Sugar Substitute: Friendship and Playing the Modern Day Dear Abby

By: Claire Biggs, Regular Contributor


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I’m not one for advice columns, but I consider it a happy accident and sort-of miracle that I stumbled upon the Dear Sugar column over at The Rumpus a year and a half ago.

I read all of the letters. I couldn’t tear myself away from the author’s brutally honest and unconditionally compassionate responses to them. When Cheryl Strayed announced she was the woman behind the screen, my personal hero, who up until this point was just a random dark shape behind a computer, had a face. Not only did she have a face, but she also had a name.

And she had books.

I bought Wild when it first hit the bestseller’s list, and I’ve read it a few times in the past year. Although I recommend it without hesitation, I don’t push it as the must-read book from the author. That designation is reserved, without a doubt, for her collection of the letters and her advice she gave as Sugar.

I’ve bought four paperback copies of Tiny Beautiful Things, but I don’t own any. I sent them all off to friends in small towns who were spread out across the country. See, they needed a little Sugar in their lives. And since I highly doubt I could convince Strayed to backpack or hitchhike to each of them, I sent them her book.

When my phone buzzed earlier today, I looked down to see a long text from friend #4. Her text split into several messages, but two words at the very beginning stood out to me.

Dear Sugar.

Now, I’m not naïve or conceited enough to believe I can do Sugar’s job. Cheryl Strayed is Sugar. Sugar is Cheryl Strayed.

But I thought my friend deserved a response, even if it’s a Sugar substitute.

So I wrote the only one I could.

Dear Sugar,

I would love your advice. I feel like I am in a work situation where I am passionate about what I do, but it’s not worth the evening and weekend hours or the stress. It doesn’t pay well, and there are NO health/401K/etc. benefits. But, more importantly, right now I am too exhausted and stressed out to enjoy my own hobbies outside of work, and I wish I could go home and not think about work or have to work. I’m considering getting a stable, well-paying, office job to empower me to do the things I want to in my life and have time for my own passions. I feel like every artist/creative person must contemplate this. I think I must pick my poison. Right now I want my poison to be that I’m not “doing what I want from 9-5.” A couple of years ago, I would have said that my poison would be time, stress, and one hell of a commute - all at the expense of a prestigious corporate job title. Currently I’m doing exactly what I want but I’m not able to do anything outside of work I want. As I’m probably going through a quarter-life crisis, I feel confident that I’m willing to sacrifice “all that I’ve worked for” for “all that I want to do.” Sugar, is this the right decision?


Busy Picking Poisons

Dear Busy Picking Poisons,

Do you know the meaning of the word sacrifice, sweet pea? There are a few definitions, but I’m partial to: the destruction or surrender of something for the sake of something else.

You asked one question - is this the right decision - but what you really want to know is: What do I surrender? What do I destroy?

When I was in my early twenties, I moved across the country to a city full of strangers to live what I thought was my dream. I spent months creating a life I thought I wanted to live, much like you once believed you wanted to chase a “prestigious corporate job title.” It only took a few short months to realize that my job, the one that I’ve “worked for” was not getting me any closer to “all that I want to do.”

The answer to your question, Busy, is simple.

You surrender everything. You destroy everything.

Although we are only granted a few, fixed number of years on this planet, there is no limit to the number of lives you can create while here. It is your right to wake up one morning and realize that, no, you really don’t want to wear pencil skirts for the next 20 years. In fact, you’d actually rather don a pair of gardening gloves or a flour-covered apron or a leather cat suit or what have you. This is entirely your decision.

But what do you surrender? What do you destroy?

You are not making a trade, sweet pea. You are making a life.

Although certain people in your world might believe that there is one path to be taken, and that you must never stray from it, you are not required to subscribe to that belief. If fact, you can blow the damn path off the face of the planet if you want. That is your right. That is your life.

Do not think of surrendering your accomplishments and give no thought to time “wasted.” Everything you have done has served you. Everything you have done has gotten you to this point. The only thing you need to surrender is your belief that you are fixed on a path that you no longer wish to travel. You do not owe it to anyone else to always be faithful to past decisions. You are allowed, wholeheartedly and without reproach, to change your mind.

You see, you’re not destroying your past life. By changing your mind and going in a different direction, you are destroying everything that no longer serves you.

At this point you might be frustrated with my response, because I’m talking about surrendering and destroying and you’re on the other side of the screen tearing your hair in anger because you just wanted to know which is it, which is the right decision?

If you look closely, Busy, you will see that no matter which one you choose, you have the opportunity to be right, to create the life you want to lead. The reason I’m focusing on smashing up your limitations and expectations is because whether you change jobs or stay where you are, you will need to surrender to the thought that both of those lives will require work. After all, you’re not picking punches, are you? No, you chose the word poison, as if both lives would kill you.

And that is just not true.

You will live, and, if you are an artist, you will create. Step back, figure out which would serve you most, and surrender to it. Destroy everything that is in your way, that doesn’t get you to where you want to be.

But most importantly, Busy, surrender to the thought that you will always have the option to choose another path. There is rarely one right path for each person. Do not be afraid to scorch the earth searching for the one that is right for you at this moment in time. And do not hesitate to sprint off the path when a better one emerges.

You’re not picking poisons, sweet pea. You’re picking a life.

Choose wisely.


A Sugar Substitute

*If my Sugar Substitute didn’t convince you to buy Strayed’s collection of responses, maybe this brilliant, spot-on New York Times review will do the trick.

About Claire: Claire Biggs landed what she thinks is one of the best jobs in the world writing for MTV’s pro-social blog, MTV Act. She’s a writer who watches too much TV and reads even more books. She’s probably on Twitter right now.



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