100? - Transcript
This is a transcript of a “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” episode entitled “100?” The text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future for accuracy.
I’m Nora McInerny, and this is “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.”
And we are... look, everybody knows there’s a pandemic. We know. We get it. I’ve been recording in my car. I just had a breakthrough moment where I realized… Why am I sitting in the driver’s side, where I have less room to hold a laptop, a recorder and a microphone? I should be sitting in the passenger’s side. One, because I hate driving, and two, because I have more room. So… if you’re wondering why does she sound more comfortable? Well, folks, she is.
Anyways. It’s not our 100th episode, officially, but… I mean… who’s to say. I am a person who has recently had to ask someone how old I am. My husband tells me I’m 37. Such a forgettable number. How would you know? I’m a person also whose parents forgot to give them a middle name and then lied my whole life, told me my middle name was Elizabeth, even though the proof is in the pudding — the pudding being the birth certificate, where there is just a blank where a middle name should be.
Point being: I was not raised in a detail-oriented household by detail-oriented people but… why are we even caring that this is the 100th episode? Because podcasting is rich in traditions. For the thousands of years that people have been podcasting, they’ve been honoring important milestones, like anniversaries and 100th episodes. Taking the time to look back and create retrospectives on our own bodies of work.
Actually, Jon from fundraising was like, “Aren’t you coming up on 100 episodes?” And we counted them and we were like… eh… not really (we’ve done more than that), but sure, we can celebrate.
If you’ve already heard the origin story for this podcast, too bad. I’m telling it again. My husband Aaron died in 2014. He had brain cancer. We wrote his obituary together. It went viral — Google it, obituary, spiderman, Aaron Purmort. And I got so many emails from all over the world. People telling me THEIR story. Sharing their pain. And their stories were different from mine — although I do have a niche of widows and brain cancer people — but they were also the same story. It’s always the same story. It’s one story. We’re out here suffering in a world that wants us to find the silver lining and pick ourselves up by the bootstraps. We were aching for honesty, and we found in each other — in complete STRANGERS — a space to do that.
And that’s what we try to do every episode. To get to that space. To get to the truth. Not just the facts, but the emotional truth. Because it’s never JUST about what happened. And truth has many, many different sides to it.
Over the past few weeks, I wrote and rewrote this episode three or four times. I called Hannah and Marcel and told them “I just can’t do it. I give up.” And they were like, “Well it’s your job so… do it, and stop being a whiny little B.” And Hannah did what she always does, which is point out the thing I don’t want to see: I couldn’t write it because I wasn’t writing the truth.
I was writing what I thought you’d want to hear. I was trying to create an episode that concisely recapped the experience of making this show for the past however many years. I was trying to dig through hundreds of hours of tape to find LIFE LESSONS and KEY TAKEAWAYS. And that is not the truth.
The truth is hardly ever quippy. It’s never a perfect little pill that goes down easy. The truth doesn’t fit into a TOP TEN or a TOP FIVE. I’ve known that to be true in life, and I’ve known that over and over making these episodes. I’ve known that every story we make is never at the end of the story — it’s somewhere more like the middle. The middle place is uncomfortable. When you’re neither here nor there, not who you were and not who you want to be… when you’re between things and places and experiences, when you’re ungrounded… who likes that? Who THRIVES there?
I… kind of do. Maybe because I spent so many years there with Aaron. I got very comfortable being uncomfortable.
It’s kind of like that adage about lobsters. Which I would never eat because they’re hideous, and I don’t like to eat ugly animals, but when you put them in a pot of boiling water, they feel the pain quickly — LIKE ANYTHING WOULD. When you turn the heat up slowly? They apparently feel less pain, they just slowly boil alive. And wow that is sad and also, that is us! That is all of us! Sometimes, the water turns up slowly. Sometimes, we’re tossed right into a nice, rolling boil.
And sometimes, even if we’re used to it, we still want to get out. We want to mine these dark times for something shiny, something valuable and then get the fuck back into the sunshine.
Most people don’t find this show because their lives have gone perfectly. Most people find this show because they’re going through something — or someone they know is going through something — or because they’ve gone through something.
And while this show is not for everyone — so please, if you do like it, rate and review it on your podcast app for the love of GOD — it’s for a whole lot more people than would ever care to check it out.
When I tell people about this show, and I dread being asked what I do for a living… they’re usually like, oh, uh, that sounds… interesting? Which is Midwest for “Ew, I don’t like that at all.”
It sounds interesting… but who would want to listen to something that is unresolved? Who would WANT to spend more time in that liminal space than absolutely necessary? And this is where I gesture to all of you. Because the most important thing about this show is that we let people tell their own story. We let them own their own story. The people on this show aren’t guests. They are participants. And that’s important.
Because when you’ve gone through something difficult — if you’re right in the midst of something difficult — your story will also become a piece of social currency. Something for people to connect through… Oh, did you hear about Hannah? Yeah, it’s so sad. And that’s not usually nefarious and it’s not usually malicious, but the more your story gets passed around, the edges are rubbed off. It goes from something multifaceted, something complex… to something simple. Something sad.
And that — the pity — is what makes the isolation of suffering even lonelier.
You are not a sad story, even if your story is sad.
Your story might make someone feel bad, but you don’t need anyone to feel bad for you.
I’ve always been good at pitying people. As a Midwesterner who feels obligated to tell you what a deal I got on anything you compliment, I know that pity is the cheapest emotion there is. It costs you nothing to feel bad for somebody, so we toss pity around like emotional confetti.
I grew up feeling bad for so many people. I felt bad for the guy standing at the freeway exit in below freezing temperatures.
I felt bad for the starving kids my parents told me about while I refused to eat anything but buttered noodles or plain potatoes for dinner.
I felt bad for the blind kid who got on the bus with my brother, and I lay awake at night imagining all kinds of sad things about his sightless teenage life.
What a jackass! Pity let me keep the suffering of others at a distance. To observe it like a television show and turn human beings into nothing but sad stories. Sad things were so sad! And they happened to other people.
That wasn’t a problem until I was other people, and those sad things were happening to me.
In 2011, on a devastatingly normal October Monday in Minnesota, I kissed my boyfriend goodbye and left for work. The sky was a bright, clear blue and the temperature was perfect for a Fall Outfit: a light jacket over a light dress, over leggings tucked into boots, with a blanket scarf to pull it all together (I said it was 2011). I stopped at our neighborhood coffee shop and bought my Americano, and pre-paid for his (cute). And then I went to the advertising agency where I worked, sat in my communal open-space office and waited for him to get to work at an agency just a mile north of my own office so we could talk on Gchat all day about our plans for the night, our plans for the week, and our plans for the house we now both lived in.
When he called me, I was so annoyed. Dude, you cannot blow our cover! Just chat me! But it wasn’t him, it was a colleague calling from Aaron’s phone to say that Aaron had a seizure and was in an ambulance going to the hospital.
Four days later, I was standing in the lobby of the neurology unit of our local hospital, watching the morning break over Minneapolis. In the distance, I could vaguely make out where our colleagues would be arriving at their desks, firing up PowerPoint and coming up with life-changing campaigns for animal feed and discount haircut chains.
Our world had stopped, mine and Aaron’s, had stopped, but theirs was still spinning. Over the past few days, friends had stopped into our world for brief visits. They’d bring balloons and stuffed animals and sometimes pizza. Someone brought a puppy, which looking back is a sign of our youth.
“You’re going to be fine!” they promised, and everything in me wanted to scream. A 31-year-old getting a brain tumor is not fine. A person being diagnosed with stage IV brain cancer is not fine. Needing brain surgery and chemo and radiation is not fine.
But they needed to say it, because they needed to believe it. Not for Aaron, not for myself, but for them.
What WAS that? That was pity. I knew it the moment I felt it being directed at me… and at Aaron. I didn’t know what its opposite was, but I craved it.
Empathy is a very overused and slightly misunderstood buzzword right now, but it wasn’t in 2011. At least not in the circle of mid-20s young professionals that I was a part of. I didn’t have the language to express how lonely it felt to have the person I loved reduced to just a sad story. I didn’t have the language to say that it was okay for hard things to be hard, and for scary things to be scary. That we didn’t need them to feel bad for us. We needed them to show up for us. We needed them to feel with us.
And some people did. Physically, yes. But also just...emotionally. There were a few people who let me and Aaron be… sad, or happy, or anxious.
Most did not show up. They were not cruel people, they were just oblivious people. Pity usually is like that. It looks like being nice and feels extremely unkind.
The past few weeks of isolation have illuminated that confusion and emotional distance I felt during Aaron’s sickness and after his death. And I know from hearing from so many of you that you felt that too. We’ve seen a lot of people looking at the suffering and fear of other people and saying, “You’ll be fine!”
We are not “all in this together,” at least not in the same ways. None of us experience anything in the same way.
Even the death of a loved one is a different experience for every mourner. Remember funerals? I mean man, who knew one day you would long for a funeral. A funeral is a communal experience filled with people crying over something entirely personal.
And so is this. The way you experience this pandemic, this isolation, this unemployment, this confluence of events, is specific to you.
Yes, it is affecting the entire world. And it is affecting you differently than it affects me. It affects me differently than it affects my husband, or my children. Because we are all carrying our own internal world inside of us. A nice big mix of emotional confetti that includes the context of who we are in the world, what happened to us before, and what is happening to us now.
We NEED our individual experience acknowledged. Not just by others, but by ourselves.
Nobody needs your pity — not even you.
Everyone needs your empathy — even you.
And if you’re wondering how to get there, we’ll be right back.
We’re back, and I’m talking about empathy for yourself, and owning your story, which you know, because you listened right up until the ads, listened to the ads and now you’re here. Thanks!
What were we talking about? Pity! And empathy! And the power of owning your own story.
There is a moment I think about often, in episode 6 — “A Henry Sky” — an interview I did very, very early on in my career. When I myself was secretly pregnant after having lost a pregnancy a few years before, right before Aaron died.
I’m interviewing a mother whose son Henry was stillborn. And in that interview, right before the first big emotional crescendo of the story, there is silence.
Colleen: Yeah. And he put the ultrasound on my belly and... he couldn't find the heartbeat, either. And in that moment, I remember him saying, I'm sorry but your baby died inside of you. [LONG SILENCE]
That silence in there? It’s 36 seconds.
And in the moment, listening to her crying on the other end, it felt like 15 minutes. Maybe 20. It felt like an entire lifetime had happened before she spoke again.
And when she did, it was this beautiful expression of what she had felt after hearing those words: “Your baby died inside of you.”
Colleen: I remember that he just pushed the ultrasound on my belly so hard and that I was just in so much pain. It was all sorts of pain. Physical pain, emotional pain, any sort of possible pain that exists in the universe happened in that moment.
We are afraid of silence.
We are afraid to sit with people’s pain, to let them openly sniffle into a chasm of nothing. And it’s so, so important to LET THAT HAPPEN.
My own reflex was obviously to talk. To talk and tell her it was okay to cry, which she obviously knew. To let her know that I could relate. Who cares, Nora? And I shut the eff up, and she found words. And she got to own that story. Uninterrupted by my own discomfort, my own need to fill that silence, my desire for her to be okay so I could be okay.
Silence is not just a problem we confront with other people, it’s something we struggle with on our own. Can you listen to yourself? Can you even hear yourself? Can you be alone with yourself, and your own pain and your own story without trying to cut to a bright side, or a happy ending, or a lesson?
There’s something that happens when people tell us their stories. We have to start our interviews by reminding them to stay in the moment. Not to tell a story by saying, “Well, of course I know now...” or “Well, I should have known…” or “Fast forward...”
We do that, those little… I don’t know what the word for it is… We do those self-annotations naturally, because our default mode is to make sure that our story, our suffering, is palatable to other people. And yes, our podcast is narrated, and it’s edited so we can stick to a specific arc and create a piece of art — yes, I called a podcast art! — that moves you and resonates with you. But you don’t need any of those qualifiers when you’re telling your story.
You knew what you knew.
You did what you did.
You were not able to fast forward.
You lived at the exact speed of life and not a moment faster.
Putting yourself at the center of your own story does not mean you think you are the center of the world. It is not navel-gazing to self-reflect, to turn over the events of your own experience in search of meaning or purpose or identity.
There are things that need to be acknowledged.
People are excited to be on the podcast, and they are scared to be on the podcast. They’re nervous — that they’re talking too fast, that they aren’t being interesting, that they’re not saying it right, that they’re not hitting the point they wanted to hit. They’re scared that people will not understand them, won’t like them, won’t relate to them.
That their experience or their pain will not be valid. Will not get the stamp of approval from the suffering police. Nope, sorry! Doesn’t count! Too vague! Not enough blood, not enough tears! Too many subplots! Stakes aren’t high enough!
And of course you’re scared of that. But owning your story does not mean you NEED to tell it on a podcast, or in a book, or to every person who crosses your path. It doesn’t mean that you need to lead with your pain, or trade your traumas like Pokemon cards. Not everyone deserves your story. Not everyone is a safe place for it. Not everyone is ready for it.
We want to tell our stories. It’s how we’ve connected since the beginning of time. We want what we’ve been through to be like throwing on a light for someone else to follow. We want other people to know that they are not as alone as we once felt. As alone as we may feel right now.
A while ago, we started an audience program called the Terrible Writing Club. A way for all of us to dig into our own stories. And we’re bringing it back. It’s a chance to share your story with a community of people who are more likely to respond with empathy than with pity. You can find a link in the show description with all the details, but you have to sign up soon, so hit that link.
Happy 100th episode to you. And you. And me. And Hans and Marcel and Hannah and Jordan. Here’s to 100 more. And 100 more after that.