Just as what is considered rational or irrational differs for each person, in the same way what is good or evil and useful or useless differs for each person. — Epictetus
A classic definition describes character as “traits that form the individual nature or some person or thing,” or my particular favorite from Samuel Johnson’s early dictionary, “a particular constitution of the mind.” Both point to an attribute developed or formed through some influence, education, experimentation, or simply good luck. One might say our character is a set of internal mental rules determining our actions and reactions to situations, other’s opinions, or helping us through that difficult intersection of “where I want to go” and “where I should go.”
Character is usually our guiding moral compass. My father, in his love for me and desire to instill necessary tools for later in life, would repeat the mantra “it builds character” to me whenever I didn’t want to do something. Although he never explained the what or why of it, his persistent repetition must have planted a seed early on, slowly growing into an awareness with deep, healthy roots.
Part of my character has always harbored a tolerance for many things, but especially in accepting others as they are. I’ve never felt racism and prejudice were a part of me. Yet, I am now at odds, as many are in these times, struggling over differences.
Now it seems we’ve amped up a difference rebellion, morphing us into a divided species. It’s complicated trying to understand and explain this widening gulf between us. This blind and deaf indifference to other’s viewpoints, coupled with bias bordering on hatred, didn’t suddenly appear out of nowhere.
Western thinking seems to seek a band-aid for this wound that does not heal easily. Ancient and Eastern philosophers would suggest, rightly so, that we focus instead on uncovering systemic issues beneath the wound if we hope for a lasting cure. But band-aids seem quicker, allowing the luxury of applying then walking away. Like our over-dependency on antibiotics and the harm that causes, we’ve unsuccessfully followed a cure-the symptom thinking too long.
To be honest, I’m struggling for the first time with a bout of intolerance, one sadly of the times and aligned with a popular finger-pointing: you voted for “them” so you’re responsible for this mess. Unfair? Probably. Contributing to closing the chasm and begin the healing? Definitely not.
I’m still searching to find my internal moral compass setting to help me re-point in the right direction, but it’s not been easy. I can rationalize away my reluctance by claiming age-earned curmudgeonliness, but that’s a cop-out. This current emotional infection I have to forgive and forget on this one issue feels like a well-entrenched demon in my psyche. It seems easier to adopt that age-old adage, “let sleeping dogs lie.”
I offer no immediate answers, other than it’s a work in progress. Recognition, they say, is a good first step. And publicly sharing these thoughts is metaphorically a gauntlet tossed at my feet to fight the intolerance and get on with life.
Will I accept the challenge, or take the ignoble path of avoidance driven by contrived mental justifications? Time will tell. Like so many in our current culture, I need to change these thoughts and actions. By doing nothing about it, I’ll be abetting worse demons in the years ahead.