“I’d finally come to understand what it had been: a yearning for a way out, when actually what I had wanted to find was a way in.” ― Cheryl Strayed (from the wonderful book)
Tiny Beautiful Things is one of my favorite books of all time. It’s one of the few books that I never get tired of re-reading and I can honestly say it has changed my life for the better.
Cheryl Strayed is an American writer and podcaster who personally went through some of life’s toughest challenges. Among other things, she’s experienced horrendous grief, heroin addiction and childhood sexual abuse. Tiny Beautiful Things is a collection of advice columns that were originally posted on the ‘Dear Sugar’ section of The Rumpus . These columns address many difficult existential questions, and offer deep understanding, recognition and hope.
Here, I share some of my favorite passages from the book.
Dear Sugar on Life
I love how Sugar keeps things real. She doesn’t deny pain and struggle, yet she illuminates a way forward. “Whatever happens to you belongs to you. Make it yours. Feed it to yourself even if it feels impossible to swallow. Let it nurture you, because it will.” Elsewhere, she adds: “you don’t have a right to the cards you believe you should have been dealt with. You have an obligation to play the hell out of the ones you’re holding and my dear one, you and I have been granted a mighty generous one.”
Anyone who’s ever had a health scare probably knows of the irrational anxiety that can come with it. To an anxious young woman who fears that she’ll get cancer due to her familial predisposition, Sugar writes: “there’s a crazy lady living in your head. I hope you’ll be comforted to hear that you’re not alone. Most of us have an invisible inner terrible someone who says all sorts of nutty stuff that has no basis in truth. Sometimes when I’m all pretzeled up inside and my own crazy lady is nattering on, I’ll stop and wonder where she got her information. I’ll ask her to reveal her source. I’ll demand some proof. Did her notions come from actual facts based in reason or did she/I dredge them up from the hell pit that burns like a perpetual fire at the bottom of my needy, selfish, famished little soul?”
Sugar recognizes that forgiveness and compassion don’t come easy to most people, they require work. “Forgiveness doesn’t sit there like a pretty boy in a bar. Forgiveness is the old fat guy you have to haul up a hill.” And, in a different column, she writes: “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 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.”
About having very little money when growing up, and having to take tedious jobs while friends would go on educational trips abroad, Sugar writes: “turns out, I learned a lot from not being able to go to France. Turns out, those days standing on the concrete floor wearing a hairnet, a paper mask and gown, goggles, and plastic gloves, and- with a pair of tweezers- placing two pipe cleaners into a sterile box that came to me down a slow conveyor belt for eight excruciating hours a day taught me something important I couldn’t have learned any other way. That job and the fifteen others I had before I graduated college were my own personal “educational opportunities.” They changed my life for the better, though it took me a while to understand their worth.”
Personally, I love how Sugar addresses twenty-somethings in existential crises. It reminds me that very few things stay constant throughout life and that we shouldn’t take I’ll-always-have-this-problem thoughts very seriously. “You are so goddamned young. Which means about eight of the ten things you have decided about yourself will over time prove to be false. The other two things will prove to be so true that you’ll look back in twenty years and howl.” In a different column, she writes: “in your twenties you’re becoming who you’re going to be and so you might as well not be an asshole. Also, because it’s harder to be magnanimous when you’re in your twenties, I think, and so that’s why I’d like to remind you of it. You’re generally less humble in that decade than you’ll ever be and this lack of humility is oddly mixed with insecurity and uncertainty and fear. You will learn a lot about yourself if you stretch in the direction of goodness, of bigness, of kindness, of forgiveness, of emotional bravery.”
Then about self-love in the midst of addiction Sugar reminisces: “one hot afternoon during the era in which you’ve gotten yourself ridiculously tangled up with heroin, you will be riding the bus and thinking what a worthless piece of crap you are when a little girl will get on the bus holding the strings of two purple balloons. She’ll offer you one of the balloons, but you won’t take it because you believe you no longer have a right to such tiny beautiful things. You’re wrong. You do.”
Dear Sugar on love
About bravery in love, Sugar has the following to say. “The story of human intimacy is one of constantly allowing ourselves to see those we love most deeply in a new, more fractured light. Look hard. Risk that.” And to a young man with an avoidant attachment style she writes in a different column: “you asked me when is the right time to tell your lover that you love her and the answer is when you think you love her. That’s also the right time to tell her what your love for her means to you. If you continue using avoidance as the main tactic in your romantic relationships with women, you’re going to stunt not only your happiness, but your life.”
Sugar often emphasizes setting boundaries. I’ve learned a lot from that. She writes that “boundaries have nothing to do with whether you love someone or not. They are not judgments, punishments, or betrayals. They are a purely peaceable thing: the basic principles you identify for yourself that define the behaviors that you will tolerate from others, as well as the responses you will have to those behaviors. Boundaries teach people how to treat you, and they teach you how to respect yourself.” And also that “no is golden. ‘No’ is the kind of power the good witch wields. It’s the way whole, healthy, emotionally evolved people manage to have relationships with jackasses while limiting the amount of jackass in their lives.”
About desire and the need for love, Sugar writes the following. “His life is like your life and my life and all the lives of all the people who are reading these words right now. It’s a roiling stew of fear and need and desire and love and the hunger to be loved. And mostly, it’s the latter.” And in a different column she writes: “we all love X but want to fuck Z. Z is so gleaming, so crystalline, so unlikely to bitch at you for neglecting to take out the recycling. Nobody has to haggle with Z. Z doesn’t wear a watch. Z is like a motorcycle with no one on it. Beautiful. Going nowhere.”
Sugar went through a difficult first marriage. In one of her columns she offers insight into whether to leave or stay. “Go, even though you love him.
Go, even though he is kind and faithful and dear to you.
Go, even though he’s your best friend and you’re his.
Go, even though you can’t imagine your life without him.
Go, even though he adores you and your leaving will devastate him.
Go, even though your friends will be disappointed or surprised or pissed off or all three.
Go, even though you once said you would stay.
Go, even though you’re afraid of being alone.
Go, even though you’re sure no one will ever love you as well as he does.
Go, even though there is nowhere to go.
Go, even though you don’t know exactly why you can’t stay.
Go, because you want to.
Because wanting to leave is enough.”
About the unpredictability of love, Sugar has the following to say. “When you meet a man in the doorway of a Mexican restaurant who later kisses you while explaining that this kiss doesn’t “mean anything” because, much as he likes you, he is not interested in having a relationship with you or anyone right now, just laugh and kiss him back. Your daughter will have his sense of humor. Your son will have his eyes.”
Finally, to a man who doubts he’ll ever find love, Sugar writes: “I can’t say when you’ll get love or how you’ll find it or even promise that you will. I can only say you are worthy of it and that it’s never too much to ask for it and that it’s not crazy to fear you’ll never have it again, even though your fears are probably wrong. Love is our essential nutrient. Without it, life has little meaning. It’s the best thing we have to give and the most valuable thing we receive. It’s worthy of all the hullabaloo.”
Dear Sugar on loss
About crises such as the loss of a loved one, Sugar writes the following. “Nobody will protect you from your suffering. You can’t cry it away or eat it away or starve it away or walk it away or punch it away or even therapy it away. It’s just there, and you have to survive it. You have to endure it. You have to live through it and love it and move on and be better for it and run as far as you can in the direction of your best and happiest dreams across the bridge that was built by your own desire to heal.”
To a father grieving his child’s death in a car accident, she relates: “small things such as this have saved me: how much I love my mother—even after all these years. How powerfully I carry her within me. My grief is tremendous but my love is bigger. So is yours. You are not grieving your son’s death because his death was ugly and unfair. You’re grieving it because you loved him truly. The beauty in that is greater than the bitterness of his death.”
Sugar understands how grateful we should be for the time we get to spend with our loved ones. In one of her columns, she writes: “one Christmas at the very beginning of your twenties when your mother gives you a warm coat that she saved for months to buy, don’t look at her skeptically after she tells you she thought the coat was perfect for you. Don’t hold it up and say it’s longer than you like your coats to be and too puffy and possibly even too warm. Your mother will be dead by spring. That coat will be the last gift she gave you. You will regret the small thing you didn’t say for the rest of your life. Say thank you.”
Finally, to a mother who’d just learned about her baby’s brain tumor and is now questioning her Christian faith, she writes: “suffering is part of life. I know that. You know that. I don’t know why we forget it when something truly awful happens to us, but we do. We wonder why me? And how can this be? And what terrible God would do this? And the very fact that this has been done to me is proof that there is no God! We act as if we don’t know that awful things happen to all sorts of people every second of every day and the only thing that’s changed about the world or the existence or nonexistence of God or the color of the sky is that the awful thing is happening to us.”
I highly, highly recommend you read the book, or simply scroll through the articles on The Rumpus. It’s worth it.