Monday, March 15, 2010

Too shy shy

An unfriendly man pursues selfish ends; he defies all sound judgment.
—Proverbs 18:1

Yesterday at church, two of my boys walked right up to some adult members of the congregation to shake hands and greet them with a friendly hello. It's a seemingly insignificant gesture of kindness, but around here it's a big deal. It's worthy of a sticker on the reward sheet when we get home. Going out of their way to be friendly is not easy for my kids, but we work on it. A lot. That it takes practice is something their mother knows all too well.

When I mentioned in a previous post that I have a tendency toward being a recluse, I wasn't kidding; it's a predilection I've had to fight hard against. I relish moments of "alone time." But these days, alone time tends to be pushed aside by "kid time," and "husband time," and "church time," and "school time," and "sports time," and all the other "times" that come with having a growing family. And that's as it should be. But sometimes the level of noise and activity involved with having four little boys—who spend a significant part of each day thundering through the house making martial sound effects—can be rather overwhelming and exhausting.

Even social events as joyous as weddings have left me feeling so drained afterward that I've been tempted to sit in a quiet corner with a mug of tea and a book for the rest of the day. I recall being sent to my room as a child (after having a spat with my brother) and feeling like I'd just been handed a free pass to solitary bliss. I used to dread my own birthday parties.

Yep. Introvert. That's me. Recognizing my introverted personality type was easy. Recognizing that this personality type came with some serious pitfalls was another thing.

It may seem obvious, but somebody else had to give me a (metaphorical) kick in the head before I discovered that my "shy girl" demeanor had ethical ramifications. I never wanted to be lonely, but putting myself forward in a social setting was, for me, the emotional equivalent of running blindfolded along the edge of cliff—not a risk I was willing to take. Right up through high school, I was under the impression that shy is "just who I am."  

But then one day, shortly before starting college, I had a conversation that utterly shook my "shy girl" self-perception.

I was at some sort of informal event at my pastor's home, and I ended up chatting with my pastor's wife during the course of the evening. I don't recall the preceding dialog, but as we talked, I mentioned, only in passing, that I'm "just shy," and that "I don't like introducing myself to strangers," which, to me, seemed like a fairly neutral statement of fact. I guess I expected this good woman to nod sympathetically and let the comment slide past. But she didn't. She stopped me before I could go on.

Now, here's the inspirational, Hallmark card bit of this story: With a calm smile, she told me, "Well, Hannah, maybe you just need to get over yourself."

That was it. And then our talk proceeded to some other topic.

But ouch. What was that supposed to mean? Those may not have been her exact words, but it was something very close. And what she had said cut me—like a surgeon's knife.

She wasn't being rude. Far from it; this was love at its boldest. She clearly knew me better than I knew myself and was simply throwing aside the "personality" lingo and exposing the heart of my "shyness" problem—a problem that I had not particularly wanted to see. Of course my parents had encouraged me for years to be more friendly. But hearing someone else tell me so was a shock. Perhaps this was a real issue that I needed to deal with.

"Well, Hannah, maybe you just need to get over yourself." Maybe... All right, more than maybe.

Why wasn't I willing to go out of my way to introduce myself? Before, I would have said that it was simply "because I'm shy." Nothing wrong with that, right? But as soon as my pastor's wife said what she did, I realized, to my chagrin, that there was, as a matter of fact, something very wrong with that. The truth is, that my unwillingness to shake hands and start a conversation was not just a personality quirk. It was a failure to love my neighbor. The sad fact was that I cared more about my own comfort zone than about making other people comfortable; I was more concerned about protecting myself from seeming foolish than about risking a (very minor) embarrassment in order to show love to those around me. If I didn't feel like being sociable, then I thought I was justified in ignoring my duty to love other people. I guess I was just too important to look out for the interests of others.

I wasn't being "shy." I was being selfish. I needed, in short, to get over myself.

Those words had hurt. A lot. They wounded my pride. But "faithful are the wounds of a friend." She knew exactly what I needed to hear. And, as I was about to begin college with a bunch of total strangers, the timing could not have been better.

I'd like to say that ever since that day I've been a willing handshaker to anyone in need of a friend. But, even after 14 years, I'm still working on it. Getting over myself is probably going to be a lifelong pursuit. But that it is a pursuit at all is something I can be very thankful for. Discovering that my shyness might be a temptation to fight was a huge revelation, like seeing myself in the mirror for the first time. And now that I have four children, friendliness—love in the little things—is a trait we are constantly encouraging in them as well: Smile! Shake hands! Say thank you! Tell the nice lady your name!

I realize, of course, that one's personality is not infinitely malleable and that for an introvert to suddenly attempt to become the life of the party is going to be an uncomfortable scene for pretty much everyone. But insofar as one's personality—introvert or extrovert—comes with a certain set of temptations, those temptations must be resisted; personality type is never a valid excuse for sin. Blabbling thoughtlessly to strangers is not an urge I've ever had to resist. My temptation is, rather, to lose patience with the constant noise and clamor of the children God's blessed me with. My tendency is to pretend not to see the unfamiliar and unattractive face of the lonely-looking lady over in the corner. That, for me, is the struggle—to overcome my own discomfort in order to bestow love.

That unexpected word of advice from my pastor's wife didn't magically turn me into an extrovert, nor will it ever. I'm definitely still an introvert—a home body. I may not feel like saying hello. But, over the years, those tendencies have lessened. By God's grace, I enjoy large social gatherings far more than I used to.  I do like my own birthday parties these days—now that I'm too old to have them every year. However, I'm far from turning into a party animal. And to this day, going out of my way to meet new people gives me a case of the butterflies. But thank God that I had a friend and teacher wise enough to show me that doing what I feel and doing what is right can be two very different things. And I'm thankful to be able to pass on that stark bit of wisdom to my kids: Maybe you just need to get over yourself.


Leanne said...

This too has been a struggle of mine, and continues to be. I have never been one to step out and greet a new person, unless they have at first addressed me. It simply comes down to the fear of what they may think of me. I find myself always making excuses as to why I cannot meet that person, or have those people over for a meal after church. With the help of the Lord, and a little nudging from my husband, I am seeking to "get over myself". Thank you for the reminder and encouragement.

Miss.Jen said...

I can SO relate to this post! I have self-labeled myself as "shy" for many years. It wasn't until very recently, though, that I realized I am not actually "shy" at all! I actually have social anxiety. It is actually quite different. One thing that I taught myself many years back was to repeat these words when I am anxious or nervous about something- "do it, trembling if you must, but do it!" The author escapes me, but the words really help!
Thanks for your post!

Erika said...

I don't think of myself as shy, but I know I'm selfish. I don't often greet people that I know are new, and then later think to myself, that was really rude. I hate visiting churches where no one says hi, and I know that I make that feeling on someone else. So this was a lovely reminder to knock that off, to get over myself and at least greet others.

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