If you read our blog and follow our lives, you will probably know that we went to Urbana last month. It was this completely wild event—16,000 Christian college students and pastors and missionaries gathered together for worship, Bible study, prayer, networking… and if I had wanted to, I could have been at workshops and seminars and gatherings and whatnot from 7 a.m. until past midnight.
Keith and I were approached by our leaders to represent OMF Japan at Urbana, since at past Urbana conferences, there has been a lot of interest in Japan. I waffled as to whether I wanted to go, or whether we should go. 16,000 people… long hours of meeting total strangers… awkward social situations… very little time to rest. But, Urbana got a rave review from my brother and others who had gone. They spoke of challenging messages and spiritual growth. What ultimately tipped the scale in favor of my going was the discovery that Jeff, one of our IVCF leaders from grad school in Boston, was going to be there. (And out of 16,000 people, we ran into him right at the front door. Awesome!)
But as the time grew nearer, I got more and more nervous. “God, I can’t do this. Please make me an extrovert,” I prayed.
This wasn’t just my plea for Urbana. It seemed that the longer I spent in North America, the more exhausted I got… and I was beginning to think that there was something seriously wrong with me. I had been spending delightful, thought-provoking, inspiring times with friends, family, and supporters. I was constantly aware of how loved I was and how well supported, and perhaps that made the feeling that I “wasn’t getting anything done” even more frustrating—that I was letting down the people who loved and supported me. The sheer amount of rest I needed to recover from the previously mentioned delightful times with people seemed far more than what was “fair.”
It was at Urbana, in a moment of quiet respite from the OMF booth, where I had been meeting students and answering questions about OMF and Japan, that I was browsing the bookstore. A title caught my eye: The Listening Life by Adam McHugh. What I found even more intriguing was that this Adam McHugh was also author of a book called Introverts in the Church. So, I went looking for Introverts in the Church and found it elsewhere in the bookstore. Hiding in my room after dinner that night, I read the first chapter… it was like he had been reading my thoughts. Observe:
For several years, my introverted friend, Emily participated in a Christian community where extroversion was normal. Hailing from Japan, Emily was accustomed to a culture where deference to others and servanthood were considered highly desirable qualities, and she felt displaced in an American culture that valued self-promotion and aggressiveness. She had positive relationships with people in the community, but she was always considered to be on the fringe because she spent a lot of time to herself (McHugh, Introverts in the Church, 17-18).And the lightbulb came on in my head. That’s what it is. That’s the source of my exhaustion and reverse culture shock this time around. I had been thriving in life and ministry in Japan, where introverted characteristics are valued, and deep, loyal friendships are formed slowly over time and through shared experiences. Social interactions tend to have more silent spaces in them, and that’s okay—just being together or doing something together is considered to be a valuable experience. I’ve written about this before, but I didn’t realize at the time why I felt so comfortable with my Japanese friends.
Then I came “home” to my hometown, where I thought I would be less tired, since I was using my native language. But I struggled with American-style social interactions, where there is little silence in which to collect my thoughts—if I stop to think, the conversation has already moved on. To make things even more difficult, of course we are dealing with an absence of four years. It’s not easy to catch up with each of the hundreds of friends and acquaintances we left behind when we went to Japan. There have also been faux pas, such as
Me: Nice to see you!I really had that conversation. Stress.
Acquaintance: Yeah, it’s been a long time. Were you really gone for four years?
Me: Yeah, four years. It seemed really fast though. How’s your husband?
Acquaintance: Actually, he left me…
Me: (gasp) I’m so sorry, I didn’t hear!
I certainly don’t mean to imply that Japan is good and America is bad, or that all Japanese are introverts and all Americans are extroverts. That is not the case at all… not to mention that I have committed my fair share of faux pas in Japan.
But I have to say that in recognizing this cultural difference, I have also recognized God’s grace in putting me in a place where I would thrive in friendship and in ministry. I have begun to realize that God made me the way he did so that I could be a blessing to others. It wasn't a mistake. No more pleading for a personality change... just a change of heart.
While I am eager to return to my friends and work in Japan, I am also eager to accept God’s grace where I am now, even, or perhaps especially, when God’s grace means spending more time in prayer and reflection and less time “getting stuff done.” I trust that God will give me the grace (and the energy) to bless my friends here in North America and be blessed by them as well.
I still have times when I am frustratingly exhausted, but I think my prayer now is “God, thank you for making me the way you did. May my life bring glory to you.”
I went back to the bookstore the next day to buy The Listening Life too. Thanks, Adam McHugh, unmet friend.
(By the way, Introverts in the Church is not a whiny book about how we introverts are being exploited by extroverts. Not at all. I wouldn’t have liked it if that were the case. I found it to be empowering, practical, and filled with great suggestions for introverts to be involved in the life of the church. Perhaps that is a subject for another post.)