every little thing is gonna tear you apart
Likeability is a skill. The last couple of weeks have been packed with parties and punch and our collective desire to extend that summer feeling into the heart of autumn. It has been good for me to distract myself from the bigger things by dancing and telling stories with all of my friends. I have wrapped myself in these moments as a reminder that when it comes to such matters, I am always invited. For all my talk about my inability to feel feelings and the inevitability that I will go feral, I forget that as a friend, I pretty much throw myself at people and assume I’m gonna stick. It is a thing that I have going for me until I am wrong.
I found myself on a porch in Connecticut yesterday surrounded by ex-coworkers, all of whom are people I love and respect. As the only person there no longer with the company, it felt so lucky to me that I’d been invited. I am very good at leaving things, and I am even better at missing them when I have gone, and being there reminded me exactly why that is. Some things are as worth missing as they are leaving.
Strange things happen when you treat everyone you meet as though they are your best friend. It is a weird and sort of dangerous thing to do. You end up never quite being sure who really are your best friends and who you’ve elected to be there without their nomination, and you find yourself missing everyone rather hopelessly all of the time. There is an upside to it, though: You become the only ex-coworker at the work party. You turn into someone people try to convince to stay later at parties. Eventually, your willingness to like other people so easily becomes the thing that makes you likeable. Usually it is worth the risk, because it ensures you a place on the porch with people you really, really like. I am pretty sure that those moments are my only goals in life.
Sundays – particularly Sundays following long and leisurely barbeques in Connecticut – are for thinking, listening to records, and catching up on favorite words. Today I’m wrapped up in the Flaming Lips and dabbling a bit in some of my favorite pieces of Stanley Cavell’s work. He writes beautifully about the acknowledgement of others and the idea that every person’s inner world is “private” or unknowable. As romantic of a problem as never knowing what others are thinking seems to be, we forget that this is actually one of the fundamental problems of philosophy and that people much, much smarter than we are spend really large amounts of time worrying about this. Cavell has written one of my favorite passages in life on this topic, regarding a man who is screaming in what we have assumed to be pain:
“He is in the dentist chair, wringing his hands, perspiring, screaming. The dentist stops for a moment and begins to prepare another syringe of Novacain. The patient stops him and says, ‘It wasn’t hurting, I was just calling my hamsters.’ The dentist looks as if he had swallowed Novacain and the patient says, ‘Open the door for them.’ And then when the door is opened two hamsters trot into the room and climb onto the patient’s lap. So we have more than his word for it. And when, later, in the middle of a walk in the country, we see this man wring his hands, perspire and scream and then look around for his hamsters, whom, trotting up, he greets affectionately, then we had probably better acknowledge that this is the way he calls his hamsters.”
Cavell’s point here is not actually that we can never understand anyone else and everything is hopeless, but actually that if confronted with such a phenomenon, we are probably going to write this man out of our existing pain-vocabulary. He ceases to exist for us in that sense; our doubts about the expression of pain are actually limited to this particular man and we don’t stop being certain about what an ordinary expression of pain is.
And yet, when confronted with other people’s reactions to certain events or certain feelings, they so often fail to act in the manner that we expect them to. You think they are your best friend or your enemy or perhaps that they’re screaming in pain, but then the door opens and two hamsters trot into the room and you had probably better acknowledge that this is the way they call their hamsters. Philosophy can be very good at pointing out the ridiculous, but it often fails to note exactly how often the ridiculous occurs.
I keep very close track of the best things people say to me. One of my favorite things ever uttered is so simple that it seems silly to repeat, but that it came from someone so articulate and intelligent that he intimidates the hell out of me though I’m loathe to admit it. He and I talk a lot about songs over drinks, and on this occasion I had recently discovered that I love Wilco, one of his favorite bands. In the middle of explanation of why he’s always loved them, he stopped in the middle of an explanation and said, “Listen, Jeff Tweedy does incredible things with words. ‘The ashtray says you were up all night’ – that is perfect.”
He is right, of course, though it’s a line that I’m not sure I would ever have noticed on its own. Ever since, I can’t listen to it without considering exactly how simple and exactly how perfect that line is and also about my friend himself, who is so uniquely attuned to the world that he has always managed to reach inside every situation and pull out the one thing that will make sense to me. As such, I long ago moved him from the shelf in my brain where the people I treat like my best friend live to the shelf in my brain where the people I know are my best friends live. It’s a much smaller shelf, but the criteria for being on it are as specific as knowing exactly which Jeff Tweedy lyric will appeal to my sensibilities most.
What has this all got to do with pain, with hamsters, or with likeability? I think it is all about letting people into our worlds. It is simple enough to do, at first, but until you really get to know them and are confronted with something as seemingly private as an expression of pain or a response to a Wilco song, you don’t really know what you are dealing with. Likeability, you see, only gets you so far. It is the responses to the small things that relationships are cemented or tiny little fractures show through, and it can take years. Sometimes people look like they’re in pain and you respond accordingly, and it’s not until the hamsters trot up behind you that you realize they do not exist in your world at all. You don’t respond by destroying the shelves in your mind; you simply remove that person from them.
There’s a Post-it note stuck in my copy of Cavell’s “The Claim of Reason” with my handwriting on it. It says: “Literature gives us an awareness of how we think about life and how we are united to others by virtue of our very humanity. It is only when we drop the bomb on common sense – ” and it ends there, as though the bomb on common sense was dropped before I had time to finish my sentence. It’s more likely, though, that I heard a lyric like “the ashtray says you were up all night” and I paused to admire it. It is always those little things that get you.