Have you ever taken one of the online quizzes to find out which Avengers character you are, or which Hogwarts House you’d be sorted into? One result of this popular personality profiling trend has been a widely held (false) belief that the world is filled with only two kinds of people: extroverts, those party animals who can’t keep a thought to themselves, and introverts, the shy, socially inept wallflowers. However, (as research suggests is actually true of most people), when I take the quizzes, I find that I am neither extreme introvert nor extrovert, but somewhere in between (ambiverts, they call us, which is sort of a non-name). I guess I’m just one of those boring freaks who likes to be with people sometimes and likes to be alone at other times.
While I enjoy much about the popular craze of personality profiling, and especially some of the more reliable scientific archetypes behind it, I also recognize that identifying one’s preferences (even exaggerated caricatures of them) is not quite the same as recognizing one’s bona fide needs. But even for those at the extreme ends of the spectrum, just because someone might have a real preference for solitude or socialization doesn’t mean they know how those preferences either serve or hinder their real human needs in those areas. We don’t often crave the best things for us – this is especially true when it comes to our needs as relational beings.
I have a beautiful copy of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden in my library. Until recently, it was a part of that long and illustrious list of works I supposedly read in school and am now trying to actually read as a way of penance toward my poor teachers who endured me. Walden always seemed to fit that category for me of individualistic romantic nonsense, so I was somewhat surprised to discover how much that book is really about good relationships and true intimacy. First of all, no genuine isolationist would write down and publish his private experiences and musings. He would just wander into the woods and die. There’s a real kind of social vulnerability in writing. It assumes an audience – someone who can see you and decide whether to accept or reject whatever part of your soul that’s been exposed on that piece of paper. Thoreau wanted to be seen and heard, because he was a human. Second, with great social awareness, he explains that one can be lonely even surrounded by companions if one’s heart is not open to them. (Surely Thoreau anticipated the digital age!) Even in his solitude, he always left three chairs for visitors and observed that he had more quality visitors in his solitude than he ever did in the city saturated with strangers. Although Thoreau is probably a bit more interested in self-reliance than in his own self-interest, he’s not quite the hermit that I thought he was, or even that he himself claims to be.
But whatever our preferences or baggage, whether hard-wired or trauma-induced, we must all reconcile ourselves to the twin facts that we were made in the image of the Triune God for relationships, and we as fallen humans engage in these relationships very poorly. This is where the gift of loneliness comes in – yes you read that right, the gift of loneliness. If we can learn to listen to the voice of our hearts when we experience loneliness and receive it for the gift that it is, we can be re-shaped as healthy relational beings in the image of our fundamentally relational God. I’m excited to continue in this series with you all this weekend as we look to God’s own self-revelatory writing and see his heart for our hearts in the Psalms.