Saturday, July 28, 2012

I Would Prefer Not To


 I Would Prefer Not To

Bartleby the Scrivener is not the typical character to come to mind as a shining example of a successful life. But there is one thing Bartleby had that I have always envied, and that was his ability to meet any and all situations that were not to his liking with one simple and stunning phrase : “I would prefer not to.” Among humans whose nature it is to demand “why?” Bartleby had the one answer after which there could be no further questions, leaving his questioner neither offended nor provoked, merely baffled into silence. Long after Bartleby had gone on his way, maintaining his impenetrable demeanor, had it been me, the space between me and my questioner would have been piling high with qualifications, self-deprecations, and worst of all, the sort of impulsively revealed personal information that has the effect not of discouraging but inviting and justifying even more revelations.

 Broken Contract

I’ve tried the Bartleby maneuver. I remember two years ago, after the four thousandth detailed description of why I was leaving my job and what sort of life I hoped to pursue afterwards, I answered my unlucky Interlocutor Number Four Thousand One with an abrupt “I’d rather not say.” Had I knocked them over the head with my office chair, they could not have looked more shocked, hurt and betrayed. Clearly this sort of thing works a lot better in 19th century fiction than 21st century reality. But worse than the reaction were my own feelings of guilt, as if I had somehow broken the human contract by allowing my sense of loyalty to myself take precedence over my obligations as a compliant and well-mannered member of society. 

 Small Talk

Don’t get me wrong. In the right mood, when all the bluebirds are singing above my head, I can smalltalk and socialize with the best of them. I can cheerfully volunteer whole chapters of my life story when clearly a brief summary would have been adequate. I can be the first to accept an invitation to a social gathering and the last to leave, and greet everyone I meet with an open mind and heart and indefatigable energy to offer both. I can be a tree in spring bursting into bloom. And I can go home with no one the wiser and collapse for three days afterwards.

 Please Don’t Talk to Me

Then there are other times, and I seem to be having a lot more of them lately, when I feel I am about to shatter into a million pieces if the pleasantries with the bank teller persist beyond three sentences, or a passing stranger maintains eye contact longer than I can hold my breath. Times like those, I know what’s best for me, and that is to stay far far away from other human beings until I am fit to be among them again. It will do no one any good to have as a party guest a tense little stormcloud who can’t hear what you just said because all she can hear is the mantra inside her head pleading “please don’t talk to me, please don’t talk to me…”  Last week I attended a barbecue at which I sat poolside in a plastic chair, donned dark glasses and did my best to become still as a statue or flat as a shadow, hoping no one would ask me why I moved to Rutland. It didn’t work. I managed an early escape, still feel exhausted by the effort, and have burst into tears several times since then. And why did I not stay home? Because to decline seemed rude. Because it was easier to go than explain why I couldn’t. The hosts were kind people, they fed me food, they did nothing that could be interpreted as unpleasant, except that I preferred not to be there, and was.

  Oh What a Tangled Web

I’m getting better at the necessary refusal. I still feel guilty. I still feel that I have broken my faith with the world by shunning its people when their only offense was to seek my company. But instead of going ahead and placing myself in an uncomfortable situation to spare the feelings of others, I now have the occasional summoned self-respect to spare my own feelings instead. What I still have trouble with is the explanation, for there is always that horrible moment, the fee if you will for the night of solitary freedom I am buying myself, of needing to provide an excuse, one that comes out with such incontrovertible confidence it allows for no further negotiation. I hate spinning stories, and find that even a good lie can come back and haunt you, such as pleading emergency or illness, only to be visited later by well-meaning self-appointed and utterly unwelcome bringers of relief.  Pleading busy, especially more than once to the same inviters, can’t help but come across as rude and rejecting, and will be tucked away until the next meeting for the purposes of teasing, good natured and not. One thing is certain, whatever you plead, you will not be allowed to forget it anytime soon.

 Good Fences

That leaves the truth, which always sounds pathetic, such as I’m just not up to it, I’m feeling a little down, I’m not in a party mood, I need to be by myself, maybe next time. Even friends that know and understand me have been reluctant to accept such lines. The two most common reactions are outright dismissal (“oh get over yourself, stop wallowing, come out and have a good time, you’ll feel better!”) to undue concern (“Are you alright? Is there anything I can do to help? Will you be okay alone?”) Face it, there is really no way to make “I don’t want to be around other people” NOT sound even the slightest bit offensive to – other people.

 Setting a Pattern

As I write this I am still recovering from that one acceptance to a social occasion I foolishly made among a recent necessary flurry of refusals, the last of which is allowing me to be sitting here writing, something I know is much better for me than holding onto a determined smile and a glass of wine at a reception trying not to visibly wince in the crossfire of new names, enthusiastic handshakes and oh, the questions, being thrown like showers of hailstones at me. The ones that demand quick biographical summations I wish I had on a tape recorder concealed on my person and could recall with a press of a button instead of making my mouth pronounce the same words for the millionth time. And then of course the greatest hazard of multiple refusals – setting a pattern that itself opens me up to a line of questioning I have faced far too many times. Where have you been? Why don’t you come to these things more often? We missed you.

Self Respect

Sometimes I wonder when exactly I became such an old curmudgeonly misanthrope. But now that I've arrived, I'm waiting for them to send me the necessary paperwork, in triplicate, that releases me, especially in times of vulnerability or low spirits, from defending, explaining and otherwise apologizing for who I am. Perhaps then I will acquire the grace and privilege of uttering with no possibility of further explanation to myself or others  --  “I would prefer not to.”

On the occasion of my 100th blog post I'd like to thank all of my readers, old and new, who have never expected me to be who I'm not, and have even made me feel pretty damn good about who I am. Much love to you all. 



  

13 comments:

  1. Oh. Hurting for you. Hurting with you. I have been there sooooo often. I mostly live there. And I have never, ever accepted one of 'those' invitations and had a good time. And the price I pay is often way too much.
    But no is such an abrupt word. And seems rude. And being good, or even reasonable to ourselves slips too far down the list of priorities.
    I hope that things improve for you soon. Your artistry with words and film always make my world brighten. Even through shared honesty. Be well. Be kind to yourself.

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    1. Thanks so much EC. I think quite a few of us feel this way, and more often pay the price of saying yes than have the courage to just say no, such a small word, but as you say, abrupt and rude seeming. But what good are we to other people if we put ourselves so far down on the list of priorities? It makes so much sense in theory and then when it comes to practice, not so easy to do. Already I feel better tonight for having begged off a social gathering. I sat at home alone, I wrote, I relaxed, I had some time with and for myself only - and it was well worth any repercussions of my "rudeness," real or imagined. I'll do my best to be more kind to myself more often - you do same, please!

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  2. This is beautifully written. I found I empathised and surprisingly I also laughed, at myself not you....okay maybe at you too.
    I don't really know how you feel, despite your eloquence but I know how I feel. I usually say yes but I have to wash my hair. Not having any hair makes this already implausible excuse ridiculous.
    I suspect Annie Lennox did a reasonable summary of the situation when she wrote the wonderful 'Walking on Broken Glass'.

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  3. Thanks for your comment Adrian. I guess none of us can ever truly know how another one of us is feeling, but I know it helps to write about it, even if the causes and effects of our unique lows and highs might be different. That Annie Lennox song was inspired by romantic heartache, while I am going through a brief period of emotional fragility from entirely other sorts of stress, but I understand why this song came to mind for you after reading my post. And thanks for laughing! I laugh at myself all the time and it's especially helpful when I get this serious! All the best to you.

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  4. Truly creative people are a wee bit manic. I sympathise as my highs and lows are extreme. I regard myself as lucky. Look after yourself.

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  5. G.....we are truly cut from the same cloth. What can I say, except that I totally get this and am in the same position more than I care to admit....complete with all the guilt and the after effects of tears and depression after many a "social" event. For those like us, and there and MANY, I highly recommend the book I just read by Susan Cain, "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. It will make you feel good about yourself, lift the guilt and give you a little more understanding of some of the biological underpinnings of introversion. The noisy world needs us to be who we are....I guess we just have to learn to stand up for ourselves. Thanks for this post....a wonderful reminder that I'm not crazy and not alone in my avoidance of chat and people!

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    1. Ah, Patti, of course you would understand. The strange thing is that anyone observing would think I do very well in company, the farthest thing from shy, introverted, socially awkward or aversive. Sometimes I myself don't notice the effort I am subconsciously putting forth until the aftermath. And communication is one of my passions and priorities in life! It's not that I need to withdraw forever into my own thoughts - it's the high quantity and low quality of party chitchat that leave me feeling utterly drained and battered. I love a good laugh and conversations of substance that can go on into the wee hours with one or two good close friends or if I can single out one person in the party crowd and make a real connection that protects me from the din. It's a matter of what enriches and refreshes me versus what simply uses me up and spits me out. I think you've mentioned that book before - will definitely seek it out and next time I refuse an invitation say "I'm sorry, there's a book I need to read tonight!" Much love to you.

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  6. As always another excellent post and one that I can relate to completely. That explains my absence from my blog and all other social media networks. It is nice to know that I am not alone or all that weird for shunning human contact as I have been doing for the past few months. Take care.

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    1. Greetings Narayan - I'm happy I could provide proof that you are absolutely sane and justified in your preference for your own company! I do hope this time to yourself is a healing experience and you emerge from it stronger, whenever you are ready and not a minute sooner!

      You've also given me a clue to my own longtime refusal to put up a Facebook page or start a Twitter account, etc. I have enough trouble limiting my real-life social contacts to a chosen few that sustain rather than exhaust me - and I've managed over time to create that same intimacy with my select inner circle of Blog followers and email correspondents. I can't even imagine opening myself up to, and then having to maintain a presence in the endless online chatter party of social media! I know some who can expertly use social media for meaningful and important communications only, or maybe they are just better than I am at closing their eyes and walking away from whatever doesn't interest them. Easier for me to just stay away!

      All the best to you, my friend.

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  7. I feel you are light as a breeze and strong like a gale.
    Love to you.

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    1. Thank you so much Cris! Much love to you.

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  8. I admire you so much, you are such a true person, love you

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    1. Laura, I admire and love you too, for the same reason. I see on your blog that you are happy and well. This is good news! Thank you for your comment. Baci.

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