There was a period in my life where I took my introversion to the level of an extreme sport. I would park my car just down the street from a friend’s party, before turning around and driving home; I would change my walking route in a last minute burst of parkour speed to avoid bumping into an acquaintance on campus; I would wait until my roommate had gone from the living room before I left my room to use the bathroom, to avoid even the briefest human contact.
While it sounds unlikely from those examples, I still had friends, and I still did things outside the house. My problem was just that interacting with other people, especially out of the blue when I hadn’t psyched myself up for it, was work. And because I viewed interacting with people as work, I shied away from it. I would stand at the edge of the group at school, at work, and at church, talking with people if they talked to me first, but mostly I was gazing wistfully at the door, wishing I could be somewhere else where I didn’t have to talk.
My point is not to say that it’s wrong to enjoy being alone sometimes. It isn’t. It’s not even wrong to view interacting with people as work—for me, there’s often no other way to look at it. The problem comes when we forget that work is inherently good for us. I avoided interacting with others to save myself the headache of maneuvering a conversation, thinking of the right words to say and making the right eye contact, the same way that someone might avoid doing yard work because of the dirt and the sore muscles.
But work is what shapes us as people and gives us purpose. As much as I may personally wish that I could have the same experiences from sitting quietly in my room as I can from spending time with the people around me, it isn’t true. When I avoid people, and the inevitable work that comes with it, I’m missing out on opportunities. My natural inclination is often to spend time by myself, but when it goes on for too long, I start to feel unproductive and unhappy. It’s like sitting down to eat a roll of cookie dough—it’s delicious, it’s great, and everybody’s happy, but after you’ve eaten so much sugar and so many raw eggs and choco-bits it starts to make you wonder what you’re doing with your life.
When I went on my study abroad in France, I was paired with a roommate who was cheerful, bubbly, and really wanted to be my friend. It was my worst nightmare. I convinced myself that it would be okay; I would keep to myself, and eventually she would understand that I wasn’t the talking kind and would leave me alone. For a while, my plan worked. We lived in the same house, but our interaction was limited and formal. It was a combination of things that drove me to be more social; first, I could tell that my roommate was suffering. She wanted to talk, she wanted to be friends, and my forcing her to adhere to my social preferences, I realized, was selfish. Second, there was something about being in a foreign country that necessitates friendship. We both needed someone to express our frustration and exhilaration with travel to.
And so I put in the work. I talked with her even when my first instinct was to lay on my bed and close the door. I gave her free reign to come into my room whenever she wanted, a rare and sacred privilege. As time passed, we became really good friends. We met each other in the middle, socially, with me making an effort to spend time together and her recognizing that sometimes I needed to be alone.
For someone else, things like spending free time together and allowing her into my room would have been common sense, not effort. If you, like me, are an introvert and have occasionally shaken your proverbial fist at the extroverts of the world and the privileges they seem to have, you’re right. In some ways, extroverts have a natural advantage in the modern world, where networking and social media are so important. And it sounds like a cop-out, or a throwaway gospel phrase to say that in exchange, introverts are given more opportunities to work and the blessings that come with it. But there it is, I’ve said it—or in Dieter F. Uchtdorf’s words in his talk Two Principles for Any Economy, “Those who are unafraid to roll up their sleeves and lose themselves in the pursuit of worthwhile goals are a blessing to their families, communities, nations, and to the Church.”
Reaching out to others and making human connections are a key part of the gospel, and a key part of the human experience in general. For some people, it comes naturally. If you aren’t one of those people, look at reaching out and spending time with people as opportunities to work. Connecting with others is inherently good work, even if it feels awkward or seems too far out of your comfort zone to reach. There’s balance in all things, and don’t forget to take time for yourself, if it makes you happy. But also don’t forget that you have inherent value, and others will benefit from you sharing it with them.