Have you ever seen the wind catch an umbrella and rip it inside out? That's how introverts feel when we have to take the initiative in a conversation. It feels unnatural and awkward. Reaching out to Jefferson and Skye in some way every day left me feeling like that. Rachel and I kept on sitting at their table at lunchtime and trying to make friendly conversation. Every time it felt as if I were turning myself inside out to engage them and come up with stuff to say. After a whole week of that, I was identifying very will with the umbrella. I needed some time alone in my own quiet space.
Fortunately for me, I have a place of escape. That weekend I did nothing but hide out in my room and think. I can always recharge in there. It is my own cozy world in which I can surround myself with all my little comforts and not have to talk to a single soul. For a whole blissful weekend, it was no more Valley Creek high for me. Instead, it was my man cave - my desk, my bed, my computer, my journal, my car posters on the walls, and above all, my precious books lining the overflowing shelves - the perfect getaway.
On Saturday afternoon, there was a knock on my bedroom door.
"Come in," I called from where I sat cross-legged on my bed, reading a book.
The door squeaked open and my dad walked into the room.
"Hey, Man-Man," he said. "How's it going?"
I smiled to myself. "Man-Man" had been my dad's nickname for me ever since I could remember. A lot of people would have been embarrassed by it, but my dad has the good sense not to use it in public anymore, so it doesn't bother me much.
"I'm okay," I responded, closing my book and laying it aside. Dad sat down on the bed next to me.
"Mind if I sit here?"
"Sure, go ahead."
"Great, thanks for the permission," he winked at me. His warm brown eyes laughed.
"So tell me about your life," he said. "What's been keeping you busy? I haven't seen you much lately.
I looked up into his kind, genuine face. Dad works as a delivery person for the postal service. He always manages to make personal time for me whenever he gets a chance, and he's always interested in whatever is occupying me.
"To be honest, it's been kind of hectic," I sighed.
"Oh? How so?"
"There are two new kids at school, Jefferson and Skye Varner. Rachel Reynolds, the girl I study with sometimes, thinks they look lonely and rejected because their dad has a negative reputation so other kids at school are pushing them away. Rachel and I have decided to try to be friendly to Jefferson and Skye, but it's so hard. They're totally cold and unreceptive, and all this socializing stuff is completely draining me."
"So you've decided to reach out," Dad mused approvingly. "I'm proud of you, Chris. That's an awesome step for you."
"Yeah, well, it's not easy," I said. I leaned forward with my elbows on my knees and dropped my head in my hands.
"Still, it's a good thing," Dad said. "After all, the Bible says, 'A man that hath friends must show himself friendly.'"
"Right. Proverbs 18:24," I responded. I sighed heavily. "I don't know, Dad. Being friendly is really challenging. Why can't there be another way? Reaching out and talking to people is hard."
Dad chuckled. "Believe me, I know. On my route I'd generally rather be greeted by people's dogs than by the people themselves."
"Society doesn't make it any easier," I said gloomily. "I mean, really, culture is anti-introverts. In order to do anything or get anywhere significant in life, it seems like a person always has to make a splash. Even getting something as basic as a friend requires talking to people. Everything is in favor of outgoing people, and introverts get the bad end of the deal.
An amused half-smile flitted across Dad's face, followed by a thoughtful expression.
"You do have a point there," he acknowledged.
"I don't get it, though," I said, frowning. "I thought you always said that God doesn't play favorites, but then why would the Bible tell us that we have to be outgoing to have friends? Why would God be anti-introverts, too?"
Dad was silent for a long, contemplative moment. Finally, he turned to face me full-on, looking at me lovingly, gently.
"God isn't anti-introverts, Chris," he said. "He made you just the way you are for a reason. Think about how no two snowflakes are exactly alike. That shows that God loves variety. He made you unique on purpose. He loves introverts and extroverts just the same."
My brow creased more deeply.
"Then why did He make it harder on introverts?"
"Not everything is harder. There are some things that are just as challenging for extroverts."
"Yeah, like shutting up," I smirked.
Dad laughed. "You could easily be right about that one," he said. "But back to your question. God made you - Christopher Alan Armstrong - with a special plan in mind for you. Being your Creator, He knows you better than anyone. It's not a mistake that you're a more introverted person. And while He does say that to have friends you must be a friend, He also understands you inside and out, and He knows how you struggle to socialize. Why don't you ask Him to show you ways suited to your personality that you can be friendly to others?"
I gazed at Dad, half amazed, half skeptical.
"So you're saying I can make friends without ever having to step outside my comfort zone?"
"No," he shook his head. "Friendships are give-and-take deals, and they wouldn't be worth anything if there was no effort or sacrifice involved. But hear me out. There will be people who need someone just like you in their lives. Because you are an introvert, there will very likely be other introverts who will gravitate to your personality. You will be able to befriend and influence people whom others will overlook. And God can guide your life so that you'll come in contact with those people. Does that make sense?"
"I think so," I said slowly. "But there's something else I'm confused about."
"Well, I have been trying to show myself friendly to Jefferson and Skye, but it hasn't been doing any good, so I guess I'm a failure anyway."
Dad put his arm around my shoulders.
"Listen, Chris," he said with gentle firmness as he looked me steadily in the eye. "Success isn't measured by whether the other party responds favorably. The instruction is simply for us to be friendly to them. So if you do your part, you're successful, and if they don't ever respond, well, that's their issue. You don't ever need to think of yourself as a failure."
I sat there for another long moment, processing what Dad had just said. His words were challenging yet deeply comforting at the same time. It was just what I needed.
"Thanks, Dad," I said at last. "I'll try to remember that."
Dad squeezed my shoulders.
"You do that," he said, smiling at me. "You'll make it."
I smiled back. I wasn't envisioning the Varners' receptivity changing anytime soon, but Dad's reassurance gave me a boost in confidence that would carry me through another whole week of seemingly futile attempts to befriend Jefferson and Skye. I couldn't know then that an event was about to take place that would turn things all around.
It happened on a Friday. At school that day, I had asked Rachel if she'd be willing to help me study for the upcoming biology quiz. As usual, she agreed, and this time she suggested that we meet that evening at her house. I was a little shocked by the offer. Until now, we had only ever met at the library to study. Did she really consider me enough of a friend now to invite me to her own house? Amazing.
I ran the plan by my mom when I got home that afternoon.
"So you're meeting up with a fellow student to study now?" Mom smiled at me from the kitchen cupboard she was organizing. "What is this - the third time now? Sounds to me like you're making a friend."
"I don't know if we'd classify as friends yet," I said shyly. "We just help each other study. And she was the one to reach out to me in the first place anyway."
"Well, at least it's a start," Mom said. She paused and looked me over. "So what's Rachel like?"
"Nice. Really nice - like way nicer than anybody else at school ever. She doesn't have a lot of friends, but it's only because people are dumb and ignore the kids who don't wear the latest and nicest clothes and have cool stuff. Rachel doesn't do that, though. She looks past what's on the outside, and she can read people like nobody's business!"
"Sounds like an awesome classmate," Mom responded with a sweet smile. She neatly arranged a pyramid of coffee mugs in the corner of the cabinet. "You have permission to go. I'll drive you there at seven and pick you up again at nine. That should be plenty of time to get a good bit of studying done."
I grinned. "Thanks, Mom."
Seven o'clock found me arriving at Rachel's doorstep. She lived in a small and simple house, but the lawn and general outside appearance were tidy, and there were bright flowers in the window boxes.
"Hey, Chris. Come on in," she greeted me warmly. "Grandma's out this evening at a neighborhood association meeting so it's just me here right now, but she made some banana bread for us before she left."
"That was sweet," I remarked.
"You're not allergic or anything, are you?" she double-checked with concern as she led me into the kitchen.
"Nope. I'm good."
"Great," she said. She cut off a couple slices.
Before long, we were seated at the kitchen table, working away on our study of biology. Biology has never been my strongest subject, and although I do better with it than with history, I really have to exert my mind to get a good grasp on it. With Rachel's help, though, it was a lot easier. I could hardly believe I had suffered for so long without a study partner. Then again, there was the big question of which would have been the worse suffering - having to study on my own, or the social effort required to talk to someone and actually get the help.
The time flew by faster than either of us realized. Between the both of us, we devoured a ridiculous amount of banana bread. Upon discovering this, when we actually took the time to evaluate the nearly empty plate, we both burst into giggles.
"Okay, so it goes nowhere how much of this stuff I ate tonight," I said between laughs.
"Same here," Rachel agreed, wiping tears of laughter from the corners of her eyes. When our outburst of amusement had subsided, Rachel said, "It'll be time for you to go soon, and we've studied quite a bit. How about we go chill on the front porch for a while?"
"Okay," I agreed.
The evening breeze whispered gently around us as the late summer sun began fading while we sat on the porch and talked about anything non-school-related.
"So do you ever get lonely with just you and your grandma living here?" I asked.
Rachel shrugged. "Occasionally. But I've learned how to function on my own so much that I don't really rely on other people to entertain me."
"Oh," I said, suddenly feeling self-conscious about all the time I'd been taking up. "Then I probably shouldn't come around too often anymore."
"What? No, I didn't mean that," she reassured me quickly. "I don't mind having other people around. But I'm not going to get, like, super bored if there isn't anyone either."
"Oh," I said. That relieved me quite a bit.
"Hey, look," Rachel said. "There's Skye." She nodded in the direction of the next door neighbors' house. A familiar figure was walking up the front path. Rachel waved at Skye just before the girl disappeared through the front door. Skye's only response was a short nod.
"Still cold as ever," I muttered.
"Yeah, but I'm not giving up yet," Rachel said determinedly.
"You're not a quitter, are you?" I commented.
The next several minutes evaporated as we lost ourselves in enjoyable conversation once more. We soon forgot all about Skye. I had never found it this easy to talk to a classmate. Rachel was so open and sincere that it pulled me right into a comfort zone I never knew I had. I found myself feeling slightly disappointed that this last half hour was getting away so fast.
Suddenly, right in the middle of a sentence, Rachel tensed visibly and sniffed the air.
"Do you smell that?" she asked abruptly.
"Smell what?" I asked.
"I thought I smelled smoke," she said, her brows knitting together in concern.
I sniffed. Come to think of it, there was a strong fiery scent to the evening air.
"Yeah, I smell it, too," I said. "Is something burning somewhere?"
"People don't typically burn things here. Only a small fire pit is even allowed to be owned in this section of the neighborhood."
"Then maybe someone is having a cookout," I said.
"I don't know. It smells different than that," Rachel looked worried. "And look how smokey the air is!"
"You're right. It's getting pretty intense." I traced my eyes through the faint gray haze, looking for its source. Rachel must have done the same, because we seemed to be hit with a dreadful realization at the exact same time.
"Oh, no!" she cried, jumping up from her chair, wide-eyed.
"The Varners' house! It's on fire!" I exclaimed as I also started up in alarm.
"And Skye's still in there!"