Friday 07 November 2003


Teresa left a comment on my post about introversion/extroversion, The Unbearable Heaviness of Babble.

I really could use some direction. My guy is introvert from the word go and I am an extrovert. Seriously! We have a wonderful relationship. He is a wonderful person but, I have trouble dealing with him not being social when I am. Everything I have read leads me to believe this is normal and I being an extrovert will feel rejected. I don’t want to feel this way. I could use some advice on how to deal with his alone time without feeling rejected or ignored. I want to understand who he is.


Language Hat answered:

Teresa: You just have to accept him the way he is, and trust that what appears to be anti-social grumpiness is just quiet observation and reflection. As an introvert myself, I assure you it’s awful to be prodded to be social; I enjoy talking about interesting things with one or two people, but if you put me with a bunch of people I don’t know, I clam up and observe. And I spend a *lot* of time reading and thinking. I’m deeply grateful to my wife for understanding this and not feeling abandoned; she knows I am always close to her, no matter how shut off I appear. If you can convince yourself to accept this about your guy, he will be much happier — and so will you.

I didn’t reply to Teresa’s comment. Not because I couldn’t add anything to Language Hat’s advice, excellent as it is. But because at the time Teresa left her comment I was sitting at the bottom of a deep well of introversion.

In Murakami Haruki’s Nejimaki-dori kuronikuru (The Wind-up Bird Chronicle) the protagonist, Okada Toru, meets an elderly man named Mamiya who, as a Lieutenant with the Kwantung Army in Manchuria in 1937, was sent on a secret reconnaissance mission to the border with Outer Mongolia. Mamiya and his party were captured, one of his comrades was flayed alive, and Mamiya left to die at the bottom of a well.

Okada finds a deep well near his house, in the middle of Tokyo. He buys a rope ladder, removes one of the semi-circular wooden covers, and climbs down to the bottom.

Taking a breath, I sat on the floor of the well, with my back against the wall. I closed my eyes and let my body become accustomed to the place. All right, then, I thought: here I am in the bottom of a well…

I sat in the dark. Far above me, like a sign of something, floated the perfect half moon of light given shape by the well cap. And yet none of the light from up there managed to find its way to the bottom.

I’ve always loved Murakami’s image of the well bottom, so remote from everyday babble but with the ordinary, mysterious world glimmering in the distance. After a while, Okada’s eyes become accustomed to what he calls the “pale darkness”.

…but pale as it might be, it had its own particular kind of density, which in some cases contained a more deeply meaningful darkness than perfect pitch darkness. In it, you could see something. And at the same time, you could see nothing at all.

Here in this darkness, with its strange sense of significance, my memories began to take on a power they had never had before. The fragmentary images they called up inside me were mysteriously vivid in every detail, to the point where I felt I could grasp them in my hands.

Like Language Hat, I spend a *lot* of time reading and thinking. I also enjoy talking about interesting things with not just “one or two” but up to three people! This past week, however, I haven’t had any paid work, so in addition to reading and thinking I’ve spent a *lot* of time sleeping.

It might be the Mega Memory™ pills that have caused me to think a lot about my childhood, like the other guy who bought Mega Memory™ from Karen’s pharmacy. And perhaps re-living all those memories is nearly as exhausting as living the original experiences. Or it might be other recent changes: the weather is getting warmer, I’ve started swimming again, I stopped drinking. Because on Monday morning I went to the dentist and was home by eleven, planning to do some writing. Instead I lay down on the bed for a quick nap and woke up three hours later. On Tuesday morning I went to Kmart to buy some towels and bed linen. Again I came home and slept for three hours in the middle of the day. Wednesday I stayed in bed, having decided to finish Piers Brendon’s The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 30s. At eleven I drifted off to sleep, again waking up three hours later. This time, however, I’d had a dream:

I had set up my desktop computer and 19-inch monitor on the low brick fence of a neighbor’s house in the street where I lived as a child. (I’m an adult in my dream.) After working at the computer for a while it occurred to me to wonder where the power was coming from. I looked over the monitor and saw an extension lead snaking across the lawn and down the side passage. I stood up, walked to the front door, and knocked. A woman in her mid-thirties answered the door. She was wearing a floral dressing gown—what used to be called, I think, a housecoat—and holding a mop. I apologized for using her electricity without permission and offered her some money. She refused my ten dollar note, told me not to worry about it, and asked if I’d like a cup of tea or coffee. “A cup of tea would be great,” I replied.

As we sat at her kitchen table I suddenly felt her foot rubbing against the back of my leg in an unmistakably provocative way. This doesn’t feel right, I thought to myself. I’m not the slightest bit attracted to this woman. But I’ve used her electricity and I’m drinking her tea. What should I do?

I did what one frequently does in dreams: I teleported myself into a new scene. Now I was walking away from her house. But it still worried me that I hadn’t paid for the electricity and, in any case, I needed to retrieve my computer. I walked back and knocked on her front door again. This time, when she opened the door, she gazed at me for a long time before saying, “You look depressed.”

“I am depressed,” I admitted. “But I know what to do about it.”

And I woke up.

For someone who spends so much time at the bottom of a well, I never feel lonely and am only rarely depressed. When I was a photographer, there were periods when the photographs I was making were so mediocre that the very idea of taking photographs seemed pointless. And yet I knew that the only way to improve my pictures was either to take an extended break or to press on in the hope that I’d make my way back onto the right path. I couldn’t bear the idea of stopping because I loved the process—the physicality of taking photographs and the sloshing around in the darkroom (in its own way, another kind of well). So I pressed on. And eventually made some work that satisfied me.

My “knowing what to do about it” comes from experience: when things aren’t going well, maintain one’s practice. Except these days, now that my focus is on writing, I’ve expanded the idea of practice to reading too. Which, when I think about it, isn’t a radical change since I spent so much time as a photographer looking at other people’s work.

But, as I lay in bed on Wednesday afternoon, reassembling the fragments of my dream, I realized that though I was depressed, I wasn’t depressed about writing. On Monday morning, before going to the dentist, I’d read about the attack on the Chinook helicopter that killed 16 US soldiers in Iraq on Sunday. When I returned home, I’d read David Rieff’s long New York Times Magazine article, Blueprint for a Mess.

Cover of Piers Brendon's The Dark ValleyOn Monday night I’d started to watch Takahata Isao’s Grave of the Fireflies, an animated film about an adolescent boy’s ultimately unsuccessful attempts to care for his younger sister in the aftermath of the Tokyo firebombing. And, for the past few weeks, I’ve been reading Piers Brendon’s account of the inexorable march from the disaster of the Depression to the catastrophe of World War II. It’s impossible—if you have a modicum of intelligence and an even semi-open mind—not to draw parallels between what happened in the 1930s and how events are playing out in Iraq, where American policy has been formed by people who combine a doctrinaire view of history with a startling lack of empathy for non-Americans. You know we’re all in deep trouble when even a hardliner like Richard Pipes, the historian-turned-NSA-analyst who shaped the Reagan administration’s aggressive stance towards Soviet Russia, describes the architect of Bush’s Iraq policy in these terms:

“Paul [Wolfowitz] didn’t have much education in history,” Pipes says. “It’s not his field. He was educated as a military specialist, a nuclear weapons specialist. Like most scientists, he doesn’t have a particular understanding of other cultures.”

Just like an astrological confluence of planets, the books I was reading, the movie I was watching, and the tragedy unfolding in Iraq had combined to send my spirits into a tailspin. Ultimately, though, it’s little more than self-indulgence to allow one’s moods to be dominated by events which lie largely outside your control. At the same time, it takes one kind of skill to realize why you’ve wandered into the slough of despond and an entirely different set of skills to drag yourself out of it. Sometimes you need help. Or luck. Or both.

Late in the afternoon the phone rang. It was my friend Nana, asking if I’d like to get together for dinner.

“I’m sorry,” I told her. “I’m not eating out until I’ve bought all the Ozu DVD Box Sets.”

“It can be my treat,” she replied. “You sound like you need cheering up. But I’ve been teaching yoga so I’m only half-decent.”

Half an hour later I heard the front gate open and there was Nana, looking cool and elegant—and at least three-quarters-decent—in her yoga outfit.

My cat, Reimi“Let me quickly say hello to Reimi-chan.”

Reimi had walked down the hallway then stopped, stretched out her front paws, and arched her back. With typically supple grace, Nana eased onto the carpet and mimicked Reimi, who responded by licking Nana’s face and pressing against her chest.

“You can rub my boobs,” Nana told her, “because you’re a girl.”

Then we were sitting in an Italian restaurant not far from my house, deciding what to eat. We chatted about Nana’s work and her (extremely complex) love life, about Japanese painting and Ozu’s movies (both too sad, said Nana, who prefers happy things), about mutual friends. She taught me how to send SMS text messages with my new mobile phone. We didn’t discuss the war in Iraq. Three hours slipped by in an instant before I walked Nana back to her car.

The next morning, when I woke up, it occurred to me that lately I’ve been starved of female energy, that it’s not healthy for a man to forgo the company of women. But, reflecting on Teresa’s comment, I realized that it wasn’t so straightforward, that spending three hours with Nana’s introverted doppelganger wouldn’t have done me nearly as much good. I realize now how mistaken I was to respond like this to Liz Lawley’s extroversion post:

I realized that I’ve often wondered about what it might be like for an introvert to be married to (or in a relationship with) an off-the-scale extrovert. No offence to Liz, or any other extrovert, but I think I’d rather spend eternity having my fingernails pulled out. At the very least, it seems to be a recipe for unendurable torment on both sides.

My apologies to Liz. For I’ve come to the belated understanding that introverts need extroverts (albeit in carefully calibrated quantities). And who knows, maybe the inverse might also be true.

Which brings us back to Teresa’s quandary:

I really could use some direction. My guy is introvert from the word go and I am an extrovert. Seriously! We have a wonderful relationship. He is a wonderful person but, I have trouble dealing with him not being social when I am. Everything I have read leads me to believe this is normal and I being an extrovert will feel rejected. I don’t want to feel this way. I could use some advice on how to deal with his alone time without feeling rejected or ignored. I want to understand who he is.

We’ll first need to ignore the irony of Teresa’s asking advice from someone who, had he not squandered more chances than he deserved, might well be sharing a life (instead of an occasional dinner) with a woman as warm, smart, generous, beautiful, and sexy as Nana. (I’m reminded of computer pioneer Alan Kay’s quip about consultants, which brought down the house at his Macworld keynote in 1988. “Isn’t a consultant,” asked Kay, “someone who can tell you a hundred different ways to fuck but doesn’t have a girlfriend?”)

Although Language Hat was right in saying “You just have to accept him the way he is”, I’m convinced that it cuts both ways, that he has to accept you the way you are, as well. If I were in your situation, here’s what I’d do:

  • Every day make the effort to show him (not tell him) how lucky he is to be with you.
  • Accept that, as Language Hat says, when he appears to be distant, he’s still connected to you.
  • Buy a book about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and read it, then ask your boyfriend to read it too (Keirsey and Bates’ Please Understand Me or Kroeger and Thuesen’s Type Talk are both good). A long time ago, while researching the MBTI for a magazine article, I attended a Myers-Briggs couples workshop during which, over and over again, individuals experienced the most profound relief at gaining some insight into their partner’s behavior.
  • Ignore those who knock the Myers-Briggs model, at least until you no longer feel rejected or ignored and he no longer feels harrassed about being unsociable.
  • Find out the maximum number of people he’s comfortable spending a few hours with and organize some social activities within that constraint.
  • Let go of the idea that you have to do everything together. Spend time with your extroverted friends while he’s happily reading and thinking, alone.
  • Ask your question again, but this time ask an expert, by adding it to Liz Lawley’s post, an extrovert speaks (quelle surprise!). Liz is a classic extrovert, happily married (for ten years!) to a classic introvert. Listen to the voice of experience.

As for me, now that I’ve finished The Dark Valley, I’m about to start—at Dave Rogers’ suggestion—Philosophers of Nothingness. Some people never learn, you may be thinking. But that’s not true. I’ve relaxed my policy about not eating out, even if it means waiting a few more months to buy all the Ozu DVDs. So if I find myself falling into a blue funk, or suffering an attack of what Holly Golightly called the “mean reds”, I can SMS a friend and say:


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Well said, and I hope Teresa gets back to us with further developments. Just to set the record straight, I too can deal with more than two other people; in fact, if the setting is right, I can handle a crowd -- at the huge prewar uptown apartment I used to share with a couple of friends, we gave parties attended by dozens of people (though they came and went so that there were probably not more than 30 at a time)... but these were mostly people I knew and was comfortable with, I chose the music that got played (always an important factor), there was quiet talk in the living room and noshing in the kitchen along with the hectic activity on the dance floor (not to mention the necking and toking in the back rooms), and I was surrounded by all my beloved books (which frequently became topics of discussion). Of course, that was almost 20 years ago; I probably wouldn't want to deal with more than 8-10 people at a time now, no matter how well I knew them. And I prefer the company of my wife at all times.

Posted by language hat on 8 November 2003 (Comment Permalink)

According to Plato, Thales once spent some time at the bottom of a well. Apparently, he got there because he wasn't paying attention.

In any case, we all find ourselves at the bottoms of wells from time to time; and when we do, we might recall what Thales said: "Know thyself."

I think your post illustrates that very well indeed.

Well, well, well, that's probably enough about that, eh?


Posted by Dave Rogers on 8 November 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Re: reaching understanding while at the bottom of a well.

Interestingly enough, Yoshitoshi Abe's recent (animated) series "Haibane Renmei" features precisely such an event. I never thought I would see a Japanese TV series that met (or exceeded) the quality level of the best of the Studio Ghibli films (Miyazaki and Takahata et al) -- but this one does. It is the most "theologically" sophisticated "film" I've ever seen -- and it has absolutely gorgeous music.

I will pass on _your_ insights as to Plato and Thales and wells to the Haibane Renmei news group.


Posted by Michael Kerpan on 8 November 2003 (Comment Permalink)

There's an amazing scene in Anton Shammas's Arabesques (pp. 49 ff. in my paperback) in which the narrator recalls descending into a cistern at the age of ten: "I breathe in the chill of the mildew and the ancient odor of the stones and the dark scent of the silt rising from the bottom of the cistern, suffusing the space around me with the feeling of porous ground waiting to touch the soles of my feet as I am dropped farther and farther down. The scraping sounds ebb away and I seem to be getting closer to its echo, which rises from beneath me and wraps me in a sort of dim solace. I open my eyes and look up at the square of light receding above me, to which I am still tied by this rope, and then look down at the bottom coming closer to me... My eyes have become accustomed to the dimness, and I see my own reflection in reverse rising toward me from within the dark mirror of the pool..."

I'm not sure he reaches understanding at the bottom, but it couldn't be called anticlimactic.

Posted by language hat on 9 November 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Sometimes I am an extrovert and sometimes an introvert. It depends on the context.

My wife is sure I'm an extrovert because, next to her, I am. She sees how easy it is for me to speak in front of large groups of people. And she was shocked when I told her that I am often an introvert. Take this example: (when I went to my first SXSW Interactive Festival). I "knew" people there but had never met any of them f2f. It was quite an ordeal. Sometimes I felt outgoing and sometimes I basked in my anonymity, depending on whom I was interacting with.

I do think out loud. So, according to the definition in your posts I must be an extrovert. This has gotten me into trouble under certain circumstances. As the head of a new media department at work people come to me with their projects. I used to listen and then think aloud about the "problems" in bringing them to actualization. Silly me. I thought of "problem solving" as something creative (that's the artist in me). The word, however, scared others as they relied on me to be the "net guru" with all the keys to that treasure.

I no longer use the word "problem" in my language at work. Instead, I use the word "challenge" as in "hmmm, that's an interesting challenge." It seems to have a more positive effect with my coworkers.

On the other hand, since having children, I find I am less tolerant of unbridled chaos (is there any other kind? –g) and often aspire to total solitude. So context is everything in this intro/extro dichotomy.

Posted by Jeff on 9 November 2003 (Comment Permalink)

When our high school took the Briggs-Meyer text, everyone in the English department was an "Introvert," yet all of us made our living teaching 150 "strangers" a day.

Given the time to needed to read and reflect on their own, I would suspect that most introverts can manage to be social when called upon.

In fact now that I've moved to a new town where I know only family, I find myself seeking social occasions to meet new people. Go figure.

Posted by Loren on 10 November 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Jeff, I tend to think that the best test of extroversion/introversion is whether one is energized or exhausted by being in a large (for me "large" equals greater than four) group of people. Like Loren, I can be social with a large group as long as I'm given time to recover from the ordeal.

Posted by Jonathon on 10 November 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I agree to a certain extent, Jonathan. My wife could never understand why I was so exhausted after coming home from a day's worth of teaching. More important for me is how interesting are the people in a large group you're taking with.

I get energized by other's ideas. This is when I start to think aloud.

When I go to a conference where the I am not part of the participating group (as I did last week when I attended a conference on digital copyright), IF I can get into the subject matter I will often try to make a [hopefully] intelligent comment or ask a question during the Q & A. This is a way I try to be involved in the group dynamics.

It's often a scary prospect for me. I don't want to make a fool out of myself and I often don't know the political/social group dynamics that has long ago been established in the field.

Does attempting this foray make me an extrovert? Or am I successfully overcoming my tendency towards introvertism?

Posted by Jeff on 11 November 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Extroverts are like engines with an alternator; they charge their batteries as they go. No action and the battery goes flat.
Introverts don't have an alternator; they can briefly fizz like an extravert until their battery goes flat. The need for seclusion and time out is to allow the battery to recharge.
As a Myers Brigg confirmed introvert this description enables me to monitor my battery and live accordingly (a room of one's own the most important possession in my life).
Thus an introvert can be the early bright light at a gathering and the extrovert may sit quietly idling warming the engine in the shadows, that is until 10.30 pm at which point the introvert begins to head for the door and the extravert begins to get into top gear and powers on until everyone is left behind ...

Posted by Colin on 20 November 2003 (Comment Permalink)

[Removed (off-topic)]

Posted by reko on 28 November 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour