Anne Shirley of Green Gables is a tremendously challenging character for me understand. Her use of words like ‘thrilly’, ‘romantical’, ‘tragical’, her naming of flowers and trees and avenues (‘the lake of shining waters’), her chatter and forgetfulness, all delight and frighten me.
One of the difficulties I have is understanding whether or not she is a caricature, a bit satirical, or simply a strongly imaginative personality. Is Anne Shirley an ordinary girl? Would such a thirteen year old be exasperating, crazy, or refreshing? Is such a person off the spectrum of normal personality? Perhaps these very questions miss the bus, fail in their need to determine the proper scope and temperament of personality?
For those of you who are horrified that I could even ask such questions, this post is perhaps not for you. But there are some of us, myself included, who think this way, who often assess personality or character in terms of a spectrum, and in particular, a spectrum which has a more and less desirable scoring, beyond which we are dealing not with personality, but mental instability, with someone who will not make it in this world, or who simply doesn’t see things as they are.
Maybe this is because I am an only child, and so I have not grown up with sisters or around many girls.
But what struck me in this reading of Anne of Green Gables is that the difference between male and female, or between a personality of one sort and another can be an occasion of judgement, of right and wrong, or it can become a means of being stretched out into mystery, into a discovery of personhood.
Is it not good that we become occasionally incomprehensible to one another, that our neighbor, our wife, our daughter, our father or brother be almost irreconcilably strange to us. How wondrous to say, “that too is man! That too is what I am, and yet they are other than I am!”
In fact, there is much psychological and relational literature on the subject of temperament and personality, reminding us that what we often see as problems are not virtues or vices, but distinct and authentic ways of embodying temperament. Some people do fantasize more. Some people do like quiet, while others like noise and activity. Some like to play and exercise, some like to sit and read more. Some people like neatness, while for others it is less important. This is not good versus bad; this is diversity of expression and disposition.
The other option is to live in a world that is already patterned in forms fully comprehended by us. In such a world, man is not mystery, and all who fail to conform to the pattern are aberrant rather than instructive to me. If I know the extent and limits of personality, of emotional response, of legitimate and sound expression of personality and imagination, all will either fall short or disappear into the mold.
But if personality is manifold, if the weights and measures by which we express our humanity is not an ideal (that is if there is not one Myers-Briggs super-personality we should conform to) than I have much to learn. Anne Shirley becomes in such a light capable of teaching me not only about what it may look like to be a young girl or a woman (for the child ought never wholly disappears in the adult), but has much to teach me about myself, my son, and about how I relate to, delight in, and accept all of my brothers and sisters–and all of myself.
I am not Anne Shirley, and to tell the truth, some of her ways are just a bridge-too-far for me, but I am grateful for her, and pray to become grateful for the ways of all those who perplex me.