How To Be a Person in the World – Heather Havrilesky

“Who do I think I am, giving other people advice?” I thought. “I’m not qualified for this! I don’t have it all figured out. What the hell am I doing?”

I was so glad to read that. Because it’s going to be the first thought that comes to mind: who are you to tell others how to live their lives? (It was also a pretty funny callback to Admiral Stockdale.)

Who Heather Havrilesky (Dear Polly) is, is someone who has clear vision and isn’t afraid to use it, and who has strong opinions and isn’t afraid to wield them.

My enjoyment of this book was certainly not injured by the fact that I agreed with a great deal of what she had to say. Example: there’s nothing wrong in a life lived without a Significant Other.

(But controlling your brain is not exactly easy. You have to train yourself to romanticize a life outside of men and create a tapestry that’s just as rich without a guy in it. That requires a kind of buoyant solitude that isn’t easy to achieve.

A few things that will make your alone time more buoyant: Inspiring music. A clean space. Regular, vigorous exercise. Great books. A nice bath. A wide range of beverages in the fridge. Friendly pets. Engrossing home projects. Your setting matters! I’m not that into decorating, but you have to put a little energy into your surroundings when you live alone.)

I especially loved “Dear Polly, I am trying to figure out how to be less nice. I don’t want to be less generous or less kind, just less nice. You know what I mean—that craven, smiley, oh-gosh-no-of-course-go-ahead-of-me, laughing-at-every-unfunny-joke …veneer. It degrades my life. It has always degraded my life. I am only now starting to understand how much. I’m mad about it.” It echoed what I’ve experienced. I was brought up to be nice – pretend to take no notice of the huge bubo growing out of someone’s nose; always give way when someone’s barreling toward you; always hold the door for others, regardless of gender… and I’ve gotten tired of others feeling free to comment on my equivalents of bubos and never giving way to me and dropping doors in my face. I still can’t bring myself to be like that – I don’t really want to become that – but there are days, and shopping trips, where I’m determined not to *&#! budge.

I like Dear Polly’s positivity: “But sometimes you have to let go of your shiny imaginary creations in order to give in to the magic of the real world, which is far more glorious and full of hope than it first appears.” She actually does a nice job of counteracting some of the nonsense I have to live with at work. I’m an introvert who can’t understand why someone would bellow across an office to the person farthest away from her rather than just picking up the phone and calling that person’s extension, or why someone would put the office radion on (loud) and then also put on music on her own computer – but I’m told that everyone else in the office just tunes these things out, and no one is going to do anything about it. (On the bright side, I’m allowed to wear headphones to drown the never-ending babble out, and thus my audiobooks-read count has skyrocketed.) I am an introvert who would genuinely rather stay at home with a book than go to a party, who genuinely preferred to stay in the office and work that day that the office sponsored a field trip to the bowling alley (the quiet was exquisite)… I’m made every day to feel that I’m weird and wrong and need “help” because I don’t particularly want to hear the endless inane chatter of my coworkers.

“It’s okay to be an oversensitive freak. Oversensitive freaks tend to overreact. They tend to spin in circles. But they are some of the most loyal, interesting, intense people around, and they just get better as they age. Welcome to the tribe!”

I don’t need to be validated by a woman I’ve never met. But it’s a little like watching Wil Wheaton and Chris Hardwick become more and more successful: these are guys turning their geekiness (their Nerdist tendencies, if you will) into careers, and doing quite well, from what I can see. It’s not necessary to my life for them to show that it’s “okay” to love things, to be enthusiastic about things – but it is nice.

And the author loves “So You Think You Can Dance.” Bonus points.

It is funny, though, that in at least one response she promises the letter-writer that there is absolutely someone out there who is her perfect romantic partner. “Believe that you deserve it, you deserve to be loved. It’s all going to work out just fine.” I find that mildly offensive, and I know it is patently untrue. Not the deserving part – the just fine part. I believe I deserve a lot of things – freedom from worry about money, friends who love Star Trek and Firefly and so on, et cetera et cetera. That doesn’t mean I’ll ever get any of it. And believing I deserve it doesn’t make me feel any better about reality.

It’s also funny that one exchange pretty much nails something that happened with an old friend earlier this year.

Eventually, I figured it out; she always assumed my anger and frustration were about her, that I was angry at her, and not just lonely or depressed. Sure, I wrote her letters. I ranted and I raged. But that only confirmed her suspicion that I was unstable. What worked was saying, “I am in a shitty mood this morning. It’s not about you, so don’t think that it is, okay? I love you. Just be patient with me.” And once I could say that to her, and she could hear me, it changed everything.

Yeah. Real life – not like that.

“She’ll either come around or she won’t, but if you really care, don’t give up.” – No. At a certain point, persisting in trying to maintain a relationship the other person has flushed away is just pointless and serves only to keep old wounds open. And to annoy the other person. Like trying to teach a pig to sing.

Now the women I admire the most are women who never pretend to be different than they are. Women like that express their anger. They admit when they’re down. They don’t beat themselves up over their bad moods. They allow themselves to be grumpy sometimes. They grant themselves the right to be grouchy, or to say nothing, or to decline your offer without a lengthy explanation.

Again, this ≠ real life.

This sort of pep talk is not, in the end, all that helpful, I don’t think. In the short term, it’s great – “You’re right! You’re great! It’ll all be just fine!” In the longer term, though, doesn’t it just make matters worse? “But … I was promised that it would all be just fine! Why isn’t it? Does everyone else in the world make it to just fine and it’s only me that’s miserable?”

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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2 Responses to How To Be a Person in the World – Heather Havrilesky

  1. kimalexander1 says:

    +10 for ‘huge bubo’.

  2. stewartry says:

    They never fail to please. Except, of course, in reality. Then rather the opposite.

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