interested in low-carb dieting, but really skeptical about the fasting part. I just didn’t believe that I could do it. I liked the way she suggested adding in one component of the diet at a time – that helped ease me in. Now that I have faith in my ability to fast, I consider that the greatest weight loss tool yet! It’s a hard diet to stick with – and the author knows that, it’s right in the subtitle. What makes it worth it is how very QUICKLY the weight comes off, for me about 3-4 pounds a week. That’s great motivation. After just a couple of weeks I could feel the difference in the way my clothes fit. And while there was a gainback of a few pounds when I went off the diet (less than five) the rest stayed off. I’m really glad to have found this system!”

Here’s the full Amazon book description:

My name is Mollie, and for twelve years, I was obsessed with losing weight.

That’s right: obsessed.

I woke up with it, I went to bed with it, I lived with it. I read, and read, and read—and I tried every method I could find to lose weight.

Then, one day, I finally figured it out: a very, very fast weight loss method that kept my motivation high and my feelings of deprivation low. My weight loss and weight maintenance method is a combination of several methods, and therein lies its power. I have never read a book or heard a testimonial from anyone who has lost weight as fast as I did while using this method, which I call the Combination Method. The results are much faster than the kind of loss promised by diet pills, workouts and calorie counting combined, and this weight loss method is one-of-a-kind; you will not find this information anywhere else.

I truly don’t think the human body can lose weight faster than this.

I regularly, consistently lost over half a pound a day in my losing phase, and I was not very heavy to begin with. And this was not water weight, either. This was fat, and it stayed off permanently every time—including after having my first baby, when I lost 35 pounds in 60 days without breastfeeding.

The best part, though: I don’t obsess about food anymore. I like my body. I don’t feel embarrassed to go out after a long day of eating and drinking because I feel bloated. I don’t have to wait for a “flat stomach day” or “good body week” to let myself leave the house. I make last-minute plans with my friends and wear fitted tops. And I truly feel great about how I look. I am grateful every day for this feeling of freedom that I once feared I would never have again.

If so, here’s just some of what you’ll find in this book: Part One: Diet Past: My experiences with dieting and how I discovered the Combination Method

Part Two: Diet Present: What the Combination Method is and why it works, including: “What Are the Health Benefits of This Method?” and “How Much Weight Will I Lose?”

Part Three: Diet Future: How the Combination Method will work for you, including: “Why Quick Weight Loss?”, “How Can I Speed Up My Loss Even Further?”, “What Are the Potential Pitfalls I Should Watch Out For?”, “How Can I Make This Diet Easier?” and “How Should I Begin?”

Again, here’s the link to the book on Amazon.

Depression Success Story: "Eckhart Tolle’s No-Mind Meditation Is Great. But So Is Thinking Sometimes"

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Contributor: Mollie Player

The first time I read The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, I thought it was total crap. Okay, maybe “total crap” is an exaggeration. But definitely impossible, impractical and, worst of all, unpleasant. Not thinking about the future? Just paying attention to the Now? Sounds like the fast track to loserhood.

As a person struggling with depression and using any non-substance-based strategy I could think of to manage it, the advice sounded particularly terrible. I could do without past obsession pretty well–never’ve been much of a grudge-holder. But I needed–depended on–obsessing about my future. The future is when I would have everything I wanted: kids, a house, a great career. My plans for things to come and my determination to work hard towards them were pretty much what I lived for.

Stop thinking about the future? Stop thinking at all? Won’t that take away my hope, my reason for living?

The second time I read The Power of Now, I understood the concept a bit better. Oh, I don’t have to stop thinking entirely. I can think without being neurotic, and with long breaks. That actually sounds pretty cool.

Maybe I’ll try that someday. First, I have stuff to get done.

The third time I read The Power of Now, I finally had a breakthrough. The book taught me how to meditate, and how to absolutely love meditating. And now, it’s one of my very favorite books.

That’s another story, though (one I tell in The Power of Acceptance, incidentally). For today, we focus on this whole fascinating not-thinking thing, particularly whether or not it can help with depression.

Some people call it no-mind meditation, and I don’t think I’m the only one who’s ever cursed Eckhart Tolle or another teacher for telling her to try it. Being completely “present,” without plans or goals, as Tolle calls it, doesn’t come naturally to us human-types. In fact, it goes against pretty much our entire biology.

We think. We assess. We assume. We make decisions. Sometimes all in less than a single second. It’s one of our strengths and one of our weaknesses. But apparently, we can learn to overcome it.

But do we want to? And if so, how much thinking is the right amount, especially when you’re trying to overcome depression?

There’s no one right answer, but here’s my experience.

Achieving or attempting to achieve the so-called “no-mind” state helps us greatly. It makes us happier. It definitely eliminates depression. The problem: oh my goodness, it takes a lot of time. Unless you’re committed to Buddhist-like meditation sessions on a daily basis, your results may be very slow to come.

I love meditation. I definitely like to take breaks from thought, and when I have obsessive or anxious mind patterns, I realize it’s time to chill a bit. I clear my head by repeating a calming mantra, doing The Work or doing a “brain dump” on paper, and these techniques usually work pretty well.

But soon after that, I’m back to thinking.

And I’m okay with that.

Don’t get me wrong: on a bad day, I could use a lot more of this no-mind stuff. But on a good day, a lot of my thinking isn’t so terrible. It’s not the anxiety-producing stuff we all know is unhealthy. It’s just thinking–just plain old planning, reading, writing and working. Sometimes I even manage pleasant, pointless pondering. Today, for instance, I found myself lost in contemplation about the economics of private dentistry practice. Important? Not really. Interesting? Just a bit. Stressful? Well, not to me. On a good day, a lot of my thinking is like that. It’s not particularly harmful, or particularly anything.

It’s just thinking.

Of course, I also do the did-I-say-something-wrong what-does-she-think-of-me-now type stuff. But when I catch it, I’m often able to refocus pretty well.

One fine day, I’d love to experience the state of no-thought Tolle talks about. But I don’t plan to meditate for thirty years to get there.

Final thought: I’ve read all of Tolle’s books, and I couldn’t recommend them more highly. But I’ve also listened to the audio recordings of many of his conferences, and I can’t say the same. At the beginning of each, he makes a statement to the effect of, “I didn’t plan what I’m going to say today at all.” Yeah, Tolle, I get it; you’re inspired, “in the flow.” The words don’t matter as much as the spiritual energy you impart. But that doesn’t mean they’re useless, and it doesn’t mean thinking and planning is useless. Your conference speeches could do with a tad more forethought. (But you’re wonderful anyway, and thank you, thank you, thank you.)

My highly accurate, soon-to-be-patented Depression Effectiveness Rating for the spiritual practice of not thinking: 5 on a scale of 1-10

And, because I’m just scholarly like that …

Summary and highlights from The Power of Now:

In The Power of Now, enlightened spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle discusses his method for increasing spiritual awareness and inner peace, namely through maintaining a state of continuous meditation.

His teaching, briefly: You are not your mind. Your life is not the past or the future, as those states exist only in the mind. You and your life are what is right now. When you learn how to hold your mind in the present moment on a continual basis, enlightenment will occur. (And if you learn to do this part or much of the time, you’ll at least have a lot more peace and joy.)

There are many portals leading to the Source. They include:

  • The eternal Now (this is the main portal);
  • Dreamless sleep;
  • Cessation of thinking;
  • Surrender (“the letting go of mental-emotional resistance to what is”);
  • Being “in touch with the energy field of the inner body”;
  • Disidentifying with the mind;
  • Silence and empty space. (“You cannot think and be aware of space—or silence, for that matter.”)

It’s not necessary to use all these portals, just one.

Note that love isn’t a portal. It’s what’s inside the portal.

On the body portal:

Tolle suggests we make a practice of continuously keeping part of our attention focused on the body and the energy that makes up the body. “Body awareness keeps you present. It anchors you in Now.” Keep part of your attention on “the inner energy field of your body. To feel the body from within, so to speak.”

  • “The body can become a point of access into the realm of Being.”
  • “The body that you can see and touch cannot take you into Being. But that visible and tangible body is only an outer shell, or rather a limited and distorted perception of a deeper reality. In your natural state of connectedness with Being, this deeper reality can be felt every moment as the invisible inner body, the animating presence within you. So to “inhabit the body” is to feel the body from within, to feel the life inside the body and thereby come to know that you are beyond the outer form.”
  • “If you saw an angel and mistook it for a stone statue, all you would have to do is adjust your vision and look more closely at the ‘stone statue,’ not start looking somewhere else. You would then find that there never was a stone statue.” But there was an angel in its place. The statue is only a vague representation of what truly there, but it does in fact point the way.

How to meditate using the body portal:

  • “In your everyday life, you can practice this by taking any routine activity that normally is only a means to an end and giving it your fullest attention, so that it becomes an end in itself. For example, every time you walk up and down the stairs in your house or place of work, pay close attention to every step, every movement, even your breathing. Be totally present. Or when you wash your hands, pay attention to all the sense perceptions associated with the activity: the sound and feel of the water, the movement of your hands, the scent of the soap, and so on. Or when you get into your car, after you close the door, pause for a few seconds and observe the flow of your breath. Become aware of a silent but powerful sense of presence. There is one certain criterion by which you can measure your success in this practice: the degree of peace that you feel within.”
  • “To become conscious of Being, you need to reclaim consciousness from the mind. This is one of the most essential tasks on your spiritual journey. It will free vast amounts of consciousness that previously had been trapped in useless and compulsive thinking. A very effective way of doing this is simply to take the focus of your attention away from thinking and direct it into the body, where Being can be felt in the first instance as the invisible energy field that gives life to what you perceive as the physical body.”
  • “Direct your attention into the body. Feel it from within. Is it alive? Is there life in your hands, arms, legs, and feet — in your abdomen, your chest? Can you feel the subtle energy field that pervades the entire body and gives vibrant life to every organ and every cell? Can you feel it simultaneously in all parts of the body as a single field of energy? Keep focusing on the feeling of your inner body for a few moments. Do not start to think about it. Feel it. The more attention you give it, the clearer and stronger this feeling will become. It will feel as if every cell is becoming more alive, and if you have a strong visual sense, you may get an image of your body becoming luminous. Although such an image can help you temporarily, pay more attention to the feeling than to any image that may arise.
  • The feeling of your inner body is formless, limitless, and unfathomable. You can always go into it more deeply.
  • Please open your eyes now, but keep some attention in the inner energy field of the body even as you look around the room. The inner body lies at the threshold between your form identity and your essence identity, your true nature. Never lose touch with it.

Other ideas of note:

  • On emotional pain: “Focus attention on the feeling inside of you . . . the pain-body. Accept that is there. Don’t think about it—don’t let the feeling turn into thinking. Don’t judge or analyze. Don’t make an idiot of yourself out of it.”
  • On identity/ ego: “The most common ego identifications have to do with possessions, the work you do, social status and recognition, knowledge and educational [accomplishments], appearance, special abilities, relationships, personal family history, belief systems, and a political, nationalistic, racial, religious, or other collective identification. None of that is you.”
  • “The ego’s needs are endless. It feels [continually] threatened . . . lives in a constant state of fear, want. Once you know how the basic dysfunction operates, there is no need to explore all its countless, manifestations, no need to make it into a complex personal problem.”
  • On defensiveness: “Watch out for any kind of defensiveness within yourself. What are you defending? An illusory identity, an image in your mind, a fictitious entity.”
  • On the mind: “The mind in itself is not dysfunctional. It is a wonderful tool. Dysfunction sets in when you . . . mistake it for who you are. It then becomes the egoic mind and takes over your whole life.”
  • On removing the identification with mind: “Time and mind are inseparable. Remove time from the mind and it stops.” Therefore, remain in the Now and you will remain separate from ego.
  • On meditation: “The moment you realize you are not present, you are present.” . . . “Whenever you are able to observe your mind, you are no longer trapped in it.”
  • “Try a little experiment. Close your eyes and say to yourself, ‘I wonder what my next thought is going to be.’ Then wait for it alertly. You’ll notice it takes a long time to have a thought. As long as you are in a state of intense presence, you are free of thought.
  • On illness: There is no illness in the Now. The belief in illness, the label and the past and& future of it, is what “keeps the condition in place, empowers it, gives it a continuity in time.” Only time makes it real.
  • Become transparent to things you don’t like. Let them flow through you. Don’t react.
  • “Make the Now the primary focus of your life. Whereas before you dwelt in time and paid brief visits to the Now, have your dwelling place in the Now and pay brief visits to past and future when required to deal with the practical aspects of your life situation.”

  • “Accept — then act. Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it. Make it your friend and ally, not your enemy. This will miraculously transform your whole life.”

  • “Whenever you are able to observe your mind, you are no longer trapped in it. Another factor has come in, something that is not of the mind: the witnessing presence.”

  • “The pain that you create now is always some form of nonacceptance, some form of unconscious resistance to what is.

To learn more about The Power of Now and Eckhart Tolle, see:

I Tried (Sometimes Very Conclusion)

Getting happy isn’t easy. In fact: it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And it took a long time.

Sometimes when I think back on the way I used to be, and on all of the problems I used to have—fear, and loneliness, and trying to be perfect, for example—and on all of the things I didn’t have—a partner, a job I liked, good friends—I try to remember, really remember, if I honestly believed that one day, it would be okay.

Did I ever imagine myself being this happy? Eight years ago, say? Five? One? Have I ever in my life imagined being this happy?

Yet I must have imagined it, somehow, all those years I spent alone, or I wouldn’t’ve tried so hard to make it happen.

***

And then, I remember.

I am in high school. I am lying on my bed, thinking about how lonely I am. I am thinking about how I’ve never had a real boyfriend, and have never even really been kissed, and about how much uglier I am than the other girls at school.

Will I ever be happy? I wonder. I don’t know. Will I ever get married? I wonder. I hope so, but I don’t know.

If I do get married, how long will it take? If I do get happy, when will it be? Is it even possible?

I don’t know.

But I do know one thing: I am going to give my whole life to finding out. I am going to do everything I can to make it happen.

I am going to try.

***

All this work, just to be normal. All this, just to be happy. Fortunately for us: it’s worth it.

***

And that, my dear reader, is the end of this very long, very wordy letter which is the story of my life, and maybe parts of yours, too, and the story of all of the things that, as I said in Chapter One, I would like to tell the world. Not just so they’ll know these things, or relate to them—but so they’ll understand these things, and use them to make life better.

Since this letter was so long, though, and so wordy, I would like to conclude, if you would allow it, with a very simple summary that is just one word long. And that word, of course, is “try.”

Try.

If you don’t agree with the things that I’ve said in this book, or if you think that they won’t work, no matter. Try anyway. Try something. Try anything. Make a plan, then change it as you go. No plan you can make will ever be complete. But it definitely is a start. And you have to have that. That is completely necessary.

You have to have a start.

***

Living is complicated. It is amazing. It is hard.

Sometimes very.

I am a crazy, maddening advocate for happiness. I love happiness. I am also a major advocate for pain. But good great Lord, make your pain meaningful. If you do that, and then you find happiness, then you will have done all you can do on this earth.

I really cannot state it any more succinctly than that, but, just because I want to, and because I can, and, even, because I think I should, I will say it again: make yourself happy. Decide to make yourself happy.

Right now, right here, even if you think you already have, promise yourself again: “I will make myself happy.”

Take care of yourself.

You may ask why I think people need to be told to do this. I rest on the evidence of their lives. Based on this evidence, I don’t think they are trying to be happy. Do you? No. They are just trying to feel good. That is why they need to be told. And I want to tell them. Everyone.

Make yourself happy.

I don’t want to have to worry about you anymore.

Oh, and, as I wrote in the prologue to this letter, someday, if you did this and it helped, or even if it didn’t, please let me know about it, and while you’re at it, tell me the rest of your story, too.

Until then, my friend.

Just try.

Yours truly,

Mollie Player

I Got Rid of Being Perfect (Sometimes Very, Part Eighteen)

When I was in junior high school, my family went to a weekend prayer retreat. It was held at a campground and every night there were meetings that were very emotional and very long. At one of these meetings, there was a foot washing ritual. The families all washed each others’ feet like Jesus washed the feet of the twelve disciples, to show humility and love.

That night, as I washed my mother’s feet, I began to cry. All of the bad things I’d ever done to her and to everyone else, too, came back to me and suddenly I felt very sorry. I knelt down in front of her and I knew that she knew how I felt without me even telling her. She started crying, too, and for about an hour we knelt there together, crying and content.

Later, my mom told me what had happened: I had learned how to repent.

And that was not the only time I experienced that. When I was in high school, it happened again, and again, it was at a prayer retreat. It was the weekend retreat for youth that I told you about before, and it was also very emotional. Everyone told each other all of their sins and asked God to forgive them.

And it changed me. After the weekend ended and I returned home, I felt a great sense of peace that stayed with me for days afterwards. It was a feeling I’ve never experienced since. It felt like falling in love, but without all the nerves.

It was the best feeling I’d ever had.

After that day, I became obsessed with spirituality. I stopped swearing and doing anything else I thought was bad. I went to church every chance I got.

I tried to be perfect.

I tried for a very long time.

***

Around this time, my father gave me some more of his very good but very questionable advice. One day we were talking at his house and I don’t remember how the subject came up but I suddenly asked, “Dad? Do you think I’m a good person?”

He could tell how important it was that he answer carefully, so he leaned back in his chair—the one he always sits in in front of the fireplace—and looked at me with a smile and said, “Yes, Mollie, you are a good person. Of course you are. But don’t worry about that.”

“Don’t worry about it?” I said. That was the first time I’d ever heard anyone say such a thing.

“No,” he said. “That’s not the way to live. You don’t need to be any good to anyone else. You don’t need to do ‘good deeds’ and be a ‘good person.’ Just live the way God meant you to. See, he made you just like you are with your own DNA that nobody else has, because that’s the way he likes you. Do that, and don’t worry about anything else, and you’ll be fine.”

I nodded my head, and even though I didn’t agree intellectually with what he was saying, deep down inside a part of me was utterly convinced that he was right. As odd as the advice sounded to me at the time, it was just what I needed to hear.

Not long after that—maybe about a year or so later, while I was still in high school—we had a similar conversation. It was about failure.

It was late one winter night and Dad and I were again sitting on his two big chairs by the fire when I began telling him about all of the things I wanted to accomplish in my life.

“I think I can do these things,” I told him, “I really do. But what if I don’t? What if I only do half, or none at all?”

His response—and it is very close to exactly word-for-word—I know because I wrote it down not long afterward—was this: “It took me fifty years to figure out that what you accomplish in life doesn’t really matter . . . and I’ve only known that for fourteen years.

“But the lesson was worth the wait.

“I regret some things in my life—bad things I’ve done to people, those are the things you should regret—but I don’t regret failing. Because eventually, I realized, it doesn’t matter what you do or don’t do. And now that I know this, I have peace inside, and it’s okay that it took fifty years to learn. Because that’s all I needed to do.

“Give it a shot, Mollie. You’ve got a good shot. But if you fail, don’t worry about it. It doesn’t matter.”

It was some of the best advice I’ve ever heard, including anything I’ve read in books.

That’s just his talent, I guess.

***

The only problem with Dad’s advice was this: I didn’t take it. Even though I knew what he said that night was true, I didn’t want to really know it, in the way that would make me act on it—not yet. I didn’t want to give up the great ambitious plan I’d made for myself to be a successful writer and a perfect Christian that everyone would admire. My plan, after all, gave me something to hope for. It gave me a purpose.

It made me feel better.

Then: a turning point. One day, several years after those conversations with my dad, during my first year in college, I woke up in the morning feeling terrible. I was tired and depressed and just getting out of bed that day was a struggle. I got up anyway, though, and as I was preparing to go to class, something inside me said, very clearly, “You need a day off. You need to skip this class.”

I paused for a moment. Huh? I asked myself. That’s not what a good Christian like me does.

But the voice in my head just said it again, even louder this time.

“You need to take a break,” it said. “Go back to bed.”

I didn’t do what it said. I dragged myself to class, almost in tears, noting how virtuous I would feel. As it turned out, though, I didn’t feel virtuous; instead, I just felt dumb.

That morning, the professor ended the lecture after fifteen minutes to pass out some books to the class.

I hadn’t even ordered a book.

That day I learned something very important: I learned not to push myself so hard anymore. And not just with accomplishing things on the outside—with my career and with other goals—but with accomplishing things on the inside, too.

I realized that sometimes, when you just can’t seem to change yourself, when you just can’t seem to get over a problem you’ve had for a very long time . . . at those times, it’s better to let yourself be what you are.

Sometimes, it’s just better to be bad.

Not only because you need to go easy on yourself, to give yourself a break, as that inner voice told me that day.

But because forcing yourself to be perfect doesn’t usually work all that well.

If you do this—if you stop trying so hard to be perfect, and just keep wanting to instead, you may discover what I did a little later on. If you’re like me, you may suddenly wake up one morning and realize to your utter astonishment that even without trying very hard hard to do so, you’ve changed. You have become the person you always wanted to be, rather than the person you were once trying so hard to be.

See the difference?

I have missed many days of school since that morning so long ago. And I have done many other things that I don’t do now, and would not want to do. But at the time I felt I needed to do them. I didn’t think I could have not done them.

I’m glad I did them now.

***

After I left my first husband, I met a nice man on the internet named Josh. We dated for several months.

I will love him forever.

One day, Josh and I were talking about depression. I told him about my problem and he told me that he had it, too, and that he had been taking Prozac for three years. He said that it helped him a lot, and that it’s not unhealthy, and that I should think about seeing a doctor like he did.

Before this time, I never considered taking anything for my depression. I knew that for me, most of my problem could be solved by hard work. I did consider going a psychologist, but I didn’t think it would help too much since I already knew how to analyze myself pretty thoroughly as I’d been doing so for a very long time.

I was probably right.

When Josh told me this, though, things were different in my life. By then I had spent a long time trying to overcome this problem on my own and I had come quite far. I had just divorced my husband and things were especially hard for me and so that day I said to myself, Maybe he’s right. Maybe it’s time to be a little weak, and to be good to myself.

Maybe it’s time to give in.

I made an appointment with a doctor the next day. And that is how I started taking medication for my depression for the first time.

I didn’t stay on the medication for long. A series of events (mostly pregnancy and trying to get pregnant) made me prefer to be without it. Nevertheless, I am proud of my decision that day. I gave myself a break.

It was the right thing to do.

***

And that wasn’t the only way I made progress in this area that year. Shortly after meeting Josh, I got divorced, which was a wonderful thing for me because after that, I realized I could make mistakes. I could do things—bad things, even—and it could still work out okay. The world would still spin on its axis as always, and my life would keep moving along, too.

It was good to move away from my hometown and get married and take a risk, I decided, even though it didn’t work out. I also decided that I shouldn’t feel guilty about my divorce at all. And that I didn’t, anyway.

Finally, I decided that I didn’t need to be alone. That it was okay for me to need someone. That it was okay to date Josh for a while, even though I knew that I would not marry him and that even though I loved him I was not in love with him. I could let myself have someone to keep me company and to be my friend and nothing bad would come of it at all. And it didn’t.

And that is when my corruption was complete.

In case you were wondering, this change was irreversible. Now, I could not go back to being perfect even if I wanted to. But that’s okay.

I have never really wanted to.

***

Now, looking back on those times before I knew how to be okay with making mistakes, I shudder inside and am a little afraid.

Thank God I don’t live like that anymore, I think to myself. Thank God I don’t play by the rules. Because, as I now know: there are no rules.

They were just a sham all along.

Things won’t go better for me or worse based solely on some variously-defined laws of right and wrong. Maybe, even, there is no right and wrong. Maybe the very idea of wrong is wrong. Maybe. Probably. Okay, I’ll say it:

Yes.

There is no right and there is no wrong, and no, there are no rules. There is no blueprint for life of any kind.

That’s right, I really did say it, and what’s more, I will say it again: there is no blueprint for life.

No one knows the answers—not all of them, anyway. No religion, no belief system, no person will ever give you everything you need.

You just try shit, and see what works.

And I will say that again, too: you just try shit, and see what works.

That, to me, when I learned it not so very long ago, was news. It was more than news, actually: it was a revelation. It freed me up to take life less seriously. It freed me up to not be perfect. It freed me up to make mistakes.

And it made me very happy in the process.

***

Towards the end of my first pregnancy, I found myself getting mad at David much too often. Things that I never would have noticed before began to bother me very suddenly for no reason at all. As I love David and I love our habit of not arguing more than anything, I didn’t want this moodiness that I seemed to be barely able to control to continue, so I told myself over and over, Think, Mollie, think before you speak. Don’t ruin the best thing in your life by being annoyed.

It didn’t work; I kept getting annoyed. But here’s the thing that matters about this story: when I realized that my simple resolve to be better wasn’t going to work, I didn’t blame myself; I didn’t take it personally. I didn’t say to myself, Ah, well, I’m just a very bad person deep down inside and it’s just so hard to be good, which is exactly what I always used to do.

This time, I did something else, and it was something very clever: I changed my strategy.

A few days later, after losing my temper again, I decided to make a little game out of the whole thing. Every time I snap at David for no reason, I told myself, I’m going to give him a massage. Not a long massage—just a little one; just enough to make me remember what I’d done and to apologize.

Later that same day, it happened again. I snapped at David, again over practically nothing. After that, though, true to my word, I stood behind him while he was sitting at his computer and rubbed his shoulders and said, “I’m sorry, honey. It’s my fault. Never mind.”

The next day, I only snapped at him once, and I gave him another massage. The day after that, it didn’t happen at all.

I don’t remember how long I kept up that habit but I know I didn’t need to for very long. Soon, I was back to my old self.

And David started getting his massages from a professional.

***

Life is a game. That is one of the last things I want to say in this book, and one of the most important as well: life is a game. It is just a game.

When learning a new game that you want to someday be very good at, you try a lot of different tactics. One by one, you find out what works and what doesn’t. Eventually, you do get good at it—very good. You come up with strategies—all kinds of different strategies, some that are very simple and some that are very complex.

Life is like that game. Life isn’t something that just happens to you; it is something that you play. It is something that you have to work at and get better at on purpose.

And because it is a game with no rules or very few, and even the rules that are there, no one actually knows for sure, your strategies for getting good at it can be as unique as you are.

Life, as I said, is a game. So make your own rules. Create your own blueprint. Don’t be perfect.

Just try shit, and see what works.

That’s right, and that’s one of the very last and most important things that I will say to you in this book: just try shit, and see what works.

And, while you’re at it, while you’re trying and trying

and trying like I’ve told you so many times to do:

Have fun.

I Got Rid of Not Liking Myself (Sometimes Very, Part Sixteen)

One day, a friend and I were talking about whether or not we like ourselves—our true, deep-down selves, just the way we were born before we grew up and learned better—and I said that I did, and always had.

And she was surprised.

“You’re lucky,” she said. “It took me a long time to feel that way. Sometimes I still don’t feel that way.”

When she said that, though, it was my turn to be surprised. This friend was smart, and beautiful, and unique, and challenging, and I couldn’t imagine her wanting to be anybody else.

And that is when I realized how lucky I was to have parents like mine, who have always encouraged me, no matter how different I was from other people, and how poorly I fit in.

***

I have always been a dork. Pretty much always, anyway. In high school, I loved the outcasts and the nerds. I admired them for being different and I thought they were more interesting, too.

They had hobbies. They had plans. They were going to do interesting things with their lives. They were a little socially and emotionally stunted, but that was part of their charm, after all. Besides, I was one of them; I was fundamentally uncool.

I liked to argue. I liked to challenge people. I tried to have deep conversations at the most inappropriate times. I had an insatiable need to express myself. I liked to talk about religion a lot, and poetry. And when I was in high school, these qualities didn’t win friends.

They just embarrassed me.

Now, though, even though it was painful to be the way I was in high school—opinionated, judgmental, religious, passionate, foolish—I am glad I was that way. I was wrong about some things, but I was right sometimes, too.

And I am still the same person with a lot of the same beliefs even now.

A more balanced version of the same person, I should say. More open-minded. (More watered-down, maybe.) But still: I’m the same person I’ve always been, and I’m okay with that.

And for that I have only one good explanation: my parents made me this way.

As I told you before, as I was growing up, my mom and dad praised me a lot. They said I was special—though how, I’m still not sure—and I’d do great things with my life. Looking back, I think their praise was the only thing that got me through all that time I spent alone as a kid. I believed everything they said about me and it gave me something to live for besides having friends and having fun and feeling good.

When I have children, I plan to compliment them a lot.

***

Even so, though—even despite this great advantage that I had—it was a while before I really stopped wanting to change myself in some way; for a long time, I very much wanted to be cool, just like everyone else.

I was not successful.

When I was a waitress, for example, I looked at all of the other waitresses who were so young and so cute (by the time I quit I’d reached the advanced waitressing age of twenty-six), and even though I liked my job and I was good at it, too, when I compared myself with them I felt completely inadequate.

Then, a few years later—it must have been around the time after I graduated college when I decided I didn’t need friends anymore—I realized I wasn’t so bad after all. I didn’t even look that bad. I was—in my own way—kind of cute. And I was smarter than them, anyway, and much more interesting.

The problem wasn’t me, and hadn’t been all along; the problem was that I was comparing myself to the wrong people.

And so, suddenly, unexpectedly, and almost all at once, I made a decision: I decided that I would be proud of being a dork. I decided that I didn’t need anyone else’s approval but my own.

I became confident.

After that, somehow, without even trying, I was suddenly much, much less of a dork than before. And these days, I’m not really one at all; I just pretend to be.

I even know how to dress.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I am not cool, either. I’m still way too passionate and too excitable and I’m even sillier now than I used to be. True dorks, though, don’t really like themselves. Or, if they do, they don’t like to admit it.

They try to be someone else.

And I don’t do that anymore. Not often, anyway. I’m not embarrassed when I come underdressed to a nightclub or overdressed to a party. I say stupid things and admit when I don’t know something. I ask dumb questions. I say something controversial in order to get an argument started when the conversation has become a little dull. I’m okay with being wrong, and standing out.

So you see, maybe I’m not a dork, and maybe I am. Maybe I can even be both.

Maybe, whenever I want to, I can just change the definition.

***

And so, that is what I ask of you, dear reader: I ask you to change the definition.

When you think you are not good enough, who are you comparing yourself to? Your sister? Your friends? Are these the right people to ask? And if they are, why are they?

When during high school and college I attended church regularly, I was always much less shy there and, unlike at school, I actually had friends. At the time, I didn’t understand why I could be so shy in one place and the same day, in another place, not be shy at all. Now, I do understand. It was because I used a different standard.

At church, it wasn’t what you looked like or how many boys liked you or how much money you had that mattered. It was how you were on the inside.

Well, okay. Maybe that assessment is a little generous. But at least being cool was a little less about how you looked and a lot more about how you treated others, and how good of a Christian you were. And that was something I could control.

So I did. I was a good Christian, and sincerely so. I prayed and worshipped often (and conspicuously). I had long conversations about the meaning of life. I was confident, and I liked myself, and it showed. It was a totally different experience from how I felt and acted in class.

I had friends.

So. My advice to you, if you are in the same situation I was in back then and you are hanging around people whose idea of coolness is different from your own—whose idea you could never live up to or whose idea you just don’t really want to try to live up to—is this: hang out with someone else.

There are so many people in this world, my friend. And many, many of them—me, even—especially me—will like you just fine.

I Got Rid of My Bad Addictions (Sometimes Very, Part Thirteen)

One night, I had a dream that I loved, and that I’ve thought about a lot about ever since, even though it was totally disgusting. In it, I was looking in the mirror when suddenly, I realized that there were four huge cysts on my face: one in each cheek, one inside my nose, and one protruding from my forehead. The one on my forehead was the width of a quarter and the length of a thumb.

It was awful.

When I discovered the cysts, I locked myself in the bathroom and started pinching them. As I did so, an unidentifiable pink substance starting coming out of the pores. After a while, not just liquid but solids also started coming out and falling into the sink.

I filled the entire bowl with undigested strawberry halves.

When I woke up, I thought about all of the food I’d eaten the day before nearly without chewing.

***

I am a ravenous person. I eat fast and loud. I talk loud, too, and much too long when I get excited. I bite my nails—-something of which I’ve been proud ever since reading in a women’s magazine that nail biters are better in bed. (I admit, though, that the article did little more for me than confirm my own suspicions.)

I am what people call “passionate,” and not a little compulsive, and I’ve always been that way, and, maybe, so have you. But here’s the thing: even if you aren’t a naturally compulsive person like I am, you are probably addicted to something. Everybody, I think, is addicted to something. Even a total ascetic is addicted to something—God, maybe, or prayer. A sense of meaning. Being good. Feeling enlightened.

Love.

I don’t know. But we all have things we would hate to be without, and wouldn’t be very happy to let go of—and most of us have more than one.

Most of us, indeed, have quite a few.

The problem is, we never talk about the things we like to do that way. Not seriously, anyway. We act as if no one should ever be addicted to anything—as if staying away from addiction should be our only goal. And that’s why I’m going to tell you a secret about overcoming addiction, and it’s one that has never let me down so far: the best way to get rid of a bad addiction is to replace it with a good one.

***

These are my addictions—not all of them, probably, but enough that you get the idea: eating fat, drinking coffee, drinking diet soda, biting my nails, taking walks, making love, planning endlessly for the future, working, cuddling with my husband, reading, taking baths, shaving my legs, talking with friends, praying, and trying to lose five pounds.

These are the things that I look forward to doing every day. They’re the things that I can’t imagine giving up.

They’re my addictions.

They’re not just things I like to do; they’re things I do to keep away the pain.

***

When I was in college and I was struggling so much with my almost desperate (okay, desperate) need for a man, sometimes I asked for help, and, sometimes, people tried to give it to me. They said things like “Learn to depend only on God,” and “You don’t need anyone else to be happy.”

I wish they hadn’t said these things. I wish they would have said something more useful instead. Something like: “Find a job you love and just never do anything else,” or “Find a man you’re not in love with and date him ’til you’re sick of the whole thing.”

I wish they’d have told me to get addicted to something else—something relatively harmless that would have made me forget about needing a man.

I wish they would have been more practical.

Eventually, I figured this out for myself. After that day at my friends’ house when I decided I didn’t want to date anymore, I started reading a lot more, and taking a lot of walks. I found other things to do to fill my time and soon, it wasn’t hard at all to be alone.

I just wish I had figured it out sooner.

***

Years later, I did figure this out and eventually, it became a strategy—one that I use even now. If something doesn’t turn out like I thought it would—if a friend doesn’t want to hang out as much anymore, or moves away, or if I don’t get the job I wanted, I tell myself, It’s okay, Mollie. If you’re not doing that, you’ll find something else to do that’s just as fun.

Then, I do just that: I find something else to do. I fill my schedule.

I move on.

And it works every time.

***

Now, looking back on all those years I spent chasing men and being miserable, I know why my friends gave me such terrible advice about how to stop. You see, because we live in our bodies every day, and every day, we choose to do the things we do, and then, even as we are doing those things, we observe and think about our reasons for doing them—because of that, we make a very simple and very understandable but very major mistake: we think we can choose to do something else instead.

And the truth is, we can. We can stop doing those things, just as we say we can, “anytime we want.” The problem is not that we can’t.

The problem is that we don’t want to.

We don’t overestimate our ability to change; we overestimate our desire to do so.

The human brain is a very funny thing. It rewards us frequently and reliably for doing a lot of the things that we really shouldn’t do.

It gets easily addicted.

Which is why, while we’re on the subject of addiction, I can’t help but make a certain little point that seems very obvious but obviously isn’t, which is this: don’t do bad things in the first place. Avoid them.

Yes: Avoid them. Avoid them.

Just don’t start.

Stay away from anything you think might lead somewhere you don’t want to go.

Run away.

But don’t run away like a coward would do, apologizing as you go; run away with pride. Tell people “I am staying away from that,” in a way that makes them embarrassed to have asked.

Because they should be embarrassed. They should.

So let them.

And, by the way, if you hang around a lot of people who do these bad things and who don’t understand why you don’t want to also: avoid them, too.

Run away.

Making new friends really is not that hard.

***

And so. Bad addictions—really bad ones—I like to stay away from entirely. But good addictions (or, in some cases, just slightly better ones), serve a great purpose in my life, namely: they help me get rid of the pain.

The bad news, of course, is that the pain never really goes away—not entirely. Depression is just part of my life, part of most of my days (maybe, to some degree, all of them). But by doing the things I love, a very significant chunk of it is gone.

And so, if you’re like me, and you have a certain amount of pain that is still there even after everything you’ve done to get happy, my last tip about addiction is: don’t fight the pain. Don’t dwell on it, either—not often, anyway. Don’t embrace it. But, for as long as it is there, don’t fight it; accept it. Know that it might go away sometime in the future, or it might not, but either way is okay.

Pain is not all bad, after all. It can teach us how to live. It can inspire us. It can make us more sympathetic to others. It can encourage us to get out of the house, to stop working so much, and to be more positive. It can make us more creative. It can encourage us to change our lives for the better.

It can be our greatest teacher, and our greatest friend.

Don’t get me wrong—I don’t love pain any more than you do. I don’t wish it on other people or wish for more myself. I want everyone to learn, eventually, how to have a lot less of it in their lives, which is why I am writing these words right now. But at the same time, I don’t regret one moment of the pain I’ve had so far.

Pain is a part of life. Personally, I believe it’s one of the main reasons that there even is such a thing as life—the reason that there even is this good old earth and that there are humans on it, feeling and thinking and experiencing it all. After all, if we don’t really understand what pain is (our souls may have realized before landing here), how can we really understand what happiness is, either?

Life—my dear reader, my dear, dear reader and my very good friend—life is painful, sometimes, and it was meant to be that way.

It’s part of what makes it so beautiful.

So fight the pain, but don’t fight it with things that take it away for a short time, then cause more problems later on; instead, fight it the right way.

Have addictions, but have the good addictions, the ones that allow you to feel some of the pain some of the time, but not as much and not as often as the bad ones do. The rest of the pain: just accept. More than likely, it will be a better friend to you than you’ve ever had before. It will be exactly what you need, exactly when you need it.

It will make you better.

***

There’s one more thing I want to say about addiction, though, and it’s something that may sound contrary to everything I’ve just said, but I don’t care, and I’m going to say it anyway because it’s true: you are strong enough to overcome your addictions. The day you decide it’s too hard for you to overcome something is the day you give up trying. Every time. And giving up trying, as we’ve seen in this book, is the very worst thing you can do.

No matter what: You must try.

I Got Rid of Wanting What I Couldn’t Have (Sometimes Very, Part Twelve)

So far, in this book, which is also a letter—a letter to you, dear reader, who I hope is still here, and still reading, and enjoying what I’m saying, and even learning something—so far, I have made one major point, which is, that in order to be really happy, you must get what you want.

Or, at least, you should try.

Wanting is good, I’ve told you. And I stand by it. But there is something else that I haven’t said yet, not as much, and not as completely, which is what the rest of this book is about, and it is this: you have to want the right things. And as for the wrong things? They have to go.

They will not do you any good—not in the long run, anyway. They will take away from all the happiness you’ve worked so hard for and earned.

So, want. Learn to want, and to want well, and to get what you want, but at the same time, learn what not to want—what to stop or delay wanting. Because that is just as important, and just as hard. Sometimes, it’s even harder.

Sometimes, it takes a very long time.

***

When I was in high school and most of the way through college, too, one of my biggest problems was also one of the most common for that age, and it was this: I wanted a boyfriend.

It was more than a problem, though. It led to bad decisions and made me feel guilty every day.

It was my vice.

And, like most vices, it was overrated. When I was with someone, I felt good. Then, as soon as they went away, even just temporarily, I couldn’t think about anything else. I couldn’t focus on school, or work, or anything important.

I was unsatisfied, constantly. I was disappointed, constantly.

I was obsessed.

And that’s why, after some number of years of this, I finally made a decision. I decided that I wanted to stop dating. But not just that: I wanted even my desire to date to be gone.

So, I knew what I had to do: I had to ask for help.

I had to pray.

It took some time, but eventually, something happened that I will never forget: my prayer was answered.

***

It happened like this: one fine day, during my last year in college, I went to visit a nice married couple I knew from church. Until that day, I thought that they were perfect for each other. They were cute and spunky and everyone loved them and wanted to be their friend. After I got to their home, though, and we talked for a while, something became pretty clear, and it was something that surprised me very much: they were the most miserable couple I’d ever seen.

They disagreed about everything. They picked at each other over minute, meaningless matters. They were immature.

They argued the entire evening.

Though it may sound impossible, believe me when I tell you: when I left their house that day, from that day on, I was cured.

That’s right: The desire to date just went away.

If that is what marriage is like, I thought, I want nothing to do with it.

Of course, I knew even at the time that there was a certain amount of self-deception in this so-called realization. Not every couple was like them, I realized. Still, though.

They were supposed to be happy.

***

At first, after this happened, I didn’t know this experience had affected me so deeply. I thought the realization was just temporary, like most realizations are, or that it would take more time to sink in. Then one day not long after, I was riding a bus and looking out of the window when I saw a good-looking man on the street. As I stared at him absently, the thought suddenly came to me, very clearly: I don’t feel anything.

I don’t want him. I don’t want to talk to him, or to any other man right now.

I just want to be alone.

And that is when I realized I was free.

Thank you, God, I said to myself that day. Thank you, God, that I am free.

Looking back, I’m not sure if it was God or luck or maturity or just good timing that helped me overcome that very long, very painful struggle in my life. But I still thank God anyway.

Why not?

***

After that, things were much easier for me. I wasn’t plagued anymore by wanting something I couldn’t have. I wasn’t desperate to be with someone. I didn’t feel trapped by my obsession.

I could think about other things.

And because I was so much happier this way, I made a decision: I decided to be proud of being alone.

Being alone meant that I was strong, I told myself. It meant that I was better than other people. The good things about being alone were even more numerous than the good things about being in a relationship, I decided, and, one by one, for a long time to come, I would discover them all.

In other words: I embraced it.

After that, I was alone for several years, and was starting to become happy for the first time in my life.

I was very grateful to that couple, and still am.

***

Getting rid of the biggest obstacle between myself and happiness that I’ve ever had in my life, then—namely, my obsessive desire for a man—wasn’t something that was easy. What’s more, despite all of my admonitions for you to forcefully, habitually, creatively, purposely pull yourself up out of your sadness, I admit that in the end, I didn’t do it all on my own. There was some help involved, and it was the best kind because it came directly from the universe.

In other words: I got lucky.

However, even though that’s the case, and even though I admit that that’s the case, I have to tell you this, too: if in all the years and all the months and all the days prior to that incident at my friends’ house, I hadn’t had a sincere desire to change, all the luck in the universe wouldn’t have mattered at all.

I still would not have changed.

If I hadn’t been looking for help so sincerely and so long, I would never have found it—not then, or at any other time after that.

And so, when luck or God or prayer brings you a gift like the one I got that day, know this: you gave it to yourself.

You created it. You tried, and you didn’t just try, you succeeded.

Congratulations.

I Fell in Love (Sometimes Very, Part Eleven)

Of the decade and a half that made up my entire adult life before I met David, I was single for at least the decade.

That is a long time to wait for the best thing in your life.

Since I was a late bloomer, though, now I’m glad I did wait so long.

It meant I didn’t have to compromise a thing.

Anyway, during this time, I received a lot of advice about the best way to find a partner, and one of the things I heard the most was this: don’t look. Don’t try.

Trying, after all, is desperate.

“You’ll only find him when you’re not looking,” my well-wishers told me earnestly. “Then one day he’ll just appear out of the blue and suddenly, you’ll be in love.”

But, as I found out much, much later: they were wrong.

When I met my ex-husband, I was not looking for a partner. By that time, I had decided that I would be alone for the rest of my life, maybe, or maybe at least until I was forty. I would write, and read, and take long walks, and live in the house that I bought all by myself and that I loved. I would be independent.

I would follow their advice to a tee.

And, for a while, it was good. For several years, I was happier than I had ever been before.

Then I met Jake. And it was all downhill from there.

Jake and I dated on and off for several years before getting married. By then, I was already out of college and I didn’t know if I’d ever meet anyone else more suitable to me. (Especially since, as I mentioned already, I wasn’t looking.) I prayed about our relationship and, eventually, I decided it was God’s will for us to be together. And so, we got married. Nine months later, we were divorced.

It was the best thing that ever happened to me.

After the divorce, I decided not to be perfect anymore, not to be afraid of being what they call “desperate.” I decided not to wait for God or fate or anything else that was out of my control to bring me the man of my dreams. Instead, I decided to make myself happy. I decided to look for a partner and, no matter how long it took, to find him.

I decided to try.

I signed up for some dating websites on the internet, and a few months later, I found David.

***

I was lucky, of course. It’s not always that easy to find the person you love. Still, though. I’m convinced that it isn’t the mystery it’s so often made out to be, either. This isn’t a movie, and this isn’t Hollywood, and there is no eerie magic involved. And I’m glad about that, and you should be, too, because it means that everyone has a pretty good chance of getting what they want, because, just like with most things in life, the method is simple: first, you decide what you want. Then, you look for it.

It doesn’t get any better than that, or any simpler.

***

One time, I watched a documentary about a rehab center that helped young women get out of the business of prostitution. Before seeing that program, I had always assumed that these girls did what they did for the money. As it turns out, though, that’s not always the case.

One of the former prostitutes they interviewed talked about the man who, when she was thirteen years old, first introduced her to that lifestyle. She loved him, she said. She still loved him. Even now, she said—even after knowing what he did to her at such a vulnerable age—it was hard to stay away.

And she wasn’t the only one. Most of the other girls in the program felt the same way. They thought about their “boyfriends” constantly. They snuck out at night to see their pimps, and some of them never came back.

After seeing that documentary and thinking about it for a while, I realized something: the desire for love isn’t a desire at all. It is a need. It is a great, roaring human need, and anyone who tells you otherwise, who tells you to stop wanting love and partnership and romance is not doing you any good.

They might as well tell you to stop eating.

And that, my dear reader, is why I’m not going to tell you to be alone. Not that I don’t think it’s wise, sometimes, and often, the best thing you could possibly do.

But because the advice isn’t practical.

I spent quite a few years alone, several of them actually happy and all of them meaningful, and I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything in the world. But they ended with me marrying the wrong person, because no matter what I told myself to get through it, the truth was: I was lonely.

Of course, it could have ended a lot worse. Actually, it worked out pretty darn well for me in the end.

But it was a risk.

***

And so now, I offer you, very humbly, very circumspectly, knowing that every life is different and every soul has a different story, the following meager advice about falling in love.

Number one: Date a lot of people. Number two: Date people who are better than you are. Number three: Get better yourself. The better you are, the better the people you date will be. Number four: Never, never date someone who isn’t nice. And number five: As long as you are alone, relish it. Love it, actually.

And don’t let anyone take your aloneness away who doesn’t deserve to completely.

It is not much, I know, and I have much more to say on the subject, but I have already said it elsewhere—in print, no less—and anyway, it all comes down to what I have said so many times before, which is this: just do the best that you can possibly do for yourself, and for your happiness.

Just try.

***

As we all know, though, finding your favorite partner isn’t the only thing that you have to do to be happy in this area. You have to learn how to keep him, too.

You have to learn how to stay in love—to fall in love again every day.

On this subject, as on the previous one, I have much more to say than I have room to say it in. Fortunately, though, there is one piece of advice that I can give you that incorporates all the rest. Let me warn you, though: it is not very good advice. Not according to other people, anyway. Not, in fact, according to the most knowledgeable people you can find.

Not according to the experts.

That’s right: no psychologist will give you this advice, and you probably won’t even hear it from your friends. But that doesn’t matter to me. It’s what I believe anyway, and will probably always believe, very strongly—so, so strongly—because I’ve seen it work in my relationship with David every day, and it is this: don’t fight.

***

I first learned this maxim one day while watching the local news on TV. It was one of those stories they do sometimes about people who either turn one hundred years old or celebrate their eightieth wedding anniversary or become the oldest person alive or something. Anyway, in it, the man being interviewed was asked what his best tip was for staying married for a long time. And that’s when he said it, in the blunt way that makes old people so wonderful.

“Don’t fight,” he said.

He did not elaborate.

***

Maybe that old man spent years of his life suppressing his true feelings about everything from the taste of his wife’s homemade gravy to the current state of the world. Maybe his wife secretly resented his lack of communication, wishing they could talk all night like they used to do when they first started dating.

Maybe they didn’t have a good relationship at all.

But that is not the way I choose to look at it. When I think of that man, I think he is probably perfectly happy not having an argument every week over who will do the laundry. And I think his wife is perfectly happy not taking away his candy bowl while reminding him about his dentures.

I think they just accept each other the way they are and try to avoid anything that might take that away. I think they choose to see the good in each other, and to keep each other company, and to just let go of all of the rest.

I think that they’re just happy.

***

Of course, David and I do disagree sometimes, and sometimes we just smile and joke about it until one of us relents and says, “Okay.” Other times, but rarely, I sit him down at the kitchen table and very seriously ask him what is wrong.

But most of the time—all of the time, if you don’t count statistically insignificant percentages—we are, like that old couple, just happy.

Our expectations are clear, and so are our roles. We treat each other well. We like talking to each other and cuddling.

We are friends.

We don’t nag, and we try not to get annoyed or to be annoying.

We don’t fight.

Not because we are perfect and there is nothing about each other we wouldn’t change.

But because it’s just not worth it.

I could not recommend a strategy more highly.

I Got a Hobby (Sometimes Very, Part Ten)

Just before David and I boarded the plane for our trip to South America, I called my dad. He must have known that I was going to call because he seemed prepared for the conversation. After the initial pleasantries, he asked me a very good question, and it was this: “Are you going on this trip to have an adventure, Mollie, or are you going just to have fun?”

I thought about it. Why am I going on this trip? I wondered. And what is the right answer to that question?

Finally, I decided that it was harder to figure out what he wanted me to say than to just tell him the truth, so I did.

“I’m going to have an adventure,” I told him.

Incidentally, that was the wrong answer.

“That’s fine, Mollie,” he said. “Have an adventure. But be sure to have some fun, too.”

He knows me very well.

And I have tried to follow that advice ever since.

***

As I said before, a lot of the day-to-day enjoyment I get out of life comes from my job, which is one of the reasons I recommend having a good one so highly. But there is an obvious problem with that, which is: not everyone likes their job. Even worse: some people will not like any of their future jobs, either. Not much, anyway. They will not offer all of the things I mentioned, like intellectual stimulation and a sense of accomplishment.

They will just be jobs.

But there is a solution for this, one that is obvious and easy for some people but elusive and hard for others, and it is this: instead of getting a job you love, get something else to do. Find something you can dive into and immerse yourself in on a regular basis—something enjoyable, something unique, something that you can, over time, learn more and more about until you become great at it, better than anyone else (or better than most people, at least).

In other words: get a hobby. A hobby that you love and that you can do often.

Learn all about it. Read every book you can find on it. Do it often.

Then, when you’re done with that hobby, move on to something else.

For some people, this is a simple exercise. For others, though, it is quite difficult. They don’t know what they’re good at.

They don’t even know what they like.

***

David is a SCUBA diver and one day, while we were on a trip to Colombia, he asked me if I wanted to try it.

“It’s fun,” he said. “It’s a great thing to know how to do.”

“But I’m not good at mechanical things,” I said. “It looks hard, and dangerous. Besides, I get seasick. And do I have to wear that uncomfortable-looking wetsuit?”

“But it’s so cheap here,” he said. “It’s the best deal you’ll find anywhere.”

He sure can be convincing, I thought. I agreed.

The first time I went diving, I threw up repeatedly. After our short lesson I swam to the shore and sat by myself for several hours while the rest of the class got back in the boat and went to another island for a second round.

I should have known I wouldn’t like it, I thought. Why do I do things just to make David happy? I’m not a SCUBA diver; it’s just not me. I’m a beach person.

I thought I knew myself so well.

Still, the next day—probably because we had already paid for four lessons—I agreed to try it again. I got in my gear and boarded the boat, feeling nauseated the whole way. When we got to the spot, I put my tank on and got underwater and did my second lesson.

And I loved it.

I sailed in the water like I didn’t have a body, and did flips and went up and down and looked at things I’ve never seen before.

It was the most fun I’d had in a long time.

After that, I got back on the boat and threw up ten times in a row. I must have been in a good mood, you see, because this time, I counted.

And by the time we got back to shore, I felt even better. My nausea was gone, for one thing, but for another: I was elated.

I had found a hobby.

***

Now, SCUBA diving isn’t the most practical hobby, and I haven’t had many opportunities to go since. But I learned something very important that day, something that I never forgot. I learned not to assume that I always know what I like, and who I am.

I may be the person who likes SCUBA diving, or I may not. It doesn’t matter that I don’t think that I will like it or that I don’t know anyone else who likes it. It doesn’t matter that I there’s no warm water near where I live, even in the middle of the summer, or that boats have made me feel sick ever since I can remember.

I might like it anyway.

I might not be the person I always thought that I was.

I might be someone else entirely.

***

Boredom is a terrible thing. For me, in fact, boredom is a way to test myself to figure out how depressed I am. I ask myself, How would I feel right now if I were bored? If the answer is “I wouldn’t be able to handle it. I would go crazy or feel terrible,” I know that I’m depressed.

Of course, most of the time I don’t let it get that far. Every day, I have things to do—projects, especially, but fun things, too, like seeing friends and going for coffee and playing volleyball and, even, going to church. It helps a lot.I mean, a lot.

It makes all the difference in the world.

Of course, there are those people that are never bored, that know how to make everything fun even when it’s not. Where we see malls and office buildings, they see a freaking carnival.

God bless them. They are gods. But I will never be like them.

I will just be me.

***

And so. Get a hobby. Have some fun.

Don’t be bored.

But there is one more thing I want to add here before finishing this part of the letter, and it is an important thing to know, and it is this: one hobby is probably not enough.

In this big, complicated, confusing world that we have the great, grand privilege of living in, there are a lot of things that you can find to make you happy. Happiness, as I said before, is everywhere.

Besides SCUBA diving, David rides a motorcycle, plays volleyball, dances, snowboards, and, in the spring and summer, paraglides.

I didn’t even know what paragliding was before I met him. Yet here in Seattle, in the city in which I live, there is a whole subculture devoted to jumping off mountains while harnessed to a large kite.

It makes me wonder what else is out there that I might like to do.

Since being with David, I have tried lots of new things. Some I didn’t enjoy, and some others made trying every other new thing worth it because it meant that eventually, I found that. But I’ve noticed something: whatever new thing I try, there are always people there that don’t seem to do anything else. That place, that hobby, is the main thing they do.

It is their life.

Now, that isn’t such a bad thing—didn’t I already say that I am a workaholic, totally devoted to getting better at my job, totally passionate about it in every way? Yes. But writing is not really my life. If it was, every time something went wrong with it—every time someone didn’t like what I wrote or what I did—I’d be miserable. I’d be trapped by my passion, in a place in which the whole meaning of my life was related to how well work went that day.

I’d be a one-person cult of writing.

Cults are attractive for one reason: if you do it right, you will be loved forever. If you become exactly who the other members want you to become—and the formula is usually very simple and very obvious and relatively easy to carry out—you will always have friends. But when something goes wrong, watch out: you’ll be miserable. You’ll get rejected. You’ll feel like you don’t fit in.

Much better, in my opinion, not to let yourself fit in too well in the first place. Much better not to crawl inside the box at all—to decide exactly who you are, or who you want to be, in a way that makes it hard to change your mind. In other words: don’t listen to that wonderful old advice that in some ways is exactly right but in other ways is exactly wrong, which is: “Be yourself.”

Instead, just wing it.

Have fun. Try new things. Change constantly.

You’re not a lake.

You’re a river.

Flow.

I Got Some Friends (Sometimes Very, Part Nine)

One of the things I am the very worst at in all of life, besides all of the things I haven’t tried, of course—and I’d even be better at some of those—is one of the most important, and it is this: making friends.

When I was very young, I had a best friend. Her name was Jill. Every day, I followed her around and did everything she said until finally she would get so annoyed that she would yell at me to go away. Then, I’d be alone.

When I was in the second grade, Jill moved away, and after that, I didn’t have another close friend for a very long time. I was always the shyest kid in school, for one thing. And my depression didn’t really help things, either.

It was hard.

Eventually, though, I found a way around this problem: I decided I was special. The reason I didn’t have any friends wasn’t that something was wrong with me, I told myself. I was just too good of a person—too virtuous—and somehow, this made other people uncomfortable around me. They could sense it, I decided. And it made them feel guilty. Maybe even jealous.

Yeah, that’s right: they were just jealous.

It was a bad theory, but at the time, it was convincing enough for me. Of course, my dad and mom, both of whom praised me with surprising regularity considering how deeply flawed I was, did nothing to dispel this idea.

And so, I was a loner. And by the time I was in the sixth grade, it was worse than that: I was a snob.

***

The good thing about that, though: I didn’t do a very good job of hiding it, and, pretty soon, I was found out. And by being found out, I found out myself.

It was in the spring of my sixth grade year. The whole class was outside playing softball. Kathy and the other popular girls in my class were hanging out in a little huddle near the batting cage and I was standing alone nearby when suddenly, one of Kathy’s friends invited me to join them.

The invitation took me by surprise. I was a little afraid and a little glad, too, because it gave me the rare chance to be the one to reject someone before they rejected me first.

“No, thanks,” I said, and went back to staring at the baseball game in silence.

After I said that, the girl who asked the question walked over to me in a purposeful way.

“What do you have against us, anyway?” she asked me. “You think you’re better than us, don’t you?”

It had been a trap.

I didn’t say anything, but not because I didn’t want to. But because she was right, and I had no defense.

And also, of course, because I was shocked. My mother loved me for being such a good Christian, my father loved me for being such a good loner (more about that later), and no one had ever said anything like that to me before; no one had ever really confronted me.

By this time, the other girls in the group were watching us to see what would happen. When I didn’t respond, Kathy said, loud enough for me to hear, “She is just a snob. She thinks we are snobs, but it is her that is the real snob.”

After that, I walked away.

During the days immediately following that incident, I was angry. I thought up a hundred different things that I could have said back to her—that I should have said back to her—that I would say back to her the next time. Eventually, though, I gave up.

She was right, I realized finally. I was a snob.

I couldn’t even convince myself otherwise.

***

The following year, when I was in the sixth grade, I decided to change my ways; I decided to find a friend. I found Alex.

Alex was what they call “a character.” She was a tomboy, and always had a lot of energy. She had short, smooth brown hair that always flipped out on the ends but was otherwise unattractive. She wasn’t shy—she wasn’t really afraid of anything as far as I could tell.

And she was a little mean, too.

But I didn’t care. She wasn’t one of the popular girls, so I liked her right away.

For a few months towards the beginning of the school year, Alex and I spent a lot of time together. We played together at recess and passed notes back and forth during class. She was my best friend—my only friend, actually.

Our class was small—about eight people, if I remember right—and it seemed like all of the girls wanted to be friends with Kathy and her group, and I was the only one that hated her enough to ignore her completely. I was the only one strong enough to do this, I told myself. In my mind, it was good against evil, and anyone who was against Kathy was good, and anyone who got sucked into her popularity trap was evil.

Which is why it was so hard losing Alex to the other side.

***

It happened quickly. One day, Alex and I were best friends, and the next day, she started hanging out with the other girls instead. They had reeled her in, I realized. I could not compete.

Still, I tried. After a few weeks of letting Alex—God forbid!—straddle the fence on her choice of friends, I decided a dramatic confrontation was in order.

It happened in the girls’ bathroom one afternoon during recess. Alex came in while I was applying my lip gloss, staring at my face in the mirror and killing time.

“Hi, Mollie,” Alex said. “I’ve been looking for you.”

“Oh,” I said. “I thought you were busy.”

“No,” she said. “Not really.”

“Where’s Kathy?” I asked.

“She’s outside, but I wanted to come see you instead.”

“You know,” I told her righteously, “You can’t just hang out with her and then me and then her again. If you want to be friends with me at all, you’re going to have to be friends with just me; you’re going to have to choose.”“Okay,” she said. “I will.”

But, she said, she had to think about the decision for a while first.

“That’s fine,” I said. “Take your time.” I thought I was being generous.

Later that day, between classes, Alex came up to me and said, “I choose you.”

“Really?” I asked, surprised.

She nodded, and I smiled, and for a couple of hours, we were very best friends. Then, the next day, Alex spent recess with the popular girls and I spent recess alone in the bathroom yet again.

Towards the end of the hour, she found me.

“I have been looking everywhere for you,” she said. “Have you been in here the whole time?”

I nodded. No one knew how much time I spent in the bathroom that year, not even her.

“What do you want?” I asked.

“I just wanted to let you know, in case you haven’t already figured it out, that I changed my mind.” There was a defiant smile on her face as she said it. I nodded sadly and after she left, I cried. But she was right.

I was no fun.

***

In junior high and high school, things got a little better but I was still shy and I was still depressed. Though each of those years was better than the one before it, they were still the hardest years of my life. There was one very good thing about them, though, and that was this: I learned a lot.

There is nothing like sadness for learning.

***

My freshman year of high school, I finally found a group of friends. They were the outcasts, and I liked them a lot. They were weird and intelligent and artistic and we had a lot of fun together, dying our hair black and head banging at our school dances and acting silly at the mall.

For a little while, they made me feel normal.

During my sophomore year, though, something changed. I’m not sure what it was.

I guess it was me.

Early that fall, I went to a weekend Christian youth camp. It was an intense experience. We had prayer meetings at night and people confessed their sins and there was lots of singing and bonding and by the end, and for a little while afterwards, nothing mattered to me anymore except God.

I stopped swearing. I read the Bible every night. I tried to be a better person. And I tried to make other people better, too.

I think that was my major mistake.

When I went back to school on Monday, I kept hanging out with my old friends but after a while, I noticed something: they had a lot of good qualities, but unfortunately, they weren’t always very nice. They were a little bitter. They were a little sarcastic. They were a little illegal. And so, I decided that they were bad influences.

I decided I was better off without friends.

It didn’t happen right away. But by the end of that year, I had stopped going to dances and spending time with them after school. We still ate lunch together but I sat on the end of the table so I wouldn’t be in the way and I didn’t talk much.

I was a loner again.

And I was sick of trying to pretend otherwise.

My dad agreed with this strategy. One day, we took a walk down the train tracks by his house and I will never forget what he told me.

“Everyone thinks you need to have friends to be happy,” he said. “But it’s not true. You don’t need friends. You don’t need anyone.

“You have to learn to love rejection. That’s what I did, and I’ve been happy ever since.”

And so, seeing no other option, I took his advice.

***

Besides, it wasn’t just my dad who told me that. My mom said it, too.

When, lonely and depressed, I cried on her shoulder at night (which happened much more often than I’d like to admit), she would say to me, “A true friend is hard to find,” and “Don’t cast your pearls before swine.”

This, I realized later, was terrible advice.

It’s true that deep friendship is hard to find. But good friends—people you can have fun with, people you can share interests with—are everywhere. And if that’s all that you have for now, it is better than nothing at all.

It is so much better than nothing at all.

***

And so. Rather than reconnect with my old friends or find new ones, I did what my parents told me to do: I spent my last two years of high school just waiting for it to be over.

It wasn’t the worst option. I read a lot and made a lot of plans for the future. I worked on being a better Christian. I made a lot of rules for myself. I tried to be perfect.

It gave me something to do.

Anyway, I knew that real life—the things that mattered—would start when I went to college.

I was right.

***

In college, I made friends quickly—at first, anyway. As long as I was living in the dorms it was hard to keep them away. Then I moved out on my own and from then on, things were never the same.

It was a struggle again.

I went back to my old habits: I judged people too harshly. I expected too much of them. I would, I decided, only be friends with someone great. But not just anyone great: someone great enough for me.

***

It was hard, and it took a while, but eventually I did find one great person.

Her name was Jamie, and we met at church. Jamie was serious and studious and a Christian, of course, which was important to me at the time.

She was also a lot of fun.

We took a trip in my car to San Francisco, and another one to Portland. We went dancing and even to a casino—not to gamble, just to walk around and look at people and act weird. We were friends for several years and roommates for a while, too.

Then something changed.

After we graduated from college, we went our separate ways for a while—me to China, her to some other places. When we met up again, we decided to take a trip together to Central America.

“It’ll be just like old times,” we said.

But it wasn’t.

Jamie was not the same Jamie she used to be. She was difficult. She was afraid of everything. She was judgmental.

She was a snob.

And because of her, I finally knew what it was like to be friends with me all those years.

We said goodbye on a sticky-hot morning in Panama and never saw each other again.

After that, I spent a number of years alone, perfectly happy not to have the dreadful responsibility of friends.

***

Then came Seattle, and I’ve already told you what happened when I got here. I met David, and things changed very quickly after that. I started hanging out with his friends—and I made some new ones, too. I started getting bored if I was at home too much. I started playing volleyball twice a week.

I even started wanting kids.

Most importantly, I learned something: I learned that being judgmental just isn’t necessary. My friends didn’t have to be perfect, and neither did I. My friends just had to be my friends.

Why did I always have to make it so much more complicated than that?

***

Before we left on our trip to South America, I asked David, “What are you expecting out of this?”

He said he wasn’t sure.

“What are you expecting?” he asked.

“I don’t want to expect too much.” I said. “I just want to see a lot of things I’ve never seen before.”

I think that is a good way to look at traveling. And maybe at everything else, too. And friendship is definitely part of that “everything else.” It can make you very happy and it can disappoint you completely.

It’s your expectations that make the difference.

***

These days, I’m always looking for friends, and I’m always finding them. I join things. I smile at people. I make the first move, as they say. There are always doors I am knocking on, and though I don’t always get inside—most of the time, probably, I don’t—I have gotten in some and let me tell you, it is almost always worth the wait.

Of course, the majority of my days is still spent alone. I work at home and I can go a long time without seeing anyone if I have to. So, essentially, I am the same person I’ve always been.

I’m still a loner. But now I have friends.

It is the best of both worlds.

***

One day, shortly after my baby died, my mother came to visit me. She tried to comfort me but at the same time she knew that nothing she could say would make it better.

“I know I can’t really help you, Mollie,” she said. “I would if I could, but I can’t, and I’m sorry.”

Then she told me a story.

“When your dad left me,” she said, “A good friend of mine tried to comfort me. She prayed for me and did everything she could. But nothing helped. I was in so much pain, and as she talked to me, I looked at her and the thought came to me very clearly: ‘She can’t do anything to help me.’

“And that is the truth about friendship,” my mom went on. “Friends can’t really help you when you need it.

“Essentially, we are alone in this world.”

She was right, in a way. Friends can’t take your pain away. Nothing she could say to me that day would help me feel better.

But having her there did.

It helped a lot.

Friends aren’t everything in life, and they’re certainly not perfect. But they’re good to have, anyway, if for no other reason than this: they are there. They are company. They bring pleasure.

And, a very good deal of the time, that’s enough.

I Got Some Money (Sometimes Very, Part Eight)

 

 

One night a few years back, I had the most wonderful dream: I dreamt that there was a bullet in my brain.

That wasn’t the wonderful part, of course. The wonderful part—the really interesting, crazy part which made the dream so memorable when I woke up—was what I decided to do about it, namely: I decided to cut open my forehead and remove it—and to do it all by myself. I went to the bathroom and looked in the mirror, studying the area in which the bullet had lodged. Then, all on my own, using a common razor blade, I made a long slice along my entire hairline, both above and to each side of my forehead. After that I pulled the flap of skin down to my eyes in two paper-thin sheets. Underneath, there was my brain. No skull—just the brain, with these large, flat bumps all over it. I started picking at one of the bumps above my left eye, looking for the bullet. After a while I found it and pulled it out. Then I put the skin back in place. The thin dry sheets re-moisturized as they met the exposed brain matter, and I was immediately healed.

After I was done, though, I realized something that should have been very obvious all along. This is the kind of work a brain surgeon normally does, I thought. I did my own brain surgery because I was too cheap to pay someone else.

I became embarrassed by my stupidity. Then I woke up.

Like I said: It was a wonderful dream.

***

I have always been a frugal person. Not just because I don’t need a lot of things to be happy, though that is partly true as well. But because I love the feeling of having something to look forward to. Sometimes, when my husband asks me if I want to go to a movie tonight, I tell him, “Let’s go tomorrow, instead.”

Of course, not everyone is like that, and you don’t have to be. Fortunately, if you’re living in the country I’m living in, you shouldn’t have a major problem getting more money to spend on anything you want, if that’s what you really want. And if that’s the case, you should. Spending money, I believe, can make you really happy. But before I try to convince you of that, let me just say this:

Saving it can, too.

***

Before I met David, when I was still living in El Paso, I was a stingy person. I lived with a roommate—a privilege for which I paid very little. I ate the most basic food possible, and I barely ever went out. Even though I had a good job that paid fairly well, somewhere in the back of my mind I knew that I wouldn’t be there much longer and I needed to save my money for other things.

And even though it was hard living like I did then, I am now very, very glad that I did.

When I was in college, I did the same thing. I couldn’t work full-time, and I had tuition to pay, so money was always pretty tight. Then, soon after I graduated, I bought a house, so things didn’t really change. During all those years of living so carefully, though, I knew one thing: I knew that it wouldn’t always be this way.

I knew that one day in the future—probably not even that far in the future—I would have a good job, and some investments, and all of the things I have now. I might even have a husband, and children, and friends to go out with at night.

I might have a life.

But, I told myself, I wouldn’t have all those things because I just happened upon them one day. I would have them because I was smart enough to save my money now, for a time in the future when I would need it much more.

You see: I was waiting for my moment to come.

And, eventually, that’s exactly what happened. When I left El Paso, I had a couple thousand dollars in the bank—just enough money to cover my mortgage, rent and food for about six months.

Just enough to be able to move to Seattle and change my life.

And that is what I did. I quit a good job and came to Seattle and met David and made lots of new friends and got another good job, all on that couple thousands of dollars that I had saved.

It was worth it.

***

After I moved to Seattle and David and I started dating, very suddenly my attitude about money totally changed.

At the time, David wasn’t working and as I was just starting my writing business, I worked very little. Even so, we didn’t save our money. We went on a trip to South America. We went on a cruise to Alaska. We ate out, and had fun, and bought things. We didn’t splurge every day, but we did all of the things we really wanted to do.

This, I told myself, is not the time to be frugal. This is the time in my life I was saving up for all those years when I was alone.

It was my reward.

And it wasn’t just money that I had saved up all those years. It was everything. I saved up all my desire to spend time with people and have friends. I saved up all my hard work, and my ability to succeed.

I saved up all my love.

Then, that first year that David and I were together, I spent it all. Well, actually, I didn’t spend it—I invested it. And since that first year, it’s all come back to me, with interest—lots and lots of interest.

Being so frugal for so long was enjoyable, but not just because of what I had to look forward to. Being frugal, I found, was actually kinda fun in and of itself. There were, I think, two reasons for this: first, it was fun because it made me appreciate the little things that I did have much, much more than I would have if I had those things all the time. And second, it was fun because it always made me feel like I was doing something important. It made me feel like my suffering—my loneliness, my lack of comfort—had a purpose, because I knew that later I would reap the rewards for all of this hard work. At least, that is what I told myself at the time.

And I still believe it’s true even now.

***

And so. I don’t know if any of this applies to your life—maybe you already have money and all the things you want that it can buy—but if not, and if you right now are like I was back when I was still waiting for my life and success to begin, my advice is: save. Save everything you have for a better time.

Be frugal.

When the time comes to take a risk, to go out on your own, to spend everything you ever earned and try something you’ve always wanted to do, you won’t regret it.

Besides, if things aren’t so good in your life quite yet, throwing more money at the problem will hardly make a difference.

***

Okay. With all that said about the fun of saving, now it’s time to tell you what I really think about money, which is this: money is good.

Sometimes, I read self-help and even scientific books that talk about what makes people happy. And in almost all of them I’ve read so far, the authors try to make me believe that money doesn’t really bring happiness. Well, I just don’t agree. No matter how many books I read that say that and no many people try to convince me of it, I don’t ever believe the writers of these books, and the truth is, you probably don’t, either; no one does.

Because we are people, not scientists or psychologists or researchers, and we remember how we felt before we had steak in the fridge and before we had a car—before, even, we could go to Starbuck’s whenever we wanted. (At least, I remember those times, since for me, they weren’t that long ago.)

As I said before, I enjoyed those times in my life, too, and there were things that I had then that I don’t have now and that were good.

But that doesn’t mean that I’d want to go back.

I like my things. I like new clothes, and a nice phone that has the internet, and my laptop. I like going out to eat sometimes. I like good lotion, not because it makes me look wealthy to other people when I carry it around in my purse (I live in Seattle, remember, where ostentatiousness is practically gauche), but because after my bath at night when I put it on and lay in bed it smells really good and then I read a book and it is nice.

It gives me pleasure.

So no, money doesn’t buy you happiness, as the saying goes.

But it does buy you some pleasure.

And though pleasure isn’t everything I need in life to be happy, it certainly plays a part.

Don’t get me wrong, though; there’s a point at which having more money doesn’t make you happier—when the law of diminishing returns sets in and the difference between a nice vehicle and a really, really nice vehicle disappears on your happiness radar soon after purchase. And there’s a point, too, at which no amount of money, even a small amount added to a smaller amount, will make you happier because you already feel so bad inside. And the opposite is true, too: You can be very happy, even with very little. You just have to be really, really good at it.

You probably have to be a saint.

And since I’m not a saint, and I don’t plan on becoming one in this lifetime, I like having a little added pleasure in my daily life.

I like money.

One more thought on the subject, though, and then I’ll stop talking about it for now: those same scientists that try to convince us that money doesn’t make us happy have said one thing that I do very much agree with on the subject. A big, new house and a fast, expensive car gives you less pleasure overall than smaller treats you give yourself more often. So given the choice between the two—between an expensive haircut eight times a year, say, and a new car once a year or less—I’d go with the haircut.

Good hair is more important anyway.

***

So. When it comes to money, my advice is this: get more. But until that happens, enjoy the challenge of being frugal and look forward to the things you’ll buy later when you finally can.

After all, looking forward to something is often the best part.

Besides, you can tell yourself during this time: You’re not poor.

You’re just saving up your happiness for later.

I Got Smart (Sometimes Very, Part Seven)

Best Nonfiction Book - Learning All the Time

When I first decided to leave the ad agency I was working at to become a freelance writer instead, the idea didn’t come to me after agonizing over it for days or weeks on end; it came to me by accident.

I was on a trip to San Antonio with my friend Josh. It was our last trip together before I moved to Seattle, and since I’d already quit my job, it was mostly just a way to kill time. One morning while we were exploring the town, we had a great idea: we decided to visit a bookstore. We found one on the map with a cute name and decided to go, but when we got there, they were closed. So, we quickly consulted our map and found another one with a less cute name and went there instead.

As it turned out, it was the best thing that could’ve happened.

Before we got to the store, I wasn’t planning on buying anything. After we went in, though, while Josh looked at comics and the sci-fi section, I thought, “Well, I might as well look at books on writing.” So, I did. I wen to the writing section and browsed through the books and found one that talked about making a living as a writer. Then I picked it up, and began to read. After a short while, I could tell that it had some good things to say, so I bought it.

And that book changed my life forever.

On the plane back to my hometown, I read the whole thing. Then, once I got home, I read it again, and took notes. After that, I moved to Seattle and started doing what it said to do. I called a lot of people, and worked really hard, and soon, I had the only job I’d always wanted:

I was a writer.

***

Several years later, something similar happened. One day, I got an idea for a book and started writing it. When I was done with that book, which eventually became this one (though I didn’t know it would at the time), I realized that I had no idea how to market it, and that in order for it to be successful, I’d have to figure that out. So, I went to the library and started my research.

First, I checked out every marketing book I could find. Then, I read about marketing on the internet. Then, I checked out even more books.

In three months, I learned more than I ever wanted to know on the subject of marketing, and I never wanted to go through that again.

But then something else happened: Just as I was about to implement the complex sales plan I’d developed with such enthusiasm, I realized something: my book was terrible. What I really needed to learn was not how to market my writing. What I really needed to learn was how to write.

Well, you can guess what happened after that: For the next several months, I buried myself in books about writing. I joined writing websites and writing groups.

I worked on it.

I got smart.

These days, there is a stack of library books in my office all the time, and it is often taller than my computer. And even though I always tell myself that I “just need to get through this subject, and then I won’t need to read as much anymore,” I know that it’s not true. Learning is one of the very best things I do, and one of my most favorite.

Of course, you might not believe me when I say that. That’s because out there in the world—the “real world” that people are always talking about—the world after college, which is supposedly much different than anything you ever learned about there—people are always saying that we humans are, essentially, lazy.

“People don’t want to read,” they say, over and over. “Keep your writing short and to the point.

“People just want to be entertained,” they say. “They want to watch reality shows and other mindless entertainment. They don’t really want to learn.”

Well, in my humble opinion: Nothing could be further from the truth. People love learning. People crave intellectual stimulation.

People really want to be smart.

And those hugely popular reality shows that seem to be such solid evidence for our collective mental lassitude? Well, it just may be that the opposite is true. Maybe we like them, not because we are lazy, and not even because we are a bunch of gory voyeurs (although that may be a little part of it). Maybe we like them because of what they have to teach us.

Reality shows, after all, are a kind of lab experiment—a big, grandiose lab experiment, yes, but a lab experiment nonetheless—in which humans are the rats. They show the viewers how real people act in extreme, high-stakes circumstances.

They teach us about ourselves.

Okay. So. Maybe this is going a bit far, I don’t know. Maybe not all reality show fans like them because they learn something. But that’s why I like them.

And that’s why I like documentaries (if they’re somewhat entertaining, too). And that’s why I love reading non-fiction, even more than fiction, which is also useful in its way (even in fiction, after all, the characters must be believable, and must teach us something worthwhile).

And that, after all, is what getting smart is really good for. Getting smart isn’t just about knowing more things. It’s about understanding them, too.

It’s about understanding, especially, yourself.

***

When I was growing up and even throughout most of my twenties, I felt guilty a lot—almost every day, actually. Sometimes it was quite overwhelming, while sometimes it was a milder feeling that just didn’t want to go away. My religious beliefs were part of the problem; I didn’t really know how to be perfect yet (even now I sometimes don’t) and that bothered me a lot. And so, every time I felt this unexplained guilt, I would assume it had to do with something I did wrong. I assumed it was my conscience, or God himself, pointing out how I needed to change.

I assumed it was my fault.

And so, seeing as how it was my fault, I did what I thought I needed to do: first, I tried to figure out what it was that I had done wrong.Then, I tried to fix it.

I stopped swearing. I stopped being greedy. And, yes—in case you were wondering but were too afraid to ask—I stopped sleeping with boys.

I told myself over and over that if I could just be a better person, the bad feeling would go away.

And, for a while, it worked.

Finally, I thought each time this happened, Finally, I am free of that constant guilt. It feels so, so nice to be good!

That is what I thought, every time. Until, that is, the guilt came back. And it did.

Every time.

It didn’t take long, either—two days, maybe three on average. And then the cycle was repeated.

It was hell.

Then one night, while I was lying in bed overcome with this feeling of guilt and anxiety once more, it suddenly hit me: I didn’t do anything wrong. There is no reason I should feel guilty right now—none at all.

I was not dating anyone that I knew I shouldn’t’ve been dating. I was not lying or cheating or stealing. I was just going to school and coming home, mostly.

There was nothing I could do to change.

It was a revelation.

Maybe, I thought, Maybe this feeling of guilt that I’ve had for so long isn’t really guilt at all. Maybe, it’s a lie.

And I realized something else, too.

I realized I didn’t have to listen to it anymore.

***

I know what you’re probably thinking: it took me way, way too long to figure out the real problem. And you’re right: it took way, way, way, way.

Too.

Long.

But, eventually, I did.

And that’s what matters, after all.

***

Much later, I had a similar experience. By then, I had graduated from college and was doing quite well in life. Just not having to go to school anymore was nice enough in itself, but I also had a good job and some other nice things. I did have one major complaint, though, and I complained about it often: I was eating too much.

You see, many nights after eating dinner but before going to bed, or while I was lying in bed, waiting to get to sleep, I would be hungry. Not just a little hungry—really, really hungry.

Often, I would get up and eat something, but it didn’t help. When I went back to bed, I’d feel the same emptiness I felt before.

This went on for a long, long time until one night, while I was lying in bed after a big meal, it suddenly hit me, sort of like before: I’m not hungry at all, I realized. This is just the way depression feels.

And I realized something else, too: that guilt that I’d been feeling all those years? That was probably just a form of depression, too.

Again, it took me much too long to figure this out—I still can’t believe how long. But, again, it’s not how long it takes that matters.

It’s how well it takes.

And it took pretty well. I don’t overeat now nearly as much as I used to, and even though I still have a feeling of guilt pretty often, I know it’s not really guilt.

That’s just, for me, the way depression feels sometimes.

***

Feelings are good. They are instructive, often, and very helpful. But feelings don’t always tell the truth. Sometimes, you need your brain to do that.

In my relationship with David, I have probably avoided hundreds or thousands of arguments with just one tactic, and it is this: I don’t let my feelings take over. I let myself feel whatever I feel after the thing that annoyed or upset me occurs. Then I think about it for a while.

First, I ask myself whether what my feelings are telling me about him right then are true. Then, if the answer is yes (which it usually isn’t), I take it one step further: I ask myself whether it is worth arguing about.

Is it worth the bad feelings we’ll both have if I bring it up? I ask. Is it worth ruining our whole night for?

Maybe, I think, I’ll wait ’til tomorrow to talk about it.

More often than not, though, tomorrow never comes, and I forget all about it, and there is no argument at all.

And that is what being smart about things does for you: it gives you perspective. It changes the way to handle your problems. It alters the course of your future.

It is a superpower.

***

Of course, most likely, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. Most of us are, deep down, pretty smart indeed. We understand relationships and how to be wise. Given any theoretical situation, we know what the best next move will be. We can diagnose a friend’s problems with her relationships, her finances and her negative attitudes very quickly and very accurately—sometimes after knowing the friend for only a short time. The question, then, is: why can’t we all do the same for ourselves?

We need to be able to do the same for ourselves.

***

Learning in general is a constant, and rewarding, occupation. And learning about yourself is even better. After all, the more you understand about yourself and your problems, the more you will know how to fix them, and the happier you will be.

So, my advice: Get smart. Get smart on purpose. Feed your brain all the time—stuff it in hand over fist.

Go crazy.

Read books on everything you’re interested in. Talk with people who share those interests. Get good at something—really good. Get admired for it. Get passionate.

Get really, really smart.

Or, at least (yes, at the very least):

Try.

I Got a Job (Sometimes Very, Part Six)

I love New Years’ Eve. I love it so, so much. It is easily the best holiday of the year. First of all, there are no presents to buy and nothing to prepare. Also, it has the best parties.

More than all that, though: On New Years’ Eve, you get to make resolutions. You get to think about the thing you want to accomplish that year, then write it down and suddenly, it’s not a resolution anymore.

It is a plan.

I love making plans. Maybe you aren’t like that, I don’t know. But I have always been that way—maybe too much that way. From the time I was a child, I have been an exceedingly serious person. I stayed inside most of the time. I read a lot. I never liked sports. I was picky about the types of games I played, and most of them had one thing in common: they made me feel grown up.

My favorite, for example, was “Post Office.” In this game, which I would play for hours on end, I would write a great number of very brief letters to my sister or dad, then draw pictures of envelopes and stamps. I would put the batch of letters in the envelopes I made, then stamp them with the stamps I made, then address them and deliver them by the pile. My sister and dad would then write back so that all three of us were constantly busy replying and delivering and there was hardly any need to talk. Besides, we thought, there was no time to talk. We were getting things done.

We were working.

Later in life—much later, actually, after several crappy jobs that took far too long to give up—I became a workaholic. This development should not have surprised me; I should have seen it coming a mile away.

But I didn’t.

***

Having a good career is one of the best things in the world, and one of the healthiest, and the reasons are obvious: first, it gives you money. (More about that later.) Second, it gives you intellectual stimulation (more about that one later, too). And, lastly: A good career gives you an ongoing sense of accomplishment.

And without those things, I don’t think I’d be happy.

And I’m not the only one. Recently, some psychologists looking into the subject of happiness have found the same thing. People overestimate the amount of enjoyment they will receive from having “free time,” they say. As it turns out, we are much happier when we are being productive.

As it turns out, people don’t really like being lazy.

***

Of course, I am lucky. I have always known that I am lucky, not because I am especially pretty or rich or because I have a lot of friends—in fact, none of those things are true, except the one about being rich, which by world standards I consider most people living in this country to be. And I’m not lucky because I haven’t worked for most of what I have, either, because most of what anyone has in life that is of any real value, I believe, has to be earned.

But I have to confess something to you, my dear reader, and it is a major confession: there is something I have that is very wonderful, one of the things that make me the most happy in life, in fact, that I didn’t do anything at all to earn, even though since getting it I’ve had to work really hard to keep it: I have a passion.

I am, as you may have noticed, a writer.

And writing is my favorite thing in life that doesn’t breathe.

***

I have always known that I wanted to be a writer. Okay, well—“always” may be a bit strong. After I learned to read and started checking out those thin, colorful first readers by the stack at the local library, going through them ten or twenty at a time, too quickly to appreciate the stories, reading just for the pleasure it gave me to make symbols into words in my mind—at that time, I probably didn’t actually know I wanted to be a writer. But, soon after that, I started writing stories a lot and then I knew for sure.

Since that time, I have done many different jobs—college jobs, mostly, like waitressing. Then, several years after I graduated, when I was living in El Paso, I decided to apply for writing jobs for the first time and, probably because it was such a small city, I got one. It was at an advertising agency and even though I only worked there for six months or so, I learned a lot. Then, before moving to Seattle, I read a book about how to become a freelance writer. It said that I should make a lot of phone calls and write a lot of letters and soon after that, I’d be on my way.

So that is what I did. And, eventually, it worked. And then it worked too well, and I liked it too much.

And that is when I became a workaholic.

So far, I haven’t been able give up this addiction. Not because I tried and failed.

But because I haven’t ever really wanted to try.

***

Have you ever asked your boyfriend—or someone else’s boyfriend, or maybe yourself—maybe, even, your girlfriend (though it’s rare)—why they like video games so much? It’s funny: They won’t be able to tell you.

“It’s relaxing,” they might say, but we have seen how upset they get when they play, and we are on to them; we know it isn’t true.

I’m not a scientist, of course, or an expert on almost anything, but I think I know the real answer: it helps them forget about themselves for a while. It gets them out of the real world, out of the past and the future and even the present—out of the realm of time.

It helps them escape, but even more than all that: it gives them a sense of accomplishment.

Movies don’t do that—not most movies, anyway. TV definitely doesn’t. But seeing your points or levels or whatever intangible rewards they give you add up before your very eyes gives you motivation to continue—quantifiable motivation.

Well, okay, you may be saying. But what does that mean for me? What it means for you and for all of us is this: The human brain is built to get pleasure from work.

Video games aren’t, essentially, pleasurable. They don’t directly stimulate your brain as eating does, or as exercise. Some video games don’t give pleasure at all—they are what we call “boring.”

What makes a video game fun, then? It’s fun when it’s challenging, and competitive, and creative. In other words:

It’s fun when it feels like work.

And the good news here: Real work can be even better. See, work not only gives me a sense of accomplishment—it gives me actual accomplishment. The better I do it, and the more I do it, the more I get back.

It is predictable, and it doesn’t disappoint. You can do it for hours on end without guilt, without thinking you should be somewhere else, doing something else.

It is addictive.

Like a good video game, work you love to do can take you out of the real world and out of the realm of real time.

It can help you escape.

And that’s why I recommend getting a job. But not just any job; a job that you like. A job that makes you feel important, and accomplished, and valuable to the world in some way. It doesn’t have to be your greatest passion in life, or your favorite hobby. But it should be something you do well. It should be something you can immerse yourself in fully, something that rewards you with more than money.

Is that too much to ask? Maybe, but that’s okay, because this is not the most important thing there is when it comes to getting happy. It’s just nice—very, very nice. It’s something to appreciate when you have it, and something to try for when you don’t. Yes, that’s right, I said it again, and again, it wasn’t an accident:

I told you to try.

I Got a Religion (Sometimes Very, Part Five)

Growing up, religion was the most important thing in my life. At least, I wanted it to be, and I tried very hard to make it that way. Until about halfway through college, I went to church every week—sometimes more than once. I prayed as often as I could, and frequently made (and broke) earnest resolutions to read the bible every day. I even planned to be a missionary. Then something happened that changed all that:

I started asking questions.

***

One semester about halfway through my college years (there were seven and a half of those years, and this was the fourth), I had to give a speech for a class debate on the theory of evolution. Since by then I’d begun to have a lot of in-depth conversations about my faith with people who asked about things I couldn’t quite explain, I decided to argue against the theory. I figured that after researching the subject, I would reassure myself that the bible’s depiction of the beginning of time was the accurate one and that by looking into it more, I’d have plenty of ways to point this out to people in the future.

And, in a way, that is what happened.

I did my research diligently while the opposing side slacked off a bit, and, due to their overconfidence, I won the debate. During this process, I learned a lot of arguments against the theory of evolution, but I learned something else, too.

I learned that I was wrong.

Evolution was probably true, I realized. The bible is not always literally right.

And that was the first step to my corruption.

***

During the years following that event, my beliefs changed a lot. For one thing, I began looking at the bible differently. If one Biblical story could be wrong, I thought, Couldn’t others be wrong, too? Eventually, I decided that a lot of them—Old Testament ones, especially—probably were wrong. Technically. But, I figured (correctly, I think): they didn’t need to be true to be meaningful.

Then something else happened that caused me to question the veracity of the bible even more. My final semester of college, I had to write a long thesis paper in order to graduate with my major in history. Since during my studies I had focused on the Greek and Roman period, I decided I could get away with writing it about the New Testament.

So, I did. But I didn’t make it easy on myself. Instead, I chose several highly controversial passages about the role of women in the church, researching them in depth. At some point during this time, I learned that several of these passages were not present in all of the early biblical manuscripts. And so, after thinking about it for a while, I realized that the New Testament might be flawed as well.

A little.

Then, I graduated. Then, I lived in China for a while and because of that, for the first time in my life, I stopped going to church.

It was an easy habit to break.

My corruption continued.

***

When I got back to the U.S., I visited my old church again. I don’t remember what the sermon was about but I do remember sitting there and thinking to myself, very clearly, Church doesn’t feel the same to me anymore.

Suddenly, for reasons I couldn’t quite explain, it was ridiculous.

After that it was a long time before I went to services regularly again. But I didn’t lose my faith entirely—not yet. In fact, I have never lost my faith entirely—it just hasn’t meant as much to me at certain times as it has at others. Even after I moved to El Paso to move in with my first husband and, later, to Seattle to get away from him, I never let go of my belief in God and in a spiritual realm.

It just wasn’t as important to me anymore.

Then something happened that made it even less important: I met my husband. My next husband—the real one.

I met David.

It was my first night in Seattle. Well, technically, it wasn’t Seattle, it was Tacoma. I was visiting a friend in the hospital and David picked me up at a nearby coffee shop, then took me to a restaurant, then took me to a park in Seattle, then took me to another restaurant, then took me to another park, and ever since that night, I have never been alone.

From the very beginning until now, David was kind and good and everything was easy with us. It didn’t just feel good to be with him; it felt right.

I had never met a better man for me.

There was a problem, though—a small one: David was an atheist. Or an agnostic, maybe, depending on the way you phrased the question.

And so, one day early on in our relationship I decided that I needed to finally settle this question of religion in my own mind before things got too serious. He wanted to have children, after all. What would I tell them about God?

And so. For the first time in a long time, I started trying to figure out what I really believed, and after that, the metaphorical clock started ticking.

It was a race between my boyfriend and my faith.

My boyfriend won, and easily.

During the first few months of my relationship with David, I went to church—a Protestant one like the one I grew up in—several times. I also went to one of the small prayer groups they held mid-week in someone’s home so that I would have more chances to ask people questions one-on-one about some of the things I was wondering about—hell and damnation, for instance.

I didn’t get the answers I was looking for.

Worse than that: Merely as a result of questioning these things, I was, in their minds, unsaved. I didn’t fit their definition of a Christian anymore—and I didn’t fit in with them at all. I don’t even think they really liked me (though I can’t prove it, of course).

A short time later, I quit going altogether.

I’m still not sure if David caused me to give up on my faith.

But dating him definitely didn’t hurt.

***

And that is the story of how I lost my religion for a while. What I didn’t realize at the time is that something else would replace it very soon.

About a year into my relationship with David, we went on a trip to South America. Both of us had traveled a good deal before that, and we wanted to make it a part of our life together, too, before settling down. So, we traveled all around the continent, staying in hostels and eating cheaply and having a lot of fun.

One of the places we visited was Bogota, Colombia. It was a wildly interesting place, with a huge street fair every weekend and lots of other things to do. But for David and I, the highlight of our stay in that city occurred on the first night we were there, when in the common room of our hostel we met a feminist.

Now, at this point I should probably admit something to you, dear reader, that I am not exactly ashamed of but not exactly proud of, either: I dislike feminism. I dislike it, and so does David, and if one or the other of us did not feel that way, our relationship, which is a pretty traditional one, probably would not work at all.

Now, normally this aspect of my life doesn’t come up in conversation with people I barely know. When you’re traveling, though, the rules are different somehow, so I wasn’t surprised when that day, in that hostel, the subject was welcomed among us.

The feminist we talked to was about twenty-three years old. She was short, cute, and very opinionated. She had recently graduated from college with a major in Women’s Studies, and as she liked talking about politics and things like that, and didn’t mind disagreeing with people, the debate, which was over gender roles, got going very quickly. While I attempted to moderate my views, David, who cares much less about others’ opinions of him, did not.

“Gender roles are a good thing,” he insisted. “They give you clear expectations. They fulfill a biological need. They even help you make decisions.”

This and other similar statements made her mad, but more than that, she was surprised.

“I can’t believe you guys are actually admitting you believe these things,” she said. To her, we were sexist and—possibly worse—just dumb.

Understanding that our viewpoint on the subject was in the minority, and reveling in the challenge of being questioned for it, her reaction thoroughly amused us both. Later, another hostel resident told us that the next day she announced loudly to the rest of the guests that David and I must be either Evangelicals or Mormons. We laughed about that, too.

Though I was enjoying our conversation, after an hour or so I realized how exhausted I’d become and, leaving David to continue the fight, I went to bed. Predictably, though, I could not sleep. The girl’s reaction to my decision to be in a traditional relationship kept coming back to me and I couldn’t keep myself from arguing with her in my head.

Some of these arguments were rational, and some were less so. Well, okay, I admit it: maybe all of these arguments were less so and yet, I couldn’t help wondering then, and I still can’t help wondering now, whether this woman knew anything about how to be happy.

I wonder if she knows what it’s like to be with someone she really loves and to bring him a glass of water before he even asks, just because you know he always likes it before dinner, I asked myself as I lay in bed that night. I wonder if this woman has ever known what it is like to wake up every morning and decide that you are going to be totally, utterly, uncompromisingly good to another person to the best of your ability for that entire day, knowing that in return, the other person will do the same thing for you, and there is hardly any danger of ever getting into a fight because there is nothing to fight about because what you expect of each other is so clear, and so easy, and so agreeable to you both, to the point that serving the other person is, in fact, your best and your most favorite thing to do in the world.

She doesn’t understand that, I thought with superiority and maybe a little contempt. Not even a little. She doesn’t know what it’s like to live life for someone else—to do what I have been doing ever since meeting David and even before: to live simply, and happily, and well.

What a shame.

Maybe it was because it had been such a long day, and because I was so tired and therefore so emotional, and it didn’t really have anything to do with the feminist at all, but in that moment I had a very sudden, very wonderful revelation. I picked up a notebook and began to write, and it went something like this:

“Religions fail. Utopias fail. Ideas and ideologies fail. Even friendship fails.

“I will just try to live well.

“In fact, that is my new philosophy—my new purpose in life: to live well—no matter how different from other people that is.

“I don’t need a religion. I don’t need a theology. I don’t need to understand everything, or even to try to understand everything. And I definitely don’t need to be perfect.

“I just need to take care of myself and the people I love. And for me, for now, that is enough. In fact, it is more than enough:

“It is all that I can do.”

And with that, I put down the pen, reread what I wrote, and right there, decided on a whole new meaning for my life.

From then on, I decided, I would be a missionary.

Not a religious missionary, you understand, but still, a missionary. I would, to the best of my ability, show people how to live the good life. I would show people what I did to be happy.

I would try to teach them how to live well.

And that is why I’m writing this letter to you now, my dear reader. I want to remind you that no matter what you believe about religion and spirituality, you can live a meaningful life. You can live a good life.

You can learn to live well—whatever that means to you.

***

And for the next year and a half or so, that is what I did. I took care of David. I was good to him. And I took care of myself and my other friends the best I could, too. Even though I had given up on the idea of certainty, I thought about spirituality from time to time, collecting and discarding beliefs one by one.

One day during this time, for example, I saw a documentary about homosexuals who struggled with questions of faith. One of the men who was interviewed said that one day, while he was trying to decide whether or not to come out of the closet, he had a profound religious experience. He heard God say to him, out loud, the following words: “I’m not the way you think I am.”

I have remembered those words ever since, and have believed them.

I can have faith without religion, I realized during this time in my life.

And so I did.

Some time after that I saw a TV show about people who had died and then were brought back to life. All of the people that were interviewed said that upon dying, they felt complete and total peace.

There is no hell, I realized. The idea was a sham from the start.

That was also encouraging.

***

But that’s not where the story ends. For about two years after that, I picked up a lot of new ideas about spirituality almost by accident, but I didn’t think about it a great deal. Instead, I focused on my new, more practical belief in being kind and living a good life. Then something happened that changed that for me forever.

A year and a half into our relationship, David and I decided to start trying to have a baby. A few months later, I was pregnant.

The pregnancy was uneventful. I had some bad nausea and some problems sleeping, and I was more irritable than usual. But nothing really went wrong.

Then I gave birth.

Jane was beautiful. She was long, and fat, and had flawless skin and a perfect pug nose and very full lips and long, thick hair and fingernails well past the tips of her fingers. She looked healthy and perfect. But she wasn’t.

She wasn’t breathing.

When we went to the hospital, the doctors told us she had almost total brain damage. She lived for four and one-third days and I held her and I loved her and afterwards I was never the same.

I had faith again.

Not just an I-believe-in-more-than-I-can-see kind of faith. Faith that mattered. Faith that changed the way I live.

After Jane died, I needed to believe that she was still with me, not up in heaven somewhere, and that there was a purpose to her life. Besides that, I knew that I had put my spirituality on hold for too long and that there was more to life than my own happiness and more, even, than the happiness of the people around me. Of course, I wasn’t sure what it was.

I just knew that it was more.

Since then, I have collected a great number of new beliefs. Reincarnation, for instance. God’s spirit in us all. More important than the ideas I’ve come to accept, though, is the way I’ve let them change my life.

Now, I don’t just have beliefs; I act on them as well. I pray. I meditate. I read spiritual books. I discuss these things with friends. I have more purpose. I have more perspective. I am more comforted in my pain. I have more peace.

I am happier.

Whether you call it religion, or spirituality, or whatever, I am living for something that is higher than myself, and it feels good.

Of course, not everyone has faith in a realm that’s higher than ours. David doesn’t, for example, and he probably never will. And that is okay. He still has faith.

He has faith that if he works hard and raises good children—or at least does his best to raise good children—and has relationships that matter, it will go well for him in the end, and that even if he dies and there is nothing else past this earthly life, he is glad to have lived.

That is what he believes, and that is enough for him. It isn’t enough for me—not anymore. But for him, it is enough; these beliefs give him purpose.

Are you like him, dear reader? Have you decided that there may be no afterlife, and no God? If so, don’t worry about it too much. See, you still have religion—even without theology. You believe in something, something that makes life worth living, even if it has nothing to do with God, or a spiritual realm, or an afterlife.

You still have a purpose—even if you just believe in being nice.

You don’t have to be sure of anything. Who ever said that you did? Okay, so probably a lot of people have. But not me. I’m not sure, and I probably never will be again. In fact, I even like changing my mind sometimes.

It makes me more human.

You don’t need to be sure about your purpose to have one. You just have to figure out what you already believe, then go from there.

But don’t just figure it out and then do nothing about it; figure it out, then let it change your life. Do the things that it tells you to do, things like prayer or meditation or becoming a better person. Getting rid of an addiction or a bad temper.

Live for a reason. Make your beliefs important. Because, really, they are important.

They are the meaning of your life.