Thursday, September 18, 2014

What Jesus Has to Teach Christian Introverts

Once we know for a fact that trying to “be more balanced” between introversion and extroversion is like trying to have one blue eye, introverts have good reasons to wonder whether we should try to “act friendly” toward extroverts at all. Frankly, I’m not convinced that it’s ever good for introverts to seem friendly toward extroverts. I don’t think we should reward undisciplined extroverted behavior. I think we should practice good will toward all living things. I think we should make it clear that there’s a difference between good will toward everyone and personal friendship, and I doubt that very many extroverts are ever going to be capable of personal friendship—with us or, in most cases, with anybody. (What they call friendship is acquaintanceship based in some combination of good will and panic.) But we can always learn more about these things by consulting the Bible, so let’s consider the personality that was built into Jesus’ physical body.

When church groups discuss personality types they usually mention that St. Peter is always described as an extrovert and St. Andrew as an introvert, but which was Jesus? Most of the Gospel story is about Jesus talking to people, which He was obviously comfortable and competent, that does not mean He was an extrovert; introverts are naturally quiet, not shy. We’re told that Jesus habitually woke up early to pray alone, which is definitely an introvert’s habit, and that He spent a lot of time walking from town to town with only a few friends, also an introvert’s taste. Medical science also tells us that an introverted personality is defined by the presence of healthy physical traits, and an extroverted personality is defined by an unfortunate lack of those traits. Jesus definitely had the capacity for long deep thinking, intense emotion, self-awareness, self-control, and a robust moral conscience. Extroverts lack these capacities.
It is, therefore, probable that Jesus was by nature an introvert, although He was neither timid nor shy nor an elitist. There were probably times, wedding parties where He might have made sure the wine was strong enough for any man, or fun and games with the children who apparently swarmed around Him in every town He visited, when observers might not have guessed that His physical body depended on regular, frequent periods of solitude to stay healthy. Almost certainly it did.
If Jesus was an introvert who spent a lot of His time teaching multitudes, what can we learn from His social behavior?
1. Jesus did not need to change His personality. He was unable to do as much as He would have liked to do in His own home town, where people undoubtedly thought they knew all about Him and wanted to cling to their memories of His having once been a child rather than see the man He was...but He didn’t resort to any tricks of “salesmanship” to win over the stupid people in Nazareth. He was who He was. The Nazarenes who chose stupidity, who were so busy reminiscing about “the carpenter’s little boy” that they failed to learn from the Teacher of all teachers, just had to live with their shame.
2. When Jesus talked to people, it was not because He needed their attention, but because they needed His teaching and healing. He continued to choose to be alone when He needed to recharge His physical batteries, and to turn to His Father for help and guidance.
3. Jesus did not worry about seeming “friendly” to everybody. Far from it. He was “gentle, meek, and mild” in the sense that He used biting, but not altogether condemning, words more often than He used physical force to thin out the crowd around Him. Reread the Gospels—a good Jewish rabbi has a satirical wit, even a mean mouth if he has to talk to idiots, and Jesus was well qualified on both those counts. Like the rabbis immortalized in Jewish legend, He taught people mostly by giving them memorable stories or sayings, and He probably knew that funny, sarcastic, even caustic sayings are easier to remember than bland ones. (Though it’s possible His mouth wasn’t as reliably mean as His friends made it sound; maybe they were the ones who remembered His snarky remarks best.)
4. When Jesus made that politically incorrect remark about giving the children’s bread to the dogs, He was of course teaching the disciples that they too were going to have to work with non-Jewish believers. A good orthodox Jew does not touch non-Jewish people, and incidentally, if he happened to be a good first-century Jewish man of the Pharisee denomination, he didn’t even look at women—not even Jewish women. So the disciples needed to see Jesus talking to non-Jewish women as freely as if they’d been Jewish, male, or both. Nevertheless, He obviously was willing to brush the woman off if she was willing to be brushed off, because it wasn’t a scheduled teaching session, and His physical body was tired and needed solitude. If the woman hadn’t been able to demonstrate faith, need, and intelligence in one line worthy of a rabbi,  she wouldn’t have been healed. Jesus didn’t try to be a friend to all, in the flesh, all at once; He conserved His energy. Though He also probably noticed, as many introverts do today, that showing respect and gratitude makes people less tiresome to be around...He didn’t waste time on people who didn’t know they needed His help. And He didn’t try to pamper the emotions of ungrateful, unworthy people, either...“It’s not right to give the children’s food to the dogs,” indeed.
5. When Jesus did attend a regular Saturday morning temple meeting, He went to teach. There is no basis for extrapolating that Jesus would have gone twice to a synagogue where He was expected to warm a bench, let senile seniors feel wise about giving Him bad advice, and be slobbered on by lonely old ladies. (We don’t know how many of His recorded interactions with people were part of a temple meeting. He was no fanatic about regular meetings.)
6. Though widely accepted as a rabbi because of His understanding, Jesus hadn’t taken a lot of formal classes. He’d been a bright enough student, at twelve, to be welcome in one of those rabbinical debates the Talmud is all about, but mostly He was homeschooled and/or self-taught. This was why, although He obviously did read and write easily in Greek, Aramaic, Hebrew, and probably Latin,  skeptics asked how He knew “letters” He’d never formally “learned.” Introverts adore good teachers if blessed to find them, but we seldom need a teacher in order to learn.
7. Jesus was not here to take life easy. He was here for the ultimate challenge. This probably explains why He gave so much time and attention to St. Peter. He did not tell the other disciples to be more like Peter. In fact it was Andrew who asked how many times a day he had to forgive his brother if his brother sincerely repented, and when Jesus said “Seventy times seven” He was probably estimating how many ways Peter found to annoy other people in an average day. And by forgiving Peter Jesus did not mean pampering Peter’s self-esteem by letting Peter imagine that Peter didn’t annoy people; Jesus Himself addressed Peter as “Satan” when Peter was being a pest. Jesus did manage to love Peter until time, experience, and probably physical aging had rendered Peter less obnoxious than nature originally seemed to have intended...because Jesus was Jesus, not because Peter was Peter.
Peter was a challenge. A typical extrovert, he bellowed and swore and raved about how loyal he’d be at any cost, then when physical violence didn’t win the day for him and Jesus he bellowed equally loudly, swore equally foully, that he didn’t even know Jesus. (Nor did he. Extroverts can live and work and travel with people for more than three or four years and still not know the most obvious things about them. Many extroverts who’ve managed to stay married for more than ten years can’t tell you, without looking, what color their spouses’ eyes are.) Peter was always the first to shout out the most annoyingly stupid question, the most vexatious wrong answer. Peter was always pushing himself ahead of people, hogging the attention, hogging the glory, probably hogging everything else. He was also bossy, judgmental, and a grouch; Peter was the know-it-all who didn’t like the children swarming around Jesus or—although Simon the Pharisee and Simon the Leper may have been one or two different men—Mary shedding hair all over His feet. Peter was prone to violence. Peter had a mother-in-law, but not, until long after Jesus’ death, a wife, or children. A man who calls a thirty-year-old Master and Teacher is unlikely to be much older than twenty-five, but however young he was, Peter was probably widowed or even divorced...possibly because his first wife hadn’t been able to survive being around him.
If you and I find an extrovert more physically attractive than, say, a sheepdog, or even an actual sheep, we should smother that feeling to death with as much shame as we’d feel about being attracted to a dog. Jesus did, however, show us that practicing good will toward an extrovert is possible. Difficult, and unrewarding, but (for those who need a challenge) possible.
8. However, there was no question of “equality” between Jesus and Peter. Jesus was the great spiritual Physician; Peter was His sickest patient. Before Peter was ready for anything resembling a teaching position, he had to spend several years begging people’s forgiveness four hundred and ninety times a day, and being addressed as “Satan.” For a teacher, an extroverted personality is not just a liability but a calamity. Peter had to accept the role of a student, even a servant, before he could be anything but a burden to his friends.
Nevertheless, Jesus labored mightily on Peter, and eventually the oaf did become a real Christian. Before it was all over the others even agreed that he deserved the first-place mention he so pathetically always wanted. The disgrace to humankind who cursed and swore, saying, “I know not the man,” one day asked to be crucified upside down because, if there was a more gruesome way to die than the one appointed to Jesus, that was it, and if there was a man who deserved to die that way, Peter was he. And we may imagine that Jesus was particularly pleased with Peter. If Peter didn’t get as far as Paul got in his theology (and didn’t write as well about what he had learned), Peter had progressed farther. He started out farther behind.
9. Jesus was sinless (which means that neither being impatient with other people, criticizing other people, nor even rejecting other people altogether is necessarily a sin). We’re only offered the hope of divine help to become sinless. Trying to do it ourselves leads to legalism, the besetting sin of the Pharisees.
However, those who want to see Jesus as a hippie, urging people to live for the moment and despise rules, are misreading the Bible. Why do we read so much more about the Pharisees than about other “denominations” that existed in first-century Judaism? The Bible mentions dozens of encounters with Pharisees, apparently only one with Sadducees, none with Essenes, and no formal or denominational recognition of the Zealots, although the apostle known to history as St. Simon was nicknamed “The Zealot,” Simon Zelotes, to distinguish him from Simon Peter. Why? Because Jesus and the apostles were closer to the Pharisees than to those other groups. Probably such religious teachers as they’d had had been Pharisees. Jesus apparently spent a good deal of time opposing the Pharisees’ idea of building a wall of petty regulations around their rules of ethical behavior, but what He advocated in place of the petty regulations was a deeper and richer understanding of the law.
According to one study, the real quintessence of introversion is found in the brain, and consists of something scientists are reluctant to call a conscience, so they call it a sense of shame. (That’s like calling an ear for music a “sense of discord.”) Introverts are people who have, according to Kohlberg's theory of moral development, achieved maturity and developed an internal sense of ethics that basically inhibits behavior we recognize as “wrong” and produces an instinctive love of behavior we recognize as “right.” We enjoy being good. We like virtue in the same way we like symmetry, harmony, gracefulness, and eupepsia. 

Although the Pharisees are remembered mainly as the people who formally, publicly, tried to document little rules for maintaining a state of moral virtue, down to minutiae like the rule that on the Sabbath one should tolerate insect life and kill biting insects only after they had bitten one, down to composing and teaching a prayer to be recited while sitting on the toilet, they did this because they were conscientious people—like Jesus and His followers—who liked being good. Their major field of study was the cultivation of virtue, or how close to moral perfection humans can get.
Jesus taught people that they could and should be more righteous than the Pharisees, but not in the sense of “Oh let’s not bother about any disciplines that have objective rules that people can be said to have kept or not kept—which, incidentally, introverts naturally want to keep, and usually do keep, and extroverts usually observe only when other people are watching. Let’s just talk about love and feel good about ourselves!” When Jesus said anything remotely like that He was speaking as a Pharisee, or ex-Pharisee, to fellow Pharisees. “You give,” he said (paraphrased into modern English), “one-tenth of the value of every little herb you ‘harvest’ from your kitchen gardens to the Poor Fund. That, you should do. Yet you fail to practice mercy and charity toward poor people when you meet them. That is what you should do, but not,” he emphasized, “at the expense of what you’ve been doing, which was right.”
If Jesus felt free to enjoy the food and the wine at Roman-style feasts, to heal sick people during Sabbath services at the synagogue, to treat prostitutes like sisters and thieves like brothers, it was because He and His followers were already far ahead of the average Pharisee on the spiritual path to holiness. He, and they, didn’t want to get drunk, to profane the Sabbath by more mundane work than intercessory prayer, or to participate in prostitution or graft or treason. Jesus wasn’t even tempted by the aggressive, bullying, extroverted ways of St. Peter; He knew that He could say “Get thee behind Me, Satan,” and also “I forgive you,” and even “Put up your sword” when Peter’s impulsiveness led him into violence, as often as necessary, to keep Peter on the short leash Peter’s kind of people need. Jesus exposed Himself to the temptations of human company only when He was ready to do so as a genuine spiritual Master and Teacher who was above all such temptations.

Jesus never rebuked anyone, as those who wanted to “humanize” the rules in Protestant churches in the twentieth century used to rebuke people, for merely happening to find an old, strict rule useful. “You don’t have to give away one-tenth of the value of the herbs in your window boxes, for pity’s sake! You’re only doing that because you think it’s some kind of requirement for salvation, and it’s not!” Those are not the words of Jesus; they are the words of Satan. In the twentieth century, Jesus might well have said to some Protestant congregations “There was no need to scold the woman whose idea of dressing up for church was to wear her war paint, hooker heels, and jangling bangles right in the sanctuary,” and “When you accepted divorce you lost any moral ground you might have had from which to denounce homosexuality, prostitution, polygamy, abortion, or even incest, so you’d do better to fight your own spiritual battles than to persecute your fellow sinners whose temptations you can’t understand,” and “Just listening to that rumor about what Tracy supposedly did was as bad as what Tracy supposedly did, except that Tracy didn’t actually do it,” and many other such things...but Satan was the one saying “It’s okay! It’s okay! All we really need to do is feel good about ourselves!”  That is not a thing Jesus ever said or ever will say. Jesus was one of the people who perceive the inherent beauty in giving away one-tenth of the value of the herbs in the window box. “That you should have done, and not left the other things undone.”
And what can be said of churches in which extroverts, running amok, barged up to people who were comfortable with the traditional rules of membership, monkey-screeching: “We’re allowed to wear makeup now, so why don’t you do your skin more damage than your adolescent hormones are already doing? We’re not saved by abstinence from listening to rock music, so why don’t we bring heavy metal right into the sanctuary, and if you happen to loathe it you should humbly apologize for having different taste than ours—even if our church has traditionally been organized to attract people whose taste is more like yours, and even if those people are in fact a solid majority, we can’t attract converts if we’re different from them, so all of you old fogies should just shut up and let the mob rule! And if you are really practicing abstinence, even though we’ve failed so far to discourage the church schools from preaching abstinence, there’s something awfully wrong with you; you should be at least holding hands with fornication, not fleeing from it—the only reason why young attractive people would flee from fornication would be that they’re homosexual, or worse.” Jesus would literally have lashed out at those people, with a rope, thundering “Get out of My Father’s House.” 

Religion is for introverts who want to seek moral perfection. Trivial rules of denominations or communities are for people who agree that those rules are somehow useful for them. The time can of course come for a church or community to review a rule, observing that, e.g., ringless weddings became a rule when people were selling their valuable jewelry in order to launch church programs, and the church programs are now thriving and the value of jewelry has become much lower, but if the community really wants to relax an outdated rule it should do so quietly, without tolerating any attack on those who choose to keep the rule. If Jesus had been brought up a Quaker He might have smiled at anyone who still says “Thee is...”, if a Seventh-Day Adventist He might have smiled at the ringless weddings, and if a Southern Baptist He might have chuckled at the joke about the newlyweds who had to sit down when they kissed so nobody would think they were dancing, but He would not have laughed at them.
Pharisees caused a lot of unnecessary pain. Jesus hurled some of His hardest words at them, and got off some of His snarkiest jokes: “You strain out a gnat and swallow a camel.” But what did He have to say about the Zealots, the most extrovert-friendly Jewish sect, for whom the Bible was mostly a surprisingly unhelpful mystical guide to paramilitary success? Nothing. He had nothing to do with the Zealots. He wasn’t talking to people who were even interested in the Zealots. The Pharisees were the lifelong friends He loved and chastened; the Zealots had nothing to do with Him, nor He with them. He didn’t have much to say about Caesar, either. His audience already knew that some souls were lost for all eternity.
10. Jesus told us to be the sense that wild horses become gentle. An interesting question about the New Testament story is this: Jesus undoubtedly knew where to find the young student Saul of Tarsus, who became known to history as St. Paul, while Jesus was living. Jesus was older by enough years that Saul of Tarsus would have seen Him as a grown-up; and although Saul’s teacher, Gamaliel, was a wise and fairminded Pharisee, Jesus could easily have out-debated even him and made Saul one of the twelve apostles. So why didn’t He? The church needed Paul's talents...
Possibly, I admit I’m speculating, because Paul was so hardheaded. Even Jesus had to whack him on the side of the head, hard enough to leave him blind for days and make him retreat into the desert as a poor dumb tentmaker’s helper for years, to get through the brilliant reasoning with which Paul had supported the misbeliefs he’d learned as the student Saul of Tarsus. And that’s not something an introverted human would do. Jesus’ moral sense saw nothing wrong in plying a rope with such passionate intensity that several men fled before Him. It was not a question of strength, courage, fortitude, or (I believe) the supernatural power to kill anyone with a thought if that had been what Jesus wanted to do. It was that introvert conscience thing again. Jesus would have felt physically that it’s not right for one mortal to beat up another mortal in order to convert him. He had to be reunited with the Father before He could reach down from Heaven and give Paul the hard knock Paul needed. To do it with His physical hand would have been wrong.
Introverts seldom really are, and should never try to be, “meek and mild” in the sense of timid or insipid. When we speak we can be powerful, even overpowering, and sometimes we should be. Our discipline, determination, and consequent achievements can be intimidating, and that also is as it should be. When they’ve failed to make us feel shy, miserable, and guilt-ridden, when we succeed in living well and using our talents, extroverts flee cringing from our shadows—and that also is as it should be. We don’t need to believe that we really have become giants overnight; we need to admit that most of those who harass us have always been insects.