Personality Change? Or Just Stretching the Envelope?
I have been driving around the back roads of several southern states for the last couple of weeks. It was a deliberate decision to stay off of the interstate and see the small towns, farms and people we would encounter along the way. I made this decision because all my life I have been driven in a regimented and focused way to travel as quickly and efficiently as possible towards the next goal in the plan in order to gauge my success. I wanted to discover if I could exist without the disciplined structure and the goal-focused activity that has been a hallmark of my adult life.
I chose to drive through southern states because I am from the South and wanted to revisit the formative culture of my youth. I have always needed a force to push against. I was raised to be competitive, disciplined, focused, aware and driven to achieve. Those behaviors are instinctive for me, and yet, there are other elements to include when thinking about what has formed my personality. I have always been a person who has seen life as a glass half-full. In therapy and in life, I encounter so many people who see life as a glass half-empty. They are negatively focused and expect things to get worse, not better. They develop behaviors and rationales that position them to be unhappy or victimized, rather than happy and in charge of their fate. I wonder why? As I have written before, my life as a child was no bowl of cherries. It was brutal; physically and emotionally abusive and deeply poverty stricken. I was desperate as a child to find a way out of the social class into which I had been born. I had every intention to find a way out of the poverty, the alcoholism, the cultural myopia and negativism of my childhood family.
Over the last two weeks I have had ample opportunity to think about and encounter the Yin and Yang of life. I have observed things from the mundane to the magnificent. I had no itinerary and no goal, other than to pick up my son in Kentucky on the last day of the month. I visited places like Turkey Scratch, Arkansas and the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. I saw lots and lots of interesting people, talked to some and watched many more. For me, “people watching” is the interesting part. It is my job as a counselor to watch people. In therapy sessions, nothing is unimportant or trivial. My job is to observe, analyze, interpret and attempt to understand who the client is and what they are really saying.
Especially important is the ability to read non-verbal communications. What does it mean when they laugh under tension? What does it mean when they deflect the conversation away from a subject? Is it intentional or is it unconscious? How does it fit into the whole self of the client? What is the message they are giving me and asking me to understand, boith literal and unconscious? Counseling is often exhausting work that requires focused attention and a constant testing and discarding of assumptions as information becomes validated or invalidated.
Personalities are complex structures, much like the facets of a diamond. Each facet can claim the light and shine and be the focus of attention. But we must never forget that the other facets exist and that they are also waiting for a turn in the light. Is the fluid movement from one facet to another just a random play of the light of life, or is it an intentional or predetermined path? Do we believe in fate or choice? Are we the actors in the play or the author who creates the script? Could it possibly be both at the same time? When I am performing the part and presenting myself as I hope others will perceive me (brilliant, clever, caring, gracious, etc.) is that really who I am or is it just a script I have learned to recite, a role I can perform on demand? Can I not, at the same time, be selfish, mean and small-minded? Can I be jealous, greedy, and sinful, yet still look to the ideals of great social and religious causes as a way to intend my behaviors? Am I able to stand with my head in the clouds and my feet in the muck of my own humanity? Damnbetcha! I do it every day, and most likely, so do you!
I have seen this paradox for over thirty years in clinical settings where I had a role of defined expectations for my behaviors. Now I want to see if I can back away from the discipline, the goal setting, the checking off of boxes on the “To Do” list. Can I let go of measuring my day, or even an hour, without feeling as if I have not proven my worthiness? I want to try to live life as an experience, a happening, not as a series of challenges and tasks to be accomplished. I want to be, rather than do. The problem is, I do not know what that means or how it feels. I have never lived this way, and I am not sure I can.
So, I took two weeks to experiment. What if I got up in the morning without an agenda and just let life happen? What if I just wandered where ever it seemed to flow or be interesting? Who would I meet, and more importantly, who would they meet if I were not in my role? In the beginning, it was harder than I thought it would be. Part of me desperately needed an agenda or a plan. Where should I go today and how do I count or measure it as successful? Should we see museums, Civil War battlefields, The Hermitage? Do I have time to watch the three black bears in the woods of the National Park amble through the forest? What if I spent the day sitting by a lake reading a book? What if I drove aimlessly around the back roads and stopped whenever I got the urge, instead of needing to get somewhere by a certain time to see someone/something?
Despite trying to get away from an agenda, I set some guidelines for myself. I was interested in my ability to not judge myself, or anyone else, against a standard of accomplishment. I would not measure my check list of “good vacation” behaviors, and I would not measure myself against the “success” or “failure” of the people I met. I would be interested in what I saw, who I met and talked to, solely for the stimulation they would provide and for the ability to experience them as a fluid process of existence rather than as a competitive structured calculation. This was difficult because I saw a lot of people who are not like me. When one encounters these differences, one measures themselves against the differences. When we meet people more wealthy than ourselves, we measure ourselves against their status and wealth. When we meet people more attractive than ourselves, we measure our attractiveness. When we meet people who talk funny or look different, we compare them to our cultural standard of “right” looking. This is an ethnocentric process we cannot avoid. It is a universal human condition. It has to do with “us-ness” verses “them- ness” that allows us to decide about safety and inclusion. Our cultures are part of what become inherent and reflexive ways to experience the world. It is necessary in primitive cultures for survival. It happens the same way we experience “food” vs. “non-food” items. If we are not able to see and distinguish what is safe and healthful, we will eat the wrong stuff and die. If we do not “know” our cultural rightness, we will become isolated and we will die (or worse yet, foreign/strange.) As I was attempting not to be my naturally judgmental and culturally bound self, what did I see? What did I experience?
In my travels, I saw an awful lot of obesity and tattoos! I heard lilting soft southern speech rhythms that reminded me of my youth. I saw hard-working poor people and vacationing people, who were less poor. I saw a lot of people who had blank faces, angry faces, overweight, cigarette smoking people who seemed tired and flat. There was not a lot of energy and not a lot of visible joy. I found myself wondering about the glass half-full/half-empty analogy. I wondered what was different about the people I encountered. H.L. Menken is reputed to have said, “The average man leads a life of quiet desperation.” What I saw made me fear that this may be true. In our times and in our economy, things are hard. Survival for a man and his family is a precarious situation. There is danger and much to worry about. Are we taught to encounter this reality and push to survive and to enjoy as much as we can? Or are we just taught to push to survive?
I also saw people who did not have very much, but they were jubilant, spontaneous, and happy. There were the three cute little girls who were each carrying a dollar to tip the waitress with. The youngest one proudly said to me with a grin, “we are going to give the lady a dollar!” We ate in one place where the temperature outside was 108 and their air conditioner was barely working. Our waitress was smiling and friendly, and her service was excellent. She was happy, although hot, and she made us feel good about the meal, if not the conditions. These people were clearly choosing to see the glass as half full. My question would be: Is this personality or training? Is it choice or circumstance that makes us dour or warm? Can we find a way to have balance between our outlook and our drive?
What is the path of enjoyment? Not hedonism, but experiential joy and happiness. Can I enjoy the sound of a fish jumping? Can I enjoy and experience the glow of a beautiful mountain sunset? Can I smile at the laughter of a baby or the taste of an ice cream cone? Can I see life as a glass half full even when things are bad? Not in a Pollyanna way that holds heaven is just around the corner, but in a grounded, experiential and real way that says in the midst of poverty, pain and exhaustion, there is still beauty and friendship and love to be enjoyed. Can I be nurtured by the process of life, rather than measure my life against a calorie count, a financial standard or touchdowns scored? Can I live and be, or must I always do? I have come to believe that we can do both, but that we can only do both when we have balance. Balance between the goal driven, disciplined structure of our doing, and the existential flow of our being. For some, like myself, this requires effort and consciousness, but I know now that it can be done. For others, there seems to be a blessed capacity to be and to enjoy without effort, even if the living of life does require the effort.
It has been an interesting two weeks.