Thoughts in Solitude: On Personality Tests

Thomas Merton was a Trappist Monk in the 20th Century whose autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain sparked a revolution that saw many young men in the late 1940s forsake their former lives to become monks themselves. He grew up in a very secular and worldly household, living all over the world before coming to faith in his early 20s. As a Trappist Monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani Monastery in Kentucky, he lived in almost total silence with the other Benedictine monks.

One of my favorite books of his is Thoughts in Solitude, a book of his writings and thoughts from his time spent in the silence of the monastery. These thoughts range from the deeply profound to the deeply confusing (at least to me). I have come back to this short book many many times over the years when I need some inspiration or when I need to just sit down and be still.

In these times where all of us are in some form of silence and solitude (or if you’re stuck at home with children, you long for silence and solitude), I thought it would be a good time to start a series of posts musing on some passages from this book. Some of these may have perfect relevance to our present issues with social distancing and others may have more broad appeal. I don’t have a plan or a greater point I’m trying to make with this series. I’m literally just reading a short chapter each day and pulling out a quote to discuss further. I just want to provide a place for discussion on topics each day.

As someone who is a Christian but not a Catholic, I certainly have theological disagreements and areas where Merton and I could never come to a compromise. I don’t hold Merton’s thoughts up with those of the Biblical authors.

But if you aren’t reading works by intelligent and thoughtful people with whom you might disagree, then you aren’t being sharpened and challenged. It’s the same reason that we can’t have intelligent political discourse in this country anymore. Everyone lives in their own echo-chamber and thinks anyone who disagrees with them is the very definition of evil. If what you believe is true, it can hold up to any amount of scrutiny.

On to today’s discussion.

Temperament does not predestine one man to sanctity and another to reprobation. All temperaments can serve as the material for ruin or for salvation. We must learn to see that our temperament is a gift of God, a talent with which we must trade until He comes. It does not matter how poor or how difficult a temperament we may be endowed with. If we make good use of what we have, if we make it serve our good desires, we can do better than another who merely serves his temperament instead of making it serve him. — “Thoughts in Solitude” Page 9.

I’m an Enneagram 11, which is the number I’ve created for people who don’t care to know their Enneagram number. I have no problems with personality tests in general. I think they can provide you with tools that can help you thrive and become the best version of yourself. But they are just that: tools.

What I do have a problem with is the obsession with numbers and types and finding one’s identity in one of nine numbers that sum up the whole of a person.

You are more than nine numbers or a type of animal or some other kind of description that a behavioral scientist or psychologist created. I have benefited from some personality tests in the past that helped me see myself in a different light, but I can also see the traps that are presented by believing everything you read about yourself. I won’t call anyone else out or use examples that don’t involve myself, but I think you can probably apply these same ideas to your own results.

For me, when I read the descriptions of my own personality tests I often see things that would suggest that I am the type of leader who will bowl over people to get what I want. These tests suggest that I don’t care about the feelings of others and that I can be brash and arrogant. But, all of these traits are in service of a leadership ability that could be transformative for organizations.

Look, I don’t know if any of that is true so don’t think I’m saying I’m some kind of incredible leader. But the point is, I could read that all as an excuse to treat people really poorly. I could see that and be inspired to strive to become CEO and forget the little people in my way. I could argue that I don’t need to worry about others because I’m on my way to changing this company or church or whatever I’m trying to lead. Of course, any personality test worth its salt will tell you that it is not an excuse to give in to those negative traits, but often that’s like putting a “Don’t Try This at Home” warning before showing a 12-year-old boy a Ridiculousness marathon.

For example, let’s say a situation happens at work where someone I’m working with doesn’t do their job properly. Now I’m given the choice to treat this person with kindness while working to fix their mistake or rudely pointing out their errors. If I subscribed fully to these personality tests, I might be drawn to lean into the person that “I truly am inside” and brush them aside.

I also have a distaste for the cottage industry, especially in the Christian world, that exists around these tests and helping you find the person that you truly are. There are so many books, studies, websites, and videos centered around finding and deciphering your type.

Everyone is an individual created in the image of God with unique traits, strengths, and flaws. Of course, there are similar personality traits that bond people together, this is part of God’s perfect design.

But I fear that many Christians use these as a sort of Christian Astrology, as in, a way to excuse behaviors that are unsavory and un-Christlike. Instead of blaming unfortunate behavior on Mercury being in retrograde, a Christian Enneagram disciple might be tempted to dismiss a snap of anger at her children as just part of being a Enneagram 4.

As Merton says, all temperaments (or personalities) can be used for one’s ruin or one’s sanctification. God didn’t make irredeemable personalities. At the same time, no one has a perfect personality. It’s what you do with what you’ve been given that determines how sanctified you are here in this life. Of course, all believers are justified by our faith, but this is not the “get out of jail free” card so we can go to Heaven when we die. It’s the beginning of the journey toward Christlikeness. Each person’s journey towards Christlikeness will look different because we are all different. Christians are social butterflies and quiet homebodies, they are strong leaders and loyal followers, they are deeply silly and deeply serious, in sum, Christians are every type of person that exists.

The most important part of what Merton says here is the end of the paragraph, “If we make good use of what we have, if we make it serve our good desires, we can do better than another who merely serves his temperament instead of making it serve him.”

If the Enneagram or any other personality test helps you figure out the best ways to use your unique gifts and talents and temperaments to serve the Lord, then that’s great. Please continue doing so. But if you’re someone tempted to use these as excuses for certain behaviors, then it might be best to forget them altogether and work on improving yourself and your specific behaviors through the work that the Lord is doing in you through the Holy Spirit.

For me, I can’t stand hard-driving leaders who brush everyone aside in pursuit of their ambitions and I never want to be like that. But I also know that I have that inside of me if I give in to my base-level behaviors and drive. I should never use the excuse that it’s “who I am.” Everyone should be treated with love and respect because they are image-bearers of God. That’s more important than any personality or temperament that a test I took on the internet says I have.

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