by Bethany Bear
“Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. […] Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer includes this warning in his challenging little book Life Together. To my own introverted ears, it is the second half of his injunction that rings most true. As an only child, a diligent student, and now a single 20-something, solitude has never been very difficult for me, and I could easily rattle off a list of ways introverted behaviors—silent meditation, journaling, solitary prayer—contribute to a rich spiritual life. As a teenager, I would have been very happy to spend every Sunday worshipping on my own beneath a tree. Only as I matured as a Christian did I begin to understand that whatever virtues we introverts might possess, these virtues are most fit for kingdom work when sharpened against the very real strength of extroverts.
Many of my dearest friends are extroverts, and while we don’t always understand one another, we have learned to give thanks for one another. And so, in honor of my father, my Lindsay, my Emily, and so many other dear outward-going friends, I offer a few thoughts in praise of extroverts.
Extroverts enliven community
Left to my own devices, I would only communicate to people through handwritten letters. I might venture face-to-face conversations if we could meet in the privacy of my own living room, and if we stopped talking every fifteen minutes so I could take a nap to recharge. Yes, yes, I exaggerate — but only slightly. I spent most of my adolescence in more-or-less voluntary solitude, ignoring Bonhoeffer’s warning. My experiences of real community were rare, and so my solitude often sank into selfishness.
In college, however, I met people who loved people in ways that baffled me. These men and women took pains to connect and gather people together. During these years, I never lost my love of a quiet meal with a good book, but I did discover the new joy of a full table and a long, loud, laughing supper. I still spent hours studying on my own, but I came to appreciate the nights when my friends would kidnap me from the library for an impromptu group road-trip. Without my more extroverted friends, my understanding of community and, more importantly, of the Church, would have remained incomplete during those formative college years.
Extroverts model generosity
Even if we seem open and talkative, introverts often reveal our secondary personality traits as our “public” side, while only manifesting primary qualities among trusted friends. For example, my deepest, most powerful response to an idea, person or situation is always emotional, not analytical. However, my professional life emphasizes my rational, thinking side: I have a PhD, I teach critical analysis of literature, etc. I do have a strong rational capacity; it simply isn’t my primary response to the world. Only a select few — those I deem worthy–see the parts of me I value the most.
Extroverts, on the other hand, often humble me with their radical openness. They display their hearts and minds to nearly anyone. This can make life with extroverts messy, but at their best, extroverts have taught me how beautiful it can be to meet any human as a potential friend, brother, sister.
Extroverts spread the word
One of my own worst habits as an introvert is projecting my introversion onto others. “I don’t want to bother them….” I tell myself, justifying my reticence about mentioning a new book, a concert, even the Gospel. Because I often wish to be left alone, I give up too easily when I have a message others need to hear.
My favorite extroverts seem untroubled by these inhibitions. “Come one, come all!” they will cry. “The more the merrier!” Because extroverts garner energy from people, they thrive on the busy street or in the bustling room, and they genuinely want as many people as possible to come, see, taste, and enjoy with them.
Extroverts allow introverts to be introverts
I spend much of my time pretending to be an extrovert, especially in my professional life. Furthermore, as a single person without a nearby “best friend” or family, I have to put myself forward in order to build relationships. These are rewarding efforts, but when I am in the company of a true extrovert, I find myself thanking God for a chance to rest.
Both of my parents are extroverts, and when I am home for Christmas, I savor being able to sit in the living room and simply listen. Visitors might call, and my mother and father will keep them talking, allowing me to sit, smile, and knit. Even introverts love being in a circle of beloved friends, but this introvert certainly appreciates not being the one responsible for keeping the conversation going.
My dear, dear extroverts: you bewilder and exasperate me, but my solitude would have little value without your challenging, God-gathering witness. Today, one among your quiet kindred wants you to know how much she loves you.
Bethany Bear makes her home on the Alabama Gulf Coast, where she serves as a professor of English at the University of Mobile. Whether in her classroom or her garden, she strives to be a home-maker, creating spaces of challenge and comfort for students, friends, and strangers. When she’s not writing or reading, Bethany enjoys textile crafts, dinners with her housemate, and evening ambles with her hound. Find more from Bethany at Letters From Home.