Sunday 11 December 2016

Hell is other people

Making plans to do things seems like fun at the time, but in his heart, Donal Lynch hopes they never materialise

Published 15/08/2016 | 02:30

A scene from The Hangover
A scene from The Hangover

I'll never forget the best phone call of my life. It began with the caller asking me if I'd heard the news, in a tone that suggested I was about to find out that someone had died. "The stag is off," he blurted out. "It might be held next month now instead."

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I nodded gravely, rang off, and did a little dance on the spot. This was winning the lottery on the same day as getting a death-row reprieve. I had a new chance at life. Enforced shots and themed T-shirts would now be replaced by luxurious grazing of Netflix and perfect solitude. I wanted to personally thank the Chinese-takeaway cook whose botulism chow mein had got me off the hook. Did he know those unwashed hands could bring such joy? Perhaps I would send flowers.

It's at such moments that I understand I am not a person who likes to do "things". I prefer a nice, big blank space in my schedule, such as might be filled by a lie-in or scrolling through music videos from 1991 on YouTube. I am not always realistic about this, however. I accept invitations with enthusiasm and high-minded ideals such as, "I know I'll get FOMO, so I may as well just go", or, "You won't enjoy it at the time, but it will make a nice memory". Or, if I'm feeling particularly Pollyanna-ish, I could even say to myself, "It might be fun!"

This self-delusion actually gets worse, the more advance warning I am given. From the safe distance of a few months' notice, anything seems doable. "Of course I'll go to those crappy awards in August with you," I might slur to a friend over wine some night. "I'll even rent a tuxedo and everything." It's not that I don't mean it. It's just that "August" seems quite theoretical at that point. Yonks away. Will it even happen at all? Hard to say. Then slowly it creeps up on your shoulder, and the horror of small talk with C-list celebrities becomes all too real. And you are left wondering how difficult it would be, really, to fake your own death.

I used to always think I was the only one like this. We live in a Facebook culture where you're not having a life unless you're planning it and photographing it, and gathering tiny shreds of feigned jealousy in the form of likes.

We celebrate extroverts, and regard introverts as slightly weird or selfish. You can't 'check in' to lying on your back, staring at your bedroom ceiling. It's not socially acceptable to cry off by saying, "I was actually planning on doing nothing". Yet, idling feels like a type of modern hedonism, a little rebellion against the tyranny of 'plans'. I kind of suspect that a great many of us spend the hours before meeting up with "the lads", slightly praying that something will intervene. Nothing too serious, of course. But enough to derail a half-hearted catch-up, or anything that might involve real-life Facebook-style boasting.

I was nervously voicing these ideas to a friend recently ("Is this just early-onset middle age?") and wondering how I could make my plan-aversion more acceptable to people. "What if I say it's mindfulness . . . with a dash of laziness?" I wondered. My friend said that would be fine, as long as I didn't try any of that nonsense on him. Unless he himself wanted to cancel, which, he added, was often.

The rescheduled stag and the wedding eventually rolled around, and, actually, they weren't as bad as I'd dreaded. The initial postponement had alerted me to the fact that, one day, both events would actually happen, so I didn't quite feel that D-Day alarm. For a while, at the afters, I even forgot that I'd really prefer to be at home, listening to music, alone.

As the dancing swung into high gear, the groom, now recovered, looked around wearily and said, "It'll all be over soon" (meaning the wedding day, rather than the marriage, I presumed) in a tone which suggested that "soon" couldn't come soon enough. It was this comment, more than the open bar or the sense of duty, which made me glad I had made the effort. I might always be ambivalent about socialising, but if someone understands that hell is other people, they are people I really want to be around.

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