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Accepting people just because they exist

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, now in its fourth edition (with a text revision) will eventually be replaced by its fifth edition. That project is nearing completion, and it is causing some controversy, what with the particular changes the team working on it has made. For instance, what used to be regarded as a healthy thing — grieving a major loss — will soon be regarded to be pathological. I don’t think I’ll be able to go that far, personally, but we’ll see how the larger field deals with it. There are many other changes as well.

In regards to how the proposed DSM-V will deal with personality disorders, it seems the team could not make up its mind whether to stay with a categorical system (as it now is) or to transition to dimensional scaling. In the first instance if a person displays a certain number of characteristics or symptoms, he or she “qualifies” as having that disorder. They are regarded to then fit in that category. In a dimensional system a person could be anywhere along a continuum from healthy to unhealthy with regards to a fixed pattern of relating that is problematic and/or destructive, which is one good way to think about what is going on in a person who is personality disordered.

We all have a personality, though. If you go with the dimensional scaling model of assessing personality, and you are more comprehensive about it than less comprehensive (a kind of dimensional construction in itself), then the range should include “normal” or healthy personality features as well as problematic, dysfunctional, and pathological.

Psychologists are trained to focus on pathology. They are shaped by books like the DSM to follow the breadcrumbs of symptoms and how those symptoms manifest in the client’s life. In a sense, psychologists are trained to be sensitive to what is wrong, not so much with what is right, as if “wrong” and “right” are ideas that really pertain when you are thinking about who a person is.

Isn’t it good enough that a person just IS? Many people have to contend with a performance-based system in their families, where they work, and even where they worship, and in such systems it is not good enough that you simply exist; you have to be able to DO something that measures up or contributes in a way other people require or deem to be acceptable. A person is good or bad depending what that person can do or what they have done. It’s really legalistic in nature — obey the law or rule and you’re a fine citizen, but break the law or rule, disregard it, and you’re a criminal, an outcast, a “bad” person.

When it comes to the way people live in society, I accept the legal system of laws and rules. I understand why that system is necessary. However, when it comes to interpersonal relationships in homes, at work places, and especially where a person worships, I favour a grace-based system. In a grace-based system undeserved favour is extended and people are accepted just because they exist. It is the common starting point if you believe that all people are created in the image of God.

That leads me back to the positive psychology that has a place for what is good and healthy about personality. In an article published under the auspices of the National Institute of Health in the United States, Barbara Fredrickson described the way positive emotions contribute to healthy personality. The “broaden-and-build” theory in positive psychology states that experiences of positive emotions broaden people's momentary thought-action repertoires, which in turn serves to build their enduring personal resources, ranging from physical and intellectual resources to social and psychological resources. Preliminary empirical evidence supporting the broaden-and-build theory suggests that the capacity to experience positive emotions may be a fundamental human strength central to the study of human flourishing.

In other words, if you accept a person as they are and affirm them AS a person — if you appreciate them to their face — it helps build their personality in positive directions. It helps to make them a better person. Seems like common sense, doesn’t it? How come we don’t do that more often? How come we criticise our children for not getting the A when they came home with the B+? How come we go to what is wrong instead of what is right?

I am a psychologist. I am trained to look for what is wrong and treat it as a wound that perhaps I might have some part in healing. I know. It is completely the medical model. But what if I roll out of that model a bit?

I would like for a moment to consider what I believe to be a good man. In Paul’s first letter to his protégé, Timothy, he told the younger man, “This command I entrust to you, Timothy, my son, in accordance with the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you fight the good fight, keeping faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith.”

Nicholas Dill will be the new Bishop of Bermuda for the Anglican Church. As a privileged member of society from an influential family, and as a man “with a future” (as the saying goes), something happened. It is the “something” that always happens in situations like this when a person turns toward God and away from a former way of life. He could have gone off like an ascetic and lived in a monastery, but he chose to serve God by serving Christ’s church. While I do not know the details of Nick Dill’s life, I know what happens when a person becomes a Timothy. As I stand on the sidelines and watch from a distance, it seems to me that Rev Dill has kept faith and a good conscience.

He’s a good man. You can see it in his face. Emmanuel Levinas, phenomenological philosopher, held that the face of another, the “Other,” (as he lifted up that other person in his thoughts), was the door to the being of that other person, and it obligated one to another. Look into the face of Nick Dill. There is warmth, sincerity, authenticity, strength of conviction, faith, and love for God. There is a knowledge of God that makes knowing Nick Dill a door to knowing Christ.

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Published May 28, 2013 at 9:00 am (Updated May 27, 2013 at 2:48 pm)

Accepting people just because they exist

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