My dear friend Charlotte is in the midst of an around-most-of-the-world trip: her itinerary includes stops in Europe, Asia, Australia, South America and maybe even Poughkeepsie. She is occasionally meeting up with family and friends in various locations but is largely seeing two-thirds of the world on her own. She maintains a lively travel blog and recently wrote of traveling inward — spending time exploring solitude.
Charlotte describes herself as an extrovert, so consciously choosing to spend some portion of her time minimizing contact with other people and stimuli was challenging and ultimately rewarding. I, however, am quite the introvert. This might come as a surprise to those of you reading this who know me. Years ago I was part of a work team that completed personality assessments; we compared outcomes afterwards and when I said the test indicated I was an introvert most of the others expressed disbelief — “You’re always joking around!” “You’re so outgoing!” But one very perceptive co-worker looked at me and offered the correct analysis: “You’re an introvert posing as an extrovert.” Truer words were never spoken, other than “Don’t order the seafood platter at Denny’s.” If we’ve ever had a dialogue or been together in a group activity, you’ve no doubt noticed how remarkably red-faced I become the moment I open my mouth. It doesn’t matter what I have to say — something as simple as introducing myself will trigger a blush so profound that I’m frequently asked how I got so sunburned… in the middle of winter. It’s embarrassing, making it self-perpetuating behavior — I say something, which gets me red-faced; I’m aware I’m blushing, which makes me even redder. Sometimes in photos my face is blurry when others are in focus because my head is throwing off so much heat. Unlike Charlotte, I embrace being by myself. When I used to travel for business, my wife would complain being alone in the house drove her nuts. Carol recently enrolled in a class that takes her out of town for one long weekend each month. I miss her while she’s gone, but I look forward to being on my own, with only the cats as my companions. They share my aversion to conversation and don’t care if I leave the dirty dishes until the next day.
I’ve spent a fair amount of my working life in roles where presentation was an essential part of the job — corporate training consumes much of my resume, and other roles involved running demonstrations or leading meetings. I’ve always liked to believe I’m a good communicator and facilitator, reasonably articulate and can manage the flow and interplay among participants well. Perhaps that’s because I am uniting them with their collective amazement at how red my face is, their curiosity at how much redder it can possibly get, and even a touch of fear regarding their proximity if my head were to spontaneously combust and explode.
Please don’t confuse my introversion with being anti-social. I do tend to shy away from large functions and am not much at striking up conversations with people I don’t know. But if I spy some familiar faces at a big party, or a stranger initiates a chat with me — I can be very loquacious and occasionally entertaining. But I inevitably hit a point where the well runs dry and I go back to hugging the wallpaper, often leaving the function hours before its scheduled end. Once I was a participant in a week-long training class of a dozen employees, most of whom I hadn’t met before our session began. I sat quietly during the first two days, speaking only when spoken to. At the start of Day Three, I made a conscious decision to be more outgoing and initiate some discussion during our group breakfast. I smiled broadly when I entered the room, offering a boisterous “Good morning!” to all, and began to recount some anecdote, using sweeping gestures and giving dramatic voice to the narrative. Everyone was entranced, keeping their eyes focused on me throughout my “performance”. I concluded my tale, and shortly afterward one of the session leaders came over and asked if she could speak with me for a moment. She took me by the arm and led me away from the larger group. She smiled and kindly said, “You’ve got something hanging from your nose.” I grabbed a napkin and swiped at my face — dislodging a dried booger the size of a raisin. There wasn’t another peep out of me for the rest of the week.
Since moving to the lake I’ve been fortunate enough to work from home, keeping in touch with co-workers via various electronic methods. On one project I’ve been working with a team that has a daily video check-in; our webcammed faces joining a row at the top of the screen as we log in. When I’m added to the display, I see a cozy warm halo surrounding my head. I’d say it’s almost Christ-like if I weren’t Jewish. I guess that makes it more nebbish-like.
One day I hope to find myself completely at ease, able to let go of whatever angst is buried deep within that contributes to my introversion and discomfort in the spotlight. However, I suspect the only time I’ll ever be completely at peace will be when I die — I’ll make a milky-faced corpse when my brain is no longer wrestling with my anxieties.
Kind of ironic I’ve requested to be cremated.