Honolulu courthouse, 1982
Brick 91
Summer 2012

Why Go Out?

SHEILA HETI

A Speech from the Trampoline Hall Lecture Series

1

I wonder why I am up here on this stage when I’d rather be at home, when being at home would be so much more comforting. And I wonder why all of you are sitting there in the audience, when so many of you would also be happier at home.

At home, you can wear your pyjamas. No one is going to snub you or disappoint you. At Trampoline Hall, you could be snubbed or disappointed. The whisky is not cheap. It is less depressing to think the same thoughts you thought yesterday than to have the same conversation you had last week. Few of us will get laid. Why did we go out? My father never goes out. His emotional life is absolutely even keel. He is a deeply rational person. He doesn’t see the advantages.

For many years I have asked myself, Why do you spend time with other people? but I never really attempted to come up with an answer. I always believed I was asking myself a rhetorical question, but recently I’ve wanted to find an answer, because a question you ask yourself a thousand times eventually deserves to be answered.

And I figure if I know why I go out, I might feel less suspicious of myself for going out. I might criticize myself less. I might be able to look around a party without thinking, What a fool—why did you come—you should have stayed at home.

The first thing I did in my search for an answer to “Why go out?” was to write down a list of every single reason I could think of to go out—there were about twelve—and then I noticed, after staring at the paper, that those smaller reasons could be divided up into four major reasons for leaving the house:

  i. Desire (for sex, love, companionship, whatever).
 ii. Sociological curiosity/aesthetic appreciation.
iii. To test myself.
iv. Someone else wants to hang out.


2

A couple of years ago I quit smoking, and to help myself along, I read a book called Allen Carr’s Easy Way to Stop Smoking. (It is a really excellent book for that purpose, and I highly recommend it.) Now, Allen Carr’s basic premise is twofold:

First: you have to accept that smoking is not a habit, it is a drug addiction; and

Second: the only way to quit smoking is to never have a cigarette again.

He goes on to explain that smokers have brainwashed themselves into believing that smoking helps them in some way—calms them down, allows them to focus, makes an event feel more celebratory—when the truth is, all smoking a cigarette does is temporarily satisfy the craving for a cigarette while reintroducing into your body the very substance you will once again crave.

What you need to do to quit is to undo the brainwashing that cigarettes help you in any way, then suffer several weeks of physical withdrawal—a feeling Carr likens to a physical longing, but not unbearable—and then never have another cigarette again. Oh, and a positive frame of mind is essential. When you experience a craving, you’re to take this as a sign your body is transforming into the body of a non-smoker, and you should cheer, “Yippee! I’m free!”

Well, I followed his advice, and it worked.

The other day, I was sitting alone in a Mexican restaurant and wondering whether it is possible to quit people, and good old Allen Carr came to mind. Maybe it’s because I recently ended a relationship, and also have not been spending much time in my city, and my body has been experiencing very similar sensations to what it did when I gave up cigarettes two years ago; it’s a physical ache that comes and goes, that’s almost painful, a sort of gaping emptiness, a void that needs to be filled. It often seems like the only way to cure myself of this craving is to give in—to return to him, to sleep with someone new. . . . Not until you tear yourself from everyone you love does it appear that you are actually physically addicted to people. The longing for a person is almost identical to the longing for a smoke. It’s weird.

Anyway, I am not a stoic. My response to withdrawal—which has been to flee into semi-soothing rebound relationships—has prevented me from being able to stand before you today and declare with confidence that it is possible to renounce people, to bear the weeks of physical withdrawal symptoms, and thereafter attain the qualities that Allen Carr claims the non-smoker is in possession of: health, energy, wealth, peace of mind, confidence, courage, self-respect, happiness, and freedom.

But though it wasn’t recent, I have spent time alone in the past, and in my memories of these times—the happiest times of my life—I really did seem possessed of substantially more courage, confidence, self-respect, freedom, energy, and peace of mind than those times when I’ve surrounded myself with people.

And if that’s the truth, and my memory’s not lying—why go out?

Allen Carr advises smokers who are considering quitting to put the following three questions to themselves, and I think we can also ponder them as we consider whether it is worthwhile to try to be cured of our addiction to people. As the smoker considers smoking, we ask of socializing:

  i. What is it doing for me?
 ii. Do I actually enjoy it?
iii. Do I really need to go through life paying through the nose, just to stick these things in my mouth and suffocate myself?


i. What is it doing for me?

As I suggested earlier, we get together with people to satisfy desires—the desire to love and be loved, the desire for sex, talk, companionship, good times, all those things. To which Allen Carr might retort: “We talk about smoking being relaxing or giving satisfaction. But how can you be satisfied unless you were dissatisfied in the first place?”

And truly, who has ever been satisfied by people?

A few weeks ago, for instance, I was deeply insulted by a conceptual poet from New York who had come to my town to do a reading. I admire his work, so I went—knowing as I left my apartment that I was risking my admiration for him—What if he is an asshole? I asked myself, closing the door. Never mind, I replied, turning the key, for my curiosity surpassed my fear.

Arriving at the bar that night, I spotted a small man nearly forty years old, wearing an ostentatious suit and hat, walking about the room like he had a cock the size of Kansas. He must be the conceptual poet, I said to myself, and I was right. I begged not to be introduced, but my friend introduced us anyway, calling me, as she did so, a “novelist.” I told him how much I admired a particular book of his, and when I was done, he sort of looked me over and said, “You’re a novelist? Really? What interest could you possibly have in my work?”

In case you missed it, that was the terrible insult.

Of course, telling someone about an insult is like telling someone about a dream: the specific emotional core of it cannot be communicated; all that comes across are disconnected and meaningless symbols. But let me assure you, this conceptual poet was digging his nails into my heart—he knew it, and, five minutes later, I suddenly felt it too—which led to a week and a half of fuming in bed, unable to sleep, my declaring this man my enemy, the reconceiving of a magazine article I was writing in such a way as to include a subtextual layer that would annihilate conceptual poetics, a week and a half of going out every night and talking through the insult with each of my friends—what am I even saying? It took leaving the continent for the insult to finally recede into the background of my days, and for me to regain my equilibrium.

So anyway, it is pretty far-fetched to claim that people provide satisfaction and relaxation. Or at least, if they sometimes do, they as often do not.


ii. Do I actually enjoy it?

Does anyone actually enjoy more than one party in six? Does sex lead to satisfaction or merely make us want more sex, better sex, different sex, even as we’re having it? The same goes for conversation, companionship, everything.

No, other people don’t satisfy us, but rather, like cigarettes, give us the temporary illusion of satisfaction, while prolonging our dependence. And if we weren’t dependent on other people?

Allen Carr’s Easy Way lists the following psychological gains from quitting:

  i. The return of your confidence and courage.
 ii. Freedom from the slavery.
iii. Not having to go through life suffering the awful black shadows at the back of your mind, knowing you are being despised by half of the population and, worst of all, despising yourself.

And so, let us for the moment renounce people! Not in the doomed-to-failure way—renouncing while imagining we are depriving ourselves, forever plagued by doubts—

“How long will the craving last?”
“Will I ever be happy again?”
“Will I ever enjoy a meal again?”
“How will I cope with stress in the future?”
“Will I ever want to get up in the morning?”

—but rather joyfully and willingly let us renounce people . . . and bring on self-confidence, courage, energy, peace of mind, and self-respect.


3

I have a friend who has made it his sort of art project to set up nights at which people amuse themselves in various ways. He has taught charades classes, he has invited the city into a bar to play board games, he has organized a roomful of people to play Torx, which is a child’s toy, a robot stick that issues instructions on how to bend it. He has been profiled in a local newspaper as someone who is providing fun alternatives to concerts and bars and house parties, which, of course, are old-fashioned and worn out. But I know him well enough to know that he doesn’t much care whether Nadia and Jim are getting enough fun in their lives. What my friend is up to, I believe, is something more sinister.

First, a few details to paint the scene:

  • He calls his games night Room 101. The event is held in a bar and people eat cheezies from bowls and play Scrabble and Pictionary and other games at small tables, and every twenty minutes or so he gets up at the front of the room on a little stage and rings a bell and forces only those people who seem to be enjoying their game overly much to terminate the game and disperse and play something else. If he had people’s fun in mind, I contend that he would not force those who are having the most fun to abandon their game.
     
  • His promotional poster for these nights shows a boy playing Monopoly with two rats. Also, if you look closely, you can see there are little bars on the window. He took the name Room 101 from the book Nineteen Eighty-Four; it refers to the room in which they torture people, and it turns out his secret motto for these games nights is “We torture you with fun!” Which might be the motto of every party ever.

And finally:

  • His charades class was not called “How to play charades” or “How to have fun playing charades” but rather “How to be good at playing charades.” And his introductory talk at the event only cursorily involved which hand signals to use when. Mostly he talked about what he called “charades skills”—like, how being good at charades is about being a good communicator, and a good listener, and requires imagination, and sympathy, and understanding—all of which are, more truly than charades skills, life skills. 
         And so his audience or his students (if that’s what you’d call people who are no “good” at playing charades) can only assume one thing. Since the terms for “goodness” were laid out very clearly at the beginning of class, if you’re not good at playing charades, you are forced to conclude that it’s not because you don’t know the hand gestures, it’s not because you’re not a good actor, but rather it’s because you can’t listen, or you’re not sympathetic, or you don’t have sufficient (as he put it at the beginning of class) “intellectual-analytical skills, motor-expressive skills, creative skills, and emotional-interpersonal skills.” The secret lesson of his charades class is this: if you’re not good at being a charades player, maybe it’s actually because you’re not entirely good at being a person. This is called being tortured with fun.

Yes. I’ve come to the conclusion that what my friend is trying to do is to organize events that capture and crystallize and reproduce the effects of ordinary socializing—which is not quite about fun, or about learning how to be good at having fun but, more distinctly, about learning how to be good at being a person and, the unfortunate corollary of this, seeing how far from good at being a person you are.

Why go out? Because if what we want more than anything is to attain self-confidence, health, energy, and peace of mind, we should stay in. We could be like little Buddhas, meditating and masturbating and watching TV. And we could imagine ourselves to be brilliant, and kind, and good lecturers, and good listeners, and utterly loving—and there’d be no way to prove it otherwise.


4

One final story: For the first six months of 2005, I lived alone in Montreal. I went because I was overwhelmed and I picked Montreal because I had no friends there, and for the first few weeks all I experienced were pangs of withdrawal for everyone I loved. It was awful and all-consuming . . . and then it passed. And once it passed, I was in heaven. There I sat in my lovely cheap apartment—no distractions, no e-mail, surrounded by books. There was a grocery store across the street. The mountain was two blocks away, and I could climb it whenever I wanted. Self-confidence, health, happiness, the equanimity of the non-smoker—all were mine.

And then . . . I destroyed it. I met someone and then another person and before I knew it, all the chaos of life came back, along with all my self-doubt and anxiety and fear.

But perhaps that’s what it’s for—self-confidence and courage and energy and peace—perhaps it’s to be used in the world. Perhaps there’s only one thing to do with it: spend it.

I’m always super-conscious of how whenever I go out into the world, whenever I get involved in a relationship, my idea of who I think I am utterly collides with the reality of who I actually am. And I continue to go out even though who I am always comes up short. I always prove myself to be less generous, less charming, less considerate, not as bold or energetic or intelligent or courageous as I imagined in my solitude. And I’m always being insulted, or snubbed, or disappointed. And I’m never in my pyjamas.

And yet, in some way, maybe this is better. Each of us in this room could suffer the pangs of withdrawal and gain the serenity of the non-smoker. We could be demigods in our little castles, all alone, but perhaps, at heart, none of us wants that. Maybe the only cure for self-confidence and courage is humility. Maybe we go out in order to fall short . . . because we want to learn how to be good at being people . . . and moreover, because we want to be people.

And so, to return to Allen Carr’s final question to the would-be quitter: Do I really need to go through life paying through the nose, just to stick these things in my mouth and suffocate myself?

Yes, Mr. Carr, yes.