12 February 2007

On Personality

In my reading of Wuthering Heights for my study abroad class, I've been thinking a lot about the nature of personality: what is it exactly, how much are you born into, and how much can you change? Quite a few of the characters in WH (Heathcliff and Catherine, in particular) seem to have decided that they would not fit in in heaven because their nature is inherently contrary to it. They've seen their society's vision of heaven (the Lintons), and they don't like it, so they aren't going to even try for it.

I see people in the Church sometimes making this mistake, apologizing for the fact that they don't fit the Molly Mormon/Peter Priesthood cast that they assume will be those going to heaven. Whether by virtue of their past experiences, their political party, or their hobbies, they set themselves up as outside those who can expect exaltation. Even worse is when we place others into these categories. We assume that in order to become like Christ, we must lose our individual nature, our personality.

A couple reasons why this is bad: First, it places a limitation on the Atonement which doesn't actually exist. Second, it denies the individual worth of each soul. God created us to be unique from each other. What would be the purpose of doing so if life was supposed to smash that uniqueness out of us? But more concerning than either of these, it implies that the gospel creates a bunch of cookie-cutter people, that you have to be a certain type of person to participate fully in the gospel. Of course, this is true to an extent. We have to do a lot of the same things--you must be keeping the commandments and doing your best to grow closer to God--but I personally believe there's a lot of room in the gospel for personality.

My conclusion about personality is an echo of Plato's allegory of the soul. Personality traits are neither good nor bad. They just are. Or rather, they are both, having both a good and evil aspect plus a will to direct or choose between them. The gospel is not about choosing between being yourself and being Christ. It's about choosing which version of yourself to be. This, to me, is the meaning of "making weak things become strong." Our weaknesses, our personality flaws, are not to be removed by the atonement, but transformed into what they were always intended to be. As CS Lewis says in The Great Divorce, in seeking for heaven, we find fully realized the spark that we thought was worth clinging to in hell. And again, in Matthew 16:25: if we are willing to let go of what we think of as ourselves, we find that we become more unique, more infinitely personal. But in clinging on to the shreds of our self, we lose virtue and uniqueness until at last we are dully all alike in the gray coating of vice.


Ben Crowder said...

Somewhere in Mere Christianity, Lewis says, "How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been: how gloriously different are the saints!" Myself, I understand and believe the idea that becoming like God does indeed mean becoming gloriously different, but I don't think my imagination quite has a grasp on it. Oh well -- someday it will. :)

Lewis also has the bit about the notes on a piano not being good or bad -- it's only in how they're used that they become polarized. He was talking about impulses, but I think it could apply to personality traits as well (and they may very well be the same thing).

Paradox said...

I've found that since I've been baptized, I've become more like myself than I have been for years... (there's a poem in there somewhere. THANKS for this post then, because I've been in a writing rut)

The thing about adversity without the gospel, from my experience, is that you take on whatever kind of identity you need to survive. Mine was very callous, abrasive towards others, loud, honest to the point of being mean-spirited, rude, and inconsiderate of others. I took on a "tougher than nails" facade to cope. My circumstances demanded that from me, or so I thought.

It has been a LONG process, but I've been returning to the person that I was before. Because I can rely on my Heavenly Father to bear my burdens, I don't have to become my personal manifestation of human strength. I can be myself, and have his protection. And, of course, this led to a drawn out identity crisis, but I should say it's worth it.

I understand now why we are told to give ourselves to God; he reveals to us what to do to become the most refined version of ourselves. Then, by use of our agency, we can chose how much of that we shall apply.

I think where people get lost is when they mistake other people's version/destiny/goals as their own. They then try to fulfill someone else's identity, neglecting that Heavenly Father probably had something else in mind for them... and they stop listening.

I have a copy of Wuthering Heights on my shelf. I was going to read it, but have been too busy. Is it any good? Or is it likely to send me into a fit like Henry James?