In high school while browsing at a religious goods store, I came across a slim volume with the enchanting title The Delicate Art of Dancing with Porcupines: Learning to Appreciate the Finer Points of Others. The cover was adorned with a cartoon of chubby, grinning porcupines in mid-step, dancing in red sneakers.
The author, Bob Phillips, explains how people are generally askers or tellers, and further, that people are also either task-oriented or relationship-oriented. These ideas turned out to be quite foundational in my understanding of how to interact with people. I also learned later that it was the author’s own take on the classic Four Temperaments, most commonly known as the choleric, melancholic, sanguine, and phlegmatic temperaments.
Fast forward to college – I found the booklet written by Rev. Conrad Hock, simply called The Four Temperaments. This little work was particularly interesting to me beyond what I already knew from Porcupines because Fr. Hock has a specifically Catholic perspective for the Four Temperaments, citing such examples of St. Ignatius, a choleric, and St. Peter, a sanguine. He briefly discusses how to determine one’s own temperament (and thus the temperaments of others). Following that overview is a more detailed examination of the bright and dark sides of each temperament. Most importantly, Fr. Hock gives specific, practical spiritual aids for each temperament. For instance:
The misfortune of the melancholic consists in refusing to carry his cross; his salvation will be found in the voluntary and joyful bearing of that cross. Therefore, he should meditate often on the Providence of God, and the goodness of the Heavenly Father, who sends sufferings only for our spiritual welfare, and he must practice a fervent devotion to the Passion of Christ and His Sorrowful Mother Mary (42-43).
Lest one object to the Four Temperaments as not being acceptable in the Catholic tradition, Fr. Hock describes how “St. Theresa devotes an entire chapter to the treatment of malicious melancholics” (43). Other works on the temperaments from a Catholic perspective have been published including several editions of Nervousness, Temperament, and the Soul by Rev. Joseph Massmann (my copy has an author’s foreward dated 1941), as well as a series of articles written by Fr. Christian Kappes in four issues of Latin Mass Magazine (melancholic in Fall 2005, choleric in Advent/Christmas 2005, sanguine in Summer 2006, and phlegmatic in Winter 2007).
Why does knowledge of the temperaments matter? Before answering that, I want to take a related detour. We have the blessing of living very close to a national forest, dotted with sparklingly clear mountain lakes surrounded by beautiful pines and junipers. To reach a favorite spot, we have to leave the comfort of a paved state-maintained road and venture on to a dirt road, full of melon-sized holes and basketball-sized rocks. My husband pays close attention to what lies ahead, swerving this way and that to avoid popping a tire. As the front seat passenger trying to catch some ZZZs, this can be annoying at times. But in my half-dazed state, I realize that he is maneuvering to prevent a potentially bigger problem.
Unless one is a bona fide hermit, relationships are unavoidable. We all have spouses, children, parents, siblings, relatives, and business colleagues with whom we must contend on a daily basis. Even most monks and cloistered nuns live in community. (Think of St. Thérèse assisting Sister St. Peter, as related in her autobiography, Story of a Soul.) Knowledge of the temperaments of those around us help us to recognize their likely virtuous inclinations and vicious tendencies, appreciating the breathtaking mountain vistas, while avoiding the potholes and mini-boulders. And as parents, knowledge of the temperaments assists us in better forming our children’s characters. We can also aid our children in coming to know themselves more deeply, so that they gradually learn how to improve their own characters, thus setting them on the path of working out their own salvations.