He who sits alone, sleeps alone, walks alone,
who is strenuous and subdues himself alone,
will find strength in the solitude of the forest.
BUDDHA, DHAMMAPADA, 305
How many of us wish today, as adults, that this wisdom would have been shared with us as children? It simply was not considered normal for a child to prefer the solitude of the woods to activity with other children in the park. We were called wall flowers when we did not keep up with the chatty ones at lunch break. We were graded as slow learners when we did not engage in classroom discussions. Yes, my elementary school report card (do they still have report cards?) had a space to inform my parents that I was not a team player, not a participant. Do they realize the damage inflicted on a young boy who merely wanted to enjoy his solitude, a boy who did not rely on friendships and social activity for his fulfillment? The birds, animals, and flowers in the countryside fields and woods were my intimate companions way back then. I enjoyed the peace and quiet of these gifts infinitely more than the company of rowdy playmates in games of baseball, tag or hide-n-go-seek.
I reached adulthood believing that I was deficient. My waning social activity supported that idea. Not a joiner, not a member, not a community person, not a party person. Even my growing alcoholism, ages 17 to 34, revolved around drinking in the woods with a few select friends or by myself at home. It became a problem when I began to avoid social commitments with loved ones and friends. My perceived deficiency controlled most aspects of my younger years as I nosedived into deep depression and obsessive alcoholic behavior – a symptom of the misconceived impression of Larry, the socially awkward introvert.
However, looking back on those years, I don’t remember ever feeling lonely. A lover would slam the door when leaving in anger and disgust saying, “You don’t need anybody, do you?” Sadly, the truthful answer confirmed those words. I didn’t need anybody to fill my empty spaces. I became a socially deficient drunk who just wanted to be left alone.
Recovery from alcoholism has demanded even more intense self-scrutiny and introspection. Initially, I had to learn to love myself as I was, not as someone else thought I should be. In the meeting rooms I met many other men and women just like me – socially awkward and withdrawn from life. We held each others’ hands, cried together, prayed together, hugged, and instilled a sense of completeness in each other that had always been missing before. The healing was slow and painful, but we became participants in life even in our own quiet, unassuming ways.
Western culture places an enormous emphasis on assertiveness and achievement. We are considered weak if we are not pushy and demanding. Those of us who are perfectly content with the quiet and peace of a meandering stream through the meadow or a walk along wooded trails or an afternoon reading poetry are sometimes deemed lazy and unproductive.
To others like me, I say STOP! Just stop! Stop being a people pleaser trying to fit into a preconceived social mold. Introvert is not a cuss word. Not everyone can be extroverted, nor should they try to be. When I appreciate the person whom the God of my understanding created, when I accept that today at this moment I am a perfect product of this creation, then life can also be perfect. Doesn’t mean that I don’t pursue growth and try to make tomorrow’s version of me even better. It simply means saying quietly and thankfully, “Just as I am, Lord. Receive all of me just as I am.”