We all want to be great. Nobody sincerely thinks, “I want to be mediocre.” But every person is different, and the trick is to discover your own aspect of personal greatness.
Rabbi Chaim Vital, a great kabbalist who lived in Tzfat in the 15th century, writes that just as the world was created using four elements – earth, air, fire and water – so too, each person was created using those same elements. For each individual, one particular element is dominant and this, to a large degree, determines your essential strengths and weaknesses. Identifying your “element” will help reveal the area of spiritual development (“tikkun”) you need to do to achieve your own greatness.
Fire tends to rise, the flames reaching up and out to consume and conquer. The positive aspect of this element is the desire to strive and accomplish, to reach great heights, to lead and take responsibility. People who possess this dominant element are leaders and visionaries: They see the big picture and long-term ramifications. They are goal-oriented and ambitious.
On the other hand, there are common character flaws generating from the element of fire: arrogance, anger, criticism and condescension toward others, and the tendency to crave power and control.
Earth is low and heavy. It stays in one place, continuously stepped on and caught in gravity's domain. People who have more of this element tend toward laziness, sadness and despair. These are their main weaknesses. They have a heaviness about them, craving comfort and lack of effort. The main work in overcoming this flaw is pushing toward accomplishment and growth.
On the good side, however, these people don’t tend to get into power struggles. They are compliant, humble and willing to cooperate. They forgo and give in. They are good team players and are reliable and trustworthy, loyal and steadfast in their preferences and relationships.
Water spreads and goes everywhere. It takes on the contours of whatever vessel contains it. It goes with the flow, literally, naturally unbound and unlimited, unrestricted. People with a “water” nature have an easy time giving, connecting with others, and spreading themselves to acquiesce to the needs of others. They tend to be friendly, flexible, outgoing and generous (even to a fault).
Their main weakness lies in a lack of self-restraint and pursuit of physical pleasures. They may at times veer toward immorality, thinking that normal restrictions in human behavior don’t apply to them.
Air is the most complicated of the elements. It is fluff, ephemeral, seemingly non-existent. It blows one way and another, never fixed permanently anywhere, never taking a stand. It is invisible, and could be in one place when you think it is in another. Those with this dominant element tend to lack concern about the physical world. They may be more spiritual, idealistic, living in the world of ideas. They may have a yearning to transcend this world and connect with energies and non-tangible aspects of existence.
Their weakness involves the power of speech, which is also dependent upon air for its life-source. They tend toward meaningless chatter, gossip, flattery and deceit, able to manipulate the truth for their own gains. They may also have a hard time sticking to routine and order, as they subconsciously assume they can be everywhere at the same time.
Putting It All Together
If you can figure out which element plays a large part in your physical make-up, then you are ready to peer through a window to your spiritual, psychological strengths and weaknesses as well.
As an assignment to gain clarity on this subject, Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, in his book Alei Shur suggests drawing out a “character trait circle.” It goes like this:
Draw a circle on a piece of paper. On the uppermost part of the circle, write down what you see as your most important quality, your biggest strength. At the bottom of the circle, put down your worst flaw or failing. Next to the trait at the top, to its left and right, fill in your positive character traits, your good qualities.
Gradually lower, toward the middle of the circle, place your traits which are neutral – not especially positive, but not entirely negative either. For example, traits like “talkative,” “visually oriented,” “emotional”, etc. could go either way.
As you near the bottom of your circle, fill in all your weaknesses, those traits that drag you down and keep you from reaching greatness.
Rabbi Shalom Noach Berzovsky, in his chassidic work, Nesivos Shalom, says we are each created with a special mission to accomplish in this world. To figure out what this mission is, look at the upper part of your circle for the things that come easily to you – the talents you have and the things you enjoy doing.
Another part of our purpose in this world is to fix something that is flawed, within us or in the world. This is called “tikkun.” To figure out this aspect of your purpose, look at the lower part of your circle and evaluate your weaknesses. What kinds of things cause you to fail, time and time again? What trips you up in relationships, at work, when you attempt any accomplishment? What is so difficult for you that it almost seems insurmountable?
It is these very character flaws which may be your raison d’etre – your life purpose, to overcome those flaws which are obstacles to your success, using your God-given talents, strengths, and the traits that come naturally to you.
Now look at your circle. You can see your strengths at the top of the circle, your flaws on the bottom. And ask yourself:
• How can I use my main talents and abilities to accomplish in life?
• Am I using my time effectively?
• Is much of my life spent doing things that are not so enjoyable to me?
• If I have leadership abilities, am I utilizing that talent, or am I basically a follower most of the time – in my career, at home, in my community?
Evaluate whether you can actually use your strengths to overcome your least favorite traits. As an example, consider the person who is a truth-seeker. He likes to investigate how the world and people operate. At the same time, he may be disorganized, a little flighty, and can’t stick to routine.
The solution might be the following: He or she could do some research about time management, the underlying causes of disorder and lack of routine, and the long-term ramifications of such behavior on people, on their relationships, on their life. Using your newfound knowledge, commit to working on improving in this area, or get a group together for a time-management course or workshop as the first step toward change.
Once you realize what you can do and what you need to change, the next crucial step is to articulate it clearly and succinctly. Write this out as your “personal mission statement,” tack it on the fridge… and go for it!