The Personality versus the Self

PART II of IV – Slaying The Dragon

In Part I we clarified how “Most people just have personalities.” They don’t seem to know who they are, they are not consciously making choices to create the lives they want to live using their God-given imaginations. We presented three ‘test questions’ you can use to determine if you’re living mostly as an automatic personality or typically as a richly vigorous individual. You should come up with your own answers to these questions before reading Part II…

In Part I we also claimed you likely tend to respond to situations automatically with your conditioned reflexes rather than actively investigating, exploring and experimenting to find out what you can and cannot learn and do given your unique talents and abilities. Your identifications may be based on a fixed self-image, the pursuit of power, money or prestige, impressing others or some way of ‘looking good’. You may base your identity on unchanging or even unchangeable characteristics, like race, gender, and heredity, or like religion, political party, income level and so on. Where does this leave sound principles, humane values, respectable character and personal integrity?

At the heart of most groups lies a supremely noble cause that warrants any amount of self-sacrifice and devotion. For true believers, these seemingly Utopian ends justify nearly any means. The ‘faithful’ or ‘committed’ strive to fulfill the gospel of their select group, and are indirectly encouraged to neglect their individual character as an independent, self-responsible adult in the process.

There’s a story the late Joseph Campbell used to retell about encountering a dragon on “The Hero’s Journey”. The journey of the hero is the journey toward your genuine self, toward discovering and asserting your true individuality. Walking upon this path, the story reveals, there is a major challenge that must be overcome fairly early on in the quest of self-discovery. This is the dangerous and daunting task of defeating ‘The Dragon’.

Fairly shortly into the quest, on the path of the hero, that’s you or anyone else who attempts to discover and express themselves more fully, you encounter a huge, menacing Dragon blocking your path. Huge and powerful, this thing breathes smoke, spews fire, and stands so big and tall it can easily block any view of your path entirely. Many times it does block someone’s path, and the potential hero, the potentially self-realized human being, gives up in terror and retreats, backing away from the imposing Dragon, retracing his or her steps to safer, more familiar ground.

The Dragon looms so high over your head, with its head and tail so far off into the distance to the left and right, that you may fail to see any way to get past it. Its skin is covered with thousands of tough and durable scales, similar to the skin of any reptile. Yet looking more closely, each of these Dragon scales has a different command written on it. Each command begins with the words “You should”.

Here are some of the ‘shoulds’ I can read on the tough outer scales of the Dragon I’ve crossed paths with, my own Dragon. Yours will differ, particularly according to your generation, yet hopefully it will trigger you to remember some of the scales on your own Dragon when you hear some of mine. I’ve listed enough for you to get a feel for the size and ferocity of what we’re confronting:

  • You should do as you’re told.

  • You should get your head out of the clouds.

  • You should do as I say and not as I do.

  • You should act like a man.

  • You should stop trying to have things make sense.

  • You should get a job that’s practical and stop chasing dreams that will never come true.

  • You should wait until you get to be my age and then you’ll understand.

  • You should listen to the experts because they know better than you do.

  • You should stop trying to exceed your limitations.

  • You should worry about what the neighbors are going to think.

  • You should make lots of money.

  • You should be a doctor or a lawyer.

  • You should stop trying to make things better and just worry about yourself.

  • You should try to get ahead no matter how many people you have to step on to do it.

  • You should keep your mouth shut.

  • You should keep your opinions to yourself.

  • You should keep your head down.

  • You should not rock the boat.

  • You should go along to get along.

  • You should obey authority without question.

  • You should follow the rules.

  • You should never think you’re anything special.

  • You should follow someone who already has what you want so you can do what he did.

  • You should never believe you can do something nobody else has done.

  • You should ingratiate yourself to your boss no matter what you feel about this person.

  • You should accept that the world is a horrible place and just live with it.

  • You should not worry about the big picture, let others better-qualified worry about that.

  • You should work as hard as you possibly can.

Thousands upon thousands of “shoulds” block the path toward the self from being pursued very far, or from even being reached or maybe even seen. The “shoulds” can seem insurmountable and most people simply do what they’re told, what’s expected of them, what’s safe, clear or familiar, and their potentially heroic quest to find themselves comes to an early end. They comfort themselves thereafter with as many toys, pleasures and distractions as they can, so they don’t absent-mindedly wander too close to that menacing Dragon again. After all, once past that Dragon, their journey just begins, and that means walking boldly into the uncertain, the unknown, and the unpredictable.

The true heroes, those who actually do manage to discover themselves and learn to live an authentically imaginative and creative life, eventually learn to slay this Dragon, leaving its hulking carcass lying temporarily defeated yet persistently threatening, in the path behind them. They travel on to whatever awaits them in the unfolding of the lives they learn to create for themselves, one step at a time. These are the people who have a sense of who they are and are able to respond more imaginatively and creatively to life’s challenges than those who believe themselves to be ‘fixed personalities’ only, polished veneers veiling an absent center…

It’s an informative distinction, this contrast between those living by habit or convention, and those living with real passion and imagination in their plans and relationships. How many do you imagine actively oppose this Dragon—and how many feed it—giving it as much of their life’s energy as they possibly can? Would you slay it if you could? Would you prefer to continue living under its imposing authority even if you didn’t have to? If you haven’t yet reached a deeply personal sense of self, could you even recognize that you’re being oppressed by it?

If all that matters is personality, then how you react to your subjugation to the Dragon is all that counts—how smoothly and cleverly you make light of the problem takes center stage—keeping up appearances assumes great importance. Whether you can actually challenge and defeat this tyrannical Dragon never even comes up as a serious question because our ‘personalities’ have generally not been programmed to confront Dragons.

If you intend to slay ‘The Dragon of Shoulds’ for yourself, tune in again next month for Part III, where we’ll look at some things you’ll likely encounter once you get past the Dragon, as you continue taking steps along the path. Though you’ll also continue to live in the world as it is, with its trials and tribulations, friends and lovers, triumphs and setbacks, you’ll experience it differently once you’re on your own path; one you will continue to discover as you walk it…

[Go to Part I] [Go to Part III] [Go to Part IV]