How Can Introverts Help Heal the World?

Choosing opportunities to get involved can be challenging for introverts

Posted Jul 14, 2016

Wonder woman0731/Flickr
Source: Wonder woman0731/Flickr

We have had, to understate the case, a difficult week here in Dallas, Texas—the latest episode in a very stressful era that I’m choosing to think of, optimistically, as a growth spurt for America.

The mass shootings and my growing awareness of the inequities suffered by my African-American brothers and sisters has triggered a great deal of soul-searching in me about my place in my society, in my community, about whether I am part of the problem and how to be part of the solution. And looking at the work that activists and our good, honest law officers do, I feel ineffectual. Lazy. Irrelevant.

And then I look at public responses to our national tragedies—people lining up to hug a cop or giving "free hugs" on the street, people joining hands in prayer—and think, no, that’s not me. I barely hug friends, don’t hold strangers’ hands if I can help it, and my religion of choice is none. And memorials of flowers and teddy bears and notes—they’re nice, but ephemeral. They are emotional expression, not change. I understand them, I don’t feel them, deep down, if you know what I mean.

I blame, in part, my introverted nature for my feeling of disconnect from my community. I have an uncomfortable sense of being on the outside looking in at all these public displays of grief and solidarity.

I’m not a joiner, not a hugger, not a hand-holder. But that makes me no less civic minded; I believe strongly in our obligation to the greater good.

Living successfully in the world as an introvert requires balancing our need for solitude with our need for community—and our community's need for us. Just as it's important to make sure we don't neglect friends and loved ones, we also have an obligation to engage in the wider world.

Donating money to causes that move us is great and I do it often, but I feel compelled to do more than that. I think volunteering is the best way to do your part for the larger society. But for introverts, finding ways to give back and get involved that are compatible with our nature can be challenging.

For example, Meals on Wheels is a great organization and, in Dallas at least, always needs people to make deliveries. But I shrink from the idea of that much intimate interaction with people who are likely starved for company. That sounds cold, but it’s one of those hard truths I’ve had to face about myself.

I’ve also thought about volunteering in a soup kitchen, but I’m just not the kind of smiling, welcoming people person that job needs either. It sounds like a lot of chit-chat to me.

I used to volunteer with an organization that supports my city’s beleaguered Child Protective Services caseworkers. I was on the marketing committee, which publicizes the organization’s work and fundraisers. Working with a small group of people whom I got to know, and doing the job behind the scenes with little direct interaction with the wider world, was ideal for me. After about a decade, though, I ran out of ideas, burned out, and resigned.

Years passed (too many) before I found another good fit: mentoring kids in a public arts-focused high school. Working one-on-one with the same student over four years allows me get comfortable. I've been able to get to know my student in the careful way we introverts prefer. A bonus: I was able to help one student with a problem that was directly related to her introversion, when a teacher insisted she was sullen and not engaged in the class simply because she didn’t bubble with ebullient enthusiasm. 

Which is not to say there aren’t days when I have to drag myself to meet with my student; it is interaction, after all and I'm not always in the mood. But I’m always glad to have done it. The cliché about volunteering holds true in spades here: I can only hope I’ve done half as much for my students as they have for me.

These days, though, as things come crashing down around us, this doesn’t seem like enough, either. I’m wondering what to do next, where to go to connect with my community while staying cozy in my introverted bubble. Finding the right fit is hard, perhaps harder than it should be. I fear committing myself to something that will become onerous for me. I want to meet new people who share my values, but not too many and not all at once.

I do one-offs whenever I can—for example, joining a group from my yoga studio on a Habitat for Humanity build (fun!), and in a couple of weeks we’ll spend a day working at a local food bank. I feel good about that, but it's still barely a drop in the bucket.

I need more, but my introversion makes me drag my feet. Sitting on the couch in my peaceful living room is so much easier than committing to something that will take effort, and, if it’s something I feel strongly about, stir painful emotions. Doing nothing is comfortable, doing something is hard.

Except nowadays, doing nothing is hard too. The world needs me. It needs you. It needs all of us to care enough to do something—anything—to make it a better place.

So help me out, introverted friends: How do you contribute to your community? What volunteer opportunities have you found that both feed your soul and suit your nature? What do you do and why?

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