Quiet please

From Gandhi to Joe DiMaggio to Mother Teresa to Bill Gates, introverts have done a lot of good work in the world. But being quiet, introverted or shy was sometimes looked at as a problem to overcome.

In the 1940s and '50s the message to most Americans was: Don't be shy. And in today's era of reality television, Twitter and widespread self-promotion, it seems that cultural mandate is in overdrive.

Susan Cain — who considers herself an introvert — has written a new book that tells the story of how introversion fell out of style. She talks with NPR's Audie Cornish about Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking.

Listen to the NPR story here.

This interview includes an interesting discussion about how our society has come to value extroversion and see introversion as something negative, as we simultaneously shifted from a culture of character (embodied by Abraham Lincoln) to a culture of personality (embodied by JFK and the movie stars).

As the work-place has adopted more "team" models of production, introverts have been left behind in the business world, and are less-often groomed for leadership, even though studies show that introverted leadership may produce better results, and the collaborative models often produce sub-par results.

The author, Susan Cain, also recently wrote a piece for the New York Times called "The Rise of the New Groupthink" that addresses some of the same issues.

"You must understand this, my beloved, let everyone be quick to listen, and slow to speak..." (James 1:19)

Like Susan Cain, I too am somewhat intoverted, and am at times frustrated by living in a culture that seems to prefer and reward extroversion.

Could it be that one of the great gifts that the church can give to the world is to uplift the value of quiet, diligence, and character over and above flashy, noisey, self-promotion? Certainly there are type-A saints like St. Paul or John Wesley who are constantly going, constantly preaching and writing, constantly organizing new communities - but we also have a great number of quiet, prayerful, diligent saints to lift up as examples.

However, even in the church at meetings of clergy (whom one might expect to be introspective people), I observe that it is often the people who speak loudest and most frequently who tend to have a great deal of sway over the direction of events, while we introverts are still collecting our thoughts. That is not necessarily a problem if these volumous speakers always put forward the best, truest, deepest, and most Spirit-led ideas...but then, we have no guarantee of that. As she puts it in the interview, the loudest ideas are not always the best ideas.

Maybe the church can rediscover, and help the culture rediscover that silence really is golden. We certainly have our work cut out for us and it begins with our own interior work. One of the disappointments in my ordination process was the discovery that our silent retreat at a Benedictine Abbey was actually a "more or less quiet" retreat - in which we pastors actually talked quite a bit, as we are wont to do. The real discipline of silence (even for 2 days) was apparently too painful, too difficult for us spiritual shepherds. The fact that we find it much easier to "be slow to listen and quick to speak" shows how thoroughly our expectations about "normal" have been shaped by our culture "that can't stop talking."

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