Individuality, Personality and ‘Being Yourself’

The idea that one is an ‘individual’ above all else is a very common one nowadays – there seems to be an idea, accepted uncritically, that there exists such a thing as the naked ego, beholden only to itself, unattached to its environment and unformed by its history. The popularity of this idea does not tally particularly well however with the reality of human experience, and it is a relatively novel conception in human history that we are each summed up in and defined by our individual being alone, divorced from any context. Instead, it has been consistently affirmed by human cultures for the better part of our history that whilst each person does exist as a unique individual, and acts according to their own lights, they do so only because they are first identified as being part of a greater whole.

Before being an individual, we are each a citizen, a member of a particular nation, a son or daughter – we are bound into a network of allegiances that precede our identity as a unique human being and that shape who we are, allowing that uniqueness to emerge. We are formed in great part by our history, and we cannot cut our allegiances to our upbringing without doing some violence to the essence of who we are – the soil and hearth of our background are as much a part of us as the blood that runs through our veins. This also means that to be an individual necessarily entails a certain set of duties, ties of allegiance that have authority over us, and to cut ourselves off from these duties, in the name of some theory of radical autonomy, is again to do great violence to the natural order of things, impacting not just ourselves, but upsetting the very network of interconnection that makes us who we are.

One implication of this is to make it clear that there can be no such thing as mere human rights, if these rights are seen as separate from obligation to family and to society. Even in specific cases where this occurs turmoil usually follows, but as such behaviour becomes more extensive, the very fabric of societies, which rest upon natural networks of reciprocal obligation and accepted patterns of authority, will become disrupted, leading to widespread social chaos. This seems to be what is happening already in the West at present. However, reflection on how our uniqueness is related to the prior corporate bonds from which we emerge can also provide us with some insight into what it means to be unique – on the difference between individuality and personality.

In his book Silence and Honeycakes, a short collection of reflections on the lives and teachings of the Desert Fathers, Rowan Williams considers this question in depth, and uncovers (via the wisdom contained in the collected ‘sayings’ of the Fathers) some interesting insights into modern conceptions of individuality and the ever-present call to just ‘be yourself’:

There is a saying ascribed to Isidore the Priest warning that “of all evil suggestions, the most terrible is the prompting to follow your own heart.” Once again, the modern reader will be taken aback. “Follow what your heart says” is part of the standard popular wisdom of our day, like “following the dream”; are we being told to suspect our deepest emotions and longings, when surely we have learned that we have to listen to what’s deepest in us and accept and nurture our real feelings? But the desert monastics would reply that, left to ourselves, the search for what the heart prompts is like peeling an onion; we are not going to arrive at a pure and simple set of inclinations. In the matter of self-examination as in others, “the truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

Silence and Honeycakes (2003), p.49, Lion.

            As Jeremiah wrote, ‘the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?’ (17:9); and this does not just serve as a hint towards the doctrine of Original Sin, but speaks of the essential and intractable difficulty of ever really knowing oneself. Whilst it is good to examine oneself, this can never be simply an uncritical introspection, a naïve search to find the treasures hidden within, but must rather involve bringing all our thoughts (which include much deception and selfishness) into the light of Truth. If we really want our true selves to emerge, we must allow ourselves to be examined and critiqued by God, allowing all our self-justifying fantasies to be exposed by Him, and this cannot occur if we are determinedly trying to ‘be ourselves’.

Essentially, just as our personalities only emerge via a network of exterior relationships and arrangements, our self only ever is what it is in relational terms – we not only become who we are, but we are who we are, in relation to others, and most especially in relation to the ultimate Other, God. Thus discovery of our true personality can only come about in the same way – both God and our neighbour act as mirrors for us to receive the responses, criticism and forgiveness that we need in order to grow. But the question still remains as to what it really means to be an ‘individual’, or whether this is a useful term at all, and it is a question that Williams continues to explore:

We are fascinated by the power of the individual will and intensely committed to maximising this power, the power to shape and to define a person’s life through the greatest possible number of available choices…

…And the problem is that we are actually so naïve about choices, forgetting that this world of maximal choice is heavily managed and manipulated. The rebellious teenager has a ready-made identity to step into, professionally serviced by all those manufacturers who have decided what a rebellious teenager should look like; advertising standardises our dreams. Our choices are constantly channelled into conformist patterns, and when we try to escape, there are often standard routes provided by the very same market – “Don’t be like the crowd!” says the advertisement which is trying to persuade you to do the same as all the other customers it’s targeting…

…we need to distinguish with absolute clarity between the individual and the person: the person is what is utterly unique, irreducible to a formula, made what it is by the unique intersection of the relationships in which it’s involved (and this is obviously grounded in what we believe about the “persons” of the Holy Trinity, about the way God is personal); but the individual is just this rather than that example of human nature, something essentially abstract. It can be spoken of in generalities (in clichés, you might say): it is one possible instance among others of the way general human capacities or desires or instincts operate.

ibid, pp.51-53.

            To see oneself as an individual then, according to Williams, who bases his insights not just on the Desert Fathers but also the Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky, is to see oneself as someone who is to a great extent defined by choices made. On the other hand, to see human beings as persons is to say that the choices we make are ‘some of the least distinctive, even the least interesting things, about us’ (ibid, p.53), and that someone who is truly being their own self is one who feels the least need to exert their personhood in decision making, but instead who is freely who they are without any need for self-assertion.

Williams, following Lossky, draws inspiration here from the controversies over monothelitism in the early part of the seventh century, and sees in the orthodox position (as articulated by Saint Maximus the Confessor) a way of understanding, through the human nature and will of Jesus, something about human personhood in general:

…for Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, the human will is active, and the human will, like all human wills, wants to survive and rebels against the threat of not surviving. It can envisage the threat of death and what might be needed to escape death. In a purely formal and abstract sense, it is able to “choose” to survive, because that is what human wills do.

But the human will is not the human person, and all this is quite abstract when considered apart from the person who activates the willing. There are no such things as wills that drift around in mid-air making decisions (although there are modern writers, from certain kinds of novelist to certain kinds of psychologist, who seem to suggest that this would be nice). Persons do the deciding; and when you have a person who is wholly self-consistent, whose identity is completely bound up with the calling to live in unreserved intimacy with God as Father, there is, as we say, no choice. Not because something external limits what’s possible, but because the person has such solid reality, such distinctive and reliable identity, that it will do what is consistent with being that person – and in the case of Jesus, this means doing what God requires for the salvation of the world.

ibid, pp.54-55.

            For someone like Our Lord, whose very Personhood is defined by the complete alignment of being and will with the Father, who has such integrity in terms of who He is, He is then absolutely free to choose what is correspondent to His nature. This does not mean that He was spared the knowledge of other options – ways out of the awful path that He faced – or that there was no decision to be made. What it means is that because there was (and is) no conflict within Him, because He really is completely His own self, there is, realistically, only one choice that such a Person could make – He is utterly free to be Himself and thus freely acted according to His nature.

We however, are not well-integrated, self-consistent people, but suffer constantly from a disjunct between what we want at our deepest levels (which is also what we know to be for our true good and happiness) and what we actually do (c.f.; Romans 7:7-25), and we are thus subject to a wide array of competing voices that convince us we need what they offer in order to be ourselves, when in fact, time and time again, we become less truly ourselves and more enslaved to the whims of our varying desires. But, what can still be learned from the example of Our Lord is that true personality comes from true freedom, and also that true freedom comes not from making as many choices (or rather, giving into as many impulses) as possible, but from discovering what it is that is genuinely unique about ourselves.

Such a discovery, as noted earlier, cannot come from attaching ourselves to any particular agenda, nor can it come from following the vapid modern recommendation to ‘follow your heart’. Becoming oneself can only come about by recognising our true nature as relational beings, by putting away the heavy yoke of naked autonomy and re-immersing ourselves in those patterns of obligation and mutual concern that are not only natural but essential to our existence.

Furthermore, discovering the real freedom we see in Our Lord (and in His saints) requires a submission of the will to the One in whom all are personalities are rooted – by allowing our true nature to emerge in accordance with what is already God’s plan for us and letting Him lead us to holiness. The saints, as is often noted, are all directed by the same concerns and led towards the same goal, but represent an extraordinary wealth of personalities. Like them, we can discover who we are not by looking to ourselves, but by looking to the One to whom we have always been in relation, before anyone or anything else, in whom we ‘live and move and have our being – the One whose eternal light is shown in the refracted glory of the uniqueness of the saints.


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