Listen to this story
I am in love with a man who does not love me. It seems impossible. It seems unsurprising.
How could it be that others are so different? How could it be that someone can stare into your eyes, and looking back you see something that looks to you like love, but in the end it is cold blankness?
How can these other creatures that call themselves human be capable of this utter lie?
Or do I deceive myself every time I look into his eyes and think that I see love?
Life is not a love story and this is not a romantic comedy.
In the end there is nothing. Sometimes people won’t love you.
But you cannot know until you ask, until you become vulnerable, until you tell them that you love them, even if they do not return the feeling.
Or perhaps I am utterly wrong. After all, no one would advise such a thing. No one encourages me to make a fool out of myself, again and again, until the shame piles so high that I cannot escape from it.
Others tell me that they cannot bear to watch such behavior. It pains them. It is cringeworthy.
If Martha Nussbaum is right about the importance of vulnerability:
How, then, does vulnerability — my vulnerability — help the world to become a better place?
Sometimes I’ve thought that I could solve the puzzle. Quite simply, the idea of love doesn’t make sense.
When I think of love in this way, other things fall into place. What if love is just a temporary feeling — the most wonderful temporary feeling in the world — but nothing more?
Most people take it for granted that the extremity of the feeling fades little by little.
It seems to me foolish, then, that we should be content in the slow fade. Just let it end.
Why should we expect it to be anything but ephemeral? That ephemerality is precisely what makes it beautiful. Do we not love people because we know that they will go?
And so happiness, it seems to me, cannot be an aim in itself.
One is happy and one is sad. One cannot know happiness without sadness and one cannot know sadness without happiness. For those who say that there are many stages in between, well, perhaps.
But without vulnerability, without sincerity, I fail to see how one can ever know either extreme.
To know happiness, it seems to me, is to know sadness. How can it be any other way?
In Upheavals of Thought, Nussbaum writes:
Emotions are…in effect, acknowledgements of neediness and lack of self-sufficiency (22).
The people who do not acknowledge neediness seem to be in the majority.
It seems as if the rest of the world got together without me and came to an agreement.
They decided that it would be better to hide all of that messy human vulnerability behind layers and layers of prescribed rules.
Once those rules had been sufficiently internalized, all necessary external manifestations of that internal state came naturally.
It is better not to make others uncomfortable,
is the prevailing thought.
My discomfort makes other uncomfortable, and it is rude to make others uncomfortable.
In some ways, one might certainly view an outwardly emotional person as selfish, for this person is unable to hide her problems in the company of fellow humans with their own problems.
But in another sense, do we not all face similar problems?
Might it not be easier if everyone acknowledged, and then behaved as if every individual’s problems were universal problems? Because surely there is no problem that is unique to one individual and one individual alone in the history of the world.
It is for this reason, in fact, that we tell stories. It is for this reason that art is enjoyable.
‘In speaking for ourselves we speak for everyone’, says the artist.
Yes, the details change, and yes, the stories that we tell are unrealistically condensed and stripped of extraneous detail. But without all of the editing, the story would be just another story, and no one would care to listen.
Perhaps this is why truth is so often couched in stories and hidden in everyday life.
The creative storyteller writes about particular pain in order to prove that no pain is so particular that it is not also universal.
It should be no surprise that others are afraid, that others cannot bear to sit by and observe the destruction, as they see it, as it occurs before their eyes. But unfortunately, without those others, in the midst of that destruction, we sink deeper into alienation.
We separate further from them because we do not want them to see.
It is nearly too difficult to bear, even for ourselves. The intensity rises and becomes nearly impossible to bear when it feels as if a chorus from a Greek tragedy stands in judgment on the sidelines.
Another quote from Nussbaums’ Upheavals of Thought:
Emotions are forms of judgment…it is something close to this thesis that I shall defend.
Do we need others in order to feel human or do we need only ourselves? How do we find ourselves if we need others to be ourselves?
Apparently, or so they say, we must learn to love ourselves before others will love us.
This pleasantry is supposed to mean something, but it does nothing to reverse the destruction.
We do not live in a world filled with solitary, isolated humans. Isolation, in fact, is a form of torture. Without human contact, we go in reverse. We turn away from the selves that makes us who we are.
With others we are ourselves, without others we cannot possibly know who we are.
We encounter hardships and come to need something that only another can provide; our sense of value…love and friendship still matter to us for their own sake.
This is why I sometimes fear that I have become Rousseau.
I worry that I should not write about myself in this way; that it would be better if I hid it behind an alter ego and then called it fiction.
No one wants to hear someone else bitch and complain for too long; even our best friends shouldn’t have to put up with it.
We might say that we don’t mind hearing about someone else’s problems, but we all have our limits. We all have our own problems, our own ticking clocks, our own motivations and goals — as we should.
And so we cannot live in a fantasy. At the same time, we do not want to live in a world stripped of imagination.
My sense of personal identity motivates me on a day to day basis, even though I know very well that others may view my notion of personal identity, or continuity, as an “illusion.”
In fact, I am likely to agree with them under certain conditions, or in light of a different sort of worldview.
I acknowledge that my own sense of self may not be what others see, and in fact, likely is not, most of the time.
I am even willing to acknowledge that I probably have a less than average ability to read certain types of situations, and that I should have learned better by now.
But should I have?
In many ways, my raw emotional state is a liability — an immature naiveté that pushes others away because, I suppose, it reeks of neediness.
But I am not needy in the sense that I need others to make me who I am. I am needy only in the sense that I need others in order to care about myself in the first place. And I would think that the reverse would be true.
When my friends and family tell me that I do not appear to be the “same person” that I was in some former time, I have nothing to say.
How could I?
To believe them would be to give up all further claims to my own sense of myself as a living being who is experiencing life.
When others tell me that I am a different person, and that the statements that come out of my mouth make no sense, then rationally I should stop talking because there should be nothing more for me to say.
If I do respond, I should expect that everything I say from then on will be taken as incoherent ramblings.
It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
If I said:
I am not a different person than before,
then you could say:
What does she know, she’s a different person and only a changed person would say that.
If I said,
You’re right. I am a different person,
then that would confirm what you already thought to be the case.
No matter what I choose, my response will confirm your previously held belief.
I live my life on the assumption that I know myself best.
Without that most basic assumption, I would have no personal identity and that person wouldn’t be me as far as I’m concerned.
It would mean that I would somehow have to move forward in a world that I would have no understanding of — a world in which I would know that everything and anything I thought about myself was wrong.
I don’t like that reality because it is far too unstable.
Of course, you might very well say that I will simply justify everything that I do; that I might as well be a murderer who justifies killing people.
But, in fact, I am not a murderer (at least not yet) in the sense that I would not be able to kill an innocent person without reason.
How do I know that I wouldn’t be able to carry it out?
you might ask.
I know only because I have watched myself trying to carry through with certain activities that might have helped me in the short term, but that would have hurt me more in the long run.
Or perhaps I simply was not comfortable in the situation so I knew that I had to refuse. There was no choice about it because to choose otherwise wouldn’t have been me.
Specifically, I’m thinking about a recent experience that I had on an online dating site.
This particular fellow liked my profile pictures, which is fair enough, given that I selected them for this very reason.
But then he asked if I would be willing to provide him with further “materials.”
I’ll provide you with cash right now, he added.
In fact, I was currently in need of some extra cash. Who isn’t?
Nope, I said.
After a few more questions, he asked:
If you won’t do this, and you won’t do that…what do you do?
I’m a professor, I said. I teach people things.
In that case, he responded, I think I’ll put my wallet away.
He logged off.
It was both depressing and amusing at the same time.
Overall, I don’t think it’s worth getting too bent out of shape over instances such as this.
The point of this story is not that I did the right thing by refusing to strip or send naked pictures to the guy.
I would not judge other women for doing so, especially considering that I have contemplated the idea very seriously in my most desperate moments. If I could have gone through with it, I could have made some money, after all.
The story reaffirms my sense of how ethics work in real life situations and in relation to personal identity.
If we are characters in our own stories, then we are truthful insofar as we stick to our emotional barometers in any given situation.
One part of truthfulness is sincerity, if I understand Bernard Williams correctly.
Characters must act in particular ways that make sense within the context of a story. The story’s no good if the characters are cliches who behave according to stereotypes.
For the same reasons, we should try to avoid labelling people in real life. In fact, just as we may want to avoid terms like “slut”, we might also want to avoid terms like “murderer”.
All murderers are not the same. In fact, the term “murderer” is ambiguous in an important way. It is a label for someone, for a certain type of person — the type of person, I suppose, whose business in life is murdering people.
But I don’t really believe that a person’s motivations and actions can be neatly tucked behind one noun.
Do I think that it is wrong to murder innocent people without cause?
Of course I do. But we should be clear that the sentence:
Murderers are evil
is not equivalent to
Murdering innocent people is wrong.
It is the action itself that must be judged.
Given certain circumstances, almost anyone could become a murderer. If a murderer is killing me, and I have no other options, would I be justified in killing my murderer?
If I am incapable of murdering in this instance, then I am incapable of saving myself. If I do save myself, I may well find it tough living with myself — not to mention living in society — with the knowledge that I am now a murderer when I was not one before.
Because I have learned to believe that murderers are evil, I believe that I am now evil as well.
A less extreme example is the “alcoholic” or the drug addict; the person who is high on a day to day basis and cannot get a job.
Why can’t this person get a job?
First, we should scrutinize cause and effect.
Is this person unable to get a job because of the alcohol or drugs alone? That is, if we took the drugs away would all employment problems be resolved?
Surely not. Surely many more factors are involved.
When we feel as if others are expecting us to “buck up” — when we feel pressured to “show everyone” that things are going A-ok — or whatever — it begins to no longer feel like a choice and we resent the pressure.
As a result, we tend to melt under pressure, which leads to others feeling worse about our capabilities. When we sense that others doubt us, we begin to doubt ourselves, and the cycle continues.
I view myself as independent, but at the same time, I function best when I maintain close social relationships. I get lonely easily. Encouragement (as opposed to blind complimenting) motivates me, whereas unrelenting criticism (when it feels unjustified based on my own experiences) and shaming make me angry, or sad, and hinders me.
The other thing that distinguishes me from others, I think, is my inability to feel uncomfortable for too long.
I’m not really capable of lying, which is both a detriment — but it’s also something that I like about myself.
Making others feel better about my existence is not a forte.
This trait often comes across as selfish because emotionality is associated with narcissism and lack of empathy.
Maybe I am selfish. It’s hard to know.
I often fear that I’m falling backwards into Rousseau’s autobiographical trap and that I will be lost to the external perspective.
I am made unlike any one I have ever met; I will even venture to say that I am like no one in the whole world. I may be no better, but at least I am different.
— The Confessions, Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Fundamentally, however, I know that I won’t.
Ethical conflict stems from a lack of understanding between people rather than any true difference in moral character, most of the time.
I’d also like to think that a lack of complicity helps the process along. In other words, as long as we remain open to the possibility of changing ourselves, we are not lost.
As long as we continue to believe that we can improve and learn and experience — that there is more to come — then we do not have to be stuck.
We do not have to accept any labels that others may throw at us.
An ethical life, in my view, requires the combination of the following traits: the willingness to resist any status quo that harms and an unwavering trust in the future, in the world, and in humanity.