Happiness and the motivation to change

I’ve been thinking a lot about the principle of reflection I’ve observed in my life lately.

The basic idea is that my experience of reality reflects my own deeper beliefs about reality.

For example, if I really believe that life is an endless struggle, then I will find that my experience reflects endless struggle.

Applying the principle in reverse: if my experience of life is an endless struggle, then on some level I must believe that this is how life is or should be.

In order for life to feel like a struggle, we have to want things that are unattainable, or alternatively we have to sabotage the attainable things we desire.

To be more precise, we have to feel like we want certain things, only to find that these things are unattainable either intrinsically or through self-sabotage.

For example, I used to think I wanted to lose weight. That’s fine if we define ‘want’ as a feeling. But if we define want as a motivational state – a state of mind that moves you to action – then it wasn’t true that I wanted to lose weight.

Paradoxically, when I accepted that I didn’t really want to lose weight, the sudden shock motivated me to do something about it.

By extension, I might think I want life to be easy, free, secure, prosperous, and satisfying. But if life instead feels difficult, miserable, hopeless, and full of struggle, then I need to question this apparent ‘want’.

If I wanted life to be easy and free and so on, then I would act towards those goals. I would at the very least have a plan and a course of action with definable progress along the way.

If I don’t have those things, then in what sense do I really want to be free, happy, and fulfilled?

To get a little more personal: I always had a vague goal of wanting ‘answers’ to life. But if I really wanted answers, shouldn’t I at least be clear-minded about the questions?

When I grappled with the issue of weight loss, it turned out to be quite complicated and full of self-delusion and conflicting desires. At face value I wanted to lose weight, but beneath the surface I was quite complacent about it and not really motivated to change my behaviour.

So it’s not immediately clear what I want from life either. I can only really say at this point that the most obvious answers are probably not correct.

I’ve distilled this down to a useful heuristic: when you find yourself stuck in persistent negative situations, consider the possibility that you are exactly where you want to be.

This might seem absurd, but what we don’t realise is that our psyches are complicated. There are layers of belief and motivation inside us.

For example, I might want to be a successful writer, and do my best to achieve that goal. But years earlier, perhaps when I was a teenager or a child, I decided that it was best to stay on the sidelines and avoid the limelight.

I never challenged or changed that belief, I just went on living and adding new layers as I went. So now as an adult my desire for success in various aspects of life is implicitly curtailed by my pre-existing and still operational desire to avoid the limelight and live life on the sidelines.

The end result is struggle and disappointment, but even so the struggle and disappointment must be part of the picture. On some level I’m comfortable with struggle and disappointment, because they concord with my beliefs about life.

Like I said, it’s complicated.

I don’t think there’s a single, simple answer to it either. Or maybe I just don’t want there to be a simple answer.

But at the very least it’s good to recognise that your unfulfilled desire for success may be the outcome you want deep down after all.

If you merely wanted to be successful, you would surely gravitate foremost to things you could easily succeed at. You would be mindful of your past successes. You would live and breath success, and avoid any enterprise where success seemed tenuous or uncertain. You might still suffer setbacks and failures, but you wouldn’t cling to them.

The weight-loss example is brilliant: all you have to do in order to lose weight is eat dramatically less. But we don’t do that, because we don’t really want to lose weight, or because our motivation to lose weight is far weaker than our motivation to lose ourselves in the pleasure of food.

It seems obvious with weight loss because moment-by-moment we are either eating or not eating, and it’s totally in our control.

But the same is true in other aspects of life – in our thoughts and feelings we are either oriented toward or away from our goal. It may be more subtle than putting food in your mouth, but I don’t think it’s necessarily less effective.

It’s terrifying and confronting to recognise that your supposed wants and desires are only a facade. But terror and confrontation are great sources of motivation! That’s why the weight-loss book I wrote about my experience is not for everyone. It ended up being very confronting.

Sometimes we need to be confronted with the truth of our situation. If you spend your life failing at finding happiness, then it’s worth considering if you really want happiness in the first place. Many of us would have no idea what to do with ourselves if we were happy. We’d quickly find a problem or a crisis or a new struggle to drag us back into our more comfortable misery.

It sounds paradoxical, but the strong feeling I have of wanting my life to change is only a feeling. The proof is that I haven’t done anything differently, despite my apparent frustration and unhappiness.

If we define ‘want’ as a motivational state – a state of mind that results in action – then clearly I do not want life to change. As I note in the end of my weight-loss book, the thought “I want life to change” or “I want to lose weight” is really a form of self-delusion designed to distract us from what’s really going on in our minds.

Because if you admit to yourself that you don’t want life to change, that you want life to continue as it has been, the obvious question is “Why?” Why would you want life to continue in a way that you obviously don’t enjoy?

Looking at it this way forces you to own your role in making life the way it is by performing the same kinds of actions over and over with the same motives, beliefs, and feelings. Hopefully it raises in you a genuine motivation to understand, a curiosity as to why you are perpetuating a way of life that you don’t enjoy, to such an extent that you even delude yourself with thoughts of change.

Before I lost weight I thought the benefits would all be aesthetic. I was surprised to find that the greatest changes were in my relationship with food, and my overall sense of well-being.

I could not have predicted what being thin would be like. In that sense I really didn’t know what losing weight meant until I accomplished it. It’s no wonder I couldn’t really ‘want’ it in the first place.

What helped me in the end was knowing that my relationship with food was dysfunctional and seeking to ‘work it out’. That might be a more constructive approach generally: recognise that things aren’t right and try to understand where they’re going wrong.

 

 

 

 

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Addiction and pornography: rediscovering virtue in the internet age

It’s been a while folks. Inspiration is a mysterious and fickle thing.

My latest article at MercatorNet examines the underlying nature of addiction, and how it inhibits our greater happiness and enjoyment of life:

This disproportion between the object of addiction and the pleasure or enjoyment we derive from it is characteristic of all addictions. When the pleasure and pain we feel at the presence or absence of the object far outweighs its objective value or significance, something is clearly awry.

Becoming sexually excited by images and videos may be the quintessential addiction of the internet age, but it is also deeply absurd because images and videos per se are not sexually exciting.

Taking a drug to experience “ecstasy” might be popular too, but it is absurd because there is nothing intrinsically ecstatic about ingesting a tablet.

On this level, addictions are always absurd. In the first instance they break the relationship between reality and pleasure, leading us to seek pleasure in unreal and absurd stimuli.

https://www.mercatornet.com/features/view/addiction-and-pornography-rediscovering-virtue-in-the-internet-age

 

Getting to the bottom of pride in practice

I’m trying to get to the bottom of pride in practice.

At this stage, I think pride involves a mistaken belief that feeling good about ourselves constitutes real happiness.

Pride motivates me to pursue certain objects and avoid others on the basis of how these things make me feel about myself. It can be subtle, and sometimes it’s hard to separate how we feel about the object, from how the object makes us feel about ourselves.

For example, you enjoy someone’s care and affection, but you also enjoy how their care and affection make you feel about yourself.

The problem is that pride – how we feel about ourselves – is empty. It consists of the most transitory, fleeting thoughts and impressions that temporarily binds together our experience of reality with our self-image, conflating the two for one intoxicating moment.

This passing alignment of subject, self-image, and object is impossible to maintain, and chasing it becomes an exhausting pursuit.

Look at it this way: to be with someone you care about, you only have to be with them. But to hold onto the good feeling about yourself that comes from that person’s care and affection, you need to keep actively thinking about it – and about yourself.

But the more you think about it, the more accustomed to it your mind becomes. It stops feeling special. You need to enhance the stimulus. Worse still, the very nature of the original special event is that it took your mind away from thoughts of yourself. You cannot self-consciously lose yourself.

It’s like experiencing a wonderful surprise, and then trying to relive the moment of surprise again and again, because you self-consciously like how “being surprised” felt.

When it comes to pride, we’re dealing with a set of beliefs or cognitions that induce an emotional response in us, which we then seek to reproduce again and again. It’s as if we’ve short-circuited a cognitive function that was designed to help us survive and thrive in the real world.

Pride entails a positive emotional response to beliefs that imply in some way “I am great”. As various spiritual traditions have taught, the cognitive component rests on a subject “I”, and an object “greatness”. The emotional component is a natural response to the object “greatness” albeit mistakenly attributed to the subject “I”.

As we have discussed in previous posts, pride is all about seeking to be in control of our own happiness, and to take credit for our own greatness, or to try to own greatness in ourselves. Spiritual traditions invariably decry this as a delusion or a sin, and seek to strip us of a false and ultimately destructive sense of being in control, or being responsible for our own existence, happiness, and so on.

In other words, they seek both to devalue the subject “I” and correctly attribute the object “greatness” to God, or the void, or whatever you would like to call it.

The end result is that the human being releases their obsession with the subject “I”, and experiences the corresponding emotion of awe as a natural response to the greatness of existence according to the divine order of which they themselves are an expression.

The nature of our deluded state is that the preoccupation with “I” inhibits our experience of awe at creation. Our momentary experiences of awe break through the limitations of the “I”, but we immediately seek to take control of them once more. We end up trying to make ourselves, through the lens of “I”, the object of awe.

In everyday life this quickly degenerates from the pursuit of awe to the pursuit of relative happiness.

Are you perfect?

People think they desire to possess things (objects, status, accomplishments, the affection of others) because of some intrinsic quality of those things.  We think this object is unique or significant, this woman or man is special or wonderful, these accomplishments or status are important.

But mostly it is we who make them desirable. That is, we are already looking for things to which we can pin our special labels, to make them “worthy” objects of desire.

Once we have established these objects of desire, we live and die by them. We order our lives by their attainment. If I can just afford it… If she just smiles at me… If I can just win their vote…

We believe that once we have gained possession of these things, we will at last experience a deep, lasting, and secure happiness. We will transpose to ourselves the glory of the office, the grandeur of the home, or the grace and beauty of the beloved.

And then we will be truly happy.

But even if we obtain these things, the happiness doesn’t last. And if, as usually happens, we fail to obtain them, then we remain mired in our usual unhappy state.

Why do we do this?

Well, if those things were truly desirable then the answer would be obvious: we pursue love, property, and power because they will make our lives wonderful.

But if these things are not truly desirable – if instead we bestow desirability upon those things in the first place, then the answer is more complex, more mysterious than we realise.

I believe the latter is the case, because I have read and confirmed through my own experience that the apparent desirability of these supposedly wonderful things is not real. The possessions we once craved lose their allure. The people we once deeply admired eventually lose their glow. Status and accomplishments are soon forgotten. We move from one “wonder” on to a fresh one.

So why subject ourselves to this strange ritual?

The answer is itself a little strange.

We do it because we cannot justify being content with what we are.

What do dreaming about the perfect home, wishing for the affection of a beautiful woman or man, and imagining oneself in a position of power and respect have in common?

They all consist of mental projections of ourselves in a state that justifies feeling wonderful.

Their content is less significant than the emotional narrative they share: if I have that, I will be happy, overjoyed, resplendent.

And by implication: I can’t be happy, overjoyed, or resplendent because I don’t have that.

Whatever that is, the feelings associated with it are a kind of negative image of how you see yourself.

If that is the affection of a person, then I’m willing to bet that the qualities you think you see in that person are the qualities you most feel you lack in yourself, or the qualities you feel would redeem whatever faults you might think you have.

The same applies a little less directly to homes, possessions, status and accomplishments but in general how you feel about those things mirrors qualities you wish you had right now.

About twenty years ago I read all of this, and I reached the conclusion that if I could short-circuit this delusional dynamic I could enjoy all the wonderful feelings exactly as I am. In other words, the things I sought in external reality were just proxies for self-acceptance.

I had thought that I could only accept myself if I obtained these proxies. But if I could accept myself directly, then I could feel joy and happiness directly too?

The problem is that I took for granted that the joy and happiness were real, that I should be feeling those feelings, and if I didn’t feel those feelings then I clearly hadn’t accepted myself fully.

In other words, I turned “self-acceptance” into another proxie, something I had to obtain in order to feel joy and happiness.

I’ve come to see that as a really bad move, because if you have to chase self-acceptance it isn’t really self-acceptance. But if you call it by the same name you might not recognise the difference.

So forget about finding joy and happiness. Forget about trying to attain a state that is different from the one you currently inhabit. It’s a paradox, but don’t fall for it.

Instead, let’s ask again why we saw it necessary to seek perfection externally in the first place. How did we reach the conclusion that we need to redeem ourselves?

For a long time I didn’t really understand how the Crucifixion and death of Jesus was supposed to have redeemed anyone. People offer various theological explanations, but I’m especially leery of the argument that God required a sacrifice. At least not in a strong sense of ‘required’.

It makes more sense if we didn’t need to be redeemed, but didn’t know that we didn’t need it.

We can argue the theology but that’s the net effect of Christianity: we can’t redeem ourselves, nor ever could, so please stop trying.

If you want to go sacrificial: here’s one eternal sacrifice, the sacrifice to end all sacrifice.

This strange ‘happiness’ dynamic we’re looking at is just another attempt at redeeming ourselves. Maybe not with God, but at least privately. We believe we’re not good enough, not right, not whole, not perfect. We reject our flaws and faults, because at face value they’re unacceptable to us.

But we’re only unacceptable to us. In Matthew’s Gospel, in the “love your enemies” section, Jesus says:

He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

And just a bit later he concludes:

Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.

What kind of perfection is this? It’s a perfection that does not discriminate between the evil and the good, or the righteous and the unrighteous.

If this strikes a chord, you might see how it links in to themes I’ve raised in other posts.

In Taking what is offered I look at the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the suggestion that our refusal to accept our reality is what separates us from God, and how the path back to paradise is demonstrated in Christ’s acceptance of God’s will over his own measure of good and evil.

In Pride and the delusion of self I touch on Pride as both the cause of the devil’s fall from Heaven according to tradition, and synonymous with our own delusion of authority and control in our own lives.

Finally, in Better to reign in hell? I examine how we wrongly seek to take responsibility both for our faults and flaws and for our redemption. This sense of responsibility is linked to agency, authority, and control as described in the earlier post on pride.

Bringing this final post to bear on the current theme, it is clear that the faults and flaws for which we seek to take responsibility are the same faults and flaws that motivate the ‘happiness’ dynamic I’ve described here.

It is because we refuse to accept our own faults and flaws, we refuse to let the sun shine on the good and evil in us, or let the rain fall on the righteous and unrighteous parts of ourselves, that we seek redemption and righteousness in external things.

We promise ourselves overwhelming joy and happiness, but only if we can win this battle between good and evil within us. We imagine ourselves in ‘paradise’ if only we can achieve or obtain something to outweigh our flaws.

At whatever point in our lives we first became conscious of having flaws, our reality was ripped in two. Our knowledge of good and evil came into effect, and we were bewildered and ashamed to find that the line between the two ran through our own selves.

We still refuse to accept ourselves fully, accept our reality completely. We hold out, seeking to manage, mitigate, and mend ourselves where we can. How could we ever accept the unacceptable? How could we ever accept the parts of us our own minds condemn as faults?

This is why Christianity is called the Way of the Cross, why Christ urged us to “take up your cross and follow me”, and why, in love with God, so many of the saints endured tremendous hardship and suffering.

The cross is not only the suffering imposed on us by the external world, but the suffering and fear we hold for our own hated faults. God wants us to accept our faults.

This is not a superficial message, but a radical one. It doesn’t mean persisting with bad habits, because ultimately bad habits are attempts to hide from or compensate for our hated faults anyway. This is where the Christian motif of dying and being reborn comes into its own. Christ didn’t say “pretend to die so that you could keep on living in pretty much the same way as before”.

On the level of free will and our sense of self, this means recognising that you are not responsible for your faults anymore than you are responsible for your merits. You did not create yourself, and if you get right down to it, your sense of self is just something your mind produces from various thoughts and impressions. To treat it as a separate thing, like a little god ruling over its dominion, is at the heart of what we call pride.

 

 

More dieting tips

(Following on from the previous post)

It’s important to make the link between unhappiness and frustration at being overweight, and the pleasure and mindlessness of escapist eating.

Most of us feel bad about being overweight. We don’t like our appearance, or what it says about our relationship with food or how we relate to ourselves.

But we usually only feel bad when we notice our appearance. We quickly forget about it, which in itself implies escapism. Overweight people are rarely constantly unhappy.

Yet the unhappiness and dissatisfaction at being overweight is a powerful motive for change. In fact, we might go so far as to say that most overweight people are insufficiently unhappy or dissatisfied with their appearance. Most of us feel sudden pangs of embarrassment or dismay, but it passes.

If we were serious about losing weight, improving our appearance, and changing our relationship with food, we would cling to that unhappiness, embarrassment and other negative emotions like a gift. But instead we endure them briefly, feel bad about ourselves, get distracted, and end up losing ourselves in the pleasure of eating once again.

Those negative emotions are always stalking you anyway, why not put them to good use? Bring them to the forefront of your mind. The next time you feel dismayed or ashamed of being overweight; the next time you recognise that rolls of fat are unbecoming; the next time you find yourself frustrated at clothes that no longer fit, take that dissatisfaction and dismay and hold on to them at least as far as your next meal.

Hold on to those negative emotions the next time you approach your food, and refuse the opportunity to escape the negative emotion, to wipe it away with taste, texture, aroma, and the little rituals of eating.

Hold on to your unhappiness the next time you see a piece of cake or a bowl of curry, and ask yourself whether you actually need to eat something now, or if you are just eating for pleasure. You know where eating for pleasure has brought you. Try something different for a while.

Bear in mind there is nothing easy about this. Escapist eating implies a state of mind that does not easily find alternative sources of happiness and pleasure in life. It may imply depression or anxiety, or other disturbances.

But the underlying logic is hard to escape: if you are unhappy about being overweight, yet you continue to eat in excess, then there is something incoherent in your experience and your intentions. Coherence implies a reconciliation of these conflicting aims: either eat appropriately, or stop feeling bad about the physical consequences of excess.

Looking back, it proved helpful to me to dwell more on the unhappiness I felt at my appearance and my weight, and to extend that unhappiness into a critical analysis of my eating habits. Since weight and eating habits are so intimately related, it became clear that something was “going wrong” when I ate. That “going wrong” proved to be escapism.

Why else do people eat when they do not need to eat, and when the consequences of such unnecessary and excessive eating bring them unhappiness?

There’s a cake sitting on the table to my right. It is tasty and looks appetising, and I find myself drawn to eat some of it. But why do I want to eat it? Honestly I am not hungry – I could just as easily not eat it and continue with my work. But I still experience a desire to eat it, as though part of me believes eating it will be a wonderful pleasure.

Perhaps eating the cake would be pleasant. But why am I in such dire need of pleasure right now? Am I unhappy, bored, dissatisfied, frustrated, angry, sad, or afraid? Is my life so unpleasant that I feel the need to eat cake just to lift my base mood, despite knowing that the temporary pleasure of eating it will contribute to future unhappiness of being overweight?

And what is it precisely about the eating of the cake that will bring such pleasure? Is it the sweetness of the sugar, the moist and crunchy textures, the flavour of banana, hazelnut, and cinnamon, the caramelized golden syrup? Or is it just the movement of my jaw, the process of eating, the feeling of something in my stomach?

But I know from past experience that if I eat a piece of cake I might then be tempted to have some leftover curry. And later this evening I will be sorely tempted to cook some pasta, and eat some ice-cream.  It isn’t the cake per se, just that the cake happens to be the nearest and most enticing object of temptation at the present moment.

What all of those eating experiences have in common is that they take me away from the present moment. They offer an escape from whatever I happen to be feeling or not feeling right now, even though the escape is temporary and the consequences are themselves a cause of future unhappiness.

The unhappiness is more real than the escape, and there is more to be gained in facing reality than indulging in fleeting escapist pleasures.  Besides, most of us have already tried escaping, and we know what it brings. Rarely do we bring ourselves to try the experience of unhappiness and see where it leads.

If you try this, or work out your own approach, you will eventually find that you can tell the difference between eating for escape and eating to quell genuine hunger. Many of us have not experienced genuine hunger for years, if ever. We go from meal to meal without our digestive systems ever getting close to empty. We eat till we are overfull, and get “hungry” when we’re able to eat some more.

There are surely a number of ways to lose weight and stop escapist eating. This is the one I’ve found most valuable, because it doesn’t attempt to “cheat” and it forces us into a more honest experience of our own feelings. That being said, I’ve let it slide over the last few months. It’s easy to lapse into eating for the sake of pleasure, and the escapism this entails. At the same time, being aware of and accepting of your negative emotions is inherently challenging.

But imagine what it might be like to stop escaping from the problems and dissatisfactions in your life for once, and refuse the easy, self-destructive escapes that life offers?

Are you really a cynic?

I thought I was cynical, until I read the following chart courtesy of etymonline.com:

humor

As the table indicates, for me to be a cynic I must be exposing moral nakedness to the respectable for the sake of my own self-justification.

This is not what I thought cynicism was. It’s not what I do.

What I do is much more like privately expressing pessimism in the face of adversity for the sake of my own relief: sardonicism.

A cynic is someone who justifies their own actions by exposing the moral “nakedness” or hypocrisy of others. Like a drug addict who argues that “we’re all addicted to something”, or a thief who argues that “the rich cheat on their taxes”.

Sardonicism is instead like bitter laughter during hard times. Pessimism – expecting the worst – becomes a defense against adverse events.

Are you truly cynical, or sardonic?  The two are not mutually exclusive – I can use sardonic pessimism to cynically justify my actions, and use cynicism to justify being pessimistic. None of this is very positive, grounded as it is in defensive and negative perspectives of life. Like any defense, it may well be our least-bad response to danger and adversity, but it’s not good to live for long in a defensive state.

A response to adversity ought, ideally, to free us from adversity. Once we are free we can abandon the response. If we never abandon the response, it is either because we are unable to free ourselves – suggesting the response was futile – or because we anticipate recurrences – suggesting the response is only barely sufficient.

Unpacking sardonicism further: I use my expectation of the worst to provide relief when bad things happen. Adversity is easier to deal with when it falls short of one’s worst expectations. “Is that how hard you can hit me? I’m kinda disappointed.”

But pessimism is a self-inflicted injury designed to dull your sensitivity to disappointment, hurt, grief, and longing. Expecting the worst might limit your disappointment, but it also leaves you mired in a kind of desolation where nothing really good can happen. “Good” is not simply the absence of evil.

Time and energy devoted to pessimism could be better spent cultivating that which our pessimism seeks to defend: the full integrity of our own selves. Yet as a defense, pessimism doesn’t even try to avoid life’s blows, merely to soften them. Like bracing for impact, it hopes merely to not be taken by surprise.  Such a strategy makes sense only if we already believe that the evils in life are unavoidable, that we will be surprised unless we exert the constant vigilance of a pessimistic mind.  Pessimism is an attempt to take control of a hostile and adverse environment by adjusting one’s expectations to it.  It treats fear – the anticipation of evils – as one of life’s indelible characteristics.

That the world is full of evils is hard to deny. That these evils sometimes take us by surprise is also evident. To adopt pessimism in an attempt to at least forestall surprise makes sense, but is ultimately a terrible way to live. I didn’t understand this when I was younger, but time has exhausted my patience with pessimism.  Avoiding sorrow is not the same as pursuing happiness, and rejecting the pursuit of happiness for fear of increasing the risk of sorrow shows an incomplete understanding of happiness and sorrow, good and evil, in the first place.

I have arrived at a position in life where the greatest obstacle to my own happiness lies in my efforts to avoid suffering and sorrow. More importantly, the need for positive direction, for creativity, and an inspiring purpose demands that I put aside pessimism and attend, for once, to the makings of a pleased and happy frame of mind.

 

 

 

If thine eye offend thee…

My latest piece on MercatorNet looks at the extremely sad case of a woman who intentionally blinded herself with drain cleaner, and goes on to suggest that “transableism” and transgenderism alike are just the latest symptoms of an increasingly irreligious world that believes in the possibility and the proximity of worldly happiness:

Our society is increasingly devoid of the scepticism toward worldly goals embodied in the major religious traditions. We no longer have people telling us that the world is an illusion, a shipwreck, a “vanity of vanities”. We are lacking the kind of unwavering clarity that pours cold water not only on the outer-reaches of our struggles for worldly fulfilment, but the inner-reaches as well: wealth, career, social esteem, fashion, passion, and pride.

Our religious traditions are united in wishing to dispel the illusion that the world can grant us real happiness, whether it be through the accumulation of possessions or being called by the “correct” pronouns.

http://www.mercatornet.com/articles/view/a-new-identity-will-not-make-you-happy

MBTI and the melancholic

Utilising Keirsey’s temperament sorter, we can associate the four temperaments with four groupings of the Myers-Briggs 16 types. This leaves us with four variants of the melancholic temperant, the ‘NF’ types, which for the uninitiated means types who perceive intuitively (N) and arrive at judgements based on feeling (F).

Melancholics are therefore Keirsey’s Idealist types. Idealism is key to the melancholic temperament hence my use of the term melancholic idealist.  In MBTI terms the melancholic idealist is characterised by his dependence on intuition and feeling, with variations according to which function is extroverted, and whether the individual himself is introverted or extroverted.

For example, for NFP types the perceiving function (intuition) is extroverted – directed to the external world. For NFJ types the judging function (feeling) is extroverted. But even so an NFP or an NFJ may be Extroverted or Introverted, which is to say that they will be more closely attuned to their Extroverted or Introverted functions respectively.

What does this look like?

An ENFP and an INFP have the same arrangement of functions – introverted feeling (written as Fi) and extroverted intuition (Ne). But because the ENFP is overall an extrovert, their Ne plays the dominant role in their type. As introverts INFP types are dominated by their Fi.

As an INFP I find some benefit in the description of these functions and this type. For example, it is true that my life is dominated by Feeling. Not other people’s feelings, but my own, hence the ‘i’ for introversion. Having introverted Feeling as one’s dominant function is a bit like living in a house with no roof where you can’t help but be forever conscious of the weather, of which way the wind is blowing.

Extroverted intuition is like having odd or unusual patterns, resemblances, and associations constantly springing into one’s mind.  It’s partly reflected in my love of analogies, though the analogies can become stretched and strained beyond their use.

But as an INFP I can only take this kind of Myers-Briggs talk in small doses. MBTI is, after all, a very Te way of looking at things, that is, an extroverted Thinking approach, cutting up all of humanity into 16 interchangeable boxes.

Extroverted Thinking does not come naturally to me, though I can use it when motivated, when it serves some higher aim, and in fact have become so good at it that on tests my Thinking and Feeling scores vary by only a few points.

But beyond the narrow limits of extreme utility, I find Te tedious, boring, soul-destroying even; and hence I soon grow tired of reading Myers-Briggs material.

In addition, for some reason the MBTI or Keirsey’s interpretation give the impression that the melancholic idealist might find answers, understanding, and hence fulfillment. Perhaps this is implicit in its systematic Te design?

Whatever the reason, reading MBTI stuff leaves me Feeling like I’m on the verge of a discovery: if I just try a little bit harder I’ll surely break through and get the answers I so desire.

Unfortunately, this is precisely the dynamic that so dogs and distresses the melancholic idealist, and we should be wary of things that feed our idealism by offering the appearance of final answers.

This is what I love so much about the four temperaments theory and its depiction of the melancholic. As Conrad Hock writes, the melancholic must learn to love suffering, because the reality will always fall short of his ideals. Or to put it another way, we long for a perfection and a finality that cannot be met in this world.

I think this is especially harmful for the INFP whose judging function and overall orientation are so introverted and subjective. The INFP is especially prone to a kind of idealistic inflation where ideas of perfection can become ever more tantalising yet ever more elusive at the same time.

The melancholic benefits from understanding that idealism will never be wholly satisfied in this life, and a certain degree of suffering or dissatisfaction will always accompany us.

The paradox is that if we accept suffering and indeed learn to love it, we may find ourselves far happier than if we embrace an ideal devoid of suffering. I think this is why spiritual principles of inversion are especially suited to the melancholic: He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal. Or the Daoist passages I’ve often quoted:

What is most perfect seems to have something missing;
Yet its use is unimpaired.
What is most full seems empty;
Yet its use will never fail.
What is most straight seems crooked;
The greatest skill seems like clumsiness,
The greatest eloquence like stuttering.
Movement overcomes cold;
But staying still overcomes heat.
So he by his limpid calm
Puts right everything under heaven.

Thus the melancholic description – unlike the MBTI – describes the plight of the melancholic idealist in its entirety and offers a solution, perhaps the only real solution, which is to make the melancholic entirely aware of his own plight and to transcend it. The melancholic can thus idealise the non-ideal and find a kind of peace in a humble perfection.

This is not what some people might call “being realistic” or accepting imperfections, or being pragmatic. It does not drag the idealist “into the real world” but draws the real world up into the rarefied atmosphere of the ideal.  It reconciles “heaven” and “earth” but like the cross, what seems like the destruction of the former turns out to be the sanctification of the latter.

The lost vision of our ethical heritage

I never had much time for ‘ethics’ until I came upon the natural law tradition.  I’ve since learned that ‘virtue’ is of course inseparable from the path of spiritual development, and so it is frustrating to find time and time again that many people relegate ethics to questions of political control and permission.  Ethics is much more than that; however much we fall short of the ideal, it is surely better than rejecting the ideal entirely?

My latest piece on MercatorNet attempts to clarify some of the context and purpose of natural law theory, for those who are interested:

While it may be feasible to reach a conclusion on the basis of non-heredity and rarity, the fact is that natural law does not approach attraction or desire from quite the same perspective as something like the loss of a limb. Rather, the whole point of natural law theory as an ethical system is to guide and inform those who are not content to accept their own desires at face-value, but who wish to shape their desires according to a more complete understanding of what it is to be human, with the goal of what Aristotle enigmatically terms eudaimonia – a term not entirely captured in the translation “happiness”, but which is often rendered “flourishing”, and in a literal sense implies the protection of a benevolent spirit.

Learn to crush your dreams

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For any melancholic a vital skill consists in learning to crush your own dreams, and see through your ideals.

This might sound a little depressing and counter-intuitive, but for melancholics there is a real danger that the ideal will drive us to extremes of attitude and action, leaving us obsessed or even possessed by a single all-encompassing dream.

I’ve had it happen to me on numerous occasions: recently when I decided that I should put everything into my writing, and subsequently felt as though every moment was either a writing moment or a wasted one. I became productive, yes, but more importantly I became acutely conscious of the disparity between reality and ideal. As time progressed and my creativity inevitably slowed, the ideal became an indictment of my stupidity, laziness, ineptitude and ultimately my humanity.

There’s nothing wrong with having a dream or an ideal, and for melancholics it is essential. But we slip up when we allow ourselves to believe that if we attain the ideal everything else will change. The fact is that when or if we ever could attain our ideals, we would very quickly find ourselves bored, dissatisfied, and ready to move on to something bigger and better.

Crushing one’s dreams is really about reminding yourself -often painfully- that the idealised outcome is really not that wonderful. Good? Yes. Desirable? Certainly. Life-changing? To a degree. But only a degree.

I’m currently in the midst of another ideal: this time the ideal of creating ever more wonderful and satisfying products. I’ve made bread, beer, yoghurt, rice wine, coffee, limoncello, pasta and pasta sauce; but all I can think is that I can’t move fast enough onto the next round of magnificent consumables: bacon, soy sauce, tofu, sake, sea salt, mozzarella, fetta, and about half a dozen other ideas that elude me at present.

All of these take time, preparation, equipment; and all I can see is that I’m falling short on all three.

The problem is that I’m letting the dream take over. I’m implicitly accepting that the more I get these delicious products in play, the more my life will change for the better. The problem is that this is entirely true, just not as significant as it seems. This manic phase of urgent productivity is not at all healthy. It strips the enjoyment from the process, turning these enriching and satisfying products into a mere list of achievements.

Seeing through an ideal, crushing a dream, neither of these means repudiating the goal. It just means we need to remind ourselves that true happiness is distinct from these enticing activities, goals, or accomplishments. They are well worth having, but not at a cost to one’s genuine happiness.

When I feel the pressure of the ideal mounting, I try to remind myself that happiness, peace, and a relaxed state of quiet are achievable at any moment. There are no prerequisites, so long as I am not driving myself to distraction in the first place.

There’s no denying that my ideals are pointing me toward a better, more enriched and satisfying life. But it won’t be any of those things if I lose all perspective along the way.