It may be trite to say that people are different. Yet it bears repeating, as we routinely lose sight of that simple fact in our private echo chambers of righteous self-regard. We routinely assume that everyone is on some level the same as we are, and then are left befuddled and shocked when an election turns that idea on its head. In our personal lives, we routinely assume that others see what we see, and care about what we care about, and get angry when they blithely ignore that sock on the floor, or the monthly budget. Thus it is perennially important to raise consciousness about the depth and durability of human differences, so that we can live together more harmoniously, with greater understanding.
Personality and temperament have been an ongoing theme on this site, so it was a pleasure to find a new book on the subject that is as compelling as anything I have read. There are many systems that try to schematize the protean landscape of human personality, from the ancient (the four humors) to the pseudo-scientific (Jung's) and more systematic (Myers-Briggs), and the more frankly scientific (the five factor model). Dahlin is a California New-Age scion whose family has long used the Chinese five-element system to understand themselves and others.
|Who are you? Who am I?|
There are virtues to using such a simple system. On the surface, it captures extreme personality types, which can then be combined to come up with a more nuanced model of a particular person's style. To recount them very briefly, the Water type is introverted, slow, inner-directed, and creative. The Wood type is type-A, always doing, with a task list in hand, and impatient with ritual. The Fire type is the happy-go-lucky, life-of-the-party type, intensely interested and charming one minute, then off to something new the next. The Earth type is the home and family-oriented type, the human doormat, always serving others. And the Metal type is cool, idealistic, minimal. They subscribe to Dwell magazine.
There is a great deal more to say, of course, and Dahlin says it very well, with warmth, verve, and fascinating anecdotes. Each type has its spiritual approaches, its physical and relationship needs, its manifestations in childhood. Dahlin even supplies special exercises for each type, drawn from her experience as a dancer. This book, more than the others of this genre that I have read, prompted me to think about other people in my life through its lens, which brings out particuliarities and deeper themes that tend to get lost in the hubbub of normal relations.
Are these personality types genetic? Dahlin's mother writes in the forward about the experience of being pregnant with children of different elements. Their personalities were markedly different well before birth. Dahlin herself notes, however, that personalities can change with time, during childhood and after trauma, which suggests that they are canalized styles of expression, solutions to the problems of life, which are not entirely determined. Indeed, the genetics of twins indicates that stable personality traits are determined only about half genetically, and half by other influences, whether environmental or stochastic.
Dahlin notes that most couples are of different types- opposites really do attract, and often complement each other as well. This suggests two things- that the insofar as personality type is genetic, the stable population distribution of different types is a matter of balanced selection. This should not come as a surprise, as many other species show personalities and stable population distributions of different types, down to ants and their castes, as an extreme form. The second implication is that appreciation of different types (using whatever system you like) is highly important at all levels- to our personal lives as well as our public and work lives, to promote understanding and lift a veil of mystery from our often unthinking view of the "other".
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