“Our culture made a virtue of living only as extroverts. We discouraged the inner journey, the quest for a center. So we lost our center and have to find it again.” -Anais Nin
While sitting alone in a little restaurant in Tivoli to finish reading Susan Cain’s book about introverts, my quiet afternoon was interrupted by a group of young Bard students in for a late brunch after a night of partying. The young girls loudly complained about their current hair color and what color to dye it next. They complained about how rude it was for friends to text them while they were busy eating. The most outspoken of the bunch confessed in an unhushed tone that she had puked in a little garbage bag in her dorm room three nights in a row before passing out drunk and stoned. Not a single friend mentioned she might want to avoid either the wine or marijuana for just one evening, instead they all shared their worst vomit stories. My black bean chili went cold and untouched.
Their conversation, while amusing and a little gross, reminded me how introverted I can be. I need quiet now. In order to fall asleep, I wear earplugs to drown out the silence of living in the country. Maybe it’s aging, but my ears have become super sonic microphones that pick up the faintest thump of a ladybug landing on a pillow, a mouse scraping at the inside of the wall or the rustle of the wind against my window. I don’t want to hear a thing.
My days, on the other hand, are filled with conversation. Meetings, casual banter, conference calls, emails, lunches, dinners, drinks. Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk. I feel alive in a room where everyone is expressing their points of view–with or without conflict–and everyone is heard and agreement is reached. But after a day filled with creative brainstorms and strategic speculation, followed by a conversation with my mom or catch-up call with a good friend, I need to reflect. I need time to myself, to unwind, to be with my thoughts.
When I was young, I looked for attention. I was the girl doing cartwheels through the school parking lot at recess. I hung upside down on the centipede jungle gym in my birthday party dress. I was unafraid to raise my hand, confident of the correct answer. I loved to read out loud to the entire class. I was the cheerleading captain. I won first place in a city-wide speech contest at twelve years old. I was also highly-reactive to the emotions of everyone around me. If my best friend was mad at her mom, I was mad at mine. If dad was angry, I was angry at him. A shell magnetized to the emotions of everyone around me, I didn’t know what to think of me unless it was in relation to someone else.
Then, I got sick. I was hospitalized with Crohn’s Disease. My mom gave me a Judy Blume diary and a copy of the New Yorker. I started writing. I saw a psychologist to help me manage the anxiety, humiliation and fear at what was happening inside my body. Introspection and writing, gave me a place to land. Outside of the judgment of my peers, away from the chaos of my family, creativity was a way to tap into who I really am.
Creativity also led me to express myself in a myriad of ways. In high school, I spiked my bleach-blonde hair and painted anarchy symbols on my navy blue uniform skirt. I danced wild and free to Bauhaus, Depeche Mode and The Cure. I sang Throwing Muses at the top of my lungs driving around in my car. In college, I painted Dali’s mustache, open doors, brick walls and drunk friends. Not too long ago, I got up onstage and made people laugh. But always I would return to the written word, a quiet walk, or a solitary spot by the lake to be alone.
Whenever I lean too much on the extrovert, I get exhausted. Whenever, I lean too far towards the introvert, I get antsy. My dear friend Victor described us as “intimacy junkies.” He said we were creatures who could only tolerate dwelling on the surface for a little while, then we had to go deep. Like deep-sea divers plunging into the lives of people we love, we had to know them from the inside out or not at all. We swam in their vulnerabilities and held them sacred, even if only through a knowing glance or a thoughtful moment, we were present, aware and always there.
I think it’s limiting to label myself or anyone else as exclusively introverted or extroverted. Everyone inhabits both qualities in varying degrees. I think it’s dangerous to cultivate a society convinced it should only be one way without the other. I’m bewildered at how quickly people leap to judge a politician or other high-profile person for making complicated decisions from a thoughtful, reflective place of compromise and willingness. The media seems quick to demand action by stating an unswayable left or right position then holding someone to it regardless of constantly changing situations. But, so much of life is about the sway. And, to me, that’s the power of being quiet. When you go inside and see yourself and the world around you for all of its vastness, all of its beauty and all of its flaws, it’s easier to bend towards the gentler side of vision, leadership, hope and peace. Sometimes quiet speaks with such power, you have to sit upright to hear the wisdom in the whisper.
Author Susan Cain explores how introverts can be powerful in a world where being an extrovert is highly valued in her new book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Join From Left to Write for a live chat with Susan Cain at 9PM Eastern on January 26. As a member of From Left to Write, I received a copy of the book. All opinions are my own.