Maybe We Can Find a Place to Feel Good

What Harry Styles Taught Me About Empathy, Ethics, and How to be a Good Person

It’s taken a while, but I finally figured out who it is I want to be when I grow up, and it’s Harry Styles.

It’s true. I’m a middle aged woman who’s been learning valuable life lessons from a 27-year-old pop star, and frankly, you can too.

It’s evident that I might be a bit of a latecomer to the altar of Harry Styles worship, given the overwhelming effusiveness I’ve encountered since I joined the congregation. All I can say is that in the course of one week, I went from being someone who was ambiently interested in this former boy-bander turned alluring watermelon-eater to…well, writing a lengthy thinkpiece about his transformative effect on my life.

I arrived at this apparent epiphany on a quiet and unremarkable Sunday morning. My idle scrolling nudged me to look up some band’s video, which led me to look up some other band’s video. Eventually, a recommendation for the Harry Styles Tiny Desk Concert was delivered unto me, where alchemy meets algorithm and hits right in the sweet spot. I am such a sucker for a Tiny Desk Concert. I am such a sucker for a cute boy playing guitar in a fuzzy jumper. Boom.

And then, you know how it goes once you step up to the Youtube buffet. Bottomless refills. Unlimited breadsticks. Just keep it coming. I’ve got nowhere to be but here.

Ok, sure. Fine. I know you want me to say it. Harry Styles is dead sexy. Did you see the Grammys? What sentient being could deny feeling a little flushed after that funky dance break? Check your pulse! But moving on. What I know I don’t need to say is that the man is talented. He’s got extraordinary range stylistically, and a warm voice that balances force and delicacy. His musical references are unimpeachable. He’s a magnetic performer. His songwriting is solid. Have you seen him duet with Stevie Nicks? It will melt your heart. And if Stevie loves Harry, the conversation is kind of over, isn’t it?

Of course, to make sure the bases are covered, there’s also his impeccable sense of style, which demonstrates his essential understanding of fashion as a form of creative and self-expression. His wardrobe is straight-up goals. I, too, live for a high-waisted trouser and a statement blouse, Harry.

But while all of these are valid points, they’ve been made countless times already by fans and critics alike. It’s not what I’m here to talk about. I’m here to talk about how Harry Styles inspired me to take an emotional inventory and to engage with some critical thinking about who I am and who I want to be.

When I finally emerged from my Stylesian clickhole I won’t tell you how many hours later that Sunday, instead of feeling the typical bleariness of being over-internetted, I was overcome with an “urgent optimism” to tackle a spring cleaning of the anxieties, frustrations, and limiting beliefs that have had me under their thumb for the better part of my adult life. I felt more clear-headed than I’d been in months.

Whether in interviews, stage banter, performance–trust that I covered sufficient ground–Styles exudes such a radiant sincerity that it feels almost radical. You can watch hours of supercuts of “Harry being kind” and “Harry being himself” and “Harry being nice to children” and never feel either bored or jaded. What’s more is that the comments sections–there be dragons–are universally bursting with glitter bombs of gratitude, thanking Harry for creating a safe and welcoming space for everyone to ‘be themselves.’ Even fellow celebrities are hardcore Harry stans who offer unsolicited endorsements of his generosity, his groundedness, and all-around loveliness. The whole universe appears to be in his thrall.

Alright, you say, Harry does have an electrifying smile, but are you maybe, uh, a little blinded by the light? Maybe this is just what it means to be a fan? I wouldn’t know. Earnest devotion runs completely counter to the Gen X stance of self-deprecating irony and self-defensive apathy that’s defined most of my youth, and more of my adult life than it should have: The world sucks, and so do I, and that’s enough.”

As a mopey grunge-era teen, my idols and crushes were sardonic figures like Christian Slater in Pump Up the Volume and Heathers. I read Sartre and Jim Carroll and Elizabeth Wurtzel. “Come As You Are” was more of a resigned shrug than an invitation. And here is where any Gen X-referencing essay is contractually obligated to mention Reality Bites, a film, in the words of Winona Ryder’s character Lelaina, “about people who are trying to find their own identity without having any real role models or heroes or anything.”

While I’ve largely let myself go through life with a misanthropic chip on my shoulder, the truth is that I’ve never been apathetic. I have always cared, maybe too much. Like writer Sheila Heti in her own ethical inquiry, How Should a Person Be, “I always had a fantasy of meeting a girl… who was as serious as I was,” someone else who wasn’t afraid to wear their heart on their sleeve.

In 2017, writer Allyson Gross joined a group of young female fans who were following a leg of Styles’ European tour. In her article for Vice, Gross questioned the genuineness of Styles delivering the same encouragements to his fans night after night, but when asking them, found that it didn’t dim their boundless devotion in the least:

What is it about Harry in particular that makes him stand out? “He’s just very accepting. He believes you should be whoever you want to be, and everybody’s going to love you…It’s not that I don’t have people in real life telling me that, but it’s different when someone you aspire to be like says it,” Grace explains.

Reading Claire Dederer’s memoir, Love and Trouble recently, I highlighted a passage referencing a study about women in West Africa who, in midlife, ‘found themselves in a renewed, glowing state’ of adolescent purity: ‘A woman who found herself in such a state sometimes would say, “I am again in my twelve.”

If I’d clocked the moodier side of this adultescence a few years ago, Harry Styles pulled me out of my midlife sadlady fog and made me feel ‘again in my twelve,’ full of open-hearted and unironic love, reminding me how good it feels to care, to be someone who cares. We don’t talk enough, we should open up, he sings, and I just know he’s speaking directly to me, telling me what I need to hear the most.

The apotheosis of Harry’s life-changing magic might be the video for “Treat People With Kindness”, a work of unbridled joy featuring Styles and Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge tripping the light fantastic in an art-deco theatre while wearing matching sparkly outfits. The song itself has hand-clappy-revival-Jesus Christ Superstar vibes that has been known to evoke mixed feelings from even a diehard Harry fan, but to me is an absolute tonic for the soul.

It strikes me as much more than a coincidence that Styles and Waller-Bridge collaborated on this particular piece of art. Fleabag, too, has a revivalist sentiment at its heart, acknowledging one’s imperfections with grace, facing one’s emotions with honesty, and arriving at a place of acceptance and self-compassion. Says Styles in his 2019 Rolling Stone interview with Rob Sheffield:

It’s not always the easiest to go in a room and say, ‘I made a mistake and it made me feel like this, and then I cried a bunch.’ But that moment where you really let yourself be in that zone of being vulnerable, you reach this feeling of openness. That’s when you feel like, ‘Oh, I’m fucking living, man.’

Treat people with kindness, or TPWK for those in the know, has become something of a mantra for Harry, and in turn, for his fans. On the surface, it’s a straightforward message that you’d be hard-pressed to challenge even if you were to write it off as trite. But in these four words exists the entire concern of the study of ethics, a thought that has since given me considerable pause to consider what kindness really means: the ability to bear the vulnerability of others, and therefore of oneself.

Harry Styles, moral philosopher. Who saw that coming?

As improbable as it sounds, Harry Styles and the simple clarity of his entreaty opened a window of consciousness that’s not only aired out some of the dustier corners of my psyche, but has also shed some light onto ways one could begin to answer the fundamental question of what it means to live a good life.

On more than one occasion, Styles has name-checked contemporary British philosopher Alain de Botton, whose popular work emphasizes the role of philosophy in everyday life. I’ve been a fan of de Botton myself for several years, having worked around the corner from the London headquarters of The School of Life, an organization he co-founded with the aim of providing people with an emotional education, offering “…a sense of direction and wisdom for their lives with the help of culture.”

de Botton writes:

We are invariably haunted by doubts about our value, by concerns for our future, by shapeless anxiety and dread about things we’ve done, by feelings of guilt and embarrassment about ourselves. Everyday brings new threats to our integrity and except for very rare moments when we and the world feel solid, there is almost always a background throb of unwellness in our minds.

Part of the responsibility of living in a time that broadly no longer believes in divine reassurance is that we are each of us given a role to play in delivering part of that reassurance ourselves, to our fellow sufferers, in ordinary moments of our ordinary lives.

Treating people with kindness might seem, in a way, like a banal or even meaningless call to action, especially since so many of the acknowledgements and reassurances we might offer exist in the smallest moments, often fleeting and often anonymous. Yet it also asks a lot of us, not the least of which is to reckon with our own challenges so that we might help others reckon with theirs. Put your own mask on before helping others.

Much like a teenager, I have a voracious appetite for culture–especially, and unapologetically–pop culture. What I consume is what consumes me, and this, I suppose, is how I end up over a thousand words deep into an essay about Harry Styles. If it seems crazy that I’m turning to a pop star and a fictional character for moral guidance, it’s really not. Parasocial relationships–the bonds we form with celebrities, media figures, or even fictional characters–allow us to look outside of ourselves for insights into our feelings, and also to help us form an avatar of an ideal self that we use to steer our moral compass.

That we form aspects of our own identity from someone else’s narrative might seem counterintuitive, but according to Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, being “taken out of ourselves” into the emotional worlds of others is essential to understanding our sense of self. Music and books have often been the refuge I seek to ‘feel my feelings’ when I can’t precisely articulate them on my own. “Culture,” says de Botton, “aids us in our quest to develop self-knowledge, empathy and communion:”

Music, film, literature and the visual arts aren’t simply entertaining; they help us develop a sense of meaning in life. Our identity lies in the hands of culture, influencing our values, views, loyalties and fears..the power of culture emerges best when we rely on it as a therapeutic tool.

I’ve known this inherently for most of my life, but have nevertheless been turning the idea over in my head for the past several months. It’s why I found Normal People–both the novel and the series–so deeply affecting. Abstract emotions were suddenly animated, identifiable and recognizable, manifested in characters who felt like parts of me I couldn’t have necessarily drawn myself.

In a quote that has gotten a fair workout from me in the past, de Botton also writes:

Ideally, the task of culture should be to compensate for the failings of our brains by assisting us to a more correct vision of what other people are normally like — by taking us, in a realistic but seductive way, into the inner lives of strangers. This is what novels, films and songs should constantly be doing: defining and evoking states of mind we thought we were alone in experiencing — in order to alleviate our shyness and loneliness.

I can’t remember exactly when I came across it, but these comments are an extract from an interview de Botton did several years ago with The Daily Stoic, a newsletter I don’t but obviously should read with more regularity. At the time, it struck me as the absolutely perfect sentiment to summarize what I felt was my purpose in writing about myself, and more broadly, why I find so much solace, so much of myself in the stories of others.

What’s even more interesting, however, is what de Botton goes on to say further in the interview, something that didn’t register with me at the time, but that now strikes me with a lightning bolt of insight into why I believe Harry Styles to be such a compelling figure:

There are a host of critical lessons philosophy can learn from pop. For a start, pop teaches us about charm. The great pop songs are bewitchingly, dazzlingly charming in the manner in which they get their messages across: they know exactly how to wear away our defenses and enter our imaginations with easy grace. It’s a reminder that it isn’t enough for ideas to be correct. For them to become powerful and deliver on their promises, they need to know how to win over an audience. Pop is the most seductive force the world has ever known; it has more — and more devoted — adherents than all religions put together. It is more deeply loved, more trusted, and a more constant companion in our joys and sorrows than any other art form…

…Pop teaches us too about compression. It knows our lives are busy and has an extraordinarily ambitious sense of what could be achieved in under three minutes. Like all other art forms, pop is trying to communicate ideas, but it bypasses the more resistant intellectual parts of the mind. All the usual obstacles to reaching another person are stripped away in the name of visceral intimacy…

…Pop is intelligent in not being afraid of simplicity; it is too wise to be held back by pedantry or erudition. It knows that our emotional needs are in essence obvious: to be encouraged, to be held, to be jollied, to be reassured when we are alone, to be told something beautiful and uplifting…

…It has worked out how to generate shared moments of deep emotion about important things….

And most importantly:

…In the future, we need pop musicians to take up the challenge of investigating the deepest truths, of getting behind transformative concepts and of making these into the things we’ll sing about in front of the bathroom mirror with our hairbrushes — so that they become the background sounds of our inner lives. The world waits for a redemptive synthesis between philosophy and pop.

It’s no wonder that Styles finds de Botton so inspiring. It would seem that he has directly taken up the philosopher’s mantle, and has set out as his mission to make use of his talent, his influence, and his charm as a platform for turning kindness into the song we can’t get out of our heads.

According to Horton and Wohl’s original research, a hallmark of a parasocial relationship is its one-sidedness, but I’m not convinced that’s absolutely true. Though it may exist at a distance, the relationship between an artist and their listeners, viewers, or readers is no less intimate or reciprocal; it is defined by mutual empathy. Harry Styles may remain self-preservingly private when it comes to discussing the details of his personal life, but in song “…I will tell you that I can be really pathetic when I’m jealous. Feeling happier than I’ve ever been, sadder than I’ve ever been, feeling sorry for myself, being mad at myself, being petty and pitiful — it feels really different to share that.”

In their lovely treatise On Kindness, psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and historian Barbara Taylor say that “an open heart is an aperture through which the world can enter us, but also one through which exploitive and cruel forces can penetrate the softest core of who we are without obstruction.” Whatever the medium–a song, a poem, some dialogue–we receive a telegraph of vulnerability directly to our open hearts, where it meets our own, and to hold up our end of the relationship, it’s our job to send a signal back across the wire that the message has reached us.

In this way, though both of us are only abstractly aware of one another’s existence, Harry Styles and I have become inextricably connected, emotional mirrors for each other’s self-reflection. It doesn’t matter that we’ll never know each other; we know of each other, in the sense of the vulnerability that is, according to Phillips and Taylor, “the medium of contact between us, what we most fundamentally recognize in each other.”

“We mutually belong to one another,” the philosopher Alan Ryan writes, and the good life is one “that reflects this truth.” To live with an open heart is to allow empathy to fill the space between us, between who we are and who we want to be. If we treat people–including ourselves–with kindness, maybe we can find a place to feel good.

Unreliable narrator. Newslettering at robust.substack.com

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