Introverted Christians sometimes envy the joyful exuberance of extroverts, but there's a special role for the melancholic.
“I very often wish,” wrote one of my many melancholic friends, “that I had Belloc’s and Chesterton’s joy of life, which seems in both their cases to derive from joy of Christ’s life.” I had to tell him he was never going to.
G.K. Chesterton and his friend Hillaire Belloc enjoyed a larger-than-life exuberance, what we might call beer hall Christianity, complete with loud cheerful arguments across the table, howling laughter heard above the crowd, rollicking sing-alongs, and (I don’t know why I imagine this) the sounds of breaking glass. Those like my friend (and me), more likely to be found having a beer with a few friends, sitting in a corner table in a quiet pub, and at times to be found by themselves staring meditatively into space, can find their life one to envy.
But it’s not ours. We are who we are. Increasing numbers of studies show that much of our personality we get from our genes, and we can see how much other people and life form us. Everyone is the kind of person he is for reasons he can’t control. My friend and I could never have made ourselves into Lebron James and we can’t make ourselves into Chesterton or Belloc.
This is not to say that the encounter with Jesus doesn’t change us. The joy of Christ focused and directed their exuberance. They didn’t just enjoy life, they enjoyed life as Christians. The Christian life channels, directs, corrects, encourages one’s temperamental mode of belief. It takes the person you are and sands off the rough edges, smooths the corners, straightens you out, and turns you in the right direction.
The world needs its Chestertons and it needs its melancholics. In-built differences of personality are aspects of the diversity of the body in the same way as the gifts St. Paul talks about. The Church and world needs the innocent Chesterton and the pugnacious Belloc, but also people like my friend. Think of a Church consisting entirely of extroverts. It makes the blood run cold.
Americans over-value the obvious, overt, expressive. When I worked at an Evangelical seminary, I saw many students try to twist themselves into the extrovert ideal and it always ended in tears. Their personality was a gift to be used for God’s glory but they demanded another, and they weren’t going to get it. I’ve seen this same privileging of the extrovert ideal in some Catholic writing and programs, and I’m sure they have the same effect.
Exuberance doesn’t equal joy. Many Christians live joyfully in Christ, they’re just quiet about it. They therefore reach different people and do different things for God. Others struggle to feel that joy but even in their struggles they offer something to others that the exuberantly, overtly joyful cannot.
We see the fruit of the differences in Chesterton’s and Belloc’s public careers. Chesterton’s innocence made him in most cases an effective debater and polemicist. In his intellectual generosity he’d go very far to try to agree with his opponent, which meant that when he finally disagreed, he would disagree with the core of his opponent’s argument and take it out. The less generous man would not have seen so deeply and therefore not struck so deep. The generosity with which he struck made his polemic attractive even when he’d left his opponent’s argument in ruins.
This generosity blinded him to certain facts that the pugnacious Belloc saw. It is a problem that Chesterton was so genial in his writings about George Bernard Shaw, who endorsed some very wicked causes (Hitler and Stalin being two) with an appalling moral flippancy. You can’t get from Chesterton’s extensive writings on Shaw an accurate view of his character.
As Belloc himself pointed out, sometimes Chesterton should have gone for the kill and didn’t. This Belloc did. When H. G. Wells published A History of the World, an international bestseller praised by the Great and Good of the day, and also progressivist rubbish, Belloc went after it and took it down. Wells’ history was a book with a wide and pernicious effect that needed to be attacked by someone who would go for the kill. Chesterton couldn’t have done it nearly as well as Belloc did.
George Orwell got at another difference when he wrote that if Chesterton really believed in Hell he wouldn’t write so lightly about it. It’s a fair hit. You get a much more compelling vision of Hell from C. S. Lewis, who seems to me to have been more like Belloc in temperament, not as pugnacious but having the same melancholic streak. Chesterton could not have written The Screwtape Letters. He wasn’t wired for it, and Lewis was.
If we could have only one of the three, I’d choose Chesterton every time, but if we only had Chesterton we’d be missing something the other two brought because they saw and felt the world differently than he did. My friend will never have their joy of life, but he has his own, though he struggles.
I know of one fruit of his life that Chesterton could never produce: his faithfulness to Christ through his struggles has long been an example and encouragement to me. I am a better man because he is who he is.