In the near future I will be leaving my family for a week, part of a team of evaluators who will go to an office much like our own and assess its weaknesses and strengths. It'll be the most difficult thing I will have done as a part of my job for the last year --- more difficult than any thorny legal problem I have had to unravel, brief to write, or conflict to resolve. And I volunteered for it.
The challenge of the week ahead is that it involves leaving a familiar setting, meeting many new people, and engaging them in conversation. It would be difficult enough if the day ended at 5:30. I could eat dinner alone, perhaps, and then retire to a quiet evening and reading in my hotel room. But there will be evening meetings and even obligatory dinners. It'll be exhausting.
I am a classic introvert. And as Susan Cain informs me in her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, something like one-third of you are like me. No. Make that two-thirds of you, as if you are reading this blog post you are probably more oriented toward reading than socializing. To top it off, we live in a culture that prizes the extrovert ideal, that respects people who "put themselves out there," who "speak up." As Cain points out, even in the Christian evangelical community, extroversion seems to be the ideal, with people urged to connect, participate, and communicate, to do more and be with people more. That's not me.
I never remember asking a question in class during all my years of education. I preferred to listen. It always seemed to me that if you waited long enough that all your questions would be either answered by the instructor or asked by another student, a talker. In my adult years I have been asked to be on the Boards of several non-profits. I don't know why they ask me. I rarely say anything. I'm happy to work on a project, to head a committee, to speak to you one-on-one, but I can't think of a thing to say in Board meetings --- at least not before someone else has said it. I'm still processing what has been said, while the conversation moves on.
I'm OK with all this, almost. Being an introvert can be a little bit like being on the sidelines at times. So much is happening, so much swimming by, so much talking going on. You sense that maybe you're missing something, even if you can't quite figure out what it is you're missing. And yet on the sidelines you can see the stream of life a bit better, step outside and listen to what is happening. Think. Ponder. Reflect.
In all the people that Cain interviewed for her book, one, a seven-year old girl named Isabel, brought home to me the simple pleasure of, well. . . being me. Isabel's mother was concerned when in second grade she preferred to come home after school and read, asked her mother to consult with her before arranging play dates, and often played by herself on the playground. Her mother worried about her. Asked about why she preferred being at home, Isabel (apparently very articulate for her age) said exactly this: "I need a break after school. School is hard because a lot of people are in the room, so you get tired. I freak out if my Mom plans a play date without telling me, because I don't want to hurt my friends' feelings. But I'd rather stay home. At a friend's house you have to do the things other people want to do. I like hanging out with my Mom after school because I can learn from her. She's been alive longer than me. We have thoughtful conversations. I like having thoughtful conversations because they make people happy." That's what it feels like sometimes: like there are too many people in the room. And yet I am envious at times of those who are so comfortable with the many, who, indeed, are supercharged by the crowd.
Cain's well-researched book manages to be an empowering one for introverts without slamming extroverts. She addresses the nature-nurture debate that shows up here as well as in so many other discussions of personality traits, summarizing studies of "high-reactive" infants (those that have more profound reactions to new stimuli) to teenagers who retreat to libraries or bathroom stalls at lunch. And she doesn't provide an apology for using introversion as an excuse for acting anti-social or failing to rise to the social occasion when circumstances dictate --- as when love or passion for a cause or need dictate. One of the most fascinating examples of this temperament-bending is of a well-loved, affable college professor who takes on an extroverted self during the day and retreats to his home and books on the evening and weekends. Or the spouse who agrees to host social gatherings twice a month out of love for her extroverted spouse who relishes such opportunities to connect with people. While our general disposition may be fixed, we are somewhat malleable people, able to act outside our comfort zone within limits. Isn't this as it should be? Will not God supply what we need when we need it? Did he not supply a timid Moses with an outspoken Aaron?
I volunteered for this assignment because it forces me to continue to learn how to function well as an introvert in a setting that forces social interaction. There will be a lot of people in the room, and a lot of chatter. I would rather be home. Already, I miss home. And yet I might, like Isabel, have a "thoughtful conversation" somewhere along the line. I wouldn't want to miss that. Every time I do something like this I become a little more comfortable being me and yet relating to people around me. Nevertheless, you can bet that somewhere, in the midst of all the buzz, I will steal some solitude. I will still be me.
If you're an introvert, read this book to understand yourself better and learn how to tap into the gift of temperament you've been given, to be more of who God intended you to be. If you're an extrovert, read it to understand the other one-third of the world (which likely includes co-workers and for some, a spouse). It manages to help without being a self-help manual. It illuminates without blinding. Whatever your temperament, in the end, you may agree that we could all use a little Quiet.