Characters leave breadcrumbs across the dense forest of the internet, especially in the undergrowth of social media. These breadcrumbs, traces of psyche, seldom lead us home or anywhere anyone lives. They never mark a trail to the point of origin; they mark trails through halls of mirrors, references referencing signifiers long since absorbed into perception. Scavengers pick the trail apart, and the trace that remains reminds us we’re off the map, beyond the edge of reason, struggling with the ephemera of desires, opinion, affectation, and the ineffectual. We’re left with an impression, a surreal glimpse that someone, somewhere, meant something, but we’ve forgotten what it was.
Character, that sense of static identity, of grounding and solid footing, has become increasingly rare. Our forebears, whether or not they had character, knew more about character than we do. Character, prior to ubiquitous media, served the function identity serves today. We believe we need to substantiate our identity in order to survive and thrive. We live with transcendent risk and representations of risk. Our forebears lived with immanent risk. Whether they worried or not, they lived exposed to dangers at work, greater likelihood of disease, the loss of a child, which was alarmingly common, and greater proximity to crime and violence.
Today, we have the leisure to debate risks while using them to demand validation for our identities. When considering the viability of vaccinations, for example, we don’t need or want to discuss the truth of our claims because we aren’t exposed to immanent risk one way or another. To make an honest appraisal of a truth claim requires an honest appraisal of our perspectives, in which we’re heavily invested, and reality, which, in its didacticism, can be messy and is always complicated, to say the least. A parent who chooses not to have his or her child vaccinated has, most likely, never observed the disease the vaccination would prevent, and if his or her child became ill, most likely, the child would not die unless the parent compounded his or her negligence by continuing to refuse medical attention. In other words, unlike our forebears who engaged a form of the disease with every inoculation and stared the disease in the face when the doctor scraped the puss from the sores of the infected, we, today, face only phantasms.
We fear the effects of childhood obesity, adult diabetes, and cancer. We lament materialism, whether people read enough, or whether people respect people’s identities and perspectives. We worry about reality before it arrives and do our best to be right, live our best lives, and maintain a position of superiority. Our values, if only in the manner sold back to us by the media as a characterization of who we should be should we want to succeed, are a representation of dominance in relation to our fears, which, to be honest, are a bit silly and grossly dependent on a position of privilege.
Computer chairs are filled with characters, but character costs.
The first step toward developing one’s character is understanding one’s limitations, and boy are they legion, no offense. Facing oneself in the cold, impersonal light of day means accepting that no one is everything. One is much closer to nothing than to everything. One is no more than the smallest fragment of a complete and whole world, and one’s impact, little though it may be, grows from the foundation of that understanding.
The second step toward developing character is learning and developing one’s best values. Discernment requires: “This is what I am and all that I will be. This is what I value. Here I put my faith.” Dominance, control, and self-absorption require: “You are wrong. Get right and repent.” We can, believe it or not, develop confidence in our own values without forcing those values onto others. We can make decisions about how we spend our time and where we invest our resources without concern for the opinions and beliefs of others, without requiring validation for our identities.
Approval is something those with character can live without.
Which brings us to the third step of developing character: courage. Courage binds us to faith and to discipline, and to have, in any degree, courage, faith, or discipline, we need a willingness to accept loss. If, at least often enough, we are neither most important nor accepted, we will need to sacrifice to realize our goals. Even small goals require sacrifice. If someone obese wishes to lose weight, he must sacrifice those delicious empty calories. He may also need to face a few difficult emotional and psychological truths, opinions he holds about himself or others, in order to break ingrained habits. The size of the goal does not, necessarily, equate to the size of the sacrifice. Only the individual can decide whether the sacrifice is worth the gain, but to move, forward or backward, requires that we leave behind where we were.
The gap between more and enough never disappears completely, and more begets more. If we continue to put our energy into fanning the smoke of illusion, hoping some smoke will be blown up our butts, we’ll find, at the end of the day, we lack the resources to develop character. Our time, energy, and enthusiasm will be spent, and learning who we are, what we believe, and what we are willing to sacrifice to maintain our sense of self can wait until tomorrow, the busiest day of the week. In the morning, we’ll check our phones in the hopes that a little more smoke never hurt anyone.