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|Who Do You Think You Are? - Page 13|
Temperament, he believes, is a bit like birdsong. "Knowing that a bird is a finch rather than a meadowlark allows one to predict with great confidence the songs it will not sing," he wrote in his 2004 book, The Long Shadow of Temperament, "but permits a far less certain prediction of the particular songs it will sing." Applied to humans, "if you're a shy, high-reactive person, you'll probably never be a politician, a test pilot, or the next Jay Leno," says Kagan. Similarly, if you're a low-reactive, sociable sort, chances are you won't become a solitary orchid grower. Beyond those broad limits, though, many doors swing open.
And that, finally, is where Kagan and my despondent, 21-year-old self find common ground. When I told him, recently, of the despair that had enveloped me in college when I understood that I couldn't escape my temperament, I asked Kagan if there was anything he might have said to me back then, to offer a bit of hope.
"I would have told you that the world needs all kinds of people," he said. "I would have encouraged you to find a life niche in which your temperament would be a good thing." He paused for a moment, thinking it over. "Then I would have urged you to find a good therapist."
Skating on Paper
By luck and effort, I found one. Margaret Temeles was an elegant, middle-aged psychiatrist who worked out of her front parlor, which she'd outfitted with a thick Persian rug, an analyst's couch, and an atmosphere of profound calm and safety. Dr. Temeles wasted no time trying to convince me of my innate worth, which would have been a fool's errand. Instead, as I lay on her couch and regaled her with the latest evidence of my inconsequentiality, she sometimes pointed out that I was a "quite sensitive" person with a tendency to be "very hard" on myself.
I'd actually never considered this before. Didn't everyone react as I did, absorbing small slights as though they held some awful, final truth about the self? Her perspective calmed me a little. Over the next three years, Dr. Temeles walked the therapist's high wire, steadily communicating that I was entirely fine as I was while simultaneously nudging me past my reductionist views of myself. When I burst into her parlor one morning in a panic, reporting that my new boyfriend wanted the two of us to host a dinner party—how crazy was that?—she was quiet for a moment, her hand perched thoughtfully on her chin. Finally, she said, "How about having just one person to dinner?"