Apologizing for Existing

I’ve been a little paralyzed to write since the utterly unexpected popularity of my “Depression is a Trip” post. How do you follow something that seems to speak to so many people? And of course, depression tells us that we can’t, that any success was a fluke, that really we’re fakes, and the world will soon discover our deception and unmask us as the failures we are.

I wrote that post for myself, because metaphor helps me think, and for my husband, who wants to solve everything for me because he is an engineer and a man and he loves me. I wrote it because I couldn’t not write it.

All of which is, perhaps, an apologetic lead-up to this post. Which is exactly the point.

thanks-1025339_1920One of the most interesting comments on that other post was about apologizing. The commenter’s point was that people with depression should no more apologize for their depression than people with cancer should apologize for having cancer. I agree, and I’ve been thinking about that. And then I came across this comic, which suggests changing our wording, so that instead of saying, “I’m sorry” we say “Thank you.” When we feel like a burden on our loved ones, the comic recommends, we should thank them for their love and support rather than apologizing.

This recommendation is both lovely and smart. Words matter. Practicing gratitude has been linked to greater happiness and other benefits. And being acknowledged for their own wonderful selves gives our friends and loved ones more strength and energy to continue to support us. “Thank you” creates a positivity loop.

Depression, however, throws a huge roadblock in front of many who want to practice gratitude—a giant tree across the road. People who say “I’m sorry” instead of “Thank you” are plagued by the deep belief that we are unworthy. Unworthy of anyone else’s time, effort, or love. Unworthy of any good thing in our lives. Unworthy of existing. tree-522652_1920

I’m not saying that every depressed person feels this, or feels it all the time. But many people with depression truly believe that their loved ones—and the world—would be better off without them. They think, if they were gone, that those who cared for them would feel relieved, would think, “Well, at least I don’t have to worry about them anymore.”

Thus the tendency to apologize in the first place. If you believe you are unworthy of anything—including existing—then it’s very, very hard to thank people for giving you love and understanding. You think, “If I wasn’t such a loser, they wouldn’t have to give me so much. If I were worthy, I’d be supporting them, saving the world, and making a ton of money in the process.”

The practice of gratitude can help us chip away at that deep feeling of unworthiness, because the words we use—both to other people and in our heads—affect the narrative we create about ourselves. But we also need to have compassion for ourselves and others who apologize for existing. Don’t take the suggestion as another voice telling you that you’re doing something wrong. Use this re-visioning of your interactions with others as a way to begin noticing your beliefs about yourself. Notice those beliefs, but do not judge them.

In noticing that you feel unworthy, you are recognizing that there’s another part of yourself: the part doing the noticing. This is the part that can become the gardener of your mind and soul. Remember that gardens are long-term projects, complex, affected by the weather, in need of attention but also resilient enough to survive a little neglect. Remember that a seedling planted now may take months or even years to bloom.

garden-418542_1920And so I must consciously end this post with gratitude and not apology. Thank you, readers, for reading this. Thank you for continuing to engage with the world, even when you don’t feel like it, because your courage to do so gives me courage. Thank you to everyone who thinks about this existence thing, who puzzles through what we can do to make it better, who offers suggestions and insight and experience. You support me, and I am grateful.

The Manifesto Free on Kindle

In the spirit of Thanksgiving shopping deals and Christmas giving, my book of suggestions for a freer life, The Manifesto, is free on kindle for a few days. Please download, read, and enjoy. It’s about not judging yourself, about giving yourself the time and space to nurture your inner life, about relationships and asking for what you want and dealing with worry. I hope you get something out of it.The Manifesto cover

For now, I’ll leave you with my best advice when it comes to close relationships–partners, family, friends: Say what you feel, and say what you want. Be honest with yourself and others. Be compassionate with yourself and others. Be open. Don’t apologize for your feelings, for what you want. Trust your loved ones to listen, and expect them to respond with lovingkindness, even if they can’t give you everything you want. Take a breath, gather your courage, and then say what you feel, and say what you want.

I’m Nobody

I’m Nobody! Who are you?

Are you – Nobody – too?

Then there’s a pair of us!

Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!


How dreary – to be – Somebody!

How public – like a Frog –

To tell one’s name – the livelong June –

To an admiring Bog!

–Emily Dickinson


How many of you have 1) identified with this poem and 2) secretly thought, “I doubt it’s really all that dreary”? I mean, are we allowed to call bullshit on the old masters? Because pretty much all of us have felt like Nobodies. If being Somebody sucks too, then is the point that it sucks either way?

Well, Buddhists would say yes. Yes it does. It’s called dukka, and it means something like “suffering” but more accurately “the dissatisfaction of knowing you are a being stuck in time with very little control over anything, especially the past or the future, and that everything is always changing.” Of course, Buddhists would also point out that it’s the knowing that creates the suffering, not the fact of having little control or the fact of everything always changing. Which means that there is relief from dukka—to change our own reactions to the world—but there is absolutely no way to eradicate dukka altogether. No amount of money, fame, success, or power will do it.

I admit this is an appealing philosophy to me, and I do try to practice meditation, compassion, and love as ways to modify my reactions to the unfair world. Other people who have things I do not have are not inherently happier, so it is a waste of my time and energy to envy or dislike them.

BUT it would be a lie to say that I “don’t care” about money, career, success. And one danger of the “mindfulness revolution,” as some are calling it, is the potential for people to believe that if we accept the essential suffering of human existence, we must accept the world as it is—we must be complacent.

To paraphrase Jake in the Blues Brothers, Fuck that noise.

Because the companion to complacency is powerlessness. Inaction due to a feeling of powerlessness is despair. And another truth, one of the big reasons for so many people in the West turning to mindfulness and Eastern philosophy, is that we really do live in a world controlled by institutions and ideas that make life worse. These institutions bombard us with messages that—whether they are designed to or not (insert your own theory here)—make us feel both unimportant and powerless.


I had to take a break there because I was beginning to confuse even myself. Philosophy can be argued and clarified for hours, days, years. Let me start again:

I’m going to introduce you to the Fringe Writer. Keep in mind that this could be someone in any number of professions, but this is the one I know. The Fringe Writer has a graduate degree in English/creative writing—MFA or PhD. They almost certainly teach at the college level, but part-time, or at a community college with a very heavy course load, or full-time but not with the coveted status of tenure, meaning they could get fired without notice and they teach more classes but make considerably less money than their tenured colleagues. The Fringe Writer has published in literary magazines, though likely more in small ones than the Big Name magazines cared about by university administrators who make hiring and pay decisions. The Fringe Writer may even have published books—well-written, beautiful books that were rejected many times by Prestigious Publishers and finally taken by appreciative small presses, but that never got reviewed or won post-publication prizes and were largely forgotten.

The Fringe Writer feels like a failure. The Fringe Writer is lonely. The Fringe Writer feels like Nobody. And the constant rejections from publications, the lack of respect from employers, the scarcity of money and time, the sense that one is shouting into an absolute abyss, hurt. The Fringe Writer, after all, LOVES their work—the teaching, the writing. They didn’t go into this field as a way to make money; they may even have dropped out of law school or turned down a job in their uncle’s window frame company because they wanted their work to be meaningful and fulfilling. And their writing is their heart, exposed. So all this unfairness hurts, an ache that rarely goes away, a personal pain of barbed wire and struggle.

Don’t tell the Fringe Writer that life is unfair, money runs the world, we’re all rats in a maze. The Fringe Writer went into higher education because that was the one place where exploring humanity (note: the humanities) was valued. How can that same system now devalue the Fringe Writer’s very humanity?

This is heartbreak, bone-deep, years-deep. I know. I was a Fringe Writer.


It is a tragedy that so many extremely intelligent, highly educated, experienced, motivated, talented people are made to feel like failures. And that’s not merely a tragedy brought on because “that’s the way the world is.” That tragedy has been 30 years in the making, as American colleges and universities flipped from 75 percent of professors being tenured to 75 percent being part time and contingent. It’s been exacerbated by the insane emphasis on “productivity” in America, which has affected every worker in some way or another: no one is supposed to actually take their vacation days (if they’re lucky enough to have any); writers/academics are supposed to publish more and more (mostly without pay); class sizes and therefore workload are larger; with fewer tenured professors, the same amount of out-of-the-classroom work is distributed among fewer people. And we all elbow each other jealously for a little bit of success while an obscene amount of wealth keeps flowing to just 1 percent of Americans.

What I’m trying to say is, if you’re the Fringe Writer, it’s not your fault. It’s not your fucking fault. You didn’t screw up by choosing this profession. You aren’t a “lesser writer.” You aren’t unworthy. You aren’t unimportant. You aren’t somehow a much worse teacher than your students say you are.

Now here’s where it gets tricky. Here’s where you have to connect ideas in unexpected ways. You have to hold in your mind that most things are outside of your control, are in fact luck-based, like your writerly/academic “success.” Accepting that truth, you stop blaming yourself, stop beating yourself up with your lack of success. That should be a huge relief, should make the weight you carry lighten by about half. It’s not your fault. The system is rigged.

But here’s the second idea to hold in your mind: the system is rigged. That’s not ok. All those rules you tried to play by? They’re unfair, unreasonable. They don’t work. The system needs to be changed.

When the balance of these two ideas is right, you can reclaim the energy you lost from blaming yourself and use it to make change.


For the Fringe Writer, what might that change look like? I’ve only got my own ideas to give you here. I stepped out of academia just this past summer, after 23 years of teaching, writing, trying, dreaming of that tenured job. I never got a shot at it—was never tenure-track. I internalized my failure so deeply over the years that I feel like I’m in detox now. But detox is giving me some great ideas—they trip over themselves these days, sometimes coming so fast I can’t even get them all written down.

I want to change publishing so that writers get a fair percentage of royalties—a majority of royalties. If writers are going to have to do their own publicity, they should have an incentive for it. They could even hire young people to help with publicity (it’s mostly social media these days) for a percentage of the royalty profit. But this only works if the current system changes—neither the New York model nor the academic press model is working, and neither is keeping up with new technologies like print on demand or e-books or the new ways readers consume art.

I want to tell and retell the stories of adjunct professors. I want to learn from what other countries are doing in their education systems: Finland, Germany. I want to persuade smart, talented people that they are, indeed, smart and talented. I want to learn computer and design skills. I want to change the way we think about work in this country (40 hours/week, plus constant availability through email and cell phones? Why not 25 hours/week?). I want to figure out how to deal with the addictive properties of technology (social media is so close to gambling as to be the perfect addiction: unpredictable, uncertain rewards). I want to write, and write, and write the things I want to write, whether they’re literary or popular or neither, because writing is how I understand myself and the big weird complex universe of existence.

It’s more than a little bit terrifying out here, in the land of possibility. And yes, I miss teaching. But it’s better, for me, than that stifling little room was, filled with my own voice telling the story of my failure.

Fuck that noise. I’m not to blame, but I’m not powerless. World, get ready. I’m making my own rules now.




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Depression is a Trip

Just Before – Stacy Barton muses on “Transition”

“I step down by the pool and sit on the end of the mat. I breathe and stretch, lean into each position. I allow myself to think…of myself. Not the children, or Todd, or work, or loved ones, or needed tasks. Immediately I cry. There seems so little to consider when the thoughts contain only myself. Have I forgotten all I struggled to learn about the essence of me? I breathe, stretch, cry. I wonder if the world is flat. I breathe.”