How I Survived Our Social Isolation as an Extrovert
COVID-19, business shutdowns, and the death of a family member left me alone for a long, long time. Here’s what I learned.
I’m an extrovert, as anyone who knows me would tell you. Not a raging extrovert, like your cousin, the used car salesman, but an extrovert just the same.
This proclivity hasn’t always served me well. I remember as a four-year-old boy watching the largest man I had ever met in my young life working on the plumbing in our kitchen. Unable to contain myself, I blurted out, “How’d you get so ________ ?” (Insert a word referring to the greatness of one’s girth that rhymes with hat.)
Horrified, my mother immediately sent me to my room, dragging me out briefly from banishment to apologize for my offense. “That’s okay, son,” the kind gentleman said to me. “I know I’m a big guy.”
What’s commonly misunderstood about the terms extrovert and introvert, my childhood rudeness not withstanding, is that they don’t refer to being shy or outgoing. Rather, they refer to how a person gets their energy, which in turn, drives shy or outgoing behavior.
I get my energy from being in front of groups, the larger the better, and being with people, the more the merrier. My wife is an introvert, and while she, like me, spends time professionally teaching and coaching others, it doesn’t give her energy as it does me.
I love the limelight. The limelight exhausts her. So after a full week of work, my beautiful bride wants to sit quietly on the couch and vegetate. I want to go out to eat with friends. We get our energy from two totally different sources, one from outside ourselves and the other from inside ourselves, and we act in totally different ways as a result.
A Conspiracy of Circumstances
Three extraordinary events conspired against my extroverted existence the last few months.
First, there was the outbreak of COVID-19 and the lockdown that came in response to slow the spread and flatten the curve. Even as those restrictions are being relaxed, I still can’t get used to not reaching out and giving people a warm handshake or a big hug when I meet them.
Then came the business shutdowns that happened in the wake of the virus lockdown. I make my living as an independent consultant speaking, coaching, and training leaders at live events (What could go wrong with that business model?), but as the marketplace came to a screeching halt, live events were postponed indefinitely and speaking engagements summarily cancelled. More social isolation.
The final straw came when my wife’s mother passed away. She had been battling pancreatic cancer for over a year, and just as the lockdown arrived, so did hospice. My wife was there to help—as was only right—but didn’t return home for almost two months, protecting both my wife’s mother from the coronavirus in her final weeks of life and her husband of sixty-two years.
I don’t recall a time in my life where I had been left alone for such a long period. Here’s what I learned as a result:
1. Solitude has its joys.
My extroverted soul has known solitude only in rare doses, nothing like the past few months. It was a bitter pill to swallow, until I discovered the pill wasn’t really that bitter after all.
I found myself thinking more calmly and reflectively, not reacting to assumed emergencies. I read deeply, not jumping up every few minutes to answer a text, check email, or engage in a conversation of some kind. I listened to music attentively, not as background noise, rediscovering some of my favorite artists in the process.
I found a book in my personal library by Anthony Storr called Solitude: A Return to the Self (What in the world was that book doing in my library?), and in it, I learned the ability to be alone is evidence of emotional maturity, a highly prized quality in past generations and a much needed one today.
“The capacity to be alone thus becomes linked with self discovery and self realization; with becoming aware of one’s deepest needs, feelings, and impulses,” Storr explains. “Learning, thinking, innovation, and maintaining contact with one’s inner world are all facilitated by solitude.”
2. Structure is your friend.
Structure doesn’t get the love it deserves. We’re Americans and worship freedom. Structure is the bonds of imperialism we broke many centuries ago. Why would we want it in our everyday lives? I understand those feelings, but they’re wrong-headed.
Structure is the rails on which a high speed train travels to safely arrive at its destination. Structure is the trellises grapevines climb to produce fruit that’s plump and juicy. Structure is the chord charts for a jazz band that allow the group’s artists to create beautiful music. Pick your metaphor, structure is everywhere in our world.
So, too, structure saved me in social isolation. Instead of waking up in the morning and staring at a blank page, I had things to do in my day—predetermined things to do in the morning, the afternoon, and the evening. And here’s the really important part: That structure gave me freedom. Structure was my friend, not a straitjacket.
There were times in my day when I wrote, times when I read, times I answered email, times I sent out email, times I talked on Zoom, times I exercised, times I watched the news, times I prepared meals, and times I did chores, all melding together into days that were packed with meaning and satisfaction. I even created a daily planning worksheet based on these rhythms entitled “No Bad Days” and shared it with my clients, who enthusiastically shared it with their employees.
Sure, structure can be overdone, scheduling hours down to the minute. That is a straitjacket! The answer to over-scheduling, however, isn’t abandoning scheduling altogether but using it as banks in the river to direct the flow of your day.
3. Hobbies aren’t optional anymore.
I’ve never been a hobby guy. I have friends who golf and game, hunt and fish, none of which appeal to me. Work, home, and church have consumed my life, and I’ve been just fine with that. But work was on hold, my home was empty, and church was closed.
What’s a guy to do? Enter Home Depot—for some strange reason considered an essential business—and Steve Ramsey, host of The Weekend Woodworker.
For the first time in my life, I had something to do in the evening and on the weekend that didn’t involve preparing for a meeting, going to a meeting, or returning from a meeting, shoehorned between the responsibilities of being a husband, father, and homeowner. And the difference that’s made in my mental and emotional health is incredible.
Alex Pang refers to this phenomenon as “deep play” in his thought-provoking book titled simply, Rest. Deep play, a term first coined by anthropologist Clifford Geertz (If your last name is Geertz, you’re destined to be an anthropologist. Aren’t you?), is mentally absorbing, provides a new context in which to use our skills, and offers some of the same satisfaction as work but with more finite horizons and concrete rewards.
“This combination of absorption, use of skills in new contexts, and similar satisfactions through different means,“ Pang explains, “makes deep play a powerful break from work, a respite from professional frustrations, and a source of recovery. Deep play becomes worthwhile because its rewards are so substantial.”
It’s impossible for me to think about anything other than the piece of wood before me as I’m operating a buzzing power saw, and it’s easy to get lost in time as I’m assembling one of Steve’s Weekend Woodworker projects.
4. God is real.
As a person of faith, some of the traditions of the saints terrify me. Who in their right mind goes out into a wilderness to fast and pray for forty days? Are you kidding me?
But here I was experiencing similar isolation, just with a better menu. And here I discovered a strengthening of my faith and a deepening of my relationship with God. My Bible reading took on new life, my journaling blossomed, and my prayers expanded beyond the few minutes I would normally spend on them. God became more real to me than ever before.
Recently, I had an interesting conversation with our youngest daughter. She’s cut from the same quiet cloth as her mother, and this time of social isolation has been tough on her, too. I shared my personal discoveries, and she gave them an introvert’s stamp of approval.
So I offer them to you—lessons learned the hard way. Lessons learned in time alone.
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