The Social Introvert
When I first discovered it in college, the category of “introvert” had been a lifesaving revelation. I no longer had to blame myself for the hours, days I needed to spend alone. I learned it was okay to periodically need air unbreathed by anyone else.
Over the last few years, though, the category has been serving me less and less. When you’re surrounded by party-happy college students, a label to ward off invitations to nightclubs can be a valuable possession. When your company consists of grad students, eager to get back to the secluded office or library, an identity which emphasizes solitude can be a curse.
In Pennsylvania’s Eastern State Penitentiary, opened in 1829, the prisoners were placed in separate, silent cells, and given a copy of the Bible. They weren’t allowed to speak to anyone, not even the guards.
The justification of this practice was the belief that, through quiet contemplation, even the most hardened criminal would see the error of his ways and repent. We need only turn inwards to find God, our Inner Light. We all have a Voice of Conscience that may be drowned out by the shouts of false friends but will ring loud and clear in an empty cell.
It was a beautiful idea… with the ugliest of consequences. Rather than finding their Inner Light, the prisoners were plunged into the darkest depression and suffered all manner of mental and physical distress.
The Eastern State Penitentiary eventually discontinued the practice of solitary confinement. Tragically, it is still a reality in many US prisons.
I visited the ESP as a teenager and, unlike its well-intensioned creators, had no trouble seeing solitary confinement for the cruel and unusual punishment that it is.
Cruel and Unusual… to Myself
It was just another day from a few summers back, in a string of days exactly like it. I don’t know how many; I didn’t want to know. I would sit at my desk with my laptop and my philosophy books and intend to work. Again and again, I’d end up staring into space, every empty minute more painful than the previous.
I’d think about going out to the garden or calling a friend… but I didn’t think I deserved it. If I could only dig deeper into these philosophy books, dig up some willpower, some enthusiasm, some desire… If I could only find, in this soothing solitude, some inner light worth showing to my friends — then I would head outside.
The light dimmed every day.
What saved me was the memory of Eastern State Penitentiary. With a pang, I saw what a cruel jailer I’d been. I wouldn’t wish solitary confinement on anyone, not even my worst enemy… except, it turns out, myself.
The Social Animal
We’re all social animals, every last one of us. Some of us like solitude a bit more, and some crave company, but we all create meaning with others, and only with others. (Others who might be hidden inside a book or behind a computer screen.) The very helpfulness of the category “introvert” depends on our social nature: if I were an entirely solitary being, I wouldn’t even care that others liked solitude too.
An opuntia living among bluebells will benefit from knowing that it needs more sunlight and less water than its companions. But “avoid water, pursue sunlight” remains bad advice for a desert-dwelling cactus. So it is with our human need for sociability and solitude. Like the opuntia and the bluebell, the intro- and extravert both thrive on friendship and quiet — just in different proportions.
The introvert working an extravert’s job (say, the college student) will do well to remember her need for alone time. She’ll be dragged to more meetings and parties than could possibly do her good, and she should let herself resist when necessary. The rhetoric around introversion can be a great resource here.
But the introvert living among other introverts (say, the grad-school student) faces different challenges. She doesn’t need to be reminded of the goodness of solitude — she feels it in her bones, and everyone around her does too. What she needs, instead, is permission to be sociable.
This is no easy matter, since for the introvert, socializing just doesn’t have the intrinsic appeal it has for the extravert. Deciding to “hang out” (a phrase which promises the vaguest, least appealing of benefits) even with my closest friends almost always feels like a plunge into irrationality. To me, socializing is what exercise is for many, and what solitary work might be for the extravert: something you have to force yourself into every time, even if it’s good for you and feels great once you get going.
As the story goes, the wise introvert sees through the shallowness of small talk, and likes her conversations either deep or to the point. This is a dangerous sentiment around which to build your identity. Human contact is a dive into the unknown; the deep and important can’t always be planned, and the shallow is also important. You can take as long as you need drying out on the shore — but sometimes you need to dive in.
In my unwitting solitary confinement, I learned that left to our own devices, we will wither. There is no inner light independent of other people.
This may sound depressing, but I think there’s a beauty to be unearthed here. Two empty people can enter a room and create light just by bouncing reflections in each other’s eyes. There is an inner light — but it requires sparks from others. Sometimes it needs to be shielded from the extinguishing gales of a crowded room — but human contact is still its oxygen.
The beautiful truth is that even parties can be fun. Telling someone what you had for dinner can be a gift. You can kindle a light in the loneliest darkness just by talking — or listening. This is obvious to the extravert, but endlessly, thrillingly astonishing to the introvert.
Sometimes you only need to breathe the same air as someone else — and you’ll start glowing.