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Socializing with the Single: Even if I *am* Selfish. July 5, 2008

Posted by Onely in "Against Love"...?, As If!, Everyday Happenings.
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So I’m in St. Louis right now, and yesterday I spent the day hanging out with my best friend and her fiancee as we barbecued (and I’m not being flippant using that word – S [the fiancee] made ribs — good ones too. v. impressive!) and entertained M’s friends and family as they came over to celebrate the dual holiday of her birthday and independence day. I had a great time, and for a while I was stuck outside because I shielded myself from the biting bugs with some very strong-smelling bug spray, which M couldn’t stand the smell of inside – and because of it I got to chill with S while he attended the grill and M was inside preparing other food.

SIDENOTE: just so I don’t get misunderstood and before I go any further, I am not telling this story b/c I think poorly of S – in fact, he listened to what I had to say and respected my opinion. Rather, I think this story is important to write about here because I was just surprised to be confronted with such a strong opinion by such a great guy, and it made me think that probably there are lots of people who have opinions like this, which means… well… that I need to defend my position more publicly!!! But please, whatever you think about the following, don’t blame S. He’s a great guy. Really. And he makes my best friend very happy, so please please leave him out of your gut-reaction to the following:

So… S and I were chatting about his future with M, and in a single breath he told me about how excited he is to be getting married (good!), that he really feels lucky to have found her (even better!), and how much he’s looking forward to having kids after she finishes law school (great!), and that he can’t understand why some people wouldn’t want kids, that the only reason he can come up with is that they must be very selfish.

Wha?? After all those pleasant platitudes, I was genuinely surprised at this sharp criticism. Of me. At that moment, he didn’t know I don’t want kids, never have, so he obviously didn’t mean to be critical of me personally (and he probably wouldn’t have even said it if he had known) … but suddenly I felt very defensive. Of course I knew that it was just an innocent remark – but it was an honest one, too — one that many others likely hold, and so I felt the impulse to at least stand up for my point of view. So we continued to talk, and I told him as undefensively as possible that I personally didn’t want kids – never have – and that I didn’t feel like it was fair to be judged as selfish just because I had no desire to have the particular experience that he wanted to have. He made an important point in defending his perspective, saying that he just didn’t think there could be anything like having kids, and because of that he wanted to experience it for himself. And I agree – having kids must be an experience unlike any other. But my question: Why is it so important that I want it too?

This question is one of the points that Laura Kipnis’s book Against Love untangles particularly well, and one which has definitely become more and more important to me in the last year and a half. A lot of us – myself included – want others to fit into the same box we fit ourselves into. Why? Perhaps for connection, for friendship and love and especially so that we can say to ourselves, see, what I feel/think/see/experience is normal. There’s nothing wrong with me – everyone else is doing/feeling/seeing/thinking the same thing!

That’s a perfectly human – and therefore understandable – position. But in practicing this perspective, we exclude everyone who doesn’t fit into the same place, who finds themselves thinking/seeing/understanding the world in other ways. And that’s important to keep in mind. I’m a pretty mainstream girl, and S is a pretty mainstream guy. I’d say we’re both pretty damn “normal.” And yet in establishing his position as normal, he quickly excluded me.

We do a lot of damage insisting on commonsense, it seems. So in that light, I’ll leave you with a quote excerpted from Vladimir Nabakov’s Lectures on Literature, a series of lectures he gave at Cornell. This quote’s from the final lecture, entitled “The Art of Literature and Commonsense,” when he takes a stab at the “commonsensedness” of math (sorry for all you math-lovers out there). It’s long, but it’s worth it:

In this divinely absurd world of the mind, mathematical symbols do not thrive. Their interplay, no matter how smoothly it works, no matter how dutifully it mimics the convolutions of our dreams and the quantums of our mental associations, can never really express what is utterly foreign to their nature, considering that the main delight of the creative mind is the sway accorded to a seemingly incongruous detail over a seemingly dominant generalization. When commonsense is ejected together with its calculating machine, numbers cease to trouble the mind. Statistics pluck up their skirts and sweep out in a huff. Two and two no longer make four, because it is no longer necessary for them to make four. If they had done so in the artificial logical world which we have left, it had been merely a matter of habit: two and two used to make four in the same way as guests invited to dinner expect to make an even number. But I invite my numbers to a giddy picnic and then nobody minds when two and two make five or five minus some quaint fraction. Man at a certain stage of his development invented arithmetic for the purely practical purpose of obtaining some kind of human order in a world which he knew to be ruled by gods whom he could not prevent from playing havoc with his sums whenever they felt so inclined. He accepted that inevitable indeterminism which they now and then introduced, called it magic, and calmly proceeded to count the skins he had bartered by chalking bars on the wall of his cave. The gods might intrude, but he at least was resolved to follow a system that he had invented for the express purpose of following it. (374)

— L


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