It took about twenty or twenty-two years of knowing myself to realize how tremendously suggestable I am. If in the story I’m reading, the characters are enjoying sausages and beans, I become very interested in sausages and beans, and if I have some about, am likely to cook myself some. Exactly how likely I am to cook those sausages and beans, is directly related to how much I like those characters, and how much I am enjoying the story. This receptivity to suggestion, is probably a mark of high trait openness. When reading a book or listening to a lecture, I can almost always find a way to agree with the argument. I very nearly do believe everything that I read. This doesn’t mean that I believe one thing today and a very different one yesterday, it just means that I can easily understand how very different viewpoints approximate, or gesture towards reality. All this tells me, I have a stronger tendency towards convergent than divergent thinking.
As a convergent thinker, I’m generally interested in the places where different disciplines actually come together and entertain common ground. Early on in my reading career, Madeline L’Engle introduced to me the region where physics and theology get entangled, and a few years later Simone Veil delighted me with her mystical and mathematical contributions to that conversation. M. Scott Peck has always been a favorite for showing me how psychology and spirituality can speak with and inform one another, and since discovering Peck, Eric Fromm, Karl Jung, and Jordan Peterson have taken over that fascinating conversation for me.
One of the most interesting topics in the disciplines of sociology, and psychology, has always been for me Personality Theory, the place where they come together. A question that both disciplines are interested in, is how do you, how do I come about? How does something as beautiful and complex as the personalities of those we know and love best come to be?
Eric Fromm lays out how the personality of even the fully formed infant, is still entirely latent, entirely unconstructed when it first makes its appearance in human society. “Even after being born, the infant is hardly different from what it was before birth, it cannot recognize objects, it is not yet aware of itself, and the world as being outside of itself. IT only feels the positive stimulation of warmth and food, and it does not yet differentiate warmth and food from its source: mother. Mother is warmth, is food, mother is the euphoric state of satisfaction and security. The state is one of narcissism, to use Freud’s term.”
What is the process by which categorically irresponsible narcissism becomes an net-working individual, culpable, capable, and altruistic, or anything else for that matter?
It is a question mythology, religion, biology, psychology, and sociology in all their varied forms have tried to answer. In my view, each of these comparatively different approaches have offered their own valuable contributions. If this is so, what kind of language, what kind of conceptual framework will allow us to listen to each of these disciplines without discarding the essential contributions of any one of them? In what mind will all these participants be allowed to speak? What will the posture of that mind be? And what commitments will that mind need to avoid being either “This Humanist whom no beliefs constrained,/Grew so broad-minded he was scatter-brained.”(JVC), or “This fundamentalist so frame constrained,/that any mental step becomes a sprain.” (OEM)? This question, to some extent, will be the topic for my presentation at the Curator‘s Literature Camp this weekend.
If you want a tremendous course in Personality Theory from a literary, mythological, and psychological perspective, Jordan Peterson’s 2017 lecture series on the subject is incomparable. Like many of our greatest thinkers, Peterson is subject to mental instability and monomania. And like many of our thinkers, has gone through transitions in his thinking and will go through transitions in his thinking, but the speaker in the 2017 series is truly a paragon of lucidity, integrity, and stability.
Through Peterson, I’ve recently discovered John Verveake, another tremendous Canadian thinker who shows the timelessness of historical philosophy, weaving it together with contemporary cognitive science. Verveake’s most profound insight for me so far, is in Personality Theory, where he locates Agape in the Christian sense as the mechanism of development in personality. For me, this insight maps remarkably well onto early 20th Century theories of personality development like the looking-glass self or social mirroring theory.
The looking-glass self, and social mirroring theory are only different from each other in the ways they are separately prepared to emphasize the opposing directions of reflection. Social mirroring emphasizes more how my behaviors mimic the other’s behaviors I perceive, while the looking-glass self emphasizes how my I respond to the other’s perception of my behaviors.
Social mirroring theory discusses the mechanism of personality development as my mimicking your treatment of me in my treatment of both myself and you and others. The looking-glass theory discusses the mechanism of personality development as my imagining how I appear to you, evaluating myself on the basis, and then responding out of my interpretation of how your actions towards me make my identity appear. Systematically, I revise myself according to what I think we both need in the situation to achieve some good, and out of this my identities appear.
This kind of thing is even more apparent, or better understood when it comes to dialogue and language, in that my words to you are always responding to my interpretation of what you meant by your words to me. But where the looking glass theory takes this a step further, is that even the rubric, or framework of my interpretation of what you say, comes from the concept of self that others reflected back to me before you came along, and before I had the nuanced grammar of language to process your feelings towards me, I processed your feelings towards me through the embodied drama of my five senses.
This theory implies, and I suspect says truly, that relationship precedes identity. Before there is definition, there is relation.
You are the result of internalizing the attention people have paid to you. A popular expression of this theory, is something like, “I am the combined effort of everyone I have ever known.”
This is a very positive formulation of identity, because, if you at all love yourself, if you like who you are becoming, it translates directly into gratitude, one of the most life-giving emotions you can feel.
How do you come about? The net is truly vast. As wide as being itself. Physics, mythology, metaphysics, history, and biology, now all rise clambering, with their unique contributions to the question. Each should take their turn to speak.
You are the result of internalizing the attention people have paid to you. There is a tremendous power then in the attention we pay to eachother, and especially in the attention we pay to children, because it is literally the power which creates persons. It is the way in which we participate with God. This co-creation, this participation with the formation of personality, is what Verveake sees as one of our primary relations to the Divine. Agape, is the primary characteristic of the attention necessary to transform the original narcissism of the infant into the self-reliant, self-actualized, and self-giving imago dei of the fully formed human being.
In Verveake’s formulation, God is love. God is the Agape we give eachother. God is our mimicry of the unconditional love that we have received. This mind-blowing revelation, may not be a fully-satisfying theology, but it is a door flung wide open to the dusty and stale archives of Empiricist sociology through which the glorious Empire of theology may come roaring back in.