Even the best conversationalists endure tedious dialogue with friends, family, and strangers. You know what I'm talking about; it goes like this:
"How are you?"
"I'm good, thanks. How are you?"
Because even if you feel a swirling well of fiery emotion inside, it is often not socially acceptable to display signs of, well, feeling. You must simply be "good," and not bother the other person with anything that's actually meaningful.
But there is a solution to this problem! It's a podcast called Terrible, Thanks for Asking, hosted by author Nora McInerny, whose life has included many terrible things.
Terrible, Thanks for Asking is all about regular people sharing everyday events of their life. They just happen to be devastating, like McInerny's own story. Her husband Aaron died of brain cancer in his thirties, leaving her to raise her toddler alone. Life rarely gets more terrible than that.
McInerny's voice is tough and severe. She sounds like someone who has experienced a bottomless pit of grief. Yet she also manages to come across as warm — someone who understands that the most meaningful and efficient way to connect with others is to share moments from her journey. "In 2011, my boyfriend had a seizure when he was at work, and it turned out that the reason for the season — his joke — was a brain tumor. And the brain tumor was cancer, and the cancer was bad. And the cancer would kill him three years later," McInerny explains in the podcast. She adds that "life was really good and normal" during the in-between stages — that's when she and Aaron got married and had a baby. But then the terribleness closed in: McInerny miscarried their second baby and her father passed away during Aaron's final weeks. Now, McInerny has to continue living through the sludge of it all.
Another episode of Terrible, Thanks for Asking explores the story of a nurse who was attacked at work by a patient, and hit her head so hard it resulted in brain damage that manifests itself through memory loss. It's chilling to hear this nightmarish recounting of events directly from the source.
Often, these stories leave me with a particularly prickly sensation of nothingness. Not because of the podcast itself, but because podcasts like these provide emotional depth that I'm not getting elsewhere. As I listen to them alone, am I on the verge of becoming a... loner?
I hope not. And indeed, the other day, I shared an elevator with an older man who asked me how I was. And although my response was stiff as ever, he looked me in the eyes and explained how he was hungry because it had been a long day. Then he let out a giggle. This relaxed me. I quickly and spontaneously voiced my inner monologue — that I, too, was starving. I even laughed, not because we were two strangers laughing about being hungry in an elevator, but that we were two strangers not ignoring each other.
On the walk from the elevator to the gym, I felt compelled to finish another episode of Terrible, Thanks for Asking. This one was about a woman who lost her parents in an act of senseless violence, and her son who never got to meet them. There are no words to describe that sense of helplessness, though the incident itself is still not that unlike the weighted stories we all carry. I know a young woman doing time in prison for vehicular manslaughter, and another who's battling cancer at a young age. That's only the beginning of what I know, yet to maintain unwavering strength and let everybody go about their day free of complexity or disruption, I must disguise my pain and exclusively be "good."
Why are we this way? Why do we find it so tricky to engage in intimate conversations with those who share the spaces we inhabit?
As I wrote this, the mailman came and delivered the mail at my fourplex. Although my front door was open and I was seated next to it, he didn't acknowledge my existence — nor I his.
But in my imagination, I feel comfortable and confident. I offer him the same private thoughts and experiences that I so eagerly consume from others on Terrible, Thanks for Asking. Never mind being funny or charming or eloquent — let's just go for a complete sentence that is baldly honest. "I've got a fat ulcer on my lip and it's terrible, thanks for asking."
In my imagination, I show him the ulcer and he shrieks. And it makes his day.