Soft, oblivious and selfish is how I remember him. Each week I would bump into him in the same bar, within the same group of friends. No one particularly disliked him — he was all too hopeless, too clueless, for such strong emotions. Unable to properly take an interest in other people or their lives, he pushed conversations toward himself, and when that failed he searched for people that could be separated from the crowd, people whose kindness made them easy prey. Soon he would have them bottled up in some dark corner, nodding dumbly, while he talked about himself and his thoughts into a social paralysis.
Everything about him seemed, at first, forgivable, even his Dutch habit of always having a drink in his hand while never actually buying one with his own money. He made a skill of casually following people to the bar when they were about to order. Standing there with a meek smile, he would talk-and-talk-and-talk. Invariably the person with their wallet out would feel obliged to make a half-hearted, heavily guilted, offer. He never refused and never returned the kindness.
In hindsight now, he had an obvious tick about him. Something that was quick to surface and which indicated deeper, more submerged, character flaws. After a brief hello, and whether you were meeting for the first time or for the hundredth, he would begin with the same piece of housekeeping (with only the numbers changing): ‘I have been in this city for 231 days, I have 134 days before I leave’.
It seemed innocuous at first, but hearing it again-and-again without prompting, as a kind of public service announcement, had an odd, and growing, psychological effect on those of us around him. We were talking with someone who was running a constant stock keep of his time with us. Before long people began to feel responsible for the experience that he was having, as he counted down each day and moment instead of just living each one, good or bad; parceling everything, all joy and desolation, all beauty and terror, into times and dates.
He once told me that he “loved” poetry. When I pressed a little, he seemed shocked by my questions, telling me without embarrassment that he really didn’t like reading other peoples’ writing. It was only his poetry that he loved. And though he wouldn’t say this second part out loud, all that talk about days and numbers had nothing to do with the time we were spending together. A charitable interpretation would have been a kind of lament, a sadness at the few days we had left in each other’s company. But this nonsense started from the first day he arrived — ‘I have been in this city for 1 day, I have 364 days before I leave’ — and from his first conversation with strangers.
Like a doddering grandfather telling a story, he was not speaking for an audience, but regardless of one. Everything was mind to mouth, without any thought that other people may not be fascinated by him, may not be immediately enraptured by the inner workings of his mind. A mind always aware, and always keen to remind anyone listening, that they were on his time, taking up his precious minutes. When it wasn’t them, it was his job or this city. Everything, always, an imposition.
Eventually his days did, finally, run out and he left — still counting and bundling his life into numbers; still insufferable, but elsewhere, with a new audience. And I have often thought about him since. Broken-down from its original context into a metaphor these days, when we call someone ‘narcissistic’ we are often confusing the term with something closer to ‘conceited’ or ‘vain’; someone who thinks that they are great and that everyone else should think so too.
The Narcissus comparison catches a different tone — from the original Greek, a laconic hunter who fell so deeply in love with his own beauty that he spent all his days admiring his reflection and hearing only his own voice repeated back to him through Echo, a besotted and enabling nymph. Narcissus wasn’t interested in what other people thought of him, because he didn’t think about them, at all.
It is rare to find someone so caught up in themselves that this label applies — or at least I thought so!
Then a string of unpleasant and unsettling things happened. A new virus became a fast moving global pandemic, our best-dreamt-up policies of mitigation often had people wishing instead for the illness, the leader of the free world failed again to lead while flirting out loud with authoritarianism, smelling blood in the water actual authoritarian countries seemed emboldened, and our streets became increasingly marked by protest and counter-protest.
The list goes on in different ways for different people. But it’s in the language of it all that things have become alarming. And it didn’t take long to happen. Unavoidable and everywhere, it was in the mouths of friends, strangers, news presenters… begin any sort of conversation, in any sort of representative circle of people, and quickly someone will start talking like this: “2020 has been a tough year”, “2020 has been hard”, “what a terrible year”, “I can’t wait for 2020 to be over and done with”…
There is an unmissable shallowness in this type of language. It comes from luxury. From gifts, birthday parties, Christmas mornings, and unending comfort. It is the innocence of childhood in the mouths of adults. An expectation that each year will be an improvement on the last, and a deep, learnt, conviction that other people are responsible for your happiness, that they should provide for you, that everyone else has responsibilities… and that you have none.
It is odd to think this way past a certain age, and uncomfortable to see it mass produced. When your overweight Auntie does this on New Year’s Day (packages-up her life into a number), you cringe because you instantly recognize what she is doing. From the way that she has framed it, you know that she isn’t a serious person. If she really wanted to start a diet and an exercise program she would have done so the day before, or the day before that.
Yet somehow, in this moment, that fat Auntie of yours has taken over the conversation, everyone nodding along, smiling, agreeing, and even thinking her to be somewhat profound, as she laments that her New Year’s resolution has been stolen from her. When someone experiences new types of loss, suffering and anxiety, and then speaks about it in terms of how it affects their calendar, it quickly takes on the ring of a tantrum. A righteous anger that the world hasn’t been suitably padded, or child-proofed, for their requirements.
This all comes from a mind that knows intellectually that bad things happen, but never really expects any of those things to come its way. A mind that has never properly considered that the world is difficult at times, and always unpredictable. A mind that thought pain belonged only to other people. A mind that is now pouting out loud, and looking desperately for a parent to complain to — someone to blame for ruined plans and lost time. A mind that is now furious that something has dared to step into its life; and that we should all be sorry and sympathetic for the intrusion… without reciprocation.
It’s true that the universe doesn’t like us, but it doesn’t have a grudge against us either. It certainly doesn’t owe us anything. If we want to improve things, then we will have to work at it, all of us. As we did in the past, we might achieve just enough salutary progress that life again feels comfortable and safe… until the next unforeseen problem hits, and we have to start over. The work of saving civilization is a project of constant maintenance — not for a few months, or even a year, but for as long as we want to survive. This has, and always will be, the case.
Either way, we are currently having an unsubtle encounter with a Greek tragedy.
Angry at Narcissus’ behaviour, the goddess of revenge and retribution, Nemesis, dragged him out into the forest, and dropped him before a small pond. He looked down into the water and saw his own reflection once again. Through the clarity of this new mirror, Narcissus finally realized what he had been doing. There was no doubt that he was in love, but that love could also never grow, never change, never materialize in any way. He died in despair.
2021 might be better… it might be worse! There might be no vaccine!