Drawing from Susan Cain’s book Quiet we’ll look at the differing needs of introverts and extroverts. How do we create a spiritual community that can accommodate a diversity of lived experience?
Rev. Fiona Heath is our half-time consulting minister.
The complete sermon can be read below:
How can you tell if someone is an introvert?
According to one minister, a more reliable indicator of introversion than 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 will be covering 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 or issue or plan. Extroverts learn best through talking to other people and through activity.
Introverts re-charge themselves by being alone or immersion 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. 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 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 far more introverted character, but we also arise out of a western civilization that idealizes 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, in general, disagree with this. Silence is a source of nourishment.
Over time Christian mystics began to realize that the Divine could be encountered in silence. They established convents and monasteries to allow people to better contemplate the glories of God. Outside of those sanctuaries, life kept on being noisy.
Today with communication devices everywhere, silence is becoming increasingly rare. Even in quietly polite Canada. There is always a newscast or text message or calendar alarm to catch your attention. We live in an increasingly connected society, one that celebrates sociability.
And that can be a problem.
Poet Criss Jami notes that “In an extroverted society, the difference between an introvert and an extrovert is that an introvert is often unconsciously deemed guilty until proven innocent.”
At the beginning of the twentieth century the emphasis was on character, people were praised for demonstrations of inner virtue – helping others, being dutiful, expressing morals and manners. Anyone could work towards this kind of behaviour.
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).
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.”
I know that I have spent years feeling bad and guilty and even 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 loud, 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 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.
This may be why Unitarian Universalist ministers are more likely to be introverts – our congregations are filled with people who want to be involved!
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. While outside these four walls the extrovert prevails, 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 is 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, which is why we have six sources for spiritual renewal.
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 community experience.
A sense of the mystery that surrounds us can be reached through internal seeking, certainly, but it can also be found through singing together. Any meaningful spiritual tradition should provide paths for both introverts and extroverts. Joyful singing and peaceful silence engage different people in different ways. We need cheerful greeters at the doors, but we also need to let the introverts slip in quietly and sit at the back.
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.
Not theologically speaking of course! But their new 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.
There is nothing wrong with this, good cheer is a good thing. As UUs, we need this kind of influence on our worship, with our history of humanistic, intellectual services. We could use a little more rhythm, a little more story. We might be trying a little too hard, though.
One clear influence of an evangelical tone is a current UU desire to see all spiritual experiences as transformative. Ministers are encouraged to create services that people will leave transformed. It is expected that we ourselves will be regularly transformed through our interactions with colleagues or through our spiritual practices. And while I would hope that I never stop growing as a person and as a minister, I am not sure that I am in need of constant transformation. Having seen caterpillars transform into butterflies, it is an exhausting process!
UU Doug Muder tells a story about going to the General Assembly, the American equivalent of our May ACM. In a closing plenary session he is told to find a partner and tell them how he has been transformed by the convention.
Doug wrote: “Spiritually, I am a cud-chewing animal. Some experiences are indeed the fuel of transformation, but only after I digest them in long rumination.
“The whole idea of transforming quickly, in front of thousands of people,
makes me think of the Hulk in Manhattan.
“Transformation is an unpredictable and sometimes dangerous business. Best, I think, to keep the innocent bystanders to a minimum.
“So after I return home, meditate, journal, and have a few one-on-one discussions with trusted friends, then, maybe, I will be transformed.
Or not.” (UU World, Fall 2012)
Doug is an introvert.
As a congregation, as a denomination, we need to make room for both ways of being – those of us energized and transformed by the crowds and those of us who ruminate like cows. The circumstances for spiritual growth are themselves mysterious and unique for each individual. For the most part, our tradition is getting better about accommodating different temperaments in worship services.
But 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.
Within this congregation, given how well you know each other, this is a little less true. But as UUCDurham continues to grow and blossom, it will be important to check in and make sure our style of meetings are inclusive.
In a typical congregation, meetings begin with check-ins, although studies suggest that introverts prefer to have check-ins after the business is complete, not before. (Cain)
Sometimes the loudest voice in the room carries the day. 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 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. So we need to make space for reflection in our decision making process. We need to hear from everyone.
Introverts appreciate materials well in advance, so they can think things through before the meeting. If we can be prepared in this way, it is easier for us to engage with the immediacy of the extroverted thinking process. We already know what we think,
so now we can pay attention to what others think. It helps when each of us knows what we need, and can ask for it graciously, knowing that we won’t always be accommodated. As we learn more, we can develop a deeper, more caring community.
Let’s find ways to honour both ways of being – the extroverts and the introverts – and everyone in between - in all aspects of our community.
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 will find ways to grow in spirit by caring for one another,
to celebrate life in ways both lively and reflective,
and to live our principles of inclusivity.
May it be so.
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