Knowing Persons

Hey, I’m back! Sorry for the long period of absence. I did not have as much material/ ideas to write on for this semester, as I only took one content module for Psychology— Personality Psychology. My understanding of the module was a little all over the place (which I believe is inherent in Personality Psychology, given its relative newness, and that it is traditionally learnt through the presentation of various alternative theories by pioneering theorists in psychology, rather than through a coherent synthesis) until it was consolidated while preparing for finals, particularly, through the reading of McAdams & Pals (2006).

In this post, I wish to share my learning of the complexity of human personality (particularly, from the McAdams & Pals article), and I dearly hope that a more nuanced understanding of persons would help us better speak biblical truths into the lives of our fellow brothers and sisters.

Biblical truths, for the sake of brevity, can be quickly summed up by Romans 3:23-25, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation (i.e. wrath absorber) by his blood, to be received by faith.” Specifically, we “have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”, “because we [they] exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature (which includes ourselves) rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever”.

These are great truths that must be spoken as we counsel/ encourage one another in this walk of faith, but these truths must not simply be unloaded onto the other, without taking into consideration the person that we are interacting with. Indeed, we need to consider the various aspects of an individual, some of which are like all other persons, some of which are like some other persons, and some of which are like no other persons (Kluckhohn and Murray, 1953).

In the remaining of the post, I will be extracting “5 fundamental principles for an integrative science of personality” from McAdams & Pals (2006), which will then be accompanied by comments on how this might help us administer to our brothers and sisters as persons.

Principle 1: Evolution and Human Nature— Human lives are individual variations on a general evolutionary design. An integrative framework for understanding the psychological individuality of persons must begin with human nature and with the ways which every person is like all other persons.”

Comments on Principle 1: I do not wish to discount evolution; I believe that there is a role and place for it in our understanding of people. However, what I wish to challenge is its role as “Principle 1”. In my opinion, just as how evolution is a fundamental belief in secular psychology and therefore forms the primary principle of understanding individuals, biblical truths, which are our fundamental beliefs as Christians, should form the primary principle of our universal understanding of individuals. That said, we need to bear in mind that just as it is foolish for anyone to think he understands a person just because he knows evolution, it will be equally foolish for us to think we can fully understand a person just because we know biblical truths which speak of human nature.

Principle 2: The Dispositional Signature— Variations on a small set of broad disposition traits implicated in social life constitute the most stable and recognisable aspect of psychological individuality. Dispositional traits are those broad, nonconditional, decontextualised, generally linear and bipolar, and implicitly comparative dimensions of human individuality that go by such names as extraversion, dominance, friendliness, dutifulness, depressiveness, the tendency to feel vulnerable, and so on.”

Comments on Principle 2: In walking with others, it is important to consider the fact that God designs each of us uniquely, and gives each different personality (which can either be our gifts or area of struggle). By doing so, it could help us shine gospel truths into the life of others, while being sensitive to their needs and struggles. Let me present you an example of an introverted and slightly depressive sister who gets very frustrated (to the extent of being bitter) at having to devote a significant proportion of her time to people around her. It would be necessary and good to point out to her the problem of selfishness/ love for comfort etc, which manifests in how tightly she guards her time and space and her bitter responses. However, if you were only to do so, chances are, your well-meaning advice will fly past her head. She needs you to counsel her through her struggles which occur in light of her introversion and depression. Remember, she responds not only to the fact that people are taking out time from her, but she responds also to her anxiety, tiredness, and lowness of mood which comes about as a result of the former interacting with her dispositional traits.

Principle 3: Characteristic Adaptations— Beyond dispositional traits, human lives vary with respect to a wide range of motivational, social-cognitive, and developmental adaptations contextualised in time, place, and/or social role. Characteristic adaptations include motives, goals, plans, strivings, strategies, values, virtues, schemas, self-images, mental representations of significant others, developmental tasks…”

Comments on Principle 3: One of my favorite axioms of the socio-cognitive approach to personality (a subset of characteristic adaptations) is that people don’t simply respond to events, but that people respond to their construal/ interpretation of events. Interpretations, and its close relative, appraisals (e.g. very crudely, whether the event is positive or negative), often occur in relation to goals, motives, and self-schemas. As such, counselling a person cannot only entail challenging the behavior in response to an event, but must also entail challenging the goals, motives, and self-schemas from which construal of events arise.

Principle 4: Life Narratives & The Challenge of Modern Identity— Beyond dispositional traits and characteristic adaptations, human lives vary with respect to the integrative life stories, or personal narratives, that individuals construct to make meaning and identity in the modern world”.

Comments on Principle 4: We are all meaning-makers, and we seek to make meaning and construct coherence from the events that occur in our lives. Typically, new events, especially significant events that occur in an individual’s life fit into a bigger narrative. Similar to Principle 3, we don’t necessarily respond objectively to events, but respond to them in light of how they fit into the bigger narrative. For example, I have rather recently responded rather violently to a possible change of future career plans. I was well aware of ungodly pursuits, but that did not seem to cut to the heart on why it was so difficult to lay my career plans down. Not until a sister pointed out to me that my career plans were in reality a replacement to broken dreams I had experienced previously. In my life narrative, my future career plans had unknowingly become events to help me make sense and create hope out of my past broken dreams. My response was violent, not so much because of the career in and of itself, but because I had not laid my narrative of healing from a broken dream before the Lord, and instead sought to find healing in other ways of my own.

Principle 5: The Differential Role of Culture— Culture exerts different effects on different levels of personality….Culture..rich mix of meanings, practices, and discourses about human life that prevail in a given group or society.”

Comments on Principle 5: Not much comments on this; I think it’s rather self-explanatory– it is always good to consider how culture affects narratives, characteristic adaptations, and expression of behavior as we walk with others.

 

References

Kluckhohn, C. E., Murray, H. A., & Schneider, D. M. (1953). Personality in nature, society, and culture .
McAdams, D. P., & Pals, J. L. (2006). A new Big Five: fundamental principles for an integrative science of personality. American psychologist, 61(3), 204.
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Man in the Museum

A couple of days ago I visited the National Museum of Singapore. I actually meant to visit the National Gallery but was confused by the two… nonetheless a highlight there was the ‘Treasures of the World’ exhibit featuring artefacts from the British Museum. Relics were present from places spanning the entire globe, from Europe, Asia to Africa and so on. There was something about looking at millennia old artefacts that is arresting. Many of these artefacts were from cultures far removed from my own, but it seemed as if I was looking at the culture of my own forefathers; I was looking at the culture of Man.

There were certain commonalities in the objects on display; some where household items, a number were religious artefacts, there was even pornography and of course a large number of royal regalia. All reflected a still recognisable facet of man today. Why might the mere passage of time result in this universalisation of particular, otherwise ordinary, objects? I have no answer. Perhaps the everyday objects of every particular culture have always reflected the universal heritage of man, but it is only when they have been defamiliarised by the distance of a thousand years that we see them as they are.

Dust

What do these artefacts as a whole speak about Man? What first came to mind was our futility. This was evident especially as I observed many of the Royal Regalia. They were to be symbols of power, often divine or supernatural power, meant to inspire awe and terror. The objects are left limp in the museum, while their bearers themselves are gone. Man strives to leave a legacy, but their very legacy is but a testament to our vanity. Shelly notes in his famous poem about one such artefact:

And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Solomon himself claims:

“I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts … man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return.” (Ecclesiastes 3:18-20)

Glory

And yet this cannot be all, for the very artefacts too are a testimony to the glory of Man. Many of the artefacts were beautiful — they were awash with colour and made with intricacy. There was a beautiful Chinese screen divider which depicted the four seasons and the sun and moon and a number of ritual masks that were as detailed and complex as they were terrifying. What sort of creature is this? The terror and subtlety of the artefacts surely reflect the strangeness and the glory of Man.

And I am then reminded of Lewis’ by now cliche remark:

“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.”

The artefacts in the museum are astounding and amazing, yet they testify not to themselves but to another more wondrous creature. Lewis calls us from Man and Culture as considered in the abstract to the people around us, and so should the artefacts in the museum lead us to see their makers afresh. The glory of civilisation is indeed the glory of man; the people around us whom we live with and hate and love — they are the more appropriate and deserving objects of our wonder than any object in the museum.

And so we are left with this odd paradox, Man the wretched accumulation of dust and Man the being of utter glory. What shall we make of this combination of our futility and yet our beauty? The bible says that we were made to reflect the very glory of God himself, and yet by choosing to turn away from the source of all life, our very existences became futile and transient. Our lives now express this duality — there is yet glory and goodness left in all of us but in the end all our strivings will be  in vain.

Behold, the Man

Another image in the Museum caught my attention — it was a painting of another kind of exhibition. A man wearing a robe and a crown of thorns was thrust before a large crowd to be put on display before them. The robe and the crown indicated that he was some sort a glorious king and yet they were clearly meant to mock him at this show trial. I lingered over this painting for a few moments before passing on. In reflection, I realise that this man represented us all — our glory and our shame mingled in a beautiful and wretched sight.

Jesus was the source of our glory, and yet he took upon himself our shame and futility that we might from thenceforth be free of it. What shall we say in response? There is no need to innovate,

“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?

Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under his feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.”
(Psalm 8:3-8)