The Introvert Advantage

Note: I’m about to be rather more severe than is properly called for. The only excuse I can offer is that of comparison: Laney’s understanding of introversion is so very much less interesting than Jung’s, and explains so very much less of anything worth bothering to explain (and who really needs to explain why some people like doing things that nearly everyone professes to be desirable?), that I’m disappointed against my own better judgement.

I have, more frequently than is altogether justified, read a book that I might have known would not live up to my expectations, without ever bothering to adjust those expectations in the least, and been disappointed as a result, and more surprised than was in any way justified. Such was my experience of The Introvert Advantage (Dr Martin Olsen Laney), which a friend recently lent me. The really surprising thing about introversion, so far as I’ve observed, is that we still manage to be surprised by it, even though some third to half the population is of this temperament. I’ve never heard of anyone who was surprised by the existence of extroverts, however perplexed they might be by some particular representatives thereof. Nobody writes books, wondering what extroversion has to offer the world. This, I suspect, says something rather peculiar about the culture we currently inhabit.

The tenor of the questions underlying The Introvert Advantage and Introverts in the Church is that of people who thought that they were deeply inadequate because they sometimes prefer books and tea by themselves to making small talk with near-strangers. They are even a little puzzled that they should prefer a more sophisticated conversation with two or three friends to a superficial conversation with a dozen acquaintances. Neither of which is, when I put it that way, so very puzzling. Nor is it so very puzzling that someone else might have the opposite preference. While it’s sort of interesting to know what people’s brain chemicals and neuro-transmitters are doing on those occasions, it’s not so important to the central question as Laney makes it out to be. After all, simply as a preference, why would we assume that it’s better to like small talk more than a book, especially after spending twelve years systematically encouraging the reading of books, often at the expense of the small talk? A rom of one’s own may be, historically and statistically speaking, a luxury — but doesn’t that all the more prove it to be desirable? Time to oneself may also be a luxury — and it’s a luxury because it’s desirable. Taking a walk alone or with one or two close companions is generally held to be a pleasure, even if some people don’t find it so.

What Laney (and to a lesser extent McHugh) does is to turn a pleasure into a psychological need, which I find misguided, not only because most pleasures become less pleasurable when indulged for the sake of health, but also because there are surely people who must make do with much less time and space than they would like, for circumstantial reasons, and it seems a bit uncharitable to regard as necessary in one’s own case that which is a luxury to so many. Laney likens her introverted reader to a tulip, and then suggests that they bring a small heater to work because their ideal range of temperatures is quite narrow. It’s not a terrible idea, but I bet a cold room is distracting to anyone, and humans in general have an amazingly narrow optimum temperature range. She has her studies; introverts may be even more sensitive than extroverts — but I doubt it’s so dramatic as to suggest anything we didn’t already know from near universal human experience.

What seems a greater oddity than anything is the way in which we moderns seem to need to justify and rationalize our desire for the simplest, oldest, most obvious and natural of human pleasures, not even with poetry, but with psychology. I’m not very poetic, but even I recognize the beauty and joy sometimes evident in solitude, surrounded by gorgeous or even barren Nature, and don’t really need a psychologist to tell me that many people (I doubt it matters so very much what category they belong to) are greatly benefited by a greater acquaintance therewith. It doesn’t even need a psychologist to recognize that some people are naturally more gregarious than others, even within the same family.

The real problem Laney seems to be addressing, and which does need to be addressed, though perhaps not psychologically, is the judgement, apparently drilled into her and McHugh, that socializing is always more valuable than whatever one might be doing instead of socializing; that going to a party is better than whatever it is you might rather be doing at home; that speaking up quickly is better than considering thoroughly; that a tweet is better than a journal entry; that knowing many people is better than knowing a few, and so on. And in response to that, I don’t believe that either goes far enough, because you can’t combat value (perhaps even moral) judgements with brain chemistry and genes. As apologists never tire of saying, ought and is are altogether different categories, and you can never get from is to ought with reason and facts alone. In order to show that contemplation can be just as valuable as companionship, McHugh has to show, not that introverts might prefer contemplation (for that devalues it to a mere decoration or hobby) , but its true value — which may well be a difficult and arduous theological task. In order to show that “slowing down” is something of value, it’s necessary to demonstrate that value, not psychologically, but at something positive, not the mere absence of frantic motion. To demonstrate the value and place of silence and space, they must be known to be not only an absence, but also a fullness. Food is not simply (or even primarily) for “refueling,” and solitude is to the introvert not simply an opportunity to “recharge batteries” — what an impoverishment of thought and feeling! Food was meant for communion. solitude was meant to be a kind of fullness. Silence and space also allow for a kind of fullness that are not simply (or fundamentally) about ones self, and the slavery of constant self-care (which Laney’s books simply reeks of), but about the beauty or truth that is encountered therein, and cannot be known so fully in company.

Which is, ultimately, why I had no business expecting so much from this book as I did. Jung can expound upon the value of the numinous and make distinctions between introversion oriented toward archetypes and deep things hidden in the collective unconscious, because he was willing to assert such things to exist. Even McHugh can assert that contemplation is ultimately valuable because of Him whom we are contemplating, and that makes all the difference. Laney can’t or won’t assert any such thing, and even suggests that “spirituality” is something nice for one’s own psychic balance, which may well be more blasphemous than the kind of atheism that takes spirits seriously enough to disbelieve in them even to our own ruin.

Jung, in writing about the introvert “undervaluing his own principle,” suggests that, in fact, it is not all the same whether there really is something to be contemplated and appreciated in the underlying nature of things or not. If there is nothing there but our own thoughts and feelings (as Laney says that Jung said, and which he manifestly did not say), then introversion is egotistical, because if the only things there are are objects and the ego, how could it not be? I had a similar experience when I once had to write a philosophy of education using a great writer, and chose Rousseau’s Emile. He doesn’t even imply, but says outright and insists in the strongest possible way, that he does not mean to say anything about teaching in schools, because that is not something he much believes in, and he has nothing to say about it — and yet I wrote an essay about how I might use his ideas while teaching classes at school, and felt a little slimy while doing so. Reading Laney on Jung is a similar experience. The reason why he can assert introversion (in his meaning, as orientation toward the object) to not be egotistical is precisely because it is about something with much greater depth and reality than one’s own thoughts and feelings. And Laney says that introversion is, precisely, about an orientation toward one’s own thoughts and feelings, without any thought at all concerning the existence or non-existence of some substratum of the soul which would make that not-egotistical, which is exactly where she asserts that Jung was right and Freud wrong. Freud may have been wrong, but at least he was consistent and knew how to reason from his own premises, which is more than I can say for Laney (who doesn’t seem to have any definite premises).

In other words, while it has some mildly interesting objective findings, I object to The Introvert Advantage for its deep and abiding philosophical sloppiness, which can only possibly be excused by the evident fact that she was unaware that there was anything philosophical at stake (chiefly because she defined her term away from its original philosophical implications, but in so doing she made it fit very poorly with experience, and boring as well).

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2 thoughts on “The Introvert Advantage

  1. You may have a point about pointing out the real value of contemplation or other introverted activities. Josef Pieper’s writings on leisure are probably in line with this idea. I recently read an essay for my writing class, which claimed that 25% of Americans read no book at all in the past year, that many writers want how-to manuals with some magic secret to becoming a top-notch author, but don’t want to become well-read enough to have a desire to write come out of inspiration from what they read.

    http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/08/how-to-write-in-700-easy-lessons/8043/

    I find your objections about the books philosophy valid, but I still find value in The Introvert Advantage as a stepping stone for someone who does not read a lot but wants to read more. As a self help manual it is useful, but the same time I’d agree that self help manuals are not to be used as shortcuts for actual hard work in helping one’s self. Being the product of public schools (not that public schools are bad, but that the cliques and peer pressures in public school are bad), I think the book makes a good stepping stone for someone who is just beginning to learn how to think critically, because I don’t think I could have understood the value of Jung through the lens of my life experiences without first understanding your objections with Dr. Laney. I found the book eye opening, and now that I have greater understanding, I can agree with what you say.

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