the gifts of the magi

illustration of grandparent and solar system

I posted this Cowbird.com story about high school on my Facebook wall earlier this week, and was very touched by the responses it got from my Facebook friends, including some people who’d known me in high school. Our conversation explored the subject of teenage angst, and the horrorshow that the high school years can be for many people.

For me, high school was not a place of overt discrimination or bullying, although I know this is the experience of many. My teenage agony was an interior one. I was a profound introvert – shy, awkward, unsure in social settings – and I never felt a sense of belonging or recognition from my peers.

This existence followed me through my university years – and, in truth, has been my experience through much of my of adult life. In my teens and twenties I was desperately lonely, and yet neither was I comfortable moving about in a world of extroverts. I did not enjoy their activities. I craved connection, but preferred it to be deep… and one-on-one.

As a result, I spent a lot of time alone.

I still do.

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There’s a wonderful blog post about introversion that made the rounds on social media a while back: 10 myths about introverts, by Carl Kingdom. I remember reading it on Facebook and feeling an immediate sense of recognition. Yes, I thought. This describes me exactly.

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When I was a kid, I learned early on that it was a dangerous thing to admit my love of solitude to my peers. I remember being socially isolated many times. The summer I was 12, I was bullied by a bunch of my cabin-mates at summer church camp, and when I tearfully begged the camp director to call my mother and have me taken home, she instead instructed my counsellors to find me some friends among the girls in my cabin.

This worked for about a day, until one of my new “friends” asked me what I liked to do in my free time at home. I said I liked to be alone.

“Fine,” she responded, and walked away. She and her posse teased me mercilessly for the rest of the week. I don’t know what I would have done if the camp had lasted any longer.

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A lot of extroverts who know me as an adult are suprised to learn that I identify as an introvert. I have learned to adapt to social situations, and after years of classical vocal training and performances, I’m comfortable getting up in front of people and engaging in easy patter about many subjects.

Abandon me at a party or a social event, however, and I die a million deaths inside. I detest small talk, and trying to find points of connection with strangers is torture for me. I do love meeting new people, though. If I can approach them in a comfortable setting, in a low-key environment, without an agenda, I truly enjoy learning about others.

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I used to shock extroverted friends when I told them I’d often considered an eremitic life – a life of spiritual or creative seclusion. I could never convince them of the deep pull and rich joys of the contemplation. Where some people find meaning and fulfillment in relationship and service, I’m most alive and satisfied when I am connected to my creative muse. And it’s a blissfully solitary experience.

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There’s a wonderful poem by T. S. Eliot called The Journey of the Magi. It’s about the awe-some and awful journey that the magi take to find the newborn Christ child. By the end of the poem, after they have traveled great distances over harsh terrain, and witnessed sights that they can never fully convey to those who were not there, their journey has so radically changed them that they no longer belong in their homeland, when they return to it.

That’s kind of how being introverted in an extroverted world feels, to me.

The riches that I find during my solitary – sometimes painful, often ecstatic, and always compelling – inner journeys are indescribable. They also render me, upon my return to the world of “the regular,” an outsider and a freak.

I mean that in the best way, of course. :)

Because I know that the gifts I bring back from the wilderness with me are powerful, and useful.

They are gifts that the world needs.

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A TED Talk about the introvert advantage.