Monday, July 16, 2012

The Sugaresque

I've spent the past few days hunched—on the subway, in my apartment, in cafes—reading Cheryl Strayed's Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on life and love from cover to cover. As Steve Almond writes in the introduction, Dear Sugar offers something that's "almost unheard of in our culture: radical empathy." As you read her advice to the heartbroken, the grief-stricken, the conflicted, you feel like she gets it. She isn't faking it. She is looking you in the eye.

Sugar's advice is radical, because it comes from the heart, and is never corny or patronizing or dripping with clichés, like "Hang in there," or, "The end is in sight," or, "I wouldn't worry so much about it."

How does she do it? And why does reading these letters make me cry?

1. She acknowledges the pain of the advice seeker. 

This is something I also try to do with the young children I teach, after reading a book called How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk. The authors talk about the danger of denying feelings, when we say things like "You're just saying that because you're tired," or "There's no reason to be so upset." They write, "Steady denial of feelings can confuse and enrage kids. Also teaches them not to know what their feelings are—not to trust them."

If you've ever spent time with five- or six- or seven-year-olds, you've seen a lot of tears. I've also seen a lot of yelling at kids (especially boys) to shut up, stop crying, get over it. But when you look at their faces, you know they aren't faking it. They're wailing because, in that moment, their worlds are actually crumbling.

Sugar says, "I can feel your suffering vibrating right through my computer screen." She says, "I'm sorry for your pain."

2. She goes back to their own words.

Therapists do this, too. They're "close readers" of what's actually being said. She reads their letters back to them, and shows the answers hiding there all along.

3. She uses story as symbol. 

In "Reach," she answers the letter of a man addicted to pain medication in the conservative "Deep South" at the end of his rope. She provides some practical advice, and then tells the story of a time when she was living with her husband in a crappy apartment in Brooklyn. They heard strange scratching sounds in the walls for weeks that they couldn't locate or define. On New Year's Day, there was finally a definite howling, and her husband clawed at the ceiling of their closet until two starved kittens emerged.

"I've tried to write about this experience several times over the years....[but] I never found a way to write about it until I wrote this letter to you, Ruler, when I realized it was a story you needed to hear. Not how the kittens suffered during those weeks they were wandering inside the dark building with no way out—though surely there's something there too—but how they saved themselves. How frightened those kittens were, and yet how they persisted. How when two strangers offered up their palms, they stepped in."

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