Friday, April 5, 2013

My Introversion and What I'm Doing About It

So just leave me alone,
Leave me alone,
Leave me alone—stop it!
Just stop doggin' me around.
—"Leave Me Alone," Michael Jackson*

Ever since I have known what an introvert was, I have identified as one. As a child, my preferred methods of interacting with the world were (1) reading books about it and (2) taking solitary walks through it. I tended to content myself with one or two good friends as a kid, and was generally quiet and mildly anti-social around others. Learning to interact with strangers was an ordeal: such tasks as ordering at a restaurant, calling a company help desk, and being pleasant to people on the street or in an elevator were all things I couldn't do comfortably until college or later. Heck, I still struggle with calling strangers, come to think of it. Just a week or two ago, I spent days psyching myself up to call Timberland, and not even about anything that stressful: they owed me some money, which is great! Thankfully, before I managed to convince myself to call them, they gave me my money. Few things are as sweet to an introvert as a problem involving telephones that solves itself.

The funny thing about this picture: I took it myself.

When I was in middle school, my dad took me on a weekend hiking trip where he spent much of the time trying to get me to talk about the fact that I never really talked much. I had nothing to say on the subject, and I didn't say so, nor did I say much of anything else. It was profoundly awkward at the time, but in retrospect I'm glad that it happened, because it was the first time I grasped that being completely solitary and turned inward might be a problem that needed dealing with, rather than an alternative lifestyle that the world just needed to accept. I remain eternally grateful to my father for undertaking this task, which must have seemed totally futile at the time.

Today, partly as a result of my father's early efforts, I consider myself an assimilated introvert in an extroverted society. I can interact at length with friends, talk to strangers, and even speak to a large group, all while feeling relatively calm and even having a good time. Occasionally, though, I'll have a moment of clarity about my true nature (e.g., the aforementioned Timberland telephone incident), in which I'll be reminded that I am just not that comfortable when speaking with new people, and that that is considered extraordinary by some. The most frequent of such moments are when I'm walking around downtown Chicago and pass the clipboard/binder/Greenpeace people, who are always super friendly and engaging and smiley in their attempt so talk to people about whatever cause they're supporting, and who are constantly, constantly, being rejected, implicitly or explicitly, by semi- or fully hostile people who pass them on the street. And because fear of rejection is one of the big things that drives my introversion, I always shudder slightly when I pass these people, and feel super thankful that I don't have to do that in order to get by, because it would be the pits. That and telemarketing. (Shudder.)

These facts make it somewhat surprising that I would agree to go out canvassing for a political cause, i.e., knocking on peoples' doors and asking them to please reject me. People really do not like talking to people who knock on their doors. As a person, this is a basic part of my knowledge about the world. Yet I chose to ignore that fact and knock on people's doors anyway, because I genuinely thought people needed to hear what I and my fellow canvassers had to say.

I live in Illinois, where a state budget crisis has prompted the government to slash funding for schools, healthcare, and any number of other important public programs especially important to the poor. Meanwhile also in Illinois, two thirds of corporations pay no state taxes, failing to support the infrastructure and services that they and their employees use on a regular basis. (This strikes me as both stupid and wrong.) A bill recently went through the state legislature that would have closed corporate tax loopholes and forced corporations to pay their fair share. This bill was killed in committee by a couple of Democrats in the state House. My friend invited me to canvass in the district of one of these Representatives (this guy, if you're interestedand especially if you live in the 23rd Ward!), asking folks to call him and tell him that, should the opportunity arise again, they would like him to not kill a bill that would end this stupid and wrong state of affairs.

I said yes, not because it sounded fun, but because it seemed like the right thing to do. I went to a meeting where we talked about strategy and the basics of what we were doing, and I bluffed my way through it with jokes and smiles, all the while feeling pretty terrified about what was about to happen. And then we left the meeting place and drove to our respective streets in the 23rd Ward, and it hit me: I was now the clipboard person, the Greenpeace volunteer, the telemarketer. I was going to be very uncomfortable for the next few hours.

Gunderson Street in Chicago's 23rd Ward.

The worst part about canvassing is not the conversations you have with people. While these can be awkward, frustrating, or painful, they are nothing compared to the intense fear, sometimes akin to panic, that comes over you when you're about to knock on a complete stranger's door. I would stand in front of someone's steps, sometimes for several minutes at a time, working myself up, calming myself down, so that I could walk up the stairs and ring the doorbell. Occasionally, I would find myself seeking some excuse not to do it at all, just for the moment's relief of walking to the next house, excuses like "this person is too old to bother about this" or "this person's house doesn't have a doorbell." And when I managed to knock or ring, and no one answered the door, the relief was indeed intense, if extremely fleeting: there went one more house I didn't have to face rejection at.

There were a fair number of houses where no one was home, but there were also plenty where people were there. People had a range of responses, from dismissive to skeptical to enthusiastic. Only two of the doors I knocked on lived up to my worst fears. At one, a man with a Hulk Hogan mustache answered the door, and when I told him about the problem in our state, he asked me if I knew the only way to solve the political problems in Illinois. I said I knew how I thought we should go about it, but then made the mistake of asking his opinion. "Kill 'em," he said. The government and corporations are so corrupt, that you have to just literally murder the people in charge to change anything. I let him talk for longer than I should have, given that I lacked any leverage or tools to change his mind, and then left, saying that I didn't share his cynicism (which was true) but that I appreciated his honesty (which was a lie). "You will," he said, referring to me sharing his cynicism (which I won't).

The other bad conversation was with an old man who was very, very racist.

Those two conversations aside, the experience was positive. I got to talk to people about an issue I care about, and many of them listened and were sympathetic; a few agreed to call their Representative, and one person made the call right in front of me! My hope is that experiences like this will help me to experience the richness and goodness of life more fully, to help me move beyond my introversion and become better engaged with the world, even though it's a frightening and messy place. So I plan to do this kind of thing again. And I think next time it will be less frightening, less uncomfortable, and I will have a better idea of what I'm getting into!

*Note that most weeks I do not explicitly recommend watching the video that accompanies the music quoted at the top of my post, but that this week is an exception, as the video is among the most beautifully weird things I've ever seen. It includes a dancing elephant/human hybrid skeleton, dogs in suits, and a theme park built into a giant Michael Jackson.

Photo Sources:
Photo 1:
Photo 2: Me!
Photo 3:
Photo 4: Google Maps

1 comment:

  1. Favorite line, at which I was glad I wasn't eating while reading, because whatever I might have been eating at the time, be it a sandwich or canned corn, would surely have been snorted up my nasal cavities: "When I was in middle school, my dad took me on a weekend hiking trip where he spent much of the time trying to get me to talk about the fact that I never really talked much. I had nothing to say on the subject, and I didn't say so, nor did I say much of anything else."