May 19, 2016

“It’s alright. It’s all normal”


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Last month I went to London to watch a screening of Daniel Kitson’s story show “It’s Always Right Now, Until It’s Later”. I’d seen it before, back when I was living in Manchester — in fact, the very same performance that was now being screened — but I was really looking forward to seeing it again. Kitson’s work is one of my very favourite things in this world, and I often wish there were ways of sharing it with others that didn’t require me to physically drag people to his shows (not that that’s not lovely when it happens; it’s just that it’s not always possible because geography).

“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.

12 comments:

  1. <3 <3 <3

    Your words are always lovely, but this is especially so.

    " 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."

    YES. Oh, Ana, I know this so much. And your following paragraph as well--that acceptance of ordinariness, of connection, of not having to be The Most Wounded is so important on the road to healing.

    Thank you so much for writing this. I'll be reading it often.

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    1. Thank YOU, for reading and for reaching out and especially for creating the sort of community where it feels safe to write a post like this.

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  2. As always reading your posts make me think and as always I appreciate the way you write.

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    1. Thank you so much, Trisha - it's very kind of you to say so <3

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  3. This is seriously one of the most beautiful things I've ever read, Ana. Beautiful among so many other things! Such a perfect post and thank you for writing this. Reading your posts like these often feels like you're in my head and then I remember that it's me getting the gift of a peek inside yours because I always come away with some new awareness I didn't have before :) This post will go in the bookmarks folder! Also, I REALLY need to read THE ARGONAUTS

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    1. Thank you for being so kind, Chris. I think that mixture of recognition and novelty is one of the best things writing has to offer, and it's lovely to have been able to do that for you in a small way :)

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  4. Oh, I love that moment you shared from the play! How beautiful. I know we've gone back and forth quite casually about these ideas of kindness and empathy and how important those moments of shared experience can be. And maybe what I should do as my next stage of kindness is just to be more kind to the casual passerby that I don't have any real connection with or ties to. Because I agree, moments like that can be so important, however fleeting they are. And maybe it's almost MORE important to have those with a stranger as you know they are not just trying to make you feel better because they love and care about you, but truly did have the same experience that you are having right then :-)

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    1. To me it's not necessarily more genuine than the kind of compassion that comes out of care and love, but it matters, too, and I want to live in a world where both exist in abundance.

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  5. You are such a thoughtful writer and lovely person, Ana. What you said about your younger self resonated with me so much. I had a similar problem in effect when I was younger -- I didn't think my depression was unique so much as I thought I was too unique for depression. Not that it was worse than other people's sadness, but that someone with all the privileges and advantages I have couldn't possibly have depression, and therefore it was just me being melodramatic, and therefore I shouldn't take steps to deal with it but instead should magically snap out of it. I couldn't do anything to deal with it until I'd admitted to myself that the thing my feelings looked like and quacked like actually was what it was.

    And to your point about feminism, and talking to other people about it -- you know you are one of my favorite people to talk about feminism with, and I am so glad to have you for a friend. <3

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    1. Thank you so much, friend, and right back at you ♥ And yes, that's it exactly — it wasn't necessarily that I felt that my suffering was worse than other people's, more that I didn't feel like I could claim it fully and therefore put it into words, and that made everything so much harder.

      Hooray for better days for us both!

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.