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Dustin Grinnell

Guest Posts, writing

Fake It ’Til You Make It

December 16, 2023

For most of my twenties, I was a magical thinker. During this period of my life, I was reading a lot of self-help books, including the best-selling The Secret, and though I was in a Ph.D. program to study physiology for five years, The Secret had me believing I could do anything, have anything, be anything; all I had to do was ask the universe.

If becoming financially free was only a matter of making requests of the cosmos’ abundant piggy bank and holding my desires in my mind, why wouldn’t I ask to become a millionaire by thirty? Why stop there? Why couldn’t I write a commercial novel that would shoot to the top of bestsellers lists with the velocity of a Dan Brown thriller?

The spell began to break when my thirtieth birthday came and went and my wishes hadn’t been fulfilled: I wasn’t rich. My novel hadn’t attracted an agent; instead, I self-published. And like most of my friends, my talents were being exploited for profit in Corporate America. What had happened? How had I been so easily duped by The Secret’s tantalizing messages?

I later realized I was predisposed to the state of mind self-help books exploit.

When I was younger, my parents—especially my father—had a cliché for everything. For struggle, he claimed, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way;” for pain, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger;” for trauma, “Let the past be the past.” On birthdays, he’d announce half-kiddingly, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” His adages helped inform him, instruct him, and inspire him.

They did the same for me in adolescence and into early adulthood. Like my parents, I had a motto or cliché ready for most situations. For work: “A rolling stone gathers no moss.” For hardship: “Don’t worry; be happy.” For imposter syndrome: “Fake it ’til you make it.” To pay homage to my father, I collected his favorite axioms into a book, Life According to Dad, and gave it to him for Father’s Day.

Using clichés to guide my life worked until my late twenties, when they began to lose their potency. After graduating with a master’s degree, I became a marketing writer for businesses and nonprofits in Boston. I lived in the city, working on complex problems with smart people from diverse backgrounds, most of whom didn’t view the world through rose-colored glasses.

I’ve been an idea person throughout my career. Many of my ideas, which can often be categorized as “big picture,” have been implemented in anything from advertising campaigns and event themes to product names and product messaging. But whenever I used clichés to propose a solid idea in the workplace, others took me less seriously. Without acknowledging potential unintended consequences, I might come off as unrealistic, impractical, or too rosy.

I once helped build and drive the vision for a company’s blog, but I underestimated the time and technical resources needed to develop and maintain it. At lunch, I reflected on the process and dropped a quote from Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich: “Whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve.” My coworkers thought I was naïve, perhaps even delusional.

Clichés had helped structure my way of thinking, but they had become inadequate. They didn’t reflect the complex environments and circumstances of my adulthood. After a period of disillusionment, I knew I had to change. I started questioning the clichés and the way I dealt with reality.

Clichés, I realized, were too biased toward the positive at the expense of potential dark possibilities. When “times get tough,” it’s not always easy for the “tough” to “get going.” Sometimes, we’re just flat-out beat, and it’s wise to retreat, regroup, and reflect so we can “fight another day.” I was always told to “keep my head up,” but sometimes it’s tough not to lower it in defeat. While “smooth seas never made for skillful sailors,” storms hurt and can even break us.

Clichés no longer rang true for me because life wasn’t always easy or sunny. Reality didn’t always bend to my will. I pursued my goals, but they were tougher to achieve than I expected. I took wrong turns. Systems were unfair; folks were unkind. People let me down, insulted me, betrayed me.

In my late twenties and early thirties, I started accepting that life is as much disaster as triumph. We don’t always get into the school or program we seek. The job or career we want might not want us. Love can go unrequited. Financial setbacks happen. Accidents occur. Illness can strike. People lie. People die. By encouraging us to always stay positive, the clichés deny the reality we must face.

I eventually found a way to deliver my first death blow to the clichés that ran my life: therapy. My therapist was a social worker and a psychoanalytically-informed therapist not much older than me, so we were dealing with similar life-stage problems. His approach didn’t involve dispensing advice as a life coach might. Rather, he encouraged his patients to evaluate their reality objectively. To see themselves clearly. When people thought critically about themselves and their circumstances, they didn’t need advice, he reasoned, because they would know what to do.

Following his guidance, I realized my parents had raised me in a rather uncritical environment. Their philosophy was to “let sleeping dogs lie.” We avoided reflecting on pesky matters like what made us sad or mad lest we make things worse and cause new problems. For instance, if I had asked my parents about their divorce, they wouldn’t understand why I couldn’t leave well enough alone.

Such an uncritical environment ensures that nobody ever thinks about anything. And if someone doesn’t know what they think about something, they don’t know how they feel about it either. Using clichés is a way to avoid thinking. “Leave the past in the past” was the perfect countermeasure to talking about the trauma of my parents’ divorce. Clichés robbed us of the chance to acknowledge it. They robbed us of the chance to heal so the pain wouldn’t resurface in inexplicable ways, like overwork or substance abuse.

Despite the importance of thinking, therapy taught me that thinking is difficult, another reason some might want to avoid it. It takes time and energy to think through complicated matters, and people are always having to expand their vocabulary for puzzling issues.

Thinking is also messy. A person seldom comes to a complete understanding of the issues they face. Before therapy, whenever I might have reached the edge of my understanding, I’d employ a cliché that approximated my thoughts or feelings on the matter. But in therapy, I checked my clichés at the door. I was pushed to find words for how I thought or felt about events or people that troubled me. I rambled and talked nonsense, but insights came. Sometimes, we would unlock something that had been a mystery.

Living and working in rural New Hampshire, where my parents have spent their entire adult lives, is simpler. One can often get away with using clichés to navigate and interpret life in such rural settings. In the city, however, where I’ve worked in modern offices, life isn’t black and white but shades of gray. Negotiating city and corporate life requires more complex systems of thought. While rural life might lead to simplistic thinking, city life can lead folks to become critical and cynical.

I wanted to evolve past my uncritical origins, but I didn’t want to go too far in the other direction and become a coldhearted cynic or nihilist. I still wanted to believe I had some control over my life. I just needed to find values, systems, and worldviews that accepted that life was sometimes unfair, often indifferent to our wishes, and actively resistant to our desires.

Enter the second death blow to living a clichéd life: philosophy or the love of wisdom. In my thirties, I replaced new-age and self-help guides with philosophy. I read books on Eastern philosophy, like Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching and Confucius’s Analects, and on Western philosophy, like Plato’s Republic and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. I joined philosophy groups, watched documentaries, and read biographies on Friedrich Nietzsche, Viktor Frankl, and Jean-Paul Sartre, among others.

Stoic philosophy was undergoing a resurgence at the time, and the tradition helped me cope with day-to-day challenges. For example, stoics believe that events don’t harm people as much as their judgments of the events do. Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor, encourages readers not to worry about things outside their control; instead, they should act on things within their control. Stoics also recommend living in accordance with one’s nature. If someone is athletic, they should do athletic things. If they’re brainy, they should do intellectual things. Such philosophy equipped me for life while also allowing me to accept its complexities.

Philosophy also helped me manage the dread that started to creep in as I approached midlife: knowing I was going to die one day. Enter existentialism.

The philosophical tradition of existentialism has been described as less a school of thought and more a mood or attitude toward life. It deals with matters such as anxiety, death, authenticity, isolation, and the search for meaning in one’s existence. More than any other philosophical tradition, existentialism has helped me address the realization that life lacks intrinsic meaning.

“No why. Just here,” as the composer and philosopher, John Cage, put it when Life magazine asked him about the meaning of life.

Faced with this understanding, I had to invent meaning for my life to avoid despair. But how? Jean-Paul Sartre’s idea that humans are radically free was both terrifying and exhilarating. According to him, “existence precedes essence.” In other words, no one is born with innate character traits. Rather, we construct who we are with every choice we make.

Albert Camus also agreed that life has no intrinsic meaning and reasoned it was absurd to seek meaning from a universe indifferent to our desires. He urges us to rebel against life’s absurdity by finding meaning in our relationships, our families, and our projects. In his famous essay The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus compares life’s absurdity to the punishment of Sisyphus, a figure in Greek mythology who was condemned to spend eternity rolling a boulder up a mountain, only for it to roll back down whenever he neared the summit. While Sisyphus was punished to forever perform a meaningless activity, Camus suggests that perhaps Sisyphus could find some joy in the absurdity of rolling the boulder. Maybe Sisyphus could even learn to be happy in his fate.

Once I accepted that the only meaning my life would have was the meaning I gave it, I began to engage in meaningful activities I found enjoyable, like writing: the final death blow to living a clichéd life.

Back when I started writing in my late twenties, I fell into every possible cliché trap. Let’s say I was writing a fictional action sequence where the hero confronts the villain, his former mentor, in a dramatic climax. In their final duel, the hero might get off a perfect shot, fatally wounding the villain.

“Great shot,” the villain might say, holding a hand over his bleeding stomach.

In that moment, the hero would likely say something like, “I learned from the best.”

Alas, I couldn’t keep that. It’s a cliché! And they are off-limits for writers. Why? A cliché might once have conveyed a truth, but readers have encountered it so often in movies and books, it no longer has the impact it used to. Through study and practice, I’ve learned that all good writing is a never-ending war on clichés. A writer must always search for fresh language. If I accidentally employ a cliché—which happens often—I strike it out in revision. This practice of avoiding clichés on the page has found its way into my life.

When I reflect on my evolution from a magical to a critical thinker, I realize that using clichés for so long allowed me to rely on the wisdom of others while I figured out who I was and what I thought. They gave me something to hold on to during the painstaking process of updating how I viewed and thought about myself and the world.

Now, in my late thirties, I realize the cost of not relying on clichés. They allowed me to avoid the difficult task of thinking. They allowed me to deny reality, which can be difficult to see clearly. Ignorance was bliss. Without clichés, life is messier, more nuanced, and sometimes incomprehensible. But “the truth hurts,” right?

Dustin Grinnell is a writer based in Boston. He’s the author of the short story collection, The Healing Book (Finishing Line Press), and host of the podcast, Curiously. His creative nonfiction has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, New Scientist, Vice, Salon, Hektoen International, and Writer’s Digest, among others. This story appears in his collection of essays, Lost & Found, which forthcoming with The Peter Lang Group. See more of his work at his website.



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Guest Posts, Relationships

How to Fix a Bluey Heart

February 14, 2021
blue heart made of napkin time

By Dustin Grinnell

By my mid-thirties, most of my college friends had moved out of Boston to other cities. Many were married and starting families. While they bought homes and built families, I focused my time and energy on writing essays and fiction, trying to become the best writer I could be. I wasn’t making new friendships and I didn’t often see the friends I had. Devoting all my spare time to pursuing my goals, I dated casually, avoiding commitment. These were productive years for me, but I was disconnected and lonely.

Tragically, I didn’t see a problem with this dynamic. Not only had I forgotten the value of friendship—once asking a psychologist to “sell me on friendship”—but I also thought my happiness didn’t depend on others. This attitude came from growing up with my father and brother in a hyper-masculine household. In my father’s home, a “real man” is self-reliant. A “real man” pursues his goals without help from others. A “real man” doesn’t need support from friends or loved ones. If you’re dependent, you’re vulnerable, and a “real man” is never vulnerable. It took me years to realize that this was bullshit. Now I know that everyone needs care and support to flourish in life—yes, even men. Without nurturing, without love, we can wither. And I had been withering.

When I met Sam at 35, I still wasn’t sure what I wanted from a romantic relationship—to marry, build a family, live in the suburbs—but I knew what I needed. Casual dating had run its course, providing less and less fulfillment. I knew I needed someone who could satisfy my emotional needs, not my sexual desires. I needed someone to offer support. Someone to listen to me and validate my ideas. I needed someone to care.

Sam and I met in Boston, at an MFA program in creative writing. We hit it off right away at one of our program’s ten-day residencies, where all the students came to campus for workshops, classes, readings, and more. Since then, we’ve been inseparable. Together, we have visited beaches, parks, and bars all over New England and beyond. We edit each other’s work. We’ve met each other’s families. We constantly joke and laugh. Early on, I realized that Sam was the best friend I desperately needed.

We’re perhaps an odd pairing. I’m in my mid-30s from the mountains of New Hampshire who was living in Boston at the time. She’s in her late 20s from the beaches of Florida who had been living in New York City at the time. I studied science, she studied theater. I write science fiction, she writes young adult. But we’re similar in many ways. We both grew up lower-class. We both see the world’s absurdity and mock it. And we’re both writers—hungry to find our voices and make our marks on the world.

As a preschool teacher, Sam has the unique gift of being able to comfort tiny humans who can’t always tell her where it hurts. It’s a superpower she often uses on me. If I’m stressed or frustrated, Sam senses it. She listens to me when I’m disappointed. She tolerates me when I’m mad. And she does all of this without my asking for help from her. This is important because—due to my upbringing—I never ask.

Though I was already working , on it in therapy, Sam was unwittingly helping me reform my decidedly “jock” origins. Regrettably, in high school and college, I displayed a fair share of toxic masculinity. A “never show weakness” attitude in the halls and classroom. Ignorant jokes in locker rooms. Tough-guy behavior with friends. Anything else was wimpy or weak.

To be fair, my interpretation of masculinity was like most of the males who came of age in my generation. A man of my era never showed softness. A man of this time didn’t admit fault. A man of this time didn’t ask for directions if they took a wrong turn. We were adept at pushing away emotions and soldiering on during tough times. Therapy helped me unlearn this programming. But women also played a large part in my reeducation—working with them, loving them, sometimes hating them. Yet, it was Sam’s caring and nurturing that allowed me to drop the macho facade and be vulnerable, thereby helping me build a less repressed, more sincere view of myself and manhood.

It wasn’t just my dad who had predisposed me to having a troubled relationship with my emotions. During childhood, my mom could be emotionally distant and wasn’t adept at understanding my emotional needs. When I was upset, she struggled to understand the cause of my distress and didn’t always know how to take away the pain. I don’t blame her because it wasn’t entirely her fault. I’ve always sensed that my mom doesn’t quite know how to label her own emotions and console herself when she’s distressed. Instead, she avoids vulnerability and talking about her feelings, and often busies herself in distracting activity (or drinking). I also knew that in her teenage years, my mom went through a traumatic event that drove her further away from her own feelings. And so, in addition to inheriting my dad’s macho attitude, I got my mom’s habit of avoiding emotions, negative ones in particular.

It was Sam who helped me overcome this tragic handicap. First, she tunes into my emotional state. Then she gives me the nurturing I am too afraid to—or don’t know how to—request. She then holds space for me to be vulnerable—a medicine my parents didn’t seem to have.

To help illustrate Sam’s powers, it’s best to show and not tell how she works with children. Recently, Sam was babysitting an adorable six-year-old who grew upset when her parents had to work longer than usual in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Sam could tell that the little girl was feeling ignored. Knowing this “sweet little nugget just needed some lovin’,” Sam delivered a prescription of snuggles while the child wept in her lap and explained why she was sad. An hour later, they were on the playground and the nugget was crossing the monkey bars with confidence.

This is Sam’s gift and it’s been working its magic on me since we met. Her secret is what might be called “extreme empathy.” She feels everyone’s pain and is often willing to take it on to help. One of Sam’s favorite books to read to her students is The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. She relates to the apple tree in the story that gives a little boy everything he needs while he grows older. Over the course of the boy’s life, the tree gives the boy parts of itself—apples, branches, and its trunk to make a boat—until the tree eventually becomes a stump. The boy returns to the tree as an old man. Only a stump by this point, the tree can only offer the man a seat. “The tree was happy.”

Like the Giving Tree, Sam often feels that she gives pieces of herself to others to relieve their suffering. When Sam wakes up in the middle of the night, more often than not, it’s because of her extreme empathy flaring up. Worrying about others, she sympathizes with a problem I’m having, thinks about how she can help her struggling sister, or how scared her students are at having to go back to school during the pandemic.

Like the Giving Tree, Sam gives pieces of herself to the people in her life and lets them empty themselves out in her presence. It’s what she did with that child she was babysitting and it’s what she’s done with me many times. Sam lets you vent if you’re frustrated or pout when you’re down. I can share an insight from therapy, an idea for a story, or a dream I had the night before. And when I empty myself, I feel full.

Early on as we got to know each other, I told Sam about a previous long-term relationship I had with a woman I’ll call Paige. With Paige, I felt like a lottery winner. I had found someone who satisfied my emotional needs and my desires for sexual fulfillment. We broke up six years ago and I told Sam that my heart had been “bluey” ever since. I had been dating casually but was emotionally unavailable for romantic partners. I had also developed the unfortunate pattern of looking for sexual fulfillment from women who I knew wouldn’t satisfy my emotional needs. It’s a painful trick I often play on myself. If I pursue someone who’s a poor fit, the relationship will ultimately fail. And when it fails, I don’t get hurt because I knew it would never work anyway.

Sam helped me patch up my bluey heart.

Spending time with Sam helped me realize I wasn’t reflecting on my relationship with Paige. Comparing Paige to Sam, I had overestimated how intimate I’d been with Paige. Paige wasn’t as attuned to my emotional needs as I had thought. The night before she moved to the west coast, we attended a Red Sox game. Distraught over her departure, I broke into tears on the subway on the ride home. Paige rubbed my back awkwardly, not knowing how to comfort me, as my mom might have done when I was a boy. Also, in looking back, Paige wasn’t much interested in my writing goals either. To be fair, it’s not that she didn’t care at all about my dreams. Rather, she was in her mid-twenties and didn’t have the bandwidth to focus on my self-discovery and evolution because she was learning and developing who she was at the same time.

As I spent more time with Sam, the loneliness and disconnection I had been feeling began to lift. It was a tremendous boost for me to talk about writing with Sam. Together, we stoked the fires of each other’s passion for the craft. We listened to each other’s ideas, helped nurture them into reality, and read and edited each other’s work. It’s not uncommon for one of us to text the other about a compelling premise for a story and then send a screenshot the next morning of the first page we’ve written. Sam was my sounding board for story or article ideas.

With more attention and dialogue around my passion, the quality of my work began to improve. So powerful was having someone interested in my ideas, it gave me the confidence to take creative risks in my work. During my MFA, I changed my style of fiction from a commercial to a literary style—from Dan Brown to Edgar Allen Poe. My writing went to another level and publishing opportunities started to roll in.

Meanwhile, if I ever became frustrated or confused, Sam held space for me to be vulnerable. It was the first time I had ever relied on someone and it felt good to be supported. When my head is in the clouds, musing over concepts or philosophizing over theories, I can neglect the mundane tasks of daily living. If I’m preoccupied, Sam steps in to remind me to update my iPhone. She’ll grab a broom and sweep the floor if it’s been neglected. She’ll help diagnose a computer issue if it’s driving me crazy. If I have a demanding workday approaching, Sam will deliver an iced coffee to my apartment.

In therapy, I continued to explore my failed relationship with Paige. It took a while, but at last I figured out why our breakup had destroyed me.

When I was about five, my mother left our family for a year or so, which confused my younger brother and me. For us, it was the incomprehensible nature of her leaving that was most traumatic. Another inexplicable loss occurred when my grandmother died of cancer when I was seventeen, which re-triggered the loss of my mom in me. So when Paige moved across the country, I once again felt abandoned by a woman for reasons I didn’t grasp. But I knew Sam wasn’t going to leave and that was good medicine for a bluey heart like mine. I once asked Sam where she thought she’d be in five years. “Wherever you are,” she said.

Over time, I recognized that though I had loved Paige, we met at the wrong time in our lives. I knew that if I didn’t follow her to the Pacific Northwest, I would lose her. And I did lose her. Selfish as it may seem, I didn’t follow her because I needed that time to focus on my writing. A young artist needed time—years of intense study. Misguided or not, I felt if I didn’t give everything to the craft in my thirties, I’d never become who I wanted to become. Again, perhaps this is self-centered, but writing gives meaning to my life and I’ve made sacrifices for it. I sacrificed someone I loved.

Two years into meeting Sam, I got the closure I needed with Paige. I got in touch with Paige and apologized for not moving across the country with her. She expressed her regret as well. She admitted that she knew I needed that time and that she wouldn’t be able to fulfill that supportive role that was essential to me. She needed that time to transition as well—to continue learning and understanding who she was and find her place in the world.

The medicine for trauma isn’t just talking, reflecting, and shedding cathartic tears. It’s also humor. Sam can be lighthearted and playful, and she sometimes giggles at my “serious” ideas about life and death. Without invalidating my ideas, Sam can make light of my criticisms about mindless careerism, the irresponsibility of the media, and the shortness of life. When Sam pokes fun at my seriousness, it lightens me. It reminds me to stop thinking about life and focus on living it. I became sillier and more fun-loving, especially with Sam. I’m still just as dedicated to my work, but I take the journey less seriously now. Thanks to Sam, I take myself less seriously.

Now, I would be remiss without revealing that Sam loves me hard. The love and affection that Sam shows me pales in comparison to anything I’ve experienced in previous relationships. Her love is so intense, it can’t be avoided or denied. I’m staggered and inspired by it. But are we “together”? Are we dating? It’s the question everyone asks. It’s a constant hum in the background of our companionship. I often think of Sam as my best friend, but she’s much more than that.

In the beginning, Sam expressed her desire for physical intimacy, but I have been holding that part of our relationship back. It’s not just that Sam doesn’t quite fit my “type,” which motivates how I choose sexual partners; it’s that our relationship provides something more vital to me. I wasn’t opposed to the possibility of these desires developing, but when they didn’t, I started to believe that we could continue our unique dynamic forever. Who cares if weren’t “boyfriend and girlfriend”? Given how emotionally satisfying our connection is, I could do without the erotic part.

Eventually, this logic broke down. I went on dates with other women and concealed them from Sam. Even though Sam and I aren’t in an official “relationship”, I felt disloyal when seeing other women. Whatever dating I did was short-lived anyway. I always came back to Sam because I enjoy her company the most. I have the most fun with her. I’m most fulfilled by her. I love her. And so, I stopped going on dates.

But this still didn’t address Sam’s desires. So I tackled that conflict by doing what Sam always gives me space to do: be emotionally vulnerable, a skill that took me years to learn and one that all men would be wise to learn in the 21st century. I divulged that I cherished our connection and intimacy, but was still uncertain about my desire for sexual fulfillment. I told her that our deep emotional connection is more important than the passing pleasures of physical intimacy, at least for now. I questioned whether our connection needed to be defined. Could we just keep caring and supporting each other with a label?

During this conversation, I confessed that meeting her was the best thing that had ever happened to me. I said that she had helped dissolve the disconnection that had found its way into my life in my thirties. I cherished the fact that she watched out for me and wanted the best for me. I had found someone I could laugh with, write with, and go on adventures with.

I had thought I won the lottery with Paige, but I struck gold with Sam. Meeting Sam helped me realize what was missing in my relationship with Paige. I was broken after Paige and Sam helped put me back together. Sam fixed my bluey heart. Now I know how to love again, and, in doing so, how to live again.

Dustin Grinnell’s creative nonfiction has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, New Scientist, Vice, Salon, Hektoen International, and Writer’s Digest, among others. 


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