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Living

We have the capacity to change ourselves

Humans are complex and we should not attach labels to ourselves or other people

What kind of person are you?

Are you irritable or good-humoured? Outgoing or reserved? Creative or logical? Caring or self-absorbed?

Chances are, you are all of those things. And none of them.

Perhaps you are generally shy and withdrawn. But, even so, you might enjoy the occasional moment in the spotlight.

It may be that at work, you are as irritable as hell. But at home with your family, you are a regular pussycat.


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

So you are all of those things some of the time. But you are none of those things all of the time.

PIGEONHOLE PEOPLE

When I was young, I had a strong tendency to pigeonhole people.

This person is good, that person is bad. This person is generous, that person is selfish. This person is intelligent, that person is not.

And, of course, those labels influenced my expectations. I looked for the good in "good" people and I looked for the bad in "bad" people. And so on.

It was all nonsense, though.

As I have grown older, I have noticed that "bad" people sometimes behave well, that "selfish" people are sometimes capable of generosity and that "unintelligent" people sometimes understand far more than I gave them credit for. Similarly, "good" people by no means always behave well. And so on.

CHINESE WISDOM

I have been thinking about all of this recently while reading The Path: A New Way To Think About Everything by Michael Puett, professor of Chinese history at Harvard University.

The book is a breezy, accessible introduction to the teachings of some of the great Chinese philosophers, such as Confucius, Mencius, Laozi and Zhuangzi.

According to Prof Puett, one of the most useful insights of these celebrated thinkers is that humans are complex, changeable beings, and that we are mistaken when we attach labels to ourselves and say "This is how I am".

For example, you might think of yourself as an angry person, as someone with a temper.

But perhaps, Prof Puett says, you are not an inherently angry person.

Perhaps you have just adopted a negative pattern of behaviour in response to certain circumstances and it has become ingrained.

Perhaps, innately, you have just as much potential to be kind and tolerant as you have to be angry.

So if you can find a way to expose yourself to some new, more conducive, circumstances, you may be able to develop that more positive part of yourself.

Here is another, more down-to-earth, example. For many years, I thought of myself as someone who dislikes long-distance walking.

In the early days of our marriage, I sometimes accompanied my wife, Wendy, on country walks, but I found them rather dull.

So I put myself down as a non-walker, as someone who does not care much for the outdoors.

However, three years ago, in a flush of marital generosity, I agreed to spend three months with Wendy, walking the length of Britain.

To my surprise, I found that the longer I walked, the more I enjoyed it. And the more time I spent in the countryside, the more I came to love it.

I now look back on that mammoth trek as one of the most enjoyable and rewarding experiences of my life. It put me in touch with a whole new side of myself.

THE CHANGEABLE SELF

In The Path, Prof Puett writes: "Every person has many different and often contradictory emotional dispositions, desires and ways of responding to the world."

He continues: "Our emotional dispositions develop by looking outward, not inward. They are formed, in practice, through the things you do in your everyday life: the ways you interact with others and the activities you pursue."

Our natures are not fixed. We have the capacity to change ourselves.

Gary Hayden is a philosophy and science writer. His new book, Walking With Plato, is out at major bookshops here.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 27, 2016, with the headline 'We have the capacity to change ourselves'. Print Edition | Subscribe