Stuck

Why we can't (or won't) move on from bad jobs, bad relationships, and bad habits, and how we can all move ahead.

There Is a Place Where You'd Hate Yourself Less

Find it, and you will know.

To all of you who hate yourselves, I promise this: 

There is a place where you'd hate yourself less.

Somewhere out there, it waits. Each of us has one, whether we know it or not, whether we have found it or not, whether we have seen it with our own eyes or not. It is a nation or a city block, a mountain or a room. It is the Mekong Delta or the Prado, shopping malls or Prague. It is highly specific and one-of-a-kind -- a certain park, say, or a certain cinema -- or else it is not a place but a type of place: caves, say, or hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurants. In the latter case, two caves, one in Laos and one in Canada, or two hole-in-the wall Chinese restaurants, one in Rome and one in Shanghai, are equally your place.

Maybe you already know where it is, the place where you hate yourself less. Maybe you know this place and why you love it, crave it, dream of it and picture it while stuck in traffic or awaiting surgery. Maybe you go there every March. Or maybe you know where it is and yet have never been there in the flesh.

Or maybe you have no idea that such a place exists. It does. The formula for finding it is simple:

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1. What makes you hate yourself?

2. Where do those things occur least?

3. What makes you feel inspired, serene, amused, excited (in a good way), unself-conscious, passionate, compassionate and more or less at home?

4. Where are those things? 

For me, it is the seashore. 

It feels heartless to write this as the Northeast floods, Ground Zero an aquarium and police dogs in Staten Island seeking out the drowned. The sea kills. But I hate myself less beside the sea, oh any sea, not bay or harbor but actual rolling, splashing sea: not in or on the sea (how foolhardy, presumptuous and dangerous) but near enough on solid ground to see, hear, smell and feel it, the wilder the better, preferably in sight of boats. Thinking of seashores fevers me with yearning, tinged with shame because yearning is one more thing that makes me hate myself. I do not want to say how much I miss the shore, because when people find out what I want, it makes them laugh or cry. They say it will spoil everything or is too late. They wave my desires back and forth for all to see while demanding in rage, mirth or denunciation, Why? They do. At least, they did when I was five.

I cannot speak for all who hate themselves, some of whom hate the sea. I knew someone who was so traumatized by childhood seaside trips to bright popular shores -- she was the one they called beached whale -- as to despise the sight and sound of surf forevermore. She shuddered at the shriek of gulls. But, as do all of us, she had a place where she loathed herself less. It was the gift shop where she worked for forty years amidst beautiful merchandise, colleagues who respected her and customers who thanked her. I know someone else who hates himself least at ice-skating rinks. He likes the gentle rinkside etiquette. He likes belonging to a crowd of happy strangers: as they pass, meeting their eyes. He likes, as all the world outside the rink stands still, to glide. He likes his thighs.

And granted: Some of us who hate ourselves believe that they would hate themselves anywhere, everywhere. And some of us who hate ourselves believe that they hate themselves least in places where they barely feel at all. Some believe that they hate themselves least in dangerous places where they dare themselves moment by moment not to die.

I am a solitary type by nature. And it was people who -- in part because of my solitary nature -- said and did the things that made me hate myself. I have forgiven them. I am no misanthrope. But alongside its given glory -- a chemical-geological-meteorological-alchemical force that for whoever loves sea, sand and spray, whether we hate ourselves or not, is pretty much medicinal -- the wild shore is cathartic for me because it puts us perforce on our own. Even on sunny, packed, bikini-and-volleyball beaches, even when we walk their wet sand side by side, the surf-sounds drown us out, or at least mute us metronomically, dividing us from one another, bonding us to it, making conversation and other forms of human interaction alien. (Hooray.)

Which is to say, the shore is not a people place. It tolerates our presence restively. It would not mind, it would not notice, if we disappeared.

I hate myself least at the shore because people have made me hate myself. They did this long ago, and do it still, albeit not as individuals but rather as abstractions prompting me to display appalling behaviors.

My self-loathing is such that, among people, I reflexively plead, grovel and apologize. I also try pitifully and far too visibly hard to please. I become artificial, as if transformed by some clever curse into a talking doll that shows its teeth and turns its head. I spin off narratives, Oh look at this and look at that. I do these things unasked, performing with sweaty urgency as if I would otherwise be shot.

By contrast the sea asks nothing of me. The sea expects nothing from me. I cannot disappoint the sea. It does not care. It does not hate me, does not love me, does not wonder who I am or what I wear, because it does not care whether I am or am not there. The sea roars, either way. This not-caring, this panoramic cannot-care amidst the lambent sheen of sand and spray is glorious because people who claimed to care about me made me (in the name of caring) hate myself. It was people who, while I cuddled plastic-headed toys, told me that I must never lie, that God would punish me by killing them were I to try. Then, folding their arms and crossing their legs and telling me that they could see me everywhere I went, that they could read my mind, that they knew I was thinking nasty thoughts, they lied. It was people who loathed themselves and coaxed me, through my loyalty, to in this way as in all others keep them company. It was people who pried secrets from me, then told the laughing world as I stood stamping the ground helplessly. It was people who said Everyone else will hurt you. Everyone else says awful things about you. It was people who asked What do you desire? Why? You cannot have that. It was people who said Trust me.

The seashore does none of this, because it is the seashore. Its inhumanity is an unwitting generosity. We cannot be hurt by what cannot care. 

To be near people is to worry and to wonder. Not so with the sea. The realm of human possibility is infinite: that is, the realm of conceivable human harm. Tides, storms and sneaker waves apart, the sea forever acts the same. In, out, in, out. Crash. Swoosh. The sea repeats itself. The predictable sea, to which I say thank God, thank God, thank God in cadence with its waves.

I lived beside the sea for two years, long ago. I saw it through the window of my sixth-floor room and walked its warm sand every day. Then with the easy-come-easy-go gluttony of college girls, I left that paradise as if I might someday be back. But no, and days like last Sunday in Monterey, seals barking on rocks as a white sun rose above my balcony, I knew what I have lost and can reclaim.

Any unpeoplish place would make me hate myself less: Desert. Forest. Field. I prefer seashores because they are wet, because like perpetual treasure hunts they are strewn with jewels to find, because they taste of salt and stretch to foreign, sun-and-fog-and-coffee-scented shores, because their creatures like to dive, because their crashing makes me think in rhyme. 

But that's just me. And here is where the last half of our formula comes into play. The place where you hate yourself less is not merely a concordance of negatives, holy only for what it lacks, is not, and cannot do. The place where you hate yourself less inspires and cheers you for what it has, is and does. 

Find your place. Optimally, go there. If you cannot -- yet -- then look at pictures of it. Listen to recordings of its noises. Think of it. What is it about this place that makes you hate yourself less?

I ask because your answers are about more than a place. These places exist. They are real. Inhabiting them in the flesh, breathing their air, can heal. But even just one weekend there, or even just a fantasy, vouchsafes a vital taste of how hating ourselves less feels. That strange sudden serenity. That mandibular ease. That lightness in hands, feet and eyes is possible and once we taste it, by the sea or in the bowling alley, we will know. And we can fight -- against whatever made us hate ourselves, against those relics of our histories, against those voices in our heads that sound like us warning No no no no -- never to let it go.

Anneli Rufus is the author of many books, including Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto and Stuck: Why We Can't (or Won't) Move On.

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