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How Free is our Free Will?

A seriously spooky, but incredibly affirming and helpful tool for gaining a better understanding of both ourselves and others is the Myers/Briggs Type Indicator(MBTI).
I came across the MBTI several decades ago. My first response to my results from taking it was, “How could anyone possibly know all those things about me?” I hadn’t even recognized some of them myself until I read the MBTI’s description. It was amazing, but almost scary, how well its description fit.
It gave me greater self-awareness and both an appreciation of my strengths and an understanding of why some aspects of life were much less appealing and even difficult for me. And gradually, as I moved past learning about just my own personality, it explained the challenges in my relationships with people having a different set of both strengths and other aspects of personality that were less natural for them.
That was thirty-two years ago and I am still being helped by this tool in my relationships, particularly with my husband, whose strengths and subsequent ways of being in the world are the exact opposite of mine. In fact, understanding about personality differences  has probably been one of the most significant reasons our marriage has lasted and grown stronger over almost fifty-eight years.
Different personality types focus on different aspects and therefore actually “see” the concrete world differently. The information we take in on any given day, even in the same environment, will vary drastically. Also how we respond to it, personally or theoretically, emotionally or logically, will differ greatly.  Even our dominant focus, whether inward most of the time and only outward on a few people or locations close to us versus mostly outwardly and on the larger world including the future of the whole planet, will also be extremely different. An example: My husband will fight to save a beautiful old tree on a specific site, but isn’t particularly concerned about the rain forests in distant countries.
Personality differences have implications for every aspect of life, not just relationships. I became a consultant on the MBTI and gave workshops on its significance for Marriage Relationships, for Teaching/Learning Style Differences, for the Variety of Approaches to Spirituality, and even for Corporate Management Styles and Employee Responses.
At seventy-nine, I haven’t been professionally active in this for some years, but the MBTI seems to have stood the test of time in both the educational and professional worlds. And I am still discovering areas where it sheds light on our personal human journeys. I am not going to attempt to teach about type. The Association for Personality Type is the professional site for learning about type. However, there are many people writing about type on the internet without sufficient expertise in the subject, so take care in what you accept that isn’t backed up with some credentials.
One of the issues that the reality of inborn personality differences raises questions about, but also sheds some light on, is what degree of free will we have. I’ll begin to explore that in my next post.

Empathy vs Lack of Borders

One of the struggles in life is discerning the fine line between empathy and lack of borders. Some of us seem to be born without borders.

That often leads us to acts of kindness, but it can also simply overwhelm us from needlessly taking on everyone else’s pain.  If we can’t find a way to separate their suffering from our own, we may reach the point where we finally begin to avoid even loved ones who are suffering.

Empathy allows us to understand their pain and comfort them with that understanding, but doesn’t require us to take it on.  Empathy frees us to care without judgment. It is a paradox that part of becoming whole is developing a sense of self independent of others, while recognizing that we are all of equal value in God’s eyes.

Jesus both suffered and died for us. He knew the pain of being human:  the emotional pain of rejection, abandonment, being a victim, humiliation, experiencing failure, physical pain from torture and a painful dying. He lived in our humanity and walked in our broken world. He saved us from the permanence of death, but not from suffering. He said, “Pick up your cross and follow me.”

He didn’t say, “Here’s your get out of suffering free card. But neither did he say, “Carry everyone else’s cross.” Even though there are moments, when like Simon of Cyrene, we can help others carry theirs, we are not called to take on theirs, only our own custom made one. Suffering just comes with being human though our choices can increase our personal suffering.

Sometimes, after I have repeatedly and futilely tried to save someone I love from the consequences of their bad choices, I begin to avoid that person.  I need to escape both my own addiction to playing  savior and the overload of their pain on top of my own.

My challenges are: to accept suffering as part of becoming whole, to develop a sense of self as separate from even those I love, yet to recognize that we are all one in God’s eyes, and finally, to fully accept that removing the consequences of another’s self-destructive patterns of behavior simply rewards and reinforces it.

We can comfort and love others without judging, but we can’t save them. They may need healing or even deliverance which takes repentance and grace. Ultimately those are between them and God.

Compassion or No One’s Playing with a Full Deck

From when I was quite young, I stayed stressed night and day over the possibility of being scolded for anything. Unfortunately, even if a fellow student was scolded, I also hurt for them, literally. My stomach would ache.  As an adult when a friend was going through a painful divorce, it seemed almost like I was going through it myself. In many ways this made me compassionate and I tried always to relieve others’ suffering in any way I could.

But, my life became controlled by an underlying need to relieve suffering of any kind, my own, my friends’, the world’s. This sounds like a good thing, and at times it undoubtedly was. But suffering is an inevitable part of life, everyone’s life. And a lot of suffering is self inflicted and perpetuated by attempts to escape it, rather than experience it and learn and grow from it.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Compassion and fear of our own suffering may be two sides of the same coin.

Over the years I learned that I could not protect my children from suffering. And after a couple of friends, that I tried to give emotional support, ended up committing suicide, I gradually accepted that I am not God and cannot control life for anyone.

Eventually, I also recognized that some people become addicted to being victims and are bottomless pits of needs and wants that no one but God can fill.  I can be kind. I can share insights I’ve gained through my own struggles. I can bring a little laughter into the lives around me. But ultimately, each person’s journey is uniquely tailored to the process of making them into the people God created them to be…no more and no less. We can all only play the hand we were dealt and no one other than God can judge how well we are doing that.
Each person is born with their own set of genetic strengths and virtues. The thing we often overlook is that each strength has a corresponding area of weakness. Our pattern of growth will build on the strengths, but also will involve facing our weaknesses and allowing for them. We can develop survival skills in those areas, but they will never be our gifts.
That means we need one another. That means at times we must set aside our strengths and avail ourselves of the opposite set of gifts of other people. This is a dying to self of sorts. It involves suffering and humility. Not an easy task, but definitely part of becoming a couple, a family, a friend, a community, a nation, a world.

In other words, none of us is playing with a full deck! And we can help one another in partnerships, but not in dependency relationships that keep us from growing.

Compassion calls for not only kindness, but the capacity to accept suffering as part of our own lives and of life in general for everyone.
It comes down to the age old prayer: God help me to change what I can, accept what I can’t change and the wisdom to know the difference.

Life is Hard

But it is hard in different ways for each of us, because we are different from one another. Ask any mother of more than

one child. They will tell you we are all born different. Some babies are quiet and placid, but solemn.  Some are quiet

and calm, but smile and laugh easily.  Some are hyper-active even as infants lying on their backs in a bassinet.  Some

are hyper-sensitive to sounds, startle easily, and react to change. Some are tuned in to their inner world,

reacting very little  to their environment. Some are quite independent, while others need more cuddling, attention

and support. Some are excitable, with an inborn tendency to over react to both positive and negative experiences.

Many children as early as two or three have vivid imaginations. Some both empathize and identify with story book

characters,  often later believing themselves stalked by the story book monsters.  Others are thrilled by the vicarious

terror, but don’t identify with it.

When my father read me stories about children being lost or animals being hurt, it would upset me so much that a

happy ending didn’t make it all right.

Watch how differently children and adults react to shows like America’s Funniest Videos.  Some wince or even cry, as

if everything is happening to them; others are detached and amused, whether the event is real and painful for

someone else or not.

Each personality trait has an upside and a downside, each dominant trait we have gives us both

strengths and weaknesses.  I’ve worked with  tools for measuring and illustrating this, such as the Meyers-Briggs Type

Indicator and the  Enneagram, but for this short article it is simpler to use more life experience descriptions.

A person who is very aware of and sensitive to their own feelings may empathize with others, championing the

underdog or the vulnerable, but will tend to over-react to slights or criticism, real or imagined.

As a child I was equally excitable and responsive to happy and sad things .  When I

was three, I was so excited about Christmas that when I finally was taken in to see my toys under the

tree, I threw up on them before I could even play with them.

In my anxiety filled teen years, my stomach rebelled to even mild stress and I learned to not eat all day before just

going out on dates. Unfortunately for my dates, once I was out, I calmed down and got voraciously hungry.  I was

not a cheap date.

As an adult I often experience  sheer joy over  even small things such as the beauty of nature,  children’s laughter,

my grandchildren’s curiosity about the world, but I also experience extremely dark times over my own failures or

the people I love’s pain.

Even traits we consider wonderful have a down side.  People with high IQ’s tend to assume they are right and often

are not open to other’s opinions, but the reality is that no one is right all the time.

Years ago, I attended a workshop where slogan and affirmations were posted on the walls.  One that simply jumped

out at me was, “I am competent and loveable.”

 My immediate reaction was, “No. You can’t be both.”

In my experience the really efficient people are task oriented.  They are both competent and persevering.   They

focus on the goal, prioritize the details, and plow ahead,  often over people who unwittingly get in their way.  Many

things would not get accomplished without this type of person, but they may alienate so many people along the way

that in the long run their effectiveness will be diminished.

Personally, my greatest value has been ideas that help people in general and my focus has been on relationships.

Physical details, particularly about machines, don’t show up on my radar most of the time.

I once had a secretarial job that involved a lot of detail and working with elaborate and expensive office machines.

I was a total disaster.  Luckily, I realized this and left after three months. I am sure everyone there breathed a sigh of

relief.

But later I had a much higher paying job as a director that involved recruiting volunteers and bringing in training

programs for them, creating and organizing new programs, and doing publicity for these.  I was successful at this in

spite of it involving a lot of detail, because I was good at recognizing, recruiting, and supporting people with the skills

that I don’t have.

I wasted a lot of angst in my early life expecting to be equally good at everything.  I taught first grade and one sweet

little girl simply would not do her math homework. When I finally confronted her over this, she looked at me with her

big brown eyes and said sadly, “Oh Miz Norman, I’m good at reading.  Do I have to be good at everything?”  My gut

level response was, “Of course.”  Luckily, I stopped and thought about it.  Finally, I said, “No, you don’t have to be

equally good at everything.  But you need to at least learn survival skills in math. If you don’t know basic math, how

will you be able to shop?”  She thought about that for a minute and decided I was right.

I’m pretty sure she didn’t go on to become a mathematician, but hopefully she is out there somewhere shopping and

keeping her checkbook balanced.

She actually freed me of the belief that I was stupid, if I couldn’t easily excel in everything, and to accept that I had to

work harder at some things just to survive.  I now try to do the things I want to avoid first, but in spurts, followed by

shorter breaks  doing things I enjoy or find easy. This is  a method of motivating myself with a reward and

encouraging myself by doing something I can do easily.

I tend to envy people who live in the present moment. They seem so carefree, since they are not over-burdened by

 past mistakes or wounds and don’t worry much about the future. In fact they hardly think about the future at all.

They are happy, optimistic and fun, but the downside is that they are often oblivious to possible consequences of

their choices in the moment.

I have always tended to focus on the future, imagining its wonderful possibilities. Sometimes this has helped me be an

agent for change and to plan ahead for a lot of eventualities.  But I also end up living in a picture perfect world in my

head.  Then when reality doesn’t measure up, I don’t persevere if I see that I can’t achieve the ideal I have

pictured.   I think that a  lot of my life has been lived by the motto, “If at first you don’t succeed, don’t make a

fool of yourself, try something else.”  Now in my later years my life challenge is to learn to persevere even through

failures and to accept that nothing is perfect.  At seventy-six I still haven’t quite gotten there , but I have made a lot

of progress.

I am emotionally volatile. In the early years of our fifty-six years of marriage, my husband said I could go from

bubbling with joy to total despondency faster than a speeding bullet. And sometimes when I fell into one of my

feeling pits that make doing anything seem like struggling through quicksand, I would become almost paralyzed. But

along the way I discovered that I can continue to function even when depressed, if I cut myself some slack by

prioritizing and only doing what is completely necessary. And, if I don’t waste time and energy by beating myself up

over this trait, I pull out fairly quickly and can go longer periods without becoming a bottomless pit of wants and

needs.

People like me should be assigned a counselor at birth.  At several crisis points in my life I have gotten counseling,

some good, some not so much.  But good or not, because I’m all about evolution, on the grand scale and the

personal,  once I recognize that I’ve bogged down, I persevere at finding what I need to work through it.

  And I’ve come to see that we all evolve in different patterns of stages and in a circle.  For instance at a different

time in life, I and others like me, begin to focus temporarily on being more task oriented people. And the task

oriented people will at some point do just the opposite, thus developing skills in our weaker traits.

The good news is that in our later years we find it easier to become reasonably competent in our weakest

areas. (Easi er, not easy, because in order to do this we must let go of our strength, a kind of dying to self.)

And for me that means being able to accept imperfect reality and to be willing to persevere in inching toward

becoming the unique, though imperfect, person I was created to be.  And along the way are times of  lovely peace,

great joy,  unmeasurable love, and sneak peaks at what the journey is all about.