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Things That Sound Good
Many years ago I was wandering around New York with a woman I really liked, and who really liked me, but who was wary of getting too involved with me for all the reasons intelligent women throughout my life have been wary of getting too involved with me. She had sworn our afternoon together would be platonic, but she nonetheless found herself kissing me outside the Williamsburg Whole Foods, and as she did she warned me: “This doesn’t mean anything. I’m just doing it because it’s what feels good in the moment.”
And I said to her, “Don’t you know? That’s why I do everything.”
I suppose there was an element of truth to this—I’m probably more tempted by short-term pleasures than the average person. But that’s not why I said it. I said it because it was clever, because it was good dialogue, because it seemed like the most interesting thing I could say in the moment. I said it because it felt like something a character in a movie might say.
Later, when this woman and I had gotten to know each other much better, she would want me to be something more than just the person who was the most fun to be with on any given night. And I would think about how that throwaway line, which I’d seen as so charming when I’d said it, didn’t reflect that well on me after all. I would want to correct the record—but what was I going to do? Admitting how often I said things I didn’t believe, just because they sounded good, seemed worse than letting the original misconception stand.
There’s this Gen Z concept called “main character syndrome” that emerged during the pandemic. It began as a positive notion: the idea that you could make the most of a bad time by imagining yourself as a character in a movie, one who was facing great hardship, but who would eventually persevere. Through this lens, the idea goes, life’s challenges become more manageable, or even take on a romantic sheen. But like most new internet slang, main character syndrome quickly became a pejorative; now, to describe someone as having it is to call them a narcissist, the kind of person who sees themselves as the center of the universe, everyone else mere extras in the cast.
I don’t think my own habit of saying things just because they sound good is main character syndrome, exactly. After all, it’s not just the main characters who have great dialogue in movies—the most memorable lines often come out of the mouths of bit players. But it’s at least adjacent, part of the collection of issues that come from conceptualizing your life as too much of a narrative. We tell ourselves stories in order to live, but our lives aren’t actually stories. If they were, they’d be poorly written ones: just a bunch of stuff that happens, with no coherent structure or consistent thematic underlines.
And, more importantly, there isn’t anybody watching. In my early twenties, I was notorious for bouncing from one group to the next at parties by simply disclaiming, “This conversation is no longer holding my interest.” Who was that line really for? Certainly not me in that moment, and probably not the people I was talking to either, given how many of them have since told me they were offended. Maybe they were for some hypothetical third-party observer, the fantasy audience of a nonexistent movie. But that’s no good. It’s one thing to say something that isn’t true because it sounds good to you. But performing for an imaginary audience is the same as performing for no one.
Of course, truth is a slippery concept. When I find myself saying things just because they sound good at the time, it’s not like I’m lying, exactly—in the moment I say the thing, I really do believe it wholeheartedly. I just sometimes change my mind the second I hear myself say it. How does anyone know what they really think? I only know what sounds good; once it comes out of my mouth, I can decide whether or not I believe it.
This is the way I write, too. With each sentence I’m guided just as much by the sounds and textures of the words as I am by their meaning. That might, at times, lead me to write things I’m not 100% sure of. But if you only write things you’re 100% sure of, you’ll barely write anything, and what you do manage to produce will be boring. Take the start of this essay: are intelligent women really wary of getting too involved with me? In a way, it doesn’t matter: that sentence says something true about me regardless, just by virtue of the fact that it occurred to me to write it.
And that leads to the other possible audience these kinds of amusing lines are “for”: my future self. When we reminisce, we become the audiences for our own life story. And not just our own: with this newsletter I’ve conjured up an audience in the hundreds for mine. I’ll leave it to each of you to decide whether that’s inspired or deeply pathological.
After all, I’m glad I’m no longer as much of an asshole as I was in my twenties, but I still think that thing I used to say at parties is hilarious. And I bet a few of you think so too.
Yours in hoping this doesn’t cause everyone reading who knows me to view everything I say to them from this point on skeptically,