Like millions of Americans, my girlfriend Maddie and I celebrated Thanksgiving on a smaller scale than usual this year: just the two of us. In most ways, we didn’t mind — no airplanes, no political discussion and no reason to cook a turkey. We also both come from large extended families (hers Italian, mine Irish) and neither of us is particularly at ease in big, boisterous holiday shindigs to begin with. Over the phone, one of Maddie’s relatives commented that we must be enjoying our “introverts’ Thanksgiving,” and indeed, we found some private tranquility.
But how much more peace and quiet can we endure?
Since the coronavirus outbreak first changed our way of life in March, we’ve spent a lot of time processing the impact on social obligations and behaviors. Initially, we saw a lot of jokes about introverts thriving under lockdown, yet as the weeks ground on, we began to see the cost of prolonged isolation under pandemic conditions, including stress and anxiety, substance abuse and suicidal ideation. The effects can be more extreme for those living alone. Though we’ve had a year devoid of FOMO, or the fear of missing out — since there are no occasions or events to skip — it is all too possible, and perhaps inevitable, that we’d miss the option of missing out on gatherings. That is, the introverted pleasure of staying home relies in part on being a choice, not a CDC guideline.
More than a decade ago, the above image macro became a part of meme history. You may recognize that fellow in the corner as Wojak, or the “Feels Guy,” a versatile MS paint character modified in countless ways since he first appeared on the scene. But while Wojak has stuck with us and continually evolved, his “I wish I was at home” wallflower persona is, in the scheme of internet ephemera, rather ancient. That’s what makes its resurgence at the end of 2020 — an unlikely trend that meme aficionados have puzzled over — so intriguing. It could be a simple case of old content turning fashionable again. On the other hand, it might signal a new preoccupation with the dynamics of (currently verboten) social events. Like the original artifacts, the new comics always cast Wojak as the guy hovering awkwardly in the corner at a party, often running through an internal monologue of his observations and niche interests, yet they come with different context: In 2020, opportunities for this kind of public introversion are uncommon.
In some of these panels — the one where Wojak wears a medical face mask, for example — we see an enduring tension between the reality of COVID-19 and a population divided in its willingness to help contain the disease. We all seem to have different rules and boundaries for restricting contact with other people, and some appear to have none whatsoever. If you, dutifully following the most cautious protocols, check Instagram Stories and see acquaintances hanging out in casual, crowded groups, you will probably feel like Wojak standing off to the side, in a mask, while the revelry goes on without you. But if you’re a natural introvert as well, these memes have the added resonance of counterintuitive nostalgia: Don’t you want to not fit in?
There’s nothing worse than accepting the wrong invite — the moment of regret when you step into some festivity you should have avoided. Unless, it turns out, we are altogether denied that sensation for nine months. Now I’d love to sip a beer on the fringe of a rowdy living room, aloof and apart, keeping any thoughts to myself. And I’d give anything to cut an Irish Goodbye from such an occasion, slipping into the night and off to anywhere I please; not only home, but to places where I can meet other friends and laugh about the disastrous outing I’ve had. I’d even like the discomfort of my huge family crammed into a small house for Christmas dinner, and planning my next escape to the bathroom to scroll through my phone for a couple of minutes.
Maybe this is the introvert tipping point. It’s not that we can’t take more time in our own apartments, with books and blankets and good records and favorite snacks — this is never too great a challenge. But absent the communal (and sometimes irritating) encounters of the normal social order, we lose what it means to reclaim our time from those pursuits, and gift them back to ourselves. We need to once again lurk in someone’s living room while strangers dance and flirt around us, and wonder how the fuck we got there. Till then, the memes will have to do.