The power of one

When I arrived at my home tonight, I discovered that my heater isn’t working. It’s kind of cold outside right now. Well, cold enough for the local emergency homeless shelter to be open tonight so that those who are unhoused in our community can sleep indoors. Still, not as bad as last week when it snowed and created a cold slushy-wet mess under the bridges.

I contemplated going over to the emergency shelter to hang out with friends there. I spent several hours over there on Christmas night, and I had a great time. Icy bridges made it dangerous for me to drive to my aunt’s house (about 45 minutes away), so I had spent all of Christmas day at home alone. I honestly enjoyed the time at the shelter because it offered me a place to share in community.

Tonight I just wanted to be alone. I’ve been traveling for the past few days, and while I loved my visits with family and friends, I needed some quiet restorative time. That’s definitely part of my introvert nature (although in the past couple of years, I’ve experienced spells when I’m more of an extrovert).

There has been a lot of talk about the care and feeding of introverts lately. It’s been something of a hot topic as some of us introverts peak our heads out of our shells and talk about how we often feel out of place in a society that rewards extroversion. I can usually fake extroversion, even when I’m at my most introverted, thanks to my INFJ personality type (inasmuch as the Myers-Briggs system is ever accurate). In fact, I can fake it so well that it sometimes surprises people that I am an introvert because, as has been pointed out by several vocal introverts, shyness is different from introversion. We’re not nervous or afraid to speak in public–it just takes a lot of energy, no matter how much we enjoy and even thrive on social interactions.

Yet, for all this recent attention, I’ve felt that a certain aspect of introversion hasn’t really been discussed. Or, at least, I haven’t encountered it in the booksTED Talks, interviews, and articles. I suspect, though, that there are academic critiques that delve into what’s been lacking in the popular media.

Underlying the discussions about introverts is an implicit class privilege. Oh, I know, I have a tendency to bring up this notion of privilege a lot, but that’s because it’s so much a part of my world. I’m increasingly aware of the advantages that I have.

And yes, the ability for introverts to rejuvenate quietly is indeed a privilege. I’m able to sequester myself in the privacy of my home whenever I am feeling particularly exhausted or overstimulated. This holiday season has brought out my need for alone time, as I’ve been contemplating where I am and where I’m headed. I find that writing helps me to think through my ideas, but unlike extroverts who might prefer to write in coffee houses and communal office spaces, I usually accomplish more when I am by myself.

Not everyone has the luxury of retreating to a quiet space. I am able to afford to live alone, and the last time I shared a bedroom with anyone for an extended period of time was during the first semester of my freshman year of college. That lasted for less than two months before I was able to get a private room.

I’ve shared a room with others during travels abroad, but I think that my record was during the month that I spent in Ghana in 2001. I had the best possible roommate in Ghana–she was laid-back and usually didn’t get back to our little grass hut until long after I had gone to sleep. The same was true during the two weeks that I spent in the Czech Republic (minus the grass hut).

Chelle and me in front of our hut.

Chelle and me in front of our hut, August 2001.

It’s not that I intend to spend the rest of my life living on my own. I did share a space with my mother during the years that I cared for her…well, my mother and, with the exception of the nights that no one showed up, a string of nurses who sat with her so that I could sleep. I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t been able to close my bedroom door and hide away. If I ever get married or cohabitate, I’ll need a designated “Cynthia space.”

Poverty doesn’t afford this kind of space. When my parents separated, I lived with my mother and sister in a small apartment where my sister and I shared a room. The only reason we were able to move into a three-bedroom house was because my mother’s parents made the downpayment. But even the apartment offered more privacy than some of the places I’ve visited. After all, my mother had her own bedroom.

Her bedroom couldn’t have been much smaller than the one-room hut that I saw in Haiti where a single mother and her five children piled onto two small beds each night. And Mom’s room was certainly more private than the emergency shelter that I visited on Christmas, where the most personal space that anyone had was a few feet immediately surrounding each cot in the open room.

A tent city in Port-au-Prince

A tent city in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

In a way, there’s a certain irony in that, as I have written elsewhere, poverty is often incredibly isolating, while at the same time not usually allowing people to experience intentional aloneness. Community is incredibly important, even if it’s for the sake of surviving together under a bridge or in a tent city.

I think that the key word is “intentional” when considering the value of solitude. When I feel that I would benefit from alone time, it’s a choice for me to retreat. Having my own space affords me the privilege of deciding when I want to be by myself and when I want to spend time with others.

I don’t want to isolate myself from others–I love building community and connecting with the world around me, both in one-on-one interactions and in larger groups. I am better at this when I can occasionally recharge alone. The degree to which I need quiet time varies, but I get to make that decision myself. It’s a privilege that many people in this world don’t have. While I’m going to continue to relish my solitude, I try not to take it for granted but, rather, be mindful and intentional about it so that I can offer more to others. Yes, there is power in oneness.