By Jim Tune
Susan Cain, in her best-selling book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, says at least one-third of the people we know are introverts. They are the ones who generally prefer listening to speaking, who innovate and create but dislike self-promoting, and who favor working on their own over working in teams. Cain argues that we undervalue introverts and shows how much we lose in doing so.
But that’s half an equation. There is also a certain maturity, health, sanity, and maturation that can be had only by interacting with others.
On the one hand, spiritual writers have tended to put an emphasis on the type of inner work that can be done only in private prayer and contemplation. That is why silence is judged to be so important while on a retreat. Sometimes we fear being silent and alone because we are afraid of what we might find there. As Thomas Merton put it, there is a hidden wholeness at the heart of things, but we are afraid we might find chaos there. And so we find it safer on the surface.
On the other hand, Christian spirituality has also always emphasized the social aspect of our lives, family, church, and involvement within a community. The outwardly lived, social dimension of life has also been considered a nonnegotiable of a healthy spiritual life. There is a real danger in being too quiet, in being too caught up inside ourselves, in avoiding the discomfort and challenge real community demands.
Both emphases, taken alone, are one-sided: An emphasis on solitude tends to exclude extroverts, just as an emphasis on robust participation in church life tends to exclude introverts. Both are necessary, and both are necessary in the life of the same person. Simply put, there is a certain inner work that can only be done alone, in silence, just as there is a certain growth and maturity that can be reached only through long faithful interaction within a family and a church community. There is a time to be with others, away from the private introspection within our own minds.
Pitting silence and socializing against each other creates a false dichotomy. They aren’t in opposition to each other but are both vital components of the same journey toward a life with God and one another.
Most people assume I am an extrovert, maybe because I preach and speak to crowds and I do reasonably well in social settings. But those activities can be very draining to me. I am honestly more at ease reading quietly, or working for hours alone in the garden. I’ve begun to understand this much: introverts and extroverts struggle equally and are equally privileged.