Lately, I can't stop listening to podcasts. I've been a long time fan of NPR's "This American Life," but have only listened sporadically on long car trips or commutes. It wasn't until recently that I started listening to podcasts every single day, sometimes twice daily.
Like many other liberal 20-somethings, I became obsessed with the "Serial" podcast. When I first discovered it, I binge listened to six episodes in a row and then couldn't wait until Thursday, when the next episode would publish. I mourned the end of the series, not for the conclusion of the story itself, but for what I would now be missing out on each week; the sheer entertainment of it, and the fact that my commute actually became quite enjoyable.
I started desperately trying to find something that would fill the void. I still listen to "This American Life," but new episodes only once a week is not enough to satisfy my intense auditory information appetite. I discovered "Radio Lab" and began making my way through their feed in an attempt to satiate my new-found obsession, yet still, I needed more.
Last week, both "This American Life" and "Radio Lab" featured stories from a new NPR podcast hosted by Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel called "Invisibilia." The story featured on "TAL" was about a blind man raised to be believe he is capable of doing anything a seeing person can do. Through that belief, he has essentially been able to teach himself to see. He can actually see images of things around him without the sense of sight. He's now helping other blind people do the same.
The story featured on "Radio Lab" was about a person who does not fit into the category of man or woman. Most of the time, Paige feels like a woman, and so has changed her name from Peter to Paige. Yet, she still experiences the sensation of flipping between the gender identity of a man and the gender identity of a woman. She is effectively bi-gendered, and it has caused her life to change in ways she never imagined possible.
The summary of the new "Invisibilia" podcast on NPR's website says that it aims to combine narrative storytelling with scientific research that will ultimately make you think about your own life in a different way. I can say that for me personally, after hearing only two stories, they were successful in their endeavor. It is quite a profound experience to contemplate the life of someone whose identity is so completely different from my own, on such an intimate level.
Many stories featured on "This American Life" and "Radio Lab" provide me with this experience. The narratives focus on individuals that have dealt with pain, difficulties and emotions, of which I have no real knowledge. I think this is why I've developed such a deep attachment to this type of non-fiction storytelling. I relish the opportunity to know about lives so drastically different than my own.
When I hear these stories, two distinct thoughts go through my head. First, I think about how lucky I am that I've never had to deal with these kinds of obstacles in my life. I didn't go blind as a child, I've never struggled with gender identity issues and I was never wrongfully (or not) convicted of murdering my high school sweetheart. The next thing I think about is that my life is painfully boring.
I can honestly say I'm a pretty happy person, but after hearing so many narratives of heartbreak, struggle, melancholy, foolishness, trial and error, success, failure... adventure; my own life begins to look a bit mundane. So, I begin to wonder, is experiencing a tragedy worth the pain if it makes your life more interesting? Is it possible that going through heartache can actually make you a better person in the long run?
I think this can be true sometimes. There are some people who need to experience life-altering circumstances in order to better themselves. They're not able to realize what's truly important until they are forced to do so. But given the choice, would I be able to sacrifice something I truly love in exchange for a more exciting life?
Ultimately, the conclusion I must come to is no. I'll always be curious about the experiences and identities of people so different from myself, but I think curiosity is enough. I couldn't bring myself to bear the weight of tragedy just for a good story. And if I never find my own interesting story to tell, in true journalistic fashion, I will just tell the stories of those that fascinate me.