I’ve read a lot about Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. My recent favorite exploration of the topic is Bruce from Privilege of Parenting’s post about highly sensitive humans. In a single sentence, defining introversion, Bruce turned on a lightbulb for me:
“It is the tendency to be highly sensitive, quiet, shy and be interested in the inner world of feelings, thoughts, and private spirituality—an ability or tendency to sense the numinous (i.e. a feeling of divine presence) in the seemingly mundane.”
I have never heard introversion described this way before. It has always been about choosing to be alone, or being shy, or another simplistic distillation of what I think is nothing less than a way of being in the world. Suddenly all of my relatively recent writing about the holiness in the everyday, about the practice and the poem of ordinary life, about extreme sensitivity made bright and cogent sense.
I flipped open Quiet at random this afternoon, and found myself immersed in a section about the experience of an introvert at Harvard Business School. To say I relate is an understatement. I haven’t read it carefully enough to comment on Cain’s points, but I recall the tension I felt during those two years. What muddies the water of this topic for me is, I suspect, that I can often “pass” as an extrovert. But when I read Bruce’s words, or when I return to the basic definition I’ve always heard (an introvert both draws energy from and seeks out in times of need solitude and leans more towards feelings and thoughts than activities and people) there’s no question that introversion is my essential orientation. It’s not that I am a curmudgeon who hates people. Far from it. It’s just that I am easily overstimulated by the world, and I cope with this best by retreating.
My lingua franca is that of the mind and heart, of interiority, of the quiet that allows me to really hear and see and, most of all, be. As I’ve grown older I’ve made choices about how I spend my time that reflect this.
But it’s not that simple. It never is, is it? I walk, daily, through the extrovert’s world. I work in a field that involves a lot of interpersonal interaction. I am blessed with many wonderful friends. I am often a resource for people on myriad, random topics: do you have a pediatrician to recommend, do you have a book I would like, can you put me in touch with a babysitter, hey thanks for sending me the name of that person in my new town, she is my new best friend, thanks for referring me to that professional connection, I have a new job.
A couple of years ago I took an online quiz to ascertain whether I was a Malcolm Gladwell-style connector and was surprised to learn that I was. Really? Left to my own devices, I spend my free time alone. I like solitary activities like reading, writing, and running. I don’t like the telephone, preferring to be in touch over email, text, or other social networks. There are very few people whose company I would choose for extended periods of time. How to square this with my apparent ‘connector’ self and the fact that many people have told me I appear “social” and “extroverted”? I am not sure.
What’s more interesting to me about this lack of inside/outside congruence, though, is the indistinct but inarguable internal discomfort I feel about it. Where does this come from? It’s not from a judgment of more-social vs. less-social people, I don’t think. I conclude that it comes from a frustrated feeling of being inaccurately labeled. To be told I’m one way when I don’t think it’s that simple is aggravating, and makes me feel reduced to categories that don’t quite fit. The labels don’t capture the nuance, the tensions, the tradeoffs.
Maybe I am simply a connector who very much appreciates time alone. Maybe I’m a loner who happens to know a lot of people. Maybe I’m a crazy schizophrenic! I don’t know. What I do know is this is just one place in my life where I experience dissonance between how I am sometimes perceived and how I actually feel. I know, I know, this anguish is just so adolescent: even as I write it I sort of cringe. But it is true that I chafe against the way that the world seems to see me regularly and with more agitation than many people I know. It is true that I am apparently easily reduced to simplistic, caricatured qualities in the eyes of others.
My mind flits, again, to the wonderful Walt Whitman line, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” There are innumerable dimensions of humanity, and I think most of us have at least several on which we refuse simple categorization. These paradoxes are at the heart of who we are as humans. At least that’s the conclusion my introverted heart, drawn as it is to the inner world of feelings, thoughts, and private spirituality, comes to when it contemplates this.
Now, off to be by myself to read Susan Cain’s words.