I’ve suddenly been getting a lot of letters directed to my advice column. Clearly, people are dealing with a lot of problems these days. I can’t say I’m surprised.
Recently, I advised a fellow who almost burned himself up. Then I had a letter from a VIP in New York State government, who subsequently wrote back praising my advice for him and confessing something rather personal.
Today’s letter came from a successful businessman, but one who struggles with success in other areas.
I work hard—five long days, many nights, most weekends—and with the pandemic easing I’m travelling often for business again, but I earn a great salary and plenty of perks. I admit I’m under a lot of pressure at work and it’s taken a toll on my health and my marriage. I don’t have time to exercise. I don’t eat as well as I should because I’m in a hotel restaurant or I’m out for dinner with a client. My blood pressure and cholesterol have been climbing. I have occasional angina. My doctor tells me I’m on a dangerous road and my wife tells me I need to slow down. But here’s the thing: My wife used to be just as ambitious and career-oriented as I am, although recently she’s discovered her “inner self” and gotten all new-agey on me. She talks about being “present in the moment” and taking time to “self-reflect” and smell the roses and crap like that. She spends more time meditating than she does living in the real world. She’s even taken up painting and writing poetry and is hardly the person I married all those years ago. As you can imagine, it’s difficult to tolerate. We had this big argument about me needing to make changes in my lifestyle. I resisted and she got so angry—I’ve never seen her so pissed. She even said if I don’t do something about my lifestyle I’m going to drop dead one of these days, not that it will make much difference to her or that she’ll miss me because she never gets to see me anyway. That’s what she said. I can’t tell you how much that hurt. But the fact is, I can’t slow down. I haven’t told my wife the real reason but I’ll tell you: whenever I try to take my wife’s advice and put aside time to reflect and think, even for just a few minutes, my mind veers off in terrifying directions. I get this sense of doom that my life has absolutely no meaning, that I’m an insignificant speck of cosmic dust and a complete failure who has accomplished nothing of real value in life and wasted all my time and will leave no mark whatsoever when I’m gone. These terrible thoughts make me dive back into work, where I feel confident and strong, and where I’m admired and respected. Now she insists we take a trip to this yoga retreat in Big Sur to “cleanse our souls.” I say: What fucking soul? I don’t have a goddamn soul. No one does. But I can’t stop this nagging feeling that my wife is right about one thing: I’m going to drop dead one of these days. What should I do?
—Career Oriented Man
Dear Career Oriented Man:
If you’re an insignificant speck of cosmic dust as you fear you are, then what does it matter what you do? What do accomplishments mean? How do you measure value? Only you can decide what’s worth spending your time doing. Is it working your ass off for some false and fragile sense of worth or is it doing something nice for someone you were/are so in love with you promised to spend the rest of your life with her? Whether you’re conquering the office or doing downward dog with your wife, it doesn’t matter one iota in the big picture. What does matter is whether you can still be kind and loving toward someone while simultaneously living in fear that nothing matters, especially you. Tell your wife what you’re afraid of–she might understand–and take a vacation with her, for God’s sake. If yoga ends up not being your thing, I’ll bet she might be willing to try something that you dig and she doesn’t get. Maybe a course in existentialism? Your other choice might be to just drop dead, the sooner the better so your wife can start not missing you being around, because you, sir, are welcome to be a nihilist but not an asshole.