Integral Basics, Part 6: Appreciating Difference

The basic components of Integral thought that this series has explored so far offer a helpful way of looking at knowledge, the world, and what it means to be human. However, at this point, they haven’t had a lot to say about human difference. There’s an awareness of the impact of culture for how we conceive of the world, and an inherent desire for each person and group to grow in their own way, but otherwise, they seem to suggest that everyone is going to look a lot the same as they mature. Not only would such a world be pretty boring, but it doesn’t really capture the world as we know it either. This is where types, or styles, come in.

This idea of categorizing people based on shared features or different responses to shared stimuli is an ancient one, from the two principles of Yin and Yang in Taoism, to Hippocrates’ famous system of understanding human personality and illness through the working of four bodily fluids. From the latter, we get words like ‘sanguine’, ‘phlegmatic,’ and ‘melancholy’, which are still used today to describe people with certain personality traits. These days, typology seems more popular than ever, as people seeking to understand themselves will likely know one or more of their MBTI types (including the every popular ‘introvert’ / ‘extrovert’ distinction), their Sun-Moon-Ascendant astrological placements, their Enneagram numbers, or where they stand in the Big 5 or Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies. Regardless of what one may think about any of these systems, they are incredibly popular. And I think they’re popular because they capture the intuition that we aren’t all meant to look, sound, and act the same.

This is the first major benefit I see of the idea of personality types. Even if we recognize that most of the typologies in common use have no demonstrable scientific basis, they are helpful tools we can use to understand ourselves and one another better. They are descriptive, not prescriptive, and always partial, but useful nonetheless. To say that I am an introvert describes something inherent to my personality that is not likely to change: I prefer not to be in large groups, find meeting new people to be tiring, and need time alone to recharge my energy levels after social interaction. Accepting this as a personality type means that I don’t assign a value judgment to it: it is not the ‘right’ way to be; it is not a ‘wrong’ way to be. It is simply a difference, and one whose impact will likely be expressed at every stage and on every line of development; in which quadrants I am prone to focus on or ignore, and in how I engage with different states of consciousness. Understanding a type also helps to understand the ways it can go wrong, or the particular challenges it represents to growth. For example, as an introvert, my growth involved overcoming challenges such as shyness and self-consciousness; whereas for an extrovert, it might entail things like learning to be alone with one’s thoughts and finding identity apart from a group.

Ultimately, personality types are a reminder that my journey isn’t someone else’s journey; my growth won’t necessarily look like someone else’s growth; my maturity won’t always look like my neighbours’. This isn’t a problem, because diversity is a good thing. It takes all kinds of people with all kinds of different strengths, interests, experiences to make society work well. The Apostle Paul speaks powerfully of this in his metaphor of the Church as the ‘Body of Christ’:

For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness. (Romans 12.4-8)

Here we see difference linked to vocation — the ways we are different, the ways we are unique and special, are tied to the roles we are to play in the community. Elsewhere, Paul uses the same metaphor to remind his readers that this means that we are all valuable in our differences, and so we must not despise our differences or think of some ways of being as better or worse than others:

The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it. (1 Corinthians 12.21-26)

This is a surprisingly hard truth, and it works both ways. It seems we are equally prone to looking down on people who are different from us, and looking down on ourselves in comparison to others.

And so, an Integral — and biblical — perspective reminds us that differences are a vital part of life. Both the way we grow, and what we grow into, are going to be uniquely our own.

Questions for Reflection

  1. What do you think of personality typologies (such as the Enneagram, MBTI, etc.)? Are there any that resonate with you? Are there any that don’t?
  2. When you think about some of the ways you feel ‘different’ from others, do they make you feel good or bad about yourself? If they make you feel bad about yourself, can you think of ways to turn that around and ‘reframe’ it as a positive?
  3. How do some of your personality traits connect to the areas in which you need to grow? How are those same traits connected to what you can uniquely offer the world?


Please see the Annotated Bibliography on Integral Thought for sources, works cited, and further reading.

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