“The sense of unhappiness is so much easier to convey than that of happiness. In misery we seem aware of our own existence, even though it may be in the form of a monstrous egotism: this pain of mine is individual, this nerve that winces belongs to me and to no other. But happiness annihilates us: we lose our identity.” —Graham Greene, The End of the Affair
A friend described to me yesterday what he considers the Three Degrees of Being Stood Up. As he explained, these proceed as follows:
First Degree: Standing someone up entirely, with no warning, and no subsequent apology.
Second Degree: Canceling on someone at the last minute, possibly after he or she has set out for the appointment in question.
Third Degree: Breaking a date.
He agreed that we have all been guilty of the third. I know I have, too often, and, indeed, was somewhat surprised to hear it grouped with the other two offenses. And yet, he was right: such things inconvenience others and maybe even hurt them. Besides practical questions of schedules and reservations, there are matters of disappointment and broken trust. After a certain point, you cease to depend upon people who make a habit of breaking dates. Maybe that’s what we want.
It was funny that this should come up just when it did, because only a few days before, another friend had observed, “people should have the self-esteem to know that their absence matters to other people.”
Both these pronouncements got me thinking about those occasions when one feels one really cannot muster the energy to be good company, to subject oneself to the possibility of some obscure rejection or bruising. Is it egotism, or self-abnegation? Is there, ultimately, a difference? (I am obviously not referring to cases of severe depression, which are another order of magnitude altogether.)
Neurotic writers can be a great comfort in moments of wallowing, but what about those times when you need to jolly yourself out of it? When you cannot give in to what the decorator and entertaining doyenne Dorothy Draper terms the “Will to be Dreary”? It is in these cases that a certain kind of hearty, unreflective, jolly type is called for. Draper herself, for instance: she seems to like nothing more than having a bunch of people round, slapping a coat of paint on a room, making everyone play parlor games. She was given to directives like, “I believe in doing the thing you feel is right. If it looks right, it is right.” Not, perhaps, who you go to for insightful advice, but sometimes no-nonsense briskness is just the ticket.
Old etiquette guides are interesting on this point. They barely even address the issue of cancellation—because you didn’t do it. (Cell phones and email have a lot to answer for in that regard.) The one tangential piece of advice I found was in a book called Your Best Foot Forward: Social Usage for Young Moderns, published in 1940. “Examinations, minor illness, or extra work is not an adequate excuse for failing to observe the courtesy of guest to host,” the authors write sternly.
And if all else fails, I urge you to remember this cosmic law of the universe: it is never the people one wants to cancel who cancel. They never do. They need to read much more Graham Greene.