[The title of this blog post is a quote from Susan Cain: “The Power of Introverts” TED talk, 2012]
After reading, QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain, I listened to her TED talk, which is a quick and heartfelt presentation of her research.
I had also finished reading The End of Nature by Bill McKibben.
I had no intention of writing about both books together, but as I read Quiet followed by The End of Nature I could not help feeling that these two books, which trace endings and serve as warnings, are similar in that they intersect; not in content: one is about introverts; the other about nature, at a point on the line where we talk about our culture and what it values, and why it might be dangerous to continue valuing such things as fast talkers and fast cars. When I looked back at Susan Cain’s TEDTalk and heard her say “no wilderness, no revelations,” her message became much more urgent. She has an engaging TEDTalk, but more than that, her concern has to do with what makes us human in a deeper sense than being successfully employed. She is not only addressing the introvert as having a unique set of gifts, but how quiet spaces — those places that introverts seek to regenerate and gain knowledge — somehow enable us to care for ourselves, our family and our neighbors. Her statement during her presentation clearly sees the rise of the man of personality not as a simple end of a preference for the man of character (signaling a new preference for the man of action over the man of contemplation), but rather a deadly path that inevitably will lead to the end of what makes us human.
Quiet, therefore, is more than a book that will make you feel better — although, it does, especially if you are an introvert. It is filled with stories of successful introverts and makes us feel less weird about wanting to be alone. However, it needs to be understood for its insight into our most fundamental cultural blindness, progress. One can hear McKibben’s words, written approximately 30 years ago, resonating in Susan Cain’s book.
How did we become a society that prized and praised extroverts? Susan Cain traces our turn from character to our delight with personality to the twentieth century and the rise of industrialization (21).
Certainly, we know from our history lessons in primary and secondary school that we moved from a predominantly agricultural economy to an industrialized one at the end of the twentieth century. We never, however, talked about what was at stake when we moved. Cain writes:
“Americans found themselves working no longer with neighbors but with strangers. ‘Citizens’ morphed into ’employees,’ facing the question of how to make a good impression on people to whom they had no civic or family ties” (22).
In other words, long-term relationships, generational investment in place, and in each other, were no longer necessary for survival. Cain concludes:
“Americans responded to these pressures by trying to become salesmen who could sell not only their company’s latest gizmo but also themselves” (22).
A prodigious advancement in tool making seems to have taken us to where we are now. But, perhaps we were destined to land here.
Mckibben writes in The End of Nature:
“One could argue that we destroyed this independent nature long ago, that there’s no present need for particular distress. That the day man made his first tool he irrevocably altered nature, or the day he planted his first crop” (65).
It appears we have been moving this way all along; the twentieth century being merely a wild acceleration of pace.
Thinking through Bill McKibben’s statement about tools, then perhaps we can agree that man has been under a spell since making the very first tool. This tool making ability has so enchanted us that we have failed to notice we do not question our tool making enterprise. Today, Artificial Intelligence is here and/or is coming, we are told. We are never asked, and oddly, we are not permitted to ask, if we are all in agreement to its being here. We simply accept the tool. Why? We have made it difficult if not impossible to defend a position of slowing down our pace when it comes to tool making. If a shovel is good, then a digger is even better. Why?
In my personal view, the abandonment of the man of character can be exemplified in our choices of presidents since Reagan’s inauguration in 1981. We can follow the trajectory right on up to the giant huckster who currently occupies the Whitehouse this cold November morning in the year 2017 — approximately 30 years after Bill McKibben wrote The End of Nature and warned us all that we could not avoid catastrophic consequences of the warming of the Earth if we continued with our bad energy habits, which include how we live and the food we eat. The nation laughed as the Reagan administration took down the solar panels from the Whitehouse. People like my grandparents, who suffered through the Great Depression, and worried about social-security, happily voted for Reagan, the man they thought was a man of character, but turned out to be concerned only about his polls, or as our latest president puts it, “ratings.” From the 80s onward our presidents have been miming men of character — this includes Obama. It is no coincidence that McKibben wrote about the end of nature just as we were skyrocketing upward with our technological advancements. The idea of character had ended along with nature as we became more and more mesmerized by our gadgets.
Both Cain and McKibben take us to some pretty disturbing places. Cain brings us to a Tony Robbins’ retreat, interviews with Harvard Business School students and a visit to Saddleback Evangelical Church in California. When you get overstimulated by all that extroversion — even if it is in the form of reading, it makes you hesitant to go on. I was afraid to turn the page. Being in reading distance from a Tony Robbins’ seminar was still too much stimulation for me. Initially, I was amazed that anyone would spend thousands of dollars listening to someone yelling on stage “Was your breath full or shallow” (37), or following everyone else over burning coals (39). But then, as Susan Cain points out, the self-help industry is an $11 billion a year industry (35). So I checked out Tony Robbins’ TEDTalk, which briefly explains why people do what they do. After watching his presentation I realized that he is not necessarily talking about making money or success as it is narrowly defined in our culture. He actually, at least in his TEDTalk, was talking about love. But, his energy, his big Arnold Schwarzenegger type physique, and a little bit of “this is what I have done and how many people I have helped” persona, made it all seem as if he were all about the externals.
Interestingly, it appears that ritual seems to be the glue that holds together the extrovert model e.g., stepping over hot coals. I suspect with both introverts and extroverts, basic tribal rituals are used to create the desired effect. The warning, then, from Susan Cain is one that detects an imbalance in the system. Can you imagine a ritual with all jubilant displays and without any quiet time? It would probably exhaust and severely burn out the participant. Now, imagine a world like this… or, just think of U.S. culture.
As Cain said: “Without Wilderness, no revelation.” And now we must think about McKibben, who thirty years ago told us that Nature had come to an end. Of course, he admits that he is not saying it is all gone (it’s rather Hegelian of him):
“By the end of nature I do not mean the end of the world. The rain will still fall and the sun shine, though differently than before. When I say ‘nature,’ I mean a certain set of human ideas about the world and our place in it” (8).
For McKibben the end of nature also means that everything is man-made; right down to the last hurricane. As he explains, if you are putting more CO2 in the air, then the hurricane you get is not a natural phenomenon, but a man-made creation. It looks like nature, but it is not the same (96). McKibben also reflects, as does Susan Cain, on the relationship humans have with nature and revelation. What if, as McKibben does, you “feel God’s presence in nature”(71) in what is not man-made: in the silence of mountains and trees, or the song and chatter of birds, and busyness of bees and hover-flies in the summer? where does this leave you? Do we have any rights at all? The introverts among us who need quiet places, places left untouched by an extroverts desire to make his/her idea manifest — do we have any rights?
By the end of The End of Nature Mckibben is talking much less about fossil fuels, ozone layers, and acid rain, and taking us on a trip to inside spaces that will disturb your sleep.
We enter the space of genetic engineering:
“It promises crops that need little water and can survive the heat; it promises cures for the new ailments we are creating as well as the old ones we’ve yet to solve; it promises survival in almost any environment we may create. It promise total domination” (161).
What is interesting about our culture of personality and our total child-like belief that technology will save us is that we clearly do not believe it.
If we truly believed that the Earth was not warming; that we could send a giant fan up into the atmosphere and cool us all down; that we could rearrange our DNA enough to make us live for few hundred years; that we could create better food by genetically altering it; that we could dig for clean coal; that we could create trees resistant to insect infestations; that these trees would grow really fast; and that they would be flame resistant for the California vineyards, and finally that there would be no, absolutely no consequences to our hubris, then why are we so hostile? Why are we worried to the point where we are so stingy? The rising sea levels will make it so that some of us will not have homes. For this reason we have become fervently anti-immigration. Why so protective over our land when we could grow all the food we want in a laboratory?
Whenever we reject someone; whenever we close our borders and our hearts we are responding from a place of scarcity. We clearly are living as if we are nearing our limits — even if we do not want to admit it. On the one hand, we will lift all environmental restrictions and extract all that there is to extract from the Earth, period! No need to worry. On the other hand, this same president who promises abundance by telling us there is an abundance of resources out there for us, is busy kicking everyone out of the country and retracting every last public goods program from us. What kind of abundance is that? Who multiplies the fish and wine and then gets rid of their guests?
After Susan Cain carefully details how introverts have contributed to the success of our world, how they tend to take less outrageous risks, and how they actually make better leaders, she quietly tells us that it is important to have a world filled with both types. And, what is more important, we are, many of us, a mix of types. Her message is both personal and expansive: If you hate what you are doing because you are trying to fit into an extrovert world, then quit your job or change your circumstance to live a life more aligned with who you are. Ahhh, but you need to find out who you are? Well, to do that you might need a quiet space, nature perhaps?
“Without wilderness, no revelation,” Susan Cain..
Sorry, no more nature. The good news: machines do not need space or time to do such things as self-reflect.
The End of Nature ends with a revelation by McKibben: “But what if we began to believe in the rain forest for its own sake?” (174). Yes. What if…? Wilderness would then become both an internal and external idea. This is to say, it would become a part of us, but we would no longer fear it. In the end, our struggle over and with the environment is not just about leaving some areas of “nature” alone; rather, it is about totally accepting something for what it is… just because it happens to be.
“The idea that the rest of creation might count for as much as we do is spectacularly foreign, even to most environmentalists” (174).
I’m reminded of The Solace of Fierce Landscapes by Belden Lane. I’m also reminded of Jean Vanier and his work with people who have severe intellectual and mental disabilities. Honoring all that is living would truly be the manifestation of God as everyone. It is the meaning of Namaste. It would not mean the end of conflict, but it would allow for conversations that do not revolve solely around, or bind us to, thinking that is narrowly concerned with a return on investment, which reduces the subject to a tiny figure in a profit margin.
It is strange that we live in a time when we believe we are the most enlightened, conscious, awake, and all around better at being human than all others who have come before us, but still we struggle to justify being.