Character Development: The Nobel Lie

Written over two days and finished today on 2/25/17 with Fat Boy Slim on Pandora and a mocha at my side. As always, I did not proof-read; so proceed with caution.

Short Intro

Every week day morning I find myself in the same coffee shop, tucked in the mecca of achievement and ambition in Silicon Valley. I work in a business district, so I see lots of suits and ties, high heels and “perfect” hair. Often, interviews are conducted at an adjacent table as I eavesdrop on the candidate who highlights what I can bring to the company. Usually it’s a litany of character traits and qualities that make them stand out, unique, and an asset to the world. Hire me because “I’m a hard worker,” or “I’m reliable,” and “I’m a born leader.”

This is normal, after all, it’s our character that helps in establishing our uniqueness and sense of worth. We all want to make some kind of contribution to society, and feel some sense of value. It’s only natural. Whether for an interview, a first date, networking, or a making a new friend – we care about what we project to the world.

Two reflective questions come to mind as I think about the human need to both cultivate and project ‘good and virtuous’ character: Why do we pursue character development? And is character a real thing? When I say “real thing,” I simply mean, can a person possess the trait ‘trustworthiness’, for example, in a completely pure and authentic way, devoid of any psychological baggage? Or is every character trait created because of an underlying fear or insecurity? Put another way, does one pursue trustworthiness out of an underlying fear?

My primary contention is that we all manufacture an elusive self-image filled with character traits and virtues, so that we can gain acceptance with others, fulfill a role in life, manage potential threats, and protect the fragile ego. This topic is of upmost importance because the more we can realize ‘the noble lie’ we live by, we can then begin to understand the ontology of being human. Perhaps in admitting and understanding the illusion we live by, we can begin to grow and understand how we relate to others on a deeper level.

What is Character?    

Character is the constellation or configurations of behavioral traits we cultivate to use as an armor of protection. More pointedly, character is the neurotic defense against despair: to shed that defense, you admit the full blood of despair, the full realization of the true human condition, what people are really afraid of, what they struggle against, and are driven toward and away from. We adapt to this despair (and reality) of life by cultivating character traits such as, benevolence, decisiveness, compassion, dependability, punctuality, sincerity, etc. Every one of these traits is a defense mechanism to stave off an underlying fear.

Character and identity are myths we create. When it comes to our character and identity, we are not intrinsically any of these qualities. One might say, “I am a full-time mother who is honest, sincere, and caring.” These character traits and qualities may anchor her identity and sense of meaning; but these descriptions are simply concoctions of her own doing. Like the faux sets at Universal Studios that seem so real, we construct own façade and display it to the world with the goal of enhancing meaning, purpose, and social utility within our lives.

I’ll use a personal example. Even early on in my life, I found myself in leadership roles in both school and athletics. Not too long ago, my boss told me that she thinks I am a good leader. The character of ‘a good leader’ has been my pursuit. It’s very easy for me to rest in the security and tell myself: “I am a leader.” While it feels good to possess this character trait, it’s only an illusion. To the world, I show confidence, decisiveness, and strength – all a façade. The world, however, is cut off from the real reason in which I pursue leadership. The world sees confidence, but my façade conveniently hides a deep insecurity centered on need to gain acceptance through accomplishment. Thus, the trait of ‘strong leader’ only exists because of my internal battle with confidence.

A simple question can open the world to this dark world. Why is being a leader so important to me? The answer to that question reveals the dark insecurities and control issues that lurk deep within my history. People who pursue leadership while cultivating and hone leadership traits, do so, as a response to an insidious fear deep within them. The person who pursues leadership nourishes confidence, keeps their chin up, and exudes trustworthiness as a protective (defensive) mechanism to a deeper fear. There is no pure and unadulterated motive to pursue the character trait of leadership.

“How is this?” you may ask. The answer, in short: cause and effect. Character development does not happen in a vacuum, rather, all of character development is really a defense mechanism and response to a deeper fear, insecurity or weakness that has a hold on us. It’s the same deep seeded angst that propelled Napoleon, Churchill, and the Starbucks barista who pursues a promotion to manager with a ferocious tenacity to keep her sense of being intact.

The Illusion of Character

It’s interesting the illusions that we construct in order to cope with the world around us. As chief architects of our individual selves we build up a sense of ‘self’, ‘identity’, and the pronominal ‘I’. During the different phases of our development we morph into the ‘smart one’ or ‘the athlete’ of the family; then the ‘good looking’ one or ‘the funny guy’ in high school. We are constantly sizing up people and experiences around us in order to adapt to the expectations and requirements of the outside world. We adapt by creating defenses and extensions so that our world becomes more manageable. We adapt by using denial, “That’s not really me!” and projection, “Oh, he thinks he knows everything,” or repression, “I’m fine, really.” We use are extensions to help us with our role and status in society. Thus, our extensions become our looks, our cars, our houses, and what appears on our Facebook feed. All of this, every bit, is an illusion. A noble lie. A vital lie.

Again, the reality is that every one of us manufactures an elusive self-image filled with character traits and virtues, so that we can gain acceptance with others, fulfill a role in life, manage potential threats, and protect our fragile ego’s. Character is the lie. Character is the consensual hallucination we live by. But this lie is comfortable because to look within ourselves, to truly excavate our souls, is too laborious and ugly. Therefore, we keep the lie going.

Personally, I am afraid of insignificance – most people are. Having recently turned 40, I want my life to count. In order to dampen this dread, I put up a shield to protect this fear of insignificance and employ pre-fabrications that give me comfort: “I am loyal, compassionate, and dependable.” All of it, a vital lie that brings security so I don’t have to deal with the reality that one day – if all goes well – I will be in my 90s wearing a diaper, dependent on others, and facing the end of my existence. I need the lie, we all do.

Do you see the lie we create? One works on boldness and decisiveness, for example, because their childhood was plagued with being silenced and submissive. One cultivates the character of being responsible because of an early adulthood filled with a selfishness and poor choices. I have a persistent need to be punctual, and this is because I have a lot of built up frustration and anger from being the last one picked up from school early in life.

The Social Expectation

“Each of us constantly chisel our image, identity, and character in order to find equanimity in life, and gain social capital.”

Character is necessary evil because we are social animals who need to get along. In order to get along, we place high importance on our own reputation and ability to be accepted by the group. Simply imagine what one’s life would be like if ‘fraudulence’ and ‘nefariousness’ defined their reputation. No meaning-seeking group would accept you into their fold. I don’t believe that one single [reasonable] human being would jump at this opportunity, in fact, we spend the vast majority of everyday living ensuring the opposite. As I mentioned earlier, character development helps us to adapt to the expectations and requirements of the outside world. Caring about one’s reputation and being accepted within a group are two universal realities among people. As long as one has their cognitive faculties in check, a good reputation and pursuing acceptance are essential values when it comes to living in society and partaking in culture.

A good reputation and gaining acceptance is key to finding meaning, significance, and most importantly: self-esteem.  What people need most is to feel secure with a sense of self-esteem. Surely we are more than just a blind glob of protoplasm, but a creature with a name who lives in a world of symbols and dreams and not merely matter. Self-esteem is the necessary ingredient to functioning well in life.

It begins young when the child attempts to nourish appraisal from one’s “omnipotent” parents. And then in the classroom and school yard where validation is sought through primitive power struggles: “My turn, not yours!” Then adolescence brings about the yearning of ‘fitting in’ through such pursuits as athletic prowess or physical beauty. Soon, the teen realizes what qualities bring admiration, especially fearlessness. Dominant grades, the latest style of clothing, and choosing the most advantageous clique become powerful symbols. In their twenties, one comes to earn self-esteem by performing within roles in society as a working professional. Great pride is taken in providing value for the company, earning a check, paying bills on time without help from mom and dad. We get validation from ‘closing the deal’, getting a bonus, earning the promotion. Any deficiency or blockage in the socialization process carries the devastating turmoil of: “I am not good enough.” Thus, almost all of one’s inner life is a barrage of images that validate or threaten one’s self-worth and self-esteem.

The urge and desire to continually sculpt our image, self-esteem and character is because we are engrossed in society and enmeshed in culture. Society itself is a codified hero system, which means that society everywhere is a living myth of the significance of human life, a defiant creation of meaning. It doesn’t matter how introverted and obsequious one is, we have an innate desire to be the hero of our own play of life. In our own personal way, we crave to do something or be someone that produces meaning and purpose. As Ernest Becker notes, society and culture is precisely a “symbolic action system, a structure of status symbols and roles, customs and rules for behavior, designed to serve as a vehicle for the earthly heroism.” The hope and belief is that the things that man creates in society are of lasting worth and meaning, that they outlive or outshine death and decay, that man and his products count.

These are the underpinnings of character and image development: each of us constantly chisel our image, identity, and character in order to find equanimity in life, and gain social capital. Thrown into the world without our consent, we find ourselves in culture and society with expectations imposed upon us: “do this, but don’t do that; and for God’s sake, don’t behave like that.” We are incessantly analyzing our surroundings so that we say and do the right thing in order to gain some semblance of acceptance and affirmation. The result is that experience in these social interactions methodically help us construct a fallible and imaginary life around us. We learn quickly that the heartache of being picked on, ostracized, rejected and abandoned feels like every particle of oxygen is sucked out of your body; leaving you hollow, empty, and dark inside. The lesson: avoid rejection. On the other side, however, we experience the warmth and security of love, kindness, and compassion and quickly wake up to the universal realization: “This is good!”

We proceed through life with a calibrated caution through this imagined world we’ve created. We project ourselves into the world to feel significant and someone of worth, yet quickly retract into ourselves when it’s time to protect our fragile ego’s. We accept the binary lie that we so willingly concoct of an external and internal way of being. The external is what we show the world, the façade that says, “I’m trustworthy, reliable, and responsible.” Internally, however, we hide our fears, angst and insecurities. All of it a lie; albeit, a noble and virtuous lie.

The Nobel Lie: Normal and Necessary

To say that character development is a lie and façade carries a negative connotation. As if to say, we’re all just a bunch of phonies, with no authenticity. Well, there is no real “authenticity.” From very early on in our youth, the world with all of its expectations and symbols of meaning, imposes itself on us. By the time we gain independence, we are already primed to assess, adapt and react to life’s circumstances in order to fit into the culture we find ourselves in. And if there is one thing that is ubiquitous with humans, it’s self-preservation. We go to great lengths to ensure that our reputation is safe, and we’re always ready to ‘save-face’ when needed. In order to this, we feed on the myths we create. Like a chameleon who adjusts to his surroundings, we adapt our character traits to our environment – at least most of us. Sure, there is always ‘the loner’ who doesn’t follow the crowd; does his own thing. But why? If we were to peel him like an onion, you’d find the psychological scares that provoke the rebellious attitude, “I don’t need nobody!” This lie too, gives him security and sense of control. Thus, he constructs a hard outer shell to hide the inner child who is hurt. He needs this façade? We all do.