As I sat in the sand looking up at the palm tree with the blazing Saharan sun above my head, a strange feeling came over me that I’ve never really felt before. You see, the thing is, I’m shy. I grew up as a small child hiding behind my mom’s legs which turned into sitting alone at the cafeteria lunch table, which now has become sitting alone in my apartment on Friday nights reading a book or watching some suspense TV series that never gets resolved, and thus I find myself back on my couch next Friday.
To those in the world who have never had a problem with speaking their mind on command, they cannot understand the difficulty that I am describing. But we who are what we are, understand perfectly. We are the ones who are first to leave parties if we even go at all, who grew up hating the social awkwardness of high school youth groups, who would count down the days of the year till our speech assignment in class and who equally feared the idea of asking someone on a date. This might sound pathetic to some and it probably is, but as I said, you can’t understand it.
If that wasn’t bad enough, there also seems to be a natural prejudice against quiet people in the world. We are the last to make friends, the last to date, the last to get a job—all because we aren’t as assertive or ambitious enough as our loud counterparts. We are last, and if it bothered us we would never say.
The killer of it all, is that we are told all our lives that there is something wrong with us. I remember talks with my parents in high school about why I didn’t invite people over more and why I couldn’t fit in. It was told to me by society, which as I said before seems to naturally favor the extroverts. But the worst thing, was that it was told to me by the girl I thought I once loved. After a two year relationship, as a way of legitimizing her dumping me, she blamed it on my inability to “let go and live,” basing this off my struggle to fit in with her friends during a visit.
The Church wasn’t much better. For the perfect Christian is the evangelist, the preacher, the prophet who stands on a box and declares the word of God with boldness and without fear. To not open my mouth was to be ashamed and thus God would be ashamed of me. I was quiet and that was my sin.
Unfortunately, and I assume this is true for many if not all, it took me 22 years to find out these were all lies. It happened in very unlikely place: the desert. I had been in Cairo, Egypt for a semester abroad program, and near the end of our stay, we went to a retreat center called Anafora for a debriefing time to process all we had experienced the last couple of months. Once we got there, while many in the group split off to explore, or swim or play football, I went to the library to find solace in a book, a common friend which I have always found comfort in. I ended up picking up a book called Seeds of Contemplation by a monk named Thomas Merton.
In this book he talks about a tree. When God created the world he put a part of Himself in all His creation. In the example of trees, there is some aspect of Himself or His character in that tree, because it came from the mind of God. This is in the same sense that a painter puts part of himself in a painting or a poet into his poem. A tree is holy, because God put part of Himself in it, and so by being themselves they proclaim who God is and thus they are sacred. It is the same with us. Each human’s soul is unique and shows a part of God that no other soul on earth can. Thus when we stop seeking our false self and start seeking the soul of who we really are, we reflect the image of God inside us. A palm tree was created to be a palm tree. It takes no effort on its part for that is its soul. It was designed to be a palm tree, and God takes great delight in that, because it declares who He is and brings Him glory.
After I read this I went for a walk alone around the community farm that was owned by Anafora. I went to the far corner and sat with my back to one tree and looked up at one across the way. Maybe it was the heat of the Saharan sun affecting my thoughts, maybe it was the emotional exhaustion of the last few months of traveling, or maybe it was the presence of God, but as I looked at the tree a tear formed in my eye and an overwhelming sense of peace flooded my heart. I looked at the tree, and I looked at myself, and for the first time I felt content. Finally, there was no more striving to be the socially confident guy, or to be the outgoing, “evangelistic” Christian, or to be something that was impossible for me to be. I could be me and not only that, but that I, quiet, reflective, socially awkward, introverted me, gave God glory not in spite of all these things but because of them. I was an introvert, and that seemed beautiful to me.
Anafora, the name of the retreat center is an Arabic word. When translated it means, to release a bird from your hand and let it fly away.