June 12, 2017

This American Life: Fermi's Paradox and Loneliness

“Fermi’s Paradox” is about intelligent life in the universe – if it’s so vast and has been around so long, why haven’t we heard from them?

The recent This American Life show by the same name is a great one. And like so many of their great shows uses this basic idea as a springboard into much more emotionally resonant stories. (At least they were for me, YMMV.)

The first part of the show goes through the actual issues around the paradox – maybe it’s because they just haven’t found us yet? Maybe it’s because they spend more time listening and less time transmitting? Maybe we have heard from them but we don’t know it? Maybe they’re living with us now! David (Kestenbaum) got his Ph.D. in physics and talks to a couple of his old professors about his struggle. Because the idea that we’re alone in the universe, that this is it, really bums him out.

That part of the show was well done and thoughtful, but the next two are were it really got me. They both extend the nature of the show by talking about loneliness among people, rather than loneliness among the universe, and IMO you should not listen to them unless you’re prepared for some emotional overflow.

The first of the two is loneliness in the context of a marriage. It references a podcast (of course!) called Something Something Something, which is a marriage therapist who records conversations with her clients and, with their permission, broadcasts and discusses them. The anecdote is around an older couple (in their early 60s) who have been married something like 35 years. And for a significant amount of that time (over 20 years) the husband has been cheating on his wife. (He says it’s sex without love, but you never know, do you?)

It’s heartbreaking to hear what people who love each other can do to each other, and how powerful inertia combined with childhood trauma can be. Surpisingly, the wife wants to stay with her husband. And the therapist’s main job is to get the husband to realize that his (legitimate) shame and grief is crowding out his wife’s, that it’s not sufficient to express contrition but he has to give her space to be angry, and even angry without a point or hope of resolution.

And during the session you hear him get this, but then you hear him react to something she’s said in the same old way, where his shame is preventing him from hearing what she’s saying and from thinking about what she needs. They point it out and he gets it, again, and then you realize that life isn’t a movie and it’s not a switch you can flip. That emotional trail he implicitly blazed over decades through his actions won’t be so easily shortcut.

If the first of the two pulls your spousal heartstrings the second will do the same for your parental heartstrings. It starts as kind of a standard story, putting the wondrous curiosity of a kid up on a pedestal: “Once she got to be age 9 she asked all these big questions: ‘What is time? What happens after we die? Is heaven another planet? What is love?’” Oh, that precicious kid.

And the dad, a professor, starts talking about all the effort he was making to answer these questions. He’d write pages and pages and reference philosophy and history. Oh, what a great dad.


Except what the kid wasn’t looking for answers. She was just looking for a way to connect with her dad. And she figured that big, open questions would be a great way for them to sit down together and talk. Due to split custody he only got to see her so many days a week, so many weeks a year. She was going to a new school and didn’t know anyone and she was just lonely.

So just like the cheating husband in the previous segment the dad was walking down the Good Parent path that so many things in our culture blaze for us. Sitting at a table and talking doesn’t make for a good Instagram post, making stuff does. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.

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