‘If you’re quiet, there’s something wrong with you’

This is the biggest and most frustrating lie on which just about all social interaction is built. If you’re not the loud, assertive, life-of-the-party type then there’s something amiss with you. Obviously. ‘What’s wrong with you, don’t you like having FUN?!’ Now this may be shocking to some, but what constitutes ‘fun’ differs from person to person. I’m sorry you had to read that, come back to me after you’ve had a cup of tea and the shaking stops…

I will now borrow some warped wisdom from Coolio (because, you know, why not?): Been spending most my life living in an extrovert’s paradise. We are living under a paradigm that Susan Cain, in her magnificent book Quiet, calls the Extrovert Ideal. It is pretty self-explanatory – the ‘ideal person’ (in the Western world, at least) is an extrovert; he is outgoing, loud, assertive, ‘fun’ etc. (I put ‘fun’ in inverted commas because people say it like there is only one version of it, like it’s an absolute value that everyone shares.) The problem is, though, that I’m an introvert. About one third to one half of everyone on the planet is, in fact. The prevalence of the Extrovert Ideal puts us quiet ones in a very awkward position indeed.

We are often and summarily accused of being no fun, of being too quiet for our own good, of being socially awkward. In her eye-opening book, Cain extols the very qualities that are so often the reason for which introverts are on the periphery – or altogether outside – of social interaction. Deep thinking and a propensity for quiet and meaningful conversation do not a party animal make. They do have their own set of advantages, however, which often come to fruition later in life.

Being a teenager is hard enough, and being an introverted teenager is harder still. I know this because I was one. While everyone was going out and drinking and discovering the world through socialising, I was happier most of the time to stay in reading and – dare I say it – studying. Persistence is a hallmark of the introvert, and I realise now that it is mostly thanks to this temperament that I have learned French and Spanish.

But I did of course have to learn how to interact with people too; it just took me a little longer to get the hang of it. These days, though, I’m very happy to go to a house party full of friends and have a great time, as long as I have some quiet time beforehand or the day after to unwind. Unwinding for me constitutes silence and a good book, or playing a video game for a few hours, speaking of which…

A friend asked me recently if I played any videogames online. When I told him that online gaming didn’t interest me, he surmised that I’d had a bad experience by getting killed too many times in Call of Duty or one of the other shoot ‘em ups. He got a good laugh out of his hypothesis but the reason I play videogames alone is that I want to get away from people, not interact with them more. Escapism, in a word.

Similarly, not being able to get away from people for eight hours every day takes a huge toll on me. I’m talking of course about the particular hell that an introvert suffers in a noisy open plan office. Oh for the days of cubicles! I hate small talk, and I especially hate the open plan office variety. I have no doubt this makes me seem distant and aloof to my colleagues, but the very way our workspace is set up is geared towards their (mostly) extroverted personalities.

And so if you’re an introvert struggling to fit in, take comfort from the fact that the world just isn’t geared towards your temperament. If you’re a raging extrovert, enjoy being ideal but for the love of god cut the introverts around you some slack, and maybe, just maybe, learn to be quiet every now and again!

‘It’ll be better before you’re married’

Most if not all Irish people will be familiar with this expression. Little Johnny has fallen and scraped his knee or cut his arm while playing. Mammy to the rescue, cleaning the wound and kissing it better with this adorable expression on her lips: ‘It’ll be better before you’re married’. It has been a staple saying of parents (read: the children-afflicted) for generations. Its beauty lies in the fact that its semantic value is on a par with ‘If you fall and break both your legs, don’t come running to me’. And what child hasn’t heard that one while trying to scale a tree, wall or fellow human being?

Back to marriage. The more cerebral child will be thinking, ‘It’ll only be better before I’m married? That’s years away! How serious is this wound, mother?’ Little Johnny is very precocious, you see. This vague future date is, you will soon come to understand, when all your dreams will come true, and not just the immediate wish for haemostasis.

And why must it be better before you’re married? Why is there such pressure on toddlers and preteens to settle down? We should be telling them that it’ll be better before bedtime or before the next time the ice cream man comes around; sometime in the near future. There should be something tangible for their minds to wrap around, to take them away from the blood and the pain.

But it’s a blatant lie in any case. It will not be better before you’re married. The scrape will heal of course and disappear in a few days. And yet it – life, existence – will, objectively, only get more difficult. Life is never easier for us than when all we have to worry about are cuts and bruises, contracting cooties, and where our next sugar fix is coming from. It is never better than when we can scream as loud as we want in public (try this aged 35), for no reason at all, and have people smile and laugh and not get overly annoyed at us.

Let me be clear in that I am not at all taking issue with this expression, I’m simply using it to illustrate the point that life is never as straightforward as everyone would have you believe. And I do mean everyone. School, college, job, marriage, kids; right? No, I’m sorry, but balls to that – there is too much variety and freedom in our world today for everyone to follow this rigid structure. There is in fact almost infinite freedom of choice which is, as it turns out, mind-freezingly terrifying. Nowhere is the crippling inertia and stuttering indecision that accompanies endless freedom better epitomised than in Jonathan Franzen’s magnificent novel… Freedom.

When just about anything is possible, how do we choose what to do with our lives?

Most of us simply go for what’s probable; the rigid structure referred to above is a safety net, a comfortable alternative to searching out what it really is that drives and excites us. We are taught – forced, almost – to want objects and the money that will procure them. We are taught to want marriage for the security and ‘status’ it brings. And so we pursue careers in such banal things as Accounting, IT and Insurance, the mental hazards of which I’ve already discussed here.

To highlight a perennial example, everyone and their mother keeps telling me about how important it is to have a smartphone. And that’s not to mention every second or third piece of advertising I’m assailed with. Important to whom, exactly? To Apple and their profit margins? No thanks, my ten pound (in both price and weight) prehistoric brick of a phone will do just fine. It can make and receive calls AND send these things called ‘text messages’. Magic!

What I’m trying to say is: enough of what they want us to want, what the fuck do we want?

The Mid-Knight Cowboy

This post is going to be about a piece of theatre. And BAM, I’ve already lost half my audience! For those of you still reading, I thank you and I’ll try to make it worth your while.

This week I went to a one man play written and performed by one of my closest friends, Pius McGrath (stop laughing; we can take the piss out of his name later). It’s called The Mid-Knight Cowboy, runs just under an hour long, and was performed at the Belltable Arts Centre in Limerick city. He has also played ten nights at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and one night on Broadway so it’s doing incredibly well for a small piece of independent theatre. Its success is a testament to the quality of the writing and acting and to the effort put in behind the scenes; to know and to witness Mr. McGrath in action is to be reminded of the word ‘workhorse’.

The play opens in 1980s Ireland with Billy ‘the Kid’, eight years old, playing Cowboys and Indians. Frantic doesn’t even come close to describing it; his energy is explosive in a happy time full of childish shenanigans. All of a sudden, Billy is 21 years old. Having dropped out of college to get a job, he is now climbing the ladder with a multinational finance firm as we follow him into his thirties.

Thus are we drawn into a world of jet-setting, substance abuse and meaningless sex: welcome to Ireland in the 21st century. Money-hunger and instant gratification are the norm and the entire play can be read as the Celtic Tiger writ small. The crux of the piece is the comparison (and split-second switching) between Billy ‘the Kid’ – the carefree boy reared on his solid grandfather’s knee – and the man Billy becomes: William the conqueror of women.

Interestingly, the roots of William’s vicarious lifestyle are those same things which afflict every Irish generation to varying degrees: sexism and alcohol abuse. The individual character and his personal arc are quite well developed for a one hour, one man play; there is a great amount of historical and emotional depth woven in.

The Wild West cowboy theme is exceptionally poignant and brought a smile to the collective face of the audience. While it is an innocent playtime script for young Billy, it points to the cowboy developers, shady bankers and corrupt politicians that would eventually bring Ireland to ruin, with people like William along for the ride. The old stories simply don’t fit anymore; these days the banks (and the state, lest we forget) rob us to give to the cowboys. The eventual emptiness and cynicism of William’s adult years are portrayed as morosely as his youth is energetically.

The drama comes to a head when William’s grandfather falls ill. Faced with his idol’s and hence his own mortality, William is forced to some grave soul-searching. The line that sent tingles down my spine, after nearly an hour of lightning-quick dialogue, temporal leaps and narrative progression, was slow and sombre and delivered in Irish: ‘Ní sheasann sac folamh’.

It is William’s grandfather’s legacy: an empty sack cannot stand.

This is the beautiful underscore to the play and indeed to the entire Celtic Tiger ideal. The property bubble was indeed proven to be empty, and though it was warm and comfortable inside while it lasted, when it burst it left an entire nation out in the cold. William’s tragedy is to hitch a ride on the tiger’s back; the saving of him is to get out before he completely collapses.

Getting out in the nick of time – a certain smug and stocky former Taoiseach springs to mind. The lie that he and his revolting ilk fed us over glasses of champagne and (extra) helpings of caviar was this: the good times will last forever.

They didn’t, as this play ably and desolately attests. The Mid-Knight Cowboy is an excellent and thoroughly enjoyable piece of theatre. Quite simply put, it has something to say, as should any and all art worthy of the name.

‘There’s someone out there for everyone’

The devil is in the details with this lie: why must there be only one other person out there for everyone? Do you honestly believe that, on a planet of more than seven billion (fucking billion) human beings, there is only one person you are absolutely meant to be with? Fuck off Disney and every romcom ever made! And you can fuck right off while I’m at it, ‘fate’ and ‘destiny’.

The problem is not that there isn’t someone out there for us, but that there’s got to be at least a couple of thousand people we can potentially be truly happy with (and vice versa, of course). The trouble is that we might only ever meet one or two of them; Dunbar’s number holds that the average human can, throughout his or her life, maintain about ‘150 stable relationships’. This is about the size of your average prehistoric tribal community. It is the amount of people with whom you can expect to regularly have face time and with whom you will interact somewhat meaningfully.

150 individuals out of more than seven billion; the average person really only knows 0.000002% of this planet’s population (yes, I did the math, and it was easy because I cheated). This includes those ridiculous Facebook people with more than a thousand ‘friends’.

Chances are you will meet someone within these 150 or so people with whom you’ll be happy to spend the rest of your life. In fact, common sense suggests you will, for a variety of cultural, historical and social reasons. My sister’s husband, for example, is from our own neighbourhood – he grew up 300 metres down the road. My own girlfriend is from the other side of my hometown. There’s an awful lot to be said for cultural compatibility.

This is not to say, however, that only people from your own milieu are the most suitable mates. Not at all. I also know many people who are happily married to or going out with people from all over the world. Let’s call it globalisation because this certainly would not have been the case two or three centuries ago. More people these days speak the same languages – English, French and Spanish in particular – and this makes cultural communication that much easier.

And now for the romance (or lack thereof – apologies). From a very young age we are conditioned to think that there is one person we are meant to be with. Girls grow up listening to tales of how Prince Charming will rescue them from their mundane lives. But – sorry girls – Prince William has since married Kate Middleton’s already privileged ass. Fantasising about his brother (only third in line to the throne; why bother?) will have to do for the time being.

Now for some illustrative soul-bearing (again, sorry). Five years ago I met a girl who I thought was the ‘one’ for me. We went out for a few weeks and then it ended – she ended it, obviously. I haven’t taken anything this hard in my life, not even some relatives’ deaths. I thought I’d never get over her, and it did indeed take a hell of a long time, relative to the relationship’s brevity. I’m not going to get too deep into all of this – the world has enough emos already.

Let’s just fast forward to five years later: I’m a year and a half into a (hopefully lifelong) relationship with a woman I love. The woman I love, in fact. That girl I thought was the ‘one’? Turns out she was only one of several possible ‘ones’. I’m incredibly happy with my current girlfriend, while my ex is now a very close friend.

It bears mentioning, for the purposes of this post, that the first ‘one’ I spoke of is Latvian, while my current girlfriend is, like me, Irish.

Cultural compatibility.

Several close friends of mine are on their second or even third ‘ones’. I’m on my second (and again, hopefully definitive) ‘one’. So if your first ‘one’ happens not to work out, don’t worry, just go out and find another!

Please do share any thoughts or stories of your own.

‘Well, aren’t you lucky to have a job?’

Read: you’re lucky to have a job. It is not a question; it is a challenge meant to pacify your restlessness.

I am, I don’t deny it: I am lucky to have a job. This soothing banality does, however, hide a sad and infinitely damaging lie. I will pose a question: do you like your job?

You will spend about one whole third of your life working i.e. doing something for money to live. To buy food, to pay rent, to survive. I would venture a guess that very few people in this world enjoy their work. We have ‘evolved’ so far that we no longer have to hunt and gather to survive. Nor do we necessarily have to tend crops year in year out. No, now we are expected to sit in front of bright screens manipulating information for entities greater, in size and worth, than we, as individuals, will ever be.

Some people (certain professional rugby players come to mind) are very happy to tend farms to make a living, and I respect these people enormously. They know what exactly it is they want to do and they are very happy to do it. Their professional sporting careers seem more an interlude – an obligation to province and country – than a career. When age tells and the caps have accumulated, they return to the earth and to their happiness.

Very few of us seize this opportunity. Most often, we simply fall into a position wherein we earn enough money to live, or to exist only. We do not like what we do; there is no enjoyment in it. Perhaps in the beginning there is motivation and idealism, but it soon becomes lost in the mire of spreadsheets, memos and meetings about meetings. Where there is no passion there is only tedium. This is as true for an office job as for any other; manual labourers, craftsmen, lawyers and teachers are all in the same boat here.

I put it to you that this is not how things should be. I do not believe that we must hunt and gather or sit and Excel in order to live. I do not mean Excel as in ‘to do extremely well’, but refer rather to the manipulation of mind-numbing spreadsheets; yes, I’m attempting to coin a new verb. Example: ‘I’m Excelling the shit out of this information, Ted.’ For my money, Excel causes more depression than reading Waiting for Godot while listening to Nirvana in a dark room (not to be recommended).

Never-ending mindless tasks are the surest fountains of unhappiness.

Few people do what they want to do. There are traps we fall into which make us think that we want a job that pays well, and so we learn whatever skills will make us the most money. IT, engineering, insurance; our ancestors are laughing at us. From their warm and happy campfires they laugh at our poor posture and straining eyes.

What do you do? Did your five year old self want to do that? Your ten year old self? Probably not. But look, you were five and ten, and not to blame you for your lack of focus. Very few people truly want to or indeed end up becoming astronauts, cowboys or ballerinas.

But still, what says your inner voice now? (I will not call it your inner ‘child’, for it is certainly not that. It is wiser than you or I, in all our pubescent development, will ever be). Children: perhaps they are our future.

What you are reading right now is my stab at breaking out of this trap, at breaking out of the sickening circle of debt and consumerism.

Writing.

That is what I want to do. I want to study and research and read and write. I want to do a PhD in literature, but I do not want to deal, day in day out, with mindless technical documents while I work – and save – towards this goal.

Writing: that is why I have started this blog and why I will continue it.

Tell me, what do you want to do with yourself?