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Can you overcome shyness?

Twenty-five hundred years ago, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said that character is destiny. Character—the basic attributes created by inborn temperament and early environment—determines your actions, and your actions determine the course of your life. Some people think character can’t be changed, that those attributes are too deeply ingrained. One example is shyness. Can a shy person ever become outgoing?

From earliest childhood I’ve been painfully shy. In college it was agony for me just to say hello to acquaintances when I passed them in the hallway. My remedy for shyness was booze, but it only helped while I was drunk.

A teaching job

When my husband and I moved to Charleston, a small town with limited job opportunities, I applied for a temporary job teaching composition and literature in the English department at Eastern Illinois University. I bombed the interview and didn’t get the job. Then, the first week of the semester, the department chairman called. He needed an emergency replacement to teach one course. Was I interested?

And so I found myself standing in front of two dozen people only a few years younger than me. When I began to talk, someone in the back called out, “Louder!” Hands trembling and stomach churning, I upped my volume and launched into my presentation. In a couple of ways, I lucked out. They were a kind group. Also, the the elderly prof for whom I was a last-minute replacement was reputedly a boring lecturer. Anyone was an improvement over that guy.

college classroom

An angry student

I went on teaching one or two courses a semester. Gradually the shakes and nausea went away, but I still entered the classroom with dread. One day, a student got angry over a C she didn’t think she deserved. So angry that she told me the truth. “It’s not that you’re a terrible teacher,” she said. “You seem to know what you’re talking about. But when you’re up there talking, it’s like you don’t even see us.”

Her anger turned out to be a gift. I began looking at individuals in the room as I spoke. Their faces told me whether they were listening. And they actually did pay more attention when I started speaking to them rather than at them.

The students from hell

In a last-minute schedule change, I got a class that was originally assigned to a professor famous for giving As to everyone. When I walked in the classroom, I was greeted by stares of shock and dismay. Six students dropped the course right away. The rest were a hard group to teach. They fell asleep. They talked among themselves. To keep the class from devolving in chaos, I had to assert control. I still recall one moment in particular. The class was ending in five minutes, and the students were growing restless. A guy in the back row stood up and reached for his books. “Joe!” I pointed at him, my voice booming. “Sit down! I’m not finished.” He slowly sat down.

The students from hell were a gift. They helped me become someone who could stand in front of people and command attention.

Did my shyness go away?

Not really. I still struggle when I meet new people, especially since I’ve stopped easing the way with alcohol, but it’s no longer agony.

Maybe character is destiny, but it can’t be reduced to one weakness—or one strength. It’s an interplay of the many attributes that make up who we are. And I’m convinced that we have some control over which of them prevails.

college graduation, college student

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Return to Tanglewood

I found the paperbacks in a used bookstore. Their pages were yellowed and they had the distinctive smell of old books. New, they cost $0.60 and $1.25. They were A Wonder Book and Tanglewood Tales, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s adaptations of classical myths for children, and when I was nine years old they were my favorite books. Or actually book. The book I read long ago was a hardback that contained both volumes.

So I bought the old yellowed paperbacks.

I remember reading them in the living room of my neighborhood friend ‘Alicia’. I was lying on the carpet, which had a swirly pattern that reminded me of waves. Alicia was a grave little girl. I liked her because we did things like read quietly together. It may be I borrowed the book from her rather than from the library. She had quite a few books.

At the time my brother and I and our mother lived with Nana, our grandmother and Mom’s ex-mother-in-law, in Ocean Beach, California. The two women had a complicated and sometimes tense relationship.

Nana ended my friendship with Alicia. Alicia’s mother didn’t invite me to Alicia’s birthday party because she couldn’t invite me without also inviting the other neighbor kids, including two sisters she disliked intensely. I understood. The sisters were nasty bullies and I didn’t like them either. But Nana didn’t understand. She took my not being invited as an insult. So when my birthday party rolled around, Nana allowed me to invite all the neighborhood kids except Alicia.

During the party Alicia came to the door. I still remember Nana’s hard voice as she spoke to Alicia through the screen, telling her she couldn’t come in and have cake with the rest of us.

Reading A Wonder Book again, I understand why I loved those stories so much. They must have been a challenge. I doubt my nine-year-old self knew words like erudition, vagrant, and audacity (and those are all in one sentence). But the truth is you don’t have to understand every single word when you read. Seeing a word like dominions the first time, you kind of guess the meaning from the context and can be pretty sure it meaning something like kingdom.

MinotaurHawthorne’s tales lifted me from everyday life into a world of magic adventures where the mysterious Quicksilver comes to the aid of Perseus as he sets out to slay the Gorgon, where greedy King Midas is cursed with a golden touch, and where Theseus  braves the labyrinth and battles the Minotaur. I got lost in those stories. As Hawthorne says in the preface (which I doubt I read back then), “No epoch of time can claim a copyright in these immortal tales. They seem never to have been made; and certainly, so long as man exists, they can never perish.” They awakened my love of fantasy.

But Hawthorne also gives the stories a frame. A group of children, brothers and sisters and cousins, are staying together at a beautiful estate called Tanglewood. They sit together on a spacious porch overlooking a misty valley, or beside a shady brook, while their college-age cousin Eustace Bright tells the stories.

Tanglewood seemed like paradise to me. It was a world without divorced parents or kids who were nasty bullies. The children in the book might tease one another gently, but they’re never mean. If one of them had a birthday party, all of the others would be invited. And if one of them showed up at the door, wanting to be let in, she wouldn’t be turned away.

A small grief

The day I returned to work after my brother’s funeral, one of my former students, ‘Trevor’, dropped by to announce that his world had collapsed. His fiancée had dumped him for some guy with lots of money. He was going to drop out of graduate school and he didn’t give a shit what happened him anymore. I assumed, mistakenly, that Trevor wanted me to talk him out of his despair. I’ve never been much good at that kind of thing, but I gave it a shot.

He might see things differently in a few months, I pointed out. Why not finish the semester? Then he could take the summer to decide what he wanted to do.

No way, Trevor said. He was too devastated to go on.

I told him my brother had just died and I was still in shock, but I was teaching my classes. Not functioning at full capacity, maybe, but trying. I doubted it would ease my grief to sit around thinking about how much I missed my brother. It would probably make things worse.

“Sorry about your brother,” Trevor said, and then he added, “Well, at least your brother didn’t reject you.”

From Trevor’s perspective, his grief was more severe than mine because his fiancée’s desertion left him feeling worthless. Yet in ten years — if he didn’t kill himself or become a hopeless drunk — he might meet another woman, someone kinder and more deserving of his love. But no one could replace my brother.

None of us fully understands someone else’s pain or grief. We only imagine it based on our own experience. Although boyfriends have dumped me, none of them mattered as much as Trevor’s fiancée mattered to him. And supposing Trevor had a sibling who died, the two of them might not have been as fiercely close as my brother and I were.

The loss of anyone leaves a hole in your life, and the depth of your grief is roughly proportionate to the size of that hole. What did you share with the one who’s gone? How much of yourself did you give? Nobody knows that but you.

All of this brings me to Westie, my parakeet, who died on Christmas Eve. To many people the loss of a pet is unimportant, especially a small bird. But Westie meant a lot to me. I talked and sang to him every evening before I put him to bed. My husband talked and whistled to him every morning. As a result he knew quite a few words and chattered and sang to us every day until he fell ill. Some of his favorites were “Won’t you kiss me?” and “Smile when you say that,” and “That’s Mr. Westie to you.” He whistled the opening notes of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Ride of the Valkyrie” and several other tunes.

He spent his last day snuggled against my chest while I wrote and read and watched videos on my iPad. That night I dozed in a recliner with Westie cupped in my hands. At four in the morning he fluttered away from me. I picked him up and he tried again to fly away. He wanted me to let him go. I placed him in his cage, where he died a few minutes later.

Only a parakeet, you can always get another one, but I felt like part of myself had flown away.

The loss of Westie is a small grief, but it hurts.

 

(The quotation is taken from Daemon Seer whren Lu’s parakeet, Foster, is bird-napped by daemons.)