We need books, and Cheryl’s books in particular, because we are all, in the private kingdom of our hearts, desperate for the company of a wise, true friend. Someone who isn’t embarrassed by our emotions, or her own, who recognises that life is short and that all we have to offer, in the end, is love.
Radical empathy isn’t the fashion of the day. Late-model capitalism works overtime to keep us focused on the product, not the people. That’s why we need Sugar so badly right now. You’ll see what I mean when you turn the page.
From the introduction by Steve Almond
Tiny Beautiful Things collects the best of Cheryl Strayed’s “Dear Sugar” advice columns. “Dear Sugar” ran on The Rumpus starting in late 2008, and the torch was secretly passed from Steve Almond, the original Sugar, to Cheryl Strayed. Strayed, the author of the widely praised memoir Wild (which I immediately requested at the library upon finishing this book), began writing “Dear Sugar” anonymously, and by the time her identity was revealed all these “intimate exchanges between strangers” had already taken place.
Tiny Beautiful Things came to my attention thanks to Clare’s wonderful review — which is, by the way, a perfect example of how a book review can be an art form in itself, and of how it can give you the same sort of rewarding experience you get from literature regardless of whether or not you get around to reading the book in question. Clare summarises this book perfectly when she says,
I keep returning to the word “generous” here. (…) By generous, I mean a very specific kind of emotional generosity, giving people the benefit of the doubt, an almost aggressive and definitely active kind of empathy. I didn’t write this down in my commonplace book, but, at one point, Strayed discusses trying to be the best, most generous, most sympathetic version of yourself that you can be, even if you don’t feel that way at that moment. I’ve taken that deeply to heart. It is easy to be cruel and careless with others; generosity of spirit is a difficult thing to do at the best of times. But the most difficult things in life, as Sugar points out again and again, are often the things that are worth the most.This resonated with me deeply before I even read Tiny Beautiful Things, and it captures the heart of what Strayed achieves here so well that I almost want to call it a day and end this post here. But that would, of course, be cheating, so here’s my take.
Unlike Clare, who says in her post she’s always been drawn to advice columns, I’ve always resisted them. Much of this undoubtedly has to do with Erroneous Assumptions I Had Never Quite Confronted, but some of it is also down to the fact that advice is a complicated thing, and until I read this book I had yet to find the kind that works for me (or even to figure out what that kind might be). Tiny Beautiful Things is a strange cross between a memoir and a self-help book; and as much as I’ve fought to slay my inner book snob over the years, the words “self-help” will still unfailingly cause her to rear her ugly undead head, zombie style.
Allow me to illustrate my suspicion of self-help with an anecdote. The other day I was unpacking some of The Reading Agency’s Books on Prescription at my library. Most were manuals on handling several different life challenges based on cognitive-behavioural approaches (which: yay. That’s my favourite brand of counselling), and I picked up one on relationship difficulties and flipped through it. My eyes immediately fell on a chapter heading titled “The Differences Between Men and Women”, which began thusly: many of the current relationship difficulties men and women experience result from the fact that, partly because of feminism, we now believe that men and women are not only equals but actually psychologically similar. In reality they are very very different and want completely different things, and the first step towards more satisfying relationships is to accept this.
I’m paraphrasing here, but sadly I’m not kidding or exaggerating. Not even a little bit.
It would of course be ridiculous to suggest that all self-help books will be in this vein, but my point is that when I compared my near-apoplexy when flipping through this book with my wonderful experience with Sugar, one thing became clear: there are always political assumptions and specific worldviews underpinning the advice being given, and, as with everything else, you need to find something that isn’t completely at odds with who you are and how you want to live your life. Much like that relationship book’s advice was infused with icky essentialist and heteronormative assumptions, Strayed’s is infused with core values that are very close to my own — so there was always a high chance it was going to be a good match for me.
That advice columns will betray the specific sensibility and worldview behind them is perhaps both obvious and inevitable. But there’s another reason why Tiny Beautiful Things worked so well for me: Sugar may give advice, but she never claims universality. Her advice works so well because it’s so deeply personal. Very often, she’ll begin a response by telling a story about her own life. This is something that I find really helpful, but that I think we’re all a bit reluctant to do. I’m sure I’m not the only one who can remember conversations with friends in which they responded to my sharing my sorrows by telling me a story about a time when they felt similarly, only to then pause mid-sentence and apologise for “making it all about them”.
I understand this, since I’m not above falling prey to these fears myself, but on the several occasions when I’ve been on the receiving end of such personal stories I’ve never felt anything but gratitude. When we share our troubles with our friends and loved ones, we don’t necessarily want them to come up with words of wisdom or solutions. One of the most helpful and loving things they can do is share a story about an analogous difficulty of their own and how they moved past it. This doesn’t tell us how we’re going to tackle our own troubles, but to be honest no one can tell us that — not with complete certainty. What it does achieve, though, is showing us that someone else has been there and survived, that it’s possible to survive, that we’re not alone in our pain; all the while also easing our pain by making us feel closer to our friends. As Sugar says, in the end all we can really offer one another is this: love and intimacy and human warmth, and the not negligible comfort that they bring. Sugar’s advice is effective because it does exactly this: it puts the power of the personal story to use to excellent effect, and it allows her to become, for a moment, the warm friend that we so desperately need.
I also appreciated the fact that all the advice given in Tiny Beautiful Things seeks to empower people to change their own lives, but simultaneously it acknowledges that we’re often up against forces stronger than ourselves. These forces can be material, but they can also be damaging inner voices that we need all the help we can get to silence. In Sugar’s eyes, we’re none of us doomed, but we often need time and all the help we can enlist from others. This is absolutely fine. Her advice never oversimplifies matters or victim-blames those who approach her, but it addresses people’s sense of entrapment by expanding on, and sometimes unpacking, the range of choices they feel they have available. Often it’s not so much that there’s a solution hiding in plain sight, but that the options people face don’t necessarily imply what they believe they imply.
In the end, though, what really made Tiny Beautiful Thing a book that touched me so deeply was the fact that it’s so incredibly well-written. This is a bigger thing than it probably sounds. None of what Strayed says ever sounds trite — or rather, she manages to make things that would sound trite coming from someone else hit us with full force because they’re worded in such open, fresh and vivid ways. And isn’t this part of why we read? Sometimes reading exposes us to new thoughts, but a lot of the time what it does is reveal old truths anew by putting them in ways that give them new power. For a few days after reading Tiny Beautiful Things, I experienced a fleeting sense of clarity about my life and how I want to live it. It’s immensely hard to hold on to that clarity, but I’m sure Sugar would say that that’s perfectly okay. All I can do is keep trying, and remember that the book is on my shelf for whenever I need to return to it.
[Love] is not so incomprehensible as you pretend, sweet pea. Love is the feeling we have for those we care deeply about and hold in high regard. It can be light as the hug we give a friend or heavy as the sacrifices we make for our children. It can be romantic, platonic, familial, fleeting, everlasting, conditional, unconditional, imbued with sorrow, stoked by sex, sullied by abuse, amplified by kindness, twisted by betrayal, deepened by time, darkened by difficulty, leavened by generosity, nourished by humor and “loaded with promises and commitments” that we may or may not want or keep.
The best thing you can possibly do with your life is to tackle the motherfucking shit out of it. And, Johnny, on this front, I think you have some work to do.
Do you realize that your refusal to utter the word love to your lover has created a force field all its own? Withholding distorts reality. It makes the people who do the withholding ugly and small-hearted. It makes the people from whom things are withheld crazy and desperate and incapable of knowing what they actually feel.
So release yourself from that. Don’t be strategic or coy. Strategic and coy are for jackasses. Be brave. Be authentic. Practice saying the word love to the people you love so when it matters the most to say it, you will.
We’re all going to die, Johnny. Hit the iron bell like it’s dinnertime.
You don’t have to get a job that makes others feel comfortable about what they perceive as your success. You don’t have to explain what you plan to do with your life. You don’t have to justify your education by demonstrating its financial rewards. You don’t have to maintain an impeccable credit score. Anyone who expects you to do any of those things has no sense of history or economics or science or the arts.
You have to pay your own electric bill. You have to be kind. You have to give it all you got. You have to find people who love you truly and love them back with the same truth.
But that’s all.
“The Future Has an Ancient Heart”
Doing what one wants to do because one wants to do it is hard for a lot of people, but I think it’s particularly hard for women. We are, after all, the gender onto which a giant Here To Serve button has been eternally pinned. We’re expected to nurture and give by the very virtue of our femaleness, to consider other people’s feelings and needs before our own. I’m not opposed to those traits. The people I most admire are in fact nurturing and generous and considerate. Certainly, an ethical and evolved life entails a whole lot of doing things one doesn’t particularly want to do and not doing things one very much does, regardless of gender.
But an ethical and evolved life also entails telling the truth about oneself and living out that truth.
The narratives we create in order to justify our actions and choices become in so many ways who we are. They are the things we say back to ourselves to explain our complicated lives. Perhaps the reason you’ve not yet been able to forgive yourself is that you’re still invested in your self-loathing. Perhaps not forgiving yourself is the flip side of your steal-this-now cycle. Would you be a better or worse person if you forgave yourself for the bad things you did? If you perpetually condemn yourself for being a liar and thief, does that make you good?
We like to pretend that our generous impulses come naturally. But the reality is we often become our kindest, most ethical selves only by seeing what it feels like to be a selfish jackass first. It’s the reason we have to fight so viciously over the decapitated head of the black-haired plastic princess before we learn how to play nice; the reason we have to get burned before we understand the power of fire; the reason our most meaningful relationships are so often those that continued beyond the very juncture at which they came the closest to ending.
They read it too: The Literary Omnivore, Sasha & the Silverfish