“It’s Always Right Now, Until It’s Later” tells the stories of two characters, William Rivington and Caroline Carpenter, through a series of moments that go beyond what we normally think of as momentous life events (and which thus challenge the idea that what counts as “momentous” can be easily pinpointed). Many of these moments are moving, especially in the wider context of the show, but what I really want to do is tell you about what just might be my favourite scene. It’s one where we find Caroline, who is by then a new mother, pushing a buggy with her incessantly screaming baby down the streets of London in the rain. She’s trying to make her way to the pharmacy, and she herself is crying with sheer exhaustion and near desperation. As she walks past a bus stop full of commuters, Caroline happens to make eye contact with an older woman, who turns to her and says, “It’s alright. It’s all normal”.
I was intensely moved by this scene, the obvious reason being how well it portrays a moment of ordinary kindness between strangers. But it also got me thinking about what a world of difference it can make to hear the words “me too” when we need them the most. It’s a little difficult for me to write about how much I value this sense of human commonality, or how much I want to extend it as widely as possible; this is mostly because I’m all too aware of how easily the idea can give way to claims to homogeneity that erase difference. There are aspects of our experience of being human that are specific, and it’s often crucial to have those specificities seen and recognised. At the same time, it’s very important for me to try and talk about these specificities in a way that leaves the door open to communication and understanding. I can, of course, only ever speak for myself, but I want people, including people who are nothing like me, to understand where I’m coming from. I don’t want to sequester even the thorniest pieces of what makes me me beyond the possibility of broad comprehension. I want to reach out, and do so widely, and believe that this is worthwhile.
(And yet, to double back on myself once again, I also know all too well how important it can be to have conversations that go beyond trying to establish that very basic level of understanding. Case in point: I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t talk about feminism with like-minded women who know exactly what I’m talking about, or just with like-minded people who are willing to listen. These are discussions that don’t get bogged down forever in establishing their own legitimacy, and it’s only because we don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time that we get to move beyond the surface.)
I took refuge in exceptionalism a lot when I was younger. I’m not talking about the Ayn Rand kind, whose troubling political implications are easy to spot, but about a kind that’s more personal, if perhaps somewhat akin in origin — both can be conceived of as a kind of armour behind which we try to hide our humanity. I felt, I suppose, uniquely and irreparably broken. And as much as I don’t like to dismiss the thoughts one has as a teenager as misguided or immature by default, it’s easy, in hindsight, to see how in my case that logic was the product of a particular developmental process. It was also, of course, the product of a deep sense of isolation, which it both exacerbated and helped guard me against.
I needed to break free from that in order to feel okay.
In The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson makes use of Winnicott’s concept “deflation without dismissal”, which I think would have served my younger self well. There’s a deep sense of comfort to be found in discovering that our sorrows are not as unique as we might have thought, but for that discovery to be a healing experience we need, I think, to let go of our fear of ordinariness. Deflation can be a relief — it means, after all, that our troubles are not ones that nobody in the history of humanity has ever succeeded in moving past, or at least in learning to live with. But the “without dismissal” part matters too: the ordinariness of our suffering doesn’t make it gauche or unimportant; it only makes it part of the fabric of human experience. And this means, of course, that we too are part of this fabric, and not doomed to a separation we can never hope to resolve. There’s no need, then, to embrace the idea that we could never possibly be understood as a safeguard against the pain of failing to find the understanding that we crave.
All of this brings me, for the hundredth time this year, back to Martha Nussbaum’s Upheavals of Thought. There’s a wonderful section that deals with the link between compassion and this sense of commonality — but it’s a sense of commonality that goes beyond recognising in others what we have experienced or could come to experience ourselves. Nussbaum argues that compassion is linked to “a recognition of one’s own related vulnerability”, but one that broadens its reach to include “even the aspects of suffering that are most unlike our own”. This kind of compassion is a powerful antidote to shame, and its normalising effect can be very powerful. Again, it’s not about claiming excessive knowledge in a way that erases the particulars of another person’s reality, but about acknowledging that while the particulars matter, we all understand suffering and need. We may not know the ins and outs of another living being’s pain, but we do know what it’s like to be vulnerable to various hurts.
Recognising this common core allows us, as Nussbaum puts it, to “turn our thoughts outward”, in a way that seems to me the very antitheses of Randian exceptionalism. People suffer, and their pain is both ordinary in its humanity and unique because they’re valuable individuals, and we can hopefully exist in the world without turning our backs to the fact that we’re all as vulnerable as each other.