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Transcript: 617: Fermi’s Paradox

Transcript

617: Fermi’s Paradox

Originally aired May 19, 2017

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

So are you thinking about this a lot??

David Kestenbaum

I got sad about it on the training again this morning. It comes at totally random moments, you know?

Ira Glass

That's David Kestenbaum, one of the producers of our program. And to understand what he's been sad about, I think it's not going to make any sense unless you know that he's a physicist. He has a PhD in particle physics.

He was on one of the teams that discovered the top quark at Fermilab back in the '90s, before he became a journalist. So he thinks like a scientist. And he recently stumbled across a story he'd never heard before about Enrico Fermi, the physicist that Fermilab is actually named for.

David Kestenbaum

So the story goes that this is 1950. Fermi's visiting Los Alamos.

Ira Glass

Los Alamos, where they developed the atomic bomb?

David Kestenbaum

Yeah. And they're sitting around at lunch. It's Fermi and a handful of other physicists and they start talking about extraterrestrials.

Ira Glass

One of the scientists who was there remembers that they talked about some New Yorker cartoon, which had flying saucers and cheerful aliens stealing our trash cans. They joked about it.

David Kestenbaum

And then out of nowhere, Fermi says something like, so where are they?

Ira Glass

Meaning?

David Kestenbaum

The aliens.

Ira Glass

And did people know what he meant?

David Kestenbaum

Yeah, somehow everybody knew exactly what he meant. The idea was basically that, like, the galaxy is this huge place, right? Hundreds of billions of stars. It's been around for billions of years. If you believe that intelligent life is something that just arises given enough time, where is everybody?

Like, there have been billions of years, where civilizations could have developed and become way more advanced than we are and traveled from star to star, sent signals or something. Where are they? If that's right, where are they?

Ira Glass

This question became known as the Fermi Paradox, which goes like this. If it's so likely that intelligent life exists elsewhere, where is it? Why hasn't anybody shown up? And of course, the simple answer to that would be, well, nobody else exists.

David Kestenbaum

And I had never thought-- it made me think, maybe we're alone. I really thought that for the first time. Yeah, it made me really sad.

I had never thought about it seriously before. I had always assumed that life was everywhere. But he's making a really serious point here. He's raising a tough question.

Ira Glass

So for months now, when David's brushing his teeth or doing nothing in particular, it'll hit him again. Maybe we're alone in the universe. Like this morning, on the train.

David Kestenbaum

The specific thought I was having was that this would mean that there's nobody out there who knows more than we do, like, about science, about-- there are no better songs. There are no better books. This is it, you know?

Ira Glass

Yeah.

David Kestenbaum

Like, what we know is it. What we are is it.

Ira Glass

Why is your response to this sadness?

David Kestenbaum

Why is your response not sadness? Of course that's sad.

Ira Glass

This whole thing reminds me of just a really, really old Woody Allen movie-- it might be Annie Hall-- where there's a scene of him as a kid. And he's saying to some adult-- she's saying, why didn't you do your homework or something like that. And he's like, well, because the universe is expanding.

And then the adult is like, why is that any of your business? And that's my question for you. Why is it any of your business?

David Kestenbaum

Oh, I totally read that the other way. I was like, he's making a serious point. Why is no one listening to him?

Ira Glass

Oh.

[LAUGHTER]

David Kestenbaum

See, that's the problem. I'm in his shoes and I'm not making a joke. I feel like if you were able to really imagine it, it would make you sad.

Ira Glass

Oh, really?

David Kestenbaum

Yeah. When you look up at the stars, do you think about what they are, and the distances and stuff, and all that?

Ira Glass

No, not in a deep way.

David Kestenbaum

I mean, it's so easy not to feel anything. But it's a crazy thing you're looking at, just how small we are and how big it is.

Ira Glass

David tried to explain the feeling that he was having to me in a bunch of different ways. And the explanation that made the most sense to me was when he told me that he'd been looking at videos with his five-year-old son, Augie, who's really into space. Videos of the Apollo moon missions, with astronauts happily bouncing around on the lunar surface and driving in that moonbuggy they had. And David found himself just looking at where they were, really looking at the moon.

David Kestenbaum

Oh, look how dead it is. There is nothing there. The moon is just this dusty, awful rock. And what if it's like that everywhere.

You know, liquid methane oceans and whatever rocks, but no life at all. What if that's the rest of the galaxy? Space just seemed like some horrible, awful, dangerous place to me.

Ira Glass

I see that. There's no hope. It's just death out there.

David Kestenbaum

It's a lot of pressure if we're the only thing going on. It's a lonely thought.

Ira Glass

I first found out that David was thinking about all this at our staff story meeting a couple of weeks ago. And I'll be honest, when he told everybody that he was upset about the Fermi Paradox, we all laughed at him. Like OK, that's what's upsetting you? Which he gets, but it doesn't help him.

David Kestenbaum

I can't find anyone to really talk it through with.

Ira Glass

Because none of us took it seriously?

David Kestenbaum

Yeah. I feel like when I say it, people are like, yeah, I don't know, or I always thought that. The thing that bugs me about it is he's making a real scientific argument. I wanted to talk through the science of it with somebody. It's not just a "what do you think? I bet you they're there. I bet you they're not there." He's making up a physics point, you know?

Ira Glass

Well, today on our radio program, stories from the one civilization we know does exist, stories of people who head out on missions here on our own planet to vanquish their own loneliness. We hear from a 9-year-old girl, a married couple, and of course, David. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. Stay with us.

Act One. I Think We’re Alone Now.

Ira Glass

Act 1, "I Think We're Alone Now." So none of us would satisfyingly engage our coworker, David Kestenbaum, about Fermi's paradox. He needed a physicist to talk to to help him figure out what to think.

So he went to talk to one of his old physics professors from when he got his PhD at Harvard. Her name is Melissa Franklin. Her specialty is particle physics. Here's what happened.

David Kestenbaum

I went to see Melissa because I figured for sure she would understand. When I was a student, I'd go to her with physics problems but also life problems. Arguably, this was both.

David Kestenbaum

So there's this thing that's been bugging me. And every time I tell people about it, they just laugh.

[LAUGHING]

Melissa Franklin

OK, I'm laughing first.

David Kestenbaum

Do you know what the Fermi Paradox is?

David Kestenbaum

I told her the story about Fermi at lunch and his question, where is everybody?

David Kestenbaum

We talk about these things all the time, you know, casually or just over beers or coffee and it's all a joke. But it felt really serious.

Melissa Franklin

I don't think-- honestly, you say that we talk about these things all the time over beer, but I don't think people actually do. They think about extraterrestrials. We think about what messages-- I've thought for hours about what messages they would send, what messages I would send, how to communicate with them. But it actually, until you walked in here today, I'd never thought maybe there weren't any.

David Kestenbaum

Honestly, I was feeling a little choked up when I got to the part about how I had been thinking we might be alone. I thought she would be sympathetic, but she kind of rolled her eyes, just like everybody else.

Melissa Franklin

Look, I mean there's so-- look, compared to seeing all the polar bears die, this is not sad. So here, the point is there were polar bears and now there aren't any. And there, there were never anybody and we're sad. There's still nobody there!

David Kestenbaum

I guess, I get that it's a weird kind of sadness, but it's a real thing I feel.

Melissa Franklin

I know you feel that. I know. I know. I know you do feel bad, but what do you feel about the polar bears?

David Kestenbaum

This was something I also felt very alone in my worrying about it, you know? Yeah. I would say to my wife, you know, I was thinking again today we might be alone in the universe. And she's like, I know, sweetie.

Melissa Franklin

I know, sweetie? That's really nice.

David Kestenbaum

Like, just think about it for real, like, for real. Not just as a "hey, what are the odds we're alone," or this or that. For real, because it might be true.

Melissa Franklin

Yeah. Do you think it's really hard? Maybe you're just having college thoughts when you're 45.

David Kestenbaum

But then we got down to it, the thing that I'd come for. Melissa started doing this thing that I'd forgotten physicists sometimes do when you ask a question. They ask you more questions.

What exactly do you mean by being alone? Let's properly define the question here. You're talking about no intelligent life or no life at all? What if there's one crappy plant on another planet? How would you feel about that? What if advanced life like us is just a mathematical improbability, a total fluke?

Melissa Franklin

And then you would say, OK, if that's the case, I have to believe in God. So that's what you're saying.

David Kestenbaum

How many physicists do you know who believe in God?

Melissa Franklin

Six.

David Kestenbaum

I don't think Fermi thought we were alone. And Melissa didn't think we were alone either. Come on, she said. There are lots of possible explanations for why we haven't found intelligent life. It doesn't have to be that we're alone. She ran through some of them with me.

Melissa Franklin

OK, here we go.

David Kestenbaum

There are lists of them online that scientists and other people have come up with. I have to say, they were not encouraging. For example, maybe other life has arisen, but just not intelligent life. In other words, there are microbes but nothing else, which would be a bummer. The next one's a bummer, too.

Melissa Franklin

It's the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself. That's really sad. If that was the reason, that would be really sad.

David Kestenbaum

Let me remind you that Fermi, when he asked this question, was at Los Alamos. They just built the first atomic bombs. They were about to build the first hydrogen bombs, which would be thousands of times more powerful. That leads us nicely to the next possibility.

Melissa Franklin

It is the nature of intelligent life to destroy others. That would also be sad.

David Kestenbaum

Another possible explanation was called the Inflation Hypothesis and the Youngness Argument. Neither of us could understand the physics of that one. Something to do with synchronous gauge probability distribution. This one made sense, though.

Melissa Franklin

Everyone is listening. No one is transmitting. Yeah, I guess it takes less energy to listen than to transmit.

David Kestenbaum

Oh, that's a good point.

Melissa Franklin

Yeah.

David Kestenbaum

Then there was the zoo hypothesis. Basically, that aliens have left us alone undisturbed as a kind of intergalactic nature preserve. Or this one, aliens are here right now, we just haven't figured it out. Melissa liked that one.

Melissa Franklin

I mean, how would we know if cockroaches were alien or not?

David Kestenbaum

I mean, they have DNA. They seem very much like part of our family tree.

Melissa Franklin

But maybe they make themselves seem like our family tree in order to live here. Because how could they live here if they weren't?

David Kestenbaum

Be serious for a second.

Melissa Franklin

I can't believe that you get to decide what's serious. You are so, so wrong! You go, oh, oh, stop. Oh, don't be silly.

And you're the one bringing up the crazy things, like you're going to cry because there's no extraterrestrial intelligence. Jesus. OK.

Let's go talk to Paul. I need to talk to Paul. I want to ask him now.

David Kestenbaum

OK.

David Kestenbaum

Paul is Paul Horowitz. He's also a professor here, and conveniently, one of the pioneers behind the search for extraterrestrial life. He's been at it for decades.

He did one of the early searches for extraterrestrial signals at the giant Arecibo Observatory. There is a photo of him and Carl Sagan and Steven Spielberg-- you know, Close Encounters, ET-- throwing the on switch for another telescope search for signals from other worlds. I know Paul because he taught one of my classes way back. He's 74 years old now.

Melissa Franklin

Paul we need your help.

David Kestenbaum

Paul, David Kestenbaum.

Paul Horowitz

Hi, hi, hi, hi.

David Kestenbaum

How are you doing?

I hadn't reached out to Paul originally because, honestly, I was intimidated. I was upset about the Fermi Paradox? I figured he'd think that was silly. But now here we were.

David Kestenbaum

And it crossed my mind for the first time that we might be alone. And it made me really sad. That felt like a real thing.

Paul Horowitz

Yeah.

David Kestenbaum

Did you ever go through anything like that?

Paul Horowitz

No, because I don't think we're alone.

David Kestenbaum

You don't?

Paul Horowitz

No, I think-- I think the Fermi Paradox is a serious question.

David Kestenbaum

Yeah.

Paul Horowitz

I think there's probably some good answers. The unbounded time is a problem.

David Kestenbaum

Maybe, he says, civilizations don't last long enough to figure out how to travel between stars. Maybe they last 10,000 years or 100,000 years. And maybe traveling through space is just too onerous, the vast distances.

Paul Horowitz

Which is sad in its own way. But--

David Kestenbaum

Maybe civilizations live long enough to communicate with each other, he says. In which case, we could hear from them. We haven't been listening that long, just a few decades.

And who knows? We may not be looking in the right way. Paul's been thinking about that problem.

Paul Horowitz

It's interesting, because just as you walked in, I'm working on a new scheme to do the entire sky all the time looking for optical pulses. But you cannot dismiss the Fermi Paradox.

David Kestenbaum

Yeah.

Paul Horowitz

The best you could do is squirm, and wave your hands, and say there are some ways for you not to be sad.

David Kestenbaum

Are there any physics things that make you sad like that?

Paul Horowitz

Well, what really bothers me is, what happens after you're dead? Is it just like they switch off the light and there's never anything ever, ever again that you experience? Can that really be?

David Kestenbaum

This was not a physics problem, per se, though it is a problem. And you can think about it like a physicist.

Paul Horowitz

I suppose there's some precedent for it. Because before you were born, you know, there was nothing, right? But I have a hard time wrapping my mind around being dead. And this probably becomes more of a problem when you get old, because you realize it's actually going to happen. That bothers me a lot more than the possibility that there's not other civilizations out there doing whatever they do.

Melissa Franklin

It just bothers you. You don't want to be dead, but you don't want to be alive forever.

Paul Horowitz

Well, actually, if you're dead you probably don't know you're dead. But I just can't imagine the state of being dead. It's easy to understand. Something dies. It's dead. But if it's you, that's not so easy, because then there's nothing. It's just-- it's just--

Melissa Franklin

And it bothers you you can't imagine that. Or it bothers you that you--

Paul Horowitz

I guess. I guess.

Melissa Franklin

Because you talk about this all the time.

Paul Horowitz

Well, because I'm an old guy. I could die any minute now, right?

Melissa Franklin

OK.

Paul Horowitz

Right? I'm sort of at the average age that everybody around me is dying at. Did I put the "at" in twice?

[LAUGHTER]

David Kestenbaum

Melissa and I went back to her office. Honestly, I do think that's part of my sadness about the Fermi Paradox. I'm older now. My parents are getting older. I have kids. Questions that used to just seem philosophical, they feel very different now, much more real.

David Kestenbaum

Haven't you felt sad? You've never felt-- yeah. You never felt physics-sad like that about something?

Melissa Franklin

I'm kind of pissed off at the-- I get kind of sad at the speed of light.

David Kestenbaum

Yeah?

Melissa Franklin

Like, why is it so small?

[CHUCKLING]

No, really.

David Kestenbaum

I know. Most people think of the speed of light as pretty fast, but the galaxy's a big place. If we ever start text messaging with aliens, it's going to be a pretty big delay.

Melissa Franklin

You know, four years to Alpha Centauri, right?

David Kestenbaum

Yeah.

Melissa Franklin

I mean, it just sets a tone that's bad. It's just like a speed limit that you can't get over. Can we do something, though? What is the Drake Equation now?

David Kestenbaum

Melissa and I sat down and did what we probably should have done from the start. The Drake Equation is physicist's best attempt to calculate how many other civilizations are out there. It's quantitative, to the extent that you can be quantitative about this question. Basically what Fermi might have been doing on a napkin or whatever or at lunch all those years ago.

David Kestenbaum

Here, you want to read it to me?

Melissa Franklin

n equals r star times f sub p. (INTERVIEWER) DAVID KESTENBAUM: Can I erase some stuff?

Melissa Franklin

Yeah, yeah. You can erase anything.

David Kestenbaum

On the left side of the equation is n. That's the number you're trying to calculate. How many advanced civilizations are in the galaxy? To calculate n, there are a bunch of other numbers you have to put in and multiply together.

You start with how often stars form in the galaxy, then what fraction of those stars have planets around them. We actually have data on this. Then you need the odds of life evolving-- which happened pretty quickly here on Earth after it cooled-- the odds of intelligent life developing, and finally, how long you think civilizations last. The result, how many advanced civilizations might there be in the galaxy? 156 million.

Melissa Franklin

In the galaxy?

David Kestenbaum

Yeah. Yeah, in the galaxy.

Melissa Franklin

That's crazy.

David Kestenbaum

It made me feel great that that might be true, but then Melissa kept reading. Oh, she says, there's a different answer you get if you tweak the numbers a bit, based on how likely you think it is for life to evolve, et cetera. In that case, the number of intelligent civilizations goes way down.

Melissa Franklin

As an example of a low estimate, combining NASA's star formation rates, the rare earth hypothesis, Mayor's view on intelligence, Drake's view of communication, and Shermer's estimate of lifetime, the number of civilizations could be as low as 9.1 times 10 to the minus 11th.

David Kestenbaum

Oh. What? What's the number?

9 times 10 to the minus 11th. In other words, 0.0000. Basically, zero.

Melissa Franklin

Zero, i.e., suggesting that we are probably alone in this galaxy, and possibly the observable universe.

David Kestenbaum

The physicist term for this is that the problem is poorly constrained. Meaning, basically, we have no idea. There could be 156 million alien civilizations out there, or zero, or somewhere in between. So the whole thing is kind of a Rorschach test. I was worried about the possibility that n might be 0. Melissa?

Melissa Franklin

What I'm worried about is it's 156 million, in which case, we're probably screwed very soon, like any day now. Boom, aliens are going to come. 156 million in our galaxy?

David Kestenbaum

I love that you're afraid of the other end.

Melissa Franklin

Yeah, I am afraid of the other end. You should be, too.

David Kestenbaum

So I should celebrate the silence, the great silence?

Melissa Franklin

Well, I think, you know, we're in a good place now.

David Kestenbaum

I hadn't thought about it that way until this very moment, but it's true. We haven't encountered some terrifying alien race. And we haven't somehow proven we're alone. We don't know.

Melissa Franklin

That's right. Yeah, we're in the sweet spot. We're not dead, and there's still hope.

David Kestenbaum

Right.

Melissa Franklin

Yeah.

David Kestenbaum

OK, I feel good about that.

Melissa Franklin

OK, good. I'm glad.

David Kestenbaum

I realize that is the least physicsy resolution you can come to, that we should feel good not knowing the answer to some big question. But I do feel better. I think I turned the corner when we talked to Paul, because Paul agreed that Fermi had posed a serious problem.

But he'd looked it in the face and he came out on the other side, still believing intelligent life is out there and looking for it. He probably won't hear anything, but I think I'm OK with that. Maybe it is better than no.

Ira Glass

David Kestenbaum.

[STATIC]

Ira Glass

What is this sound?

Dan Werthimer

Yeah, so nature produces a lot of radio signals. And it's the vibrations of molecules and atoms that are in dust clouds, and in stars, and in galaxies.

Ira Glass

Dan Werthimer. He's the chief scientist at the SETI research center in Berkeley. SETI is the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. He sent us this sound of data from one of the world's biggest radio telescopes, the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico, which points at stars, listening for signals sent by other intelligent life.

Dan Werthimer

What we're listening for is an eee or ooo. We don't know what frequency. Or maybe a bip-bip-bip-bip. It might be buried. It might be a very weak kind of eee, but it'd be buried in the static that you hear when you point your telescope to the stars.

Ira Glass

We've only just begun looking for other life. And of all the radio frequencies we can search, we've looked at fewer than 1%. In 40 years, Dan says, we have found nothing promising yet.

Coming up, searching for intelligent life in your own marriage. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Two. Two Can Be as Sad as One.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's show, Fermi's Paradox. We have stories of people heading out on their own on very personal quest to figure out are we alone? We've arrived at Act 2 of our program. Act 2, "Two Can Be as Sad as One."

We're in this show about loneliness. We now turn to one of the loneliest experiences a person can possibly have, and that's marriage. I think the thing that I was least prepared for in marriage is how lonely it can be, when things go badly, I mean. And there's this recording of this couple trying to get past all the stuff that's dividing them that I think illustrates really well how hard that can be and what it really means to do it.

This recording is from this new podcast in which a real-life therapist records her real-life sessions with real couples who've agreed to be recorded. The therapist is Esther Perel, who's also the author of the books Mating in Captivity and the upcoming, The State of Affairs.

I've listened to a few episodes of her podcast now, and OK, my mom was a marriage therapist. She wrote a book about her techniques and research. She did trainings for other therapists. I've been in couples counseling myself with my wife. So I know about this world, and I found listening to Perel to be completely fascinating.

She's a very active therapist. I think that's the best way to say it. She talks a ton, takes what the couple says to her and then says it back to them in this way where it's like she's a LeBron-level basketball player, passing the ball to them, and then urging them down the court, running alongside, and shouting encouragement and instructions and very occasional razzing along the way. She's such an intense listener that it makes interviewing her a very odd experience. I tried to explain this to her after she and I had been sitting in the studio together for over an hour.

Ira Glass

I rarely am interviewing somebody-- I'm not sure if I've ever interviewed somebody who's watching me as much as I'm watching them.

Esther Perel

Yes, especially when your throat chokes.

Ira Glass

When my throat chokes? What does that mean?

Esther Perel

When I spoke and you would get--

Ira Glass

And what does that mean when I do that?

Esther Perel

When the little polyvagal nerve quivers, it means that I'm saying something that's reaching you.

Ira Glass

She's talking about the vagus nerve, which runs down your neck and into your body. Apparently, very revealing. The therapy session that I found so interesting, and all the sessions in her podcast, are a kind of session that Perel does a lot of.

She does these consultations where instead of people coming in week after week, like normal therapy, a couple will come in just one time, for two or three hours. And then that's it. No more therapy. People fly in from all over for this. Perel only takes couples whose problems she thinks she can make a dent in in so little time.

Ira Glass

And what can you accomplish in a two or three-hour session, where you see the people once?

Esther Perel

So much. The story that the people come in with is not the story they leave with. That's the first goal.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Esther Perel

The second thing is to see if they can actually experience with each other, even a glimpse of it, that which they may be longing for. Can they have a different kind of connection, a different kind of experience of themselves and with each other in the room?

Ira Glass

And with most of the couples, can you get them to that point? That seems very advanced.

Esther Perel

Not necessarily. I mean, with many.

Ira Glass

It can make for suspenseful listening, hearing her try to get couples to that point. This particular couple came into her office on a Wednesday morning this fall and sat on the couch together. They'd been married for nearly 40 years, middle class people. They met when the woman was just 15. They have children and grandchildren.

And then, three years ago, the wife discovered that her husband had been cheating on her. Not just like with one person for a few months or a few years, but widely and compulsively for most of their marriage. I mean, for decades. These were one-night stands and paying for sex, he said.

They both said they'd been happy together all those years in the marriage with a good sex life, and she wanted to stay together if it was at all possible because she wanted to keep what they'd had that was good. But you know, being lied to for decades, it's like it robbed her of her past. She couldn't tell what was real, what to trust. She told Perel in the session.

[AUDIO PLAYBACK]

Woman

So yeah, I mean, we had a good marriage and that's why I'm still here. I mean, he was a good husband. He was the best father ever, always there with our children, always loving to me.

And I don't doubt for one second that he didn't love me with all of his heart. I never knew anything was wrong. And I don't want to say I'm one of those women who lived in a tunnel without any peripheral vision.

If something came up, I'd question him, and he'd tell me the story and I'd believe him. Why not believe him? He's never done anything to cause me to mistrust him. Now I look at him, and if he tells me this pen is red, I will turn it 15 different ways today. And that's a huge issue for us now.

[END PLAYBACK]

Ira Glass

They spend a little bit of time in the session, not a lot, really, on what might have led him into this double life. He grew up in a violent home, saw his mother regularly beaten by his dad, was beaten himself, and witnessed way more than he could absorb or handle as a kid.

Perel tells him there are lots of boys who go through that, and then grow up, split their personalities in half, like he'd done, treat women one way when they were away from home, and then be super responsible with their families when they are home. He seems kind of wrecked in the recording. It's only now that he was finally facing the truth about what he'd done and who he'd been.

[AUDIO PLAYBACK]

Man

I've wasted 59 years living a mask, living a dual life. My kids didn't really know me. I was this other person. As much as I was involved with them, I wasn't present in my life. And I can't get that back. I wasted my life.

[END PLAYBACK]

Ira Glass

He insisted he wasn't cheating because he was unhappy in his marriage. He said he was happy. He said he didn't love any of these women.

And his wife was trying to believe him, that this was a compulsion that had nothing to do with her. But she was also struggling with the fact that her friends and relatives could not understand why she was staying with him after everything he'd done. They judged her, even her own daughter.

[AUDIO PLAYBACK]

Esther Perel

And is she mad at you?

Woman

Yeah, she was very mad at me.

Esther Perel

For not throwing him out?

Woman

Well, I did throw him out, but for not ending it. Yeah, they thought I was weak. They thought I had Stockholm Syndrome. They felt I-- you know, because we've been together so long, they just felt that I was too weak in character. And they didn't like what they saw.

[END PLAYBACK]

Ira Glass

Perel told me that it was seeing the wife's isolation that made her realize what it was that she wanted to accomplish in this session.

Esther Perel

She's decided to stay, and she needs a dignified way, a way with self-respect, to feel that her choice is valid. But in order for it to be valid, she needs something from him that I sense she has yet to receive, that he is struggling to give her. And it's that button that I choose to focus on during the session.

Ira Glass

And what is the thing that she needs from him?

Esther Perel

She needs a degree of accountability and recognition about the pain that he caused her. But now he's so busy with his own pain that he has a hard time owning the hurt that he caused her. So he feels so bad about himself, that he can't feel bad for her.

Ira Glass

So a lot of the session is Perel trying to get the husband to understand and acknowledge his wife's pain, and I'm going to play a stretch of this now that's several minutes long from the therapy session, starting from when Perel first brings this up. And what you hear is this very human thing I think all of us in relationships have done. He's not able to take in what they're saying to him at first. And it slowly, slowly gets through.

Warning, if you're listening to the internet version of our show, we have unbeeped the curse words in this version. You can get a beeped version at our website.

[AUDIO PLAYBACK]

Esther Perel

How much-- how much does he talk about what he did to you versus what happened to him?

Woman

I would say he talks more about what happened to him--

Esther Perel

Correct.

Woman

--than what happened to me.

Esther Perel

I'm sensing that. That is off balance.

Man

OK.

Esther Perel

So listen to her very carefully because I think she may have tried to say this already more than once.

Woman

I really feel that you talk more about you and the pain you're going through than the horrific pain you caused me. All of your pain was self-inflicted. You made choices. You made decisions. You put yourself out there.

But everything that was done to me is not something I asked for and not something I wanted to be party to. I mean, I know you know you hurt me, but I don't think you really get the magnitude. Because it always switches back to you.

Man

But the point of the whole story is--

Esther Perel

Before you but, can you just tell her what you just heard so that we can know that it reached you?

Man

That I'm not compassionate to your trauma and I talk more about my own trauma than your trauma. Does that pretty well sum it up? Talking about it just brings us both to such a bad place and all it does is bring out anger and hate from you every time I try to talk about this with you.

Esther Perel

So let me try to help you do this in a way that is more healing and less activating. Because you're in a certain phase. You've gone from the 59 years of trying to deny everything, numb myself, feel nothing, medicate, and now I'm in touch.

I'm in touch with myself. I'm figuring it out. I'm putting the pieces together and it's making sense for the first time. There is no mask in front of me and I am so deep into myself. I'm so fricking self-absorbed!

It's still more about me. It was about me then, and it is about me now. And now you gotta step out of yourself for a moment.

If you attend to her primary concern, then she can attend to your primary trajectory. But she can only do that if there is space inside of her. And that space is created because you are saying to her, how are you doing? from a place of responsibility, not from a place of shame.

Man

I take responsibility.

Esther Perel

Yeah.

Man

Be very clear. I take 100%. There is no excuse. There were a couple of reasons.

Esther Perel

But the problem is that if you go to her and you say to her, I can't believe how I treated you, you have to be able to not say, I feel so bad about me for having done this. It's the difference between, I feel so bad about myself, versus I feel bad for you.

Man

That makes a lot of sense.

Esther Perel

And what she needs is for you to finally step out of yourself and actually be able to say, I feel so bad for you.

Woman

I didn't do it to you. I didn't cause you all of this pain in your life, but you caused me all this pain in my life. You have to find a way to help me through it.

Man

I came to you last night. I hug you and you--

Woman

And you have to let me say that.

Esther Perel

But people, you're going to help each other, help each other. You're going to learn that together.

So when you get all upset that he has to, he has to, he doesn't know. He doesn't disagree, but he doesn't know. So you tell him what you want. Don't tell him what he has to or what he does wrong.

Man

I ask her that all the time. Tell me what you want, I'm there. I am all in. I am 100% all in.

Esther Perel

I believe you.

Man

I am self-absorbed. I got to get out of that. It's putting her before my own self needs. And it's important for me--

Esther Perel

It's beautiful. It's beautiful. But your wife is more isolated than you.

Man

OK.

Esther Perel

And she needs not an apology. She needs an acknowledgement of her experience.

Woman

Yep.

Esther Perel

It's just that. You can use the words you want. You can use your body. Let it out.

Man

I love you.

Woman

I know.

Man

I can't imagine what you're going through--

[WOMAN SOBS]

--but I'm here for you.

Esther Perel

That was good. Do you understand the difference?

Man

Yes, I do.

[END PLAYBACK]

Ira Glass

So at that point, it seems like he's got it.

Esther Perel

You know, nobody ever apologized to him. He has no experience of someone saying, I'm so sorry I hurt you. So it's not something that he knows to do and that he just sobbed. And then for her, too.

Because until now, see, when she would ask for this, she would also do it with so much venom and so much anger that it was very difficult for him to come close. It's like she would say, feel for me, but with such aggression sometimes. Sometimes, not--

Ira Glass

And to be fair, understandable. She's so hurt and she's so upset.

Esther Perel

Of course.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Esther Perel

It's a given. It's a given that she must have rage inside of her. But it's also a given that when she approaches him with that kind of rage, she won't get the kind of care and compassion that she wants.

So how do I soften her so that he can soften? Because if she goes at him, then he will stay stiff. And if he stays stiff, then she will remain more angry and then you are in the same loop.

Ira Glass

Yeah, yeah.

Esther Perel

So I give words to what I know she's asking, but because I'm not experienced-- I don't have her history, I can do it without the edge. And when I can do it without the edge, then he can come forward.

Ira Glass

And then they can have this new experience with each other, which they haven't been having.

Esther Perel

That's the enactment that I'm talking about. I think she actually holds him at that moment.

Ira Glass

So you go through this with the two of them and they have this moment. And he truly seems to understand. And then the next thing that happens is the wife starts talking about her experience.

And she says, the reason why she's able to continue staying with him is that she believes that the sex was casual, and that he didn't love anyone else. And then she talks about how she still questions, well, did he love her if he could do all that?

[AUDIO PLAYBACK]

Woman

I question how could you have really loved me if you did that to me? You know?

[END PLAYBACK]

Ira Glass

And then she says this.

[AUDIO PLAYBACK]

Woman

You know, when we calculate in my head exactly how many years it was, 22 years. 22 years.

We were married 36. You take away the two. You take away the 12. You cheated on me for 22 years. It's mind-boggling.

Man

I didn't cheat on her for 12 years.

Woman

It's just mind-boggling.

Esther Perel

Mister, your wife has just said so many important things, and the only thing you respond to is the calculus?

Man

We go through this all the time. It's the calculus.

Esther Perel

You have to respond differently than what you just did.

[END PLAYBACK]

Ira Glass

It's like he's lost the lesson, and he's talking about himself. He's defending himself. He's not talking about what she's feeling.

Esther Perel

Well, I'm going to show it to him again. This has to be repeated. But I actually have a different experience of him. She just said 22 years, and he receives this like, what a piece of shit I am. And it's so unbearable.

And so then he brings out the 12 years to say, I'm not that bad. That's the calculus. So now I'm going to help him stay with her.

[AUDIO PLAYBACK]

You know you have to respond differently than what you just did. You can do better.

Man

Yeah. Yeah. It was a horrible-- it's a horrible thing that you had to go through there. You're my family, and as crazy as it sounds, how can I do this to my family?

[END PLAYBACK]

Ira Glass

And then he stumbles again. He tries to reassure his wife that there is no way he's ever going to cheat on her again. And then he starts talking about the lessons that he has learned and how certain it is that he's changed. In other words, he's talking about himself. And Perel steps in again.

[AUDIO PLAYBACK]

Man

And I'm trying to tell you--

Esther Perel

You know what may be more helpful? Don't try to convince her.

Man

OK.

Esther Perel

Because you can't be that certain either. And most of the time, talk less and touch more. Talk less. You overtalk. So when she gets upset, half the time, all you need to do is hold her and just say I'm here. And for the rest, if you allow me, shut the fuck up.

[CHUCKLING]

Man

Good advice.

[END PLAYBACK]

Ira Glass

It's interesting. There this idea that when you talk through your problems with your partner, it will alleviate loneliness. But here they are, talking, and it's just doing the opposite.

Esther Perel

Yes, you can build walls with words and insurmountable barriers.

Ira Glass

Hearing your podcast, it seems so hard for people to come together. I was wondering if, in your line of work, if it makes you feel hopeful for most couples, and hopeful for the idea of people finding what they want with their partners?

Esther Perel

You know, the thing that just popped in my head is I have days where I have faith in humanity and days when I don't. I'll answer you from a different angle. I once wanted to write an article on couples that inspire. And I asked about 60, 70 people, at the time, if they knew of couples that inspired them. And the vast majority could sometimes come up with one.

Ira Glass

Wow.

Esther Perel

I never wrote the piece, but it's the answer to your question, right? It's that we can see some couples who are very good at this and some couples who are very good at that, but we don't have that many models where we just say, wow, this is who I want to be, how I want to be.

Ira Glass

Esther Perel, her new podcast, the Audible original series, Where Should We Begin with Esther Perel, can be found at audible.com/esther.

Act Three. Rosie’s Paradox.

Ira Glass

Act 3, "Rosie's Paradox." So we end our show today with the story of one more person asking some very big questions. Stephanie Foo explains.

Stephanie Foo

About three years ago, my friend Matt's older daughter went through one of those hardcore phases where she got really into asking her dad a lot of questions. She was nine.

Matt Salyer

There's the why phase. And then the why phase can turn into the why not and explain and that endless string of questions. Like, why can't I have my own room? How do I get to school? Why can't we have a yard? Can I have a cookie? They're unrelenting.

Stephanie Foo

So one night, Matt was working from home and Rosie was bugging him with her questions.

Matt Salyer

And it was just one after the other after the other. And I was like, look, you've got to get just give me a minute. I'm working right now. Just go off and write them all down. Make me a list of the questions that you want me to answer, and I'll answer them for you.

I thought it was going to be like three or four questions and then a picture of a rabbit or something. And I get this list and I look at it. And these are the essential, unanswerable questions of life.

Stephanie Foo

Read a few of these questions for me. Start at the very top.

Matt Salyer

OK, so, what is life? Why?

Stephanie Foo

That's the first question.

Matt Salyer

It's the first question. It's the first thing she wants to know. Where do we go when we die? heaven? Explain. Another planet? Is heaven another planet?

Why is there heaven or hell? Time? Why? Explain. Do we make worlds? Do we become like God? Why?

Why do you do what you do? How do you know what's true? Who do you miss? Why? Explain. Do you miss anyone more than them, and does that change and how? And if that changes, was it worth missing them in the first place?

And my favorite is-- and this is pretty much just my jaw dropped, why any of this? I mean, my first reaction to them is-- I mean, I'm proud of her. And then I realize I actually have to answer these questions, right?

Stephanie Foo

They're are about three pages, single-spaced, of handwritten questions, about 50 questions total. But a promise was a promise, so Matt got to work. He's a professor at West Point, teaches writing. And so he took a professorial approach to it and started researching answers for her, looking up quotes on each topic, spending weeks, sometimes months, writing each answer.

Stephanie Foo

What's the shortest and what's the longest you've ever spent? And what's the hardest one?

Matt Salyer

So I think the longest one is one that I haven't finished answering for her yet, which is, what is love?

Stephanie Foo

What's been the easiest one to answer so far?

Matt Salyer

Is heaven another planet? No.

Stephanie Foo

I got him to read me one of the answers he worked hardest on, the answer to, "Time. Why? Explain."

Stephanie Foo

Could you read it for me?

Matt Salyer

Sure. "So tell me what and tell me why, and the burden is on me to justify this to you. Perhaps that's what time means in the end is a justification or a lack of being justified. And I don't really know what "justification" means. There was an old movie I saw when I was a kid in your grandmother's house with the--"

Stephanie Foo

He quotes Camus, then brings in the Millennium Falcon, then Saint Augustine, then Kierkegaard. Rosie was nine. All his answers are like this.

Matt Salyer

"Kierkegaard gets to this point after either/oring everything. He says, why did I not die as a baby?"

Stephanie Foo

I'm a grown-up and I find it impossible to follow your answers. Honestly, I have not any idea what you're saying.

Matt Salyer

Yeah. I mean, I really don't understand half of what I just said either, right? To be honest.

Stephanie Foo

What his answers do have going for them is sincerity. The time one ends like this.

Matt Salyer

"And one of my favorite stories by a guy named William Faulkner. There was a daddy who gives his kid a watch and says, "I give you this watch, not that you might remember time, but so that you might forget it for a little while." I can only tell you that time is me turning and turning while the world is turning around a star that turns around a center that turns around the whole time. Among all the other things and the little turning animals and all the little turning worlds, there's me trying to turn to you."

Stephanie Foo

OK. And you just told her this answer like this?

Matt Salyer

Yeah.

Stephanie Foo

And she?

Matt Salyer

I mean, she would pass in and out of being interested in it. And at the end of it, she was just like, oh, yeah. OK.

And I'm like, all right, well, I mean, do you see what I'm saying about time? It's a measurement of change. It's an arbitrary human construct, but not, but it feels different. It's this phenomenon. She's like, yeah, yeah, OK.

Rosie Salyer

I was like, oh. Well, this isn't really exactly what I wanted.

Stephanie Foo

That's not what you wanted because you were like, oh, this is kind of boring?

Rosie Salyer

Yeah.

Stephanie Foo

Rosie has a pixie cut and a cheeky grin. She gave her dad the 50 questions three years ago. She's 12 now. He's been working on getting her answers, but he's only gone through 2/3 of them because it takes him so long to cobble together a response. What I found out talking to Rosie is she didn't even really care about the answers to these questions.

Rosie Salyer

Questions that I thought that would take him a long time to answer, because at the time I really just wanted to talk to him.

Stephanie Foo

It all started when she first moved to New York City. Before then, she'd been living with her mom and grandparents most of the week. But then her grandpa, who she was really close to, died, and she had to move in with her dad during the week instead. At the same time, she started at a new school, where the kids either ignored or bullied her, and she felt lost. One day, she came home from school and decided she needed to do something about it.

Rosie Salyer

I was lonely. And I felt a little sad that nobody had really stepped out to say, oh, hey. It's gonna be OK. I'll be your friend. So that's when I really, really needed somebody to talk to.

Stephanie Foo

So you didn't have anybody to talk to at school?

Rosie Salyer

No.

Stephanie Foo

And then at home?

Rosie Salyer

No. That's really why I felt like, oh, this is my dad. He's a really important person. I love him very much. I really want to become closer with him. I wish there was something that I could do to make us closer.

Stephanie Foo

Did you feel like your dad wasn't paying enough attention to you?

Rosie Salyer

Yeah, a little bit. Or not a little bit. Yeah.

Stephanie Foo

What was he doing instead?

Rosie Salyer

He was writing papers on his computer. And I knew at the time how important it was, but part of me still wished that-- like, put down all the screens. Put down everything else and just talk.

So I wrote all the questions down, and they were big questions because I know my dad. And if it's a little question, he'll elaborate on it, and he'll make it a big deal. So if you times that by a big, complex question, that would be a huge talk.

Stephanie Foo

Is it true that you weren't talking to her much at the time?

Matt Salyer

No, I think I was talking to her all the time. You know, I would tell it was time to get up and go to school. I would tell her that it was time to do her homework. I would tell her that she needed a new jacket. Yeah, I mean, I talked to you all the time.

Stephanie Foo

Maybe you're noticing the purely logistical nature of everything he mentioned? It certainly didn't get past Rosie.

Matt Salyer

I talked to you all the time.

Rosie Salyer

Yeah, but to me, it's not really the same thing. So a conversation and talking are completely different things. Talking could be a range from, oh, hey, what's up? And conversation is you're deep in thought and you're looking, and you're making eye contact, and you're really enjoying the presence of somebody else.

Stephanie Foo

Rosie's a smart kid, yeah, but this is the thing I really admire about her. Matt was a single dad with two kids, going to school and trying to make the rent at the same time. Telling him to pay attention to her didn't cut it, so she figured out something else.

I read this short story recently about a successful con man, whose motto was, "make them want to give you the thing you want to take." Rosie made her dad want to give her attention by making an opportunity to do what he loved-- ponder over life's big questions.

Rosie Salyer

My dad was kind of hardshelled, I guess. And so it took a lot. I had to keep asking these questions and keep wondering. For me, it was just, I had to keep going and keep trying, and keep being this little bird that goes on your shoulder and is like, I am now your friend.

Stephanie Foo

Do you feel like it taught him how to talk to you better?

Rosie Salyer

Yeah, definitely. Over the past three years, we've really worked on having actual conversations, than him just answering questions from me because we practice it.

Stephanie Foo

Rosie never knew that her dad spent months and months writing down each answer. Matt only told her when I started working on this story. And she said she felt like, what? Are you kidding me?

Rosie Salyer

I had no idea that he was doing all these things, and it was just a big surprise for me. If I could, I would definitely just say, forget the questions. I just wanna talk.

Stephanie Foo

So you're like, well, you don't even have to go through all that trouble.

Rosie Salyer

Yeah.

Stephanie Foo

Just hang out.

Rosie Salyer

Yeah.

Stephanie Foo

Rosie said this to her dad when she found out, and it really threw him for a loop.

Matt Salyer

Yeah, it was a complete waste of time. I mean, what a complete waste of time to come up with these big, extensive projects that are definitely less important to them than just listening to them.

You know, what is time? Why? Explain. Well, I can tell you what I don't want time to be. I don't want time to be something where I am just figuring out that I need to shut up and make some time to listen to this little kid before it's too late.

Stephanie Foo

Rosie really started asking the questions because she wanted to know that she wasn't alone and that everything was going to be OK. Now she enjoys hearing the answers because they remind her that that's true. That's why one of her favorite answers is the ending of, Time? Why? Explain. The part about all of the planets turning around themselves, and in the middle of it, Matt turning towards Rosie.

Rosie Salyer

One of the main meanings of that is, even though everything is happening around you, he just wants to know about me a little more, I guess. And a thing that I really like about that is because he just uses these sentences that make me happy when I read them.

Stephanie Foo

You know, it's kinda funny, when he read this to me he sort of choked up a little bit.

Rosie Salyer

Yeah. He likes to be a one expression person. But when he reads stuff like this he gets all emotional. In the car ride here he was like, oh, I love you so much. And he was tearing up looking out the window, so--

Stephanie Foo

You look so happy about that.

Rosie Salyer

Yeah. Pretty great.

Stephanie Foo

So people have been asking these big important questions like, why are we here, what is life, for forever. And do you think that the real big reason why we ask it is to have a reason to talk to each other?

Rosie Salyer

No, I think that philosophers actually really do wonder about these things. And they don't use it so that they could talk to their dads more. They use it because they really wonder about these things and they want to know everything. But for my personal use, yes. That's exactly it.

Stephanie Foo

Matt does still want to keep answering Rosie's questions for her. But as for the hardest question, what is love, I don't think Rosie needs her dad to explain that to her anymore. She gets it.

Ira Glass

Stephanie Foo is one of the producers of our program.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Robyn Semien. Our staff includes Elise Bergerson, Susan Burton, Dana Chivvis, Sean Cole, Whitney Dangerfield, Karen Duffin, Stephanie Foo, Kimberly Henderson, Chana Joffe-Walt, David Kestenbaum, Miki Meek, Jonathan Menjivar, Alissa Shipp, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, Nancy Updike, Julie Whitaker, and Diane Wu. Our senior producer is Brian Reed.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. You can help SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, sort through its data, looking for extraterrestrials terrestrials, with your own computer with software that runs in the background on your computer. To get that software, just google [email protected]

This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. Back when we first started the radio show, he told me I could have full editorial control. He would never tell me what to say.

Esther Perel

You can use the words you want. You can use your body.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

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