Part of becoming a minister is participating in a multi-day psychological evaluation. You talk about your hopes, your dreams, your childhood, your interests . . . and you take a battery of tests.
Truly, you take a huge number of tests, generally beforehand, some proctored. And one of those is the MMPI, which you then discuss with a licensed psychologist, generally the person who has interpreted your scores.
Taking that test is itself an interesting experience- it has an incredible number of questions, all forced choice, asking you to respond to statements like “I like to start fires” (no) “Door hinges fascinate me” (what ?) and “I sometimes imagine punching people in the face” (let’s be honest, yes . . . that said, have never actually done so).
My results were pretty unremarkable; clinically speaking, I am just not that interesting. Some suspicion of vested authority typical of Unitarian Universalist applicants; a bit of “maybe you’re TRYING to look good” typical of the helping professions.
“Really nothing to see here,” observed the psychologist. “Any questions?”
Yes, actually, I did have one: What is this elevation under “mania?” What does that even mean?
“Ah,” said the psychologist, in a manner very much befitting a psychologist.
“That is one piece we look at to assess whether someone might exhibit the kind of cycling we refer to as bipolar disorder. As you can see, you do not have a corresponding elevation in the depression area.”
O . . .k?
“So, when we see this, and it doesn’t look like a tendency toward bipolar, the next thing that we look at is your personality profile: where is this person on the extroversion scale?
You test as a pretty strong extrovert, and it sounds like that fits with your own understanding?”
“Well, we tend to talk about extroversion as if it is primarily about orientation toward other people, but it might be more helpful to think of it as an orientation to the world. Extroversion is a sensory-seeking orientation. It’s the way your brain responds to stimulus, and how it tends to seek it. Extroverts seek stimulation externally, and that can show up on some tests as manic behavior. That’s why we compare.”
Huh. So, then, what’s ‘manic behavior?‘
“Probably the things you think of as the spice of life. Do you get involved in lots of activities, or just a few? Does your calendar always have blank space in it, or do you tend to keep yourself busy? Do you concentrate your conversations in one or a few partners, or mainly inside your own head, or are you in constant dialogue with numerous people and on a variety of topics?”
“Right. All of that is sensory-seeking behavior. It’s your way of experiencing the world. And when it’s not a clinical indicator that something is amiss, it seems to correspond with where people fall on the extroversion scale.”
This was fascinating, but I didn’t give much further thought to it, either then or in the years since. I haven’t had a reason to. I was busy, you know, with the aforementioned variety of activities, multitude of conversation partners, travel to all manner of different places—a veritable banquet of busyness, by which I mean outside stimulation.
Until . . . now.
And it’s been frustrating not only to be cut off from those pieces of life that feed me and that FEEL me—the pieces that give me access to the somatic data that keep me in touch with my own feelings, often not at first but refracted and returned to me through the experience of passing through the world first, like satellite signals—but to live amid so little understanding of how connected this is with my sense of what it is to LIVE.
I feel for extroverts right now, not just because this experience itself has been difficult, but because people around us do NOT understand that it’s not just being in the company of people that we miss. It’s being part of the hum and bustle of the larger world.
It’s novelty and new horizons and new inputs of ideas, thoughts that we synthesize in our own minds after experiencing pieces of them outside of ourselves.
And speaking of synthesis, it’s not that we’re never quiet. In what I have come to think of as “regular life”—B.C.V.—on my best days, I spent literally hours by myself, alone with my thoughts and my writing, processing ideas and reflections. It’s not all input. It’s just that for extrovert creatives, external input is a key piece of the loop that looks like input—synthesis—output.
Don’t get me wrong; I not only care deeply for introverts (I am married to an introvert, at least one of my two children is a strong introvert, and my mother, my only sibling, all but one of my mentors in ministry and most of my cadre of close friends land on the introvert side of the scale as well), but I may just understand more deeply how much the B.C.V. modern world was not set up to accommodate them.
In short, introverts, I heard you before. And I get it more now, and I am hopeful that this experience can help us all to find more flexibility in leaning toward what feeds us.
And. We are not back to that world yet, are contemplating, in fact, the possibility of another year of this in one form or another.
And some of your friends, some of your kids, some of the people you love do not have coronavirus and nevertheless feel like it’s somewhat hard to breathe in the small spaces that our lives have been reduced to.
I want you to have some empathy for that. And if these are people who are, say, too young to be able to define most pieces of their lives or even to fully articulate what they need to feel alive in the world, I want you to help them in the best ways that you can. Though they may be driving your quiet self nuts (and the truth is, getting real about what’s happening for them just might help).
I don’t have any magic solutions, at least not yet. But simply attending more to the yearnings of my body and spirit, and to the orientation of my personality, has been helpful. And so have a couple of small strategies, which I offer, and look forward to receiving yours in return.
First, I am leaning into depth connection in my relationships. I think we assume that this is the exclusive domain of introverts, but it isn’t—I have the same deep conversations you do, just probably with a few more people. There are some pieces that can help with this, one of which I have shared before and which is just about building sustaining friendships in general (basically, be reasonably reliable, show up as your real self, be willing to risk some vulnerability, and don’t assume that for a friendship to be real, it has to hold all of you, nor that any one relationship is ever going to meet all of your needs). This helps because input is input–it doesn’t have to come from everywhere, as long as it’s meaningfully coming from somewhere. My friendships, and all that they bring with them, they help me to survive and to thrive, even now.
And second, I am being intentional about expanding my turf. I try to see something new with my eyes every single day. Sometimes this literally means a different horizon—I have been taking some very, very long walks (spouse: where are we going NOW? Can we go home?)—and other times it means, as trite as it sounds, committing to more deeply see the spaces closer to home. And sometimes, fellow externally-oriented sensors, it might mean getting in your damn car and actually driving somewhere.
This was news to me, a suggestion from a fellow extrovert as I lifted up some of the above and bemoaned the suffocation overlaid atop what for us has mostly been a remarkable domestic tranquility. “Drive somewhere,” she said. “Where!?!” I responded incredulously. “We can’t GO anywhere.” And then my friend, who lives on the outskirts of Boston, explained that she had gotten in her car, rolled down the windows, turned up the radio, and let the wind blow through her hair as she drove into the city, and around it, and then back home again.
“And you didn’t stop?,” I asked, still mystified. What, after all, was the point then? “No, and I honestly didn’t need to. It was enough, somehow, just to see things I hadn’t seen, and to look at people who don’t live in my house, and to feel alive in different space.”
This still seemed wack, but lacking a better suggestion, I tried it, and guess what? She’s right.
So, I drove. I drove to a trailhead; once I ran, and once I just admired the sunset and then turned myself lazily back toward home. I drove to a neighboring county and picked up the seedlings a colleague left for me on her porch. I drove to the Rhode Island state line and back, and I would have kept right on driving had I not feared arrest (Gov. Raimondo, you are a zealous woman).
I drove, and I saw, and I remembered what it’s like to feel more fully alive. I remembered that I am a person of the open road. I remembered that for me exhilaration feels a lot like hope.
And all of this is informing our family choices right now. I am high risk, and we are taking this situation very seriously. But I also believe in quality of life, and I weigh it heavily. Perhaps we will find creative and community building ways to respond if we can acknowledge that being safe is not the only thing that people live for.
After three months in seclusion, we are spending a week in Vermont soon, and hearing this, a friend asked me what I thought it would be like, and what I was looking forward to.
I thought for a moment. And I realized that the truth is that I have no idea what it will be like. I don’t know what to expect. That part feels like a blank, and maybe we’ll end up back at home after only a day or two; that definitely seems possible.
But I do know what I am looking forward to; it’s a thing I can feel, a prickle of excitement, a resonance that runs head to toe.
I am looking forward to taking the onramp that leads to the highway, wheels on pavement, familiarity behind me, the future, unknown, opening as a landscape before me.
I might get on the highway a few times in a row just to feel it.