Today in Polly: More Weight
How do you get rid of stuff? Is it possible to do a holiday party sober? And how do you deal with expectations?
Welcome to episode four of Today in Polly, where Heather Havrilesky of Ask Polly visits Tabs to answer your life questions with her hard-won and self-aware brand of good advice, and I do… whatever it is that I do. It’s like a podcast that you assemble yourself inside your own brain, from words.
Did you know that Ask Polly is NUMBER ONE on the Substack Philosophy chart? That means that Heather is the number one philosopher on Substack. This is Plato-level advice you’re getting from her. Mine is more play-dough level, I think, but every Sherlock needs her Watson.
Heather’s written a bunch of books, but her latest is Foreverland, and it’s on sale February 8, 2022 or right now if you pre-order it and then forget you did that. Think how happy and surprised you’ll be when it unexpectedly arrives!
Today we have objects & feelings part two: throwing stuff away, how to have fun at a party without drinking (can you even? yes, of course you can), and finally a trip to Colonial Salem in a possibly-misguided attempt to figure out how to deal with people’s expectations. You‘ll probably learn something! Will it be useful? That certainly is a question. Ok let’s go:
Hi Rusty and Heather,
I think I'm finally ready to throw stuff out, but I've hit a wall. I have a pile of clothes ready to get rid of, not to mention tote bags and books and things that no longer spark joy, but at the same time I can't help feeling the potential of the loss. Some of it is income – I spent money on these things and I know I could probably sell at least some of the clothes on depop/etc and make it back, that some of this stuff is still good and could be useful to someone else. Another part is environmental: I'm so aware of the amount of trash piling up in landfills from unneeded things, unable to escape the climate disaster because it's part of my work, and to just take all of the things and dump them in a garbage bag and be done with it feels wrong. And lastly, what if I'm wrong and that book/shirt/pen will actually come in handy? Just buying something to replace something I threw out feels like giving into capitalism and bad for the environment.
I'm starting to feel like I'm just talking myself out of getting rid of things while they keep piling up around me. How do I balance cleaning up my life and cleaning up everything else?
Thanks, Living in a Museum of Myself
Rusty: We’ve tackled objects and feelings before, and this is both a related problem and a problem I share so this is advice with intense identification. You signed this question “Living in a Museum of Myself” but I think it’s a museum of, at best, former selves you’ve outgrown. More likely, if you’re honest, it’s a museum of selves you wanted to be but aren’t, or even selves you wanted to want to be but didn’t actually want to be.
What’s preventing you from hurling this heap of refuse away from your sacred person and dwelling? “I could sell some of them on Depop…” If you were the kind of person who’d do that, you’d have done it already. You wouldn’t be anxiously pretending to ignore the garbage bag, you’d be taking charming photos of your superseded treasures propped against weathered barn wood and scouring the thrift sites for price comps. You’re not that person, it’s fine.
“But what about the environment?” Is it going to be better for the environment if this stuff clutters up your house for the rest of your life and then someone else throws it in the dumpster? No, that’s just more work for someone else and, like the peas and the mashed potatoes, it’s all going to the same place anyway. But you know this. The feeling you’re having is really: “I should be the kind of person who only eats lentils that my troop of free-range ethically trained squirrels harvested from the local lentil trees1 into my one (1) organic hemp tote bag. I should also only own one shoe, because hopping is excellent cardio, and one shoe would cut my environmental footprint in half!” That person is working through some deep trauma, and should be pitied and treated gently, but not emulated.
And lastly, the real crux: “What if I’m wrong?” What if the person you wanted to be when you got that shirt suddenly becomes the person you actually are, against all probability? And that person NEEDS THAT SHIRT! It won’t happen, but until you trash the shirt, you don’t quite have to admit that. It’s hard to throw away something that represents a person you were, and even harder to throw away an idea you had of yourself that you never became. It’s a mistake that you already know you made but don’t really have to face until you shut the door on it for good.
What’s worked for me is recognizing all these feelings, untangling the ones that are just dumb (it’s just a pen, come on, chuck it) from the ones that I actually have to reckon with. The things that were valuable to past-you but aren’t any use to current-you? Maybe you’re a large instead of a medium now (again, speaking from experience here) but the person who treasured that too-small band t-shirt is still part of who you are. You’re just bigger now. It can no longer contain you, now you contain it. Get rid of it. The pants that you never really wore because they were aspirational? Yeah, you made a mistake there. It’s some money wasted, it’s a pair of pants someone doesn’t have because you have them and now you’re going to throw them away. Are you perfect? No. Remember how you felt when you bought them, and next time you feel that way, remember how you feel right now, looking at these objectively ugly pants and knowing you were never that person you wanted to be when you got them, and you kinda screwed up. You can’t learn this lesson until you admit the mistake, so grit your teeth and do it.
All of these feelings are valid, and they say good things about you. You want to be more thoughtful, you want to live lighter on the earth, you want to know yourself better. Good! Take that forward, keep trying. But the only thing you can be right now is the best version of who you are, and that person needs to be free of this stuff. Throw that shit away.
Polly: Whew, do I feel this. Just thinking about sparking joy makes me want to spark up a huge doobie and sail away on a toxic cloud of cheap weed instead of sifting through my piles of pointless crap.
I actually got rid of a ton of stuff before my recent cross-country move, and instead of feeling unburdened and free, I just felt sad and regretful. It felt wrong to get rid of so much stuff. We donated most of it, but I still woke up in the middle of the night thinking about that red dress I shouldn’t have parted with, the sectional that cost us a fortune ten years ago, and the shelves we need now and can’t seem to find anywhere else.
I mean, sure, it’s nice to have fewer piles of bullshit around. And I’ve tried to limit myself to thrift store furniture and vintage clothes since we got here. But the essential process of accumulating shit and then trashing it just depresses the hell out of me.
Maybe you and I both need to spell out our philosophy around possessions, in order to prevent repeating this pattern. What kinds of things do you tend to accumulate pointlessly? Which of your things truly need to be thinned out and donated in order to make your life easier and less cluttered? Maybe instead of throwing out piles of stuff all at once, you should get rid of one thing each week. Put it in a box at the bottom of your closet that says “Goodwill” on the side. Drive it all to a donation center once every few months.That way you don’t over-purge and end up regretting it, and you also have a chance to reflect on what you’re getting rid of. You can change your mind.
The only exception here is tote bags. There’s an oversupply of tote bags in this world and every tote bag you banish from your presence will increase your default levels of joy exponentially.
Rusty: Oh my god no! Throw it all away at once, don’t make weeks more work for yourself. Act in haste, because at least then you can repent at leisure. I feel like you’re pretty ambivalent about this one yourself, Polly. 👀
Polly: Repenting is anything but leisurely for a former Catholic. I smell similar guilt-ridden vibes here, Rusty, that your weak nose probably can’t detect. Once you lug a quarter century of stuff out of your house and drive away from it, you can testify.
On the other hand, I do have in my possession a Hello Kitty journal from when I was eight years old that includes a numbered list of boys I had a big crush on that year. OKAY FINE I’M A PACK RAT AND I MISS MY MOUNTAINS OF LOST TRASH.
For medical reasons, I have to quit drinking for a few months. It's fine because I'm not an alcoholic, but it's kind of a bummer because it's right before the holidays and two glasses of wine really take the edge off my mild social anxiety. Should I just sit out parties till I can (hopefully) knock back sauv blanc again? Or just nut up and try to have fun sans wine?
Polly: NUT UP! Throwing shit away is overrated and is not an important life skill, but having fun sans wine definitely is! Even if it’s only temporary, it informs your understanding of how you want to act / converse / navigate when you are drinking again. I spent six months sober at a crucial time in my twenties and suddenly I got into shape, landed a great job, fell in love, and got my life in order. It’s like everything fell magically into place just because I wasn’t faintly sedated or faintly hungover every few days.
It’s hard to get a handle on how messy your life has become when you’re suffering from a kind of perpetual boozy amnesia. It’s also hard to understand what forms of socializing make you the happiest when you never socialize sober. I used to imagine that everyone at a party was drinking steadily. I didn’t realize so many people had one drink and then stopped. I also wasn’t aware of how bland and repetitive conversations between drunk people can be. It changed my idea of how I wanted to live moving forward.
So embrace this as an interesting experiment. Exercise the day of a party and meditate before you go, and you might find you’re even more relaxed than you would be with a glass of wine. When you arrive at the party, don’t rush to interact. Slow down and take in the moment. Focus on listening and observing. You might find yourself having a different, more rewarding flavor of fun. Or, you might find yourself longing for a stiff drink more than ever. Either way, you’ll learn something new about yourself.
Rusty: Have you tried weeeeeeed?
This is kind of another version of the first question, about wishing you were a slightly different person—in this case someone who could stop perceiving everyone in the room perceiving you perceiving them and thinking about whether you’re holding your arms weird so much that you can’t even come up with a basic question like “how’s work?” In this case though, you know exactly how to be that person: shake hands with your buddy S. Blanc and there she is! You know what? It’s fine. We’re monkeys with anxiety, if this works for you, right on. I know it works for me.
Don’t sit out parties you want to go to. If you’re like “ugh I won’t survive that without a half bottle,” great, take the excuse to bail. If you want to go: go. It might help to make yourself a fancy non-alcoholic beverage and bring it with you, so you’ve got a prop to remind you what the non-anxious party you is like (and to deflect annoying questions about why you’re not drinking, if necessary). It might be enough to just act like you had a couple glasses of wine. If you try and it’s not working for you:
But really, have you tried weed? You should probably try some edibles.
Polly: Yeah, definitely try some edibles, that’ll take care of your anxiety. Eat a fucking bag of edibles before your office bash, perfect plan, Rusty. Then come home and snort a few lines of coke (Super relaxing! The most! Perfect cure for your omicron angst, too!) and throw all of your shit out the window and scrub your floors with a toothbrush like Bradley Cooper’s character in Limitless.
Is it just me or is this the most MAN SAY / WOMAN SAY Tabs advicing so far? Did you huff some pressurized testosterone with that edible, Rusty? Because you are extra cavalier macho boy today. Normally you’re the soft boy and I’m the rough rider. Maybe it’s the stress of an impending Nor’easter?
Rusty: That’s probably the first time anyone’s ever accused me of being macho. I grew a beard during the pandemic, so maybe it’s working! Your answer does seem a lot more grown up than mine—I think I still don’t actually know how to overcome party anxiety. Maybe I’ll try weed.
Hi, how do I deal with/forget about/put in perspective the crushing weight of everyone's expectations? Why am I always failing to be as good of a friend/student/coworker/family member as I should/want to be?
Rusty: You know who else couldn’t handle the crushing weight of everyone’s expectations?
That’s right: Giles Corey.
Giles Corey was a farmer in colonial Salem, and in 1692 his wife Martha was arrested for witchcraft. “Giles, for reasons unknown to others, decided to testify against his wife, but eventually tried to recant his deposition, which led to greater suspicion of his involvement in witchcraft because of the stigma surrounding perjury,” wrote Heather Snyder in the Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive at U. VA. He was then arrested himself, along with three others, and accused of witchcraft. He would not plead either guilty or not guilty, refusing to accept the court’s legitimacy, and was sentenced to “peine forte et dure” which is colonial legalese for being laid down naked under planks of wood and having stones piled on top to slowly crush you until you either plead or die. When asked if he would plead, Corey would only reply: “more weight.” He endured TWO FULL DAYS OF THIS before finally dying. Did I mention the dude was 80 years old? Two days. Take a minute and try to imagine that. He almost certainly demanded “more weight” because he wanted to die faster. He was the only person subjected to this torture in American legal history.
Giles Corey was literally crushed to death by the weight of everyone’s expectations. He lives on as a character in Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, and Longfellow’s play Giles Corey of Salem Farms, where he generally represents Brave Refusal to Submit to Injustice. And he did do that. It’s likely that the horror of his quasi-judicial murder helped turn public opinion against the witch trials and ultimately end them. But Giles Corey was not a good person. In 1675 he beat an indentured servant to death, for which he paid a fine because indentured servants weren’t really “people” you could “murder” at the time, legally. He clearly didn’t get along with his neighbors, but in colonial New England that could cut either way, really. Roger Williams didn’t get along with his neighbors either. Snyder writes that he had a “reputation as one who lacked consideration for others in the community and as one who lead a ‘scandalous life,’” and that reputation “quite possibly had a significant impact on his being accused as a witch.” He also initially testified against Martha, his own third wife, who was hanged three days after his death.
But Giles Corey sticks with me because like him, I lean more toward not caring what kind of student, coworker, family member, or friend I’m supposed to be and just irascibly doing and saying whatever I feel like. For evidence I submit: all of Today in Tabs. I would probably be a better person if I cared a little more about everyone’s expectations, and I do try. But also, Giles Corey was “Giles Corey” because he didn’t care. It’s not an awkward complication that he was a grouchy murderer, it’s absolutely central to his being able to play the part he played in the witch trials, and it’s what ultimately gave him the sheer bloody-mindedness to choose to die for his own sense of justice. Lots of people in Salem in 1692 were extremely sensitive to social expectations and they all agreed that this witch problem was awful and it was great that someone was taking care of it.
So, forget about what you “should/want to be.” You are who you are. Be kind to the people you truly care about, and when you feel the expectations piling up, just say to yourself: “more weight,” because you can take it.
Polly: Okay, Rusty. That answer has me thinking that I need to reconsider my stance on edibles. Good shit. And I agree with your cavalier macho boy assessment that it’s sensible to push most people’s weird expectations aside and pursue the path that feels good and smart and interesting to you. After all, many many many many many people are total fucking idiots. Facts only, please.
That said, I have questions, Big Disappointment. Do people actually tell you that you’re failing them? Or do you imagine that you’re failing everyone around you, when in fact you’re just living your life? Do you have a habit of avoiding your responsibilities, or is this “crushing weight of expectations” just an echo of your parent’s overbearing words when you were a kid?
If you’re avoiding your work and your friendships and everything in your life feels annoying and oppressive and guilt-inducing, I’d recommend you see a therapist to sort out why that is, what your real values are, and which goals, activities, and friendships you want to prioritize while saying no to others.
And if you’re doing your best but you tend to carry around the feeling that you’re failing everyone around you, thanks to your parents’ repetitive narrative about what a disappointment you were, I’d recommend you see a therapist to separate reality from the ghosts in your head, so you can determine what you truly want from your life.
Bottom line: See a therapist. Because it’s no good to walk around feeling like you’re fucking everything up. Guilt and avoidance require an outside perspective. When shame is clouding your understanding of your behavior, it can be incredibly hard to figure out what you want and to move toward those goals with purpose and intention.
You might not be as big a failure or disappointment as you imagine. Get a second opinion! If you don’t want to talk to a therapist, dare to be vulnerable with one of your friends or a trusted relative. Because this bad feeling will only grow in the dark vacuum of your brain, which is just like outer space except scarier and lonelier because there are no baby Yodas or Tauntauns or Porgs there.
Let it out. Talk it out. Drag these fears into the light. Get some perspective. Remember, we all fumble and fail at some point. Forgive yourself.
Rusty: I say “let me tell you about Giles Corey,” you say “get therapy.” This question may have elicited the absolute most characteristic answer so far from each of us. I would like to amend mine very slightly though, to add: “…and also get therapy,” because now that you mention it, that does seem like a good idea.
Polly: And I’d like to add “…and also try edibles” to each of my replies because now that you mention it, that does seem extra wise. Also “MORE WEIGHT, PLEASE!” is my new holiday mantra for leaning into family events that crush your robust sense of self into a fine snortable powder.
Crush me up and snort me, my beloved!
I can’t beat that as a closing line, so I won’t try. We’re doing these monthly until I run out of historical figures and/or da share z0ne memes, so if you’ve got a problem send it to me and Heather and we’ll try to solve it. Email me your question and put “Advice” in the subject.
Comments are open! Did you learn anything new about Giles Corey? Are you inspired to throw away some old junk, or not throw it away? Whatcha got for edibles? Let us know.
Do not @ me about where lentils come from, if I cared I would be Googling it right now.