Thursday, December 21, 2006

Spiritual Lives of the Temperaments: The Phlegmatic

To be honest, I had a hard time getting started on this post, which means I'm most definitely phlegmatic! My melancholic half mulled over in my mind what I wanted to say in this post, and my trusty phlegmatic other half thought, "Eh… I'll write it later."

The phlegmatic temperament is difficult to write about because this temperament almost seems "non-human." The detached, mellow, almost "hyposensitive" nature of this temperament seems better suited to a robot than a human. In fact, at least one spiritual writer I know of even questions the existence of this temperament. [1] However, all of us know people who fit the description of this temperament very well, so I think it's legitimate to write about it.

I think it's good to follow up the post on the sanguine temperament with a post on the phlegmatic temperament because the "cure" for both of these temperaments is pretty much the same. I like to think of the phlegmatic as a "sanguine on Lortab." The phlegmatic is generally friendly, values people over principles, and struggles with the same lack of follow-through as the sanguine, but without the "intense" personality one sees in a sanguine.

The primary problem for the phlegmatic is one of motivation. While a sanguine will be easy to motivate and act but soon lose interest, the phlegmatic has a hard time moving beyond interest to actual action. Though he will be dedicated to any project, he needs a little prodding.

The most important thing a phlegmatic can acquire to get him on the path to heaven is a regimen, especially a regimen of prayer. Much like the sanguine, he needs a structure that will keep him on the straight-and-narrow so that he will not become complacent in the spiritual life. Unlike the sanguine, however, he will actually enjoy this kind of structure. Structured prayers such as the Rosary or the Divine Office are tailor-made for phlegmatics. The only danger in these types of prayers for the phlegmatic is that he may become so absorbed with the routine that he stops growing. He needs to employ the imagination in his prayer life to avoid this kind of pitfall. [2] He needs to seek what God is asking of him in his prayer and meditation, otherwise the prayers will just become rote and no change of heart will result.

Along with a regimen of prayer comes the necessary accountability that will ensure a successful outcome. The phlegmatic needs to be accountable to others to keep him going. He also needs the guidance of others to develop a properly formed conscience and understanding. Like the sanguine, his placement of people over principles in the hierarchy of truths can lead him to become a "crowd-pleaser." He needs accountability to a spiritual director, prayer group or any other system outside of himself that will help pull him more toward the center.

Also, though he naturally hates conflict, he needs to learn to "let his 'yes' mean 'yes', and his 'no' mean 'no.'" Otherwise he will end up doing things simply to please others or to "shut them up" which is a sure recipe for resentment. Being accountable to others in his life decisions will help make sure this doesn't happen.

The great natural virtue that accompanies this temperament is "meekness." Almost everyone loves a phlegmatic. Their peacefulness and even-keel makes them great team players. With a little discipline, those of the phlegmatic temperament can find themselves on the fast-track to sanctity with little of the "inner resistance" that impedes the other temperaments.

God Bless,

[1] Fr. Joseph Massman in his book "Nervousness, Temperament and the Soul" writes the following: "If a more exact determination of temperament is to be made, one has first to observe the basic disposition and then the individual variation and the excitability of his emotions. On careful examination of his basic disposition, the phlegmatic person will turn out to be shallow, cool and perhaps even hyposensitive. He will be distinguishable from the sanguine man only in coloration and in his excitability, and will thus represent no distinct temperament. I therefore regard the expression "phlegmatic, as denoting a temperament, as unnecessary" (emphases mine).

(Massman, 19)

First, Fr. Massman makes clear in his introduction to his book that he is not writing from a scientific perspective, so his opinion isn't set in stone per se. Second, I think the simple, time-tested observation of people has made clear that some people who fit the classical description of the phlegmatic temperament simply don't possess "sanguine" traits such as "flightiness" "superficiality" and "extroversion" which are typically and unmistakably sanguine. On the contrary, phlegmatics are often very deep, loyal and introverted. Therefore, I think Fr. Massman is wrong on this one, and that the classical understanding of four primary temperaments as presented by the Bennett's is the correct one.

[2] (Bennett, 246)


Sunday, December 17, 2006

Spiritual Lives of the Temperaments: The Sanguine

“Never a dull moment…”

“Moment” is an appropriate word when talking about the Sanguine, for this is the facet of life that the sanguine lives in! Of all the temperaments, the sanguine possesses a God-given ability to “stay in the moment.” The ability to stay in the moment keeps the sanguine focused on others and receptive and courageous in the face of challenges. These traits are indispensable.

“People” are probably the sanguine’s favorite subject. The sanguine LOVES people. Due to their extroverted, enthusiastic, cheerful and outward-focused nature, the sanguine is always the best MC. Unlike the choleric, they are very “team” oriented. It truly is a case of “the more… the merrier” when it comes to the sanguine.

It’s almost if the sanguine possesses the model Christian temperament. Their enthusiasm for others and their zest for love and life sound very close to what inflames the heart of every apostle we read about in the pages of Scripture. What then should the sanguine develop in order to bring themselves to Christian perfection?

It’s hard to talk about a “dark side” when speaking about the sanguine temperament, but with human nature being fallen as it is, the sanguine has difficulties that need to be overcome. There are three things that the sanguine needs to develop in their spiritual life to keep them from becoming “children of the world”: They are, control, consistency and perseverance.

The enthusiasm of the sanguine is infectious. This is a trait that easily wins souls for God. An energetic preacher always has an irresistible pull that can win over even the most hardened heart. The problem is that enthusiasm can trump proper reflection and the pursuit of truth. The sanguine needs to watch out for moments of unchecked enthusiasm that place more emphasis on the excitement of an activity or pursuit than on the “rightness” or “nobleness” of the activity or pursuit. Sanguines can become so enthusiastic about a project that they forget to take the time to think it through. One only has to think of the apostle Peter, most likely a sanguine, who became so excited at the sight of his Master walking on water that he immediately jumped off the boat to meet Him, only to quickly sink because of the ferocity of the waves around him! The sanguine, therefore, needs to learn emotional control. He needs to take time at the outset of any project or activity to think through what the project might entail. His first impulse is always going to be to jump in with both feet with no thought of how the project may impact others or himself.

Consistency and it’s companion, perseverance, also need to be practiced by the sanguine. Not long after the sanguine jumps into a project without thinking about it, he is soon distracted by the thousand other things he’d like to be doing. So, he abandons the project. This is especially dangerous in the spiritual life because moments of aridity in the faith-life of the sanguine can cause him to abandon his prayer life and commitments simply because he is not getting the same “high” that he originally had. The sanguine needs to realize that he has a tendency to be too attached to things simply because of their intensity. To combat this tendency, he needs to learn to persevere in his commitments and prayer life even when the “magic” isn’t being felt anymore.

The question is, of course, “how?” Big helps for the sanguine are activities that appeal to the senses and involve him with other people. For instance, if a sanguine is finding dryness in prayer to be a problem, he should make use of externals in his prayer, such as candles, the beauty of a chapel, or any other scene that adds a sense of beauty and aesthetic appeal to the moment. As far as his commitments are concerned, the sanguine needs to make himself accountable to others in his resolutions. This will compensate not only for a lack of follow-through, but will also ensure that the resolutions themselves are noble causes that the sanguine should pursue, rather than “whims” that are unworthy of the sanguines’ effort.

One last thought: The sanguine needs to learn to put his security in God alone, chiefly through prayer and the sacramental life. Sanguines (and as we shall see later, phlegmatics) have a tendency to be people-pleasers. Sanguines need to learn to overcome their tendency to follow the crowd. We all know how Peter, after his bold promise that he would die for Christ, denied Him when the pressure of the crowd crept in.

With a strong regimen of prayer and accountability the sanguine can learn to harness their energy and love for people towards winning souls for God. Their cheerfulness and zest for living is what the Church, in my humble opinion, desperately needs in an age of despair and dissatisfaction with life and a Church that at times fails to live up to what She proclaims and promises.

God Bless,