Saturday, June 19, 2010

Disposition and Self-Definition

Ebb Tide at Four Mile Bridge.

Is it our disposition in life that defines us or do we determine our disposition based on the persons we are?

I've gone round and round with this, pretty much as my friend and newly graduated medical student cum medical resident, intended. He does that now and then, messing with me, all in fun. I mean, there I am, studying like my life depended on it, and out of the tall grass on Facebook he pops, posing a question he thinks will make me contemplate my place in the universe. Times like this, I've wondered if he shouldn't have studied astrophysics alongside medicine, but that's an inside joke to which I have yet to figure the punchline. When I do, I'll let you know.

In the meantime, let's begin by rephrasing the question. Is our disposition in life the defining principle of our lives, or do we define our disposition, and if the latter, on what basis? When I was in college -- the first time -- I had a chance to serve as a minister at Denver's Salvation Army Harbor Light mission. In those days, lower downtown seemed pretty much reserved for the poor, dispossessed, and homeless. Some of the guys I worked with, guys who smelled of stale alcohol mixed with body odor, had been attorneys or doctors with families -- once. One thing led to another, their wives left them, took the kids, the house, and the Mercedes, and dad ended up with nothing.

Were their lives a wreck because they lived on the street or had they made mistakes and now this was their life? A little bit of both, probably, but I'm betting none of them had the ambition of becoming a street person as a child. Their disposition had changed around them and it became so overwhelming that the good ship Minnow with its captain and crew of one, was lost.

Genetics exerts a powerful effect, but I'm still one of those who believes psychopathology can happen to pretty much anyone. Under the right circumstances or if circumstances persist long enough, even the most tried and true may find their disposition so unsettling their ability to cope breaks down, like a car at the moment the warranty has expired. Resilience has its limits and simply because one hasn't run aground, doesn't mean they can't or won't.

I know, I haven't yet answered the question, or at least to my own satisfaction. I think it's because the line between my disposition and self-definition is not always easily discerned. Who I am as a person is an ongoing interplay between my genetic composition, my history, and the struggle to transcend and/or transform them. My disposition is a complexity composed of choices I've made and/or accepted, some I value and some I'd like to abandon. It's a complexity complicated by the choices of others, some of which I value and some I'd like to abandon.

As a result, neither my disposition nor my self-definition are cut and dried and that's a good thing, because cut flowers, pretty as they are, don't live very long. Dried ones, neatly pressed between the pages of Webster's dictionary, are fragile, and life is not always generous where fragility is concerned. So I hold onto what I know of myself, trusting my grip is strong, and at the same time, try to view my disposition as an opportunity to learn when and how to let go, because even the strongest grip needs a break once in a while. And maybe it's in the ebb and flow of grasp and release that we find the self-definition that works best, especially when circumstances wash over us, like high tide splashing and crashing daily, all along the beach.

(Creative Commons image via Wikipedia)
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