or, the juxtaposition of previously unrelated trajectories
Many of you will know I am an avid amateur people reader – that is, I often try to work out people’s temperaments and sometimes even full blown personality profiles out of interest. What you may not know is that before I discovered systematic personality profiling, I used to keep an imaginary collection of ‘beautiful people’. I began this collection as a child after reading a book in which the protagonist did this, and it mostly involved keeping a mental list of people I really liked and admired for a variety of different reasons. Or, not so different perhaps! As a child, these were often other sensitive souls, especially introverted or caring ones – people I felt a connection to without any real reason except they seemed to do things in the ‘right’ way, they just made sense to me. It didn’t mean I did things the same way they did, or that I was friends with them, or even talked to them, or that they were even still alive. And it didn’t mean that I didn’t love all the other people in my life who weren’t on this imaginary list of kindred spirits. Looking back, I guess it was a way to make sense of myself, and my own values and ways of doing things. It was a way to try and gather together people who I wanted to learn something from or to emulate in some way.
What I now realise, looking back, is that almost all of the people in my beautiful people collection were of the NF temperament, like myself and my father too. It seems that I probably noticed them because we shared some basic common understanding of what was important and meaningful. But there was something more than that too: I could also see possibilities for my own development and self improvement. Many of these people also seemed to reveal their feelings on their face, be overly burdened with the problems of others. Many were interested in understanding how other people felt and experienced the world (often from other cultures or using other languages). Many were interested in meaningful literature, conversations, movies, music and so on. And some also completely prioritised and identified with whatever person they were interacting with to the degree that other priorities would be forgotten and their own opinions or values sometimes overridden by the other.
Each of these people also had something to show me, sometimes about how to manage being an ‘oversensitive’ NF person in a world of other types. They also often showed me a spirituality that could ground and connect me to the One who is Other and both beyond and within self. What I mean is that from these Beautiful People further down the path than me, I began to glean a way to get beyond the overreaching burdens and cares and priorities of others to connect with myself and the Spirit within, while still deeply caring and sharing burdens and joys with these multiple others. Eventually I moved from just gleaning and adding people to an imaginary collection to intentionally seeking friendship with some of these people, especially those who actively seek spiritual development.
It was through this that I made a good friend who really changed my life in more ways than one. Apart from patiently teaching me Chinese and challenging almost every idea I had, she was a wonderful INFJ woman who spent hours in deep conversation with me, discussing every meaningful topic and relationship and idea under the sun (or more often, moon). She also introduced me to the writings of 15th century mystics and quietists like Jeanne Guyon, Bishop Fenelon and Michael Molinos, and certainly diverted me from the rather self-righteous path of Christianity I was on at that time. Like many INFJs, she had gone through her own troubled paths in seeking truth, justice, spiritual connection and more, coming out the other side richer and more grounded and able to help others find that same connection – in this case, in the quietist practices of meditation and union with God.
More recently, I have made another wonderful INFJ Beautiful People Collection friend who, among other things, introduced me to the writings of Richard Rohr. Richard Rohr is a Catholic priest and writer whose work I instantly connected with. His work reads like an annotated Beautiful People Collection – he connects the mystics of ancient Christian tradition with the mystics of other religious traditions and our society today. So far I have listened to Falling Upwards: Spirituality in the Two Halves of Life and have begun reading The Naked Now: Learning to see as the mystics see. From the very first paragraphs, Richard Rohr joined my Beautiful People List. His sustained attempt to free Western Christianity from dualistic and immature religiosity struck a chord and revealed a deep hunger in me for more connection at this stage in my life. But at the same time, I feel some unease around my immediate positive reaction. Richard Rohr thinks like I do. In fact, in The Naked Now, he describes three reactions to a sunset, that of the sensate, the person of reason, and the ‘mystic’, describing the mystic as the ‘best’ and the furthest along the spiritual path. Of course I find myself agreeing, because what he describes is effectively the sensing temperaments (SJ and SP), the science temperament (NT), and – as the preferred option – the ‘mystic’ temperament (NF). And we all like to be the best, right? Rohr frequently acknowledges that few have trodden the path of the mystic, but still holds it up as the ideal – but could that just be because it is a temperamental preference?
For me, I’m back to the old question of my Beautiful People Collection, populated mostly with NFs rather than Christians – is mystical and contemplative spirituality just a matter of temperamental preference? I’m glad Rohr makes a sustained effort to delineate a space for the mystic traditions and contemplative practices of Christianity and spirituality more generally. I personally get a lot of guidance from Rohr and other NFs who ‘get’ my desire for spiritual connection with something greater than myself, that is, God and the collective of other seekers. I, too, find shallow and prescriptive religious tradition distasteful, and I appreciate their guidance in nondualistic spiritual development. But maybe it is too much to expect and hope and fight for global change within the church and society, as Rohr does. Maybe our paths are partly prescribed by the values and preferences we develop in temperament. Maybe the work of Rohr, Guyon, Fenelon, Molinos (also NT Wright, Philip Yancy, Henri Nouwen, Rachel Held Evans and no doubt many other Christians today and historically walking this path) is not so much to prescribe the way for all Christians, but to gather a collective of similarly inclined people and help them to flourish in a church or culture or spiritual tradition that might not otherwise support them.
But on the other hand, I wouldn’t be an NF if I didn’t want to love ALL the people and help ALL the people connect: whether that is with God, themselves, truth, justice, compassion, wisdom and others. Maybe part of our job in society is to do this work in the hope that we will, somehow, make a difference. And they do – I think of people like Whina Cooper, Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks, Gandhi… people living out their hopes and beliefs and values and actually changing the world. Maybe that’s what separates out the people in the Beautiful People Collection from the ordinary NFs like me – they really live and work out their lives for others in compassion and hope, believing that everyone can connect more deeply, live more fully, act more compassionately. I still have a lot to learn from them.