Elizabeth Gilbert is on Substack, and I follow her. Best known for her breakout novel, Eat, Pray, Love, she’s a journalist, speaker, and writer. Her Substack is called Letters From Love and more than ten thousand subscribe.
Letters From Love is the most uncomfortable Substack I read. I write that statement with wry humor. The premise is writing love letters to oneself.
Photo by Angelina Litvin on Unsplash
When I first came across it, I was equally horrified and attracted. I poked around, reading here and there, and realized quickly Elizabeth and I share certain experiences. I already knew this, because years ago I came across her brilliant piece on tribal shaming, which I immediately blogged about.
It takes one to know one.
When I found Gilbert on Substack I subscribed, so her newsletter comes regularly into my Inbox. Sometimes I ignore it for days, but sooner or later I open it and read. She posts love letters she’s written to herself. Publicly! She also has a podcast, does interviews, and posts love letters others have written to themselves.
I can’t help but notice my violent reactions. Me being me, I don’t choose to turn away and read something more comfortable. I have questions. What is my deal? I’ve been working for more than ten years on self-care and self-love, on reparenting myself and healing old trauma. Why am I not delighted with the idea of a practice of writing love letters to myself?
My first reaction is to crawl through the screen and beg her not to expose herself like this. Beg them all not to expose themselves. Don’t they understand how dangerous it is? Haven’t they learned that a display of this kind of vulnerability will attract destroyers with stones and blades and (worst of all), terrible, terrible words of contempt? Oh, and don’t forget lethal indifference.
(If you’re not paying attention, I’ve now told you everything you need to know about the way I grew up.)
Except clearly the sky is not falling. More than ten thousand people are reading Gilbert’s love letters, and she goes on writing and publishing. The discussions within her community are neither indifferent nor contemptuous. On the contrary, they’re supportive and tender.
Which leads me to conclude my red alert reaction is about me rather than the practice of writing love letters to oneself.
How can they do this? I wondered.
Could I do this?
No, no, no, not to publish! I reassured myself. Just for me. Like my journal. My eyes only. A delete key. No one ever needs to know.
But there was a problem. Elizabeth writes to herself with endearments. Creative, funny, quirky endearments, like “my glinting little piece of foil from a gum wrapper.”
OK, now that’s fun! Words are so much fun!
What kind of endearments would I address myself with?
I’ve had pet names for my kids and my animals. No one else, really. Certainly not myself. My tone with myself has mostly been the harsh, hectoring, contemptuous, cold voice I internalized from the adults around me as a child.
But, words … If I had a child just like the child I was, what endearments would make her giggle and feel loved and seen?
So I started a list of whimsical endearments. A very private list. So don’t ask! I was a little ashamed of myself, but no one else need ever know …
Photo by Chris Ensey on Unsplash
The list was fun, because it was a creative exercise. I can do creative exercise. It occurred to me part of my resistance to love letters (either giving or receiving) has to do with my disbelief in words. (Ironic.) Words can say anything. People say anything. The proof is in action. The older I get, the less interested I am in words, and the less I believe them. Demonstrate. Act. Show me, don’t tell me. As I’ve worked to heal I’ve developed routines for self-care, for eating well, for exercise, for sleep, for writing. I’ve been successful, and take much better care of myself than I ever have before. I take better care of myself than anyone ever has before, in fact.
But I haven’t written love letters to myself. I would have told you I could do so, if I wanted to. If I thought they’d have value. If I thought I’d believe them …
I grew up with emotional withholding. I’ve believed I’ve broken that pattern with my own children and my loved ones, including my animals. But now I wonder. Isn’t demonstration of love with no words a little sterile? I know the mixed message of loving words and abusive actions is devastating. Is active demonstration of love without words also confusing? Am I withholding from myself? Obligation, responsibility, duty – all these I’m very good at. But those are stony words. Where is the tenderness, the humor, the generosity? How about compassion? I feel those for others. I’ve spoken them from the heart; written love poems, love letters, notes, and cards – for others. Could I learn to feel and express them for myself?
Then I got sick with COVID, the events of the last couple of years (traumatic, protracted move; my mother’s decline and death) caught up with me, and I felt miserable. At once, I began putting pressure on myself to get back to writing, get back to work, get back to exercise, take out the trash, do the shopping, and generally pull myself together, because, after all, the world is full of bleeding, suffering people and I have a good life, a privileged life, and don’t deserve to feel sorry for myself and be lazy.
Not a love letter, in other words.
In the middle of the week during which I sat on the couch, alternately shivering and burning and blowing my nose, I wrote myself a love letter.
Well, maybe a let’s-see-if-I-can-tolerate-you letter.
It was an extremely strange experience. In fact, it made me cry, which didn’t help my congestion. Or my cough. At the time I had no sense of taste or smell, and I reflected that it was like that. When I tried to turn toward myself with love, tenderness, affection, whatever you want to call it, there was nothing. Just … nothing. A thick, numb shell between me and myself.
It made me so sad. Immediately upon the heels of that, I was ashamed. Because, you know, self-pity.
Almost as bad as self-love.
Wait now, what?
It’s bad to love yourself … if you don’t deserve it.
And, readers, I thought I’d left that belief far behind in the dust.
Then I began to feel angry, and I told myself I was going to start practicing writing love letters to myself. Because I deserved and deserve love as much as anyone else. I’m not important enough to be the most loathsome person in the world.
How does the idea of this practice make you feel? Can you write a love letter to yourself? With endearments and everything?
If you could write a love letter to yourself, how would you feel about making it public?
What do you most need to hear from someone who loves you? Would it have power if you wrote it to yourself?
Leave a comment below!
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This week I’m moving on with a holistic business writing plan, based on Allan Savory’s Holistic Management. See the first posts here and here.
Whatever our situation, if we want to change it, we need a map from the place we are now to where we want to be at some future point in time. What this means is we have to move beyond our unhappiness with the way things are now and think about how we’d like them to become.
This point in the process requires a further commitment. We’ve all spent time spinning our wheels and feeling stuck. When I do that, I’m sucking the juice out of my grievances and resentments instead of letting go of the rind and moving forward. Eventually, I get bored with myself, stop focusing on the fact that I don’t like how my life is working, and think about what would work better.
It seems easy, but getting unstuck requires more effort and courage than staying stuck. Stuck is familiar. Getting unstuck means … who knows? Maybe we’ll fail. Maybe things will be required of us we don’t think we can deliver. Maybe we’ll wind up in an even deeper, muddier, icier ditch than we’re in now. Maybe we resist dreaming (my hand is raised). Maybe we’re quite sure we were born to be stuck, and we’ll betray our family or tribe if we dare to do better than they told us we could.
I have all kinds of reasons for staying stuck. Some I’m conscious of, and some I probably haven’t identified yet. They’re still lurking under the bed somewhere.
We might decide we don’t want to change things, after all, at least not using this model. It’s too much work. It’s too overwhelming. We can’t see the point in all these “holistic” complications. Taking on life in neat little reductionistic pieces is a lot easier. We don’t want to think about this stuff or ask ourselves hard questions.
I, however, am determined to continue, so my next step is to think about defining my holistic context with a statement of purpose, what quality of life I want, and how I intend my future resource base to look.
A statement of purpose is just that, one statement exactly describing our goal. Obviously, this requires some forward thinking, as opposed to sulking about our present undesirable circumstances.
(I’m reminded of a saying I once heard: If you’re in hell, don’t stop!)
It’s easy to obsess over what’s not working. We’ve probably been doing it for a long time. Thinking about what would work better is kind of a refreshing change, for me, anyway. Coming up with a one-sentence statement of purpose sounds easy, but that’s deceptive. I began with one word: security. I want to build some security for my future.
Great, but what does that mean, exactly? Security is pretty vague. I thought about it, journaled, made notes and lists, and gradually shaped a statement of purpose that felt true.
With that out of the way, I turned to thinking about what quality of life means to me. It means security, to begin with. This feels like a good sign – harmony between my statement of purpose and the quality of life I want to achieve.
At this point, I can mine my grievances for information. I’d like a roof that doesn’t leak. Check. I’d like a house that isn’t slowly tilting on its cracked foundation, mouseless cupboards, a better floorplan, a lot less stuff. Check, check, check and check.
Of course, I want to be able to afford a more secure place to live. Financial security. I also want to shape a sustainable life, which means investing in less gas and oil (heating fuel) dependency and having a more energy-efficient home, among other things.
Quality of life, however, depends on more than our housing situation. This is a holistic plan; we must look at a wider picture than we’re used to. I need healthy relationships for quality of life. I need to be able to make a meaningful (to me) contribution to others. I need to be creative. I want to be physically, emotionally, and mentally healthy. I need privacy and quiet in which to recharge and write.
I made lots of lists, allowing myself to fantasize without worrying about what I deserve, what I can afford, and all the rest. The result is a final list of what quality of life means to me, and what I mean by a sustainable life.
Lastly, and this is one of the unique aspects of this framework, is defining what we want our future resource base to look like. We must consider possible present actions through the filter of the future.
For example, if we want to clear land of unwanted plants (called weeds) in order to make a garden, one option is to douse it with weed killer. That might or might not destroy all the weeds in the short term, but it certainly degrades the soil, which will need intensive rehab and reclamation to become healthy and productive again. We’ve just killed our garden.
I’m not managing a ranch or farm, but thinking about the future still applies to me. If I want a future financial resource base that’s healthy and gives me financial security, taking out a big loan to fix our roof is a foolish choice. Not only does it further destabilize my present inadequate financial resources, it locks me into future debt. Fixing the roof would keep the water out, but the rest of the house is no longer sustainable in the long term. Much better to find another way to achieve and invest in a more sustainable housing situation.
Thinking about how the decisions we make now affect the future is one of the biggest weaknesses in how we plan, individually and as businesses. We’re impulsive, we’re impatient, and we’re more concerned with our present challenges and problems and our bottom line than we are with whatever might happen in the future. We clear cut part of our land to pay bills. We poison our dandelions because the neighbors object to them. We pick up leaves in the fall so our yards look neater. All those actions ripple into the future in destructive and unexpected ways, but we rarely stop to weigh the possible or probable consequences.
We’re in permanent reactive mode rather than being proactive and taking time to plan holistically. We set ourselves up for one unexpected problem after another, one unforeseen consequence after another. Our plans and policies fail, and we’re not sure why and don’t know how to fix them.
These two first steps, defining the whole we want to manage and defining the holistic context, present and future, force us to clarify and focus not only on the problem, but on the tapestry into which the problem is woven. We are not leaping to a solution for a problem we’ve only glimpsed from the corner of our eye.
In other words, we allow ourselves time to correctly define our problem.
This process also gives us a chance to make observations, identify resources, and gather information, which can redefine or erase perceived problems. If we have the good fortune to be responsible for a piece of land, raking, digging, tilling, removing rotting wood, using herbicides and fertilizers, and limiting diversity of plants and insects are not only unnecessarily expensive, they’re actions that will impoverish and degrade our future resource base.
This is what I learned as I struggled with my health. My problem wasn’t autoimmune disease. My problem was my diet. When I fixed that, the autoimmune symptoms disappeared.
Working to define a holistic context as part of management doesn’t satisfy my desire to find and implement a solution NOW. Even as I resent the time I’m giving this process, though, I’m conscious this is a more complete way to problem solve, a more thoughtful way, a more intelligent way. So I’m holding my horses and taking a step at a time, fascinated, in spite of my impatience, by the elegance of managing my life and goals with this new tool.
When I started exploring happiness last week I had no idea how uncomfortable and interesting it was going to be. I told my partner I wish I had never opened this can of worms. He shook his head and said I couldn’t unsee it now. He was right, so here we are, with Halloween, the election, daylight savings and a dark, uncertain winter ahead, and I’m thinking about happy. You gotta appreciate my timing!
After my last post, I became conscious of some of my attitudes about happiness. One is I view it through the lens of scarcity, a common pattern of mine. I act as though happiness is finite; if I take some, someone else goes short. Furthermore, and I wince as I write this, I don’t think I deserve to be happy.
I’ve written about deserving and not deserving before. The concept of being undeserving has been with me since childhood, and it’s powerfully shaped my attitudes about money, love, and other pleasant things such as happiness. I’m not pleased to find myself wrestling with it again.
These underground thoughts, that happiness is finite and I don’t deserve it, are at least two reasons why I don’t seek it or think about it much. In fact, it’s hard for me to see its relevance at all, and I’m irritated when asked to define my life in terms of happiness. I’m useful. I’m creative. I’m productive. I’m kind. Isn’t that enough? What does happy have to do with anything? Life is not a fairy tale or a romance. Happily ever after is a fantasy.
As I delve more deeply into Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman, Ph.D., I’m fascinated to learn the science of positive psychology reveals our level of happiness, as well as depression, anger, etc., has a significant genetic component. That doesn’t mean our genetics lock us into our emotional experience, but heredity does steer us to some degree.
I also learn data indicates positive emotions can have important functions in our lives, just as negative ones do. Anger, we know, is a signal our boundaries have been violated, an important piece of information for survival. Happiness and other positive emotions broaden intellectual, physical, and social resources. We are better creators, better at connection, more productive, more tolerant, more playful, and more open to new ideas when we’re in a state of peace and contentment.
Happiness, then, is power, but not power-over, as my mental model of a finite quantity suggests. Happiness is the power-with kind of power, a win-win for self and others, because it increases growth and positive development, not only for ourselves but for those around us.
So, if I’m useful now, could I be more useful? More creative? More productive? More kind? Can we actually learn to increase our happiness? Is choosing happiness a credit in the world balance rather than a debit?
Am I willing to change my frame of happiness from self-indulgence to altruism?
All right. I’m thoroughly exasperated by this “I refuse to live in fear” bullshit. Here’s an open letter to all those wannabe heroes out there.
Fear is defined as “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.” (Oxford Online Dictionary)
The ability to feel and recognize our fear is an enormous advantage, one we were evolved to experience. If our ancestors had been unable to feel and respond to fear, none of us would be alive today. The inability or unwillingness to listen to fear is a sure way to get deselected.
Yes, fear is an unpleasant feeling. Get over it. It helps us make choices that keep us alive. One of the best books out there on fear is Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear. Another author who understands the importance of fear in survival and resilience is Laurence Gonzales. A list of his work is on my resources page.
Asserting that we refuse to be fearful is like saying we refuse to observe, learn, and use neurological information like “hot,” “cold,” “sharp,” and “pain.” Babies can do this, people!
Fear is pro-life and a rational response to a possible threat. Ignorance and denial are not. Responding appropriately to fear is a powerful life skill. It makes us tough. Willful ignorance and denial are weak and impotent,
I’ve written before about the OODA loop, an acronym for resilience that includes Observing the situation, Orienting oneself to the situation, Deciding how to respond and Acting. People with slow or broken OODA loops stand with their mouths agape watching tsunamis roll in, volcanoes erupt, shooters aiming at them and cars heading for them at speed, and they die.
Evolution in action.
“I refuse to live in fear” is pathetic nonsense. A more truthful statement would be “I refuse to be told what to do,” or, even better, “I’m shit scared and I don’t know how to deal with it.” Or how about “I’m afraid to face reality?” I suspect those are all closer to the truth. Denialism is not a successful life strategy, and neither is willful ignorance.
When I see people masking, I see resilience, adaptation, responsibility, a desire to mitigate the spread of coronavirus, and common kindness and courtesy for the most vulnerable among us. I see people learning and doing their best in a scary, difficult, rapidly changing situation. When I see unmasked people wearing pitying smiles or having toddler tantrums when asked to mask, I see a bunch of fearful pantywaist boneheads waiting for Darwin Awards.
You just can’t save people from themselves.
It’s hard to face reality. I get that. I’ve spent plenty of time in denial myself. The fact is, we can’t control life and death and the ebbing, flowing activity of viruses, which vastly outnumber us. There is no one to blame. Viruses do not conspire against us. We’re not that important. Learning curves are messy, and we can’t always get clear answers, nor do we “deserve” them. We are not the Kings of the Universe, above the natural laws that govern life. We are not entitled to be comfortable. Our needs, feelings and lives are not more important than anyone else’s, now or across the whole span of human history. Our beliefs don’t change what’s real.
Real life takes guts. I’m sorry if you don’t have them, but don’t pretend that’s courage. It’s not.
Nobody has asked me to live in fear, and I don’t, but I’m exceedingly grateful to live with the advantage of fear, because I’d like to go on living for a while. Fear is power, and I’m certainly strong enough to manage it. I’m also tough enough to deal with wearing a mask.
So go ahead. Refuse to “live in fear.” Throw tantrums. Be abusive. Display your ignorance on social media and elsewhere. Make the most of your contempt and outrage. Argue with what is. Increase the spread of coronavirus. I can’t stop you.
But you’re not a hero. Your cowardice is showing, and I’m embarrassed for you.
Sometimes the inside of my own head astonishes me. It’s amazing how much of our internal framework is undetected bullshit that runs our lives. For example, this is a belief I’ve always accepted without ever thinking about it:
I get what I deserve I deserve what I get
I have it, therefore I deserve it
I deserve it because I have it.
You have not got it therefore you do not deserve it
You do not deserve it because you have not got it
You have not got it because you do not deserve it
You do not deserve it therefore you have not got it. —R.D. Laing, Knots
This piece of nonsense masquerades as a Universal Law, and I believed it!
So, what does it mean to deserve something?
Interestingly, the word “deserve” comes from the Latin word “deservire,” meaning “serve well or zealously” (Oxford online dictionary). Serve as in servant? Serve as in slave?
Serve, as in somebody else has the power to judge the value of our service, regardless of how we evaluate it?
Now, there’s a slippery slope of disempowerment!
The more I mull this over, the clearer it is to me that being judged as deserving or undeserving is a human construct. It’s not real. It collapses when I try to examine it. Do we really believe we get exactly what we deserve? Children are starving because they deserve to? People die of cancer because they deserve it? One percent of the population has most of the financial resource because they deserve it and the rest of us don’t?
No. I don’t believe that.
My reading of current complex systems science (please see my Resources page) teaches me life is defined by living. Life wants to live, be it a bacterium, a fern, a woodpecker, or a human being. Life is persistent, adaptive, and depends on the passing on of genetic material and energy gradients. Life is solely occupied with meeting its needs for life, and most successful life teams up with other kinds of life in complex systems.
There is no deserve in all that. There is no implicit guarantee of rights or resource. Successful life often leads to population overshoot, at which point the successful species uses up its resource and predators of the overshoot population increase their population to take advantage of the abundant food and energy supply.
I did nothing to deserve the circumstances of my birth as a white female in the United States. I’m no more or less deserving of life than a mycelium spore. If I die of some kind of drug-resistant organism, my death is nothing more or less than the inevitable consequence of my species being in overshoot.
We humans spend a lot of time fighting with one another, as any overcrowded population will. There’s current buzz about hate, oppression, immigration and white supremacy. My own view is that all those issues are not the root of the matter, but distractions. The real issue is our unconscious and false sense of ourselves as human supremacists, superior to the sacred cycles and processes of life and death. Most of us believe, behave, and act as though our needs are more important than the needs of other human beings, and certainly more important than the needs of all the other countless and magnificent forms of life with whom we inhabit this planet.
We will discover — we are discovering — we cannot stand alone, however. In fact, most life on the planet can do much better without us than we can do without it.
Life and death are the context in which all our experience is embedded. We’ve only begun to identify some of the laws governing the way they work together. We’re only now realizing how interdependent all forms of life are, even as we actively destroy other species we depend upon for food and water.
As human beings, we have needs. If our needs don’t get met, we die. This is so for every form of life. We either live as part of a sustainable complex system or we die as a species. As individuals, we are born and live because of those who have died before us, and our inevitable death gives life to those who come after us. It’s really very simple. Debating whether we ourselves or any other form of life is deserving or not is an idiotic waste of time and energy.
The concept of deserving is one more piece of mental clutter, along with pleasing others and arguing with what is, I’m ready to let go. For years I’ve hurt myself with it; it’s limited me and been a heavy burden to carry. Without it I feel lighter, freer, and I notice an increased sense of reverence and gratitude for my life and all the life around me. I am not supreme. I’m a child, a student, and one small life among many others, all of which have equal value to my own and much to share and teach, if I can set my human arrogance aside long enough to listen.
As Loren Eisley writes in All the Strange Hours: “Life, life for the purposes of life, and is that then so small?”