Cheryl Strayed on Trusting Your Truest Truth and Having the Courage to “Go”

“You are not a terrible person for wanting to break up with someone you love.  You don’t need a reason to leave.  Wanting to leave is enough,” Cheryl Strayed reassures her younger self in the concluding letter of Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of her much-beloved Dear Sugar advice column.  In a “rash and romantic impulse,” Strayed married her husband when she was one month short of twenty.  Though she loved him deeply, devotedly— he was gentle and tender and caring, he was an artist and political and outdoorsy— she didn’t love him “absolutely.”  She resented that he had all the privilege of an upper-middle class upbringing while she grew up in a house without running water and was orphaned when her mom died suddenly from cancer in her early twenties.  She still lusted for scandalous sex with strangers in bathrooms scrawled with graffiti; she was too young to commit to lifelong monogamy.

There was nothing wrong with her husband— he didn’t go out drinking and disappear for days, he didn’t lie or cheat; there was nothing wrong with their relationship per se— they didn’t scream or slam doors or shout obscenities, they didn’t hurl grenades of nasty names or launch bitter campaigns against each other as if they were enemies— yet she still wanted to leave.  “There was in me an awful thing from almost the very beginning, a tiny clear voice that would not, no matter what I did, stop saying go,” she writes with heart-breaking poignancy.

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In what are perhaps the most gut-wrenching letters in all of Tiny Beautiful Things, five women write the always sympathetic Strayed with a similar dilemma: they love their significant others but want to leave.  Each woman cites a different reason: while Standing Still is miserably depressed and feels misunderstood by her devoutly religious husband, Claustrophobic— like too many women in their late twenties/early thirties— feels pressured to marry her long-term boyfriend though the thought of tying the knot makes her “claustrophobic and panicky.”  Playing It Safe adores her husband whom she calls “terribly romantic” but worries she was too young to get married.  Secretly, she longs for a life of adventure and daring: she wants to date other people, gallivant around the globe, join the Peace Corps.  Similarly, Leaving a Marriage describes herself as “living in limbo”: on one hand, she loves her husband and feels it’s her duty to honor the binds of marriage; on the other, she feels “distant and remote” in their passionless union and is “repulsed at the idea of having sex with him.”

Though their circumstances differ, each woman is essentially saying the same thing: “I love him but…”  I love him but he doesn’t think depression is a real thing.  I love him but he doesn’t inspire/challenge me.  I love him but we don’t have any chemistry.

And isn’t that what makes the decision to end a relationship so excruciating?  You’re confronted with multiple truths.  There is the truth that you love your boyfriend/husband but there’s also the competing, contradictory truth that— for whatever reason— you no longer want to be with him.  How can you know which truth is the most true?

If you approach your decision with hard, rational logic, you might make a pro and con list.  On the pro side, the reasons to stay are endless: we stay because marriage is a commitment (as Leaving a Marriage writes, “marriage isn’t all puppies and rainbows, it requires hard work and endurance.”); we stay because our husbands have been faithful to us; we stay because we’re afraid to start over; we stay because we have a house and children.  We stay because it is familiar, because it would be inconvenient to sell our family home and find our own apartment.  We stay because custody battles are ugly and a good lawyer is expensive.  Mostly, we stay because we know leaving will devastate our husbands.

On the con side, we might have some compelling reasons to go: maybe our husband is petty and always puts us down; maybe he has outmoded ideas about gender roles and believes it’s our duty as a woman to give up our career and stay home; maybe we’re just incompatible on a fundamental level.

So what should we do?  In a passage of distressing beauty, Strayed stirs her letter writers to go and follow their truest truth:

“Go, even though you love him.

Go, even though he’s kind and faithful and dear to you.

Go, even though he’s your best friend and you’re his.

Go, even though you can’t imagine your life without him.

Go, even though he adores you and your leaving will devastate him.

Go, even though your friends will be disappointed or surprised or pissed off or all three.

Go, even though you once said you would stay.

Go, even though you’re afraid of being alone.

Go, even though you’re sure no one will ever love you as well as he does.

Go, even though there is nowhere to go.

Go, even though you don’t know exactly why you can’t stay.

Go, because you want to.

Because wanting to leave is enough.”

But if we do finally make the courageous choice to “go,” how do we cope with the crushing guilt that comes with hurting someone we love?  Rather than mire ourselves in a pit of self-punishment and self-hatred, we should treat ourselves with compassion and gentleness.  We made a tough decision.  Will leaving break our husband’s heart?  Yes, but it’s actually the kindest thing we could do.  It may seem cruel to utter the words “it’s over” and simply walk out the door, but it would be even more cruel to stay when we wanted to go.  After all, what’s worse: weeping inconsolably on the floor for a few days/weeks/months after your wife leaves you or tossing and turning in bed for years tormented by the terrible, inescapable sense that the person you love no longer loves you?  As Strayed writes with equal doses no-bullshit tough love and large-hearted encouragement, your partner deserves “the love of a woman who doesn’t have the word go whispering like a deranged ghost.”

Cheryl Strayed on Trusting the Unfathomable Beauty of Our Becoming

Long before her smash hit memoir Wild revived Oprah’s book club and spent 126 weeks on the New York Times best seller list, Cheryl Strayed ministered to the lost, lonely and heartsick in her advice column Dear Sugar.  Week after week, thousands wrote Sugar, Strayed’s darling pseudonym, with their dilemmas.  Should a vaguely dissatisfied young woman leave her boyfriend even though she loves him?  Should a middle-aged man finally exchange the glorious freedom of bachelorhood for a dull domestic life of pacifiers and cribs?  Should a soon-to-be bride invite her abusive, alcoholic father to her wedding out of a sense of familial obligation?  Should a man who’s weary of love after a bitter divorce, utter those irrevocable words “I love you” to his new girlfriend?

Strayed’s responses, complied in the altogether lovely collection Tiny Beautiful Things, are glimmering, gutting, gorgeous.  What’s most endearing about Sugar is her voice, which is at times gentle and compassionate; at others, tough and no-nonsense.  She’ll call her letter writers affectionate pet names like “sweet pea” and “honey bun” no matter how seemingly shameful their revelations.  But if you’re wallowing in self-pity or making excuses for your shit, she won’t have it.  No, you [obviously] shouldn’t have slept with your friend’s ex.  No, you shouldn’t feel sorry for yourself because— gasp— your parents regard you as an adult and expect you to pay off your student debt.  Sugar is a wise, warm-hearted, hilarious friend: she won’t shame you, but she’ll hold you accountable when you do something stupid.

I respect Strayed because she’s had her share of hardship.  She grew up poor in rural Minnesota in a house without indoor plumbing or electricity and lost her mother in her early twenties.  Unlike many advice columnists, Strayed doesn’t offer empty-headed platitudes or insincere “it’ll be okay’s”— she speaks with the hard-won wisdom of someone who’s known enormous loss and terrible heartbreak.

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In the closing letter of Tiny Beautiful Things, a devoted reader who calls herself Seeking Wisdom writes Strayed with a “short and simple” question: what would you tell your twenty-something self if you could talk to her now?

Like Seeking Wisdom, many of us are tormented in our twenties.  Where are we going?  Did we chose the right career?  the right boyfriend/girlfriend?  the right city?  When would we “make it”?  Would we ever?  When— to put it simply— would we finally have our shit together?

Haunted by insecurity, we worry we’re falling further and further behind our more successful, more stable peers.  While they’re getting PhD’s from prestigious Ivy League universities and settling down and buying houses and having kids, we’re chasing the grand dream of becoming a writer (or some other equally difficult/poorly paid profession).  While they discuss grown up things like real estate investments and mortgage payments, we’re renting a cramped apartment and nowhere near financially secure enough to think about home ownership.  We write and write and write but still— after years— have yet to “make it” in a conventional sense: we have yet to write a book, we have yet to see our name on any best-seller list.  The only thing in our inbox are dispiriting rejection slips.

Maybe— we start to think— this whole writing thing isn’t worth it.  Maybe our grand dreams are  grandiose.  Maybe we should just give up.

Strayed tells us one thing: don’t Don’t measure yourself by the cruel yardstick of other people.  Don’t worry so much about “making it.”  Don’t conflate being a writer with being publishedWrite for its own sake— not external validation:

“Don’t lament so much about how your career is going to turn out.  You don’t have a career.  You have a life.  Do the work.  Keep the faith.  Be true blue.  You are a writer because you write.  Keep writing and quit your bitching.  Your book has a birthday.  You don’t know what it is yet.” 

In our accomplishment-crazed culture, we focus on product, not process.  Rather than cherish the remarkable process of becoming, we obsess about being.  Our biggest fear?  That we’ll spend years scribbling in our notebooks and not “accomplish” anything: not see our name in print, not land a six-figure book deal.  We glamorize the myth of the overnight success and begin to doubt our path when our dreams take too long to manifest.  Years, decades have passed…why haven’t we “made it”?  In moments like these, we must remember the wise words of Rainer Maria Rilke: “In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing.  Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring.”

Strayed herself didn’t publish Wild until she was forty three.  Though she hated herself for not writing a book by the time she was thirty, as she got older, she realized her life had unfolded exactly as it was meant to.  “To get to the point I had to get to to write my first book, I had to do everything in my twenties,” she confesses in another soul-stretching letter, “I had to write a lot of sentences that never turned into anything and stories that never miraculously formed a novel.  I had to waste time and grieve my mother and come to terms with my childhood and have stupid and sweet and scandalous sexual relationships and grow.”

Though in our capitalistic, efficiency-obsessed society, we imagine there’s nothing worse than “wasting” time, Strayed argues nothing is a waste.  Keeping a diary, committing poems to memory, reading essay collections and 19th century Victorian novels and memoirs and biographies, spending idle afternoons daydreaming, wandering from city to city, loving someone for ten years only to have the relationship disintegrate: these are not detours— they’re part of our path to becoming the person we were meant to be.  Strayed concludes by asking Seeking Wisdom to trust in her life’s unfolding:

“The useless days will add up to something.  The shitty waitressing jobs.  The hours writing in your journal.  The long meandering walks.  The hours reading poetry and story collections and novels and dead people’s diaries and wondering about sex and God and whether you should shave under your arms or not.  These things are your becoming.”

Tiny Beautiful Things is consoling in its entirety.  Want more honest, heartfelt advice from Sugar?  Read Strayed on trusting your truest truth and having the courage to “go” and being brave enough to break your own heart.