Does God Love Introverts? Reflections on "Quiet," by Susan Cain

I just finished reading Quiet:  The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain.  It was a good, interesting book–even if, frankly, the core argument could have been made in a long New Yorker article!  Her point, as you might imagine, is that we live in a world where extroverts are privileged, and we all suffer when introverts are not given space to thrive, and when we as a society don’t value the unique gifts and skills they offer.  We love the dynamic, the energetic, the decisive, and the commanding; and we overlook or even criticize the quiet, the thoughtful, the solitary and the gentle.  Cain writes, “But we make a grave mistake to embrace the Extrovert Ideal so unthinkingly.  Some of our greatest ideas, art and invention–from the theory of evolution to van Gogh’s sunflowers to the personal computer–came from quiet and cerebral people who knew how to tune in to their inner worlds and the treasures to be found there” [5].

She traces the beginning of the “Extrovert Ideal” back to the early 20th Century and Dale Carnegie–and his book Public Speaking and Influencing Men in Business.  What I thought was particularly interesting in this chapter was her description of what happened as this ideal became dominant:  we shifted from a “Culture of Character,” where the ideal self is “serious, disciplined and honorable, to a “Culture of Personality,” where the ideal self is a bold and entertaining performer. In the former culture, attributes that are valued are duty, honor, reputation, citizenship and integrity; and in the latter, the prized attributes are magnetic, attractive, dominant and forceful.  It’s quite a shift, isn’t it?

If you are in the church, you know that this “Culture of Personality” is alive and well there:  pastors who can “perform”–captivating congregations with a hearty sense of humor, loud, dramatic preaching, and relentlessly energetic enthusiasm–are highly desired and passionately followed.  Unfortunately, this is also what leads to religious cults–both literal and more figurative:  the congregation that follows a charismatic pastor out of a denomination to form their own “church” somewhere else.  It’s ministry as popularity contest, beauty pageant, or talent show.

Incidentally, Cain doesn’t talk about religion much in her book, but she does visit Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church complex–described under the heading “Does God Love Introverts?” [p. 64ff].  There, in addition to noting the extroverted character of evangelical worship in general, she learns about the pressures–particularly on evangelical pastors–to be extroverts, talking with one pastor who described the “evangelical culture” where the emphasis is on community and meeting ever-more people with whom one can share one’s faith.  Her conclusion after her conversation with him? “Evangelicalism has taken the Extrovert Ideal to its logical extreme…If you don’t love Jesus out loud, then it must not be real love.  It’s not enough to forge your own spiritual connection to the divine; it must be displayed publicly.”

Now, to be clear, I’m a firm believer that all pastors do need to be “functional extroverts”–that’s the term we use around Gettysburg Seminary, anyway.  On Sunday mornings, at least, people need to feel that you are happy to be there, eager to see them and welcome them, and enthusiastically engaging them with genuine warmth.  [My husband, who is a strong introvert, does this as well as anyone, but it means he is wiped out for the rest of the day.]  However, it is also clear to me that this cannot be the only paradigm in which individuals–and even the church–are allowed to function.  A church service needs space for quiet prayer and reflection; and individuals need space for observation, one-on-one conversations, and deeper connection.  These activities need to be nurtured and celebrated in the church.  But sometimes it feels to me like we have lost those values in and among our fears about declining congregations and increased marginalization in society.  We want the bold face, the loud voice, the strong handshake and the compelling personality–surely, that will turn things around for the church!  Obviously, I’m not so sure.  I’ve got nothing at all against extroverts, I just don’t think they should get to set the rules of the game for all of us, all by themselves.  We need each other, we balance each other, and we can learn from each other.

The final part of the book offers some concrete advice for couples and parents–it isn’t always easy for introverts and extroverts to be “family” together, because the expectations for time together and healthy relationships often are so different.  If you are in that situation, I’d recommend those chapters.  Let me close with an extended quote from her conclusion–I like what she says here, because it’s about being yourself and celebrating who you are, but attending to others’ needs, too:

“Love is essential; gregariousness is optional. Cherish your nearest and dearest.  Work with colleagues you like and respect…Relationships make everyone happier, introverts included, but think quality over quantity.  The secret to life is to put yourself [and others, I would say!] in the right lighting.  For some it’s a Broadway spotlight; for others, a lamplit desk.  Use your natural powers–of persistence, concentration, insight and sensitivity–to do work you love and work that matters.  Solve problems, make art, think deeply.”

And, what she said directly to me is this:  “If you’re a teacher, enjoy your gregarious and participatory students.  But don’t forget to cultivate the shy, the gentle, the autonomous, the ones with single-minded enthusiasms…They are the artists, engineers, and thinkers of tomorrow.”  I’d say that’s true for pastors, too, relating to those in their congregations.  I need to think about how to do that better in my own teaching.

And finally:  “there are many different kinds of powers in this world…The trick is not to amass all the different kinds of available power, but to use well the kind you’ve been granted.”  That’s great advice for extroverts and introverts alike!

4 thoughts on “Does God Love Introverts? Reflections on "Quiet," by Susan Cain

  1. Thank you so much for this, Dr. Largen! I have literally spent the past 4 years intentionally learning how my introversion is a gift to the church rather than a stumbling block to ministry. I've spent the past two days visiting and communing elders in nursing homes… and I have to say, as much as there are some parts of ministry where I have to force myself to be a functional extrovert, those quiet, deep one-on-one conversations with people who crave someone to genuinely care about and remember them, someone to connect them with the church community where they were once so active -I feel- are where introverts are specially equipped to thrive in pastoral ministry.

    Also, I will say, parenting with an extrovert is AWESOME. Toddlers are totally exhausting in general, but for an introvert they are in particular because they need constant attention and affirmation. When I am with my son, I am always “on” because that's what he needs to thrive. My husband, however, as an extrovert makes an incredible stay-at-home dad because he is always “on.”

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  2. Laura, thanks so much for these thoughtful comments [how typical of an introvert! :-)]–one of the things she says in the book is how, because of the culture in which we live, introverts end up asking themselves, “What's wrong with me,” when really there is nothing wrong at all! So, I think it is really important that we all know ourselves well, know what our gifts are, and tend those well–everyone benefits when we do. And, we need to know how to function outside our comfort zones, of course, but also then how to recharge ourselves, too. Like you and your husband–I think introverts and extroverts can balance each other well, but it definitely takes some negotiation!

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  3. In the process of creating the fifth edition Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) very widely used by psychotherapists and insurance companies, there was a strong move to include introversion as a diagnostic indicating certain personality disorders. This had already been an issue in the fourth edition. Fortunately, in both cases the American Psychiatric Association committee eventually dropped it. This is indicative of how deeply social values are integrated into supposedly scientific psychology. So much so that the entire edifice of professional psychology can appear to be nothing more than the enforcement of social norms, as distinct from any question as to what constitutes the health and well-being of the individual.

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