Introverts, Performance, and Church

First Parish Watertown, Summer Service, July 22 2012

Order of Service

Johanna Swift Hart

Prelude: Piano Sonata No. 14, “Moonlight” (Mvt. 1), Ludwig van Beethoven
Nick Woebcke, piano    

Karen Allendoerfer

Affirmation and Doxology

Love is the spirit of this church
And service is its law,
This is our great covenant,
To dwell together in peace,
To seek the truth in love,
And to help one another.

From all that dwell below the skies,
Let songs of hope and faith arise,
Let peace, goodwill, on earth be sung,
Through every land, by every tongue.

First Reading: from The Journal of Higher Education, “Screening Out the Introverts” by William Pannapacker (Johanna Swift Hart, reader)

“Screening Out the Introverts”

Some years ago I joined my students in taking the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, a test to determine personality type. It was an assignment in a course I was teaching on vocational exploration.

Assuming there would be an average distribution of results among the 20 students, I planned a series of small-group assignments in which they would discuss their own results for each of the test’s personality dichotomies (e.g., thinking versus feeling). But a problem turned up immediately: Not one student had received an “I” for introversion. Everyone, it seemed, was an extrovert (Myers-Briggs spells it with an “a,” like “extra”). Everyone but me.

Extroverts—if you accept such categories—are oriented outward, toward other people and toward action over reflection. They draw energy from social interaction, and they tend to be outspoken and gregarious. Introverts, on the other hand, are oriented toward the inner life of thought; they tend to be reserved and cautious. They find social interactions draining, and they need solitude to recharge. It’s not that introverts are antisocial so much as that they appreciate fewer, more intimate friendships. They don’t like small talk but appreciate deeper discussions.

I knew my students well enough to suspect that I was not the only one with that tendency. A third of them barely spoke in class unless called upon. A few hardly spoke to anyone. Perhaps the introverted choices on the test were too stigmatizing to consider (e.g., “Would you rather go to a party or stay home reading a book?”). The students had used the test to confirm that they had the right, “healthy” qualities.

Given that introversion is frowned upon almost everywhere in U.S. culture, the test might as well have asked, “Would you prefer to be cool, popular, and successful or weird, isolated, and a failure?” In the discussion that followed, a few students observed—with general agreement—that introversion was a kind of mental illness (and, one student noted, a sign of spiritual brokenness). “We are made to be social with each other” was a refrain in the conversation.

A few sympathetic students tried to persuade me that my introvert result was a mistake. How could I stand in front of that room, leading that very conversation, smiling at them, without being an extrovert? The answer: careful planning, acting, and rationing my public appearances. Also, my introversion fades when I become comfortable with unfamiliar people (the first weeks of classes are a strain).

We soon moved on to other personality dichotomies that were more evenly distributed. When the class was over, many of the students continued talking in an animated way about their results. Several left, silently, by themselves. The conversation left me exhausted; I went to my office and closed the door for an hour as I prepared for my next performance.

Hymn:  #151, I Wish I Knew How

Second Reading: from Introverted Church, “The Top 5 Things Introverts Dread About Church” by Chelsey Doring (Karen Allendoerfer, reader)

“The Top 5 Things Introverts Dread About Church”

5. “Welcome! Shake a hand, give a hug, share a name!”

In every church I have attended, this has been a precursor to the beginning of the service. What I want to know is why. There is no way that anyone is going to remember anyone else’s name in the 2.7 uncomfortable seconds it takes to say, “Good morning! My name is so-and-so. God’s peace.”And has anyone considered what that is like for people who have never stepped foot in that church, or any church at all? I’ve been in church my entire life, and this entire process ties knots in my stomach. I understand the rationale behind it (we want to be a friendly, welcoming community), but isn’t this accomplished in a less forced manner before and after the service, over donuts and coffee?

Awkward encounters are so much easier with caffeine and sugar.

4. “Chelsey, what do you think?”

Okay, look. I will tell you what I think once I want to say it. Trust me, I am very opinionated. Just because I am sitting quietly in this group of people, listening to all of them talk about their lives or this Bible passage or this idea, doesn’t mean I have a rock for a brain or that I’m too scared to speak up. Or, even worse: that something is wrong with me. The worst offenders for this one are small group leaders and youth directors. And I know that for a fact, because I am one. Take it from me: if an introvert isn’t speaking, it isn’t because nothing is going on upstairs. It’s because they’re thinking. And once they feel comfortable enough, they will share. And yeah, that might take a couple minutes. A couple weeks. Maybe even a couple months. Their silence isn’t a reflection on your leadership! Leaders like me need to be secure enough in ourselves so that we can let the silence happen. It’s not “awkward” until you make it awkward.

3. “Let’s get into groups and pray aloud and/or tell each other our deepest, darkest struggles.”

At this point, you may be wondering if I actually like people. I like people. I really do.  Introverts tend to have deep relationships and friendships. They are often very few in number. At the church where I work, we meet weekly to pray over the prayer requests we receive as a staff. We separate into groups of 3 to 5, go to separate corners of the church, and begin to pray over the list. I have a mini-panic attack every single time. I hope I’m adept enough to cover it. I’m probably not.

2. Spontaneous Public Prayer

On another blog, one very well-meaning woman tried to give an introvert some advice about praying out loud: “Sometimes I have an apprehension of going to the bathroom in public with someone who is the in the stall right next to me. Sometimes it is really hard to avoid. However, I know I have to go, so what I do is close my eyes and just go with the flow. I would say the same to you the next time you are asked to pray out loud in front of others: Just close your eyes and go with the flow. He promises that as we open our mouths he will fill it with his words. I have found this to be true not only in my life, but also in the lives of others I know.” I’m convinced that “go with the flow” is a distinctly extroverted phrase. Also, I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to use the phrase “go with the flow” again.

1. ”You should be more…”Talkative. Friendly. Open. Or, my personal favorite: “You should be more like your sister.”

Karen: I chose this reading because I grew up Presbyterian in a church kind of like that too, and that last one reminds me of a Bible verse, Exodus 4.

After 40 years or so of shepherding, God spoke to Moses and told him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. But, instead of packing his bags and heading straight for Egypt, Moses proceeds to go through just about every excuse he can think of to convince God he’s not the right man for the job.

Exodus 4:10

10 But Moses said to the LORD, “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”

11 Then the LORD said to him, “Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD?

12 Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak.”

13 But he said, “O my Lord, please send someone else.”

14 Then the anger of the LORD was kindled against Moses and he said, “What of your brother Aaron, the Levite? I know that he can speak fluently; even now he is coming out to meet you, and when he sees you his heart will be glad.

Offertory: Come Back to Sorrento (Torna a Surriento), Ernesto De Curtis
Karen Allendoerfer, violin

Sermon: Introverts, Performance, and Church
Karen Allendoerfer

As I mentioned, I grew up introverted in a pretty typical, mainline Protestant, extroverted church.  I was regularly exhorted to come out of my shell, to proclaim my faith out loud, something that usually made me want to run and hide, and, in retrospect, may have been what started me on a larger journey of questioning that faith altogether.

Church was not the only situation where this kind of exhortation took place.  It happened at home, with family.  It happened in school, and it happened a lot more as I got involved in music and learned to play the violin.  I was inspired to pick up the instrument when I was 7 by Pa Ingalls of the “Little House” series of books, and the TV show based on those books, “Little House on the Prairie”.  Pa was a fiddler, largely self-taught, who brought his fiddle in a covered wagon to his numerous homesteads and farms in late-19th-century America.  Sure, he played for square dances and big parties.  And, just this year Charles Ingalls is being recognized as one of the great American fiddlers of the 19th century, his music released on CD and performed on PBS as part of the “Pa’s fiddle” project.

But what I’m talking about was long before all that.  What interested me, was that he played for his family.  On cold winter nights, he played his daughters to sleep, keeping the cold and loneliness (and sometimes the bears and coyotes) away.  He had songs for every occasion, and his fiddling was what made their house a home.  As an adult, Laura Ingalls Wilder said, “Whatever religion, romance, and patriotism I have, I owe largely to the violin and Pa playing in the twilight.”

I played my violin for my dolls, and I imagined some day playing it for my own children.  What I didn’t imagine was recitals . . . having to practice every day . . . stage fright, prodigies, progress, competitions, judges, festivals, and performance anxiety.  Performers these days tend to use a different language: they talk about “dreams” and “exhilaration” and “doing what they love.” They also talk about risk as a “spice” and danger as something that “makes life worth living.” “Don’t cry out loud,” admonished a popular song from when I was a child. “Fly high and proud, and if you should fall, remember you almost had it all.”

A friend of mine and I had a unique way of dealing with the stress of high school: we would play the Moonlight Sonata on the piano.  Neither of us had ever taken piano lessons, and I didn’t even have a piano at home, but she did, and she managed to teach herself the first movement.  I had enough musical training from the violin that I was also able to learn it over at her house.

We learned the notes, anyway.  I suspect that Beethoven himself, or at least modern Beethoven scholars, would be horrified at our interpretation.  According to Wikipedia, this piece, that Nick played so beautifully for the prelude, might have been a solemn funeral hymn written by the composer for a dying friend.  Or it might have had something to do with unrequited love for the Countess Guilietta Guicciardi.  But either way, it’s unlikely that Beethoven would have imagined two 16-year-old American high school students pounding his peaceful, sonorous triplets faster and faster, and louder and louder, with little care for dynamics, or even intonation. We weren’t good enough pianists to find and play a piece that expressed those emotions in the music, so we made this one do it for us.  And we weren’t playing for anyone but ourselves.  I also listened to a recording of the sonata every night before a test in school.  It became a superstition, a religious ritual:  if I listened to the Moonlight Sonata while studying, I’d get an A.  Long before the alleged Mozart Effect, this was the Beethoven Effect.

I played the violin all the way through high school, but I didn’t have time to do much with it in college, or especially, in graduate school.  And I never learned to like performing solo–I never really “had it all”, not even almost–but, aside from the Beethoven Effect, I experienced some of the most sublime musical, and spiritual, moments of my life playing church music.  I lost myself in something larger, playing big Masses and Oratorios, like Handel’s Messiah.

I’d never been much of a singer, either.  You’re probably familiar with the hymn, “How can I keep from singing?”  Heck, that was easy.  Exhorted to sing out, and to sing a new song unto the Lord, I nonetheless preferred to let my voice blend with those of others.  Then, even as I began to question the words of my childhood faith, I felt spiritually healed in music.

I can’t point to a defining moment or experience that caused me to stop playing the violin.  There were any number of disappointments and competing interests.  I was in graduate school and building my scientific career, and I was busy.  But I don’t think it’s just a coincidence that I stopped playing the violin for the first time around the same time I stopped going to church, before I became a UU.  I was tired of being exhorted to do something I didn’t want to do, and to be something I wasn’t.

Then, about 6 years ago, I got out my old violin again.  I hadn’t played it in over 7 years, but I needed it to help my daughter Helena, who at that time was just starting to play the violin and having some trouble with a teacher and program that weren’t a good fit.  She’s still playing the instrument, and somewhat to my surprise, so am I. I’m still an introvert. I’m not completely sure what’s different this time, but trying to explain that is what inspired me to do this service.

Early on when I was just starting to play again, I was looking for performance opportunities:  nothing big, or competitive, or scary.  Belmont had just gotten its Farmers’ Market up and running, and they were looking for people to perform there.  I volunteered.  The whole idea reminded me of Pa–who was a farmer–and his fiddle.  It seemed like something he might do.  So, I got a book of fiddle tunes and started to learn them.  I also bought a book called the “Laura Ingalls Wilder Songbook” and played some tunes from that.  People at the market were very nice.  They didn’t throw any vegetables.  They even clapped.  One person tried to give me some money in my case, but I was just doing it for community service, so I had left my case closed and didn’t take it.  Then one elderly man asked me if I knew “Come Back to Sorrento.”  I have to admit, I did not.  I felt bad.  Later, the leader of the market told me this man was named Joe and he was a long-time Belmont resident and a big supporter of the market.  I went home and looked up the song.  I found some other Italian songs like “O Sole Mio” and learned to play those too.  I played them for Joe at the market another time that summer.  But for the past couple of years I haven’t seen Joe at the market.  I’ve inquired.  No one has seen him.

I recently finished reading a book about Introversion, called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that can’t stop talking, by Susan Cain. I’m also in the middle of re-reading Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, to Helena.  By chance, I saw on Facebook that a friend of mine is also reading Little Women. To herself, not to her daughter. My friend’s first name is Amy, and she was named for Amy March, the youngest sister in the book. She was involved in a project to shave her head for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, a foundation that raises money to help kids with childhood cancers. When I read about it, I immediately thought of Jo March, who sold her hair, her “one beauty,” to a wig maker to help her mother pay for a ticket to Washington to care for her injured husband. My friend Amy, whose beautiful long blond hair is now also being made into a wig–for a child with cancer–has more than one beauty. Nonetheless, our conversation on Facebook turned to Jo. Even though she’s named for a different character, Amy’s favorite is Jo. Our DRE, Lauren, loves Jo too, and has written academic papers on her. Jo is also Helena’s favorite. And when Helena asked me who my favorite was, even I pointed out that there was something pretty cool about moving to New York and meeting and marrying a German guy (which is what I did myself 15 years ago). These days I think it’s almost impossible to be a bookish girl of a certain age (or almost any age) and not admire Jo. Modeled on her creator, Louisa May Alcott, Jo became a wildly successful author in a time when most women did not have careers outside the home. And, at least in the book, she appears to have had fun doing it. Louisa in fact supported her own family for many years through her writing.

But upon re-reading a book that I last read about 30 years ago or more, I’m stumbling on some uncomfortable truths. I remember now that it took me a few tries to get through that book at all, when I was a kid. The tone is a little too preachy, and everybody–even the supposedly flawed and temperamental Jo–is a little too sweet and perfect.

What’s most remarkable to me, though, is that while as an adult, I admire Jo and consider her an interesting and appropriate role model for my own spirited daughter, I’m remembering now that when I first read the book, my favorite character, the one I identified with the most, was not Jo at all. It was Beth. Quiet, introverted Beth–even then, an outlier in a world that couldn’t stop talking. Jo, by contrast, was a little scary, and the opposite of me: she was jolly, and extroverted, and talked to boys easily.

Many days I envied Beth that she was allowed to be homeschooled. I, who played the violin for my dolls, liked that Beth petted and favored and was comforted by a beat-up old doll. More than anything, though, what I liked about Beth was that she was a musician, a pianist who played for herself, her family members, and her friends. Mr. Lawrence, her wealthy next-door neighbor, let her play their fancy grand piano every afternoon, when she thought no one else was around, or listening. Beth reminds Mr. Lawrence of his beloved granddaughter, who also played the piano and passed away while still a child.

There has been some scholarship on Beth. One commentator points out that Beth is a version of a 19th century stock character, the “Angel in the House,” a character that Virginia Woolf wrote had to be killed in order for women artists to assert their creative independence. Louisa, by having Beth die in the second half of Little Women, appears to have largely agreed, perhaps foreshadowing Woolf. I never quite forgave Louisa for killing off Beth. Why not let her grow up and become a beloved piano teacher, lavishing all the love and care on her students that she lavished on her dolls? I took Beth’s death a little personally. I never looked at the book quite the same way again.

The commentators are right in one way, at least: society doesn’t seem to know what to do with introverts. It’s certainly viewed as a tidier and more dramatic story if the quiet ones are pushed off the literary stage one way or another, leaving the real, interesting business of literature to those who heroically take risks and self-actualize. Both from my personal experience and from reading Cain’s book, it appears not much has changed, in literature or anywhere else. If anything, the pro-extrovert bias has gotten stronger in the 20th and 21st centuries. In situations from school, to work, to church, people are exhorted to “put themselves out there” and work collaboratively in large groups. Introverts are called anti-social, shamed, and weeded out in job interviews by misapplied Myers-Briggs tests.

Reading Cain’s book, I, like many others, felt a shock of recognition. I almost felt like I could have written the book myself. But I didn’t write the book, and in my relief at having my basic introversion validated in print, at first I missed an important part of Cain’s thesis: that introverts and extroverts complement, and need each other. What’s out of balance in modern times is that the extrovert ideal is taking up too much space. Rather than merely saying defensively that introverts are too just as good as extroverts, Cain makes the case that introversion, with its allowance for and consideration of fear, uncertainty, and doubt, provides a much-needed check on overreaching. Cain points out that throughout history there has always been an important creative tension between thought and action, between the philosopher and the king. She highlights the working relationship between introverted Rosa Parks and extroverted Martin Luther King Jr. as a particularly meaningful partnership in the civil rights movement. Introverts, with their tendency to look before they leap, are less likely to make bad investment decisions, and are more likely to be able to see and avert impending disasters. In fact, Jo March knew this too. Jo describes Beth as “her conscience” and has a special, close relationship with her of mutual respect.

A particularly important and damaging myth that Cain takes on in her book is the perception that introverts are anti-social or don’t care about others. She provides many examples of introverts rising to the occasion and creating something meaningful in a relationship: a beloved college professor who has touched many of his students’ lives but lives a solitary life with his wife and wants to be off when he’s off, Rosa Parks, and a young lawyer who manages to negotiate a deal with a particularly difficult and egotistical client. And she also makes the case that introverted artists with their self-awareness and sensitivity can make great performers if they choose to, and if their gifts aren’t squelched by damaging labels applied to their personalities.

In Little Women, at the end of the chapter, “Beth Finds the Palace Beautiful,” Jo suggests, as a joke, that Beth go over and thank Mr. Lawrence for his kindnesses. To everyone’s surprise and delight, Beth too rises to the occasion, and becomes fast friends with Mr. Lawrence.

Honestly, I haven’t finished the book this time either.  I’m stalled on the “Valley of the Shadow” chapter.  I hope that now, in the 21st century, for Jo to succeed, Beth no longer has to die. Both Beth and Jo deserve better than that.

Musical Meditation:  Bouree, J.S. Bach
Karen Allendoerfer, violin

Spoken Meditation:  From Little Women, “Beth Finds the Palace Beautiful,” by Louisa May Alcott

“Beth went and knocked at the study door before she gave herself time to think, and when a gruff voice called out, come in! she did go in, right up to Mr. Laurence, who looked quite taken aback, and held out her hand, saying, with only a small quaver in her voice, I came to thank you, sir, for. . . But she didn’t finish, for he looked so friendly that she forgot her speech and, only remembering that he had lost the little girl he loved, she put both arms round his neck and kissed him . . . Beth ceased to fear him from that moment, and sat there talking to him as cozily as if she had known him all her life, for love casts out fear, and gratitude can conquer pride.”

Closing Hymn: #123, Spirit of Life

Closing words: from Susan Cain’s talk at the TED 2012 Conference

Take a good look at what’s inside your own suitcase, and why you put it there. Extroverts, whose bags might be filled with Champagne bubbles and sky-diving kits, grace us with the energy and joy of these objects. Introverts probably guard the secrets of their suitcases, and that’s cool.

But occasionally, just occasionally, I hope you will open the suitcase up . . . because the world needs you and what you carry.

Postlude: Violinists Don’t Stop Believin’, Adam DeGraff, Inspired by Journey
Karen Allendoerfer, fiddle 


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