Recently, at the men’s group I help facilitate, I said that all through the pandemic, I’d been thankful for being an introvert. Except for not being able to be with my grandchildren, my life hadn’t changed all that much: I wrote in the morning, I walked in the afternoon. I noodled on my banjo, read, and watched old movies on TV. Now that the pandemic is winding down, however, I admitted I’ve been struggling to reenter society. The pace of life has picked up, the world seems louder, and I have difficulty talking with people face to face.
“You’re an introvert?” said a guy I’ve known for almost twenty years. “I’d never have known that.”
Which surprised me at first, until I realized how often in my life I have tried to cover up my need for solitude, my dislike of large groups, and my discomfort around loud people because of feeling there was something wrong with me.
One of my earliest memories is of crawling into a cupboard next to the chimney in our living room and curling up in the dark next to the warm bricks. As I wrote in last month’s blog, I used to spend a lot of time as a boy nestled in my favorite pine tree watching the clouds. On weekends and when I was sick, I loved to curl up under the covers of my bed and listen to “Bobby Benson of the B-Bar-B,” “Sky King,” “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon,” and any number of other radio shows.
All that changed when I moved from the two-room primary school just up the street to the third grade in adjoining elementary and junior high schools. Suddenly, I was thrust into an intimidating world of sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, and because in those days students routinely repeated grades, some of these kids were fifteen and sixteen years old. Bullying was common. I started waking up early in the morning fearful that Freddy Fitts would twist my arm behind my back and make me cry, the way he had with my classmate Roland.
That’s when I discovered the value of safety in numbers. I joined a gang of guys who used to go around picking on solitary kids. It was mostly verbal (which still doesn’t make me feel any better about some of the things I used to say), and I discovered I had a knack for the quick cutting remark. (See previous parenthetical comment.) Instead of a twisted arm, I got laughs. When I began playing sports, I hung around with teammates, which fed my ego because athletes were looked up to.
In high school, there were always friends at my house, a party or a dance every weekend, and joyriding around town in between. I was selected as “Class Wit.”
Still, I occasionally snuck off by myself, sat by the river at the foot of the hill where I lived, and listened to the water and watched the birds. It’s interesting to me that looking back sixty-plus years, I remember those times by the river more clearly than I remember parties I went to or dances I attended.
It was in college that I reverted to my introverted self, not because I wanted to, but because I never had the knack (and still don’t, I’m finding as I go back into the world) of meeting new people. While my old high school classmates were joining fraternities, I sat in the back of the college den unable to break out of what I felt was a locked room, convinced I was a failure for not being outgoing and popular.
After college, I found the perfect place to retreat into my self: on stage. (I’m not alone; I’ve read about I don’t know how many actors, singers, and comedians who are deeply introverted). My stage was my classroom, where I dressed in flashy sport coats, bell-bottomed trousers, bright matching ties and pocket handkerchiefs. I arranged the chairs so that I was center stage. All of which to project confidence and wisdom. Every teaching day was like disappearing into an Iron Man suit. I felt invincible.
Until one day, I found Iron Man’s hands around my neck, twisting the life out of me.
I left my job, my wife, my daughter, my house. I remarried a woman who loved what she called (and still does) “silence and slow time.” Together, we began to practice meditation. (I remember the first time I tried to meditate, I felt foolish. I imagined old high school classmates and my students calling me crazy, until I realized, no, I’ve been doing this all my life.) Mary Lee and I started going on silent retreats, making pilgrimages, or just traveling. Almost always alone, seldom on tours, avoiding for the most part the usual tourist spots.
Last week, I was telling another introvert about how often—and apparently successfully—I’ve hidden my introversion, and she recommended the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. I haven’t finished it yet, but I’m fascinated, and somewhat relieved, by the way the author shows how this country changed its 19th-Century emphasis on ‘character’ to—thanks in large part to Dale Carnegie’s How to win Friends and Influence People—a 20th Century obsession with ‘personality,’ to the point where shy children have been stigmatized, even given drugs to make them more outgoing.
I imagine some of you reading this know better than I how difficult it can be to grow up as an introvert. How people often equate being shy with being weak. I remember a principal I worked for who wrote in his evaluation that I was “diffident,” a word I had to look up. When I found it meant “lacking confidence, timid, shy,” I challenged him. Come to find out, he wasn’t talking about my classroom teaching, he was talking about the way I’d chaired a faculty meeting on accreditation, something I’d never in my life done before. (My next principal, by the way, at my going away party when I left the school, called me “One of our towering presences.”)
So how does any of this help me resurface after over a year of “silence and slow time,” especially into a world that has grown louder and more aggressive (i.e., January 6)? Well, even as I was writing the last paragraph, I realized that there’s still part of me that believes introverted means weak and that I need to hide behind some kind of extroverted persona. One of my temptations in these blogs, for example, is to pose as more of a world traveler than I am. (I’ve lived 74 of my 78 years in one state, of heaven’s sake.)
Enough people have told me that I’m a good teacher that I believe it, but if so, I continued to be a good teacher after I stopped wearing the matching neckties and pocket handkerchiefs. I didn’t need to pose. I just enjoyed teaching. And I don’t need to pose as a wandering adventurer to approach this new post-COVID world with the curiosity, even wonder of a pilgrim. I can accept, even relish, being an introvert and try to maintain the more leisurely pace of the last year or so, making time for plenty of solitude with the God-of-my-not-Understanding. I can become more involved in my Al Anon and Adult Children of Alcoholics groups, which are made up predominately of fellow introverts (which makes me wonder how much of being an introvert is nature and how much is nurture or the lack thereof).
And I can keep calling this blog “The Geriatric Pilgrim.”