MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. Today on the show, life's rough edges and how we deal with them. Writer Nora McInerny has faced a lot of tragedy and hardship in her life, and she hates it when people try to make her feel better by suggesting that maybe everything happens for a reason.
NORA MCINERNY: It's the worst. To me, there'll never be a reason, and not a reason good enough for my husband to die painfully and brutally at the age of 35. That will never be - I will never look at my life and say, you know, everything happens for a reason and Aaron died so that I could be on the TED Radio Hour with Manoush Zomorodi.
ZOMORODI: (Laughter) Oh, God, that's so awful.
So Nora is the host of the podcast "Terrible, Thanks For Asking," which shares stories from people going through some of the worst times in their lives. She has been on the show before, talking about her own worst moment, when her husband Aaron died from brain cancer, which she documented in a book and a TED talk called "We Don't Move On From Grief, We Move Forward With It." And today she is our guide to a series of TED talks about difficult and uncomfortable topics, like death and pain, disability and even debt.
What do you think, Nora? Sounds like a super-fun episode, right?
MCINERNY: This is my ideal way to spend time, Manoush. This is - I was made for this conversation.
ZOMORODI: And just for folks who maybe aren't familiar with your story or your TED talk, can you share it briefly just to sort of fill people in?
MCINERNY: Yeah. My - the career that I have truly comes from - my most popular piece of writing, Manoush, is not a single book that I've ever written, OK? It is the obituary that Aaron and I wrote together.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
MCINERNY: (Reading) Purmort, Aaron Joseph, aged 35, died peacefully at home on November 25 after complications from a radioactive spider bite that led to years of crime fighting and a year-long battle with the nefarious criminal named cancer, who has plagued our society for far too long.
We wrote it before he died, which was unusual, and we wrote it not knowing that it would be published. Truly, we thought, oh, sure, someone will check this. But an obituary is an ad for your death. They'll publish anything you pay for. And we did not know. We were so delighted by that, and so many other people were, too.
And I got so many emails, so many messages from complete strangers after that obituary came out that I could not unsee just how unspecial (ph) I was, just how clear it was that this thing that I felt isolated me - set me apart from all of my peers, everybody - nobody knows how I feel - is really - that's just what made me a part of the world, that all these people had gone through something - not the exact same thing, but they had gone through something. And that - that knowing that I was not special - that was everything to me. It's - that inbox, all those messages - that became the podcast "Terrible, Thanks For Asking."
ZOMORODI: What does make you different, though, I would say, is that you are very good at articulating a lot of things that people might feel but just don't know how to possibly put into words. And I think at this point, I'd love to play a clip of your TED talk, if that's OK.
MCINERNY: I'll listen to it. I'll cringe at the sound of my own voice like any human would.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
MCINERNY: Grief is kind of one of those things like falling in love or having a baby or watching "The Wire" on HBO where you don't get it until you get it, until you do it. And once you do it, once it's your love or your baby, once it's your grief and your front row at the funeral, you get it. You understand what you're experiencing is not a moment in time. It's not a bone that will reset. But you've been touched by something chronic, something incurable. It's not fatal, but sometimes grief feels like it could be.
And if we can't prevent it in one another, what can we do? What can we do other than try to remind one another that some things can't be fixed and not all wounds are meant to heal? We need each other to remember, to help each other remember that grief is this multitasking emotion, that you can and will be sad and happy. You'll be grieving and able to love in the same year or week, the same breath. We need to remember that a grieving person is going to laugh again and smile again. If they're lucky, they'll even find love again. But, yes, absolutely, they're going to move forward, but that doesn't mean that they've moved on.
ZOMORODI: Can you talk some more about that last idea - that moving on is not the same as moving forward - because it's different, right?
MCINERNY: Oh, it's so different. And I want to note that my best work is really, truly an act of passive aggression, and that's what this TED talk was.
ZOMORODI: (Laughter) What?
MCINERNY: This TED talk was a way of, you know, saying the things that I felt like I could not say when I was really in the depths of it and creating something that people who are in the - really just knee-deep - neck-deep in hardship, in sorrow - had something they could put on their Facebook page, that they could forward to somebody and say, it feels like this; please try to understand, because I could feel the clock ticking. I could feel the clock ticking once the funeral was over, when fewer people started checking in or showing up, when what was still an emergency situation for me - raising a very small child on my own, I still had a mortgage, I still had so much to figure out - I could feel that, you know, as people were, rightfully so, getting pulled back into the normalcy of their own lives, that I couldn't get there. And that part of my discomfort was making it very, very uncomfortable for other people.
And a few times I did hear that explicitly, right? Like, you will move on. And all I could think of was, like, I will not. I will not. And it's words, but what those words mean is - and what they imply and what they feel like is saying, someday this won't matter. Someday Aaron won't matter. Someday the father of your firstborn child - it won't matter. And it will always matter. He will always matter. And it does feel like a particularly Western, particularly American thing to do - to push people to move on - right? - to get over it.
MCINERNY: And the minute, you know, we see somebody appearing to be normal, we assume, like, that it's over for them. So all those people who I mentioned, Manoush, who had reached out to me - they were sharing stories - some of these things that had happened decades before, years before. Some of them were, like, also very fresh in it, like me. And they were telling me about it because the people around them hadn't asked or assumed that it was over.
ZOMORODI: Yeah. And I guess one way that we often try to make each other or make ourselves feel better is to try and rationalize. Like, maybe it was meant to be. Because it is kind of terrifying that bad things could happen to any of us at any moment.
MCINERNY: Yeah. I think it feels better when you're on the outside to say, well, God, there had to be a reason, right? It feels like you're sort of - to me, that has always felt like a protective measure when you are on the outside. Like, there are certain things that just happen to other people and it's for reasons. It's - could be God, just could be, you know, fated in some way. But when you're in it and you hear that, for me - not for everybody - some people, I think, truly do find comfort in the "everything happens for a reason."
But most of the people, if not all, that I've ever spoken to really cite that as one of the most painful things. You know, I have a friend who lost her son to suicide, and there was another person in her parish whose son had fallen into a river and she had, you know, run, she had scooped him up, she had saved him. And everybody was rushing to say, like, oh, that's - you know, God had a plan for him. And what does that say to the people who've lost their sons or their mothers or their children or their jobs or their sense of security? I can't love or believe in a God who says, like, well, you get a Tesla and you get a tumor. I can't roll with a God who's that crappy of a planner. That just does not feel good to me.
ZOMORODI: So you were getting all this somewhat lousy advice when you were grieving the loss of your husband, and is that why your podcast tries to do kind of the exact opposite? Like, you bring people on who have been through all sorts of hardship and you just let them tell their stories.
ZOMORODI: I want to I want to share a clip from a recent episode. I'm thinking of the show called "A Simple Choice" with a guy named Mark. Can you tell us a little bit about Mark first?
MCINERNY: Mark is one of those stories where, if you were writing it as a piece of fiction, if you were writing this as a screenplay, everybody who read it would say, oh, I'm sorry, it's - this - no one's going to believe this. It's just too much.
ZOMORODI: Too much.
MCINERNY: Right? Mark's story is that he lost his mother to cancer when he was very young, so he sort of postponed college to stay home with her. And then he married his high school sweetheart and was always afraid - you know, always sort of waiting for the other shoe to drop. And it did because his worst nightmare happened, his wife died too.
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "TERRIBLE, THANKS FOR ASKING")
MARK: I wasn't even in the room the moment she took her last breath. It was - I just spent a bunch of time with her on my own in there and then just kind of, like, I had no idea what to do with myself. I ran out into the hallway and just walked around. I don't even know. Like, I can't pinpoint what I actually was doing or thinking at that time. It was just all a blur.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARK: After the memorial, I pretty much just took off and traveled by myself off and on for, like, five months, just here and there.
MCINERNY: And who could blame him? Who would blame him? There's a very famous book by the Rabbi Harold S. Kushner called "When Bad Things Happen To Good People." Because Kushner is a religious leader, you kind of expect him to say, hey, it's God's plan. But he kind of says the opposite, which is probably why people love this book. He says - and this is a quote - "why do we have to insist on everything being reasonable? Why must everything happen for a specific reason? Why can't we let the universe have a few rough edges?"
ZOMORODI: On the show today, life's rough edges. In a minute, we'll return with writer Nora McInerny as she guides us through her favorite TED Talks that have helped her get through tough moments.
MCINERNY: It is an absolute delight in the most brutal way.
ZOMORODI: (Laughter) I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Stay with us.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ZOMORODI: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. On the show today, we are talking about life's rough edges with writer Nora McInerny. She's sharing a selection of her favorite talks - ones that deal with grief and people's hardest moments, sort of Nora's specialty.
You know, the premise of your podcast is in the very title, "Terrible, Thanks For Asking" - The idea that you don't always have to be super positive, which really kicks us off. It brings us to the first talk you chose to share with us from psychologist Susan David, and it's called "The Gift And Power Of Emotional Courage." OK, so why this one?
MCINERNY: I think that Susan - I'm just going to give Susan a little hype here. I think that Susan was ahead of all of the times. I think that Susan has been, you know, a one-woman drumbeat against toxic positivity for far longer than people have been willing to acknowledge that phrase. She has this very, very powerful notion of not categorizing feelings as good or bad. Because people love to - we love labels. We love categorizing. But it also makes some feelings less appealing and therefore, quote-unquote, less valuable than others.
ZOMORODI: And that is exactly - you know, she explains in her upbringing that, before she became a psychologist, she was a teenager growing up in South Africa and she had a very sick father, and she tells the story of how she handled it.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
SUSAN DAVID: My father died on a Friday. He was 42 years old and I was 15. My mother whispered to me to go and say goodbye to my father before I went to school, so I put my backpack down and walked the passage that ran through to where the heart of our home, my father, lay dying of cancer. I told him I loved him, said goodbye and headed off for my day.
At school, I drifted from science to mathematics to history to biology as my father slipped from the world. From May to July to September to November, I went about with my usual smile. I didn't drop a single grade. When asked how I was doing, I would shrug and say, OK. I was praised for being strong. I was the master of being OK, refusing to accept the full weight of my grief.
No one knew. And in a culture that values relentless positivity, I thought that no one wanted to know.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ZOMORODI: So, Susan, as a teenager, showed her stiff upper lip. She just got on with it. I have to say that that is definitely the culture I grew up with. How about you, Nora?
MCINERNY: I mean, I grew up in the Midwest. And for me, especially with grief, it ended at a funeral. And that's something that I see in a lot of these conversations that I have with people which is, if you've not seen grief, if it has not been explained to you as a long-term chronic condition, you won't know how to do it and you will think that something is wrong with you when you are just having a very human reaction to a human situation.
ZOMORODI: Yeah. You touched on it a little bit, but she even goes as far as to call it toxic optimism, as you said. And this idea that you literally you're poisoning yourself by not having - acknowledging your own darker feelings. And she actually shares her research and other studies that suggest that not confronting your uncomfortable feelings can manifest in ways - in physical ways, like in the eating disorder that she mentions, or depression, anxiety. Let's play that clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
DAVID: In a survey I recently conducted with over 70,000 people, I found that a third of us - a third - either judge ourselves for having so-called bad emotions like sadness, anger or even grief, or actively try to push aside these feelings. We do this not only to ourselves, but also to people we love, like our children. We may inadvertently shame them out of emotions seen as negative, jump to a solution and fail to help them to see these emotions as inherently valuable. Normal, natural emotions are now seen as good or bad. And being positive has become a new form of moral correctness. People with cancer are automatically told to just stay positive, women to stop being so angry, and the list goes on. It's a tyranny. It's a tyranny of positivity, and it's cruel, unkind and ineffective. And we do it to ourselves, and we do it to others.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVID: Research on emotional suppression shows that when emotions are pushed aside or ignored, they get stronger. Internal pain always comes out - always. And who pays the price? We do - our children, our colleagues, our communities.
ZOMORODI: Oof (ph), that one just hit me in the gut. I was thinking of one of my kids, you know, being down in the dumps because COVID and stuck...
ZOMORODI: ...At home and can't see friends and me being like, come on. It's fine. We did all these amazing things today. It's a - let's go for a walk. And, you know, I feel bad when my kid feels bad, so I...
ZOMORODI: ...Push it away. But that clearly is not always terribly helpful.
MCINERNY: I mean, it's also a very human thing, Manoush. Like, what do we want to do? We want to...
MCINERNY: ...Be able to fix things. We want to be able to fix things...
MCINERNY: ...Especially for the people we love, especially when the people we love are adorable, wonderful children who also, you know, you know, are like, slightly - you're like, well, you have a - do you like having a house? You know, like it could be worse.
ZOMORODI: Yeah, it's true (laughter).
MCINERNY: I mean, you know? Like, I remember telling my dad something like, I don't know - I was, like, criticizing him about something. And he was like, oh, I'm sorry. I didn't realize that, you know, keeping you alive for 18 years wasn't enough. And I was like, oh, jeez.
MCINERNY: OK, you know, when you say it that way, pretty good point, pretty good point, Dad. But, you know, what I hear from Susan is that hurt people hurt people. And guess what? We do. Like, we do. If you are not given the space to process your feelings - like, when she said it comes out, like, oh, it comes out. Think about all of the experiences that you've had with a person, you know, where you're like, I'm sorry, why are you - ma'am, this is a Wendy's. Like, why are you losing your mind? And there's some...
MCINERNY: ...Unmet need there - right? Like, there's some...
MCINERNY: There's something - it's not about the frosty. It's just not.
ZOMORODI: Can I just ask you, like, I wonder how much - you know, do we need institutions in some way to change our culture of dealing with loss? Like, I found it so interesting that I think just a couple of weeks ago, New Zealand's Parliament unanimously passed a law enabling parents who have a miscarriage or a stillbirth to take paid bereavement leave. I mean, a lot of people just get on with it, Nora, because they have to.
MCINERNY: Oh, yeah.
ZOMORODI: They have to, as you say, like, pay the mortgage. They got to go to work and just - there's no time to grieve.
MCINERNY: Yeah, we need much better systems, at least in the U.S., where, you know, the standard bereavement leave is three to five business days, which meant that my dad was - you know, I was back at work the Monday after his funeral and, you know, making PowerPoints, you know, doing the business stuff that I needed to do. And I was also not fully there, not fully present, not OK and definitely also needed a job and needed to work. And I will always be struck at how that was a privilege because that was something I had because I had...
MCINERNY: ...A full-time job with benefits.
MCINERNY: But my friend who cuts hair for a living, our husbands died very close together. She was back in the chair after her husband's suicide seven days after because you don't cut hair, you don't get paid. You don't get paid, how do you pay your mortgage?
MCINERNY: And that to me is atrocious.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ZOMORODI: Just to go back to Susan, she continues her story about the one person in her life who really does get her to face just how sad she is as a child. Let's play that clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
DAVID: My eighth grade English teacher fixed me with burning blue eyes as she handed out blank notebooks. She said, write what you're feeling. Tell the truth. Write like nobody's reading. And just like that, I was invited to show up authentically to my grief and pain. It was a simple act but nothing short of a revolution for me. It was this revolution that started in this blank notebook 30 years ago that shaped my life's work - the secret, silent correspondence with myself. Like a gymnast, I started to move beyond the rigidity of denial into what I've now come to call emotional agility. Tough emotions are part of our contract with life. You don't get to have a meaningful career or raise a family or leave the world a better place without stress and discomfort. Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.
ZOMORODI: Nora, emotional agility - do you interpret that phrase as having the language to talk about your grief or your problems? I know you're a big believer in using language to really pinpoint particular feelings. But - or do you think it's more than that?
MCINERNY: I think it's the language piece, and it's the ability to sit with and feel and experience all of your emotions. And I think Susan called it, you know, a form of self-gaslighting that she describes of saying, like, oh, well, I shouldn't feel that feeling, right? I shouldn't feel jealous. Oh, I shouldn't feel upset when, really, if you can identify your emotions as data, which is something that she says - your emotions are telling you what's important to you. It's telling you what you value.
So we - she and I had this conversation where - and she was obviously reading my soul, deeply attacking me, where she's like, well, if you feel guilty - right? - about not spending enough time with your kids, that tells me and tells you you value - one of your values is spending time with your children. Like, what is wrong with that? It is not just language but also, like, the permission to give yourself the space to feel things and to trace that feeling back to something.
ZOMORODI: Yeah. We talked about toxic optimism, as Susan puts it. But, you know, I was thinking I recently read about something called tragic optimism, which really...
ZOMORODI: ...Struck me. Yeah, isn't that good? It was...
ZOMORODI: It's from an Austrian psychologist who is a Holocaust survivor, who - this idea that there is space to have good and bad feelings, that life is hard, as she puts it, and you can be hopeful and also feel pain.
MCINERNY: Yes - all of it, all of it. You can, and you will. It's the yes and. It's, but wait; there's more. My dad was an infomercial writer. And (laughter) so...
ZOMORODI: (Laughter) Really?
MCINERNY: It's, you know, wait; there's more. For, you know, four very difficult payments for the rest of your life, you will feel all this and more. And you will put it in this quiet blender and shake it up, and there's your life.
ZOMORODI: OK, so continuing with this idea of life containing multitudes, the next talk is from Maysoon Zayid. She's a writer, an actor, a comedian. She's a co-founder of the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival, which is pretty cool. She also has cerebral palsy, and Maysoon is very frank about her disability. Her talk is called "I Got 99 Problems... Palsy Is Just One."
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
MAYSOON ZAYID: My name is Maysoon Zayid. And I am not drunk, but the doctor who delivered me was. He cut my mom six different times in six different directions, suffocating poor little me in the process. As a result, I have cerebral palsy, which means I shake all the time. Look. It's exhausting. I'm like Shakira, Shakira meets Muhammad Ali.
ZAYID: Now, I must warn you, I'm not inspirational. And I don't want anyone in this room to feel bad for me because at some point in your life, you have dreamt of being disabled. Come on a journey with me. It's Christmas Eve. You're at the mall. You're driving around in circles, looking for parking. And what do you see? Sixteen empty handicapped spaces.
ZAYID: And you're like, God, can't I just be a little disabled?
ZAYID: Also, I got to tell you. I got 99 problems, and palsy is just one. If there was an oppression Olympics, I would win the gold medal. I'm Palestinian, I'm Muslim, I'm female, I'm disabled, and I live in New Jersey.
ZAYID: If you don't feel better about yourself, maybe you should.
ZOMORODI: All right, she's one of a kind.
MCINERNY: She really is. She's so good.
ZOMORODI: I mean, this is a very different way of using humor to talk about pain that she felt. What are your thoughts as you're listening to this, Nora?
MCINERNY: I mean, I always now am concerned about, you know, is somebody trimming away the dark parts just for entertainment? But what I think Maysoon does so well is use the light parts to pull people into the pain. And she does that so deftly.
ZOMORODI: Yeah. She talks about winning the oppression Olympics. And, I mean, it's funny. But also, it's on the nose because we do often turn hardship kind of into a competition.
ZOMORODI: Like, comparing the terrible things that have happened to us, like, almost ranking them.
MCINERNY: Brilliant, right? That's what we're talking about. Like, she completely identified that.
MCINERNY: And I think there is a sliding scale of empathy. So if you feel like empathy is a finite resource and you didn't get enough of it when you were struggling, to watch somebody else get it can be very, very difficult. I remember, you know, right after Aaron died, making the huge mistake of reading the comments on a Facebook post about his obituary. And so many of the comments were like, well, my husband died, and no one gave a crap, you know, and...
MCINERNY: Or, well, who cares? You know, people die every day. And I was so injured. And also, I understood. I understood because I was getting a lot of attention. And most people - their suffering is quiet and invisible.
And I experienced this with - you know, I mentioned my friend earlier whose husband died by suicide. My husband died by brain cancer. And we have - our children are very similar ages. And, you know, we took a trip together with our young children. And people would ask - right? - like, oh, we'd, you know, get to talking. Oh, well, our husbands are dead. Oh, how did they die? Well, when I say brain cancer, the response is always the same, you know? Oh, that's horrible. Oh, that's horrible. My friend whose husband died of suicide experience is, he's horrible. What he did is horrible.
ZOMORODI: Oh, I see.
MCINERNY: Or - do you know Edith Eger?
MCINERNY: She's a Holocaust survivor. And when - and a psychotherapist or maybe a psychologist. I don't know. She's a therapist of some kind. And when people would come to see her, they'd say, like, oh, I can't complain about, like, my marriage. Like, you survived the Holocaust. And she's like, one, it's my job. And, two, it's not a comparison.
MCINERNY: Right? Like, it's not - these things don't have to - they don't have to - we don't have to weigh them against each other. I don't have, like, a yardstick for what is worse. But we do - back to that categorization thing, we not just - we don't just want to categorize our feelings as good or bad. We want to categorize our experiences and then rank them, right? And you can rank your own experiences for sure. I can tell you that, you know, my husband dying was way, way worse than when I fell down the stairs in the gym in high school and my backpack spilled open. And in ninth grade, that was the worst day of my life. Now...
ZOMORODI: Not so much.
MCINERNY: Not so much. But we can't do it to each other. It just - no one wins that game. And who would want to?
ZOMORODI: In just a minute, we continue the conversation with writer Nora McInerny about comedian Maysoon Zayid's talk. On the show today, life's rough edges. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Stay with us.
ZOMORODI: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. Today on the show, life's rough edges. We were just talking to writer Nora McInerny about comedian Maysoon Zayid's TED talk, "I Got 99 Problems... And Palsy Is Just One" (ph). Maysoon speaks very bluntly about her disability and how it's been a long struggle to prove that she's talented.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
ZAYID: I was like the pet lemur of the theater department. Everybody loved me. I did all the less-than-intelligent kids' homework. I got A's in all of my classes, A's in all their classes.
ZAYID: Every time I did a scene from "The Glass Menagerie," my professors would weep. But I never got cast. Finally, my senior year, ASU decided to do a show called "They Dance Real Slow In Jackson." It's a play about a girl with CP. I was a girl with CP. So I start shouting from the rooftops, I'm finally going to get a part. I have cerebral palsy. Free at last, free at last - thank God almighty, I'm free at last. I didn't get the part.
ZAYID: Sherry Brown got the part. I went racing to the head of the theater department, crying hysterically like someone shot my cat, to ask her why. And she said it was because they didn't think I could do the stunts. I said, excuse me. If I can't do the stunts, neither can the character.
ZAYID: This was a part that I was literally born to play, and they gave it to a non-palsy actress. College was imitating life. Hollywood has a sordid history of casting able-bodied actors to play disabled onscreen. Disability is as visual as race. If a wheelchair user can't play Beyonce, then Beyonce can't play a wheelchair user. People with disabilities are the largest minority in the world, and we are the most underrepresented in entertainment.
MCINERNY: I imagine her having this experience with people who knew her, who worked with her, learned alongside of her, wept at her performances, and you see them also not see her in so many ways. I cringe, and I think about, where have I done that, and where am I doing this? Like, what deep harm are we doing when we can't see what someone is going through?
ZOMORODI: That is a very good point because obviously, Maysoon's is very visible. And in fact, you know, she starts her talk by standing up and showing the audience how her body shakes, which kind of shocked me at first. But I thought also, that is so generous because I think we - many of us are very uneducated about this particular disability, about so many disabilities.
ZOMORODI: But you make a very good point that, you know, there are so many disabilities that are not visible, whether that is mental illness or depression, PTSD. I mean, it goes back to your empathy scale, right? Like, how much empathy do we have for people or for hardship that is not visible?
MCINERNY: Well, not much, not much. It's obviously, like, much easier to address and talk about and acknowledge and empathize with the things that we can see. And I don't know what the answer is to cure this - you know, the world of, like, being dummies, which is, like - when I hear Maysoon's talk again, I think, like, what dumb, harmful stuff have I done or perpetuated without knowing based on not being able to, like, be humble enough to, like, ask a question or give people space to tell me what they need? By the way, and questions are - like, why are you asking the question? Like, are you asking for that person or are you asking for yourself?
MCINERNY: That's how I think about it, you know? And so what questions have I asked only for myself and not for that person? And where do I lack humility?
ZOMORODI: I want to go back to this idea of the things that are not visible that are causing people grief, pain or loss. And I think the last talk that you've chosen is actually - might surprise people, but it is perfectly on topic because it's about the things we don't talk about, which is people's financial situation. The talk is called "How College Loans Exploit Students For Profit," and it's from Penn State professor Sajay Samuel. You have a college student in your life, I believe, Nora?
MCINERNY: Yes. Yes. We've got a college freshman here.
ZOMORODI: So college is expensive.
MCINERNY: College is expensive. College is expensive. And, you know, like many students, like, there was not money to save for him to go to college. So we are helping with the expenses that we can, but he chose his college based on affordability - based on the absolute lowest price point. And we are talking him through these really big life decisions, which is you're 19, you can go live on campus, but you will be taking out a pretty big loan to pay for, you know, $14,000 worth of room and board. Would you like to do that or would you like to live at home with us and your little brothers and your little sister?
ZOMORODI: All right. Let's hear from professor Samuel about the effects of people, you know, 18 years old taking on debt.
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SAJAY SAMUEL: Of 100 people who enroll in any form of post-secondary education, 45 do not complete it in a timely fashion for a number of reasons, including financial. Of the 55 that do graduate, two will remain unemployed and another 18 are underemployed. So college grads earn more than high school grads, but does it pay for the exorbitant tuition and the lost wages while at college? Now even economists admit going to college pays off for only those who are completed, but that's only because high school wages have been cut to the bone.
For decades now - for decades, workers with a high school degree have been denied a fair share of what they have been - what they have produced. And had they received as they should have, then going to college would've been a bad investment for many. College premium - I think it's a high school discount. Two out of three people who enroll are not going to find an adequate job, and the future for them doesn't look particularly promising. In fact, downright bleak. And it is they who are going to suffer the most punishing forms of student debt.
ZOMORODI: Do you hear from a lot of listeners about debt, and particularly college debt?
MCINERNY: Oh, yeah, millennials, Gen X. I mean, we are all sold the same dream that Professor Samuel said - or mentioned...
MCINERNY: ...Which is, you know, the way to get on that upward escalator in life is college, college, college. Since we were in kindergarten, everyone's talking about going to college and you have to go to a good college. And what does that even mean? And - but, Manoush, I picked this talk because I know so many people - so many brilliant, wonderful people who will, it feels like, never be out from under their college debt.
MCINERNY: People who were marketed to from a very young age, told that this is the way to, like, get up in the world, get ahead in the world, who took on immense debt without truly understanding what it means and what the impacts would be, believing that this would be the ticket to something else, when really what it's the ticket to is, like, a crushing load of debt. And these are my peers. These are my friends. This is my husband - both my husbands. It does not have to be like this, but it is. And what it does is it makes you feel like a loser. It makes you feel like something is wrong with you and there's nothing wrong with you. You participated in, you know, the great mirage of American ideals.
ZOMORODI: So we have talked about shame or the shame that comes with having debt on the show before. And it's not just college debt, it's having a mortgage, it's health insurance, medical costs - which is something else that you've had to deal with a lot, right?
MCINERNY: Oh, all of it. When my husband died, he was 35 years old. And it is so expensive to die. It is so expensive to be sick. We worked up until the very end, and I'm not kidding. And I - we had nothing. What we had was an online fundraiser - this is 2014 - to help, like, pay for bills - to help pay for a funeral.
A funeral is so expensive. I didn't even feed people. I did, like, beer and wine and, like, light desserts. And then I got hammered. And it was a huge safety net, Manoush - a safety net made by, like, friends and family, but mostly strangers. And I was so ashamed of it. I was so ashamed of knowing and having other people know that I couldn't do this. And there's nothing fair about that. Nothing.
ZOMORODI: Oh. You know, I think money is so sensitive...
MCINERNY: It's so sensitive.
ZOMORODI: ...And taboo to people. So what would your advice be to someone who is going through a huge financial crisis in addition to dealing with other sorts of pain and trauma? Like, what do you tell people?
MCINERNY: I tell them that there's no timeline, that there's no rush, that there's no, like, good way to do it or no right way to do it, and that - you know, I often hear from people who are like, you know, I'm - my dad died three days ago, but I think I'm doing pretty well. I'm like, great, just wait. You know, like, today you're doing well and that's fine. And - also and, wait for it, because there's going to be more. And, you know, "Terrible, Thanks For Asking" is 100% just wish fulfillment from the year after Aaron's death when I was like, I'm good, I'm fine, never been better, look at me go. I'm wearing lipstick. I'm - you know, I'm running a half marathon. You'd never know.
Death made - my husband's death made me better. And what I really wish that I would've told people is that I was awful. I was terrible. It was horrible. It was the most numbing and the most excruciating pain I'd ever been in. And not everybody deserves the truth, but some people do. And the people who truly care about you, who want to be there for you - when they ask, you got to tell them the truth. You have to tell them the truth so that they can give you whatever they're capable of giving you.
ZOMORODI: So that's, like, a big question I think. Over the past year, a lot of us have had loss, but also a lot of us want to express our condolences to other people and really mean it, but it can be so hard, it can be awkward. Like, what is the best way to say I'm sorry for your loss or show that you care and, like, have it count, Nora?
MCINERNY: Have it count. Have it count. First of all, you never know. You never know because we are unknowable creatures. And so the thing that you are like, you know what, this helped me so much, I'll do it for somebody else - somebody can receive that in a completely different way, and what you have to remember is it has nothing to do with you, and that's OK, right? And I tell people, like, to do what you can do and what you will do.
MCINERNY: With the caveat that that has to be consistently if you can, competently always and humbly. So I woke up after Aaron's funeral and it was Minnesota in December - so much snow. And I heard footsteps on my roof and I was not alarmed because I often looked out my window and saw my neighbor Mark on his roof. He would sweep off the extra snow. You know, he was trying to prevent ice dams on his own house, and now he was on my roof sweeping snow off so that I wouldn't have an ice dam. I would never volunteer to do that for somebody, but that's what Mark could do, right? That was, like - that was in his, like - in his expertise. It's what he was willing to do.
What I'm saying is, like, when you do something that is - it's not generous if you're counting the cost, if you're counting your time, if you're counting your money. So make it a thing that you just will do and that you can do and then you just keep doing it without expectation from the person who's receiving it. And also with the openness that they could say, I really actually - I hate carrot cake, don't you ever bring a carrot cake to my house again. And you say, oh, yeah, no problem. No problem.
ZOMORODI: So I think that brings me to my last question, which is, what do you say to the person who's listening right now who is grieving? Whether - I mean, I feel like, inevitably, that is potentially anyone who's listening because of the last year. Whether it's because they lost someone or they lost their job or they feel like they just lost out because life changed so radically, what would you say to them? Like, you must have gotten some good advice during your grieving process. What would you share?
MCINERNY: Oh, I got such beautiful advice. I got such beautiful advice because it wasn't advice. The best advice I got was not people telling me what to do, was not people telling me, you know, a platitude or something that they thought would cure or fix it. It was people who could recognize and contextualize the loss. In the aftermath of losing Aaron, I got an email from my friend Mary Bolcom (ph), who really is my mom's friend but, you know...
ZOMORODI: You'll take her.
MCINERNY: ...My friend, too, now. Now that I'm widowed, I can be friends with any older woman. And Mary is - you know, she had lost her husband and she had lost her son in very, very close succession, much like I lost my husband and my father died right before Aaron did. And she wrote me an email, truly dashed off from her work email. And it said, Nora, I believe we have a sacred responsibility to live fully in the face of our losses, period, return, return. It's a bitch, though. And she signed her name, sent it off.
MCINERNY: And I thought, like, wow. Like, isn't it? Isn't that just the best summary that you have heard about moving forward? Just, like, it is a sacred responsibility to live fully in the face of our losses - right? - to wake up, to, you know, appreciate what we have alongside the longing for what we have lost. And it is sacred, and it's a bitch. Like, it sucks. Don't let anybody tell you it doesn't suck to wake up in a bed where the person who loved you more than anybody else used to sleep.
MCINERNY: Don't let anybody tell you that it doesn't suck to have to, like, you know, look - walk through Target through a whole Mother's Day section and realize, like, I won't be a mother. Whatever the loss that you are carrying, like, you can hold those two things - that you have this sacred responsibility and it's so hard. But it doesn't make you anything other than a person who is experiencing life.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ZOMORODI: That's Nora McInerny. She's an author and host of the podcast, "Terrible, Thanks For Asking." You can see her full talk and all of the talks from this hour at ted.com. Many thanks to Nora and to you for being with us for this hour about life's rough edges. To learn more about the talks on today's show, go to ted.npr.org. And to see Nora's talk along with hundreds more TED talks, check out ted.com or the TED app.
Our TED radio production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Rachel Faulkner, Diba Mohtasham, James Delahoussaye, J.C. Howard, Katie Monetleone, Maria Paz Gutierrez, Christina Cala and Matthew Cloutier with help from Daniel Shukin. Our intern is Janet Woojeong Lee. Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Andersen, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Michelle Quint. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.
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