Edition #72: How to Be a Human

Plus, 25 famous women on crying, a flimsy op-ed, and the final scene of Fleabag

A Note From the Editor

For the past two years, me and a group of my dear friends have been committed to a monthly book club. It began as an excuse for us to power through our perpetually packed schedules and make a concerted effort to be together once a month, but it quickly morphed into something special; a breeding ground for some of the best, most thought-provoking conversations I’ve ever had. Subsequently, those very conversations were my inspiration for starting this newsletter, because they made me realize what depths you can overlook in another person when you don’t have the opportunity to have deeper, more meaningful conversations. Books are perfect for that. They give us something to talk about that isn’t directly related to us or to the people we know, but rather to a concept. Through reading and discussing, we are at a safe enough distance from reality that we might be able to examine our stances without guilt. Fiction enables us—requires us—to obtain breathing room from our small, insulated circles. It asks us to step away, to look at things from a further place.

When the pandemic hit we went from an in-person meeting to a virtual one. Through the Zoom fatigue and many of our members leaving NYC temporarily or for good, spreading around the country and around the globe in search of whatever might come next, we persisted. People tuned in from Vermont and California, Florida and New Jersey and we managed to never skip a month. This week was our last virtual meeting as we plan to transition over to a stripped-down version of our old in-person meetings next month. It felt like the end of an era, and it also felt fitting that we discussed Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Klara and the Sun” for our final week as a group (note: some soft spoilers ahead).

The novel is set in a dystopian future where “lifted” (read: privileged) children have AFs (Artificial Friends). These robots look like humans and are meant to ease the loneliness children experience as a result of the remote-learning world they live in. Similar to West World, the novel drums up questions about what it means to be human and whether, at some point in the future, we might have the ability to design machines so advanced that they will be capable of attaining consciousness. In the novel, the protagonist, Klara, is an AF. Though she is a robot, the reader falls in love with her quickly. She is sweet and innocent and charming, all the qualities you might find endearing in a real person. In many ways, she’s more compassionate than a majority of the human characters in the novel.

It got us talking about humanity—what it means and how we classify it, whether there are hard and fast rules about what makes a human a human. Love, quite naturally, came into the fold. Humans are capable of love, which we agreed is a trademark of the human experience. But in the novel, Klara also seems capable of love. Though it is her job to act as a reliable companion to her child, Josie, she spends the vast majority of the novel pursuing a selfless act of sacrifice for Josie’s benefit. Love, we agreed, is marked richer and more legitimate when one party acts selflessly. If, in some far-off version of the future, robots could love selflessly, what would separate us from them? A friend of mine said something I haven’t stopped thinking about since: “Robots are becoming more like humans and humans are becoming more like robots. Maybe we’ll meet somewhere in the middle.”

If love and connection are key features of humanity, then I would agree; we are becoming more like robots. We are capable of loving those in our tight circles, our family and friends, maybe a few coworkers, but we seem to be collectively incapable of leading our lives with love; extending that same love and compassion to strangers to whom we have no ties. As I walk around the streets of New York, I witness this daily. It is the person on the train begging aloud for change or water and being wholly ignored—it isn’t the lack of funds exchanged that troubles me, it’s the lack of acknowledgment for another living, breathing human being. How easy it is for us to pretend people don’t exist, to tune them out. In James Baldwin’s stunning essay, Nothing Personal, he examines how far we’ve gotten from each other. To Baldwin, love is the only possible salve for the wounds of the modern world, where we are so enamored by possessions and looks and perpetuating youth and denying the errors of the past that we become numb to each other. Baldwin says:

“Though I rarely see anyone smiling here, I am prepared to believe that many people are, though God knows what it is they’re smiling about; but the relevant truth is that the country was settled by a desperate, divided and rapacious horde of people who were determined to forget their past and determined to make money. We certainly have not changed in this respect and this is proved by our faces, by our children, by our absolutely unspeakable loneliness, and the spectacular ugliness and hostility of our cities. Our cities are terribly unloved—by the people who live in them, I mean. No one seems to feel the city belongs to him.”

The other night as I walked home from book club, shoving my body through the throngs of people crowding Macdougal Street, I tried something: I looked every single person I passed in the eye. A small handful of people met my gaze, often with the fleeting flicker of a glance lasting half a second. Then, when I was nearly home, my gaze was met and held. The person lifted their hand, a simple wave of acknowledgment, and I lifted mine back. I see you, I see you. It was brief, but it was something. At that moment, I felt human.

Cheers, my dears, and thank you for reading. Try looking people in the eyes this long weekend. Try connecting where you can. It feels good, I promise.

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Three Pieces of Content Worth Consuming

  1. 25 Famous Women On Crying. This is one of those lazy articles where they grab one-off comments from speeches and interviews and compile them into a “story”, but I still liked it. It's interesting how certain women, like Gloria Steinem and Rihanna, claim they only when they are angry (which makes me think of Leslie Jamison's essay, On Female Rage), while others say that crying is a clear, healthy indicator of a life lived. Personally, I'm with Arianna Huffington.

    “I don’t want to have a thick skin, because if you have a thick skin, you don’t let the good things in either. So, I prefer to be permeable, like a child. Have you seen how children are? You know, they can be really upset, they can cry, and then five minutes later, you look at them and it’s over. And that’s how I like to be.”

  2. It’s Not Their Job to Buy You Cake. If you read one thing from this week’s edition, please make it this. A response to the (terrible) op-ed published by the CEO of Washington Media/Washington Post about workers not wanting to return to the office. This CEO claims she’s worried about the “erosion of office culture” with the current remote work situation, and her arguments are flimsy. In this rebuttal, the writer points out how most “office culture”  is centered around menial tasks like happy hours, birthday celebrations, etc—most of which are organized by women. These celebrations are also non-promotable tasks that mean nothing and are not even remotely a solid reason to force workers back into an office. I will stop there because I could go on and on about this.

  3. How Do I Feel Less Lonely? There are certain pieces of writing that have an instantaneous effect on you; they bring reflexive tears to your eyes and make you feel seen, or understood, or challenged, and this was one of them for me. Yanni writes one of my favorite newsletters called The Writing, and in it, he has an advice column where he answers questions on writing and living. Though this is tailored towards writers, it also feels relevant to anyone who is working in a job whilst dreaming of passion pursuits, or anyone afraid of the risk that comes with change.

    “[Suffering] is necessary for freedom from suffering,” Martin says, for that suffering is learning how to let go of who you once planned to be in order to become who you were told to abandon: yourself.

Perhaps You Should…
Rewatch the Final Scene of Fleabag

Did you even watch Fleabag, the two-season tragicomedy on Amazon? If not, you should (but maybe don’t watch this), This final scene from the show is so simple and heartwrenching, it always makes me cry (and makes me feel human!).

**Bonus Content** (Birds Named By People Who Hate Birds)

Just trust me.

A Quote From A Book You Should Read:

“I think all of our voyages drive us there; for I have always felt that a human being could only be saved by another human being. I am aware that we do not save each other very often. But I am also aware that we save each other some of the time.”

-Nothing Personal by James Baldwin