A Tentative Psychological Typology (4/09)

I offer here a playful-sketchy stab at yet another psychological typology—a general scheme for distinguishing some basic character types, based primarily upon the factors that move us from within and shape us from without.  Other typologies—e.g., astrological, Platonic, Theophrastus’, the Enneagram, and particularly Jung’s (which is known to many via the Myers-Briggs test)—are far more richly developed, elaborate, and subtle, but I offer this as something merely for the reader to play with.  To begin:

Some persons define themselves chiefly by what they want—what they desire in and from life, whether that happens to be a luxurious, oversized home and a Ferrari or, someday, to become a contestant on American Idol.  Others define themselves principally by where they’ve come from—what persons, places, and events have shaped them into “who” they are.  Still others seem to be defined primarily by philosophical, ethical, or religious ideas with which they deeply identify and against which they continually measure and evaluate themselves.  There is, finally, a relatively rare fourth type that seems driven principally by a yearning for release from all forms and attachments which enthrall or encumber the spirit.

A person whose sense of identity is markedly bound up with the concrete worldly goods or accomplishments he yearns for may turn out to be a mere dreamer or a marvelous, inspiring “success story,” depending on a variety of factors, the most significant of which are the person’s actual capacities (practical single-mindedness, powers of concentration, drive, willingness to make sacrifices, intelligent understanding of the means to his ends, etc.) and the attainability of that desired end, relative to those actual capacities and abilities.  But once that which is yearned for (and which has hitherto defined “who” our person is) has been attained—if it is attained—then what?  If the yearning and the striving and the creative work that were involved in the attainment of the goal were crucial components of the person’s sense of happiness and identity, what is likely to happen when that yearning, striving, and creative work are no longer fixed upon their former goal—since now it has been attained?  Presumably, just maintaining one’s hold upon—or possession of—the realized dream will not be quite the same thing, or bring the same level of satisfaction, as the striving and the initial attainment of the goal.  Doesn’t such a person—once the goal is achieved—undergo something like a symbolic death experience?  Up till now his life has been defined and driven by the quest, and now that a kind of finish line has been crossed, life itself may very well feel wrapped up, psychologically speaking.

Could it be that the impractical dreamer who yearns but does not strive, who idealizes but takes no decisive steps to realize that which he imagines for himself, is faced with a very different form of “impotence” and “death” than those who actually realize their grand dreams and then are left somehow dissatisfied—stumped about what to make of their “winnings?”  Is it possible that such unaccomplished, un-proven dreamers are able, somehow—before ever setting forth—to “see around the corner” of their dreams?  Perhaps they intuitively anticipate the inevitable slackening and disillusionment that is experienced as soon as we get what wish for—and this alone is enough to dampen their zeal?  Perhaps not.  Perhaps he or she simply lacks the will, discipline, confidence, and courage required to strive effectively.  In either case something is left undone, perhaps unfulfilled and unborn in the ineffectual dreamer—some drive or motivation that, despite its ultimate inability to bring complete satisfaction, nevertheless eventually gets accomplished because of the striver’s struggle and sacrifice.

Those who understand and define themselves chiefly by the personal biographical events and local cultural conditions out of which they have emerged tend either to praise or to blame these factors for the person they’ve become.  If, at bottom, they love and respect what they’ve become, their positive affirmation of those shaping factors from their past will probably take the present form of passing on this same legacy and way of life to others who are in search of well-being.  If, however, the person feels himself to have been botched or irrevocably tainted by his origins and his background, this may provide a kind of excuse or rationalization for his remaining mired in a condition of self-disgust and psychological paralysis.  What is interesting is that the actual conditions (of genetics, parentage, early education, socio-economic status, cultural and religious affiliation, ethnicity, gender, etc.) can be almost the same in both of these very different cases, and one person will feel spurred on and energized by them while the other will feel cursed or blighted by them—which suggests that a good deal more than just environmental factors are always at play in how we turn out (or who we turn out to be).  These hypothetical background conditions in both cases may be benign or favorable (in a popularly understood sense—say, with wealth, superb formal education, respectful tolerance and liberty, benign social environment, etc.) or the opposite (poverty, alcoholic or negligent parents, little or no formal education, etc.), while happy/fulfilled lives and miserable ones can arise from both sorts of conditions.  What is crucial to this type is the decisive role played by his past in the present state of his character, or fate.  In both cases there will be a tendency to replicate those conditions out of which their identities were forged—in the one case because of the energizing and structure-providing powers associated with those conditions; in the other, simply because he is crippled by them and stuck, monotonously repeating the same pattern over and over again, but never really going anywhere.

With persons whose identity is principally informed by abstract ideas or ideals, we encounter a similarly wide spectrum stretching between those, at one end, who are more actively and dialectically engaged with ideas and those, at the other, who are extremely passive and slavish in their obedience to them.  In both cases there tends to be a greater measure of impersonality, as a by-product of their relationship with grand ideas and abstract principles, which frequently have a noticeably impersonal character, even when they claim otherwise.  “Impersonal” does not necessarily mean “dead” or unfeeling, since ideas and the persons animated by them can certainly be zealously passionate, magnetic, and may even convey a certain warmth and humor.  Unless, of course, the person is merely the puppet or soulless mouthpiece for some inviolable, ruling theory or piece of dogma, in which case the life of the person is unconsciously leeched away by the “pale cast” of his tyrannizing idea, which possesses him, exploits him, and eats away at him like a degenerative disease.

How can an abstract, impersonal idea or a cold and bloodless theory have such an effect upon a living, breathing human being, it will be asked?  Such a question could only be raised, paradoxically, in a psychologically imbalanced era, in which ideas have been robbed of ‘soul’ and reduced to instrumental tools in the service of merely practical or mundane purposes.  I refer to the “pragmatic,” instrumental reason that has all but completely supplanted and extinguished the speculative ideas and the philosophical thinking with which our pre-modern forebears seem to have had more natural and easy relations—and a better feel for.  One equips oneself to wrestle with ideas only after he has come to respect them (in their once grander and more magnificent forms) as our prehistoric ancestors respected and revered great and often dangerous animals, upon which they at the same time depended for sustenance.

I have added one more type to the three I’ve already mentioned, although in many respects it is perhaps better conceived as an undoer of merely personal identity than as a formative factor.  I would describe it as a “form-shedder” for it may be linked with the Hindu notion of moksha, or liberation from the body, the passions, and all mundane attachments.  Just as with the other three identity-related categories, this fourth one has an active (rajas) and a passive, or inert (tamas) modality: non-attachment and nihilism.

The inclusion of this fourth category (or type) seems warranted as a transformative element in an otherwise static or closed scheme.  It is the radically dynamic variable, if only because of its subversive, undermining relationship to the other three.  And yet, it is not a case of apples and oranges here, since this fourth category is still related to the central issue of identity—only from a perspective of decomposition rather than of composition, deconstruction rather than construction—withdrawal rather than immersion.

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