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7 – 3 – 1: My Journey Through the Enneagram

 “One of the great dangers of transformational work is that the ego attempts to sidestep deep psychological work by leaping into the transcendent too soon. This is because the ego always fancies itself much more ‘advanced’ than it actually is.”
 

The quote above has become one of the defining quotes of my year. To me, it means it’s not enough to talk about practices for healthy life, you have to be willing to submit yourself to a process. You actually have to do the work.

This idea comes from a book about a system of personality types that has, in some ways, become my current practice of self-knowledge and discovery. For those of you who may be worried, it’s more psychological work than spiritual practice. The Enneagram has in no way usurped my Christian faith, but, to the contrary, has led me to a deeper understanding of my personal brand of depravity (in other words, how I personally manifest brokenness) and given me a vocabulary for understanding myself and my behavior. Also, when I talk about the Enneagram, it is through the lens of one book, The Wisdom of the Enneagram. To my knowledge, it’s the most thorough one of its kind.

I almost can’t imagine my life before the Enneagram, the book, and the quote.

For those of you who haven’t heard of the Enneagram, it is a vastly complex system for understanding different personalities. Unlike the Myers-Briggs and others, it does not prescribe static labels or obscure beaver-otter-retriever metaphors. It contains nine personality types that have somewhat recently been placed on the ancient nine-point symbol of the Enneagram.

Beyond the nine main types, each type has “wing” personality types of the immediate numbers (e.g. “9 with a 1 or 8 wing”) which does not define their dominant motivators, but is still highly influential in their way of life. Furthermore, each personality type assumes the negative or positive qualities of another personality type when the person is unhealthy or healthy respectively. Thus, a domineering eight becomes more helpful like a two when healthy and more controlling and secretive like a five when unhealthy. So there are nine types, 18 sub-types, and the ability to “catch” you at any stage of development along the way to maturity.

Now, take a deep breath.

When I first learned about the Enneagram I was surrounded by two good friends who also happen to identify as sevens. That’s me! I thought, as one friend read the description of the “busy, fun-loving” personality type I so longed to embody. This seemed to explain why I was always distracting myself by looking for cool articles about my passions, stop motion videos and infographics on the internet and sharing them with my friends. I’m just a scattered seven, afraid of my past and searching for newer, more exciting experiences to assuage my pain.

But then people were like, hold up. I sort of act like my friends that are sevens in social settings, but there are some aspects of my life that don’t match up: My car is organized and vacuumed, I have a LinkedIn, and I talk about adventures way more than I actually go on them. And then it all made sense, you’re a three! With a two wing! You’re “the charmer,” always looking for another way to help someone and improve your image. And at the time this seemed to really fit.

As I started to look at my life, I became painfully aware of the fact that I have spent countless hours crafting an image for myself whether on social network sites, through this blog and in my personal relationships with others. I hated myself because I began to perceive all my pursuits (my hobbies and jobs) as mere image maintenance for my troubled ego. I started beating myself up for caring so much about what other people thought about me and this made me care even more about what other people thought than I had before. All about image and success? I wondered to myself if all my work were just to create a name and a desirable image as the three is prone to do.

Then all the sudden I had this realization: Work? Beating myself up? Passions? None of these tendencies fit either of the two personalities that I had previously considered for myself. Sevens are way too carefree to think that what they’re doing is work (“life’s an adventure!”) and threes are too busy fitting in and receiving awards (of the traditional sort) to really beat themselves up for failing to meet personal standards. Besides, if my desire were to have a good image, I wouldn’t type blog posts longer than 1400 words!

At long last, after about eight months of wrestling with this whole Enneagram idea, I found a personality type that describes me so well it hurts: I am a one.

My girlfriend (also, almost definitely a one) and I laughed our way through the entire section on this type, its tendencies, and our own stories from the past. We would read the first sentence of a paragraph, have an entire conversation, then realize that our conversation was almost identical to the rest of the paragraph we were on. The one is the personality that is essentially trying to prove its worth, its reason for existing. One’s are also impatient, think they know the right way things should be done, and, when healthy, champion reform throughout society.

Who would have guessed it? Probably all of my friends, family, and acquaintances. It’s so obvious now looking back on my time in college. If I wasn’t ranting about the administration I was organizing to get sidewalks built or developing plans for the student composting system. Always. Always. Always looking at what could be fixed/changed rather than what was going well. I also realized that I was sometimes so perfectionistic in my work that if I couldn’t do it perfectly, I would give up and do it poorly last minute. Then, I would beat myself up for not living up to my expectations of myself and fall into an emotional tailspin (ones move to fours under stress) and feel like I had lost myself entirely.

Conversely, some of the most difficult moments of growth in my life continue to be the times when I realize I am impatient with someone else’s way of doing things. I also realize now that my personality is to feel self-righteous and to orient myself away from other people in an attempt to feel personally just and good. That is, after all, what my personality is striving to be: good. But since no human can reach their personal standards of perfection, as I gradually mature I find more value in other people’s standards and processes while also transitioning from judgement to discernment. Rather than rely on a good-bad dichotomy to deceive my guilty ego, I develop more internal self-confidence and open myself up to more external disorder. I learn to embrace the grey of life.

Why have I put myself through this process? Because the Enneagram has forced me to examine my behaviors, thoughts and instincts in way that I would have never done otherwise. Furthermore, what I have learned has also been supported by other books I’m reading, most specifically Integrity by Henry Cloud and The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard. One of Cloud’s quotes in particular seemed to encapsulate this realization:

“This process is called assimilation and accommodation. Which means someone has graduated past childhood levels of information processing and can adapt to reality and make external reality their own. I will repeat that for emphasis: it is the ability to make external reality one’s own reality.”
 

This sort of maturity does not come easily. We all have delusions, but it is knowing our delusions that will allow us to operate in the complex world effectively and honestly. Also, it is only “deep psychological work” that will force us to remember the parts of our lives that we desire to forget (our weakness and shortcoming) and integrate these into our more realistic and honest identity.

Thanks for making it to the end! You deserve a prize. And that prize should be a copy of the Enneagram book … and friends to share the journey.

As always, and most definitely, more to come.

Opening quote: Don Riso and Russ Hudson. The Wisdom of the Enneagram, 10.
Second quote: Dallas Willard. Integrity, 135.
 
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From Drinking Songs to Pet Theories

I recently felt convicted on behalf of the individualistic, intellectual, global community. Didn’t we used to sing drinking songs together? It seems like these days we spend our time talking and debating rather than getting lost in something greater … something that unites.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between beer and coffee. In 2010, Stephen Johnson gave a TED talk titled, “Where good ideas come from.” I highly recommend it. In his presentation, he argues that the advent of the English coffeehouse played a significant role in the development of ideas during the English enlightenment. With the coffee house, Johnson states, the English people moved from a perpetually drunk society to a stimulated community of thought and collaboration. The ideas that transformed society emerged, at least in part, from within the incubator of the coffeehouse. So I originally saw this as a good thing. Don’t we need good ideas to progress? Well, yes, but I think we’ve lost something in the process of becoming enlightened and thoughtful. In short, we’ve lost drinking songs. We’ve lost this social tradition that connected us to each other and our sense of belonging and place.

I see the effects of this coffeehouse culture on my own upbringing in Tyler, TX. My friends and I would often meet for coffee at the “local” Starbucks and talk about life. These were great times we spent laughing and solving the world’s problems. But they didn’t unite us or connect us to our city in a meaningful. We never spontaneously burst into song with steins of beer sloshing around as we sang, “Tyler, oh Tyler! Da-dum de-dum de-dum …” Or anything of the sort.

In addition, the people that did drink together in high school did not usually do so with members of the older generations because they were partaking in something that many consider immoral. Thus, if there were a drinking song for Tyler, they wouldn’t be singing it. Instead, they would still be stuck in the teenage ghetto while their parents either condoned or condemned from afar. It really is a tragedy. When it came time for me to look for colleges, I felt no remorse leaving that city in the dust. I had clearly not connected to it’s people or culture in such a way that made me feel like I belonged. I had not yet come of age.

Here’s the deal: It’s not about beer and it’s not exactly about drinking songs. It’s about the cultural traditions that unite people.

The thing about these traditions is that they have to be taught. This teaching process requires close, intergenerational relationships. Drinking songs clearly had an incredible ability to galvanize that “togetherness” of community because they eventually became Baptist hymns and even the national anthem of the USA. The difficult question for me is whether this generations is producing material that could be redeemed in the same way. Does our philosophizing  bring us together? As I sit here at my computer developing this theory I wonder if instead I could be singing a drinking song (or any song) with a group of people. Granted, it’s 10 a.m. on a Thursday, but my point is this: I don’t want to care more about my pet theories than our collective humanity.

I think it’s time to start singing.

Elks, Masons, and Odd Fellows: antiquated past or valuable tradition?

“I just worry,” my dad told me one day this summer, “that there won’t be enough Shriners in the future to maintain hospitals like Scottish Rite (Hospital, Dallas).” “Well,” I responded, “why don’t you become a Shriner?”

Growing up, I never would have thought about fraternal societies. To be honest, Barney Flintstone’s membership in the Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes was the closest I ever came to even knowing they existed. Then I went to college, joined a fraternity, and never looked back … until now. I graduated in May and in the last few months, fraternal societies for grown men have started to make a lot more sense. I think it was when people started doing this weird thing — calling me a man instead of a guy — that I started to wonder what I was getting myself into. Isn’t being a man all about being lonely and depressed? Work all day then come home and sit in your house? Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone makes a strong case that we’re living more of our lives without each other. As a result, it doesn’t feel like there’s any benefit to this whole “guy-to-man” switch … just more responsibility. There’s nothing cool waiting for me on the other side. But in the context of our nation’s history, that wasn’t always the case. There was an era of the American city when the fabric of society was dense with organizations and groups that carried and supported you through all the stages of life.

Douglass Rae summarized this era of ‘urbanism’ in this way:

“All or virtually all of the people who were assembled by these organizations — whether for religious or a fraternal lodge meeting or a sporting contest — were members of locally grounded communities. And the acts of assembly and association almost certainly deepened and enriched participants sense of loyalty to and identity with place.” Rae, City: Urbanism and its end (2003).

Rae’s research focussed on the city of New Haven, Connecticut and the 100-year deterioration of urbanism. In his research, he documents how each city block in New Haven was once a thriving microcosm of society. Middle-class men and women were usually a part of several societies in the city for different purposes including fraternities, sports teams, and social clubs. It’s wasn’t easy life in 1900, but it was lived together.

Today, things have changed. The America of 1900 no longer exists. But what I love about cities is that the buildings in our cities (the ones that survived) are the constructed monuments to our past. Tyler, TX is no exception. While they don’t hold the same place of prominence in the region, there are still buildings in Tyler that harken to an older era. The Masonic Lodge (pictured above), built in 1932 is the most striking downtown example that is still in use. I’ve driven by this building numerous times, but never thought it was special. Today, I almost felt like someone was going to come out and kidnap me for taking a photo of their building. The awesome neon sign (left) on the street is also worth noting … I don’t recognize some of the symbols, but I’m sure they all mean something to the men involved. The pentagram at the top looks slightly demonic, but I’d still think it was cool if my dad went to this building for a meeting once a week.

Other buildings in Tyler are no longer being used for their original purposes, but still bear the markings of early twentieth-century urbanism. The old Elk Lodge is one such building. I believe there is still a group of Elks in Tyler, but now they meet on the edge of the city in a newer lodge. It’s kind of a shame they moved, but I’m partially glad they did because the building is amazing and I got to walk through it today (without being properly initiated). It’s currently being renovated by Ron Mabry of Tyler for events in the city. I believe All Saints Episcopal is having a dance later on in the year. I hope that at least one high school student walking by notices the plaque on the building that states the founding purpose of the building: “Tyler Lodge No. 215, B. P. O. Elks, M. E. Danbom, Exalted Ruler.” The people on this plaque cared enough about each other to build a building where they could meet, talk about life, celebrate and mourn.

Only the oldest parts of our nation harbor these artifacts of the American past. It is always good to remember where we came from because it gives us a context for where we are. Plenty of people today are talking about why guys aren’t growing up, etc, but I don’t think they ever ask the question, “What’s waiting on the other side?” Yes, traditions are cumbersome and (quite necessarily) antiquated, but even in this postmodern society there is utility in having a structure to stand up under. There is a beauty in being told how to act. So don’t mock the Oddfellows, Lions, Masons, or Shriners. The men involved in these organizations are engaging in a tradition of American civil society that was once a grand element of this American life. Today, it is mostly just plaques on buildings … and a memory of how life could be.