A woman cried quietly in the Davis Square subway station. It was 11 or so on a Friday night; I’d just ghosted a birthday party and was making my way home early. They’d wanted to move to Liberty — land of overpriced cocktails, teetering blondes and the narcissist bankers who prey on them. Not my scene.
She must’ve ridden a different car because I didn’t spot her until the platform at Davis. Or maybe we were on the same car the whole time, and I was simply too absorbed in my tiny computer. Me and everyone else. Prying our eyes off them only when the hazard is immediate, direct.
She wept simply to herself, not loudly, not into her own smartphone. Everyone ignored her. The way we ignore the homeless; an almost imperceptible shift to the other end of the platform. As if misfortune is contagious. I ignored her too.
Until we boarded the escalator and suddenly she was right behind me, eyes downcast, wiping tear after tear off a red and puffy face. I faced forward and justified my choice to do nothing. She’ll think I’m being condescending anyway. She’ll be embarrassed that someone noticed her tears.
And then — as if waking from a terrible nightmare in which humans ignore other humans in distress — I came to my senses and spun around.
“Is there anything I can do?” I asked softly. It was the best thing I could think of to say. Action-oriented, helpful. I meant it.
She glanced up briefly, then back down at the escalator floor. “No, thanks.” A deep breath. “It’s just been a really shitty week.”
A shitty week.
God, who hasn’t been there? I thought about the bruises on my own heart, so recent, just beginning to yellow and fade at the edges. Still tender to the touch. I let that pain infuse my response: “I know how it is.”
“Thank you,” she said, still looking down. Then, suddenly, she lifted her head. “Thank you,” she repeated, her eyes connecting with mine. She meant it.
“Happy holidays.” And we parted.
I left the station and let muscle memory take me home, thinking all the while about the power of that brief interaction. A blip of authenticity in a world of pretense; a sliver of connectedness in a culture of isolation. Everything from the lingerie ad above my head to the concrete under my feet was designed to sell us the illusion of invulnerability. So we walk around pretending that we don’t weep, that we don’t lose, that we don’t die. And we shun the people who break the implicit pact to maintain this collective illusion.
By definition, every single person alive experiences fear, and pain, and loss. Why do we shut down in the face of these inevitable, universal realities? Why do we choose shame instead? Why are we so dishonest with — and disconnected from — one another?
Amy Schumer starts her HBO special by saying, “Let’s recap how I got here.” Uh, yes please — how did you get there, Amy? How did you get to the top of the world? Was it by being so endlessly talented, hardworking, versatile, creative, perceptive?
You bet. But that’s not what she says. Instead, this is what she credits with her success: “I lost my two front teeth in 5th grade,” she starts, “which is late. That same week, I got my period. Which is early. So I was like this jack-o-lantern with tits walking around. And on top of that, I had one of those moms who told me that I didn’t need to shave above my knee. So from here on up, I was a werewolf.” Cue thunderous, raucous laughter from the audience.
So, how did Amy Schumer get to the Apollo for her first-ever HBO comedy special? She got there by being imperfect. She got there by stumbling, by falling short of the mark, by being vulnerable.
And by embracing it. The Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, in her life-changing audiobook Unconditional Confidence (recommended to one and all), explains that there are two opposite “paths” we can take when the shit hits the fan in our lives. We can either harden ourselves, running away from the bad feelings and burying ourselves in distractions (which inevitably leads to more neurosis, aggression, shame, and blame); or we can sit with the fear and embrace the discomfort therein. She speaks of it as “turning toward” fear, or even “leaping into” it. Not to wallow in that fear, but to really accept it without judgment, and then to surround it with compassion. In this way we can cultivate a most genuine form of courage — what she calls “tender-hearted bravery” — that is rooted in practicing acceptance and gentleness toward ourselves (and by natural extension to others).
Implicit in all this is the fact that you can’t be authentic if you don’t embrace your vulnerability. Most of the time, we’d rather go down kicking and screaming than do this. But when it finally happens, it turns into an endless source of confidence — and, I would argue, power. Not power in the sense of success or control; the kind of power that comes from being honest and compassionate, the power of saying “no” to a culture that would rather profit from our impulse to hide from insecurity.
Comedy is one of the few places where you don’t just embrace your insecurity — you broadcast it. It’s one of the few places where you can take off the mask. Where you have to, actually. Because you can’t be fake and funny. In The Hidden Tools of Comedy, industry guru Steve Kaplan defines comedy in two ways:
• Comedy tells the truth.
• Comedy is an ordinary guy or gal struggling against insurmountable odds, without many of the required tools with which to win, yet never giving up hope.
Think about your favorite comedy and ask yourself if that formula doesn’t apply. That’s what makes us love them — because we so desperately want to love ourselves. The truth is that we all want to “win” at every facet of life, and not one of us ever does. Maybe at a few things, if you’re lucky and work very hard, but not at everything. We’re too unskilled, too imperfect. Not to mention that our hearts get ripped out of our chest and run over by a dump truck a couple of times throughout life. It messes us up on the inside, and then we mess up on the outside. We’re not like James Bond — we don’t get every girl, we don’t dodge every blow. James Bond is an action hero, not a comedy one. The more ‘skills’ a character has — the more capable and adept and set up for success — the less comedic he is. And thus the less real.
When I go to an open mic, I find all different stripes of people there. Young and old, black and white, men and women, sociable and shy, affluent and poor. If you looked at the group of us decontextualized, you wouldn’t be able to see any common thread. Because the bond we all share isn’t visible. The bond we share is that we’re all really fucking traumatized.
And really fucking honest about it.
The most beautiful thing about comedy is that it publicizes our secret shame. Sarah Silverman, in explaining her own comedic style in an interview with NPR’s Fresh Air, said: “Darkness can’t exist when you drag it into the light.” Aptly enough, she credits her therapist with that exact phrase.
When you’re on stage all by yourself, and you make a joke about your failures — getting fired or dumped, feeling unworthy and unloveable, being anxious and depressed and terrified — and people actually laugh at it, it’s the most sublime feeling on the face of the planet. No drug could ever compare. You feel like you’ve just cured all the world’s illnesses. You feel like you’ve cured your own illnesses. It’s like 100 insanely productive therapy sessions crammed into a handful of seconds.
Why? Because people only laugh when it’s true. And I don’t mean factually true, I mean resonating with the human experience — I mean profoundly true. Comedy transforms our darkest truths into light by making them a shared experience. So, in order to do comedy, you have to embrace your darkest truths. Even if you’re the butt of your own joke, even if you’re making yourself look terrible — it’s still a form of self-acceptance, and thus humanity-acceptance. It’s still that tender-hearted bravery that Pema teaches us about.
I don’t really have a conclusion for this, other than to say: I wish we could all be a bit more tender-heartedly brave outside of the stage. Let’s borrow a note from comedy and take off the mask, if only a little at a time. Let’s acknowledge that trauma is definitive of the human experience, so we don’t have to suffer through it alone and ashamed. Let’s make a practice of being real with each other.
The next time you feel hurt, or humiliated, or afraid, let someone see you that way. Let a good friend in. Don’t feel like you have to hide yourself. You’ll be surprised at how many people respond in kind when you approach them already unwound, already vulnerable. Pema envisions a world without aggression by having each and every one of us choose the path of openness, acceptance, and compassion — a path you can only embark upon when you’ve smiled at your fear. Or, as the case may be, laughed at it. Laughed with it.
Let’s turn into fear, one laugh at a time. That’s what I’ll be doing anyway, and I hope you’ll join.