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May 7, 2010 4:15 pm

Can We Change Our Personalities?

avatar by Simon Jacobson

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We are now in the forty-nine day period between Passover and Shavuot, which is marked by an intense journey toward emotional refinement. Each of the 49 days corresponds with one aspect of our seven multiplied by seven (49) emotional attributes, as outlined in detail with daily exercises in my book, The Spiritual Guide to Counting the Omer. Day one focuses on refining the “love within love,” day two – discipline within love, and so on.

Whenever addressing the issue of self-refinement and personal growth, we must ask the big question: Can we indeed change our personalities?

Animals, for instance, do not work on themselves and their relationships. They are who they are, controlled by their inherent instincts, and that’s that. Animals don’t go to therapy, don’t take Prozac and simply play out their lives according to their built-in mechanisms.

True, we can train an animal to jump through hoops and perform other tricks, but we cannot fundamentally change their natural patterns, as Dr. Moreau tragically discovered.

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The famous parable of the proverbial cat drives the point home. Two philosophers were arguing the point whether animals can be trained and changed to behave like humans. The first thinker pointed to a cat that was trained to be a waiter in a fancy restaurant. Dressed in coat n’ tails the feline served patrons walking on two with his nose and whiskers elegantly facing upward. The second philosopher took out a bag and opened it up releasing several mice scurrying in different directions. The cat in tuxedo and all suddenly dropped on all fours to pursue the mice, leaving the wine and dinner strewed across the cherry wood floors, and the philosopher to scratch his head…
Humans too have their inherent natures and dispositions. Just as we can’t change the color of our eyes or our height (except superficially), how can we change our emotional “stripes”?

Especially considering the contemporary prevailing Darwinian-Freudian theory of man – as an evolved beast driven by the self-ish preserving Id – it would appear that there is little hope for any fundamental change beyond the behavioral.

Just witness the ugliness to which man can stoop when our survival instincts are challenged. Ravenous people have been known to kill other men with cannibalistic fury to satisfy their desperate hunger. No one should ever be tested, but history is fraught with brutal examples of mans’ fall to bestial behavior capable of unimaginable atrocities when his survival (real or perceived) is at stake.

This may upset the entire billion-dollar self-help industry and therapeutic community (and conversely help the lucrative cosmetics business), but hey, if we are unchangeable creatures, let’s just call a spade a spade, and stop wasting time, energy and money trying to work on perfecting our inner selves (it may be time to buy cosmetics stock).

If, for example, someone is born with an angry gene, or acquired angry fits at young age – either due to overexposure to an angry parent, or to deeply embedded resentment built up over the years – can we actually expect that this person will cease reacting with bouts of fury? Or if another is stingy by nature (first or second nature) can she ever become generous?

Is compassion wired into our systems, with some of us given a larger measure, while others are wired in different ways with different features?

When observing familial patterns it appears that certain traits “run in the family.” Whether this is due to “nature” or “nurture” – heredity or acquired attitudes – doesn’t change the obvious difficulty or impossibility to change the grains of our natures, just as we can’t change the grains in wood.

So what value or hope do we have in attempting to change our natural tendencies – a seemingly doomed cause?
How many people have you actually met that have changed their personalities?

The argument can be made that we really can’t change our essential selves, but we can change our behavior. What is expected of civilized beings is not that they transform their insides, but that they live by a common law that dictates mutual respect: Superimposed “green lights” and “red lights” that allow us to co-exist. Hopefully, the façade of behavioral discipline will hold the inner beast at bay, with only a few anomalies in the shape of monstrous criminals put behind bars. Fear of punishment, in this system, is the determining deterrent that stops humans from gravitating back to their natural selfishness.

But left to their own, people will naturally return to their primal roots: Beasts struggling to survive at all costs.
Not a pretty picture, but do we have an alternative?
Now for the good news.

Every assumption is based on our initial premise. Every theory is defined by its axioms.

The reason we assume that we cannot change our personalities is because our initial impression is that everything in this universe doesn’t really change in any fundamental way. Minerals remain minerals, vegetables are always vegetables and leopards do not “change their spots.”

Existence as we experience it on a sensory level is a static place. Yes, things move about but they do not fundamentally change their natural personalities and do not transcend their inherent boundaries. The sun rises each day and sets at night. Then the moon rises and sets. The moon goes through its lunar cycle consistently each month. Every part of “nature” is a like a predictable clock following a pre-set unwavering program. So just as a stone, a tree and an animal all remain the way they have always been, why should we assume that a human being is different?
Based on this premise, that existence is static and even dying, the impossibility of changing ones personality seems as inevitable as the fact that a lamb will never behave like a wolf.

Indeed, existence as we know is worse than static; it is dying. Everything we experience, even physical matter, is in the process of erosion. Life in particular is mortal. Everyone and everything ages and dies.
However all this is based on the premise of existence “as we know it.”

There is another premise – one that upsets the entire theory of an unchanging existence. This premise is posited by the Torah. Like a true blueprint the Torah doesn’t describe symptoms but causes. It doesn’t define existence by the way we humans perceive it with the naked eye, but by its true inner character. When we look at a structure we see the outer layer; it’s body. When we look at its blueprint we see its internal engineering; it’s soul.

The Torah, which defines things as they truly are, opens up by describing man – not as a five or six foot skeleton, not as a creature of intelligence and feelings, not as a being that is born and dies. Who then is man? The first thing we are told is that the human being is not human but “divine,” created in the “Divine Image.” At the core each of us is a “Divine persona.”

This declaration changes the entire picture. Were we mere human personalities then our personality could change no more than land can become water or earth can transform into heaven.

Without getting into the intricate meanings of “Divine Image,” the basic difference between human and Divine is the difference between death and life. Divine is dynamic. Human is static. Divine is alive. Human is dead.

You see, the fact that the physical universe ages and erodes tells us that it is in fundamental demise from the outset. In Torah law there is a question about what can be categorized “mayim chayim,” live waters. If a live spring were to dry up in seven years, the law dictates that even while the spring is “alive” during the seven years it cannot be called “live,” because its demise is an inevitability. If something will ultimately die, is it truly alive in the first place?
Eternity, in other words, is not discovered at the end of “the road,” but at the beginning. Eternity is qualitatively, not quantitatively, different than the ephemeral, just as infinity is qualitatively equa-distant from the number one as it is from a trillion.

We may not know much about the Divine, but one thing it is not is human (that is, human as we define the term). The divine is a source of constant energy flowing from the Essence of it all. It is dynamic and alive, and always open to change.

By stating that the human being is made in the “Divine Image” we are compelled to rethink the very nature of our beings. Instead of trying to fit our spiritual “concepts” into human terms, we are asked to fit our “human” parameters into “Divine” context. As some thinkers have noted: “We are not human beings on a spiritual journey; we are spiritual beings on a human journey.”

Indeed, the Divine behooves us to rethink the very nature of existence itself. Not just the human, but the entire universe, beneath the surface, is pulsating with vibrant and dynamic Divine energy. By seeing ourselves as Divine we can begin looking at the universe in a new way and then recognize our ability to change existence as a whole.
I have always been intrigued by the statement of some French atheists that if “G-d didn’t exist we would have to create Him.” Beyond the sacrilegious tone of this statement, it carries a deep truth: If we allow ourselves to see life as nothing more than mortal, than we are doomed to the death of all things mortal. In effect, rendering all our life choices, all our sacrifices, all our commitments, into dying causes – dying along with us.

Our only wellspring of hope – one that infuses all our commitments with eternal meaning – is our connection with the Divine.

As one Holocaust survivor once said: “After the holocaust we have no choice but to believe in G-d, because we no longer can believe in man…”

The implications of personality change due to our Divine (rather than human) nature are far-reaching and revolutionary. It creates an infinitely higher standard of what we can expect of ourselves and of others. It motivates us to reach places we may never have considered imaginable. Above all, it gives us the power to change our vary nature – even if it is deeply ingrained into our genes and personalities, due to heredity or training.

So, can you change your personality?
No, if it’s a human personality.
Yes, if it’s a Divine one.

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