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Yeah, I Know . . . But . . . (Where's Your Character?)
"The most important human endeavor is the striving for morality in our actions. Our inner balance, and even our very existence depends on it. Only morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity to our lives."
The number one most typically asked question of me in any radio, magazine, TV, or newspaper interview is: "What is the number one most typically asked question on your internationally syndicated show?"
My answer is twofold. First, although there is no typical specific question, there is a more general one, namely, "Now that I've done all these things I shouldn't have done, how can I avoid the consequences I knew, but denied, and just hoped would not happen?"
That's the truth. While many callers' questions are about contemplation and anticipation (i.e., "What could/should I do about . . . ?"), the majority are attempts at retroactivity (i.e., "I know I created a mess, but how can I make it all better, come out differently, or better still, make it go away?").
Second, the number one response to my reminders of cause and effect, common sense, values, ethics, morality, and fair play is: "Yeah, I know, but . . . "and at that moment there occurs the abdication of character, courage, and conscience. The "but . . ." is followed by all sorts of attempts to indemnify the action under scrutiny, for example, through saying, "But . . . I was . . .
- in love
- scared to risk
- feeling lonely
- feeling needy
(By the way, by using the word feeling, most people think they are now on sacred ground, since pop psych has elevated feelings from information to irresistible force.)
- carried away
Victimization status is the modern promised land of absolution from personal responsibility. Nobody is acknowledged to have free will or responsibility anymore. Everyone is the product of causation (i.e., "Such 'n such happened to me and made me do that."). There are no longer individuals, just victims in groups. One such popular trend is "Adult Child of Some Kind of Parent or Situation."
You know the final excuse that really gets my hackles to full quivering attention? It's when callers protest that they are "only human." ONLY human? As if one's humanness were a blueprint for instinctive, reflexive reactions to situations, like the rest of the animal kingdom. I see being "human" as the unique opportunity to use our mind and will to act in ways that elevate us above the animal kingdom.
A perfect illustration of these clashing definitions of humanity occurs in the classic film The African Queen. Humphrey Bogart as Charlie, the solitary sailor, tries to invoke the "only human" excuse when he attempts to explain his prior drunken evening by saying that it was, after all, only human nature. Katharine Hepburn as Rosie, the missionary, peers over her Bible and aptly retorts, "We were put on the earth to rise above nature."
And it is largely with the 3 C's that we accomplish that. The 3 C's are Character, Courage, and Conscience, without which we are merely gigantic ants instinctively filling out our biologically determined destiny.
While natural selection did shape our minds and feelings, there is something extra special about the human mind that leads us to be able, if not always willing, to take that extra step past some action that makes sense on only the basis of "survival of the fittest," or "survival of the me."
No doubt about it, self-advancement and self-indulgence are powerful innate drives for personal status and pleasure. Even the motivation for seemingly altruistic behaviors (such as letting people in line in front of you, and sharing food and other resources) can be found in the common sense of "I do for you because I can expect some reciprocal benefits in the future." Humans are social animals, therefore we all rely on the kindness of kin for survival to some extent. Yet, if all giving is simply motivated by the expectation of eventually getting, where does our special "humanness" come in?
Right here! Human beings can actually derive pleasure in the very act of resisting temptations, from not getting something, someone, or someplace the easy way. Also, it's profoundly satisfying to forgo immediate pleasures and benefit another person at some expense of the self, even if no one else knows you've done it, eliminating the investment concept of reciprocal altruism and restoring character to its rightful place in our lives.
Yes indeed, human beings derive pleasure from having character, which I once heard defined as "What you are when no one else is looking." For humans, brute strength and stealth are not enough. We value reputation, respect, admiration, and the long-lasting happiness that comes from the sacrifice, pains, and efforts that go into forging character. In addition to the specific pleasure humans take directly from rising above the pull of selfish desires, we gain the acceptance and affection of others.
Tina, twenty-two, was married for six months when she and her husband went to dinner with three other couples. All the guys at the table had been at Jack's bachelor party and took this opportunity to tell tales of how he'd carried on that fateful night, including having oral sex with one of the entertainment-type women at the party. Tina had asked Jack before and after the event if there was going to be drinking, women, and sex. He said yes to the first, and no to the rest.
When I asked Tina, "So, what are you left with?" she replied sadly, "I know that he lied to me before and after the fact, and that he had intimate sex with a complete stranger. I now see him as having little character and believe that I cannot trust him to resist impulses. For the 'long haul' of marriage, I don't see how I can trust him and count on him. I'm seriously considering an annulment."
Tina now sees her husband as having little "character." What does this mean? It suggests that in the inner battle between the self (interest/indulgence) and the obligation toward others (fairness/sacrifice), she imagines he will lean toward self. Therefore, she judges she can't count on him to do the right thing or honor his commitments to others. In her eyes, and in all of ours, this makes him less reliable, therefore less valuable as a potential partner, mate, co-parent, and friend.
The call ended with Tina in a contemplative and sad mood. While she understood the philosophical implications of what her decision needed to be based upon, she did not draw a conclusion by the end of the call.
An assessment of your character is either a social invitation or a warning to others about youor it should be. Just yesterday a co-worker told me that his friend had been offered a terrific job opportunity by a long-time acquaintance. In the course of wooing the friend, the acquaintance told him about the time he'd bought a piano with his credit card and had never been billed for it; he has a piano, and somebody else never got paid for it.
When my friend asked me what I thought that acquaintance should have done, I replied that of course he should pay the bill. I added that the friend should make sure he gets his compensation up-front because the acquaintance already telegraphed in advance that he was a getting-without-giving type.
Integrity, honesty, and honor may not give immediate rewards or gratification, and they can be life-threatening (for example, being a whistle-blower or turning state's evidence). The absence of integrity, honesty, and honor do not always bring punishment or scorn, and can be life-aggrandizing (connivers and cheats often gain power and wealth). Therefore, morality must be its own reward. That's what my caller Tony and I grappled with.
Tony is twenty-nine, single, and his career is about to take off. All it requires is that he concentrate and focus his time, effort, and resources specifically on his goal. One problem: Almost two years ago his older sister and her husband died in an accident. Another of Tony's sisters took in the two children, now ten and thirteen. However, the woman didn't have the money and space to handle the additional responsibility, so they had all moved in with Tony.
"Look," Tony complained, "I feel sorry for them, I really do. But isn't it my turn at life? I have so much I want to accomplish and this is the time. I don't think I'm being selfish, just practical. What do you think?"
Instead of giving him my opinion, I asked him one question: "If I could project you fifteen years into the future and you could look back at this time in your life, what would you want to see yourself having done?"
Sighing deeply and choking back the tears, Tony replied, "Continue to help them."