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HUMOUR ME, PART TWO


The Greek physician Hippocrates believed in a link between behavior and body fluids, called "humours." The humours he named were blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm.  The sanguine personality type (blood) is characteristically enthusiastic, helpful and gregarious and is associated with air. The choleric person (yellow bile; fire) is short-tempered, quick-witted and high-strung. The melancholic (black bile; earth) tends to be analytical, wise and reflective. While the phlegmatic sort (phlegm, water) is relaxed and peaceful. While one or two humours predominate in most personalities, almost everyone possesses traits that fall under all four types.

Hippocrates incorporated the four temperaments into his medical theories and tailored the treatment of patients to their humours. The temperament theory became the most commonly held view in medicine until the nineteenth century, when advances in cellular chemistry disproved the existence of some of the fluids. Bile is yellow, not black. But it is pretty impressive that the temperament theory dominated Western medical thinking for more than 2,000 years. The concept is no longer used in medicine, but many psychologists employ it in their practice.

My exposure to psychological types predates the recent Twain-inspired Internet search. In my late 20s, a girlfriend gave me a book on the subject by Carl Jung, who speculated that humans experience the world through sensation, intuition, feeling and thinking, and grouped people into corresponding types. I was a screenwriter at the time, and a class I took on character development advised that I create characters who were either feelers or thinkers, etc. Years later I took the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) test. The test is based on Jung's original thought. I was a medical resident living in Colorado at the time. Interestingly I filled in the multiple choice exam totally at random, for I distrusted how my results would be used (one of my superiors was a closet psychopath and I didn't want Big Brother knowing anything more about me than I wished for him to know, which was next to nothing). I was also skeptical as to the general merit of the questionnaire, or for that matter any personality test. It seemed so subjective, while I was a scientist. My belief would change. I should also mention that I was hung-over with a splitting headache, so even had I been interested in the material, my concentration was sorely wanting. 

There are other theories on personality. The ancient Hindus developed the Ayurvedic doshas, which are three, namely Vata, Pitta and Kapha. Or space/air; fire/water; water/earth. I am Kappha/Pitta.  You can find your type and get dietary and lifestyle advice for your particular constitution. It is interesting to note that both the humours and the doshas are associated with elements. This would seem to indicate a relation to astrology, where each of the twelve astrological signs is either earth, air, fire or water.

My father is interested in astrology. He uses chart comparisons to determine whether a relationship will have any staying power, or as he calls it, "strength of communication." Astrology posits that a person's temperament is indicated if not influenced by the planetary aspects present at birth. Of course, astrology, even in conjunction with genetics, cannot account entirely for the personality with which one is born, for if it did then identical twins, who possess all the same genes and almost the exact same horoscopes, would be mirror images of each other, if not physically then at least as regards their behavior. And even very limited exposure to twins suffices to show that this is not the case. I dated one for a time, and Gillian and her sister, Gayle, couldn't have been more dissimilar had they been born from different parents! Both were hella fine, though.

Be that as it may, I sent my father the link to a temperament test I found online and asked him to humour me, get it? I thought for sure he'd turn out melancholic/choleric. In fact he tested phlegmatic/sanguine. He thought it interesting that my view of him should be the opposite of his view of himself. Maybe it is because he is not answering as he really feels, or because his opinion of himself is inaccurate, or more probably, because I'm wrong. Or maybe my dad has a balance of the four humours, some of which are apparent to him, others to the beholder. I told him so, because I am a flatterer, which by the way is a distinctly sanguine trait.

This was my father's reply: "I am not a fan of these tests. In essence they do an opinion analysis which obviously is diametrically opposed to a quantitative analysis. This ultimately is the fallacy of all sociological and psychological testing to the extent such tests rely on opinions."

My dad follows the teachings of the Hindu holy man Sai Baba, who was his (my father's) guru from the year of my birth in '73 until the year of Baba's death in '11. He (Sai Baba, and my father) maintains that each of us is not one but three. There's the one we think we are, the one others think we are, then there is the one we truly are. This is my dad's belief. And it's a solid one. When I examine his life I see that events dating back to his early adolescence paved the way for the day he'd embrace the diminutive Indian with the Afro hair and ocher robe. A science teacher turned him onto Autobiography of a Yogi when he was in seventh grade, which opened him up to Eastern mysticism (and wild hair and flowing robes). When he met my mother she took him to see her psychic, who predicted that my father would take the spiritual path. She recommended he visit the Vedanta temple, where he read books on Hinduism. Finally this primed him for the day, a couple years later, that as an attorney, a client of his mentioned Sai Baba and suggested he visit the guru in India. My father did so, which put him at odds with his father, who was a devout Christian. But my dad always had the rebel in him, and going his own way was in keeping with this James Dean image. And that's how we trace the development of a thought. Hopefully my father will touch on this in the autobiography which he is currently writing and which I am looking forward to reading.

But in his disparagement of psychology, my dad is only partially correct. It's true that personality traits cannot be measured by blood tests or other objective findings. But just because they are subjective, feelings should never be discounted. No test can measure if I feel hopeless or hungry and yet I know that I am, just not right now.

So what am I? Phlegmatic/sanguine, in that order. Just like my dad. (Proving that even our temperaments are learned, but only maybe.) A funny thing about the phlegmatic personality. The philosopher Immanuel Kant, who like other philosophers had views about the humours, saw the phlegmatic type as actually representing the absence of a personality. This is possibly because a person who is at ease seems so passive as to almost vanish. But the phlegmatic type should not be ignored, and usually isn't. Ask the founders of the world's religions who "turn the other cheek" and advocate desirelessness, both distinctively phlegmatic features, and often mistaken for passivity. For as philosopher Rudolf Steiner writes, the phlegmatic temperament is one characterized by "a sense of inner well-being. He lets external events run their course while his attention is directed inward."

The goal, however, is for each personality to be a balance of all 4 (or 3) types. That's what Ayurvedic maintains. And I find that at different times in my life I have been more or less of different temperamental persuasions. I have always been sanguine at heart. Social, encouraging and enthusiastic. But while in medical school, determined to graduate top of my class, I emphasized the choleric aspect of my personality, and became for a time fast-paced, goal-oriented, high-strung and given to debate (sometimes even with my professors). Then, as I stood by and watched stoically as my mother died of cancer, I became the analytical, wise, quiet melancholic. And now I have made peace with the phlegmatic in me, and not just because I often need to clear my throat. I am relaxed, at ease, or try to be, but not too hard, lest I defeat the purpose of so much effort.


The Humours; Or, 4 Really Ugly Men

I sent the test to friends, to see if I can correctly predict their various temperaments. I suppose if I were up to it I could undertake an analysis of some historical figures, and probably find patterns in who is hugely successful (probably the choleric), who would make a great poet (the melancholic), who would be a great talk show host (the sanguine), and which humour is home to the world's saints and sages, and also to me. I like when things work out like that. If I were so inclined I could probably write a rather engaging book about love between the temperaments. I'd call it Humour Me, because everyone knows that laughter keeps couples together. Or maybe I'll just read the stuff  that already exists.

In the end there is a lot of truth to my dad's view. So each of us is really three, or three plus as many other people as care to formulate an opinion on the matter. But who you really are is none of this. It is not subject to opinion. It never varies. Okay, here it comes. Who you really are is pure consciousness, and in its light, the beautiful play of life unfolds. Remember this.

Inspiration happens in the quaintest ways. As Twain's old man says, "the chance reading of a book or of a paragraph in a newspaper can start a man on a new track and make him renounce his old associations and seek new ones that are in sympathy with his new ideal: and the result, for that man, can be an entire change of his way of life." 

I hope this post makes yours a better one.

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