Dear overwhelmed girl,
I read your post about being overwhelmed. I sympathize but I’ve also decided to do more. So here, for the first time, I’m directly writing a long letter to you – the cerebral shy girl behind the public persona with the dazzling smile and impressive stage presence.
This is an open letter, only because I don’t know how to write to you privately without being intrusive. The vast majority of the other people who see this letter will probably see no reason to read further, nor are they likely to make much sense of it, or know who you are. Ideally, this provides privacy through obscurity. Even so, perhaps another cerebral shy girl will read this and benefit from it. If so, that’s fine too. Nevertheless, this letter is mainly written for you, the girl who commented on social media that she’s overwhelmed.
Whatever I write, as to how I figure you do (or did) think is conjecture. I’ve never spoken with you so I’m piecing together things you said, wrote and did, to form a composite picture and draw my own conclusions as best I can. If I’m mistaken on a particular point, I wouldn’t be surprised but I hope that I nevertheless understand the general gist of things well enough. With this paragraph as context, I’ll omit “as far as I can tell” from the rest of the letter; it’s implied.
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Basically, I’m in this letter pointing out an underlying theme as to what you’ve been doing, and the consequences, and a problem that I see with them, with some observations intended to be useful to you.
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When you were in your late teens, you were brimming with energy and enthusiasm. You saw an exciting world and you looked forward to being part of that. A major boost to that mindset came when you watched an important music concert. That inspired you to choose a particular career direction.
You’re a nice girl, and you are (or were) trusting. When the people around you offered you reasonable ways to move toward your goals, you accepted and went along. You ended up going down a path that is the epitome of social respectability, to reach your goals. When you noticed social options that were not open to you, yet open to typical people, that understandably saddened you but you kept going, making the most of the options you had.
One step at a time, you moved forward, trusting people and taking reasonable steps to move you along on the journey you’d mapped out for yourself.
An underlying premise, with which I strongly agree, was that by achieving your values, you’d also experience happiness. That premise is based on a good definition of happiness: the emotional state that comes from achieving one’s values. You’re not a martyr or an ascetic. You’re logical. Your benevolent view of the world included a healthy focus on your own happiness. Your song lyrics show that you were very focused on happiness, yet you were enlightened enough to know that pursuing it directly as an end in itself, e.g., through hedonism, might bring pleasure but not true happiness.
On that premise, you were a clean-living person with a matching public persona in an industry where your icons and contemporaries often eschewed a clean life-style. Your idea of fun was to bicycle somewhere, go look at cool things such as in museums and outside of them, and explore the world with a sharp mental focus. You weren’t a prude; you chose that approach because it made sense to you.
As the years went by, you noticed something ominous. Even while being benevolent, logical and reasonable, and trying your best to communicate, you were often misunderstood and treated unfairly. There seemed to be something fundamentally wrong with the world. The cause-and-effect code of morality seemed inverted: the more you did the right thing, the more you ended up being punished. It wasn’t any one thing that was particularly problematic. It seemed to be more of an undercurrent, subtle but real. Ostensibly, things were fine, but somehow the pieces of whatever puzzle you were working on rarely ended up fitting together in a way that seemed right to you. To your chagrin, the people around you tended to be blithely dismissive of the concerns you had. They were seeing the same puzzle pieces, and yet they considered the puzzle pieces to fit well enough. Ironically, the big picture of the puzzle somehow ended up not coming together quite right, and whenever that happened, it was somehow always you who was most affected by the negativity.
As the years went by, you kept making a point of doing the right thing, and yet you kept being hampered by this issue as you moved forward. You’d started out with an abundance of joyous energy and the journey was slowly but surely sapping your joy, your energy, your sense of hope in the world being a good place and your place in it being one where you’d be successful and happy, both.
Ostensibly, your hard work paid off. Professionally, you’d made a point of doing the right thing, and the results reflected that. You have succeeded spectacularly, and you have been succeeding for at least three decades. I’m avoiding specifics but your career represents a long list of stellar achievements, large and small. If we were assigning grades, you’d get an A+ in every category
Every career has its positives and negatives, but the one you chose for yourself is so generally celebrated that it has inspired a figure of speech used to imply spectacular success. Even so, for you, the journey wasn’t like joyfully dancing forward. Too much of it was like walking forward against a headwind, peering ahead through a poisoned fog, walking through mud that sucked your feet down, tripping over and bumping into obstacles that had no business being there. Still, you bravely continued, on a perplexing journey that was initially just difficult and gradually became exhausting. The girl who personified promise and joy ended up drained and overwhelmed.
Ostensibly, your hard work paid off on the personal front, too. There, you’d also made a point of doing the right thing, and the results also reflected that, on the surface. If we were to arrange your achievements into a list, it’d also be a long list. You have succeeded spectacularly there too, and you’ve been succeeding for more than two decades. In a geography and industry where personal stability is rare, you stand out as exemplary. Intimate details of your life should remain out of public scrutiny unless you choose to publicly mention them, so with that properly limited perspective on things: were someone to look at your bio, then as a person living seriously, cleanly and logically, whether the focus is on you as an individual or as a supportive girlfriend (at the time), or a supportive wife, or a mom who puts school issues before work issues, you’d again get an A+ in every category.
Of all the things you write about, the subjects of love and passion are where you show the most intensity and eloquence. Of all the aspects of your journey, this is the part where all the goodness in your person and character should get to be celebrated and distilled into a deep happiness that you, of all people, so richly deserve. Here the irony is the most cruel — of you working as hard as you can to do everything right and yet the puzzle pieces somehow don’t fit to make the right big picture, much as they should. While trying earnestly and harder than typical people can fathom anyone doing, you tried to make everything work out as it should. Even more than the frustrations in your professional context, your earnest efforts in a personal context were difficult and gradually became exhausting. The girl who personified promise and joy, as to romance and love, ended up being drained and overwhelmed to the point where happiness was so rare that things were, for you, sometimes downright depressing.
Nowadays, you feel isolated even though you’re inside social structures that make loneliness ostensibly impossible in that context. You spend much of your time alone. You move forward every day, thanks in large part to caffeine and willpower. You like wine in large part for how it lowers your inhibitions, thus enabling you to socially connect with others. You crave connecting with people, and there’s too little of it.
I like to conversationally bounce my ideas off other people, and on the subject of you, I’ve been told that I’m naïve, that you’re probably fine; that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, and that my focus on you is strange and unhealthy. Perhaps that’s all there is to it. Then again, if I felt socially isolated as a cerebral shy girl, and I felt as if I was drowning, I’d be doing exactly what you’ve been doing. So at the risk of taking you more seriously than you intended, I’ve chosen to care, and to write, when I see you struggling, perhaps drowning. Could be you’re just venting. Could be that you really are reaching out, and for the world to simply respond with generalities is improper. I’ve never been a lifeguard but if I were, I’d rather dive into the ocean and energetically swim towards someone who might be in trouble once too often than once too few. Hence, this letter in response to you indicating you’re overwhelmed – especially in the context of everything else you’ve written.
You tend to be hardest on yourself, not others. Whatever blame you might want to assign to yourself for where you are today, it should certainly not be a lack of caring, of trying hard, of taking things seriously, of being logical, of being nice, of expending energy, of being loyal to people, of being a good person.
You did all of these things, and yet four decades after your adult life began, you’re exhausted and overwhelmed. Indeed, how could you be anything but? Steps that should have been yours, dancing along a sunlit path have instead been part of a plodding, tortured struggle forward.
There is something fundamentally wrong with this picture. As a dental analogy, it’s as if you’d bought the best-quality toothbrush known to exist. You chose the toothpaste based on the best clinical recommendations. You even chose the brand and type of dental floss carefully, and you make a point of doing diligent dental care at least twice daily. You even go get your teeth cleaned professionally, on schedule. In spite of all that, you’re in constant pain from multiple toothaches, and every trip to the dentist shows ever more cavities. It really doesn’t seem fair. Of all the people in the world, you should be the one with the healthiest teeth, in such a scenario.
Similarly, of all the people in the world, you should be the one most basking in happiness, due to how hard you’ve worked to enact causes to that end. It fundamentally doesn’t seem fair.
I grew up in a culture that lauded a stultifyingly anti-happiness mindset known as Calvinism. The gist of it is that misery on earth is man’s proper experience. As I recall, the alleged reward for earthly misery is posthumous, perhaps becoming an angel with an extra-nice harp on which to play. I rejected that culture. If there’s eternal life, great, but I’m not OK with accepting misery in this life as the status quo.
Neither are you. You told or wrote of sitting alone in a dark movie theater when you were 27, thinking about life, at a metaphysical level. I suspect you reached similar conclusions as I did – that life is serious, and happiness is something to strive for and achieve as the emotional state underlying one’s life. Fundamentally, that is the only thing that has eluded you, but it’s an essential thing.
You’re at a major checkpoint in your life. You’ve raised two boys to become young men. Your schedule is no longer event-driven. You can choose the pace of the events in your career. You’ve been in a professional and/or personal whirlpool until now. Finally, things are reaching a point of stillness to where the “what’s next” question is something that isn’t answered by pointing to an agenda to which you’ve already committed, with its own implied schedule and task list. Perhaps for the first time ever, you’re at a place in your life where you get to choose, as to what’s next.
Medical science would suggest that, if you take care of yourself, then you’re close to the mid-way point of your biological life. If you currently feel exhausted and overwhelmed, perhaps you feel older than mid-way. I sympathize, and some drawbacks do exist due to you being beyond the age you consider to be your biological prime. Even so, there’s a major plus — you’ve learned a lot along the way, and you’ve worked so hard and achieved so much that you never have to chastise yourself with “I should have tried harder yet, and achieved more yet.”
You’re finally in a place where you can now make a methodical priority of adding in the one elusive ingredient that’s been missing: achieving your own happiness.
That’s my intent in writing you this particular letter. I like you. I’d like to see you experience what’s been so long overdue — whatever that is, specifically. The absence thereof seems so monumentally unfair that by now it bothers me, to where I no longer want to passively hope that you figure it out. Maybe my direct letter to you is welcome; maybe it’s not. If it’s not, please feel free to say so.
A year from now, I’d you to look back at 2017 and see it as the year when finally the puzzle pieces fitted in a whole new way, to where you are happy with the big picture, whatever that is. It’ll be a much more just planet if you end up as happy, joyful and energized as you were when you were 19 and having a great day.
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How do you get there? In a nutshell, I don’t know. But, I didn’t write all of the above to describe a problem without trying to be helpful in the process – even though I’m aware that sympathy and empathy have value as well, and you might be overdue for receiving some of that, too.
A cerebral shy girl friend of mine helped a friend of hers immensely simply by telling her “you deserve to be happy” when the latter felt powerless and miserable. So, if that’s useful to you, that’s certainly part of my message to you.
However, I’d like to be more helpful than that. So, as an analytical exercise, let’s scale back and recap what we basically know so far.
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I’m a software engineer, professionally. I do things in computer software that, in a given context, use the law of cause and effect.
I’m also informally an automotive engineer, professionally. I don’t design new cars but I focus on classic German-made cars and how to make them last longer. There again, I use the law of cause and effect.
In either capacity of my work, even if the issues are intricate, the cause-and-effect premise makes things solid and predictable. I like that. Success on any given day might be hard to achieve but it is achievable. If I do the right things, I get to enjoy success. That’s how the planet works, as I understand it: enact the cause, get the effect.
Physical things are solid and predictable in a given context. If the context changes, such as a computer memory chip malfunctioning or an engine overheating, then a new context is in effect, but the law of cause-and-effect still applies.
When it comes to biology and medicine, the same cause-and-effect applies. (Wishful thinking also abounds, but that doesn’t change the nature of the world.)
Even as to the more-subtle fields of psychiatry and psychology, these are branches of science on the premise that there is cause-and-effect as to the workings of the human mind also.
To put things non-negatively, the universe is not a haunted house. Entities exist. They have a particular nature, and they function accordingly. As to these entities, they are fundamentally observable to us, through our senses, and we can abstract and conceptualize based on what we perceive. Using the principle that contradictions don’t exist, we can construct higher-level concepts, using logic to make sure that everything integrates without contradiction. By the time we’re done with that, we have a good idea of how solid a place the world is, and how solid our knowledge thereof is.
So, what’s next? Ethics. The happiness of which you write is fundamental to healthy ethics. Properly, the role of ethics isn’t to tell us to suffer but rather how to enact the specific causes whose effect is the emotional state of happiness. People achieve that every day. It’s possible. All other things being equal, the more cerebral you are, the more likely you are to figure out what to do in your specific context. And, as people go, you’re more cerebral than most. So, on that premise, you’re more likely to figure out how to achieve happiness, than most. There’s no reason why you of all people should not achieve that. If you (with or without help) can enact the cause, I expect you will get the desired effect. In other words, you’re only one step away. To put it non-negatively: you’re not cosmically doomed to unhappiness.
A few individuals are sad due to brain-chemistry reasons. I don’t have to go into specifics as to why you, of all people, can safely rule that out. So, the mathematically remaining reasons for you being not happy but sad are … well, let’s think about it some more.
Personally and professionally, you seem to have a lot going for you, where you are in life. If you were dying of hunger in the gutters, in some third-world place where you were forbidden to work and survive, or you were in a violent relationship where every Saturday night you end up with a black eye or in the ER, then you’d have a simple, clear cause for being sad, and a good fix would simply be “get out of there.” Fortunately, in your case, we can presumably rule that sort of thing out. Unless I’m missing something then your situation is existentially not all that fundamentally problematic that whisking you away is the ideal fix. If it were, I’d personally volunteer.
On the assumption that you’re a cerebral shy girl, perhaps much of your internal chagrin has been caused by you evaluating yourself by typical standards. By those, a cerebral shy girl rates very poorly. This alone might be enough of an issue to identify the majority of the obstacles you’ve faced – perhaps the root cause thereof, even.
I’ve fantasized about having met you socially, and us hitting it off, in the mid-1980s when you and I were both in our 20s, and we were both living in the west part of LA.
Ironically, I recently did meet a cerebral shy girl in her 20s. She’s an exceptional person but she has been evaluating herself using typical standards, by which a cerebral shy girl rates very poorly. She and I did hit it off. In the process of our conversations, I was reminded at close range how, even at so young an age, a negative self-evaluation has very deep and painful effects. This helped remind me how I felt, and presumably you felt, for similar reasons, at a similar age.
Add in another 30 years of negative self-evaluation and the result might well be someone wonderful who nevertheless might be overwhelmed by life, by now. Perhaps the issue is as simple as that, and methodically rolling things back and starting afresh, cognitively, would help. It’d be good news if that ends up being the problem-and-solution set.
Perhaps you’ve already figured out much of that puzzle, yourself. In a song on your solo album published a few years ago, you wrote about whiting out all of your past, making your own mind change, tossing out all these thoughts and forgetting who you’ve been, and finally starting over. Maybe that’s precisely the right thing to do — but you’re still you. Fundamentally, you can’t change your nature. What you can change, is how you evaluate yourself. Imagine rewinding the story of your life, and then fast-forwarding it, evaluating yourself using a completely new set of standards by which you rate very highly, e.g., where before you even left for college, others in your age group should on merit have been vigorously competing to be your romantic partner.
Then again, in software engineering we use the phrase “if your only tool is a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail” so perhaps I’m overly preoccupied with that particular subject, and pursuing that train of thought has no benefit to you. If so, I’m sorry.
Whatever the problem is, its cause is real, and once it’s been found, the solution set is real too. You, of all people, should not be doomed to live a life that’s so much of a scaled down version of what you sought, specific to happiness. Your songs, interviews and writing have added significantly to the happiness of others, myself included. You’re long overdue for experiencing the same, permanently and deeply.
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Does this help? Is it on the right track? I hope so. If yes, great, and I hope you run with it. If you can benefit from my involvement, in whatever way works for you, do write me.