Learning to be Spicy

I’ve always had a hard time speaking up. Maybe it was a conservative upbringing coupled with my naturally quiet nature. I prefer to go with the flow, stay quiet even if I’m suffering, let others have their way so I don’t have to make a scene.

People have told me I’m sweet and flexible, and I like to think I am (thanks guys). But more often than not, my reasons are less than noble. I’m not always sweet and flexible because I want to be; it’s often due to the fear of conflict that I keep my mouth shut.

My senior year of college, I was in a play, and our tradition in student theater was that each senior would get a notebook in which everyone would write a parting note or thought. The note from our director stuck out to me:

“I know there is a little spice in there with all the sweet,” she wrote. “Stay spicy.”

Those words have remained in my mind ever since, and I’ve tried to figure out what they mean to me. It’s hard, as a shy person, to feel okay with being spicy. It’s hard to be okay with the idea that people may not like your flavor.

I think the internet has magnified my fears in this area. The internet, of course, is a place where everyone speaks their mind, whether it’s well-thought or not, and on the internet people form mobs and crucify each other while, in the real world, eating breakfast or pooping. On the internet, if you give a moderately controversial opinion, or even worse, your raw and unfiltered opinion, you get a bunch of comments from people who are supposed to be your family and friends, who all say things to you with varying degrees of anger or encouragement. These people say things, to you and to each other, that people would rarely say out loud, making vast assumptions about your motivations, your level of education, and your overall character.

Interestingly, I’ve found that this feature of the internet bleeds into my physical conversations, in that I’m so used to seeing bombastic opinions, terrible rhetoric, and knee-jerk reactions that I assume a real-life conversation will contain those too. I might venture that, “Fall is my favorite season,” and I expect a “OH MY GOSH YOU STUPID PREPPY WHITE GIRL WITH YOUR BOOTS AND PUMPKIN SPICE LATTES WHEN WILL IT ALL END?” in return.

Of course, no one in real life says that. (If you do, shame on you. I wish an afterlife of Pumpkin Spice Latte Hell upon you. May you burn in 160 degrees Fahrenheit milk foam.) But the internet, which has succeeded in making so many people stupidly loud, has bullied me into staying quiet.

Of course, being too timid and people-pleasy has been a fault of mine for a while. As a shy and quiet teenager, I got used to coming up with excuses for what I didn’t want to do, because I was terrified of saying, “No.” I’m so busy with schoolwork. I have to watch my little brother. I wish I could, but I… can’t. Or, I went for a compromise: I can’t help with the whole thing, but I’ll help with some of it. When I didn’t want to do any of it.

A few weeks ago, I had an epiphany. Someone asked me if I would be willing to do a certain thing, and while, ironically, I actually did, I was so used to feeling pressured by my internal fears that I was trying to come up with an excuse for why I couldn’t do the thing. And in that moment, I realized how ridiculous and self-sabotaging this was. My fear of speaking up had slowly eroded my sense of what I liked and didn’t like, what I wanted to do and didn’t want to do. I honestly didn’t know, because I didn’t feel like I had the freedom to choose.

I can say anything I want, I thought to myself. I’m an adult. I can say anything I damn well please. I don’t have to come up with an excuse. I can say yes, or I can say no. I can make a decision for myself, and whatever I say won’t be met with an OH MY GOSH YOU STUPID GIRL SHOW SOME RESPECT, because real people don’t say that. Or if they do, well, they have their own problems and I can just turn around and go home.

So in little ways, I’ve tried being more honest with myself. I take the chance and say the thing I think, instead of pretending I agree when I don’t. I take the chance and say what I’d really like to do, instead of pretending that everyone else’s plans sound good to me when they don’t. These decisions aren’t ones I make lightly, and they often cause me a lot of pain.

But I realize it’s an important thing to do, because this is what builds character and integrity: living according to your convictions, even when you want to take the path of least resistance, to keep quiet, to not cause a scene. I’m learning that the voice inside my head which tells me people will be angry, or react like they do on the internet, isn’t telling the whole truth. Because I can be a kind person, and still have convictions. I can disagree with others, and still have friends at the end of the day.

I can be sweet, and still a little spicy.

Rest in Solitude, Heal in Community

This summer has been a season of transition. Amidst moving, new living situations, new jobs, and new prospects for the future, I’ve found myself overwhelmed and suddenly unsure of everything. It’s interesting how when you’re in a life stage that has a deadline (i.e. school), you look forward to the time of endless possibilities, and then when the gate opens and you have the freedom to do anything, all those endless possibilities suddenly seem like too much.

I’ve noticed that I freeze up whenever I have too many choices. Just ask my husband how long it takes me to pick out cold medicine at Walmart. I’ll stand in the aisle, staring blankly at the shelves while my nose runs and my eyes water and I whine that my head and body and everything hurts. You know how they make fun of men for being bad at being sick? They never met me.

“Just get the DayQuil,” Alex says.

“But there might be another brand with more caplets in it for less money!” I cry. “I have to look at them all. Or I could get liquid medicine. But there are so many brands of that! Oh, I hate being sick! Oh, to be well again!” and I wring my hands.

Thirty minutes later, we walk out of there with a box of DayQuil.

(I’ve since learned that a store with less options, like Aldi, is a better bet for me.)

As with DayQuil, so with life. The choices and decisions pile up until I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what I want, and I don’t know what I even value.

My approach to overwhelmth is often to retreat, monklike, into my own space and where I feel comfortable and in control. Since I’ve started doing research on human behavior and psychology and have discovered the ins and outs of introversion, of which I am a subscriber, it’s become a little easier to excuse my monkish state and to be okay with excessive solitude. I’m recharging, I tell myself. I’m self-caring. I’m figuring things out in the quiet.

And many times, I am. I’m still a firm believer that we find rest in solitude. And that goes for all of us, not just those introvertedly-inclined. We all need a moment to be with ourselves, to tune into our inner minds and hearts. I discover a lot in prayer, in reading, in yoga, in writing. These are all things that pack the most punch when I do them alone.

But solitude is only one side of the equation. Self-care only goes so far, and self-care doesn’t always look like sitting alone on your bed with a candle (don’t do that; it’s a fire hazard). Human beings are made for community, too. We may find rest in solitude, but we find healing in community. It’s in community where I gain perspective, where I realize that the things which freak me out most in life are not things I carry alone.

In The Quotidian Mysteries, a collection of essays which is just an excellent book that everyone should read, writer and poet Kathleen Norris talks about how the everyday routines we take for granted serve to ground us in reality. And part of this is spending time with others:

[We] need the daily love of other people to reassure us that our lives have value.

In community I find solidarity, and I learn to pay attention to other people’s needs and fears too. In community I can be honest about my failings and find some catharsis. And often, community even connects me with people who have answers to the very questions that are overwhelming me, from the family friend who knows of a job I’d be good at, to the new friend who’s doing good things in my hometown, to the best friend who understands how I feel and prays for me.

Engaging with community can be as simple as putting aside my work to chat with my husband, taking a day trip with my family, or socializing after church. Or it can be as complicated and challenging as introducing myself to someone I haven’t met or going to an event I’m nervous about.

Solitude is only good when it doesn’t become loneliness. When I’m lonely, I forget who I truly am and I forget that my life has value. I need my friends, my family, my community, to connect me with the world again. And the beauty of it is that they need me too.

Giving love away doesn’t deplete or decrease; it only multiplies. And taking part in community only multiplies and strengthens the ties we have to each other and to our inner selves.

When I do that, the wall of overwhelming life doesn’t see so scary anymore.

Magic in the Quiet

It’s less than a week til Christmas. Like any adult, I feel it’s come too soon, and yet somehow I feel it hasn’t really come at all.

Life is incredibly crazy this time of year, especially in America, and especially in the household of a grad student married to a college student. It’s all rushing and stress and deadlines, followed by lights and glitz and shopping and spending and music and advertisements and decorations. Everywhere, even when you open up a social media site to wish someone a happy holiday season, you are met with a damn advertisement. I don’t want to find ads for things (I really do want to buy) when I’m scrolling Pinterest for something to make for dinner, okay? In my day, we met materialism in the newspaper, where it belongs. Thank you very much.

This year, I’m more belligerent about all the hype. I love me some lights and good food and presents, but to me they miss the mark. People have been celebrating Christmas, specifically, for thousands of years. That’s incredibly powerful. It’s magical. Each ancient tradition carries meaning, and if you are a Christian yourself, it’s even more poignant. But all this commercialism is a slap in the face of thousands of years of precious tradition. The trimmings of our Christmas celebrations should be the just that, the trimmings, an outward enjoyment of the holiday, not the functions of the holiday itself.

I know I’m not saying anything new. I know my fellow believers have been crying to Keep Christ in CHRISTmas for decades now. But to be honest, we haven’t exactly preserved our traditions very well either. Campaigning to say “Merry CHRISTmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” also misses the mark. It does nothing to change the deeply-rooted consumerism in our culture, because this deeply-rooted consumerism is in the human heart itself, and we know this because Christians are just as guilty of overspending, overcrowding, and overrushing as people to whom the holiday means far less.

Our efforts to keep Christ in Christmas have become outward focused, trying to convince nonbelievers of something; when we should be of inward focused, celebrating the holiday because of what it means to our faith… which is, in fact, its true meaning. I think if we see it more this way, connecting, rebraiding, reknitting ourselves with each other, God, and the people who’ve come before us, we will be much less frazzled, much more filled, and more like Christ ourselves.

So, good introvert that I am, I find intense meaning in being inward focused. Christmas is not in the blazing lights and blaring music and nostalgia for a Bing Crosby-esque snowfall. Christmas is in the flame of a candle, the hush of snow, the printed words of a true legend we can’t get out of our heads.

And this isn’t to say we should burn our Christmas trees and eschew all gift giving. I mean, if that would help you, go for it (unless you are someone who was going to give me a present. DO NOT go for it). But these stoic approaches also miss the point. Christmas should be a time of feasting and giving and joy, because of the ancient traditions. You can’t have one without the other. Mainstream society gets it wrong when it triumphs celebration over spiritual tradition, and we get it just as wrong when we do it the other way around. There is an order, but both are important.

I know I am biased. I’m an introvert; I’m a grandma. But I keep coming back to the fact that the first Christmas was very quiet. Yet it was powerful enough, magical enough, to stick with us. So perhaps I’m not a complete fuddy-duddy. Perhaps we really should stop looking for magic in all the noise. Perhaps the magic is in the quiet.

Know Thyself

In the past few months, my best friend and I have become inadvertent personality scholars.

I don’t quite remember how it started. We bought the same book, Better than Before, about temperament and habit formation. Then we hit a streak where, ironically, we got competitive about reading Quiet, the book on introverts (which we both are). Then during the semester, she read a Myers-Briggs textbook, and we figured out each of our personalities and those of our respective husbands, and read each feature of each personality to oblivion.

(In case you were wondering, I’m a shy introvert, an obliger with a rebel streak, an INFP with a turbulent nature, and a highly-sensitive person. On the Pinterest chart of introverted types as pets, I’m a cute cuddly mouse. According to Buzzfeed, which is even more scientific than Pinterest, I’m a meerkat.)

At some point Jenny asked me whether I thought our newfound knowledge of personality types made us almost too knowledgeable. “Do you think it might make us not rely on God enough?” she wondered. In our shared spiritual tradition, there’s a principle of recognizing, with humility, that we as human beings don’t know everything. And we certainly didn’t want to know so much we became smug, unable to relate to people without first asking the four letters of their Myers-Briggs personality type.

“I find it’s making me rely on him more,” I answered. For one thing, I need guidance outside of myself for putting my newfound knowledge to good use. Also, knowing a lot makes me that smug asshole. So I need help with that too.

But in all seriousness, figuring out how to use one’s knowledge of oneself is incredibly important. Learning so much about myself has taught me that I’m not always as impervious to cultural peer pressure as I think I am. Sometimes I adopt the values of my environment because everyone else thinks those values are common sense, when in reality they often squelch the very strengths I have. And then instead of being thoughtful about my nature, I’ve often been the hardest squelcher of them all, thinking I must fix myself in some way.

I’ve worked fast-paced jobs, but I’m a more quiet, deliberate person. I’ve worked in environments that encourage making sales, but I value authenticity and good causes. I’ve put myself in situations where I am expected to be chatty and engaging and to connect with a ton of people in any given day, but to me connection is something you can’t force. It must be deep and intentional and take a lot of time.

All of this pushing against my own nature has left me frustrated and even more disappointed with who I am. But when Jenny and I started studying personalities, (admittedly) becoming greater nerds on the subject, something clicked. It’s no longer a matter of changing myself to fit a mold, but rather of finding a mold that I can fit into already, a mold with a shape I fit and room I can grow in.

The catch, of course, is that we all have to spend our lives figuring out the tension between who we are and what life is, between who we should be and what life should be. We have to figure out when it’s okay to change and when it’s okay to stick to our nature, when it’s appropriate to build on our strengths, and when it’s better to strengthen our weaknesses. This goes along with that spiritual principle of realizing that no matter how much I know, I don’t know everything. I need guidance and strength outside myself to make big decisions and little decisions, moment by moment, that will polish me more and more into the person I truly am.

So that’s step two.

What am I Doing?

shy

When I was a teenager, I was awkward. Really awkward. Painfully awkward. I had a hard time talking to people and making friends. I was shy. I was insecure. Being home schooled was not helpful for me in this department. (My taste in clothes at the time probably wasn’t helpful either.)

But then I became a woman and put childish ways behind me. Well, sort of. I became a woman around the time a bunch of other awkward people were becoming adults too, and by the time I arrived on the scene with a driver’s license and voter’s registration, being awkward was incredibly cool. Introversion was in. What a time to be alive.

This is a huge oversimplification, I realize, but it makes me laugh. I spent all my teen years wondering what was the matter with me, trying to push and prune myself into assertiveness, and then I got to college and realized that it was okay to not do all that.

This was a blessed relief to me. I didn’t have to bring myself up to some standard of social interaction. I could choose what was most important to me and not feel guilty for cutting out what wasn’t. I could celebrate the personality God gave me without regret.

But my newfound pride in introversion came with a dark side: when you’re an introvert, you don’t tend to do things unless you have to. So if millennial internet culture says being anti-social, loving naps and coffee and Netflix, and getting anxiety every time you go out is okay, introverts have a hard time coming up with the oomph to disagree. We’re terrible at disagreeing with a majority, we introverts. We also have very low stores of natural oomph. Besides, the land of naps and coffee and Netflix is our native country.

Is this bad? Should we force ourselves to get off our pajama-clad butts and be more Type A go-getters? I wonder. While I’m naturally drawn to a quieter, slower-paced life, I also know myself enough to realize that if I don’t push myself, I’m going to miss out on accomplishments, relationships, and opportunities because I fall back on the introvert excuse.

I’m totally fine with missing out on some of those things; I have no desire to be some amazing networking socialite. But I know I’ll hate myself forever if I miss out on everything because I couldn’t learn to keep it together in the face of awkwardness.

Oddly enough, all the jobs I’ve had have been pretty extroverted. It’s not until recently that freelancing has given me some freedom to hide behind a computer. I’ve done food service, retail, and office work. One time I was telling my friend about my various experiences working in malls and she shook her head.

“How did you get into that business?” she asked.

“I honestly have no idea,” I said.

I forgot to tell her about the year I worked selling jewelry at house parties. I went to strangers’ houses and sold jewelry to them and their friends. Even looking back makes me cringe. What the hell was I doing? I loved that job in theory, but in practice I was a bundle of nerves. And I know I’ll never do anything like that again. But for a year I did it, and I survived. Because I pushed myself. (Also, money.)

So I think the problem is not with being an introvert, but in forgetting that while introversion has its strengths, it also comes with inherent weaknesses, just as any personality has. Introversion’s weaknesses are sneaky, though, because they wrap you in a blanket of comfort and say, “There there, just slow down. Sit this one out. You’re delicate. It’s okay.”

Yes, introverts often need more downtime than others. But giving self-care doesn’t mean we should self-coddle. The world misses out on all the thoughtfulness and sensitivity that introverts can offer because introverts are just too damn scared to speak up about it, so no one has any reason to listen.

Personally, I’m still trying to figure out the balance between self-care and self-coddling. It’ll probably take me a while to find that balance. And that’s okay. It starts with being aware of my strengths and weaknesses as an introvert. It starts with learning when to push myself and when to relax.

This week, I’m presenting some of my writing in public. I’m terrified. There are moments when I ask myself what the hell I’m doing. There are moments when I wonder what the cancellation policy is on public readings. But ultimately I know this is a time where pushing myself into assertiveness will positively impact my writing and well-being.

What the am I doing? I’m learning to do what I love and live with the pain of awkwardness.