This is Kai Cheng Thom’s 100th advice column for Xtra. It will also be her last. Kai isn’t going anywhere: she’ll still be contributing regularly, as a columnist, bringing her signature blend of wit, compassion and insight to a variety of topics. But after more than two years of giving advice, it felt like time for a change. Moving forward, you’ll be seeing a lot more opinion and reporting from Kai, rather than advice. In this final Ask Kai column, Kai writes, and responds to, a letter to herself.
How do you find the will to go on in the midst of overwhelming despair? I’m a Chinese trans girl who’s lived through some serious trauma, but also benefits from significant privilege: I’m a writer with published books, a successful advice columnist, a married woman with wonderful friends and family, and I’ve worked in multiple fields that I’m passionate about. I’ve been incredibly lucky. Yet there are days when I still struggle to get out of bed in the morning and I can hardly face the thought of continuing with life in this world.
Don’t worry, I’m not in an emergency situation. I’m talking about something more existential, a feeling of dread that I can’t seem to shake. You see, despite the privilege I have, I still feel exhausted and scared all the time. The rising tide of societal transphobia is terrifying, for one thing. For another, the world is on literal fire, the cost of living keeps rising while the billionaire class continue their sociopathic devastation of the world population and ecosystem, and everyone I know seems to be going through some form or another of trauma. And on the political left and in the queer community … sometimes we still seem more intent on tearing each other apart than building solidarity.
So, that’s rough. But I think most of all, I’m angry and disappointed with myself. I am haunted by the feeling that I should be doing more, fighting harder, being a better person. I am terrified that I’m doing everything wrong, fucking everything up, letting everyone down. Some of that may be irrational, but I’ve also made some serious mistakes in this life, things I regret that I can never undo. I want to love and be loved, but I so often feel like I’m failing. And worse, undeserving. My entire life I have felt that there is something broken inside me, and I have never been able to fix it.
I used to think that if only I wrote enough books or did enough activism or supported enough people, then this horrible feeling would go away. Then I thought that if I went to therapy and became a therapist, it would go away. But it hasn’t, and now I suspect it won’t and somehow we’re supposed to go on living. Where does your hope and strength come from in the apocalypse of society and the soul?
Kindly Asking for Inspiration
Sometimes there is no advice to give except to acknowledge and to grieve that part of life is suffering. You are suffering, and there are no words, ideas or actions that can make the pain go away. Sometimes, paradoxically, it is the acknowledgment of suffering that somehow makes it bearable. And sometimes it helps to know that you are not alone. The voice of your suffering is a part of a great collective chorus crying out for healing, for change, for something better. There can be no greater spiritual truth than that: the recognition of injustice and the call to transform in the name of love. To explore and pursue this truth courageously is our purpose in this life, and that, dear KAI, is where hope and strength comes from.
I know what it means to grow up feeling like there is something broken inside you. Part of this, of course, is about oppression and transmisogyny—the impact of being told, from your earliest moments of consciousness, that who and what you are is wrong, evil and harmful to others. Remember what the great poets of liberation have told us about this, KAI. Remember June Jordan’s words: “I am not wrong. Wrong is not my name/ My name is my own my own my own.” Remember that the purpose of liberatory poetry is to rehumanize and re-dignify us in the face of a dehumanizing society. Remember that poetry is the flowers that grow from the wound within your soul.
Why is there a wound within your soul, dear KAI? It is not because there is something wrong with you. It is because there is something wrong with the world. Someone should have told you that a long time ago. I’m so sorry that no one did. Our world is broken, and its jagged edges create wounds inside of us—all of us, no matter who we are. People try to fill these voids in a thousand different ways: Domination and control of others. Religious and political puritanism. Workaholism. Substance use to the point of self-destruction. Self-harm. Dissociation. Disconnection. There are so many poisons to choose from, but none of them really make our suffering go away. They only stop us from feeling it for a time.
I mean this in the kindest way possible, KAI: for much of your life, you have chosen to try and make your wounds disappear by creating beauty and healing for others—the same beauty and healing that you long to receive. There is nothing inherently wrong with this coping strategy, and sometimes many wonderful things can emerge from it, but it is also not an intrinsic good. Sometimes, doing things for others can be a poison all its own. Sometimes, doing things for others is a disguise we wear to hide from ourselves.
(I mean, I should know. I’m an advice columnist.)
None of this necessarily means that you should stop doing what you’re doing, KAI. What it means is that writing books, doing activism and supporting people was never going to make your pain go away, no matter how much or how perfectly you did it. That’s not really what doing things for other people is for. When we do art, activism or healing work because we are trying to make the pain go away, we are always going to feel like we are failing. The process of working toward a better world isn’t about making the wounds disappear, but rather being with them as they are. It’s about honouring the ways that suffering has both taken from us and deepened us. It is about finding ways to let our wounding make us wise.
Getting our own healing work done is a part of this, yes, but individualist approaches like psychotherapy or counselling were also never going to be complete solutions for the spiritual crisis that is living in late-stage capitalism, colonialism and environmental collapse. This is because the crisis is not fundamentally individual, but collective in nature. At some level, what we really long for is to face the struggle together. That is what art and activism are really for: helping us to face the struggle together. Personal transformation, collective dreaming and collective action—we need all three to face the crisis. We need all three to love and be loved.
Dear KAI, you were so young when you made your first suicide attempt. You went to the ocean and walked straight in. As the waters closed over your head, you wondered what it would take to be worthy of love and capable of loving. This was the question that saved your life—because you decided that you had to find out. It is a question with two answers: The first is that everyone who has lived is worthy of love, because it is not something that we have to earn. The second is that to be capable of loving, we have to live. We have to spend our lives practising love and all of its mistakes.
We live amid the ashes of a dying planet, in the throes of a mass extinction event caused by human beings. A relationship with suffering and death is something that we all must cultivate. Yet we have a calling, here in this decaying world, and that is to live and to serve life with every precious breath that is gifted to us. That is the meaning of both hope and strength: to ardently pursue human connection with passion and compassion, in each moment telling the epic love story of our interconnected lives. To make great mistakes and to never stop learning from them. To speak for beauty and justice, wherever we are.
For a round-up of some of Kai’s most important and best read columns over the years, please go here.
Kai Cheng Thom is no longer a registered or practicing mental health professional. The opinions expressed in this column are not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. All content in this column, including, but not limited to, all text, graphics, videos and images, is for general information purposes only. This column, its author, Xtra (including its parent and affiliated companies, as well as their directors, officers, employees, successors and assigns) and any guest authors are not responsible for the accuracy of the information contained in this column or the outcome of following any information provided directly or indirectly from it.