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To Change Type A Beliefs: From Being An Island to Being a Member of One Another

December 6, 2013

The statement—“no man is an island”—has been attributed to the 17th century Church of England cleric John Donne and over the years has been borrowed by poets, lyricists, and theologians to express the notion that we are essentially relational beings and our existence as well as the quality of our lives is related to those around us. But for those who exhibit Type A character traits, this dependence upon others is often lamented, if not a point of conflict and tension.  Generally, Type A persons need to believe that their work, their accomplishments, and their destiny are essentially self-determined.  After all, they are usually much more comfortable performing tasks with little intrusion or involvement from others.  This is most evident in terms of time urgency when a colleague or associate is not performing up to speed in the eyes of someone with Type A tendencies.  As I’ve noted throughout this series, those with these tendencies view others as obstacles to their own goals and standards.  Unless Type A people can find others with similar personality traits and the same drive to succeed, working with others often turns into a highly frustrating experience with devastating physical and emotional repercussions following suit.

If we return to Donne’s “no man is an island” for a moment, that simple statement may serve as a model for an alternative set of more realistic beliefs by which those with Type A tendencies may live more peaceably with others.  For instance, the dysfunctional beliefs such as “others are undependable and one should work feverishly to meet goals” can give rise to automatic thoughts such as “I can’t depend on John. He’s never on time. He doesn’t have the same drive and passion as I do,” which in turn can lead to irritation, irruptions, and bad-will. But given that “no man is an island,” I can adopt a more realistic belief like “it is good that others are connected to me and different from me.” Instead of looking at others in an adversarial way, I can look at them as being complementary. With such alternative beliefs in place, more helpful and benevolent thoughts arise such as the thought that “John is methodical, he takes his time so he’ll get it done right.  I’m going to place my trust in John.”

The scriptural basis for “no man is an island” is Saint Paul’s teaching that we are “every one members one of another… having gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us” (Romans 12:5-6). This sense of belonging to one another needs to precede our interactions with each other if we are to be at peace with ourselves and the world. As Saint John Chrysostom put it, “How can someone attend to his own concerns while overlooking or being careless about the concerns of his neighbor? It is to our benefit to consider the best interest of our neighbor and to our injury to neglect it. For if we are members one of another, the welfare of our neighbor is not his concern only, but that of the whole body, and the injury of our neighbor is not confined to him, but distracts us all with pain. If we are a building, whatever part is weakened affects the whole edifice, while that which is solid gives strength and support to the rest. So also in the Church, if you have slighted your neighbor, you have injured yourself” (Homily 7 on Second Epistle to Timothy).

Being “members one of another” means that we need to work with each other in movements that are smooth and harmonious like those of a dancer, that gives and takes with limberness and flexibility. The term the fathers use for working with one another is “synergeia” or collaboration. Although the fathers employ the word synergeia theologically with regard to our collaboration with God and divine grace for the sake of our own salvation, they also recognize in it something wonderful in our coexistence and collaboration with one another.  The Psalmist exclaims, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!  It is like the precious ointment upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, even Aaron’s beard: that went down to the skirts of his garments; As the dew of Hermon, and as the dew that descended upon the mountains of Zion: for there the Lord commanded the blessing, even life for evermore.”

In fact, the model for good human relations may be found in the teachings of the holy fathers concerning the Holy Trinity.  As I wrote in a previous blog post, “Furthermore, stating that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father is stating that the Holy Spirit is God and the Holy Spirit is unique, even as stating that the Son is begotten of the Father is stating that the Son is God and the Son is unique. If union and uniqueness are so important at a level beyond the reaches of human and angelic thought, then in lives of those made in the image and likeness of God, they are undoubtedly of great import as well. We too are called to be persons, to be unique, to be in union with others, to be dynamic, to be open, to share, and to love. We are even called to be comforters in this world.  If these truths become our own core beliefs, you can imagine how that might change our perspective on how we are to spend our earthly journey.”

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