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Thoughts on a Whim: “The Miracle of Personality”

September 4, 2009

gandhi2There’s a story of a little 102 pound man in India who went around half naked, who lived in a mud hut that never had a telephone or an electric light or running water.  He did not own a car.  He had no wealth, no armies, no servants, nor diplomats.  He never sought, nor ever held, public office, and yet the great British Empire realized they could not rule India against Gandhi and they could not rule India without Gandhi.  Because of his uncompromising honesty and unmatched willpower, Mohandas K. Gandhi was the most powerful man in India despite being socially retarded, having a bad temper, and being a self-declared coward in his earlier life.

Similarly, a young man grew up in rural South Africa content and at peace with his circumstances and the world.  “I was not born with a hunger to be free,” he writes:mandela2

“But then I slowly saw that not only was I not free, but my brothers and sisters were not free.  That is when the hunger for my own freedom became the greater hunger for the freedom of my people.”  Nelson Mandela slowly and incrementally transformed from a content country boy into an active freedom-fighter against the cruel Apartheid South African government.  He further explains, “It was this desire for the freedom of my people to live their lives with dignity and self-respect that animated my life, that transformed a frightened young man into a bold one, that drove a law-abiding attorney to become a criminal, that turned a family-loving husband into a man without a home, that forced a life-loving man to live like a monk.  I am no more virtuous or self-sacrificing than the next man, but I found that I could not even enjoy the poor and limited freedoms I was allowed when I knew my people were not free.  Freedom is indivisible; the chains on any one of my people were the chains on all of them, the chains on all of my people were the chains on me (Mandela, 1994)”

Mandela spent over 27 years in prison for fighting against injustice.  A short time after he was finally freed from prison he became the president of his home country, South Africa.

What was it that made these “cowardly” and “frightened” men become the most powerful men in their respective nations?  Louis Fischer, Gandhi’s biographer, calls this process by which a below-average human being can raise himself to great power and accomplishment the “miracle of personality (Fischer, 1948).”

Personality and Personality Dynamics

Personality may be defined as the underlying causes within the person of individual behavior and experience (Cloninger, 2008).  From this definition, and slight variations of it, stem what are called personality dynamics.  Personality dynamics refers to the mechanisms by which personality is expressed, often focusing on the motivations that direct behavior (Cloninger, 2008).

franklThere are many motivations, on many levels, that add direction and energy to behavior.  Many theorists have developed theories trying to explain different possible motivations behind behaviors.  Freud believed that sexual motivations were the underlying personality.  Carl Rogers thought there was a tendency for a person to move toward higher levels of development.  Viktor Frankl believed finding meaning was the motivating force behind personality.  Even when life is not ideal and even at its worst, life has found its worth if there is meaning as a motivating force.  Frankl (1959) states, “In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of sacrifice.”  Other theorists proposed that each individual has their own goals and motives of personality and therefore there are a multiplicity of categories and adjectives to explain these motives.

Cognitive Processes and Culture and Personality Dynamics

Through senses and cognitive processes interpreting stimuli, we have an understanding of the world.  If attention is not given to a stimulus or our senses are dulled or handicapped, we will interpret the world differently than if we perceived the stimulus in a more veritable form.  The person who is blind will perceive the world in ways in which a seeing person has no idea, and vice versa.  Within the brain of a blind person, sight is not processed in the visual cortex but that visual cortex has adapted to giving above average attention to hearing and proprioception. (Schwartz, 2002).  Thus, cognition-or the lack thereof-is compensated to a degree from one area to another.  Through cognitive processes giving attention to and interpreting our senses, one grasps somewhat, those motives discussed earlier, and acts and reacts according to one’s personality.  To understand human functioning, it is imperative to account for the physical, emotional, mental, social, cultural, political, and spiritual dimensions and how one cognitively interprets these respective facets of understanding (Corey, 2005).

Today, the term “culture” is widely understood to refer to the systematic body of learned behavior which is ruth-benedicttransmitted to children from parents, schools, and communities (Robbins, 2006).  Not very long ago, “culture” was a concept that was part of the vocabulary of only a small and technical group of anthropologists.  It hadn’t yet been widely accepted that from the moment of our births, the customs into which one is born exert an enormous impact on one’s experience, personality, and behavior.

This changed with the work of one of the world’s most renowned anthropologists, Ruth Benedict.  According to her student, friend, and colleague, Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict’s work is the main reason that the words “in our culture” have come to be widely used and understood.  Largely thanks to her, people have come to understand how profoundly one is shaped by the cultures in which one lives (Robbins, 2006).

Important Influence on Personality Development

Culture, in its more inclusive sense, is an important and major influence on personality development.  It is a combination of innate personality characteristics reacting with one’s culture, including gandhienvironment and social interactions, which produce behavior in an individual.  To understand one’s personality one must understand the culture which gave it fruition.  And through that understanding one is able to gain a deeper understanding of that person’s behavior.  Gandhi’s and Mandela’s behavior would appear heinous and senseless without the proper cultural context.  Yet within the proper context these men are referred to with such adjectives as “hero”, “freedom fighter”, and “Mahatma” (great soul).  Understanding personality is a monumental task that includes understanding a person’s whole self.

Article by Ernie Wild

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