How would you define ‘fellow feeling’?
For me, ‘fellow feeling’ is a subtle and wonderful vibe in the communication with my close friends, which manifests itself especially in the context of a pandemic. During this period of isolation and confinement, our attitudes towards social interaction have been modified: those who viewed social activities as burdens may find them desirable now; those who kept away from masses and noises, like me, may now have an urge to throw themselves into a crowd. As these impulses, ‘fellow feeling’ is derived from our collective longing for companionship, but it sustains, is more tender and has a healing effect. It mollifies people’s mindless anxiety and calms them down by assuring them their coexistence in the world with people they are comfortable with, supporting them to confront hardships in life together.
The pandemic once aroused my fierce reactions. I used to blow up and break down. I struggled intensely like I was drowning. Gradually, I realised that apart from subverting the outside world overnight, the virus was also slowly changing my inner structure. The way I view myself and all my social relationships has been filtered by my experience in the pandemic, and thus eternally nuanced.
Tranquillity becomes my keyword for this year. I long for it because I have been too much like a wandering anxious soul, easily unsettled by any tiny disturbance, from a WhatsApp message to formative assessments. The pleasure I can feel is becoming much more temporary, and the gloom lasts longer day by day. I so much desire a force, a resistance against my fall into an emotional abyss. One day I was skimming through a collection of travel writing by Mary Wollstonecraft and my eyes were caught by her descriptions about her feelings in the travel after she randomly meets a pleasant companion. She was looking outside the window and thinking:
‘I gazed around with rapture and felt more of that spontaneous pleasure that gives credibility to our expectation of happiness than I had for a long, long time before. I forgot the horrors I had witnessed in France, which had cast a gloom overall nature, and suffering the enthusiasm of my character, too often […] damped by the tears of disappointed affection, to be lighted up afresh, care took wing while simple fellow feeling expanded my heart.’ (Wollstonecraft)
I felt deeply attached to her words. Although her version of ‘fellow feeling’ is from new encounters in new places, which were impossible for me, the comfort brought by ‘fellow feeling’ still resonated with me and inspired me. I believe the rapture Wollstonecraft felt came from tranquillity and it was ‘fellow feeling’ that brought tranquillity. ‘Fellow feeling’ is not merely a solution to loneliness. During this time when we are constantly faced with rupture and crisis, ‘fellow feeling’ is a tacit recognition within a group, confirming that ‘we have each other in the very same temporality and spatiality’. Fellows may be individual warriors who fight against uncertainty and challenges in their own lives, but when brought together, they have the implicit certainty that they firmly coexist in some superior space. Fellows are generous about paying attention to each other. By doing so, they also prevent themselves from being absorbed by the black hole of self-obsession, which often happen when we feel trapped. ‘Fellow feeling’ seldom troubles people: even arguments are interesting rather than infuriating. It unties knots in our mind, embraces and consoles all badly hurt souls.
I am lucky enough to have a taste of this feeling at a time when it has become a luxury. Recently, one of my best friends considered moving houses and decided to be my neighbour. When contemplating on life together with him, I couldn’t help but think of ‘fellow feeling’, a vibe between us that I would never investigate, if not this pandemic. I want to record our stories to make our ‘fellow feelings' tangible and durable. I also dream, if possible, the feeling can reach more struggling individuals and comfort those who are wounded and weary.
1: White-washed (part 1)
Three friends merrily walk in a line on the pedestrian, a mini troop marching towards the supermarket. A typical February English wind gusts through their unusually long hair – a most common product of the long lockdown. Their heads soon look like trees after the storm, battlefields after the battle – but that doesn’t matter. Someone starts to hum. They are in high spirits. Their hair crazily dances but they don’t stop laughing. After all, this is the very first time the three got to walk together like this again after god knows how long.
The scene above was and finally became reality. The mini troop, if you can tell, consists of me, Elijah and Aaron. We are three old friends in the university and Elijah and I live in the same building. After Aaron became my neighbour recently, we finally reunited, in the middle of this lockdown. We all know how impossible this reunion could have been.
However, long separation doesn’t change the fact that we are also three bullies for each other. And we are three very cunning bullies. While I was picking onions in the supermarket, Aaron came to my side and asked, “Phoebe, why are you buying this white onion? Why don’t you buy the dark-coloured ones?” I will soon find out how stupid I am to carefully think about the reason. Aaron continued, “You are so white-washed. This is racist. You don’t care about anything dark-coloured.” I wanted to punch him hard in the face. Then, Elijah came by and pointed to the olive oil in my basket, “Oh Phoebe, you only buy white people’s oil. You are already assimilated by white culture.” I didn't answer him, but I picked up the bottles of milk in both of their baskets and showed them the right choice: chocolate milk.
On the way back, we didn’t stop joking around. Elijah said, “Phoebe’s life situation worsens now. I used to be the only one bullying her. Now there are two.” “No no,” I replied, “In the past, I could only bully one person. Now I have two. I’m a big bully now.”
“I would say Phoebe is the most racist one out of us. She studies comparative literature but she only compares those in Europe.” Elijah says.
“Aw so does Philosophy!” says Aaron, “there’s only western philosophy on our syllabus.”
I was immersed in all these half-true half-false jargons. How can those jokes be so fresh, subtle and acute? We kept joking and walking on the long, long street in February England.
Aaron and I share a kitchen. We often have some quite practical talks there.
“Phoebe, I feel very anxious today,” said Aaron, with a really worried countenance.
“Why? What happened?”
“I didn’t poop today.”
“Hello? You what?”
“Don’t you know ‘daily poo’ theory? This is very important. Only healthy people poop every day.”
He continued to explain why he is an expert with the theory, looking serious, “you see, if you don’t poop, that day when you lie on the bed at night, your pooh is only about, about…”, he showed me a rough distance between his head and guts using his hands, “forty centimetres from you! Ugh!” He then made a very disgusted face.
After interpreting the reasoning, he finished washing his strawberries and went back to his room. I laughed so hard that I collapsed on the sofa. I tried to stop myself by covering my face with a piece of paper, but it flew into the air, then fell on the floor. I have been struggling with an essay, on which the paper offers instructions. At that moment I felt the burden in my mind is somehow put down, so lightly, like how the paper fell.
After a while, I texted him: “it’s interesting how you see ‘you’ and your poo. See, you are eating strawberries now. AND you didn’t poop today. So your poo is forty centimetres from you. Do you enjoy your strawberries?”
“You wicked woman,” he texted back.
3: I just Kant.
“Aaron, May I come in?” I knocked on Aaron's door and asked. I slipped in after I heard a "yes!" and was soon attracted by the cosy feeling in his room, maybe it’s the heater. Very cheekily, I occupied his swivel chair and started spinning around. So he was banished to his bed and sat on the thick, furry blanket like a Buddha.
“What are you reading?” I asked.
“Kant. I only read 3 pages in the past half an hour. Our tutor said Kant was a very bad writer. I agree. He’s such a confusing guy.”
“Haha makes sense.”
“Wow, these photos seem so happy! Are they your friends?” I pointed at his photos on the wall and ask.
“Yes! They’re my best friends from high school. I miss life then. I didn’t have to think about much and life was simple back then.”
“Oh, Phoebe! Tell me how to cook the mushroom soup you made the other day! It was delicious!”
That was an unmotivated night, but I didn’t fall into my depression abyss like before. Thanks to that cosy small room where two old friends wandered around in each other’s secret gardens in their minds.
4: White-washed (part 2)
Somedays, we need to line the garbage bin in the kitchen. Aaron and I both took out a roll of sacks. A thought suddenly came to my mind.
“Aaron, what’s wrong with you? Why are your sacks white? Are you just so white-washed?” I said in a very cocky manner and showed off my black sacks.
He stayed silent for a while and gazed at me.
After the silence, he said, “what are you doing, huh? You are using black sacks for your garbage. What are you implying?”
I froze there.
Damn it. This is not the end.
Wollstonecraft, Mary, Letters Written During A Short Residence In Sweden, Norway, And Denmark ([Vearsa], 2019)