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LuElla D'AmicoMay 23, 2024
Illustration of young woman sitting cross-legged and meditating, while people in a circle around her converse and look at their phones.(iStock/MicrovOne)

I am an English professor at a Catholic university, and as I write this, many of my students are applying to graduate schools or refining their résumés for job applications. It is a bustling season, and some of my students’ excitement is palpable.

Others, while no less capable, are less enthused. I remember being one of those types of students, terrified of what was to happen after graduation. Bookish and introverted, I was not eager to put myself in front of people, whether they were admissions counselors or potential employers. There are more extroverts in the world (65 to 75 percent of the population), but the rest of us—the introverts—also have much to offer.

Recently, I read Susan Cain’s beautiful book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. I cannot explain the whoosh of relief I felt while reading some of her words. Ms. Cain describes many introverts as “highly sensitive people,” or H.S.P.s. These introverts are highly attuned to others’ emotions as well as their own, are keenly aware of and responsive to beauty, and need contemplative silence and time between activities that involve groups of people. Ms. Cain writes that H.S.P.s are “keen observers” and “tend to be philosophical or spiritual in their orientation.” I often feel alone in today’s increasingly connected, busy world, and this admittedly flattering description about introverts resonated with me.

Ms. Cain writes that whether an introvert is an H.S.P. or simply someone who prefers solitude over the company of others, they often find themselves in situations built for extroverts. With this in mind, I mentally prepare for “extroverted days” when I must teach, go to conferences or attend multiple meetings.

I am not alone in adapting to an extrovert’s world. Ms. Cain writes that many introverts like myself find ways to “fit in” but often do not take the time to recuperate. Her book has helped me recognize that the patterns I have built into my life of adding rest and contemplation into my schedule after a string of extroverted hours or days are vital to my well-being. Without pausing, I know my work, family and social life will suffer, not to mention my soul.

It has taken me years to find the balance I have now, and I often still falter in striving for it, worried I am not living up to the standards of my extroverted colleagues. Likewise, when chatting with me during office hours and after class, undergraduates frequently self-identify as introverts. They share that they have discovered navigating the academic world surprisingly difficult, having believed that their reserved personality traits would be well received. They wonder how they can maneuver academic life better and how and where they might thrive after leaving it.

What I hope is that high school and college graduates who are quiet and sensitive can still encounter a welcoming world. Today, we quantify our achievements more than ever. We want students with more sports, more honors societies, more research, more volunteer work, more church engagement—more activities overall. But the more we want in applications for colleges, graduate school and jobs, the less we provide space not only for the introverts in our midst but also, I argue, for the values Catholic universities have long stated they care about.

In February of this year, Pope Francis met with the board of trustees at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. He reminded his audience that Catholic education ought to focus on fostering the three transcendentals—the true, the good and the beautiful. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that in learning about the transcendentals, we learn more about ourselves as humans and, of course, about God. It states: “All creatures bear a certain resemblance to God, most especially man…. [T]heir truth, their goodness, their beauty all reflect the infinite perfection of God” (No. 41).

If we allow our admissions and hiring processes, and even our college experiences, to be defined by traits associated with extroverts, we lose out on the gifts that students drawn to the transcendentals may bring. In constantly demanding more activities, we devalue the contemplative life. Catholic universities must resist this message, reserving time in the schedules of all students (both introverts and extroverts) so they have space for contemplation—to visit art museums, listen to music or read for pleasure—even when those experiences are not quantifiable. Universities must also encourage students to focus not only on achieving whatever external goals they might have but fulfilling intrinsic ones, too.

Moreover, let’s think about finding projects for students that are not all about meeting new people but are more independent and creative. As Ms. Cain writes, “The same person who would never raise his hand in a lecture hall of two hundred people might blog to two thousand, or two million, without thinking twice.” Too often, we encourage students to take on roles that are not suited for them but might look good on a résumé or application later. In doing so, we might stymie some students intellectually and emotionally.

Ms. Cain reminds us that Moses was “no brash, talkative type.” In fact, “By today’s standards, he was very timid.” Yet he was a leader who stood up to Pharaoh and led the Israelites out of Egypt. God did not ask Moses for more extracurriculars. He did not ask him to audition for being a prophet (maybe by doing test speeches before crowds), nor did he discount him because he wasn’t great at public speaking—which he wasn’t. Parting the Red Sea did not require those extroverted gifts at all. All it required was quiet, steadfast faith.

We live in a culture that values doing and making. But let’s not forget the true, the good and the beautiful at the heart of this desire to create—and in making admissions decisions and job offers, let’s reach out to the quiet ones. Let’s remember their gifts and try not only to include them in our campuses and in our workplaces but also to acknowledge them as mattering there.

Let us cultivate universities and workplaces where the contemplative life is valued, where introverts and extroverts alike can thrive, and where every person can feel as if their contribution is recognized, whether they are the loudest or the quietest person in the room.

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