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Life in the Quiet Box

Quiet Revolutionary Tamar Charney’s Story

I first declared myself an introvert when I was a child. I was too young to know the technical term and honestly, it wasn’t a label that anyone used back in the 70’s. But as a little girl I did something to signal what it was I needed.

I created a quiet box.

It was a cedar cigar box. I wrote the words “quiet box” on the top in my messy block letters. Inside I made little beds with sheets and pillows fashioned out of folded up tissues. I placed a couple of my favorite small plastic animals into the beds so they could snuggle up in the peace and silence of the quiet box.

By virtue of how often I played with it, the quiet box was my favorite toy. It sat front and center on my night table and I took it on lots of family vacations. Clearly I was making a statement. I was also creating for myself a symbol of the quiet space I needed to recharge.

I was the child that struggled with sleepovers because it was too much socializing. I’d always hit a moment where I just wanted to be alone.There’d be a point where it was no longer fun being with my friend or friends regardless of how much I liked them or how much fun I’d been having and I’d want to be at home, in my own room, with a book, or my music. I also failed at college relationships because the fun sociable person they knew from the night before was not the person there in the morning. Again, after some unpredictable amount of time with others I’d need to not talk, not perform, and not be seen through anyone else’s eyes.

My need to retreat to my quiet box didn’t go away when I grew up. Instead I built a real life existence for myself that had many of the quiet cozy elements of my childhood toy. Yet it took a couple more decades for me to become comfortable with what my 6 year old self intuitively knew. I need quiet, I need to periodically withdraw from the world, I am a quiet box kind of person.

One of the problems with being an introvert is that you obviously don’t see loud displays of introvert happiness very often. We can be having fun, but others don’t see it. Which makes it easy to think you’re the oddball, since your life isn’t like the groups of extroverts around you who are loudly laughing, partying, and yucking it up.

This has meant that I’ve spent decades convinced that things would be so much better if I were an extrovert. I’d be self assured. I’d be at ease with people. I could go to parties and enjoy myself. In other words I’d be a successful, fun loving person, living the life!

An extroverted friend said something that extinguished that belief.

For years I’d been so jealous of his ‘the more the merrier’ approach to life. He is always up for almost anything. He seems to be able to be friends with anyone. And how many times have I shown up to have a drink with him to find a table full of people.

Being part of his social circle means I’m regularly taking a deep breath and steeling myself for interacting with more people than I prefer. If left to my own devices I’d never interact with more than one person at a time. But, for limited amounts of time his big gatherings can be fun, though they leave me exhausted and drained. This of course I have taken as proof that there’s something defective about me. If only I could be more like him, I thought — until our conversation that changed my view of the extroverted life.

He mentioned one day that he was thinking about going for a walk, but added “I can’t get motivated to do it, you know how it’s just so depressing to walk alone.”

I was stunned by that statement. Depressing to walk alone, what???

“Oh wow, you really are such an extrovert” I blurted out, and explained that while I enjoy walking with a friend or family member, I love to walk alone and that I often need to walk alone. It’s how I think, it’s how I relax, and I just plain old like going for a walk by myself!

I realized my friend was missing out on one of the things I enjoy the most – my time alone. He did not find joy alone. I understand now why he often calls while he’s driving. I now get why he never wants to stay home and instead makes so many social plans. Solitary walks, drives, and evenings alone are all things I treasure, but things that leave him feeling sad and isolated.

His remark made me instantly aware that I actually wouldn’t trade my comfort with myself as company for any amount of comfort with others. I’d rather have to steady my nerves at a party than fight demons when alone.

Extroverts live so loudly and visibly, which makes it easy to think their way of being is the normal and preferred way to be. Life in public might be easier for extroverts, but the private life of an introvert has its own benefits that I’d taken for granted. As an introvert it’s easy to say, who needs a party, a big group of friends, or a night out, when there is a cup of tea, a blanket, and a purring cat waiting for me. It just never occurred to me that the refuge of my childhood quiet box would be a torture chamber for someone like my friend.  

By day, Tamar Charney is a managing editor at National Public Radio. On the side, Tamar writes about all sorts of things, including horses, monsters, social media, and things Icelandic for a variety of outlets.

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