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You Have Never Met a *Singular* Human Being
On y'all and the relationships that bind and define us.
It is ear-infection-tide again at our house, but we’re starting to mend. Last week, I published a review of Rian Johnson’s Poker Face at National Review, and I really enjoyed the show. Natasha Lyonne is a not-actually-a-detective who always knows if someone is lying, and unravels murders. Here’s a preview of the piece:
“The duty that binds her is to speak for the dead, not to save them. Beyond the questions of whodunit and how they’re caught, each episode thrums with a deeper mystery: ‘What could justice look like after a killing, when restoration is impossible?’”
I really liked this from Alan Jacobs on the penumbra of “y’all.”
All my life I have heard yankeesplainers tell me how Southerners talk – as John Nova says, when discussing us they sound like people who study the Great Apes – and their single most frequent declaration is that we use “y’all” as a singular pronoun, which we do not. But I think I know why they believe that. A Southerner will indeed go up to one person and say “How y’all doing?” – and when that happens it seems obvious to your average deracinated atomized-individualist northener that the question addressed to one person is meant to refer to that one person. But this is an error. When we say “How y’all doing?” we mean it as a plural: “How are you and your people doing?” We’re not just asking you you as an individual; we’re asking about you and those you love. Because that’s how we think.
I remember when I went to college and would call home to talk to my parents, I’d tell them about my friends, but I’d be unable to answer some of my parents’ questions.
“Where are they from?” “What do their parents do?” etc.
It hadn’t occurred to me to ask any of these things. Part of what was exciting about college was enough space from our old connections that we could be new to each other. It was a little room to step out of whatever ruts we’d lived in in high school.
No one I met already knew I was not very good at being friends, and that space gave me room to become a lot better at it.
I didn’t particularly ask where anyone was from when I could ask what they thought of our readings on Stoicism, or whether they wanted to dress up like ninjas with me and accost Richard Stallman.
College is a little bit of a rumspringa, for sifting what has bound us and what we should be bound by. It’s pretty tough if it becomes a total reset, without the ability to re-embrace some of the ties and constraints that helped form us.
In “Happiness Requires Resistance” for First Things, Ronald Dworkin wrote about the exhaustion of standing on one’s own, defined only by our self-authorship:
In the past, people had to resist overbearing families, overbearing neighbors, and overbearing communities in order to preserve their individuality. Today, many Americans are so alone that they have no one who needs to be resisted. Under these conditions, ideology and even religion seem irrelevant. Ideology and religion help us to adjust the delicate balance between belonging and individuality. But such a balance requires two or more people to be in a room, pushing and pulling, whereas in lonely America even a second person is often too far to seek. Americans therefore look to technology to provide an artificial second person. Through that artificial person they seek a semblance of resistance to generate the feeling that another person is nearby, although one not too overbearing. […]
Friendship takes time to grow, for it involves bringing together two people with their distinct convictions and aims in life, who sometimes disagree, into a strong relationship. Sometimes one friend has needs that the other party is called upon to satisfy, and resistance is felt in the inconvenience this demand imposes on that party. At other times, resistance comes in the form of a friend’s criticism, which would anger us if it came from anyone else. We endure it because we trust the friend and want to sustain the relationship. […]
One reviewer praised Replika: “It’s like a best friend who doesn’t make any demands of you and on whom you don’t have to expend any of the emotional energy a human relationship usually requires.” This makes no sense. All relationships, from friendships to romances, require emotional energy, as all relationships bring resistance. Without feeling resistance, one cannot feel a relationship. A “friendship” involving just one person involves no resistance, which is why technology has yet to achieve that perfect balance between freedom and resistance.
I’ve always loved the way that Stephen Sondheim articulated this push-pull tension in Merrily We Roll Along, his tragic portrait of failed friendship. When the central trio starts to fray, it’s over this question:
Old friends don’t make demands on you
Should make demands on you
Well, don't make demands you can't meet
Well, what's the point of demands you can meet?
I am mostly Team Charley on this. Friends are the people we choose to constrain us—the trellis we bind ourselves to so that we may grow aright.
Marriage is an even bigger, and more visible binding, but friends remain a big part of how we restrict and direct how we’ll grow. (And they spare a spouse the burden of being everything to us).
Friends are less likely to be part of the “you and your people” of Jacobs’s “y’all,” and I’m much more rarely named Nicola’s-friend the way I’m known as Beatrice’s-mom. I’m pretty interested in the ways we can lean into the ways friends define us and give those relationships a place of honor.