Just about every time I go to the local YMCA, I see a guy I used to work with — during the Reagan administration.
He doesn’t recognize me, or so it appears, as he’s lifting his weights or chatting quietly with one of the other pre-lunchtime regulars. But I easily recognize him as I’m doing my three-mile run around the track. He’s, well, recognizable, a pretty well-known member of the local media, and I’m fairly sure he’s friends with my sister-in-law as well.
I was just an intern when we worked together — if you can call being in the same department and occasionally having occasion to talk working together — so he truly may or may not remember me. It really could go either way. Sometimes I think he’s thinking the exact same thing I am (“I know that guy”), but sometimes I think he’s simply doing the same thing I am: trying to stay alive at the health club and focusing on that and that alone.
He isn’t at all full of himself. He wasn’t back then and he certainly isn’t now. He’s not an unapproachable celebrity or anything even close. He’s just a guy, same as me.
Part of me wants to go up to him and re-introduce myself. But I don’t. I haven’t yet, at least, and it’s fifty-fifty as to whether I’ll ever do so.
It’s not because I’m shy. That much I know, although social anxiety does get to me in some situations. It’s actually a function of the energy involved — for me, at least, and in my mind perhaps for him as well, as it seems like he’s an introvert too and would prefer, in his heart of hearts, to be left to his workout.
But there’s more to the story. I also hold back because I can’t (yet) answer the $64,000 question that always plagues me in these situations: “why?” As in “why bother?”
As soon as I ask the question I receive an unwelcome but inevitable injection of “shoulds” into my brain, shoulds that have been drummed into my introvert head all my life and that only add to the messy, frustrating concoction of shoulds already in there, mucking things up: “You should go say hi.” “You should go talk to him.” “You should go connect with him.” “You should this.” “You should that.”
Followed in each case, as I said, by: “why?” Endless internal debate. It’s exhausting.
My friend Barbara Winter, author of the liberating book Making a Living Without a Job, has a saying: “Do talk to strangers.” Because, she says (and even I know it’s true more often than not), good things can happen as a result. She’s apt to talk to the person sitting next to her on the plane, for example. I’m not, which somehow makes me feel crummy.
So Barbara’s unspoken “should” is part of my already overflowing mind mix. And I have no reason to doubt her wisdom.
Meanwhile, in her thought-provoking book The Law of Divine Compensation, which I just finished reading, author Marianne Williamson talks about a mutually beneficial interaction she once had with the taxi driver who took her to the airport, concluding:
He had introduced himself to me; I had asked him about himself. Those two things — seemingly meaningless moments of human connection — opened the door through which the universe could provide its gifts to both of us. … Most of the time, we block our reception of a miracle by believing it couldn’t be that easy.
Yikes. I have no reason to doubt Marianne Williamson, either. And yet, again, I’d be prone to not chatting too much with someone driving me to the airport.
So add Marianne’s “should” to the cognitive dissonance sauce too. Might as well.
This is my introverted life. Wanting to preserve my own energy and be true to myself on the one hand, not wanting to block my (or anyone else’s) reception of a freaking miracle on the other. All the while knowing that other people aren’t focused too much on me to begin with. They’re focused on themselves, on doing their own thing.
I don’t have any tips on how to deal with this little psychological war. I just hate shoulding all over myself, as behavioral psychologist Albert Ellis once put it.
I’m learning, though — slowly — that I don’t have to. No one does.
A few months ago, the counselor I work with did a spontaneous exercise with me. She held up a pretend chocolate ice cream cone in one hand and a pretend vanilla ice cream cone in the other. “Pick one,” she said.
“Is this some kind of trick?” I asked. Sad, but true.
“Nope,” she replied. “Pick one.”
[Pause to think (and to see if I could pinpoint the trick she’d denied … no luck).]
“Because vanilla is so blah and chocolate is richer,” I said.
“Wrong,” she replied. “Pick again.”
[Pause for initial frustration to set in.]
“I thought you said this wasn’t a trick!”
“It isn’t. Pick again.”
“Chocolate,” I said.
“Because I like it better than vanilla?”
“Is that a question or a statement?”
“Because I like it better than vanilla.”
“Closer,” she replied, “but still wrong. Pick again.”
I couldn’t figure out what she was trying to do. I kept picking chocolate and coming up with a litany of reasons for my choice. “Wrong. Pick again,” she patiently repeated.
Finally, in desperation, I picked chocolate yet again and, when she asked why for the fifty-seventh time, I blurted out: “Because I just want it, that’s why!”
“Right!” she (finally) said.
[Pause for confusion to set in.]
“Pete,” she continued, “you don’t have to justify yourself. You can pick chocolate because you want chocolate. That’s enough. There doesn’t need to be any further explanation.”
[Pause for realization to set in.]
The same is true where my introversion is concerned, where anyone’s introversion is concerned: It doesn’t need to be defended, justified, explained, rationalized. It just needs to be. That’s enough.
Will I ever go up to my old colleague at the gym and say hey? I don’t know. I really don’t. It will almost certainly depend on my mood and my energy in the moment.
What I do know for sure is that I get to choose, we all get to choose. Really choose. And that whichever pathway I pick, I can just pick it. No defense necessary.