Friday 30 November 2018

Dreher's Advice for a Weary Ghost

Rod Dreher's columns in The American Conservative are my new must-reads, and I was moved this morning when I got caught up with his latest and found "Advice for a Weary Ghost." That was one self-serving agony aunt, I have to say, speaking as a former agony aunt myself.

Instead of yammering on about refusing to be blinded by shame and advertising her latest book, the agony aunt could have told "Haunted" to stop mourning the past and obsessing about the future but to take stock of what she has today and ask herself what she can do now to make tomorrow better.

I felt for "Haunted" because I felt that I had "blown it" in some cosmic way when I was 35, too. I also had credit card debt, which I paid off gradually, partly with the help of a family member, me paying back the family member before my father found out and just paid him/her the rest.

(If you don't have generous and solvent family members, apply for a low-interest bank loan, and pay off the credit card that way. Then buy nothing but food, rent, and utilities until the bank loan is paid off.)

There is no point telling a 35 year old American woman that moving around the country and creating different groups of friends to whom you eventually bid farewell and may never see again is not a recipe for lasting happiness. It MAY do some good to tell 20 year olds this. However, there is no guarantee that getting married to your most determined suitor at 25 is a recipe for lasting happiness either.

It is for quite a lot of women, however. I will say that. Anyone who thinks that becoming a published author is a comparable path to happiness hasn't read many biographies of writers--or their children's memoirs. Many of us book-loving girls got our expectations of what life brings from the Anne books, so it's salutary to know that Lucy Maud Montgomery committed suicide in the end. Sad but true.

By the way, Little Women is a very dangerous book, I now realise, for it is the first place we are likely to read about a girl who hates being a girl and wants to be a boy. It would have been nice if Jo March Bhaer had voiced remorse for this later and emphasised how wonderful it was to be a woman, for womanhood meant she could be a wife and mother, as well as the foster mother for the dozens of boys and girls at the school she ran with her husband. She might have observed that her I-should-have-been-a-boy fantasies had been silly. Tall girls are no less feminine than short girls, Jo March. Don't be an ass. But yes. Life for middle-class women in the 1860s was indeed rather more restrictive than it was for men. On the plus side, fewer women than men lay dead on the battlefields of the American Civil War.

But to get back to credit card debt, which is a truly horrible thing, it is SO easy to see how so many people get sucked into it because A. the minimum payments are so small and B. when you want to hang out with a gang of people, restaurants beckon. Single people are often lonely people, and lonely people long for companionship, and when single people live in cramped rented accommodations flung out across a big city, it seems easier just to meet at a restaurant and split the bill, even or especially when you can't afford it. When you don't make very much money, or you don't like your job (I'm looking at you Statistics Canada), the temptation to "treat yourself"  can be overwhelming.

The impulse to heal a hurt with a treat dies hard. A couple of hours after discovering that ONCE AGAIN I can not go home for Christmas, I was in a snazzy bar drinking a badly made Cosmopolitan beside B.A., and the bill was £15.90. Had I not been reading books about Stoicism, I would have had a second cocktail, too.

The solution to this problem is to find free medicine, which for me comes from the library. We're a generation addicted to entertainment, so thank God for the public library system--and the internet, although that isn't free at home.

Meanwhile, my advice for writer-wannabe "Haunted" (Dreher asked readers to supply advice) was to start a blog about finding meaning in her life with an eye to helping other women in the same boat. That's what I did when I was 35, and it worked out very well for me.

UPDATE: One incurable regret is the age-related loss of fertility. Although I am still adamantly against women settling at 25 or 30 or at whatever age, I recognise that  unintentional childlessness is crushing and the fear of remaining childlessness is worthy of honour. The only solution I can see to this is accelerating your character so that you are as wise about yourself and others at 20 as you would have been at 40. I haven't the slightest idea how a teenager could be expected to do that though.

UPDATE 2: Doing art is fun. Writing things is fun. Writing can even make you money although writing fiction rarely, or only after writing fiction for almost nothing for a very long time. But "being an artist/writer" in itself does not make you happy. It does not necessarily bring you into contact with great friends because artists and writers do not necessarily make great friends.


  1. I for one am certainly glad that you did start blogging! It’s helped this not-so-merry spinster a lot over the years, much more so than the advice by Dreher and his readers which tends to sound like something from a doctoral philosophy thesis and not really “news you can use.” I read that post and all the comments and some of it was really good, some less so. Despite the fact that most people bashed the Agony Aunt, their advice was substantively quite similar, just stated differently. But I wish more people understood that being a Christian who does all the “right things” and rejects the false promises of a materialistic, fame-obsessed society doesn’t save you from the disappointment and heartache of the world, or even depression. A lot of the advice seemed to say that once you move home, pay off your debts and start a spiritual practice, you’ll find a good man and everything will be peachy. What if Haunted’s parents just moved to a semi-retirement home in Florida and her siblings are spread across the country? What if the job market in America’s small towns is bleak? (In fact, it is) What if dating has become an endless game of emails and texting without actual dates? (In fact, it has) What if the churches around her are frequented by a smattering of elderly folks and ethnic groups she is not a member of? (Many are) There’s a gender issue here, too. In my experience when a man decides to pull himself together, he still has plenty of options in terms of finding a wife and having a family. Just the other day, a young man posted on Dreher that he once became addicted to sissy porn (I’m embarrassed to even type it), but then rediscovered his religion, got married, and had kids. It’s not the same for women, especially north of 35. We are simply not what men are looking for. We have real time limits and even if you do not “blow it” in any objective way or fall down the rabbit hole of addiction, you can still totally “blow it” in your own estimation if you don’t find a husband or find one in time to have children. In my opinion, if Haunted was married and had a kid, no one would have advice to give her. She’d be just another adult in a so-so job with bad credit. Ho hum. Move along, nothing to see here. Everyone would tell her to pay off her debts and be thankful for what she’s got. In any case, I hope she finds a way to feel better. I hope we all do.

    Oh and specific credit card advice for anyone struggling with this: there are two things that really helped me, though in some ways they are mostly psychological. First, make sure you pay more than the minimum balance, even if it’s only by 10 or 20 dollars more. If you are just paying the minimum, years will go by and it will seem to never be going down. Once you pay more, you will start to see the numbers decrease significantly and you will feel so much better about life. Second, if you have debt on more than one card, really focus on paying off the card with the lowest balance. Pay it off, then move on to the next card with the lowest balance. Getting a card completely paid off, even if it was only $50 dollars on a store card, also makes you feel like you are making progress. Finally getting out of debt makes you feel amazing for about half an hour. :)

  2. Oh, believe me, I feel high for longer than half an hour when I pay down a debt. It is one of the most awesome natural highs I know. When we pay off the mortgage (early, I hope and pray), we will have a party! Another awesome high is filing my last story on Fridays, in an "I did an honest week's work and now I can rest" kind of way. Then there's returning library books on time. Love that.

    Learning to get highs from responsible behaviour is akin to training yourself to find "good boys" attractive and both are probably akin to the Stoics' technique of being grateful for whatever you have. Stoics (the pagan ones anyway) were very interested in eliminating negative feelings, with they believed were in their power to control. If Haunted doesn't find Christ right away, I hope she at least finds Epictetus.

    Now that I'm over 45, I find it faintly amusing that I thought I had "blown it" at 35. And no doubt when I am over 65, I will faintly amused that anyone under 50 thinks they are "passed it." I have to disagree with you about men not wanting women over 35. Many men over 55 would be delighted to attract an unmarried woman under 45, and I bet I could make a few 65 year old hearts flutter if I set my mind to it. The big difficulty then, of course, is training ourselves to find unmarried-men-who-are-10-years-older-than-us attractive. And naturally a lot of those guys are divorced-without-annulments so off-limits. Oh, for the handsome widowers of romance novels.

  3. How much older would you have gone when you were 35 Seraphic?