The Power of Fiction

The Power of Fiction | marissabaker.wordpress.com
bg image: “mountain of books” by Ginny, CC BY-SA

Fiction affects society, for good or ill, often as much or more than real-life situations. If Charles Dickens had lectured about the plight of real-life orphans in London, would it have had the same effect as writing Oliver Twist? Or to use an example I see as very negative, would as many people have been obsessed with an essay about BDSM as they were with 50 Shades of Gray?

Fiction is powerful. We talked about this a couple weeks ago, but all in a positive light since I was arguing that fiction has value. It can also have a more negative influence as well, which is why I think both writes and readers have a responsibility to self-censor. It’s not up to someone to tell writers not to write a certain kind of book or discuss a specific topic, or to tell readers what they can and cannot read. But it is a good idea (particularly if you’re a Christian) to think carefully about the reading and writing choices we make.

Writer Responsibility

On March 31, 1750, Samuel Johnson published what has become one of the most famous statements in regards to the potential of fiction. While I don’t agree with his arguments against imaginative invention of the fantastic (I write fantasy, after all), this passage intrigues me:

if the power of example is so great as to take possession of the memory by a kind of violence, and produce effects almost without the intervention of the will, care ought to be taken that, when the choice is unrestrained, the best examples only should be exhibited; and that which is likely to operate so strongly should not be mischievous or uncertain in its effects.”

I think what Johnson is saying is that authors have a responsibility not to use the power they weld to influence their readers negatively. Responsible authors exercise a form of self-censorship, which doesn’t necessarily mean they shouldn’t talk about complex or even “bad” ideas. But fiction can be enormously influential, and authors should be conscious of the fact that what they are writing has the potential to fill their readers’ minds.

Writers of fiction set out to create a story that draws readers in, and once this happens the readers are under the writer’s influence. Johnson thought that, “the best examples only should be exhibited” so that there is nothing “mischievous or uncertain” in fiction’s effect. I don’t think we need to go that far, but we should be mindful of the power we have to influence readers.

Reader Responsibility

As readers, we should also be mindful of what we expose our minds to, remembering that we’re giving our reading material the opportunity to change or influence our thinking. I came across a great article titled “Self Censorship Better Than Book Banning” a few weeks ago about teaching your children how to make good decisions about their reading material instead of trusting the schools or government to ban “inappropriate” books (which will be defined differently for each individual).

This is pretty much what my mother did, though I wasn’t required to talk about every book with her after reading it (I usually did anyway, so she didn’t really need a rule). The only time I remember my mother taking away a book was when I broke down sobbing one day and confessed that I was having trouble dealing with the main character losing her father to cancer. There were a few other books that she strongly recommended I give up, and I usually (eventually) agreed with her. Harry Potter was “banned” in our house when it first came out, and that’s the only book I can remember being specifically told not to read.

It seems to have worked for the most part. There are books I wish I hadn’t read (and a few I’m sure that I really I shouldn’t have been reading), but for the most part I’m glad I had that freedom. It helped teach me to think for myself, which, to reference John Keating from Dead Poets Society, is the goal of good education.

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Blog Updates

Some of you probably noticed there wasn’t a recipe post last week. There’s not one today, either. I want to start to focus this blog a bit more narrowly, and spend more time writing e-books and fiction. I’ll probably still post recipes as I find some that I want to share, but there will no longer be one every Wednesday.

I want to make this blog more helpful to my readers. Most feedback I receive has been on my posts about personality psychology and Christianity. With that in mind, the Christian-themed posts will continue every Saturday, and my immediate goal is to finish and release the INFJ e-book I announced a few months ago (it’s mostly finished, but you still have time to contribute if you like. Click the link for more information).

I’ve also been working for a couple years on a high school English curriculum for homeschoolers. My younger brother is working through it now (it’s great — I get someone to test my curriculum, and I’m being paid in books for teaching his English class). My goal is to make it flexible enough that parents can tailor the assignments for different students’ learning styles and personalities. If all goes well, the freshman course will be out in a year or so.

If you have any thoughts, comments, or suggestions, please share. My goal is to write things that you want to read, and I like to know if I’m on the right track 🙂

Shy Introverts

Last week, when I wrote about reasons to homeschool introverts, I touched on the difference between “shy” and “introverted.” I said that shyness and introversion are often confused, but introversion is an inherited preference for how you recharge (alone, rather than with other people), while shyness is a fear response. We talked about how introverted children can become shy and insecure if they are told there’s something wrong with their preference for introversion, which reinforces a low self-confidence and increases feelings of shyness.

But looking at shyness this way doesn’t give a complete picture. It still assumes shyness is “bad,” while in reality the more mild forms of shyness might simply be traits of an introverted temperament. Also, for those of us who are both shy and introverted, being told that shyness and introversion aren’t the same thing is not very helpful. I agree with people who argue that introversion needs to be understood rather than overcome — introverts shouldn’t feet guilty for not being extroverts. But I’ve read articles that set out to prove introverts should be accepted just the way they are, and then turn around and start criticizing shy people for their fears and anxiety in social situations. It’s not very encouraging to be told that your introversion is okay, but you need to “get over” your shyness.

Is Shy Really So Bad?

While researching for this post, I cam across “A Quiet Rant About Introversion and Shyness” by Barbara Markway. Like this writer, I’m both an introvert and a highly sensitive person (HSP).  We’re also both shy, though not as “painfully shy” as we once were. Like her , I worry that we risk hurting shy introverts when we focus the conversation about shyness and introversion on the idea that introverts are not shy. Because some of us actually are.

Shyness is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just viewed as bad in current American culture. Other cultures see shyness as a sign of modesty, and treat it as a virtue (Asian cultures are typically used as an example). So for those of us who are shy, quiet, and introverted, know that there’s not necessarily something “wrong” with you. Extreme shyness becomes a problem when your fear gets in the way of you choosing to move forward with things you want to do, but a little shyness  can be a positive trait depending on how you look at it.

“the shy and the introverted, for all their differences, have in common something profound. Neither type is perceived by society as alpha, and this gives both types the vision to see how alpha status is overrated, and how our reverence for it blinds us to things that are good and smart and wise.” — Susan Cain

Shyness vs. Social Anxiety

Social anxiety is where “shyness” becomes problematic. Both shyness and social anxiety disorder are motivated by a fear of social situations, but social anxiety is more of a phobia-level fear. It’s often accompanied by a physical response (nausea, sweating, heart racing), and a person with social anxiety disorder might not appear shy all the time. It’s much more complex than simply an exaggerated form of shyness, as illustrated in the essay “Social anxiety is not the same as excessive shyness” by Chris Alaimo. I recommend clicking over there and reading what he wrote if you’re interested in this topic.

“Many people are a little bit shy. If you’re shy, you might be somewhat uncomfortable in situations such as going to a party where you don’t know anyone, but you do it. You give yourself a push, you go to the party, after a while you relax and talk to people. The social phobic person, at the prospect of the same party, would be overwhelmed by such anxiety that [he or she] would have a physical reaction — perhaps nausea, sweating, heart racing, dizziness — and would avoid it if at all possible. It’s a matter of degree.” Rudolf Hoehn-Saric, MD, head of the Anxiety Disorders Clinic at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine (as quoted on WebMD).

I actually didn’t know about this distinction until someone asked what the difference was and I did some research. Now, I’m not sure anymore whether I qualify as shy or socially anxious. Using the above example, I do experience the the heart-racing, nausea, and panic-attack reaction to going to an event, but I usually go anyway (often because a family member pushes me out of the house. Literally, sometimes). So do I have mild social anxiety, or extreme occasional shyness? I suppose it doesn’t really matter, since WebMD says the typical treatment is anti-depressants and I’m not going to do that for something that’s not having a more drastic impact on my life.

I think it’s something worth thinking about, though, for people who are very shy. One of the reasons I like type psychology is because when you know yourself, you are better able to plan for and cope with your weaknesses, as well as utilize your strengths. Along the same lines, wven if you don’t plan on seeking medical help for shyness or social anxiety, knowing there’s a name for what you’re dealing with can help make it seem more manageable, and it helps you track down information like Must-Have Coping Strategies for Social Anxiety.

 

Why Homeschool Introverts?

One of the big things that introverts want people to know is that “introversion is not the same as shyness.” And it isn’t — just because someone is introverted doesn’t mean they are shy, and there are plenty of shy extroverts as well (Susan Cain has an article about this). People tend to assume shyness is the same thing as introversion, but that’s just not true. Introversion refers to a preference for how someone gathers energy — they are energized by alone time rather than by being around groups of people. Shyness is fear.

But how is it that we become shy? If it’s not inborn, then we must learn it at some point, usually quite early in our lives. You might see an outgoing child become shy, but it’s rare that a socially confident adult suddenly develops traits of shyness. So what happens to turn introverted children shy?

Confusing “Shy” and “Introverted”

found on sparkpeople.com

The confusion between “shy” and “introverted” has a long history. Jung, whose work the Myers-Briggs test is based on, wrote that “the introverted attitude includes a tendency to be shy.” While extroverts can be shy (and it might actually be more difficult for them since shyness conflicts with their need to be energized by other people), shyness is more likely in introverts. A certain level of shyness might simply be part of the introverted temperament, but more extreme shyness and social anxiety is not an unavoidable part of introversion.

In his article “Are You Motivated by Your Fear or Your Preference?” Andy Mort says that understanding why introverts are believed to be shy and how that belief impacts society is important. Since introversion is so often confused for shyness, introverted children are often told that they are shy by well-meaning adults who think they need to “fix things.”

When I believed I was shy I adopted that label and acted shy; I feared certain social interactions because I didn’t want my ‘shyness’ to be picked up on, and so often withdrew. Shyness as an identity was reinforced by virtue of the fact that I believed my introverted tendencies were in fact me being shy. And the more I fought them by trying to be more extraverted, the more I withdrew (and more shy I believed I was) because I was using so much social energy. – Andy Mort

Rather than recognizing introverted children and teaching them how to be stable, confident introverts, we tell them they’re shy and try to turn them into extroverts. Someone once said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid” (this quote is often attributed to Einstein, but I can’t find out if that’s accurate). Similarly, when we judge introverted children by their ability to be extroverts, we send them the message that there is something wrong with them, and we label that something shyness.

What Next?

It’s obvious that a solution to this problem has to include a flexibility that allows for people to actually be individuals. It’s one of the great ironies of today’s society that we’re obsessed with individualism, but only if it fits neatly within a certain standard. This is one of the many reasons parents choose to homeschool — to tailor the learning experience to each child’s needs.

One of the most common arguments leveled against homeschooling is that it creates shy, socially awkward children. In reality, homeschoolers are no more likely to be shy than public schooled children. In her book Introvert Power, Laurie Helgoe suggests that homeschooling is actually the best way for introverted children to learn, at least until school reforms like the ones Susan Cain discusses in this interview can be implemented.

from INFJoe

For an introverted child, homeschooling offers a chance for them to learn in their preferred environment — alone or in small groups of people they know well. Since they’re not stressed by the constant over-stimulation and energy drain of being around large groups, they’ll have more social energy available when they do interact with other children, which will help them develop stronger social skills and more confidence in social situations.

These social situations could be church gatherings, homeschool co-ops, field trips, play dates — pretty much any social activity with other children and with older or younger people. Since parents spend so much time with homeschooled children, they’ll usually know them well enough to tell when the child should be encouraged to get outside their comfort zone and make friends, and when to back-off and give them “introvert time.”

My Homeschool Socialization Story

An introverted homeschooler's views on socialization at school marissabaker.wordpress.com
a picture of a much-younger me

Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Marissa whose parents were worried about her going to kindergarten. She was going to be away from home all day, five days a week for the first time in her life. So her mother enrolled her in a summer school program where she would only be gone half a day, to help her get accustomed to being away from home.

Every time Marissa was dropped off at this school, her little sister would cry because Marissa was being abandoned. Years later, there are only two things Marissa remembers about this experience. One was that the teachers wanted her to take naps on a thin blue pad in the middle of a large room filled with strange people. She never slept because she was too nervous, but she had to lay there anyway. The second is hiding under the playset outside the school when all the children were sent outside so she wouldn’t have to face the other children (her mother says one of the boys hit her, but she must have blocked this memory).

One day, when Marissa’s mother picked her up from school, Marissa was crying. She asked, “Have I been away long enough? Can I come home now?” This broke her father’s heart, and he decreed that Marissa would never have to go back to school again.

After this short summer, I was homeschooled through all twelve years of elementary, middle, and high school. My sister also graduated from our homeschool, and my brother is currently finishing up high school at home. I’m one of those homeschooling success stories who went to college, earned better grades there than I did in high school from my mom, and earned my B.A. along with an undergrad research project that I’ve been assured could have gotten me into grad school and on track for my English PhD.

Socializing Homeschoolers

The previous paragraph aside, my goal today is not to defend the academic merits of homeschooling. I want to talk about socialization. Last week, a friend shared with me a great blog post that covered everything from the hypocrisy of America’s talk about “diversity,” to the merits of homeschooling, to defending introverts. In this post, Matt Walsh addressed the frequent claim that we need to send our children to public schools so they can “be socialized.”

In fact, kids who are homeschooled tend to be much better in “social situations” because they learned how to socialize from adults, rather than aping the personality traits of their peers. Public school doesn’t make kids “sociable,” and I think you could more accurately argue for the opposite. The whole concept that we need to send our children to government facilities to be “socialized” makes me shudder. Our children aren’t animals, and I wish we’d stop speaking about them as if they were.

This is a common argument from homeschool families and homeschooling supporters. I don’t exactly want to argue against it, but I have to admit my experiences are somewhat different. While the homeschooled me was quite comfortable socializing with adults and people younger than me, I was never very comfortable in my peer group (a fact that hasn’t changed much, though I’m a little more confident around other young people since going through college). The flip side of this is public school kids I’ve met who ignore younger kids and make no effort to hide the fact that they don’t want to talk with adults. There are, of course, both homeschoolers and public schoolers who are comfortable socializing with anyone and everyone (I suspect this is a personality-type thing more than a where-they-went-to-school thing).

Introverts in School

In a book titled Introvert Power, Laurie Helgoe (who holds a PhD in psychology) discusses the pressures that introverts face in an extroverted society, including the public school system.

In an extroverted society, we rarely see ourselves in the mirror. We get alienating feedback. Alienating feedback comes in the form of repeated encouragement to join or talk, puzzled expressions, well-intended concern, and sometimes, all-out pointing and laughing. … Alienating feedback happens where neighborhoods, schools, and offices provide no place to retreat. Alienating feedback happens when our quiet spaces and wilderness sanctuaries are seen as places to colonize.

Unfortunately, I don’t have her book in front of me at the moment and can’t find the other quote I wanted online. I’ll have to make do with a paraphrase. In her discussion of the school system, Helgoe talks about how the emphasis on group projects and participation in class can sabotage introverted children’s efforts to learn. Her idea isn’t to completely do away with this kind of work, but that schools should cater to different learning needs instead of trying to fit everyone into the extrovert-ideal mold. In the absence of such an education environment, she suggest homeschooling can be the best environment for an introverted child to learn because it allows them to utilize their strengths and can more easily be designed to fit individual children.

My Experiences

An introverted homeschooler's views on socialization at school marissabaker.wordpress.com
from Pinterest

Though I did have friends my age while growing up — most through church, a few through homeschool groups — I did not really interact with a wide variety of people my age until I started college. There, I got a taste of what it might have been like for me to have gone to public school. After settling into life at college, I usually ate alone while reading, talked in class only when I was called on or had an idea I really wanted to share, and socialized with a few people one-on-one or in (very) small groups. And, in spite of the teacher who proclaimed that people eating alone was the most pathetic thing in the world because at heart we are (or should be) social animals, I was content with the level of socialization I enjoyed/avoided at college.

I don’t know exactly what would have happened had I been in public school instead of homeschooled those twelve years. If thrown into the social environment of public school while growing up, I might have made friends and “crawled out of my shell.” However, I suspect it would have been much more like my summer school experience and my first quarter of college, except without the confidence gained by twelve years of studying on my own and being told it was okay to be bookish. My basic personality would not have altered, but I would have felt pressured to hide my quietness and conform instead of being supported in my personal growth. Like Beatrix Potter says in this quote, “Thank goodness I was never sent to school; it would have rubbed off some of the originality.” The world doesn’t need cookie-cutter minions popped out of identical molds and taught identical things. It needs a wide variety of people who have been given the chance to shine using their individual talents. And that is something homeschooling is uniquely suited to do.