I spend a lot of time alone. And I like it. Working on my laptop, reading a book, or just listening to the birds outside my window, I cherish any time I get to myself. As an introvert, I’m wired that way. I enjoy (some) people, but I need my time alone.
I worry, though, about the possibility that embracing how I’m “wired” can become an excuse, a temptation to avoid opportunities/responsibilities simply because I don’t enjoy them or because they’re hard for me. When that happens, my strengths turn into weaknesses and I become my own enemy.
Quite a few recent books have proclaimed the virtues of the introverted life. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Introvert Power, Why Your Inner Life Is Your Hidden Strength, and The Introvert’s Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World all emphasize the importance of introversion. And Adam McHugh applied many of the same ideas to the Christian life with Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture.
And I think this emphasis on understanding introversion is a good thing. As a society, we tend to force everyone into the same extroverted mold, often failing to appreciate and develop the qualities of the introverted life.
Nonetheless, we need to be careful here. All good things have a corresponding danger, a temptation to press that good thing in unhealthy directions. And the danger of understanding how you’re wired is the temptation to avoid opportunities/responsibilities because “you’re just not wired that way.”
An Unplanned Conversation
This came to mind the other day when I got an email from a student about why he was handing in a paper late. Every semester I receive at least a few such emails. And most of them trot out the same weary excuses: an alien mind infected my computer, a penguin stole my homework, I didn’t want to miss the last episode of my favorite show. That sort of stuff. But this excuse was a little different.
While I was finishing the last portion of the paper on a late night flight from Chicago to Seattle, a lady next to me asked about my paper. We spent the next two and a half hours talking about her life, God’s grace, and Yoder’s theology of slavery to powers. After talking about some of the hurt, crying some tears, and speaking about where she would like to be spiritually, [she] decided to start following Jesus and wants to come to our church.
My first reaction was pretty excited. Talk about a great email. After all, it’s not every day that a student tells me their church history homework directly contributed to someone’s conversion! So I’m glad that the student was willing to set aside his plans and priorities and see the needs of the person next to him. (Of course, there’s still the reality that he waited until the last possible minute to finish his paper. But who hasn’t?)
The Introvert's Excuse
My second reaction was to realize that this conversation never would have taken place had I been in that seat instead.
I fly a lot, and I’ve mastered the art of inhibiting airplane conversations. Book? Check. Headphones? Check. Don’t-talk-to-me-aura? Check. Politely nod to the person next to me with minimal eye contact, quickly turn attention to book, and I’m all set. Even if the person tries to initiate with some tentative questions or innocuous comments, I’m pretty good at responding in a way that is friendly but not too friendly. A response that tries to communicate, “I’m not a jerk, but I’m not going to talk to you.”
And, as an introvert, that’s supposed to be okay. That’s how I’m wired. God made me this way. So the flight ends with my conscience clear. No meaningful conversation took place, but that’s not my job. Let the extroverts do that.
Wired for God's Glory
Every gift is an opportunity for either gratitude or selfishness. We can receive the gift thankfully with a desire to share it with the people around us. Or we can hoard the gift as an opportunity for self-gratification alone.
The same is true with the gift of introversion. And I do think that it’s a gift. I enjoy being an introvert, and it makes it much easier to spend so many hours reading and studying. I like how I’m wired.
But I need to remember why I’m wired that way. It’s good that I enjoy being an introvert, but my enjoyment is not the highest goal of my existence. God’s glory is. And that often means doing things that are uncomfortable, unexpected, and undesired, working against my wiring when necessary as a (hopefully) faithful bearer of God’s image in the world.
Now, since God is the one who wired me this way, I think it stands to reason that I will normally express my faithfulness in ways that are consistent with my personality. There’s nothing wrong with spending most of your energy on things you’re good at and that you enjoy. That’s the gift.
But, when our gifts become excuses, we’ve turned gratitude into selfishness.
Back to the Plane
I’m not suddenly going to become someone who always chats up the person next to me on the plane. I would hate that, and I’m pretty sure everyone else would too. But I do need to become someone who refuses to allow personality to be an excuse for avoiding opportunity. To be honest, I’m not sure yet what that will look like for me. I’ll need to reflect on that the next time I get a few minutes to myself.