Pursuing some quirky interior goal solely because of ideas or feelings makes perfect sense to introverts.
If someone tells you that the plot of a movie or novel involves a quest, you probably think of something like a search for the Holy Grail, a detective’s pursuit of the killer behind a crime or Dorothy’s drive to go home again from the Land of Oz. Story analysts often break down a classic quest into the elements of a hero, a concrete goal, efforts toward the goal in the face of challenges or obstacles, and a final triumph where the goal is achieved.
In everyday life, people take on quests like completing a marathon, visiting every Major League ballpark in North America or qualifying for medical school. Such quests are easy for anyone to describe and discuss. Indeed, they often attract crowds cheering on the questers from the sidelines. When it comes to an inner quest, however, where the goal corresponds only to some emotional or cognitive satisfaction, I’ve seen a divide arise: Introverts more easily understand it, while extroverts may express bafflement.
For instance, in Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, the narrator undertakes an arduous Himalayan trek not to get anywhere or overcome obstacles but largely to recover a sense of harmony with himself and the universe after the death of his wife. An online reviewer of the book probably spoke for many when she commented that this was a “tale about a person so disgruntled with their life that they set out on an incredibly challenging journey in the hopes of achieving enlightenment. The very mindset of such a person eludes me, and I see no reason to go along, even from an armchair position.”
Similarly, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, another quest narrative recently discussed in the Introvert Book Club, generated a lot of commentary along these lines from people whose in-person reading group chose it for discussion: “The premise makes no sense: Walking across Britain to see a friend who has cancer. Why not drive?!” Or “The book describes ridiculous self-imposed hardships” with “too much introspection” by a main character who is “as interesting as a doorknob.”
Henry David Thoreau’s Walden surely qualifies as this kind of quest, too. In Thoreau’s words, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately... I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” Critic Kathryn Schulz condemns Thoreau’s focus on thought and experience as follows: “Food, drink, friends, family, community, tradition, most work, most education, most conversation: all this he dismissed as outside the real business of living.” Yes, and that’s very much why so many introverts consider Thoreau a sage and his quest to live simply and self-sufficiently in the woods inspiring.
The word “pointless” often comes up with regard to such inner quests. I believe that’s because the end point of an inner quest is hazy and its meaningfulness lies quirkily in the mind of the person involved. Those who concentrate on the external markers of living find little purpose and no benefit in the interior pursuit.
Indeed, when I taught an introductory philosophy course, a freshman told me that she considered René Descartes’ legendary search for a logical foundation for all his beliefs proof that he was “mentally ill.” After all, how would he have been better off or fundamentally different once he had identified the certainty he sought?
Remember that for pioneering psychologist Carl Jung, who originated the introvert/extrovert distinction, introverts tend to find meaning in an inward turning of psychic energy, treasuring values within themselves and appreciating subjective states of being. At the other pole of the personality continuum, extroverts tend to find meaning in objective factors that exist outside of their own minds.
Here is one more example of how an inner quest gets dismissed as meaningless. One online reviewer of the novel Italian Shoes by Swedish author Henning Mankell wrote: “So contrived... Driving through the snow and cold for miles to find a pool that you remember from 30 years ago? Why?” Another complained about “labored profundity signifying nothing” with “characters who never resemble credible humans and who seem to have few interests (no TV, no wifi, no books, no radio…).” Other readers appreciated its take on love, loss, redemption and the human condition.
I resonated with Italian Shoes in part because I’d once initiated a quest rather like the revisit that the first reviewer ridiculed. Between college and graduate school, my best friend and I took a bicycle trip together, along back roads from Northern California to Crater Lake in Oregon and back again. Somewhere during the trip, we discovered a spot that spoke volumes to me. A park-like campground, it had a small, tidy lake fronted by towering pines, with a scattering of picnic tables, moccasin-soft earth and spaced-apart visitors. For me, these elements had such a rare and perfect harmony that I could imagine planting myself there.
Decades later, my husband and I would be passing through the area during a cross-country road trip, and I decided to look for this spot. I remembered vaguely a sign there that read “Lake of the Woods.” However, no such body of water appeared in our road atlas. Encyclopedias and the Internet, likewise, yielded nothing by that name. (This was in the days of dial-up modems.) Since our entire trip consisted of poking around here and there, my husband indulged me as I asked various locals until somebody finally pointed the way. We did find it, and its ambiance was almost as simple, pure and wonderful as my memory. Ahhhhh…
Well, some people “get” such yearnings and others do not. As an introvert, I feel that’s a fascinating part of the human condition.