“Arguing with a dead man in a lavatory is a claustrophobic experience.”
-Ian McEwan, Sweet Tooth
A thought has content, but it also pulls me toward a particular experience of the world. An argument can be flawed or logical, it can have steps that hold together or fall apart, but there’s also the experience of walking that argument’s staircase. Holding up an empty toilet paper tube might be a convincing argument that there’s no more toilet paper, but the content there–no more paper–is different than the experience of believing it, and of wondering what to do now that it’s true. Arguments move us to somewhere: after that, we experience what it’s like to be there.
McEwan’s heroine, Serena, had an affair with an older man who groomed her for a career in the MI5 of the 1970s. After the affair ends badly, and the man dies of cancer, and Serena’s risen a few rungs in MI5, she learns that this man might have passed important secrets to the Russians. Might have–she can’t be sure, and he’s not here to ask. She can imagine the justifications he might offer about why he did, if he did, and she can wonder through all sorts of different possibilities. She can’t figure anything out. Alone in the lavatory, with no new knowledge to consider, she’s stuck trying to fill in the puzzle that once went around the single piece she holds.
Sometimes, I think, we need to follow the thoughts that hurt us. That’s how we confront our prejudices, our biases; if we just turn those thoughts off, then we risk making our mistakes more comfortable. We risk making our mistakes the kind of place where we can stay. But there are other times when I find myself locked in the little stall of a lavatory, arguing over the same one point, trapped in the same small space. Maybe I’m not “wrong” in those instances. It’s not that what I’m thinking couldn’t be true, and it’s not that the ideas I’m turning over might not be important; it’s that the action of turning those thoughts is hurting me without helping me move forward. When that happens, I want to realize that I’m the one who closed the door. I chose this place, this question. I don’t need to keep arguing with a dead man. If the walls here don’t give me space to move, this might not be a place I want to stay.