We have to recognize that when we feel conﬂicted and sick about our place in the world, that’s often true because our world was built to sell us things and to make us feel inadequate and needy.
But there’s a freedom in never being present enough to feel disappointment, never being connected enough to fear loss, never feeling alive enough to worry about growing old and dying.
What is youth, but the ability to nurse a superiority complex beyond all reason, to suspend disbelief indeﬁnitely, to imagine yourself immune to the plagues and perils faced by other mortal humans?
Heather Havrilesky writes the advice column Ask Polly, but for most of the essays in this book, she artfully critiques societal norms without many suggestions on improvement. The moments of encouragement do eventually come in, as when she asks us to consider being more like Mozart:
Imagine being told that your talent is miracle, and you have just one job. You don’t have to be happy or successful or attractive or well-balanced as a human being. You don’t have to accrue wealth or maintain lots of friendships or seem impressive in any other way. You don’t have to tweet or share photos or your latest sheet music on Instagram or start a podcast about composing to increase your visibility and expand the size of your platform. You just have to do your one job to the best of your ability. Imaging being told that you have been given your talent by God, and you must honor God’s will by manifesting that talent in your creations.
This collection is well-constructed, as the essays build on each other to create a richly cohesive statement. It wasn’t the easiest book to read; you have to be in a certain mood to immerse yourself in what’s wrong with Western culture. But ultimately Havrilesky ends on a hopeful note:
We must reconnect with what is means to be human: fragile, intensely fallible, and constantly humbled. We must believe in and embrace the conﬂicted nature of humankind. That means that even as we stop trying to live our imaginary, glorious “best lives,” we still have the audacity to believe in our own brilliance and talent and vision — even if that sometimes sounds grandiose, delusional, or unjust. We have to embrace what we already have and be who we already are, but we also have to honor the intensity and romance and longing that batter around inside of our heads and our hearts. We have to honor the richness of our inner lives and the inherent values that are embedded there.