Reach out and love

Content note: depression

A two-panel cartoon. The top panel features a porcupine curled up into a spiky ball on the left, and a concerned-looking white bunny rabbit on the right. The bottom panel shows that the rabbit has dug a tunnel underground and is meeting the porcupine nose-to-nose, from underground, because the porcupine is still in a ball with its face pointing down. The black san-serif text says "There is always a way..." at the top and " reach out and love..." on the bottom." The original creation source was not included in the screenshot.
ID: A two-panel cartoon. The top panel features a porcupine curled up into a spiky ball on the left, and a concerned-looking white bunny rabbit on the right. The bottom panel shows that the rabbit has dug a tunnel underground and is meeting the porcupine nose-to-nose, from underground, because the porcupine is still in a ball with its face pointing down. The black san-serif text says “There is always a way…” at the top and “…to reach out and love…” on the bottom.” The original creation source was not included in the screenshot.

That stupid porcupine clearly doesn’t have any idea what it’s doing, so if it’s going to get its shit together, it clearly needs to be saved from itself by a concerned, selfless, innocent, absolutely informed, and incidentally adorable bystander.

We don’t need to see the comic where the bunny cries at the still-depressed porcupine for not appreciating all the hard work it took for the bunny to dig that intimate face hole, because that would just not be realistic.

So, that was my off-the-cuff “Hi, I’m a porcupine” response.

But seriously.

How the fuck is this comic supposed to be about a heroic bunny instead of a sad porcupine?

Why is it hard to imagine that the bunny could show love by recognizing and respecting the porcupine’s fairly unambiguously unavailable body language?

The message here is 100% about making the bunny feel better about believing that it’s helped the porcupine, regardless of the actual impact of its well-meaning actions or whether the porcupine really appreciated them.

Superficial armchair analysis of attachment styles is all the rage these days among self-help and pop-psych types (oh hai), but I’ll begrudgingly admit that it’s popular for a reason.

The utility of the Attachment Theory framework renders it susceptible to the reductive chicanery of confident Insta-experts who’ve probably only read the cliffs notes of the blurb of a review of any source material about Attachment Theory.

But then again, you’ll have that with all kinds of worthwhile concepts, like “practicing gratitude,” “setting boundaries,” and “self care.”

And, for as snooty as I sound in those preceding paragraphs, it’s not like I have the professional chops or an appropriately exhaustive literature review in my back pocket to Prove My Own Superiority.

I’m just an angry ex-academic who likes to poke holes in things.

At any rate, for readers who aren’t familiar with popular Attachment discourses, here’s a reductive informal introduction that will allow you to read this blog post without any additional research but is absolutely insufficient for anything else, so please don’t quote me to your therapist as though I’m an authoritative resource:

A fundamental idea behind attachment theory is that our early interactions with caretakers provide the basis for and inform the development of our relational patterns as we grow into independent humans.

Although there is some variation in the specific labels that are used, how they’re defined, and how to apply the concepts, Attachment Styles are commonly divided into four categories: Secure, Anxious, Avoidant, and Disorganized. (Not my preferred framing, but again, my goal is just to give a brief overview that will help contextualize my argument about this comic rather than to offer a comprehensive review of the entire history of the theory.)

A significant limitation to this simplified, popular framing is that a lot of advice basically boils down to, “There are three really bad attachment styles, and one good one that we should all aspire to achieve. Also, among those three bad ones, there’s one that’s extra super bad.” (Oh hai.)

A nuanced understanding of the theoretical framework demonstrates that these categories are not discrete, fixed, absolute, or mutually exclusive.

But if you Google the topic, you’ll come across all kinds of grids and checklists that frame them as though they are.

Unsurprisingly, I don’t find that helpful.

The idea that there are permanently, fundamentally “securely attached” people is just as problematic as the idea that there are “healthy” people who are fundamentally better at existing in human bodies than “unhealthy” people.

Even the Healthiest person will get sick or injured or experience the natural wear-and-tear of aging. They’ll be affected by their environment, and they’ll sometimes make choices that aren’t perfectly Healthy, after all.

(Then again, I also tend to lean into the reasoning that “we’re all going to die some time” when judgements of other people’s Unhealthy Choices arise, so, grain of salt if you want to think you’ll be able to out-health my conclusions.)

By the same token, a securely attached person doesn’t not experience anxiety – they just navigate it differently, in a way that doesn’t always overtly read as anxious.

(Then again, I tend to lean into the reasoning that “we’re all bound fuck up at some point” in discussions of Ideal Personal Development and Relational Success, so, grain of salt if you want to think you’ve already Done All the Work and Done It Right.)

No one person is absolutely only one way all the time, with all people and across all circumstances (and the existence of hypothetical exceptions here does not negate the generalizability of this statement).

And really, all three of the insecure categories are defined by varying degrees of and responses to anxiety.

Overtly Anxious-leaning types will broadly tend to cling to or seek connection when they sense a relational threat. Avoidant-leaning types will broadly tend to push back or seek isolation when they sense a relational threat. Disorganized types will fluctuate between these types of responses with more frequency and possibly more intensity than will their more predominantly Anxious or Avoidant counterparts.

I’ll be the first to admit that this cursory introduction is lacking, so please go and do your own research if you’re interested in learning more (with healthy skepticism toward anything that makes it seem easy), and if you do already have a lot of knowledge on the subject and think that you could do a better job than me, please go ahead and do so in a space that works for you, and also please don’t share it with me.

An “Anxious/Avoidant” dynamic is fairly common in human relationships, romantic and otherwise.

I’ll continue leaning into this contrastive binary for most of my examples, with the consistent reminder that things are rarely so simple in real life.

This dynamic is at the heart of a lot of buddy comedies, where one party is emotional and messy in order to serve as a foil for another party who is reserved, tidy, and standoffish.

The Stick-in-the-Mud learns to let go and loosen up a little, but The Hot Mess doesn’t necessarily have to learn to calm their tits or get their shit together.

It’s more often the case that the stand-offish half of the duo is both more unsympathetic and more dynamic. They need to grow and learn to accept their chaotic friend/love interest, but the chaotic friend/love interest already intrinsically understands how to be emotionally open, so what other lesson could they possibly have to learn? It’s not like we should expect them to start self-soothing or respecting people’s boundaries or anything.

It makes sense that Anxious-leaning folks are more likely to make a sympathetic appeal on their own behalf, by revealing and even potentially emphasizing their relative defenselessness in a given situation.

Whereas Avoidant-leaning folks are far more likely to (wait for it) avoid exposing their weak spots and anxieties.

In reality, of course, just as not everyone who has overtly Avoidant tendencies is a heartless asshole, not everyone who has overtly Anxious tendencies is an emotional parasite.

The important thing to remember here is that we’re all capable of being parasites, and we’re all capable of being assholes!

(See if you reflexively responded either “Not me!” or “Oh god I’m both and that’s terrible!” and then have fun unpacking that. You’re welcome.)

On account of what a strongly negative reaction I had to this cute little comic, let’s examine what that extremely Anxious “emotional parasite” pattern can look like.

There’s a subcategory of folks with Anxious relational patterns who really seem (to cantankerous ol’ me) to come alive at the prospect of others’ misfortune, like “Here’s my time to shine!”

And, here let’s pause to take another moment to recognize that I am a miserable asshole with a transparent bias against an All-Anxious-All-the-Time modality (in terms of relational attachment, because I actually experience a lot of anxiety a lot of the time – I just index it and respond to it in less overtly Anxious ways in terms of a lot of interpersonal behavior.)

Here, I’m describing a specific subcategory of a relational style that is especially perplexing for Avoidant-leaning Me to engage with, not making one negative generalization that’s meant to characterize anyone who is on the more Anxious-leaning part of the attachment spectrum.

I’ll label this subcategory “Grief-Seeking Missiles.”

(Other labels I considered include “Emotional Vampires,” “Emotional Vultures,” and although “Ambulance Chasers” is a label with more overtly financial and legal implications, I’d contend that it still fits the general pattern of crisis-driven opportunism.)

I was never a fan, but I grew especially wary of GSM types while I was grieving the loss of my father.

At times when I actually would have liked to let go and be at least a little bit emotional, I felt compelled to appear more stoic because I could practically physically feel it when I was approached with this apparently eager anticipation for the satisfaction of my tears.

One simple and not-uncharitable explanation for the GSM relational pattern is that these folks treat others the way they want to be treated, and they are in serious need of being offered a little basic empathy. They want someone to be willing to encourage them to cry.

They want people to be focused on them and tend to their needs and check on them frequently and buy them flowers and remind them how much they’re loved.

And is that really so terrible?

Of course not.

It’s okay, and it can even be healthy, to want these things.

I’ve framed it in a way that could read as “selfish” above, but of course it’s really not the worst thing for a person to want recognition, validation, and even celebration. (And if your response to that is something like “Actually, yes it is!” you’re welcome, again – there’s another shiny new nugget to share with your therapist.)

The disconnect occurs because they can’t admit that they want these things, because at some level they think that it would make them greedy and bad people.

So this GSM subcategory of Anxious-leaning Attachment can manifest as a combination of jealousy and projection. They want the kind of attention they’re pouring out onto others (who haven’t necessarily sought it), while hoping for others to automatically reciprocate while also at some level resenting that “at least the porcupine has someone looking out for it.”

That kind of resentment would likely come across as petty if they said it out loud, so it’s reframed by the GSM as a combination of self-aggrandizement and patronizing pity.

“The poor thing just isn’t taking care of themself! Thank goodness I have such an enormous capacity for love and care, or they’d just keep suffering endlessly in silence with no one to offer them the support they so clearly need!”

If this description hits a nerve and you find yourself feeling defensive, I’d like to invite you to sit with that feeling and maybe even interrogate it a little, if you have the capacity.

(And, to be clear, saying “if you have the capacity” really isn’t meant as shade or as a challenge, although it could be used in those ways. I just don’t know where your emotional reserves are at today, friend. I don’t know how much energy you have to allocate to self-reflection. This is knowledge that only you have, and I’m not demanding that you push yourself in your own mind to prove your worth to an internet stranger who will never perceive, or care to try to perceive, the full scope of your depth and complexity.)

The GSM sub-category seems to be manifest in folks who, themselves, have significant emotional needs that are not being met. This merits empathy, but not necessarily attention, depending on the circumstance.

To be clear, I don’t disagree with the basic message of the words in this comic.

Having someone reach out can be vitally important for someone who is struggling to ask for help.

And there are always ways to show love to those who aren’t actively requesting it.

It’s just that digging yourself into a hole to demonstrate the strength of your desire to be the one who’s reached out before confirming that the hole is actually helpful is more likely to overstep than it is to Save the Emotional Day.

Also to be clear, it’s understandable that the bunny feels anxious about the fact that the porcupine (presumably a friend) doesn’t appear to be doing well.

It’s extremely reasonable to feel worried about people who are having a hard time, and even more especially worried about people you love who are having a hard time.

It’s just that managing your own anxiety about someone else’s discomfort by striving to deliver it straight into the face of an individual who was otherwise just existing adjacent to your anxiety isn’t necessarily going to help you manage your own anxious feelings any better the next time someone else is struggling, and meanwhile, there’s a good chance that the first person is still uncomfortable (and possibly now also annoyed).

I won’t pretend to have The One Advice to Rule Them All, but I would like to contribute a sincere suggestion that I, at least, have found helpful:

When you’re trying to decide what kind of outreach seems appropriate in a given situation with a particular person, run a quick self-scan to see if you’re actually addressing a concern of yours or theirs.

It can be hard to do this if you’re accustomed to perceiving yourself as a helper who never thinks of themselves, but like most things, it gets easier with practice.

And some people are likely to want exactly the same things that you do! In those cases, you will have great instincts to follow.

I cannot speak for all Avoidant-leaning folks, but for me, being asked about my preferences (whether by text, email, phone call, physical letter, or whatever) is just as good as (and usually actively better than) having to navigate the imposition of an inconvenient performative gesture that is clearly more about whoever is making that gesture than it is about me and my actual needs.

So if you’re not confident in your judgment, it’s truly okay to ask.

Brené Brown’s public-facing work has brought “vulnerability” to the forefront of popular discourse about relationships, and as with Attachment Theory jargon, it’s been a mixed blessing for folks with an interest in applied psychology.

I’ve both appreciated and struggled with her work.

This cartoon is a helpful demonstration of one of my stickier concerns.

Really, no one in this image has opted to be vulnerable.

And as I do value the importance of vulnerability in creating honest, intimate relationships, I am frustrated by simplistic advice like this that actually discourages its practice.

We’ll start with the porcupine, who is clearly demonstrating more defensive posturing.

I don’t think it’s fair to read the porcupine’s position as actively shameful or weak. All we can really tell from the image is that porcupine appears to be sad, and that it’s chosen to be alone. It’s protecting that choice with its natural spikes and with its body language.

But that bunny isn’t actually being vulnerable, either.

It’s avoiding the known threat of prickliness by relying on its own strength as a digger.

That is, it’s protecting itself by approaching the porcupine from a position of relative personal safety.

And to be clear, I don’t think that it’s fair to suggest that there is any shame in the bunny’s choice to not thoughtlessly embrace a face-full of quills.

Frankly, I don’t perceive any shame or weakness in either characters’ choice to protect themselves.

However, if the first image – that of the Avoidant porcupine and the Anxious bunny – were to be followed up by next steps that actually illustrate vulnerability, then it seems like the porcupine would have to uncurl on its own, and then seek out the bunny.

And the bunny would just have to be fucking patient and stay available, even if the porcupine’s outreach might happen at a time when the bunny didn’t feel all the way up for performing its dramatic outreach thing.

Realistically, of course, most of the work we do in life happens between these extremes.

It makes sense for the porcupine to sometimes meet the bunny halfway by offering some limited availability.

It makes sense for the bunny to follow up with the porcupine even after seeing that it initially appears to be closed off, with the recognition that it might not actually succeed at getting in when it wants to.

Relationships constantly call for active negotiation and situational adaptation.

If the basis for the relationship is pretty much always one party pulling away with the other party pretty much always reaching out, that’s more likely to generate fragile tension than comfortable balance.

And then again, there’s value in accepting our partners (romantic, friendly, professional, and otherwise) just the way that they are.

As an Avoidant-leaning person, I can confirm that there is a lot more “accept and respect Anxious people’s anxiety” propaganda out there than there is “accept and respect Avoidant people’s distance” propaganda.

(This is at least in part because more overtly Anxious types are often more open to requesting and even potentially demanding acceptance, while more overtly Avoidant types are often more likely to just shut down the possibility that they should have to ask for acceptance in the first place.)

Story time!

I have adopted a number of pet rats over the course of my adult life.

Recently, my partner had a couple from our current brood perching on his shoulders, and I was talking to him with several feet of space between us.

I noticed one of the girls kind of wiggling her butt, not unlike a cat about to pounce on prey. In fact, rats also do this when they are preparing to leap forward. I noted the movement, but my brain just said, “There’s no way she can jump as far as my shoulder. She’ll give up when she realizes that,” and I dismissed the thought.

I started to turn to walk away at just about the same time that she chose to go for it, and tried to jump from his shoulder to mine.

Naturally, I was startled by the sudden movement, and turned my body towards my partner and this unexpected furry projectile. It was a pretty long distance for her to make anyway, but had I not moved, she probably would have succeeded.

As it was, my face ended up in the position my shoulder had occupied a moment before, and all four of her sharp little feet landed between my upper lip and my chin.

Needless to say, this was not the solid landing she’d been aiming for, and she sort of rebounded off of my chin and I was able to catch her before she fell all the way to the floor.

After the initial shock wore off, we started laughing, but then my partner was like, “Oh god, you should go take care of your face.”

It looked a lot worse than it really was. The scratches were shallow, and they fully healed within a few days. But in the immediate aftermath, when I had four bloody lines dominating the lower half of my face, it looked pretty intense (and honestly, also pretty bad-ass).

There are ways that this little incident doesn’t quite work within a vulnerability framework, because it was just surprising bad timing. It’s not like I chose to bravely offer up my face as an alternative to a more dangerous landing site or something.

Everyone involved was just startled and awkward.

But isn’t that more representative of how a lot of real-life vulnerability unfolds, rather than through dramatic moments and heroic, self-sacrificing gestures?

I wasn’t prepared to protect myself because I didn’t expect to be hurt, and she wasn’t prepared to be aware of my boundaries because she didn’t expect me to be vulnerable in the first place. She wanted a familiar landing place, and I just expected to not have a rat on my shoulder.

I’ve accepted that I have pets (as do many pet owners) who are capable of scratching my face, biting my fingers, and generally causing me a reasonable amount of inconvenience and physical pain.

The fact is that I didn’t really mind what happened to my face, and frankly, I’m glad that she landed on me instead of the floor. Rats are quite resilient, and she probably would have been fine, but it still would have been a long, hard fall.

I’m a really jumpy person, though. I could have just as easily reflexively knocked her out of the air.

Again, I’m not trying to take a ton of credit for making a conscious choice not to hit her out of shock, but then again, I know that I have also tensed up and (mildly) lashed out at plenty of people for doing far less physically threatening things around me.

So what about these situations where we have every reason to expect to be safe, and we get hurt anyway, and we don’t use that as an excuse to armor up the next time we find ourselves back in a similar environment?

So I guess the moral of this story is that it seems like the push and pull of distance and pursuit isn’t a great place to look for practical examples of genuinely vulnerable practices.

Understanding that different kinds of behaviors are apt to feel vulnerable to different people is an important part of interpreting the significance of someone else’s actions.

Bunnies certainly aren’t all bad, but neither are they all great.

And porcupines aren’t necessarily awesome, but they’re also not necessarily terrible.

Context matters.

There really are always ways to reach out and to love folks, but it doesn’t always look particularly cute at a glance, and that’s more than okay.

And leaving your prickly porcupine friends the fuck alone when they choose to show you their prickles might just be the most loving thing you can do for them.

But you could really just ask them what they prefer.

More Than They Need to Know

An edited image of a person's silhouette in profile. They have long hair, and are facing towards the right half of the photo. In the background, a distant horizon line is visible. The entire image is grayscale, although with a bluish tinge to the gray. It's difficult for me to determine if the horizon line has low mountains or plateaus. Most of the background (behind the silhouette) is an overcast sky. The silhouette has had an image of puffy clouds and a crescent moon superimposed over / inside of the head, creating a surreal effect. The white sanserif font reads, "Stop telling people more than they need to know." It says "unknown" after the quote, and the whole image has been marked with the "Power of Positivity" logo at the bottom.
An edited image of a person’s silhouette in profile. They have long hair, and are facing towards the right half of the photo. In the background, a distant horizon line is visible. The entire image is grayscale, although with a bluish tinge to the gray. It’s difficult for me to determine if the horizon line has low mountains or plateaus. Most of the background (behind the silhouette) is an overcast sky. The silhouette has had an image of puffy clouds and a crescent moon superimposed over / inside of the head, creating a surreal effect. The white sanserif font reads, “Stop telling people more than they need to know.” It says “unknown” after the quote, and the whole image has been marked with the “Power of Positivity” logo at the bottom.

The relatively interesting image here (compared to, like, a generic sunset) makes the relationship between that image and the quote feel ambiguous.

It is good that their head is full of puffy clouds and moonbeams, or is it a cause for concern?

Is the silhouetted head giving the advice to other people? 

Like, is their head full of all kinds of beautiful things already, and they’re just like, “Please stop talking to me”?

Or is the silhouette the one to whom the advice is being given?

Like maybe they are under the impression that all the stuff they have in mind is super important, but they are actually just an insecure over-sharer? 

Variants of this piece of advice are pretty common, so I understand why the quote is simply credited as “Unknown.”

And Power of Positivity as an organization doesn’t seem too bothered about copyright or intellectual property, in general. 

When it comes to images, it seems like the basic attribution policy is to assume that the creator is “unknown.” 

Probably it’s because most of the photography is already in the public domain, but there are still usually other design choices being made. 

This image here, for instance, required at least two photos, and someone to put them together. 

At that point, why make the effort to specifically establish that the words originated from an unknown sources?

Your heart’s in the right place, anonymous macro creator, if a bit misguided. 

I get that you want to make it clear that you are not the brilliant philosopher-poet behind these words of pithy wisdom. 

You just felt compelled to design a space for those words to exist in a social media-friendly medium. 

But where do your design choices begin and end, my friend? 

Did you Photoshop the moon onto this person’s silhouette? 

Is it your own silhouette, or an image of a stranger from Shutterstock? 

Do you truly know, person who humbly acknowledged distance from the creation of these words, the face of the human whose profile graces your macro?

I have the sense that when the author of a quote is left unspecified in a context like this, it’s kind of implied that they’re either unknowable or so well-known that it there words can be expected to be common knowledge. (Including those situations where a quote is commonly but erroneously attributed to a very famous person.)

The advice in these anonymous words is actually potentially useful, but ironically it lacks sufficient context to account for how and why it’s useful.

A reductive but useful example of finding The Right Amount of Information is the IT classic: “Have you tried turning it off and back on again?”

Opening your conversation with tech support with a play-by-play of everything you’ve tried already, just to prove to them (but actually to yourself) that you’re not totally incompetent, is an example of “telling people more than they need to know.”

I imagine that most of us have put our foot in our mouths at some point, insisting something like “Of course it’s plugged in!” only to have to later sheepishly admit that it wasn’t.

But the person whose job it is to troubleshoot whatever is preventing you from getting your work done has no obligation to care about your pride or sense of self-worth. (Not that IT folx are uncaring, of course. Just that it would be unreasonable for them to invest that much emotional energy into each case.)

Then again, you often have to be able to explain your problem before they can begin to help you fix it.

My own anxiety often compels me to explain exactly how I arrived at any given decision to anyone I’m communicating with, so “telling people more than they need to know” is kind of my default. 

I’m aware that my process is not always efficient.

It’s been suggested by very patient and wise people at various points in my life that it’s okay if I provide just a little information to get started, and remember that whoever I’m talking to has the freedom to decide whether they have any follow-up questions about what they need or want to know. 

Apparently, it’s not a failure on my part for not having already predicted and preventatively addressed every conceivable reaction to my very normal bids for reasonable responses.  


I’m still getting used to it.

On the other hand, one of the reasons I developed a tendency to overcompensate with Too Much Information was how often people bring up things that I’ve already considered, dismissed, and/or attempted.

I know I’m always on about this whole “context matters” business, but…

stop framing situationally-specific advice as generalizable imperatives that are more likely to reinforce shame and silence among mentally ill and/or traumatized and/or marginalized folx who’ve developed those targeted behaviors as coping mechanisms than they are to promote understanding, mindfulness, or useful self-reflection.

Expect Nothing

 A photo of a silhouette of two hands holding up something heart-shaped (the common Valentine's Day-style heart icon, not like the shape of a human heart, in case you needed the clarification) in front of a sunset. The heart is aligned with the sun, so the sunbeams and color gradation appear to be radiating from the heart. The white serif font says, "Do everything with a good heart and expect nothing in return and you will never be disappointed." The source is "Power of Positivity."
 A photo of a silhouette of two hands holding up something heart-shaped (the common Valentine’s Day-style heart icon, not like the shape of a human heart, in case you needed the clarification) in front of a sunset. The heart is aligned with the sun, so the sunbeams and color gradation appear to be radiating from the heart. The white serif font says, “Do everything with a good heart and expect nothing in return and you will never be disappointed.” The source is “Power of Positivity.”

Did you ever read The Giving Tree?

It’s the story of a tree that is happy to become a useless stump after a little boy has used up all its resources without ever reciprocating her kindness or apologizing for the impact of his actions.

The tree doesn’t feel disappointment or regret about all the apples it could have produced, because that would mean that it expected something in return from the person who stripped it of its vitality, and that would mean that the tree couldn’t really have been good-hearted!

We need the tree to be good-hearted in order to want it to be happy, because happiness should only belong to those who we think deserve it, right?

People who insist on interpreting that lovely little story as “unhealthy” just have bad, bitter hearts.

The message in this macro suggests that ultimately, it’s your motives that really matter more than your actions.  If your heart feels good when you do something, that is 100% of the battle.

Also, your (lack of) expectations should really outweigh other people’s actual responses to what you’ve done with all your good-heartedness.

Your expectation of no reciprocation or acknowledgment is more important than the possibility that the person/people you’re doing goodness at might want to a) do something nice for you in return or b) express dissatisfaction with what you so well-meaningly chose to do in the first place.

Why should their feelings matter? We’re talking about your inner peace!

At any rate, the real end game here is avoiding disappointment. Disappointment is the worst! You don’t want to have any more of that in your life than absolutely necessary, am I right?

Expectations lead to disappointment, which is bad, so don’t expect things.

Not having to learn how to deal productively with disappointment is an important part of becoming a well-rounded and responsible person.

While originally working on this post, I had the vague sense of having read that Shel Silverstein himself was kind of ambivalent about The Giving Tree. I thought that he may have viewed it as sad, or at least didn’t necessarily see it as the easy-breezy life advice it’s often taken for.

This New York Times article is the best I could come up with to validate my fuzzy semi-recollection, and the only relevant Silverstein quote it provides is simply that the book was “about a relationship between two people; one gives and the other takes.”

Not exactly a resounding endorsement of the tree’s caring nature, but also not a condemnation of the boy. 

It’s not ethical to speculatively diagnose people with mental illnesses (particularly dead people (and even more particularly dead people I never met)) and yet I would not be shocked if Silverstein struggled with depression.

His child-directed work typically counterbalances its fundamental darkness with humor, hope, and whimsy, but that darkness is pervasive.  Even his simplest pieces often have multiple layers, and the overall ethos of his poetry collections feels subversive in a way that is unlikely to have stemmed from a life of persistent contentment. 

My reason for bringing up his background is that the person behind the creation of The Giving Tree, a book that is famously used to reinforce the message from this macro, probably didn’t view it as a saccharine or straightforward text.

The fact that people tend to view the book as either sweet or wholly unsavory  just demonstrates our cultural tendency to disengage from nuance.

We can’t know his thoughts for sure, but it seems unlikely that The Giving Tree was just a weirdly earnest exception to his characteristically winking jadedness.

The poignancy of the ending isn’t because the tree always did the right thing or because the boy-turned-old-man learned a valuable lesson.

It’s sad because it’s an honest, descriptive representation of a common and bittersweet dynamic. 

The tree is a metaphor (gasp!) but the literal story rings true. Givers are at risk of giving themselves to death to takers who never questioned their own right to have.

It seems to me that the moral of the story is not to lionize either character, but to question them both. You don’t really want to be the dead, devoted stump or the oblivious ingrate. 

(Note: I actually don’t have a copy available for reference, so I’m relying on my memory. I don’t think there’s a message on the last page that says something direct like, “the moral of the story is…” but if there is, I grant that this would affect my interpretation.)

A few years ago, I revisited another short Silverstein favorite from my childhood: The Missing Piece Meets the Big O.

I cried a lot more than I expected to (which had been “not at all”).  

To summarize:

The Missing Piece is a little sentient triangular wedge that doesn’t know where it fits in. The world around it is populated by rolling Pac-Man-like circles. The eponymous Piece hopes to complete one of these circles by fitting perfectly into its empty slice-of-pie space. Once that happens, it will know where it belongs. There is always some reason why it’s not a good fit with the available options, though. At one point, the Missing Piece is picked up by a rolling Pac-Man with a gap that complements its shape. Together, they create a perfectly round circle and enjoy rolling happily along.

But that’s not the end.

Unexpectedly, the Missing Piece begins to grow. It no longer fits into what it thought was its intended place. Both Piece and Pac-Man are disgruntled. They had expected everything to stay the same, but once that becomes unsustainable, they go their separate ways. Or rather, the Pac-Man goes its own way, because the Missing Piece is shaped like a doorstop and has limited mobility. Then the Big O rolls by. It’s already a perfect circle with no evident gaps or missing bits. They get to talking, and the Missing Piece is drawn to the Big O, but there doesn’t appear to be a place for it to fit. The Big O is already complete and self-sufficient. The Piece asks if it can come along anyway, and the O simply states that they’re not currently able to move in the same way at the same pace. It’s matter-of-fact rather than condescending or discouraging. The O notes it would be nice to meet again some day, and then goes on its way. The Missing Piece proceeds to pull its angular body up until it flops over, time and again, and as it moves forward its pointy edges begin to wear off. It’s awkward and difficult and it takes some time, but the Missing Piece becomes a circle capable of rolling on its own. It no longer needs to wait for a perfectly complementary Pac-Man to pick it up and carry it around, and in this way, it’s able to rejoin the Big O. 

It’s possible to read this as a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” narrative, but as with The Giving Tree, I think that’s too simplistic.

It would also be possible to read this as a suggestion to adapt yourself until you’ve become more palatable for someone you like, but that also misses the point.

This story is about co-dependence, self-determination, and agency.

Unspoken expectations also come into play. Part of the reason that the Piece is consistently disappointed with its own loneliness is that it isn’t really communicating its expectation of completion to the various Pac-Men it meets. The Piece expects them to complete it just as much as it completes them, which is a pretty big ask.

The Piece has presumably never seen wholeness and self-sufficiency represented as a viable option before, so it’s not entirely the Piece’s fault for concluding that it must have been incomplete.

The character of the Big O demonstrates the necessity of representation.

Once the Piece sees that it’s actually possible to travel around without having the perfect partner, that’s the choice it makes.

Its physical changes aren’t superfluous cosmetic accommodations as much as they are the practical consequences of changed behavior. 

So what does The Missing Piece have to do with The Giving Tree and this message of benevolent subservience?

Expectations, communication, and complexity.

Whether the author intended it or not, the absence of real, honest communication is one of the quiet little tragedies in The Giving Tree

Suggesting that “The tree made her choices, so if she didn’t want to be used up and hollowed out, she should have said so” is the kind of rationalization used by people who have been unreasonably demanding.

The boy never had to experience disappointment in his relationship with the tree because his requests were always indulged.

What if he had checked in on the tree more often? What if he had declined to accept something that she offered? It’s the fact that he isn’t shown to communicate any kind of awareness of the needs of others that leaves many readers cold. 

At the same time, it’s possible to interrogate the patterns of seemingly kind choices made by some people (or anthropomorphic trees) and call attention to the ways that they aren’t really all that helpful or supportive.

As always, context matters.

The tree never deflected by saying anything like, “I’d love to help you, but this isn’t a good time for me right now” or “I like to feel useful and needed, so it’s easy for me to say ‘yes’ to things that might actually overextend the resources I need to take care of myself.” 

She may well have been disappointed and felt abandoned if the boy didn’t ask such significant favors of her.

The macro message suggests that you should behave in ways that will help you avoid the disappointment of unmet expectations.

And it’s true that there can be value in lowering expectations, because maintaining unreasonably high or unspecified expectations can be incredibly frustrating and disappointing.

But disappointment is part of life. You can’t avoid it forever.

It happens, and then you need to move on.

The Giving Tree is often (mis)used as advice for avoiding disappointment.

The Missing Piece Meets the Big O is about moving forward after it happens.

And both stories are about the things we don’t say that might be better off said.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Throw Out Your Trash

Trigger warning: reference to food restriction

 A dark photo taken from hanging out of the back window of a car, showing the front door and side windows of the car as it drives along a foggy, tree-lined road. The driver\'s side window is rolled down, and an arm clad in a burnt orange jacket and bent up at the elbow is extended out the window. The hand is giving a peace sign. The white serif font says, "Throw out your trash before 2020!!!" There is a list underneath, without bullet points or commas. Commas are added here for clarity: "Fake friend, fake family, exes, grudges, bad habits, anything toxic, doubts." The sharer has been removed because it was unlikely that they were the creator, and no original source was listed.
 A dark photo taken from hanging out of the back window of a car, showing the front door and side windows of the car as it drives along a foggy, tree-lined road. The driver\’s side window is rolled down, and an arm clad in a burnt orange jacket and bent up at the elbow is extended out the window. The hand is giving a peace sign. The white serif font says, “Throw out your trash before 2020!!!” There is a list underneath, without bullet points or commas. Commas are added here for clarity: “Fake friend, fake family, exes, grudges, bad habits, anything toxic, doubts.” The sharer has been removed because it was unlikely that they were the creator, and no original source was listed.

This was originally published between 2019 and 2020, but I’m repurposing it for 2021-2022.

I’m sure I could find the same prose with the current year listed if I really cared to try, but I don’t. The introduction is new, and some of the commentary has been updated accordingly.

After being diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 38, I became aware of how often I unconsciously outsource my motivation to circumstance.

That is, I rely on the necessity of situational urgency to force myself into action.

That is, I procrastinate.

Like most things that people do, procrastination isn’t intrinsically bad. It can lead to exasperating delays, unfinished tasks, and a lot of stress. But I think it’s worth recognizing that it’s not entirely maladaptive.

Procrastination can also create a strategic failsafe to balance out overwhelming or competing priorities. While a failsafe should generally be used sparingly, there’s no arguing that it helps create a clear path forward.

Recognizing that I’ve backed myself into a time-sensitive corner can help me accept the reasonable and inevitable limitations of my own work. That is, I can temporarily table perfectionistic paralysis.

I also sometimes struggle with deciding where to allocate my energy, and the relative urgency of deadlines can help me organize my tasks in order of significance and/or manageability.

I tend to take on a lot of things at the same time, and I tend to set ambitious goals based on my knowledge of my what I have been able to accomplish in the past (regardless of how much time, energy, and/or external support I have in the moment). Then I berate myself for not doing all the things to a high standard in a short time.

This pattern is hardly unique to me, and it’s hardly unique to people with ADHD.

I interpreted cultural values and concepts through the lens of my own experience, and I now represent an idiosyncratically fucked up variant of a combination of many common patterns. Just like everyone else who routinely shames themselves for not accomplishing goals that were unrealistic in the first place!

It’s a lot easier to move forward when procrastination and “failure” are framed as things that do happen, rather than as things that shouldn’t happen.

But it took me 38 years to even encounter that message, let alone embrace it.

Procrastination isn’t necessarily the enemy. It can become a problem, but it’s often a response to some larger problem (including but not limited to unattainable expectations).

The clean slate of a new year is alluring.

People make New Year’s Resolutions.

People give up on them.

People forget about them.

People shame themselves for failing to achieve them.

People shame others for setting for unattainable goals while refraining from establishing intentions of their own.

It’s like the universe is conspiring to force everyone to get their shit together.

The universe and/or corporations eager to exploit shame for profit.

In general, resolutions could stand to be more concrete and more feasible. Shame loves to feed on unrealized potential and curtailed ambition.

On the other hand, resolutions that remain open to abstraction, ambiguity, and gradual progress can encourage real growth. It’s possible to craft lovely, expansive, insightful, and practical resolutions (or non-resolutions), as in these posts from Alok Vaid Menon, Sam Dylan Finch and Dr. Devon Price.

So aspirational goals can be great, and unrealistic expectations can be disappointing, and identifying a personally viable balance between these can be tricky.

And even if that delicate balance is successfully identified, it certainly won’t look good in an Instagram post.

Habitual procrastinators get a lot of shit about their epic last-minute pushes, and yet when late December rolls around, everyone is on board with the implausible gratification of that failsafe reboot.

“New year, new me!”

It’s an inspirational blend of desperation, denial, and self-righteousness that’s captured really well by the image macro at the top of this page.

It was designed to be shared in the last days of one year in order to create momentum and excitement for the next.

“Not only should you aspire to fix everything, you can fix everything if you just want it hard enough and try hard enough!”

I think some of the themes in the above list of TRASH come through more clearly if I address them in reverse order.

  • Doubts

Opening with “doubts” highlights the unearned confidence behind the rest of these resolutions.

Resolution paraphrase:

“Trash those doubts! Absolute confidence is always preferable to uncertainty. Having doubts leads to changing your mind, which leads to being wrong, and being wrong is for losers. Stuff your willingness to change your mind into a big black Hefty bag, along with your willingness to admit that you might not know something and your openness to new perspectives.”

It’s not actually the worst thing in the world to experience doubt. Doubt can motivate us to ask questions. Certainty, on the other hand, can encourage us to fight for the cause of answers that don’t actually exist.

  • Anything toxic

I debated about using the words “Toxic Positivity” on this blog because a lot of “Toxic [X]” discourse has become, well, toxic.

Resolution paraphrase:

“The recent construct of interpersonal toxicity works best when a strongly opinionated individual is the sole arbiter of what IS and ISN’T fundamentally toxic. ‘Toxic’ is also an inherent, easily-identifiable, and static property. The toxic things in your life aren’t that way because of some kind of complex confluence of unknowable factors. The things that you have decided are ‘toxic’ are transparently bad, irredeemable, and to be avoided. “

I ultimately stuck with “toxic” because I think it’s worth remembering that it’s a modifier.

Most things that can be toxic can also be lots of other things.

Masculinity, for example, can be toxic, healthy, grounded, emotional, respectful, queer, and more. Sometimes two or more of these at the same time. And sometimes none of them.

Even waste isn’t inherently toxic, even though “toxic waste” is a common and accurate expression.

  • Bad habits

Years ago, a friend of mine (who is an amazing human who moves through the world in a very different way from me) posted on social media that they were “giving up” hitting the snooze button on their alarm for a month.

I couldn’t wrap my head around it.

It’s not that I disbelieved my friend or their commitment to their goals.

It’s just that for me, the idea of “giving up” the snooze button felt as feasible as “giving up” being hungry after missing a meal.

Yes, there are habits and practices in other areas of life that can help support a smooth wake-up ritual, but the bottom line is that I’m not a morning person. Even when I’m living “well” and making lots of “good” choices, I tend to fall asleep again after the first alarm. That’s why the snooze button exists.

For my friend, the snooze button was a bad habit that they could consciously choose to break.

For me, the snooze button is only a “choice” in that if I don’t choose to use it, I am likely to lose jobs, opportunities, and/or relationships. Fighting against the reality of the snooze button is a losing battle for me if I want to maintain a lifestyle that requires me to be up and ready before 8 AM, short of learning to be an entirely different person who operates in entirely different ways than I have ever successfully functioned before. (I have unsuccessfully attempted this approach for approximately 30 years.)

Like “toxic,” “bad” is a modifier whose definition varies according to context.

This isn’t actually as debatable as people seem to want it to be.

Labeling behaviors as intrinsically “good” or “bad” promotes value judgments more likely to create shame and self-flagellation than sustainable and satisfying progress.

Options that are difficult but manageable choices for some people present unnecessarily exhausting and impractical barriers for others.

Whether something constitutes a “good choice” or a “bad habit” has to be understood according to its context, and even then, lots of common behaviors could reasonably be considered both.

Resolution paraphrase:

“Here’s a super sustainable expectation to have for yourself: stop doing bad things. Just, you know, any habits you have that are not truly, deeply good. If you still have any remnants of those habits two days from now, you’re trash. Prepare to be kicked to the curb.”

  • Grudges

For many years, I wanted to be the “bigger person” across all conflicts, which I understood to mean “never invoke people’s past actions because that means I am automatically worse for holding a grudge.”

But it turns out that “observing patterns” and “holding grudges” are not the same thing!

It turns out that it’s reasonable to notice and remember how people tend to behave and how their actions tend to affect you, and to talk about history when it starts to repeat itself.

That’s a far cry from bringing up a laundry list of unaired or unresolved grievances in every discussion.

I suspect that folx with extensive collections of self-proclaimed toxic shit and fake acquaintances around them that they are desperate to to let go of are also likely to have a tough time letting go of grudges.

So, I’m interested to know where the author of the macro draws the line between “grudges” and “memories about lived experiences.”

Resolution paraphrase:

“Trash your grudges by trashing all the humans who have ever wronged you according to your own underspecified criteria!”

  • Exes

You know what, I think this one helps clarify the working definition of “grudge” here. 

Resolution paraphrase:

“Exes are inherently and fundamentally trash, period. Amicable breakups are lies. Also, grudges are trash. Those bitches know what they did and why I’m mad.

  • Fake family

I guess it probably is time to ditch those cardboard cutouts of the cast of Grace and Frankie that I set up around the kitchen table.

…can I at least keep Sol around after New Year’s? He’s so understanding.

Animated gif of the character Sol from the show Grace and Frankie, wearing a patterned shirt and looking confused and/or emotional. It turns out most of the Sol gifs out there also feature other characters, and I’m not creating my own.

Like, I get that the resolutions are broadly suggesting that you should surround yourself with people who are authentic. But I’m still a little fuzzy on the interpretation “fake family” here.

If it means “people in your family of origin or chosen family who you believe to be superficial liars based on your own interpretation (see: toxic),” it might be a good resolution to work on understanding and communication before the trashing part.

On account of how people might not know that they are being disposed of due to something that has never been explained.

(This is distinct from situations where good-faith efforts at reasonable negotiation have consistently failed, and/or situations that are openly abusive. The defensive tone of the macro leads me to believe that the creator has not necessarily unpacked their own toxic behavior, but I acknowledge that this is more assumption than fact.)

Resolution paraphrase:

“Call up your toxic family members out of the blue and confidently tell them that they’re toxic trash and you’re throwing them out!”

  • Fake friend

At least there’s just the one fake friend to deal with. That’s reassuring.

It’s also reassuring to know that all of those grudges, which have nothing to do with that fake friend and all of that fake family, will be in the big ol’ trash bag on the curb of 2021.

Resolution paraphrase:

“Be done with drama! Don’t spare any time for that self-centered flouncing that some friends seem to love, because you’re better than that.”

It’s okay to make resolutions and it’s okay to not make resolutions.

But please try, if you can, to think about expectations, and whether or not they are even your own expectations.

Have whatever kind of new year you want to have, whether or not it prioritizes happiness, productivity, or self-improvement.