Sunday, September 16, 2012

Living in Our Sweet Spot

Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person's capacity to act.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

After months of waiting my turn to read Susan Cain's book Quiet finally arrived this week. Our local library has only one copy and when I first reserved the book there were over 160 people in line in front of me. I guess I'd better complete it during my check-out period!

In her book Cain speaks out in defense of introverts and provides a number of interesting arguments and powerful conclusions related to the importance of introverts in society. My family contains four introverts of varying degrees. My wife and daughter are quite strong introverts. I drift more toward being an ambivert (one with characteristics of both intro- and extroversion), which may be where my son is as well. We all need significant amounts of solitude and our home might strike many as excessively quiet and dull. This used to trouble me. I felt that our home should somehow be more dynamic and exciting. We should “do” more.

Over the past few years I've become much more comfortable with being who we are. In chapter 5 of Cain's book I found affirmation for this. As reflected in the citation at the beginning of this entry, Cain argues that the ideal place for any person, extrovert or introvert, lies in a “sweet spot” where she or he experiences an optimal level of stimulation. This spot will differ from one person to another, and probably differs for most individuals at different times of the day or week or season of life. My son needs a higher level of stimulation than anyone else in our family, which leads at times to conflict as he seeks to interact verbally with the rest of us more than we desire. I also have a higher stimulation level than my wife and daughter, so when I press my wife to do an activity that surpasses her preferred level, she naturally feels uncomfortable or reluctant to engage, although sometimes she will for the sake of relationship.

In order to find the optimal level of energy and satisfaction, Cain encourages her readers to identify their “sweet spots” and build their environment as much as possible in such a way as to achieve that. I like this idea and can see where I have taken some steps in this direction even before reading her book. I need a quiet place to work, free from major distractions. Thankfully I have been able to create such a place. I also need a certain level of social interaction though. Since it would overwhelm my wife to invite people to the house as often as I might prefer, I must look for other ways of social interaction. We both prefer smaller social settings though, so this works to our advantage. We're very happy to have a small group of friends to our house and tend to avoid large social gatherings, even when we may know a number of people there.

A challenge comes because we all (or at least most of us) live in a social framework and do not have complete control of our environment. We may not have the ability to set up our workspace according to our own preferences. We may be married to someone with a strongly different temperament in terms of introversion and extroversion. Reality compels us to find compromises, but knowing one's personal preferences helps even in such situations. If we don't know what environment we most prefer, we can't seek to make the best allowance for our needs that a given situation allows.

Cain actually touches on the question of how introverts fit within evangelical church culture, with the conclusion that most American evangelical churches don't really seek to accommodate them. Often our churches push us to live as extroverts, to be engaging in social outreach, to be exhuberantly outgoing, to be sharing the Gospel as often as possible. For some people this works very well, but for introverts, no so much. I would like to see our churches making more room for introverts to live their faith in ways consistent with their personalities. This may mean promoting quiet reflection. It means allowing people to find their niche and serve in their strengths, rather than pushing everyone to be an outgoing evangelist. Too often I have found myself asked to fill a role simply because the role needed filled and not because it suited my personality and strengths. I am thankful that our current worship community, while encouraging and inviting people to be engaged, does not adopt a one-size-fits-all model of ministry.

I recognize that there are times at which all of us must stretch ourselves and go beyond our comfort zones. We cannot always be in our “sweet spots.” Sometimes by stretching ourselves we may discover new interests and talents, or find areas that we would like to expand our skills in. Sometimes in the discomfort God may show us aspects of our character that need refining. But on the whole I think we all serve best when we can serve out of the character God has placed in us, whether we are extroverts or introverts, whether we are gifted at construction work or talented in writing and drawing. I am embracing more fully the unique balance of intro- and extroversion that God created in me and learning to live from that. I'm finding it to be a much healthier and happier place.

You can hear some of Cain's key conclusions in this TED video:

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