That course again

Published on 25 Nov 2019
November view across the Vale of Clwyd

by Teresa McCaffery

I don’t know if it is two years or three since I attended Fr Roger Dawson’s course on Life before Death, but it is still going strong, and with good reason.

One of the concepts mentioned during the course was the ‘Big Five’ personality questionnaire and I was intrigued.  More recently I read a book my son was talking about (Selfie, by Will Storr).  He suggested that just as the body has evolved over millennia to produce the human shape and form, which nonetheless has many features in common with other animals, so our sense of self has changed and developed in the course of history, but still functions under certain circumstances like earlier iterations of the self.  The individual steps include the tribal self, the bad self, the perfectible self, the special, or unique self and the digital self.  It is not difficult to imagine how each of these, if it was the only one operating, would make life uncomfortable for both individual and society. 

After giving the matter some thought I realised that personality  traits are a kind of outward sign of inner evolution.  My personality  reveals the way the evolution of the sense of self has worked out in me – it’s different for everyone.

The ‘big five’ factors are:  Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Openness, Extraversion and Neuroticism; and the personality questionnaire rates us on each of these scales from low to high.  I feel that the first four are easy to understand and I would like to score high in them, but ‘neuroticism’  sounds almost pejorative: who wants to be neurotic? The person high on the neuroticism scale tends to be anxious and reacts strongly to stress (with distress); they are also at greater risk of anxiety and depression (they have the highest rate of suicide).  We all know about one Person who was extremely sensitive to the state of the world, seriously creative in His efforts to turn things around, and who died a premature death as a result.

However, while Christ was concerned about the state of the world and angered by injustice, he was a person founded fundamentally on hope and a minister of consolation.  The person who is high on neuroticism is in good company, but Christ has the ability to calm our fears (it is not for nothing that his most frequent saying is variations of ‘Be not afraid’).  We might speculate that Jesus’ personality was agreeable, open, conscientious and extravert.  He also spent time  on His own, wanting to be alone, which brings me to the practical side of the argument.

While personality traits are pretty stable and some of the five factors have at least some genetic component, there are things that we can do.  We can all practise agreeableness (being kinder, more grateful), openness (seeking out new experiences, trying something different, getting someone else to talk and listening well) and conscientiousness (being reliable, persevering, meeting deadlines). We may have to accept a certain level of introversion or neuroticism and these may be very difficult to change (and we may not want  to change them).  But  we can understand them and provide the circumstances in which they are less likely to cause trouble.  A small circle of intimate friends can keep the introverted person from loneliness and isolation.  Providing the opportunity for solitude in some calm, quiet place will stop anxiety causing frustration and anger.  If, in that quiet solitude we can discuss our anxious issues with a good companion (and who better than God) so much the better.  Which brings us back to St. Beuno’s …

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