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Ask Augusten Burroughs: On Optimism, Irony, and Anorexia

Augusten-Head-LargeIn this installment of Ask Augusten, the self-help sage waxes philosophical on the perils of attempting to plan your life, the pleasures of moving beyond the protective filter of irony to true experience, and the mysteries of anorexia.

Do you think that if someone chooses to be a realistic, that precludes them from being an Optimist? Does "planning to fail" - or having a Plan B - mean you're a realistic, or is looking at the glass half empty or planning just in case a way of being a pessimist?

I see it is as protecting oneself... be real and look at the "what ifs" instead of thinking that everything will be fine. When you fail to plan, you plan to fail. – Susan

Dear Susan,

Being a realist is in no way incompatible with optimism: the reality of most peoples’ lives is that something quite wonderful or interesting, positive or exciting could absolutely happen tomorrow or the next day or even in an hour. Though it is also just exactly as true to say that something painful or difficult or disappointing or infuriating could happen next. To be a proper realist, you must accept that both the positive and the negative outcomes are a possibility.

One must have respect for both the light and the dark. If you live your life expecting the worst, the day-to-day actions you take will be wearing bio-hazard suits and this will weigh you down, which will limit the speed, fluidity and agility with which you move through life, thus rendering an outcome that favors those already dressed for failure.

This-Is-HowLikewise, if you refuse to acknowledge that even the most fortunate and blessed life does come factory-equipped with eventual periods of loss, grief, failure, etc., then one can end up entirely unprepared for the fall, when and if it happens.

The cliché “when you fail to plan you plan to fail” is one of those dangerous pieces of free-floating wisdom that we have all heard at one time or another and it sounds so much like something true, we never actually think it through to see if it is.

It’s not. The medicinal treatments for several diseases were arrived at by accident; they were the direct result of a failure to plan. The seed of truth the cliché contains is that if you have a firm goal but have never considered the steps required to achieve it, you’ll likely not get there. 


It’s certainly a poor and emotionally dangerous slogan to carry around inside your head, though, because it implies that all of life can be managed and planned for, or that in order to be content and satisfied in life one must have some sort of plan. And I believe such a way of living inhibits the very spontaneous, accidental bumps and collisions that ultimately lead us into the people and experiences which will matter the most.

Also, you don’t ever need to describe yourself as a realist. The fewer compartments you place around yourself, the lower number of artificial or intellectual constructs you erect, the more likely you will be to be in a position to embrace novel (new) situations and circumstances when you encounter them; thus the richer your life may become. --Augusten

Dear Augusten Burroughs,

I have a hard-to-control habit of irony. This is serious. After a couple of years, a boss of mine said to me, "You would like this book, Dan--it's ironic." You could almost see the sneer quotes around the word. And she continued to point out how often I resorted to the word and the practice itself. I find it ironic, for instance, that I'm writing to you now, at a Certain Age, long past the time when it would have benefitted me professionally and personally to jettison some of my irony. But still, I would like to see more of life unfiltered by this mental reflex of mine. What do I do?

I thank you for your attention, especially as this question is surely unworthy of it. Irony.

Sincerely, 
Daniel Menaker


Dear Daniel Menaker,

Irony is a defense mechanism that hired a celebrity stylist to help it decide what to wear and as a result, irony looks friggin’ awesome and cool. This outfit that it wears gets all the attention and what lurks below irony is allowed to go undetected. 

Underneath irony there is often earnestness or tenderness or a sense of deep affinity; an emotion that, were it expressed, would make one feel vulnerable or worse, uncool. But when irony becomes your trademark, it becomes your shield. 

So think about the last, I don’t know, seven times that you said the word or expressed an ironic thought or pointed out an irony that you saw. And then amputate the ironic portion and look at what remains and see if it makes you uncomfortable to look at it unadorned. If it does, why? Keep carrying this to an inquisitive and logical extreme until you reach the truth about the source of your irony. --Augusten

I’m wondering if he has any advice for people dealing with eating disorders? –Anonymous

Dear Anonymous,

If your eating disorder happens to be anorexia nervosa, my advice is that you seek treatment based on clinical research and actual scientific understanding—or at least promising leads—because this is a disease about which little appears to be known. When you have a disease of any kind that is under-funded for its clinical research, you have to pull a Lorenzo’s Oil and become as knowledgeable about it as you can. My personal hunch about anorexia is that it’s a spectrum disorder, not unlike ADHD, Asperger’s Syndrome or something like Sensory Processing Disorder. But I’m not a researcher and my hunch is just that: a gut instinct. If researchers were to learn that anorexia is, in fact, a spectrum disorder, a new world of treatment options would open up.

Of course, Anorexia isn’t the only “eating disorder,” but the phrase is most frequently applied to talk about it, so I’m guessing that’s what you meant. --Augusten

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See more brutally honest, compassionate advice from Augusten in his previous columns and in This Is How: Proven Aid in Overcoming Shyness, Molestation, Fatness, Spinsterhood, Grief, Disease, Lushery, Decrepitude & More. It's one of our Amazon Editors' top 10 picks for the Best Books of May.

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