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Character is a Choice
Charassein, the original Greek root for the word character, means “to sharpen, cut in furrows, or engrave.” It implies that the ancient Greeks believed that developing character requires labour, pressure, some artfulness. How times have changed. I don’t think that many people today think of character as a result of a practice. However, some still do.
John Vervaeke, in his brilliant series of lectures called Awakening from the Meaning Crisis, asks his listeners “how much time did you spend today on your character?” This may be one of the most important questions that you can ask yourself.
“Your character isn’t your personality” says Vervaeke. Personality is what you’re born with. Character is what develops during your life experience. You can cultivate this. Or, you can leave it to the whims of fate and culture.
What is more consequential to your life than character? It cannot be taken away from you. It is what will allow you to carry out your obligations and pursue your life goals. Develop it or don’t: you have a choice.
Vervaeke invokes the Socratic method:
Let's ask a Socratic question: Let's do something that Socrates would do. We spend a lot of time on our appearance. We spend a lot of time on our status. How much time did you spend today on your character? How much? If it is the virtual engine that is regulating your growth and development, you should be, of course, spending a lot of time on your character! But are you?
Vervaeke extends Socrates and modernizes his thought by bringing in the notion of the “virtual engine” that drives character development. The way that I understand this is as follows: the engine is a kind of meaning-making feedback loop between you and your environment. You make changes in yourself and then you interact with your environment. You then affect your environment which in turn affects and changes you and so on.
So, how exactly do we tackle the problem of training character and running this virtual engine? After listening to Vervaeke’s lecture I started to think about how character development is analogous to physical culture. As a physical culturist I already have a set of strategies for self-development. We can train our character like we train our bodies. What are the parallel methods? Two come to mind. We can develop our character through shaping our environment and through taking action.
Let’s have a look at these two domains.
Shaping our environment sets the conditions for good character. It means choosing our influences carefully. By environment I mean more than just our physical space. It includes everything that we take in and interact with daily that is under our control. It means our books, electronic media, food, even our friends. In fact, thinking about who we spend time with may be one of our most important considerations.
Some questions to ask yourself:
Who do I spend time with?
What books do I read and own?
What foods do I eat and have in my home?
What about my time online?
How much time do I spend looking at the news?
With all of the above points, think about:
How does this affect me?
Does it help me?
Does it get me closer to where I want to be and who I want to be?
These are just a few examples of how you can take stock of your environment.
After making these assessments, consider how you can shape your environment to serve your goals and increase your capability:
You can use images and texts to serve as reminders and examples for yourself - photographs, sayings, philosophical or religious texts.
You can eat food that nourishes you.
You can keep a notebook to use for reflection and sense-making.
You can have exercise and training equipment at hand so that it is easy to use, minimizing friction in getting the work done.
You can spend time with people that inspire you, and who model admirable qualities.
To take action is to seek out and create conditions that will challenge you and deepen you. Actions can be habitual or they can be exceptional.
Habitual actions are taken regularly: daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly. They form the backbone of practice. Use self-observation to assess your habits. Develop new and better routines. You can do this through contemplation, writing, walking, periods of silence, or by getting offline and disengaging from the algorithm.
Exceptional actions are the experiences that you undertake or subject yourself to in order to bring on special insight or growth. They may involve an unusual challenge that includes unpredictability, discomfort, or a high degree of difficulty. Mark Divine calls this type of severe test a “crucible event.” There are a few meanings to “crucible:” a) a container in which substances are melted or put to very high temperatures b) a severe trial which brings forth something new.
Here are three exceptional events from my own life:
Infantry basic trade training was a long duration crucible event which I undertook at 17 years of age. The course combined basic military training and the foundational training of a reserve infantry soldier. The first lesson that I learned was how to get through daily difficulties, of which there were many. Towards the end of training and for a long while afterwards, the second realization started to set in. I was capable of doing difficult things. I was able to persevere, and to suffer to achieve a goal. These lessons have continued to resonate within me for over 30 years.
Craig Douglas’ Edged Weapons Overview course was a medium duration event. It was a heavy contact force on force training seminar. During two very long days, while fighting through physical and mental exhaustion, and facing insecurities about my own abilities, I learned that I am capable of facing down not just one but multiple uncooperative assailants. Did I do well in every training evolution? Hell no. Did I surprise myself? Yes I did. This experience showed me many of the gaps in my skill set which I began working on after the course and which I have continued to address for a decade since. My mental, physical, and technical pursuits, along with my confidence, were deeply influenced by those two days of pressure testing. More than anything, I learned to face fear over those two days.
The 45 minute plank challenge was a short duration event. I did this with two friends and a third who was there for moral support. We tried to hold ourselves in the plank position for 45 minutes straight. When we started, we all knew that we wouldn’t be able to do it and yet we had no idea what it would be like to try. The point of it all was to strive and see what we experienced. When we broke from the plank posture we would return to it as soon as we were able to gather up the nerve to do it again. The lasting value of this process was how it laid open to me the qualities of my own self-talk. For much of this event I was able to detach and observe the silent dialogue I had with myself. I learned something about myself: I am more positive than I thought. For a self-avowed cynic, this new self-knowledge surprised and strengthened me.
“Do one thing every day that scares you.” Eleanor Roosevelt
Some ideas on actions to take for character growth:
Physical training - train your body to discipline your mind. PT builds capability, health, and character, all at the same time.
Service - find a connection to something larger than yourself.
Study - read classical and ancient texts, philosophy, literature, history, religion. Learn a physical art, a difficult instrument, or a complex game like chess or go.
Get outside of your comfort zone- seek manageable levels of deprivation and discomfort. Do this regularly. Some of the best advice that I ever read was on a bumper sticker quoting Eleanor Roosevelt: “Do one thing every day that scares you.”
Do something which requires courage- practice moral and physical courage. Express your strength. You may surprise yourself.
Some questions to ask yourself, regularly:
What effects do I want to have on the world?
What responsibilities do I have to fulfill?
Am I capable, the way that I am now, of achieving these things?
We are self-making beings. Vervaeke (and Socrates) urge us to look deeply at what it means to have purpose, potential, and character. Vervaeke boils it down to this: “your purpose is to become as fully human as possible!” We can look deeply into these matters and find meaningful answers for ourselves. But searching is not enough. It will require thoughtful planning and hard continual work to realize depth of character.
Character is a choice. Do not forget this. As Eleanor Roosevelt proclaimed, “I am who I am because of the choices I made yesterday.”
Note: The John Vervaeke quotes are taken from his lecture series Awakening from the Meaning Crisis, episode 6.
My thanks to Matt and Silas, both of whom helped me by reading this before publication. Silas’ substack can be found here: https://awakeinrelationship.substack.com/