The Pulitzer-Prize winner, written by Mary Chase in 1944, certainly evokes a fair share of laughter and inquiry into the realms of belief, reality, and social norms. However, I left ruffled by Chase’s clear intention of presenting Elwood, the best friend of an imaginary rabbit, as a hero for chatting up the people he meets, inviting everyone from telemarketers to cab drivers to dinner.
What a nightmare. Sometimes I’m not even up for having dinner with my family or best friends, let alone the pharmacist at Walgreens.
Elwood’s sister decides to forgo a “cure” for her brother’s relationship with Harvey because it would staunch his personality, namely, his bubbling joy to connect with all people all the time with his invisible leporid sidekick.
“You know,” I said to my husband, as we left the theatre and crossed the fog-shrouded river, “I don’t think that play’s fair. What if I physically can’t muster up the energy to make conversation with the hotel receptionist? Am I bad? Have I succumbed to some sort of postmodern alienation? Or does Mary Chase just think I’m a jerk?”
I was ready to give her—dead or alive—a piece of my mind.
Much has been made of the introvert/extravert “divide” these past few years. I sit somewhere on the mild to moderate end of I. When with my good friends, I can goof off for hours, spouting puns and opinions with abandon. I’m always up for some sort of public speaking opportunity. I post on social media, as my daughter would say, “ten hundred times a day.”
But if you pay close attention to these seemingly E-ish habits, they are practiced in controlled environments with people of my choosing. What’s exponentially more terrifying than speaking or playing music in front of the church? Milling about during the greeting time afterwards. Five minutes of that can take me down for the day.
And initiating conversations with strangers? In keeping with current Internet parlance, I can’t even. I don’t know if this is an introvert thing, a tired-with-kids thing, or just a flat-out me thing, but connecting with people out there, people I know I won’t be establishing a long-term relationship with, is exhausting.
At Starbucks, I order. I smile. But I don’t want to know my gift card balance. I don’t want to make a joke or compliment the barista’s earrings. I just want to get my Veranda roast and get the hell out of there. Leave me alone, Ms. Chase. I’m fine.
“I feel the same way,” my even more introverted husband said. “But I think it’s an area we can both grow in. You’re good at making conversation. Maybe you should just do it sometimes.”
“I may be good at it, but it takes so much energy,” I said. As we headed toward our hotel on Michigan Street, I stared at a holiday light display across the street. Animated penguins skated, skied, and kicked footballs over goal posts in the fog. Then I was struck with profundity.
These days we are so conditioned by tests for personality, temperament, enneagram, and spiritual gifts, that we protect those identities as immovable, sacrosanct truths. But how many things are we asked to do in life that we aren’t particularly suited for?
Of course it would be a mistake to take on a vocation unsuited to my personality and strengths. As one who becomes undone with conflict, I should not hold a high-level corporate job that requires me to fire people. And as a more phlegmatic expresser of physical affection, I shouldn’t force myself to hug everyone I see.
The people who serve us in public, the very people Elwood pursues with relentless delight, live their own secret stresses and griefs. And the simple fact is I make them as invisible as Harvey because I don’t feel like sacrificing my energy to treat them with anything more than my own detached politeness. It’s not a matter of I can’t even but I don’t even.
What would love look like? For me?
“I don’t have to invite them to dinner,” I tell my husband, rolling my eyes at Elwood, Jesus, and all the hapless lovers out there. “But maybe I can set some small, manageable goals for the new year. Maybe I’ll try a little harder.”
I catch my breath at all the situations ahead of me, like the dreaded moment on every shopping trip when the salesperson approaches, fitting room keys swinging: “Are you finding everything all right?”
“Yep,” I always reply. Nothing more. But my more gregarious inner monologue says, No, I’m forty-two but don’t know how to find a pair of socks or, for that matter, how to request assistance in finding the answer to such a cosmic mystery, should I fail. I’m so glad you came up to me, or I would have flailed helplessly amid these scarves.
But I could say, “I’m doing well, thanks. Wow, what a busy day! How are you holding up?” Or “Thanks for refolding all the sweaters I messed up back there. I’m sure that gets old.” I could come up with something.
But more importantly, I can mean it. Make eye contact. Pay attention to the salesperson, not my phone. Exhale a prayer of blessing on him and her as irate customers, screaming babies, screwed up cash registers, and all manner of retail disasters threaten to bring the salesperson to identity-questioning tears.
This isn’t about my becoming “more outgoing” or changing my personality. It’s about my occasionally sacrificing my own comfort to bring even a glimpse of love to a stranger. It’s about bringing world peace to the tiny, suburban corners of my life.
Elwood invited people into his world. Jesus healed them. Talked to them. Took his infinite time. Then he went off to recuperate on the hillside, where all true introverts belong.
Tania Runyan is the author of the poetry collections Second Sky (Cascade Poiema Series), A Thousand Vessels, Simple Weight, and Delicious Air, which was awarded Book of the Year by the Conference on Christianity and Literature in 2007. Her book How to Read a Poem, an instructional guide based on Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry,” was recently released by T.S. Poetry Press. Her poems have appeared in many publications, including Poetry, Image, Books & Culture, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, The Christian Century, Atlanta Review, Indiana Review, and the anthology In a Fine Frenzy: Poets Respond to Shakespeare. Tania was awarded an NEA Literature Fellowship in 2011. She tutors high school students and edits for Every Day Poems and Relief.
Photo by Georgie Pauwels, used under a Creative Commons license.