The stereotype of the Type A personality has become an entrenched part of cultural lore. Originally described by two cardiologists in the 1950s as the type of person who is most likely to experience cardiac arrest, Type As are familiar to everyone. Competitive, short-fused, action oriented, no nonsense, humorless, deadline driven, boundless in energy—these are people who not only don’t stop to smell the roses, but tend not even to notice the existence of the roses as they plow through their days, weeks, years, and lives. Type As are at risk of heart disease, stress related illnesses, and people just not liking them very much. Labeling someone or being labelled as a Type A personality is not necessarily a compliment, but we all know that we should thank the personality gods for Type As. They are the ones who get shit done.
Then, of course, there are the Type Not-A (sometimes called Type B) folks, who are the opposite of Type As in every way. Laid back, less prone to stress than Type A people, Type Not-As can be prone to procrastination, but also are good at stepping back and seeing the forest instead of just the trees, have a contemplative bent, and are just “smell the coffee” sorts of folks. Given Wikipedia’s report that Type Not-A people often are “attracted to careers of creativity: writer, counselor, therapist, actor or actress,” also noting that network and computer systems managers, professors, and judges are more likely to be Type Not-A individuals as well,” one might expect that I am a card-carrying Type Not-A. And in many ways I am—but it isn’t that simple.
It is undoubtedly ludicrous to suppose that all human beings are easily sorted into one or the other of two available personality types. What the A/Not-A personality distinction provides is yet another crude tool to use when one needs to get a handle on the infinitely complex features of human nature, just another item for the tool bag. Every human being has both a Type A and a Type Not-A person living inside; my year-long sabbatical a couple of years ago provided me with an extended opportunity to observe my internal Type A and Type Not-A trying to sort out who’s in charge.
In a recent sermon rooted in the well-known gospel story of Martha and Mary, a classic Type A and an equally classic Type Not-A, our priest Mitch drew our attention to two different kinds of time. Chronos time is measured time, the clock ticking in the background. Kairos is more reflective and intuitive, the sense of the “right” time for something. Chronos is quantitative, while Kairos is qualitative. Martha is about chronos time and Mary exists in kairos time.
Self-analysis tells me that my default choice as I go through life is to let Mary be in charge of my non-work life and put Martha in the driver’s seat at work. I am naturally laid back, patient, reflective, in love with ideas, and so on. But at work I am ultra-organized, task-oriented, always prepared several classes ahead of where we are in the syllabus, know where I’m supposed to be and what I’m supposed to be doing at every moment of the day—Martha is in charge. I have a pretty good pattern of “Mary time” and “Martha time”–Mary is responsible for the creative ideas and strategies that I bring to my teaching, while Martha’s job is to make sure that it all comes off without a hitch in real time. Mary’s task is to prepare while Martha’s assignment is to perform. I’ve had twenty-five-plus years to get Mary and Martha to cooperate, and it usually works well. Until sabbatical, that is.
First day of sabbatical
- Martha: I’m pumped! What are we doing today? What’s the schedule? What’s the plan?
- Mary: We’re on sabbatical—there is no plan. We’re going to take things as they come—let the Spirit move.
- Martha: Oh. (ten minutes later) I’m bored. We’ve got to get organized here—we can’t just sit around all day, let alone for a year.
- Mary: Why not?
- Mary: Bike riding is the greatest thing ever. Life at ten miles per hour—I’m noticing stuff I never see when Martha’s in charge. The birds, the breeze, Narragansett Bay . .
- Martha: Whatever. If we don’t pick up the pace, we aren’t going to beat our time from last week when we rode this trail.
Writing a book
- Martha: Okay, final draft is done and submitted, formatted according to the publisher’s specifications, and sent off to the publisher for editing. Scripture index, acknowledgements, and dedication are complete. What’s next?? I’m on a roll!
- Mary: Nothing for several weeks until the editor sends the manuscript back with questions and suggestions. Until then, our book writing efforts are on hiatus.
- Martha: Now what are we going to do?
- Mary: Let’s see what comes to us . . .
- Martha: AAAAGGGGGGHHHHH!
Overall, things worked out pretty well with Mary and Martha on the book project. The book got finished and is now in print–although Martha got very impatient on a number of occasions when waiting for the publisher to get off its ass and finish the process.
Martha and Mary enjoyed getting back to their familiar pas de deux once sabbatical was over and I was once again in the classroom. But reflecting on their sabbatical interactions brings me back to the familiar gospel story. Jesus is a guest at the sisters’ house. Type A Martha runs around cleaning, preparing food, taking care of everyone’s needs, and getting more and more pissed at Type Not-A Mary who is gazing at Jesus with adoring eyes and hanging on his every word. Eventually Martha has had enough and asks Jesus to tell her sister (who is sitting right there) to get off her ass and help. Jesus’ response to Martha—essentially “calm down and take your medication—Mary has chosen the better part”—has gone down in the annals of classic put downs of Type A energies.
But as Mitch pointed out in his sermon, this is unfair both to Martha and Type As everywhere. Each of us has a Martha and a Mary living inside us. The question is not which is better than the other, but learning which should take the lead when. Maybe when the Son of God is visiting, Mary’s choice is “the better part,” and normal activities can be suspended. Learning when to move to chronos from kairos time is a skill worth developing. At the same time, Martha deserves as much attention as Mary—otherwise, as I used to hear occasionally as a kid, one might turn into a person who “is so heavenly minded that she is no earthly good.” That would not be cool.