I was in the bookstore this week, and a book by Susan Cain captured my attention immediately with its title alone: “Quiet.” I picked it up and perused it, and the intrigue deepened. It was subtitled, “The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.”
It reminded me of a funny quote I had heard the week before. “If other people are going to talk, conversation becomes almost impossible!” How often have we been with — or have ourselves been — a person who doesn’t stop talking. Even introverts, in particular situations, can be among those who talk too much. Being basically an introvert myself, I know that very well.
Everyone loves extroverts. They entertain us, make us laugh, and can lead a room with their presence and passion. Yet I have always been drawn to quiet people, too. It seems to me that those who are quiet are often a wealth of insight when you finally get them to open up. Their years of listening pay off in terms of depth of spirit.
Several years ago I was shocked to read that a group of psychiatrists determined that shyness in children is a psychological condition sometimes worthy of counseling and maybe medication. It took my breath away. I was a shy child, our children were all shy, and some of our grandchildren are shy. I certainly never considered it a psychological condition. In fact, I’ve always believed that many of the children who sit back quietly and absorb the world around them gain great knowledge for their futures. I remember teachers of Garrison Keillor’s being amazed, based on his years in school, that he became the presenter and performer he did since he spent much of his time so quietly. Maybe that is why on “Prairie Home Companion” Keillor advertises Powdered Milk Biscuits as a product “for shy people so they can find the courage to get up and do what needs to be done.”
I often wonder if we are born different kinds of people. Are there people born social who simply love interacting with others and know how to reach out in a crowd of strangers? Are there people who are innately shy, who would rather talk to one person in the corner of a room and who aren’t able to move around the gathering talking to the crowds? Is it nature that makes us the way we are? I think about that as I watch others move among so many people with such ease.
Yet maybe nurture as well as nature has a role here. I grew up alone socially, although I’m not sure that is wholly to blame for my inability to mix easily. When I was young, we lived on a busy street in a bigger city with no children around to interact with. So, I read books. I was crazy about books back then and now, buried in them during the quiet spots in my life. I remember with passion so many of the books I loved when I was young. Caddie Woodlawn and her adventures in the wild woods of Wisconsin. The growing up of the sensitive girl Frances in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” The deeper meanings of race and humanity in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” The despair and the hope laid bare in the words of Anne Frank. The meaning of integrity in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” In those young years, I read and read and read. One summer, I read 100 books. It was my door to adventures, and a link to the commonality of all people.
In all of my reading, I don’t think I was really sad or understood that most children were out playing in the streets in neighborhoods abounding with kids. I loved my books, I loved riding my bike, I loved my quiet room. I was an early morning riser who would get up at dawn and ride my bike for hours, something we certainly wouldn’t let our young children do alone today. But it was different, more trusting times and I remember those bike rides as being a gentle start to my days.
I came across a book the other day in my basement stash of books that I had when I was in middle school. It was called “A Friend is Someone Who Likes You.” The book must have been written for the shyer among us because its words comforted with its gentle reminders that a dog, a cat, a brook, a tree, and the wind can be a friend. I opened that long ago book and read its words, “The wind can be a friend too. It sings soft songs to you at night when you are sleepy and feeling lonely ….”
I guess we are who we are, whether we are born that way or whether it comes from nurture. It’s a funny thing about introverts, though. Susan Cain points out in “Quiet” that they often learn those things that allow them “to do what needs to be done,” as Keillor says. They learn to do public speaking. They run for office. They get in front of gatherings to run meetings. And it is said that it is often very shy people who perform in plays, or sing in front of audiences, or give lectures. Barbra Streisand speaks of her terror before she sings in front of a crowd. She of the incredible voice. It’s a wonder.
Cain has 20 questions in “Quiet” that let readers determine whether they are introverts or extroverts or somewhere in between. Of the 20 questions, I answered almost all as an introvert would. Which is OK. Because the one thing we know for sure is that the world is a richer place for having both introverts and extroverts. How wonderful that there are people who can get up and converse with a crowd and lead groups with their passion. How wonderful that there are people who can sit quietly alone in rooms for hours and read and think and develop new creations. How fortunate we are for the diversity of people and life and interest that abounds around us.
So, here’s to the quiet and the not-so-quiet, the shy and the bold, the leaders and the followers — and to the richness that such diversity brings to this immensely complicated and incredibly precious journey that we travel together.
Linda Flashinski is a retired educator whose column “In What Light There Is” appears on the first and third Sunday of every month. The phrase is from a poem by the late John Ciardi who wrote, “And still, I look at this world as worlds will be seen, in what light there is.” You may reach Linda at firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright, Linda Flashinski, 2012.