You, Me, and Character

I’ve been thinking lately about character. Iskra Fileva, of whose writing I am becoming quite fond, recently dissected the essence of character in a New York Times piece entitled Character and Its Discontents. In it, Fileva takes issue with a recent claim made by two preeminent philosophers: namely, that character does not exist, and that what we perceive as character is only a very fluid result of specific sets of circumstances.


If this were true, the results would be devastating. Imagine a world in which character does not exist- in which any act is merely the result of external pressure. Fortunately, this position seems to hold no water.


When people act ‘out of character,’ they may just be revealing their deeper tendencies.

Fileva deftly tears down the argument with two retorts, both circling around the concept of unity (in this sense, a unity of character). The first uses as an example a lover whose partner is incarcerated for an unspecified crime. The concept of perspective bias explains that this lover maintains a view of her lover’s kind and gentle nature only because her lover is kind and gentle towards her. She refuses to acknowledge the aspect of his character that may have been capable of the crime he is accused of, simply because she has never witnessed that side of him. By and large, we are all egregiously guilty of perspective bias. Indeed, it seems to be a core principle of human nature.


The second argument against the lack of character uses as an example Tolstoy’s shameful treatment of his illegitimate son, explaining it away with the master motive argument. This concept simply states that we all have an underlying essence of character that trumps all others. In Tolstoy’s case, that essence, that motive, is perfectionism. The same perfectionism that drives him to so masterfully lead his reader to a place of gripping empathy for his characters is the same perfectionism that enables him to cast off his son, simply because his presence, his mere being, creates for Tolstoy an imperfect life. This master motive concept, too, we all exhibit in some manner.


These, of course, are extreme examples, but examples which, in my mind, cast aside the notion that character is non-existent, and allow character to firmly take hold of its place among our psyches.


I don’t think these arguments go quite far enough, however.


Character itself is perhaps an infinite concept, in that its edges, its nooks and crannies, its intricacies are not only largely unknown, but perhaps even unknowable. The problem, it seems to me, of the fact that we are all so capable of so many terrible acts based upon our circumstances, as exemplified in so many movies in which a “good” character is driven to some malicious act by sheer despair, lies not in the absence of character, but in the existence of all character within each of us. (Much in the same way that followers of Zen- and many other wise men and women- maintain that the entire universe lies within each of us, a claim becoming more widely adopted among physicists as they realize that we are, indeed, made of star stuff).


It’s not so strange a claim, when you think of it. Our physical bodies are incredibly similar. Two arms, two legs, one heart, one brain, etc., all serving the same functions. The degree to which these body parts are effective, however, varies wildly. You do not have the same lung capacity as a marathoner. I do not have the same level of brain function as, say, someone with a photographic memory.


Is it such a stretch, then, to think that the very essence of us- our character- operates on the same principle? That we are endowed with all the possibilities of character, parts of which operate at different levels? Would that not explain the capacity in us all for every action, every behavior, under the right circumstances?


Consider Raskolnikov, Dostoyevsky’s perfect example of this type of division within one’s self. Crime and Punishment is a brilliant lesson in this sort of dichotomy. Raskolnikov is at once a highly compassionate and maliciously cold character- so much so that Dostoyevsky actually uses two completely different characters to convey this division- in the novel, Sonya represents his loving, generous, and self-sacrificial side, while Svidrigailov represents the malicious and self-serving aspect of his nature. It is precisely because we as readers can identify with both sides that this character is so intriguing. All character exists within all of us: the differences in the degree to which we cultivate their nuances is the essence of who we are.


It could be, however, that the seemingly contradictory bits of evidence reveal not the lack of character but people’s deeper tendencies.

Which brings me to my final point: if we have such extraordinary power as to shape our own character, to feed or tame the beasts that lie within us to achieve our desired selves, on what, then, do these beasts feed?


The answer lies in the people that surround you- your friends, your family, your teachers, your confidants.


There is a select group of people I interact with regularly who feed my intellectual hunger. While working on a play, the wonderful theater folk I work with feed an insatiably carnivorous creative creature inside of me. I also have friends who make me feel as if I’m a fifteen-year-old boy again, forgetting at once the pressures of the world and leading me to a place of child-like laughter and joy.


None of these people are better or worse than another, and none are more or less essential- they simply feed different beasts. They all, every one, make me a better person for having known them. The only true danger comes when I allow myself to be influenced by those who try to tear me down to their level (in other words, to feed the beasts of jealousy, anger, pettiness, etc, that I would rather let starve).


You are not simply a result of your genetic hand-me-downs. Neither are you solely a result of your environment. Instead, you are a rich cacophony of both, and of more. The only true path to knowing yourself is in taking a road that leads you to the people you love, the people who make you better. The next time you find yourself surrounded by these miraculous people, reflect a bit on the marvel that they are, because they are not just they, but are a lake shimmering with possibilities. If you gaze into the lake, you will see all the possibilities of who you may become shining back at you.