Friday, August 27, 2010

A Simply Complex Personality

When Dr. Kelli Gardner taught in the psychology department at Waldorf College, she invited me to participate in an exercise for her Personality course. It involved allowing students to ask me questions – any questions they wanted – and then having them analyze what my answers might indicate about my personality.

Kelli, having read Involuntary Joy, correctly assessed that I would be open to such an exercise. “Not many people would be willing to do that, but I thought you might,” she had said.

Willing? How about eager? I loved the intent of her proposed exercise, and I think Kelli knew that I would.

I won’t lie. I won’t hide. And the safest topic for me to neither lie nor attempt to hide anything about is … well, me.

Is that a good thing? I like to think it is. In fact, I’m fairly Socratic that way. According to Socrates (c. 469 BC-399 BC), an “unexamined life is not worth living.” Centuries of philosophers have argued the meaning of his statement. I ascribe to the thought that living in denial of the motivations or circumstances that shape our thoughts and actions is a waste of time. A waste of life.

Life is each person’s best teacher. And, again like Socrates, I am fascinated by epistemology, or the nature and study of knowledge. Where does our knowledge come from? What do people believe they know? What do people know?

Ultimately: How do we know what we know?

Ironically, I have always thought one of my greatest personal strengths is my awareness that there are things I cannot claim to know. And once I identify an area of deficiency, I want to spend time collecting knowledge. I want to begin to understand. To know.

If you haven’t figured it out, the process of asking questions and then identifying answers invigorates me. And, as with the Personality course, answering questions about myself with honesty and integrity is exponentially more invigorating. If the reason I feel that way hasn’t become obvious to you, it soon will. Keep reading.

My life – as cliché as this will sound – is an open book. But each book is open to an individual reader’s interpretation, isn’t it? One person can read what is regarded as a classic – say Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Lousia May Alcott’s Little Women – and share in the awe of what those authors have brought to life on paper, while another person may declare their work as “drivel,” “inflammatory,” or even “scandalous.” Or take a more recent book: Eat, Pray, Love. Is it an inspirational memoir or a selfish diatribe? I guess it depends who you ask.

What is that about?

I guess I only know how it works with me. I am driven to examine my motivation, others’ motivations, my strengths, my weaknesses - even my personal demons. Mostly I love to search for the boundaries of the bigger picture, if you will; then wonder if boundaries actually exist.

As I’ve matured, I have witnessed – make that have experienced – that this manner of living can have consequences. My little sister, who has arguably watched firsthand longer than anyone else, recently said it this way: “Joy, you are a complex person who is difficult for people to understand. You like to use sunshine as a disinfectant and not everyone is comfortable with that."

Yep, that pretty much explains it. Except I think my approach is simple – not complex.

Let me clarify: I don’t see myself as a complex person. But can anyone really see himself or herself as others might? Probably not. So I must be – to some people anyway – complex. And, in fact, I am certain other words have been used to describe me as well. Recently I heard some fairly hurtful descriptors for me: “dark,” “snide,” “evil,” “backstabber.”

Had the words “arrogant,” “assertive,” “impulsive,” “forceful,” “passionate,” or even “selfish” been used – I’d cop to each one. I can be each of those. But I don’t believe I have “dark” or “evil” in me. And backstabbing someone is not my modus operandi. As probably too many people have learned, I am the person who will call you at home, walk to your office, or push for a chance to meet in person to talk through something that appears to be an issue of miscommunication. I want to deal with it in as simple a way possible – well, simple according to my complex way of being.

Oh, and if someone reading this believes that - contrary to what I just said - I've actually avoided having a conversation with you about something, that is likely true as well. But only because someone in authority told me they wished I would "drop it." (And it was really, really, really, really hard for me to honor his or her request.)

Remember the sunshine disinfectant? I want to get everything out in the open – to talk through things until it seems no more words can be said on a topic. I don’t wield anything other than words. However, I know words can cut like a knife. That’s why I try to choose my words well. Obviously, if I’m labeled by some as “evil,” “dark,” or “snide,” I’m not good enough at it. That’s likely why, sometimes, I simply end up making things a whole lot worse.


Life really is more complex than I have wanted to believe that it is.

So, dear Socrates, what’s a girl – a woman – a mom – a daughter – a wife – a friend – a teacher – a writer – a student-of-life like me to do? Consider me as Plato or Aristotle. Consider me even as Theophilus, a friend and student of God, for, my dearest God: I want to know.

Let’s get busy talking, thinking, examining. Let’s not waste the essence of life.

I would like to believe I am capable of getting better at interacting with others. Of having their perceptions of who I am more closely resemble the person I believe myself to be. However, will achieving that end mean I will no longer get to be who I am called to be?

For instance, when asked my opinion, I will tell. When asked my thoughts on a topic or how I arrived at my understanding of that topic, I will tell that too.

I am not sure I can stop being who I am.

I mean: I don’t know if I am capable of not saying what I think - especially when I see an issue of injustice, inequity or ineptness. I may not wait to be asked my thoughts. I will likely simply say them – and I will also, most likely, be insensitive when I offer my opinion. That’s part of what it is to be me. It doesn’t mean I am not working on developing sensitivity. It simply means that my inability to be sensitive is rather complex.

I know insensitivity is wrong. I know arrogance and selfishness are wrong. Yet I find a way to be those things anyway – even if in socially acceptable ways. Like talking only about myself for more than an hour to a class of students taking a course called Personality - and loving that the whole time the focus was on me. Or writing a blog where I tell about my life using my thoughts about issues that matter – if only to me.

Finding a way to be accepted for who you are. It’s as simple as that, isn’t it? Or it is simply that complex.

I used to think that life was simple. Now I live the complexity of life.

And I guess that – as with the Personality course and my personal blog – I need to find a safe place to be me, for an unexamined life is a waste of life; and it is nearly impossible to examine something sufficiently while living in shadows or places where light and sunshine disinfectant are not appreciated. As my little sister reminded, not everyone is comfortable with that. Well, let’s be totally honest: They are not comfortable with me.

As I approach my 46th year of life, I am keenly aware that I have a whole lot more life to live – days not meant to be wasted, but fully examined and used in a manner to which I feel called. It is really that simple – or it’s that complex.

How about this: When I figure it out, I’ll let you know. I’d love to tell you all about it. (Did you have any doubt?)


CathyO said...

I love the way you examine life and gently nudge others to think about it, too. But my question is, "Do we have the ability to truly examine ourselves?" I wonder if Maslow's self-actualization exists, and if it does exist, does it suck? Because we are all so flawed (at least I am), I'd rather live in a pre-self-actualized world. Just wondering.

PS. It kills me you use epistemology. I'm studying that right now, too!

Joy said...

I know! Self-actualization seems such an unattainable goal, yet extremely worthy to try anyway. And all major world religions strive for such - well, they don't use Maslow's term for it - but that doesn't mean it's not the same thing.

Fun with Epistemology - wouldn't that be a great course? ;-)

HeatherLili said...

Great post,Joy. I identify with so much of it....communication (and dealing with miscommunication) seems so easy for me. If I have a question, I will ask you. If I have a concern, I'll talk to you about. In my professional life, I'm dealing with a changing culture that doesn't value that...and that's who I am, to the core. So now it's an issue of being true to myself or conformity...
Your post has given me more to think about. Thanks!

Joy said...

Heather, We will need to talk about this sometime. I'm detecting a change in the corporate culture for communicators. My hypothesis is this: In this economy, some internal communicators are resorting to telling employers what they want hear and leaving it to "outsiders" to take all the message risks. They want someone to blame, rather than collaborating on an internal solution that really deals with the negative occurring within their own organizations.

On a professional level, it's the difference between being a rock star as a consultant or an enemy of the mothership. ;-)

That's the theory I would examine. It has always been true to a degree, but I think that people's long-term security feels threatened internally sometimes, and so they create an "us v. them" environment. Research shows that mentality thrives during times of economic distress.


Craig Bennett said...

I really enjoyed this Joy. It is always a treat to read that which flows through you. I so often think that my burden of self-awareness and -examination would be lighter if I would write as I go.

As always thanks for sharing insight into who you (and I) are.
Love ya, C

Joy said...

Craig ...

Bless you, my friend. How much of that do you feel may be a product of our collegiate experience? Or, were we attracted to such a place because of who we were created to be? A bit of a chicken or egg issue, huh? I'm just deeply grateful for a life full of people who understand this Socratic dilemma.

Thanks for posting!

Anonymous said...

Great post - just came across this.

Joy, Regarding your comment on the employer issue - I think its because people (especially in the west) don't like confrontation. i think this is because relationships and interaction between individuals are seen as "absolute" rather than "relative".

What Iam trying to say is that, just because someone has a go at you, does not mean they hate you (they may) but it does not always mean that - they might have got other agendas - like pushing a project faster, high stress levels, etc..

I'll leave you to interpret all that.



Joy said...

Thanks for the perspective. And I agree - doesn't necessarily mean hate or dislike. As you share, an inability to focus on relational dynamics sometimes results in awkward measures that simply lead to avoidance or one party making certain the other is no longer part of their life experience. And so they aren't. Missed opportunities? A matter of perspective as well, I would guess.

Relationships are complex, because personalities are complex in general. Not just mine. (Well, at least that thought provides me a measure of comfort.) I have my issues, just as others have theirs.

I guess I will continue to examine the dynamics as they occur. It's just who I am. :)

Thanks for posting.