“Don’t think of introversion as something that needs to be cured.” ― Susan Cain
A counsellor once asked me to recall what were the most common terms my father used to describe me when I was a child. The first word that came to mind was “vague”. He told me I was vague quite a lot, bemoaning how I seemed to get caught up in my own thoughts, daydreaming when I should have been paying attention.
“Welcome back,” he would say when my concentration returned to whatever we were doing, “Where did you just go?”
I used to answer, “Nowhere,” but actually I’d just been playing the Wimbledon final, or compiling a list of my top five albums, or reimagining the Stringybark Creek Massacre, or constructing a revenge fantasy for the guy who bullied me on the school bus.
Yeah, I got lost in my thoughts a lot, but as they say, there’s a word for “people who are in their heads too much”: thinkers.
So, I was an introvert growing up in an extroverted family, and all the signals I got from my parents was that my “vagueness” was a real problem.
I have to admit, my parents weren’t alone in their suspicion that my introversion was a drawback. Extroverts rule. In every field of endeavor, from business to politics, education to entertainment, even the church, extroversion is a job requirement.
Then I heard Susan Cain speak about introversion in her highly popular TED talk:
“Introversion – along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness – is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology. Introverts living in the Extrovert Ideal are like women in a man’s world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are. Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.”
I was so impressed by Cain’s presentation I bought her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. At last, someone was affirming my introversion, not as a disability, but simply as a perfectly normal way to be human.
Introverts are creative. We love music, nature, art, and natural beauty. We feel more deeply. And we tend to notice subtleties that others miss. We dream vividly, and can often recall our dreams the next day. We’re often more philosophical or spiritual than materialistic or hedonistic.
And it’s perfectly okay to dislike small talk. It doesn’t mean we dislike people. In fact, our preference for more meaningful conversation suggests we’re deeply interested in people.
In fact, I’ve come to realise that being vague is my superpower.
But it took a while. You don’t get too many affirmations for being an introvert, especially in the evangelical church.
In her book, Quiet, Susan Cain asks, “Does God love introverts?” She goes on to analyze evangelical church culture as a supremely extroverted movement, not unlike the corporate sector, claiming it is indebted to and a propagator of the Culture of Personality.
Agreeing, Adam McHugh, in his book Introverts in the Church, says, “The evangelical culture ties together faithfulness with extroversion. The emphasis is on community, on participating in more and more programs and events, on meeting more and more people. It’s a constant tension for many introverts that they’re not living that out. And in a religious world, there’s more at stake when you feel that tension. It doesn’t feel like, ‘I’m not doing as well as I’d like.’ It feels more like ‘God isn’t pleased with me’.”
Too many Christians find themselves on a guilt trip because they’re not more bold in evangelism, or more willing to speak up in meetings, or absolutely certain in their views and thoroughly convinced of their leadership. But there is a place in God’s kingdom for sensitive, reflective types. It’s not always easy to claim, but it’s there.
Everytime I’m on a Q&A panel at a Christian conference and people ask very personal questions about issues they’re facing in ministry, I’m always astonished at how the extroverted panelists are so quick with an answer, sometimes involving a 3 or 5 step method. When it comes to me, I say, “I have no clue. I’d need to ask you a dozen questions for clarification before I can answer that.” Sometimes, the audience laughs nervously. They think I’m kidding and I’m actually going to hit the questioner with a zinger answer. But it feels to me like it would trivialize the very real issue they are struggling with to fire off a hasty reply.
As Susan Cain points out there’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.
The activist, extroverted sector of the church needs to rediscover the value of solitude and contemplation. They need to learn that evangelism involves way more listening than speaking, and that worship should include silence and mystery.
Some years ago, I was in Houston, Texas, while on a speaking tour and I had a few hours free one afternoon. My host, an evangelical minister, asked me what I wanted to do and told him I’d always wanted to visit the Rothko Chapel. He’d never heard of it, but being an obliging host, and an extreme extrovert, he agreed to take me.
The Rothko Chapel is an ecumenical center that houses fourteen black-purple color-hued paintings by Mark Rothko. The building — an octagon inscribed in a Greek cross — and the artwork it contains is an austere masterpiece.
So, we arrived. The chapel was completely empty, but for the attendant at the front door. We entered and sat down and I began to immerse myself in the ambience of the room. The paintings are huge. Overwhelming, in fact. And the hue of the paintings varies depending on the light at that moment of the day. Then I noticed my host the extrovert. He walked quickly from one canvas to the next, looking at each one for a few seconds. Before long, he had “seen” all of the pictures and was ready to leave. But I had begun to pray and was drifting into a meditative state. Being a good host like all extroverts are, he sat on the same bench as me and waited, feigning patience, until I was ready to leave.
Later, as we were walking back to the car, he confessed he wanted to leave within minutes of arriving, but by being forced to stay he found himself eventually being affected by the atmosphere of serenity and stillness. He thanked me for introducing the place to him.
I don’t know if he’s ever been back there, but I hope he gained something from the need to be quiet!
And so to introverts everywhere I say to you, be true to your own nature. If you like to do things in a slow and steady way, don’t let others make you feel as if you have to race. If you enjoy depth, don’t force yourself to seek breadth. If you prefer single-tasking to multi-tasking, stick to your guns. Being relatively unmoved by rewards gives you the incalculable power to go your own way.
And here’s a painting from the Rothko Chapel to reflect on for a while:
[Cover photo by @vladimir.fedotov]