The Plasticity of our Being An interview with Farhan Shah on Introversion
(1) When did you first realize you associated with introversion or found out about the word 'introvert'?
At the outset, I would like to make my position clear about the notion of human personality as a type. My view, informed by existential philosophy and psychology, is that the human self is a process of becoming rather than a thing or substance. This view is quite distinct from mainstream psychological concepts that tend to view the self as something more substantial, which endures over time. Human beings first exist before they can develop an understanding of themselves. That is to say, we construct and shape our self out of the things we do and achieve and the way in which other people understand us. We are, in a way, our choices. We create ourselves by what we connect with and what we choose to do. This is also supported by longitudinal research that demonstrates that there is no such thing as a fixed or stable personality over the lifespan. Research confirms this view, that our experiences change us and that we are capable of a wide range of being, action, and thinking about ourselves. Having made my position clear, I came to know about the word “introversion” in my youth days. Some of the characteristics made sense to me, for instance enjoying one-to-one conversations and engagement with people rather than a superficial cocktail party of people. And also the listening side to introversion.
(2) Do you think people in Pakistan are aware of their emotions and personality types?
Generally, I think that there is emotional illiteracy. Emotional intelligence is about regulating and being in touch with our own emotions and understanding the emotions of others. We have not learned to tune into our emotions in healthy ways. Instead, we suppress and try to get rid of emotions instead of focusing on understanding what our emotions are trying to tell us about the quality of the situations we find ourselves in, or the quality of life in general. Put differently, emotions orientate us and furnish us with valuable information and signals about our connection with the world. Suppression of emotions often lead to pathological anxiety, depression and dysfunctional ways of relating to others.
(3) How do you find yourself in social settings and gatherings? Do people drain you or small talk, loud noises?
It depends on the situation at hand. However, generally, I appreciate getting to know people, listening to their stories and life narratives. However, I do not actively seek to be in the limelight in social gatherings. An inclination toward self-presentation, of being noticed, is not a goal I pursue.
(4) Do you think introverts tend to thrive in solitude? If so, does that make them loners and people who like to spend time alone? Does it make them lonely?
My experience is that many who identify themselves as introverts need solitude and a personal space in order to regain their energy and to feel more connected to life. But the need for solitude does not make them lonely. There is a distinction between experiencing loneliness and wanting to be alone, to enjoy one’s own company.
(5) Do you think you have the friends that you need in order to survive a good life?
Yes. I have nurturing friends, who honour my projects in life and who actively stimulate me to actualise life`s manifold possibilities.
(6) What are some of the hardships introverts may face in a society like Pakistan, where joint families require a lot of extroversion?
The hardships can be, among others, the challenge to fit into rigid categories and predetermined social roles in order to feel valuable and functional; to feel that they actually have value in and for themselves, and not only instrumental value. The need in a healthy society is to develop constructive forms of rootedness, for belonging, for every human being regardless of their psychological temperaments and proclivities. The challenge is be open to differences while recognizing the common existential concerns, i.e. the quest for meaning, hope, belonging and love despite the many horrors of existence.
(7) How do you feel about the world today? How do you feel about social media and the people around you these days?
Generally I feel that we are too much occupied with hyper-materialism, the perpetual need “to have more”, where material possessions, status and affluence is more important than the need “to be more”. To-be-more relates to compassionate way of seeing others, in their own uniqueness, on their own terms rather than the filtered lenses of our own agendas and objectives. It also implies empathic care: to let the others pain and suffering reverberate within our deepest core, to be moved by their plight. An emphatic approach to other people implies understanding their depths, their wounds, hopes, fears, and longings rather than the coldness and indifference of the unmoved. An emphatic approach is also action-oriented. That is, the sentiment of compassion and empathy does not close in on itself. It does not soak in a moment of tender pathos then simply walk away. Responsible compassion is responsive: that is, it takes some concrete steps to heal and ease others` suffering and pain. Without action, compassion degenerates into mere sentimentality, i.e. feeling bad for others` suffering but abandoning them to fend for themselves.
(8) What are some of the thoughts you have on a regular basis?
Right now, I am preoccupied with finishing off my doctoral dissertation on the philosophy of Muhammad Iqbal and its humanistic-existential and ecological potential. I also seek to reflect upon how I can work for more justice, in working for a freer and fair world where various forms of oppression and inequality are mitigated.
Moreover, as a father, I often reflect upon parenting. I believe that we are always learning to be parents. For instance, think about the interplay between discipline and freedom. The discipline dimension is important: Children need limits imposed upon them in order to avoid developing grandiose narcissism. They need to hear the word “no” and learn that they are not the center of the cosmos. However, it is not sufficient to instill in children a sense of limitation. It is also very important to give children a sense of freedom, of spontaneity, as found in the sheer joy of playing and in having free time where nothing is expected of them, expect to have fun. In some parts of Pakistan, this is perhaps a challenge, albeit for understandable reasons. Given competition for jobs and the stresses of education, many Pakistani parents may feel that they most “overschool” their children in order for their children to succeed. This overschooling can leave children lonely, stressed, burned out, and lacking in capacities for self-initiated enjoyment. The solution to this might be to recognise that, sometimes, what is most loving and important for a child is to let a child play and experience zest for living. In our times, parenting does not come easily for many people. However, every parent, just for doing what they do for their children, deserve a Nobel Prize.
(9) If you are ever required to overcome your introversion and engage with people on a public event, how do you do that? What are some of the skills you have learned over the years?
As a researcher and a public person in Norway, I am used to engaging with people in the public sphere through lectures, seminars and dialogue meetings. Some of the skills I used is to communicate with people on their own level, with a language they understand, in order to explain my viewpoints in an easy-to-understand way (effective communication). Another skill is active listening: it is the ability to pay close attention to other people. Usually, when we relate to other people we do so through judgements and reactions that are conditioned by our own needs and insecurities, feelings and desires. In this way, we fail to see other people on their own terms. Active listening reduces the risk of objectification, as a virtual pawn in our personal projects, and not subjects with uniqueness and depth. It is a more authentic way of being related to other people. (10) How many best friends or confidantes do you have? What are some things that you would want to mention to other introverts around you, who are actively seeking advice on how to associate better with themselves? I opt for quality rather than quantity. I have enough friends, whom I like to call my “fellow existential travelers”. As for the second question, my advice for those who identify with introversion is to believe that they can become a gift to the world. The world itself becomes enriched because you love yourself. These differences, like differences in religion, ethnicity, and culture, make the whole of the world richer. To the quiet person: may you be quiet in your strength and strong in your quietness. May you be quiet in your power and powerful in your quietness. The world needs more deep listening. More space-making. Maybe that can become a part of your vocation in life?
God the Deep Listening, God the Introvert, God the Alone
A challenge in life, for introverts and extroverts and all in-between, is to allow our personalities to become instruments of a greater good. This can be especially challenging for introverts in societies that value extroversion more than introversion. They must struggle against the idea of that they "should" be more "social." But the truth is that they are social in their ways, that their quietness invites everyone else, even the extroverts, to slow down and, at least for a moment, feel the inwardness. And to whatever degree they can in fact listen deeply, as Farhan Shah emphasizes, they invite everyone to listen in a similar way. Indeed, to my mind, the capacity of introverts to listen deeply is itself a window into something in the universe as a whole: namely a Deep Listening that feels the feelings of each and all, a companion to the world's joys and sufferings. Who among us does not need this kind of withness, this kind of sympathy? This Deep Listening is God. Dare I suggest that, in fact, the mystery at the heart of the universe partakes of and embodies the glories of introversion. When we in the extroverted world experience the silence, the mystery, and, yes, the compassion of the introvert, we experience a touch of transcendence, a taste of the holy. But even if this were not the case, Farhan Shah is right. The differences make the whole of society so much richer. The society we need, in Pakistan and everywhere, is one where there are introverts, extroverts, and countless middlings, all of whom, together, reveal the splendor of life, always becoming, never fixed, always plastic, never rigid, always accepting, never judgmental, always loving, never hateful. The gift of the introverts is that they make space for this diversity, Yes, Farhan Shah is right. The vocation of the introvert, in his or her deep listening, is to be a space-maker and thus reveal the divine space in which, truth be told, we live and move and have our being. But the vocation is more than this. It is to help us stop talking so much, to make our peace with aloneness. Even the Holy One, even God, has an Alone side. Isn't this, too, what it means to be human? Or, for that matter, Divine?
- Jay McDaniel, 1/14/2022
Help! I'm an Introvert in an Extrovert World
Patricia Adams Farmer
“Introversion—along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness—is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology. Introverts living under the Extrovert Ideal are like women in a man’s world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are.”
—Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Won’t Stop Talking
SOMETIMES I WONDER what it would be like to be an extrovert—yes, to be comfortable in crowds, to speak extemporaneously with easy charisma. To be the life of the party! To not only type an exclamation mark at the end of a sentence that you hope conveys enthusiasm and ultra-sincerity, but to live those exclamation marks! To live double exclamation marks!! (If the very sight of all these exclamation marks exhausts you—maybe even repels you—you are probably an introvert like me.)
Oh, but I do love extroverts. I love to listen to their stories; I am drawn by their charisma; I stand in awe at their ability to draw energy from being with other people. To live the life of “action.” To speak fast. To multitask. Wow. I do admire them. But I no longer feel the need to be like them. And more importantly, I no longer believe that I have a second-class personality. Part of this enlightenment is due to the wisdom of age and part of it is due to Susan Cain and her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Won’t Stop Talking.
The Culture of Personality
Cain explains how, beginning in the early twentieth century, the Culture of Personality replaced the nineteenth-century ideal of the Culture of Character. American culture moved away from values like citizenship, duty, honor, morals, manners, and integrity, and now preferred people who were: magnetic, fascinating, stunning, attractive, glowing, dominant, forceful, energetic (i.e., the exclamation mark people!) While the Culture of Character could be embodied by extroverts and introverts alike, the Culture of Personality elevates qualities that lie primarily in the realm of the extrovert. For the rest of us, they spell HELL.
Best-selling author of his day Orison Swett Marden, who in 1899 wrote Character: The Grandest Thing, later captured the dynamic new vision of the Culture of Personality, and in 1921 wrote another best-seller called Masterful Personality. This means that American culture slowly began to idealize extroverts as the upper class of personalities, relegating introverts to steerage. The Dale Carnegies of this world became aligned with what Cain calls “the Extrovert Ideal,” and by the 1950s and 60s, this cultural philosophy was already canonized by most of our social institutions. Growing Up Shy
Cain explains how, beginning in the 1950s, parents were told to watch out for the shy “maladjusted” child. Yes, we who shunned pep rallies were maladjusted. My mind whips back to 1969 when my mom insisted I try out for Ninth Grade Cheerleader. Nothing could have been more mortifying for a shy introvert. But of course I did it—mercifully, I didn’t make the cut—but I tried out because I was told it would make me more “outgoing,” and everyone wanted to be “outgoing.” It was simply a given that I had to live up to.
Naturally, as a teen growing up in the blooming days of the Culture of Personality, choosing to read the Bronte sisters rather than go out with friends was worrisome. I was pegged as one of those unfortunate children who suffered from the “inferiority complex.” That was what every parent worried about: the inferiority complex, i.e., the shy child.
As far as boys went, my mom was especially worried. If I failed as a cheerleader, the least I could do was date a football player. But around football players, I was hopelessly shy. And uninterested. I didn’t particularly like football. Did that matter? No. I needed to be—not to put too fine a point on it—more OUTGOING.
Oh, To Be Fascinating!
About the same time I failed to make cheerleader, my mother presented me with a book called Fascinating Womanhood by Helen Andelin (1963). It was the Bible for young women coming of age in the Culture of Personality. I was baffled by the book back then, but now it makes perfect sense. Susan Cain explains that the forceful, “masterful personality” was primarily meant for business men, “but women were urged to work on a mysterious quality called ‘fascination.’”
It remained a mysterious quality to me.
One night I came home from a party early (as usual), only to be confronted by a vexed and worried mother who urged me to stay out longer, socialize more, become more, yes, outgoing. She sat me down. We talked about a particular boy. I explained that I had his attention, but couldn’t think of anything to say to him. She welled up in frustration and said too loudly, “So, you just sat there and said nothing? Like a bump on a log?” Great, I thought. Now I’m a bump on a log. That’s about as far from fascinating as you can get.
So I began to think that, yes, I must have an inferiority complex. I am unfascinating. I am flawed to the core. Who could save me? Was I doomed to be a bump on a log forever?
Religion. Maybe that would save me. It was supposed to save people. And it did. I found great comfort in my youth group, and even though it was very social, it still allowed me to go off alone on retreats and read the Bible and think about things. There I was considered “spiritual” rather than “maladjusted,” clearly an improvement. And the boys at church were more approachable, too, at least some of them. (Susan Cain says that introverts, particularly sensitive introverts, are often drawn to religion and philosophy.)
Church, back then, was not as extrovert as it is today. I didn’t have to go around hugging everyone and clapping and greeting my neighbors in the pew each Sunday. I could sit and think and dream and pray. That was paradise, albeit, short-lived. After Sunday’s respite into quietness, it was Monday again, and back to the social pressures of school, where the Pep Club alone forced me to become a philosopher, an existentialist, a “Hell is other people” sort of young thinker (I’ve always had a soft spot for Sartre).
Tonic for the Shy?
I Love Lucy re-runs were my favorite after school activity. But alas, even television was infiltrated by the Extrovert Ideal. Remember Lucy’s "Vitameatavegamin" commercial? This tonic not only promised to cure those who were “tired, run-down, and listless,” but also made you socially courageous. Yes, it could make you popular! She spooned out a dose while saying into the camera, “Are you unpopular? Do you poop out at parties?” All you needed, of course, was Vitameatavegamin. And, as she kept spooning the alcohol-laden syrup into her mouth, it became slurred into: “Are you unpoopular? Do you pop out at parties?” Who can forget that?
I still love Lucy (one of favorite all-time extroverts), but do we really need a tonic made with 23% alcohol to cure our natural-born tendencies to read Jane Eyre in our room rather than jump and scream at pep rallies? And, in an updated version of Vitameatavegamin, do we really need those high-priced drugs that promise to cure our “social anxiety”?
As Cain points out, we have not gotten past the Culture of Personality. In fact, it’s worse—much worse. We’re like the Culture of Personality on steroids. Today, it’s hard to find a job where you don’t have to be or pretend to be an extrovert. The Culture of Personality is everywhere: business schools, churches, educational philosophies. You can’t escape the tentacles of the Extrovert Ideal. (Fascinating Womanhood is in its sixth edition.)
Shy Philosophers and Poets
No wonder I’m a Whiteheadian. Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) was not only a brilliant mathematician and philosopher, but also a famously shy introvert, according to Jerome Kagan in Galen’s Prophecy: Temperament in Human Nature. As Cain points out, in Kagan’s Harvard studies with children, he compares one thoughtful, shy child named Tom, who wants to be scientist, to T.S. Eliot and Whitehead, both of whom were also shy as children, and so grew up to choose the “life of the mind.”
I find comfort here. For here we see that shy children, if not forced to be “outgoing” by well-meaning parents and teachers, can grow up be quite bold in their own introverted way. Whitehead wrote Process and Reality at Harvard just as the Culture of Personality was picking up steam. But he evidently did not pay attention to the Zeitgeist. Rather than seek popularity, Whitehead quietly and persistently forged a bold new path in philosophy—breaking apart Cartesian dualism and issuing in a “philosophy of organism” for the interconnected quantum world in which we now live. This philosophy cut against the grain of the more popular trend of analytic philosophy of the time.
Shy T.S. Eliot also went on to do bold things in the literary world. The famous poet was, in fact, highly influenced by Whitehead’s philosophy (see his book Notes Towards a Definition of Culture) and like Whitehead, resisted the Culture of Personality with the power of a pen.
Spirituality for the Shy
As a spiritual person, what I like best about the famously introverted Whitehead, is that he presents a view of God that does not fit into the Culture of Personality. No wonder process theology is a minority view. For Whitehead’s God is simply not “outgoing” enough. No Master of the Universe here! Rather than having a “masterful personality,” his God "dwells in the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love." (Process and Reality, 343). I think this view of God and the world brings out the more nobler aspects of religious thought.
My mother would question this. She would probably consider Whitehead a maladjusted type. My mom would have waved away his famous Principia Mathematica and his geeky friends like Bertrand Russell and ask, “But did you go out for football? How many extra-curricular activities did you attend in college?” What if Whitehead had not been born in nineteenth-century Britain? What if he had been brought up in the Culture of Personality in America? What if his mother had given him Vitameatavegamin or some other magical tonic to cure him of living too much in his head? What if his mother had forced him to take a Dale Carnegie course at the YMCA so he could better "win friends and influence people"?
Good Heavens! Just try to imagine a world without our introverts: A universe devoid of many of our greatest philosophers and scientists and religious thinkers and writers and poets and humanitarians; a world without van Gogh, Chopin, Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, Gandhi--it doesn't bear thinking about.
Inspiration from an Extrovert
Susan Cain is my hero, and a hero for all of us who always felt hopelessly flawed by our quietness. It’s time for us to reclaim our self-esteem, our sense of purpose in the world, equal in every way to our more fascinating friends.
I think our extrovert friends would join us in our cause, because many of them, too, question the dubious morality of the Culture of Personality, which blithely—while we weren’t looking—usurped the Culture of Character. Take one of the most famous extroverts in recent history, Martin Luther King, Jr. He used his natural charisma, not for charisma’s sake, not for the sake of the Culture of Personality, but for this one thing: that all children “will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."
Just thinking of MLK gives me courage. Yes, it’s time for introverts to unite and make our stand. We need to tell the world that we refuse to be treated as second-class personalities! (Maybe we could meet in the library.)