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The 3 Key Questions Fundamental To Being Human

After almost a decade of giving advice, Cheryl Strayed sees common patterns in our deepest problems.
by Carrie M. King | Aug 28 2018

As someone who has kept diaries from a very young age, what’s interesting to me about them is not how I’ve changed, but how I haven’t. The questions that I ask myself now are simply slightly evolved versions of the questions I was seeking answers to at age 10.

Problems connect people

And indeed, despite the infinite complexity of being human and all the different ways one can live a life, sometimes it’s in our individual struggles, our unanswered questions, that we find, if not answers, at least fellow askers. Deeply personal quandaries become vehicles of connection and empathy that help us relate to those we encounter along the way.

Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things among others, took over the “radically empathic” advice column Dear Sugar in 2010. Since then, she has read and responded to thousands of letters in which people sought clarity in a murky world.

Recently, on the Simplify podcast, Strayed was asked if she could discern any key questions that thread through the letters people had written to her over the years. And luckily for us, she could.

These are the three common questions that, according to Strayed, underscore the bulk of problems people face.

1. Am I worthy of love?

“So, the first one is: am I worthy of love? […] Good love. Love in which you are treated with kindness and respect and consideration. And it’s horrible and sad to me that so many people aren’t sure of that. It takes them years to believe that they are worthy of love, and not just of any old love but actually kind, respectful, good love.”

Cheryl Strayed

Love motivates, excites, rewards, and protects us. It’s a fundamental need that, sadly, a staggering number of people struggle to understand they deserve. According to Strayed, though this is common to us all, women are more likely to settle for love that comes with caveats due to the impositions of patriarchy and a society that is set up to define women by who loves them, and how they show their care and love to others.

2. Do I dare be who I am?

“A lot of people really feel like that they have to pretend to be somebody else. […] Sometimes, it’s about the way they look. […] We equate moral value with how beautiful you are, or how thin you are, or how fat you are, or any of these things. Sometimes, it manifests itself in professional life. I really want to be a painter but I’ve been pressured by my family or society or my culture to be something that’s a little more ‘normal’.”

Cheryl Strayed

There are few things more beautiful and attractive in the world than a person who is wholly themselves. It’s why we admire artists and performers and people who are pioneers in their fields. But when you’re afraid to be yourself, when you’re not sure who you feel you really are is valid and worthy of love, it can cause deep existential pain and confusion.

3. How do I carry this sorrow?

“We are a society that doesn’t teach people how to carry sorrow. We teach people how to try to forget about it, let it go, leave it in the past, move on — all that kind of stuff. But really, moving on is not about shutting the door and walking away. It’s about learning how to carry that pain with some grace and light.”

Cheryl Strayed

It’s inevitable that we each experience death, loss, and sadness in our lives. When we have the ability to process that sorrow and loss and learn how to carry it in a way that doesn’t weigh us down, it can become something that throws life into relief and drives us forward and closer to those left with us. But when we cannot fully stitch the story of our sorrows into who we are, they can become overwhelming and unbearable.

According to Strayed, these three interrelated questions form the bedrock of many of the worries that people carry with them on a daily basis. Seeking their answers is the work of a lifetime, but no matter where each of us is in the process, it’s important to remember that others are going through it, too, and to reach back a hand to those traveling a road we’ve been down before.

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