welcome to the club

Welcome To The Club - Transcript

There’s room for everyone when everything is falling apart.

This is a transcript of a “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” episode entitled “Welcome to the Club.” The text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future for accuracy.

Listen to the episode here.

Hello, everybody. This is Nora McInerny, and this is “Terrible, Thanks For Asking.”

I'm coming to you from a new recording studio. It's called My Car, which is parked inside my garage, where I live now… I’m just kidding… but where I’m now recording this podcast, because that is how we live now. And I know that everybody right now is experiencing this... just... seismic shift in the way that their world functions, in what they were expecting out of life. And, you know, I think the only thing that hasn't been said about this situation so far is what a doozy.

What a doozy!

What I can't stop thinking about is how there's this club that exists, and it is very informal. And you can’t be invited. You just... it happens. And it's basically a terrible club. And yes, that happens to be the name of our little member supporter podcast club that we have. But there is just a broader terrible club that we all join at some point and we belong to forever, even though I think our membership is... we use that card most right in the beginning. But something happens like, you know, a huge pandemic, or we lose a job, we lose a relationship, we lose our health. We experience this upheaval some way or another. And there are so many ways to happen — there are literally countless — the world just opens up under our feet. Down we go.

And that is where so many of us are right now. We are down, down, down, down. And it's not that we stay down, but once we've been admitted into this club, once we're inside, we do start to see things differently. And by the way, that's not forever. It's not like we're, you know, forever enlightened. But there are usually moments of enlightenment within this experience. There is this peeling back of a curtain. There's this sudden realization that everyone is tender and vulnerable, and I hate that word but it's appropriate... we are all close to the edge of our own personal disasters.

And in some ways, joining this club does make us better. Not right away. I'm not trying to rush anybody to self-actualization or self-improvement — that is not the place to skip to when your life is burning in front of your eyes. But there is eventually or even momentarily a shift inside of you, something that realizes, “Oh… this is how the world works. None of us are exempt. None of us get a pass.”

I'd like to take the opportunity to plagiarize myself here, if that's okay, but basically tragedy is like a never-ending BOGO for things you never wanted. You're like, “Wait. No, no, no. I already went through something!” And then the universe or God or random chance, whatever you like to believe in, is like, “Too bad. Now, this other thing is also going to happen. And then another thing and another thing.” And you're like, “No, my cart is full.” And they're like, “We don't care.” And grief, which is what, by the way, we are all experiencing right now, is strange because even when it's communal — and right now it is very communal; the entire world is experiencing it right now — it is so, so personal.

So within this terrible club, we do have rules. They are unofficial, they're unenforceable, they are subject to change without notice. Like all good rules, they are easy to break. And so we break them often. Even big time nerds like me who are like, “I love rules. Give me more rules. What do I do? How can I do things right?” we break them all the time because… life.

Really, I actually think there's just one rule. So rule number one of one: We don't compare. Which is bullshit, because of course, we compare. We compare all the time and sometimes occasionally we do it favorably. We'll look at someone and think, “Oh, that sucks way more than what I'm going through.” But is that favorable? Sometimes we do it in this way: We look at our own pain and think, “This one wins, give me all the points. No one in the world has suffered quite like I have. Here's the proof.” And right now, I'm holding up an invisible trophy above my head. I'm hoisting it, and you can't see that. But… who wins and what is the point of winning? What could you possibly walk away with once that heavy medal is placed around your neck?

We compare, even though we say we don't and that we won't. And of course we shouldn't. We do it. And sometimes it's subtler. It comes out like this. It comes out like saying to each other and to ourselves, “Have some perspective.” And perspective is valuable. Of course it is. It would be foolish to think that the person holding a sign on the side of the road is carrying the same burden as a person who lost their emergency savings or, you know, is going to maybe have to cut back a little on their manicure budget. But they're carrying their own burdens, and the weight is unknowable to one another.

Most importantly, being in something is a perspective. Being right where you are, right in the middle of it, that is also perspective. It's different from how you will feel in a week, in a day, in five years. But it is real. It is valid. Sometimes I think that the reality of asking people to have some perspective is really just a subtle way of saying, “Share my perspective. See it my way.”

So an example from my own life, which is the only one I've lived so far, is that we have an eighth grader, and she's missing her last year of middle school. And... I am 37, I think? And I look at her and I think, “Wow, lucky you. You get to miss one of the worst years of school. One of the most universally miserable experiences is middle school. You got out early. Congratulations.” But she doesn't get to miss that. She has to miss it. It wasn't her choice to opt out of the last year of middle school, to opt out of, you know, those allegiances, those politics, those social strata — strata, stratis? It wasn't her choice, is the point. It wasn't her choice to miss out on the talent show. The one middle school dance that they were planning to have. So asking her to have perspective is really me asking her to ignore her own experiences, to abandon herself in favor of something that makes me more comfortable.

So I think that is our only rule that we don't compare, because comparing leads to so much more pain. Comparing is what makes us rush to fix things when really the first thing we need to do is to just acknowledge how hard this is, to just look at one another and say, “Yeah, hard things are hard. Pain hurts and that's OK.”

I think a lot of ourselves would identify as fixers. I am one. I think also maybe we're codependent. Maybe we're just caring. But our default instinct when we see someone struggling is, “I will fix it.” And wanting to fix it is not an empathetic response. That is a pity response, because empathy knows the only way through is through. And pity is like, “Are you sure there's not a shortcut? There might be a supplement you can take. Here's a book you could read. There is something that will just take this pain away.” But the pain we feel has value. And the more we compare, the more we try to fix, the harder it is to just be honest with one another. And to admit that this is hard and I am scared.

There's a reason this podcast is called “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” — “Fine, Thanks” wasn't as catchy, and also, “Terrible, Thanks For Asking” is an aspirational phrase. That is something that I wish I would have said in 2014 when, you know, so far the worst things in my life happened in that year. But everything was the worst. And I didn't say the truth. I told everybody I was fine. “I got it. I'm good.” And we all lie like this. And I think it comes back again to comparison, because if we share how we feel, will it threaten another person? Will they compare themselves against us? Will they assume I'm comparing against them? Is it safer just not to say anything? Let's not find out, and we're not just trying to avoid comparison, we're trying to avoid pity, because if I tell you the real truth, if I tell you how ugly this is, will that be all you can see? Because pity sucks. Pity turns you from a fully formed human being into just a sad story and if you've listened to this podcast before, you know that I don't think you are a sad story just because your story is sad.

We don't say we're fine because we are just people who love to lie. We say it because we're sure that the truth is unpalatable for other people and that the best thing that we can do for other people is to be okay or to at least pretend we are. We don't want to be a burden. We don't want to be a bummer. And because we don't want pity. Pity is the worst of the emotions. It is the opposite of empathy. It is a cheap emotion. And I am from the Midwest. I love the deal. And I’m a cheap person. And empathy is a, you know, it's a little higher end. It's a higher-end feeling. It does take work. It does mean sitting with each other's discomfort. It means showing up. It means trying to feel with someone, not just feel bad for them. But we can't feel with someone when they're not being honest with us, and we can't be honest with people who aren't safe, who we can't trust not to compare themselves against what we're telling them. So here we are sitting in our loneliness, and it is lonely because right now we have people who are all alone. Who have to be, for their safety, for ours, but also, it’s always been lonely to suffer. It’s always been a lonely place to be. Because even when people could show up physically, not everyone did. Even people who did show up physically then didn't show up emotionally. They avoided us in the grocery store. We stopped getting, you know, included on the group chat.

But what other people do has nothing to do with you and everything to do with them — with their experience and their capacity. And not everyone will show up. Even when we are not in a time of social distancing or sheltering in place. Not everyone will show up, but the people who show up are the right people. And not everyone can sit and listen and experience your pain with you, but the people who do are the right people. I occupy a lot of sad spaces in the world, but what I'm seeing is that people who have been in this club for a long time are seeing everyone they know realizing just how lonely it can be. And that brings us back to remembering not to compare. Not to hold up the thing that we have been through or the thing that we are going through against what other people are going through now. We have to all resist the urge to rub it in the face of people who are new to this club and say, “Yeah, yeah, didn't we tell you?” Instead, we really need to remember to scooch over and make room and say, “Yeah. Welcome to hell. Jump on in. The water's warm.” I’m kidding. It’s not… In a way I’m kidding. Because all of us are alone now, all of us are hurting in new and different ways.

We are gonna take a little break.

We’re back. So, as appealing as it is to try to compare what people have done for others vs. what they're doing for you, what you did for them vs. what they are doing for other people… we can't do it. We need to stop and recognize that our pain, our grief, our struggle is 100 percent fully ours. It is our precious. And knowing that does not have to turn us into Gollum, but it will turn us into someone else. You might not be the same person. You probably aren't the same person. After something terrible happens in the midst of something terrible, you change. And it's not always for the better. Not right away. And that's okay.

I think that — we've talked a little bit on this show before about the word “resilient” and how it's such a tough word. We talked about it in the context of childhood trauma and how saying resilient and saying “kids are resilient” sometimes takes the responsibility and places it on the person, like, “You are resilient. You will be resilient. You should be resilient.” And the definition is hard. And yes, I'm using a dictionary dot com definition, but the definition basically says to return to your original shape and quickly. And we don't. And that's not the point. Right? It's not about returning to our original shape. It's about living comfortably in whatever this new shape is, because it is OK to be changed by the experiences that we've had. And I think that resilience is really an acknowledgement of those changes, not a denial of them.

I'm going to say something that might hurt your feelings at first, but it's something that we all need to hear, which is this: We are not special. We aren't. The things that we experience, the things that we are experiencing now are new to us, but they are not new, and I don't say that to invalidate you. I don't say it to minimize you. I say it to encourage you, because pain and grief and suffering and sorrow have a way of making us feel like we are apart from the world. But what we know now more than ever is that these are the things that make us a part of the world. We are connected in these experiences, the same way we are in the happy ones. Even though I mean, when I say “connected,” I mean stay six feet apart, and there's no hugging. And also we are no longer congregating in public.

On a few other episodes, I have read parts of poems. I do it to remind everybody that I was an English major, that I'm very, very deep. This is a part of a poem. It's by Rilke. The full name of the poem is “Go To The Limits of Your Longing.” Here is the part of the poem that I like best:

Let everything happen to you. Beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.

And the point of that — of including that part of a poem in this episode — is that life is hard, but it's not always hard. And the point is not just that life is beautiful, but that it is not always beautiful. The point is that we are here now but will not always be here. But while we are, welcome to the club.


Nora McInerny

Marcel Malekebu

Hannah Meacock Ross

Jordan Turgeon

John Miller

Geoffrey Lamar Wilson

American Public Media