Personality Shows Up When You Don't

Welcome to Resistance, part 2

Comforts and familiarity are not bad things. The challenge is to being intentional about when we opt for change and when we stay with the familiar and comfortable. It’s about living on purpose. If at a given time in your life, you need relaxation and comfort more than exhilaration or new learning, that’s fine. But are we pulled along by unconscious preferences, by habit or inertia? Or are we consciously choosing?

Habits, of course, are a very handy thing. It would take a lot of time and energy to think through everything from scratch. Habits of thought are shortcuts that allow us to continue to be guided by conclusions we have reached without the effort of having to remember how we reached that conclusion.


Because habits are so useful – they formed because they served us well in some way – they are hard to break. Constellations of habits of thought gel into a personality. Our personalities are classifiable into a set of categories. The Myers-Briggs system has 16 personality types. According to the Enneagram, there are 9 basic personality types. They have to do with your default ways of reacting, your habits of mind. (Neither of these popular personality typologies are worth more than parlor conversation. On problems with Myers-Briggs, SEE HERE. For analysis of the Enneagram, SEE HERE. Other personality assessment instruments -- perhaps better -- include: Neo Pi-R, Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, 16PF, and Eysenck Personality Questionnaire.)

Here’s the thing, though: your personality is what shows up when you don’t. You see, when you’re fully present to a situation, creatively engaged with it, then you aren’t just deploying your usual, predictable habitual reactions – and what comes out isn’t classifiable into category. It’s unique. It bears the stamp of your individual style, but it doesn’t fit into any personality pigeonhole that can predict what you’ll do. Think of Picasso’s paintings or Beethoven’s symphonies. They have a recognizable style but not a predictability. If these artists had lived and been productive for an additional year, there's no way any one could predict what additional work they might have created -- but when we saw or heard it, we'd recognize its style.

Personality surveys ask a long list of questions about how you usually do things, what you do in various situations – and from your answers you can be identified as fitting within one or another pigeonhole characterization of your traits. What we find is that people who have engaged in a long, deep, and intentional spiritual development – whether Catholic monks or Sufi adepts or Buddhist practitioners – are harder to peg. The survey results are ambiguous. Such people can’t be categorized by habitual reactions, usual ego defense strategies, because they’ve trained themselves to be attentive to the details of each situation rather than categorize situations according to the features deemed most relevant. Such spiritually mature people each have their unique style, but, since they tend not to categorize their experiences, they don’t have categorizable responses to them. In other words, they are more often fully present. The whole self shows up, not just the personality type. Your personality is what shows up when you don’t.

When you do show up, your usual patterns of resistance are disrupted. When we really show up, we might find we have indeed been resisting something it’s time to stop resisting. And when we really show up to the wider world around us – stop ignoring injustices and cruelties that aren’t directed at us – we might find we have been complicit and complacent about some things it’s time to start resisting.

UU Resistance

We Unitarian Universalists are typically proud of our resistance. Our congregations often have an air of social rebellion. We like to think of ourselves as standing against the status quo and the powers that be. We have members that are active in social justice, and we sing songs like “Standing on the Side of Love” and “We are a Gentle Angry People.” Our version of our history highlights our activists, our slavery abolitionists, our women’s suffragists, our marchers at Selma, our anti-Vietnam war protesters, our congregations’ early open-ness to same-sex marriage, our welcoming of LGBT ministers into our pulpits. What a bunch of righteous, resistant, radicals we are!

The truth, of course, is that our history is, as history tends to be, a mixed bag. For most of our history, Unitarians have been the denomination of choice for the economic elite. We are known for making the least demands on our members. We don’t tell you what to think, don’t tell you what to do. For 200 years now, anyone wanting a church that would leave them alone has found the Unitarians the place to be.

Nor have the Universalists, during the time Universalism was a distinct denomination, before consolidating with the Unitarians in 1961, had much inclination to rouse any rabble. In the 19th century, the Unitarians and the Universalists did have some abolitionists, and we did have some women’s suffragists. But they were in the minority of our membership, and their activities tended to not have the support of the congregations. From our beginnings in the late 1700s up until the early 1900s, the Unitarian attitude may be characterized as: God doesn’t tell me what to do. The Universalists attitude may be characterized as: God does have suggestions for me, but I'm not going to hell if I disregard them, so God's guidelines are not altogether mandatory.

Next: So how did we get from there to seeing ourselves as cultural radicals?

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(For this angle on Unitarian and Universalist history, I have drawn on Rev. Tom Schade's blogpost, "Humanism in Context," which provides much more detail.)

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This is part 2 of 3 of "Welcome to Resistance"
See also:
Part 1: Resistance
Part 3: Roots of Unitarian Resistance

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