Inside Out

March 22nd, 2015                           Rev. Fiona Heath

How can you tell if someone is an introvert?

According to one minister, a more reliable indicator of introversion then the Myers Briggs personality test is to preach a sermon to a room full of people.

Afterwards, if your hands are warm, you are an extrovert.

If your hands are cold, you are introvert. Mine are usually freezing!

I am indeed an introvert.  Introversion and extroversion are ends of a spectrum that describes how we interact with the world. Research suggests that introvert brains are more sensitive to outside stimulation. We react more strongly to our environments.

So while my partner Marc can listen to loud music and answer email and talk to me at the same time, and think nothing of it, I cover my ears with my hands, begging for the music to be turned off.

In general, introverts learn through quiet reflection, by taking the time to think through an idea. Extroverts learn best through talking to other people and through activity.

Introverts re-charge themselves by being alone or in nature.

Extroverts re-charge through interactions with other people.

You might say extroverts are more oriented to the external world while introverts are oriented to the inner life. These are generalities of course, and no one fits either profile perfectly.

I’m sure none of this is new to you. In the world of internet quizzes, you have probably figured out by now where you lie on the spectrum.

According to Myers Briggs, I am a full-on introvert, but most of us have both extrovert and introvert aspects of ourselves. We might love a night out at the jazz club, but also crave a quiet morning walk.

We live in a time and place though, that isn’t much impressed by quiet morning walks.

We live next door to the United States - the most extroverted nation on the planet – just think of Disney World. It is designed for outgoing people who thrive on noise and activity. Canada, the land of the quietly polite, has a more introverted character, but we also reflect that western idealization of the extrovert.

After all, in the beginning was the word.

God spoke “let there be light” and there was light.

Christianity – and the cultures shaped by the Christian story

 – understand words as power. 

God gave Adam the power to name all creatures and have dominion over them.

Silence in this story is seen as absence, something to be broken in order to let life in.

Introverts disagree with this. Silence is a source of nourishment.

And indeed, over time Christian mystics began to realize that God could be encountered in silence. 

The Desert Fathers went out into the African desert to live in solitude.

Christians established convents and monasteries, creating a space which balanced silence and fellowship.   

Monks and nuns retreated from society to better contemplate the glories of God in peace.

But outside of those sanctuaries, life kept on being noisy, silence considered to be of little value.

After all, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

And in an ever more urban society silence is increasingly rare. Even in quietly polite Canada. Elevator muzak, screens everywhere, 24 hour news. We live in an increasingly connected society, one that celebrates sociability and values extroversion.

Back a century ago, in the time of Murdoch Mysteries, western society emphasized character.  
People were praised for demonstrations of inner virtue – helping others, being dutiful, expressing morals and manners. Anyone who tried could be of good character. 

With the advent of films came the rise of the celebrity culture, we now value appearance, charisma, magnetism, charm. These are more like personality traits, you either have them or you don’t. The ideal personality is that of an extrovert: gorgeous, gregarious, good with people. (Cain, Quiet, p. 29-33).

Think of George Clooney.

Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, notes that “Introverts living under the Extroversion Ideal are like women in a man’s world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are.

“Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.”

Many introverts pretend to be more extroverted than they truly are.

Being told you are “quiet” is never a compliment.

I spent years feeling guilty and embarrassed about being someone who is happier staying home and reading a good book.

However, I have come to embrace my quiet side, and appreciate the strengths of insight, calmness, and listening skills which it brings.

Introversion doesn’t mean I am not happy standing up here in front of you, or in all the meetings church life depends on, it simply means I need to balance these good activities with more solitary pursuits – like writing this reflection.

I actually enjoy being part of large crowds, as long as I know where the exits are.

Leaders can be introverts or extroverts, but our image of leadership tends to assume an extrovert.

The Extrovert Ideal portrays leaders as dominant, out-going people, the ones who are the centre of attention, exuding confidence.

Think of former US President Bill Clinton.

Cain suggests that many of the most successful leaders in US political and corporate life are actually introverts who lead by listening, who encourage initiative, who are humble and unassuming.

Think of Bill Gates.

Both types of leaders can excel.

Extrovert Leaders do better leading people who are willing to follow and act in support roles.

Introvert Leaders do better leading people who are engaged and want to participate in the decision making process.

Within Unitarian Universalism, with our congregations filled with committed and engaged people, introvert leaders are a good fit.

Introvert leaders are good at listening to people and encouraging action.

This reflects our ethic of shared ministry – the work of the chalice is the work of all of us here.

As our spiritual community grows and changes, both here and across North America, we need to be mindful of how we shape our common life.

Outside these four walls the extrovert ideal prevails,

although I am glad to see more and more people proclaiming they are introverts and proud of it – all on-line of course.

Within these four walls the introvert does pretty well.

Indeed the flip side of the Extrovert Ideal in society is that an Introvert Ideal prevails within much of religion.

A truly spiritual person must be quiet, introspective, and deep.

And while many people of wisdom may be like this, just as many are sociable and outgoing.

Wisdom comes in many packages.

There are many paths to a sense of belonging to the Whole.

For some it comes through solitary prayer,

for others meditating as part of a community –

as Buddhists do – is far more powerful.

For others, the well-being that arises from a sense of deep connection comes out of collective, celebratory activity.

Millions of Hindus arrive at the Ganges for the Kumbh festival and leave renewed by the exciting communal experience.

Any meaningful spiritual tradition should provide paths for both introverts and extroverts to connect to the mystery.

Joyful singing and peaceful silence engage different people in different ways.

In our desire to grow and share our message, many of our UU leaders turn to the example of evangelical Christianity, which is perhaps the most extroverted faith of all.

Their evolving forms of ministry are often lifted up as models of how we might revitalize congregational life. Rock bands, videos, testimonies.

Evangelical Christianity is relentlessly upbeat, all positivity, optimism and good cheer.

Good cheer is a good thing.

As UUs, this kind of influence on our worship, with our history of humanistic, intellectual services opens us to deeper feeling.

I know I could use a little more rhythm, a little more story.

At a recent minister’s gathering out in California, many of our services were this extroverted, engaged worship.

We were encouraged to talk back, to raise our arms in praise, to turn to one another and lock eyes and tell of our love for one another.

It was horrifying.

The only service that truly fed my spirit was the one led by Wayne Walder of Neighbourhood, our sister congregation in Eastern Toronto.

His was quieter, softer, more invitational.

It was a relief after the seemingly relentless cheer of the previous days.

But in the days after, the messages of the extroverted services have stayed with me. While they made me uncomfortable in the moment, the loud delight has left a lingering warmth.

There is power in both styles of spiritual engagement.

As a congregation, we need to make room for both ways of being:

those energized and transformed by the crowds and those who need quiet contemplation.

The circumstances for spiritual growth are unique for each individual.

The spirit can open to the mystery in all sorts of ways.

And so we have our all ages Spirit Jam services designed for engaging the extroverts.  And we have services with long meditation times for the introverts. 

We might also be mindful of the needs of the different temperaments in the rest of our lives as well.

Since we live within a society tilted towards that extrovert ideal ,

the norms of committee meetings and decision making processes are often geared to the out-going.

Often the loudest voice in the room carries the day.

Author Susan Cain tells a story about a group of business school students engaged in a survival training session. The quietest person had extensive backwoods experience, but his ideas were consistently ignored because more vocal people spoke with conviction. Fortunately it was just a training scenario, because based on their poor decisions, the group perished. (Cain, p50).

The loudest person does not necessarily have the best idea.

We assume talkers are smarter, we assume those who hesitate are wrong, but that simply isn’t true.

Making open space for reflection in decision making processes is important.

Taking time helps.

Introverts appreciate materials in advance,

so they can think things through before the meeting.

If we are prepared, it is easier to engage with the immediacy of the extroverted thinking process.

Once we know our own opinion, we can pay attention to what others think.

It helps when each of us knows what we need,

and can ask for it graciously.

Being aware and honest about our temperaments matters.

We won’t always be accommodated, but the conversation creates a more caring community.

Acceptance of one another is one of our principles.

We are called to a deeper understanding of the people around us.

May we find ways to honour both ways of being –

the extroverts and the introverts – and everyone in between - in all aspects of the UCM community.

May we be accepting of one another and generous in our understanding of our differences.

In finding ways to be inclusive of the spectrum of temperaments,

we honour the light within each of us,

knowing that all of us together make a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

We grow in spirit by caring for one another,

In celebrating the mystery in ways both lively and reflective.

We grow in spirit when we live our principles of being boldly inclusive and deeply connected.

So say we all.


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