Recently, my family and I watched two movies deemed by their fans to be classic celebrations of the magic of childhood. The two take place in profoundly different cultures on opposite sides of the globe, but both—in their own ways—involve the magical bursting into the everyday, celebrate innocent wonder, and affirm the importance of family. One of them is, alas, much less well-known in the United States than the other. That one is Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro, and the other is Peter Pan (the Broadway version, starring Cathy Rigby). I had seen both many times before, but on these reviewings, I noticed some remarkable contrasts in their perspectives on childhood and growing up.
This piece is not what you might think. I’m not going to tell you how to get your dream job, climb the corporate ladder, navigate social circles, or make an obvious impact on society. I won’t tell you those things, partly because I don’t know them, but also because I want to challenge their status as the definition of success.
College students and new graduates hear a good deal about “success,” but are likely to receive very mixed signals about the particular goals in question. When our mainstream culture speaks of “succeeding,” it tends to have some sort of economic or social ends in mind. Land a well-paying job, achieve recognition in your field of work, acquire the means to live in comfort and security, and you’re probably a “success” by this assessment. The more noble-minded raise this standard to include making a useful contribution to the world, which is well and good, though I will bring in an important nuance later. Schools with a strong Christian outlook, like my alma mater, also emphasize building up the kingdom of God and winning the world to Christ. This is also, undoubtedly, an important and worthy aim. Any one of these, however, can become dangerous if new alumni make it the measure of themselves and their lives.
Long, long ago, in the primeval depths of Chaos, a hideous monster was spawned. The sin of Adam unleashed it on the earth, permitting it to ravage him and his offspring. It crept up so stealthily that its victims might not even notice until after it had taken hold, sinking in teeth and claws, after which it destroyed any who did not fight it well. Or rather, it creeps, it destroys; the monster roams the world still. In fact, you’ve probably encountered it . . . it goes by the unassuming name of Insecurity.
Insecurity may be defined as habitual fear of one’s own inadequacies and what others may think of them. It might seem a fairly innocuous problem, calling simply for a pat on the shoulder and assurance that, as One Direction put it, “You don’t know you’re beautiful!” Such responses are good in themselves; indeed, sincere affirmation is crucial for these sufferers. But if offered too glibly, this approach treats their affliction as harmless and perhaps even charming, a sort of excessive modesty. It overlooks not only the intense pain that insecurity causes, but the potential damage to the person’s soul and relationships with others.
To clarify, insecurity is not, in itself, a sin, nor is the person who suffers from it usually to blame. Far be it from me to be hard on any who have endured this monster’s cruel torments. Such a person is, however, at fault if he does not work to overcome his insecure tendencies. If he does not understand this, he may not realize the importance of fighting back. If you, dear reader, have noticed this affliction in your own heart, I hope to help you reject and break free of the thoughts that it inspires in you.
An interesting exchange took place at my family’s devotions the other evening. Like many Catholics, we pray the Divine Mercy Novena from Good Friday to Divine Mercy Sunday. This year, however, a long-held concern of my father’s and mine came to a head: namely, the incongruity of repeating “for the sake of His sorrowful Passion” 450 times during the height of the Easter celebration. Thus, we decided to insert the words “and His glorious Resurrection” to help us maintain the spirit of the season. It proved a helpful practice, I think; I for one intend to keep it up until Pentecost. One of my siblings, however, voiced an objection: how could we pray for mercy “for the sake of . . . His glorious Resurrection,” when it was the Cross that paid for our sins? In fact, said sibling opined, it would have been more of a sacrifice if Christ had died knowing that He would not subsequently rise in glory.
Responses to this came quickly to mind; my first thought was of the words of the liturgy: “Dying You destroyed our death; rising You restored our life.” Of course, the Church has always taught that the Resurrection is an essential part of the whole Paschal Mystery. Still, other Catholics seem to have assumptions like my above-mentioned sibling’s, even if they never consciously spell out their thoughts. The way we tend to speak and think about our Lord’s death and Resurrection sometimes implies that the former is really what brought about our redemption, while the latter is important to give the story a happy ending . . . but what does it directly have to do with salvation?
Since salvation history began, God’s way with souls—and His sense of humor—have not changed. He has always chosen the most seemingly unfit to accomplish His plan, from Moses, who pleaded that he was too “slow of speech and of tongue” (Exodus 4:10) to be God’s messenger, to St. Faustina Kowalska, who had no money, education or power, but was sent to bring the Divine Mercy message to the world. Most people are never called to do anything so great, but even in less significant cases, God often manifests His power through apparently unfit instruments. One such case was my spring break mission trip to Cuzco, Peru, during my sophomore year at Christendom College. The Holy Spirit moved in me, despite my many natural aversions to the experience, and used me on the trip to show His love.
When my parents first learned that I wanted to go on a mission trip, they were pleased but surprised, and with good reason. Whatever words might be used to describe me, “adventurous” would hardly be high on the list. It might not quite be true that I “never did anything unexpected or had any adventures,” but I might be compared to a hobbit, one of the little people who inhabit J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth. I like a routine, familiar places and people, and a reasonable predictability in life. A year earlier, making the transition from home life to college had been a slow and excruciating process. How could I now elect to trade a visit home for a week in South America?
When Gerard Manley Hopkins praised God for all the “dappled things” that fill the world with glorious variety, he could have included human personalities in his list. People have extremely diverse gifts, inclinations, interests and approaches to life. Common remarks highlight these distinctive qualities: “She sure is perky!” “I can’t believe how calm he is!” “How do you get so much done so quickly?” Like the colors of the rainbow, species of plants and animals, and diverse national cultures, this variety among characters renders the world more beautiful and complete.
Although each person is unique, one may reasonably seek to summarize human personalities into general “types” in order to understand them better. One method of summary is the four temperaments: choleric, sanguine, melancholic, and phlegmatic. Such a classifying system can be a help to understanding oneself or others. When used without care, however, it can also contribute to the danger of stereotyping or oversimplifying the temperaments. Some of the four words listed above are too often used in a derogatory way, as if they necessarily had negative connotations. I have met people who say that they hate their own temperament or wish that it were different.
If you are one of those people, be reassured: not only is your temperament not a bad thing, but it has potential for great good. Your personality is simply part of the person that God made you, along with, e.g., your blood type, your skin color, and the pitch of your voice. God created your temperament for a specific purpose in His plan for you—and, yes, for all creation. In mankind’s fallen state, each temperament has its particular risks, but when trained and used properly, each can glorify God and serve other people in a way that the others cannot.
The confusion may have arisen in part from the origin of the four words. The “humors,” or bodily fluids, were once thought to determine people’s moods. Thus, a person might be “choleric” at one time and “phlegmatic” at another, depending on whether he had more choler or phlegm in him at the moment. I do not know when the names of these physical states became designations for different temperaments, but since they did, each of these words has at least two meanings. A mood and a personality are not the same, nor is someone of a given temperament always in the corresponding mood. Moods come and go, while a personality, as has been stated, is lasting and essential.
Having said all this, let’s consider each of the four temperaments in turn, iterate and respond to some popular misconceptions about them, and ponder each one’s benefits and pitfalls. Each person is different, of course; but some broad generalizations, regarded as such, can still safely apply. In setting these forth, I do not pretend to be an expert on personalities or human psychology. I am simply speaking from my own experience. I know sweet and lovable people of each of these temperaments, and you probably do as well.