Good working definition for a neurotic: someone whose Interpretive Faculty is perpetually on overdrive. Observe, gentle reader:
Normal person in the car:
Hey, I know this song. [enjoys, sings along badly]
Neurotic in the car:
Should I turn on my Aphex Twin CD? But I’ve been wondering lately whether I am losing sight of how to appreciate beauty, so maybe listening to Aphex right now will accelerate my already-advanced descent into oversophisticated soullessness! I better listen to Bach. But that will stress me out because I’ll be trying too hard to appreciate it. But it might enrich my interior life and possibly begin to thaw the frozen depths of my dormant humanity! Wait, I’m being crazy, forget this, I’ll just listen to country. But do I actually enjoy country, or will I just be listening to it ironically?
[Skips around for twenty minutes]
[Shuts off radio in fit of pique]
[Bursts into tears]
The neurotic mind is capable of freighting any situation, no matter how trivial, with unbearable moral weight. “Moral” because, in the neurotic mind, the moral category is so inflamed and enlarged that it encroaches on every other bit of mental territory. Music choice? Maybe it has some moral elements, but mainly it’s a matter of preference: What do I want to listen to?
In other words, a neurotic is somebody who has a really hard time knowing what he wants.
If you’re an introverted neurotic, the most morally fraught questions are often the social ones. Should I go out or stay in? Going out might mean more effort and energy than I’m willing to put forth; or it might force me into a situation where I feel inauthentic; or it might involve tolerating people who make me uncomfortable.
But staying in might mean loneliness. It might mean an intolerable sense of my own antisocial tendencies. It might mean that those tendencies will, fed by one more weekend spent alone, become so entrenched that my very heart will turn into a bitter, frozen wasteland — total self-enclosure — hell.
“Whoa, slow down, buddy,” says my hypothetical, hypernormal interlocutor. “It’s not the end of the damn world, you know!”
Yeah, I know, and I can tell myself that all day long, just like an anorexic person can tell himself that he looks just fine how he is, but it won’t necessarily help.
I keep a mental list of questions to help myself figure out whether I should go out. I’ve just never made them explicit before. Here they are, best as I can nail them down.
- How long has it been?
When’s the last time I did something social? If I’ve already been alone all day, or even for two days, I might still feel fine, but that doesn’t mean I’ll keep feeling fine. I know my limits, and it’s good to act before I reach those limits.
- How long will it be?
Maybe I don’t feel like going out right now, but when will my next chance be? I’m not such a social butterfly that I have my pick of invitations any night of the week (or weekend), so I have to act prudently. If winter’s coming, you store seeds; if an especially lonely time is on the way, it’s good to store up social interaction.
- Do I even like these people?
Sometimes I’ve put so much pressure on myself to go out, see somebody, DO something, that I’ve ended up spending time with people I don’t even want in my life. That’s not good for me, because I’ll feel rotten and resentful and judgmental and inauthentic. And it’s not fair to them, because I’ll be sending mixed friendship-signals. Sometimes it really is better to stay in, EVEN IF that’s what you already wanted to do.1
- Did I make a commitment?
If you told somebody you’d go, I’ll almost certainly go, even if I don’t feel 100%. This might or might not be a moral issue — some people would argue that saying “Sure, I’ll go” is generally understood as “Sure, I might go” — but I want to be known as somebody who, if he says he’ll do a thing, he does it.
- How important is this to them?
Opting out of a night at the bar is one thing. Opting out of a close friend’s wedding is another. That doesn’t mean you have to go to every wedding you’re invited to; it just means you’re not the center of the universe. Overcoming your own tiredness for somebody else’s sake — even if you have a legitimate need for alone time — can be a great act of love, and no act of love is ever wasted.
If, even after all that calculus, I still can’t figure it out, sometimes I just ask myself: can I survive the wrong decision? Let’s say there is One Right Decision2 about this Friday night, and say I pick the One Wrong Decision. What will happen — and can I survive it?
If I stay in when I should’ve gone out, will my heart become a hardened shell overnight? Is it the very last chance that my friends will ever ever ever give me? Will I lose all capacity for human contact and maybe even for human speech, and be reduced to gibbering and grunting?
Probably, but at least my cats will understand me.