Other People’s Problems

FullSizeRenderSometimes, when I’m busy not writing my novel, I daydream about finishing my students’ novels. My mind floods with ideas to fill in their story gaps. I dream up surprise endings and pages of snappy dialog. While driving the other day, I decided that one of my student’s characters should have a heavy suitcase at the beginning of the novel that is lighter at the end of the novel, signifying personal growth. I am so pleased with this brilliant idea. Boy am I good at other people’s novels.

Similarly, if you asked me to come over to help you clean up your house and organize a garage sale, I’d probably do it. It would feel productive to sort through your junk and then label everything for sale. I have a couple of folding tables and a label maker that I’d throw in my car. I bet it would be kind of fun.

So why does the idea of going through my own junk and finishing my own novel make me want to check myself into a hospital? My junk is immovable. It’s heavy with feelings of attachment, responsibility and guilt. If I give that set of dishes away, am I ungrateful? If I give away that giant package of plastic forks and knives am I going to regret it one day when I desperately need a giant package of plastic forks and knives? If I finish that novel, will it be trite? To be honest, I think my junk could use a little psychotherapy.

But I look at your stuff and my eyes sort it into neat piles. Likewise for your problems. Other people’s problems seem pretty solvable. “She should just leave him,” someone says. Everyone else nods in agreement, mainly because we’re not the ones who have to do the leaving. Just call your in-laws and tell them you’re not coming for Christmas. What’s the big deal? Also, you should just quit smoking. Other people’s tangles seem so easily undone.

You might notice the overuse of the word “just” in people’s friendly advice. “Just” is a real minimizer. Try telling someone they should “just let it go” and then maybe duck for cover. If it was that easy, they would have already let it go.

I bet if we all exchanged our to do lists, a lot would get done. The tasks are largely the same, but our relative resistance to the tasks is very different. The things that remain on my list week after week are the ones that drag me down, the ones that bring up irrational feelings of dread (call EZ-pass, schedule physical). The easy stuff that I don’t feel very strongly about gets crossed off right away.

The variable here seems to be the emotion. If only we could fake ourselves out and pretend like our to-dos are someone else’s. I could easily finish my novel if I pretended it was yours. What do I have to lose? I could call my in-laws and pretend they’re your in-laws. They seem harmless enough. I could even clean out my closet if I pretended all those crazy shoulder-padded suits were someone else’s. They wouldn’t be laden with memories and complex feelings about returning to work. Just give them away!

Maybe there’s someone out there who doesn’t mind sitting on hold waiting for the next available customer service agent, but who really doesn’t want to write that long overdue thank you note. I’d be happy to write your thank you note. If you want, I’ll do your ironing. But could you come over and finish my novel?

 

Never Say Never

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Does This Volvo Make My Butt Look Big?

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Cords For Christmas

When my oldest son was two-years-old, he saw a toy in a catalog that fascinated him. He carried that catalog around wherever he went for six months, hypnotized by the little plastic animals that seemed to graze around a plastic tree. Because I was a person who had $20, I bought him that toy for… Continue Reading

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