(Written during this past weekend)
There is a block party in my neighborhood this afternoon, and I’m not going. I have not made this decision lightly. But it is causing me as much anxiety, and guilt as if I had committed some kind of misdemeanor. While I ruminate in self-imposed solitude, my gregarious neighbors will be renewing acquaintance, making new friends, establishing those precious human connections that are supposed to keep dementia and even death at bay.
What is wrong with me? Why this reluctance to attend a low-key, amicable gathering?
In the past, when I have attended, I have mostly had a good time. But flitting from person to person, glass in one hand, plate of finger foods in the other, trying to find, or invent, a context within which to converse takes it out of me more than climbing four flights of steps. And today, after a good visit with a friend, I have had all the human contact that I need. My demi-tasse runneth over.
Don’t think that I’m only interested in deep talk about serious subjects. At least 50% of my chatter is made up of trivia, 25% of clichés, and 20% of ideas borrowed from New Yorker articles or NPR commentaries. Only a measly 5% is stuff that is original or meaningful, at least to me.
But how I love silence! The cat in his glory in front of the fireplace. The dog, pleasantly tired after her walk, waiting for dinner (not yet, not yet, Bisou!). And me in the quiet house, free to indulge in what Jung called the endless circumambulation of the self.
Is this sick? Despite some attempts to defend introverts on the part of self-help gurus, the culture as a whole considers introversion less than healthy. Get out there and do stuff, meet people, engage in community!— this is the advice given with monotonous regularity to the sick, the sad, and especially the elderly.
But every now and then I see signs of hope. The latest has surfaced in, of all places, articles devoted to the well-being of dogs. It turns out that one of the pillars of old-time dog care philosophy, that it is crucial for dogs to be in frequent contact with other dogs, and that there no better place to ensure this than the neighborhood dog park, is being demolished by experts in canine psychology.
Not every dog, it turns out, enjoys being thrust into the company of other dogs, even friendly ones. Neither my German Shepherds nor my present dog, Bisou, when I hauled them off to the dog park, had any interest in joining the baying pack whizzing around the perimeter of the fence. They preferred to make overtures to humans.
If Bisou doesn’t care that I don’t take her to the dog park, why should I care about missing the block party? For one thing, it’s FOMO. For another, it’s fear that people will write me off as a misanthropist. I am fully aware that human contact, albeit in measured doses, is crucial to my well-being. What if by shunning block parties I end up alone and unloved?
Even more troubling, how do I know that my reluctance to attend large gatherings isn’t a sign that something is wrong? The gregarious live in an endless cycle of mutual reinforcement. The least encounter, the briefest commentary about the weather produces reciprocal reassurance that being an extrovert is terrific.
But who reinforces us introverts? We can’t depend on each other, precisely because we’re not out there meeting and greeting. There have been some books about introverts, about how sensitive and wonderful we are and what a chaotic place the world would be without us. But those seem self-congratulatory to me, a case of sour grapes.
I don’t think that the solution for us hermit types is out there. I think that we have to depend on ourselves for validation. We have to develop the backbone to stand up against a culture that favors chatter, and find joy in the things that many would find quaint, if not bizarre: the quiet house, the open book, the snoozing cat, the dog waiting politely (yes, Bisou, it’s almost time) for her dinner.
And still, I can’t help wishing I’d gone to that block party.