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Presented October 17, 2010, by Dr. Sharon Buzzard
Listen to a recording of "Character Studies"
15:10 minutes - 6.08 MB - Character Studies .mp3 file.
My talk today is a study of character -- what is it, how do we get it, how do others achieve it -- in short, is the expectation of "character" in a person a reasonable one, or is it as outdated in a whatever kind of world.
Some of you will have heard of the new movie The Social Network about Mark Zuckerberg, creator of Facebook. Hes a 20 year old at Yale when he conjures up the idea for Facebook and hes a nerd. But more than that, hes dishonest and seemingly without care for those to whom he has given commitments and those who have been his life-long friends. Theres something essential missing in him, and so he comes across quite poorly, as his rise to success was on the backs of several people who trusted him and who he betrayed. He is, to be sure, a person with a deeply flawed character whose success is ironic; he created a social network that has literally changed the world, yet he is himself did not have the skills he needed to maintain his own network. One writer attempts his defense saying that "The Zuckerberg character is without social and moral skills. Its not that hes a bad person. Hes just never been house-trained. Hes been raised in a culture reticent to talk about social and moral conduct. [He] becomes a global business star without getting a first-grade education in interaction" (David Brooks). Its that absence of conversation about social and moral conduct that feeds my talk today and likely makes me sound like I roamed the earth with the dinosaurs. Are such conversations too personal? Always relative? Impossible in a world that has so much misconduct? Would we sound judgmental? We can mind our own notions of truth and honor, but can we expect it of others?
Some of you will know that I am a long time teacher of American Literature where the idea of character and self-invention is an often studied theme. Ours was a new country, an Eden to some, where all had a chance to start anew; reinvention was part of the American Dream. Writers like Ben Franklin in his Autobiography were encouraged to outline their growth towards becoming a person of excellence so that others might study their process and thereby create a country peopled with those who were equally exemplary. Hand in hand with this theme, however, comes its close counterpart, which is to say, if a person can invent him/herself, become a 'self-made' individual, at what point does this invention become something of a fraud.
I noted with interest that Quincy had chosen The Great Gatsby as its One Read book for the year. No better example of the absence of character exists than Jay Gatsby, formerly Jay Gatz, who created the dashing Gatsby so that he could be a part of the moneyed and careless world that his beloved Daisy inhabited. The self-made man was at one time a fairly easy fellow to spot. Those in his community knew him as someone who had worked his land, made it produce, provided for his family. The self-made woman had cleaned, washed, sewed, nurtured her childrenin short, they had made it in terms not necessarily economic and they clearly were not imposters. They illustrated ingenuity, hard work, self-reliance -- all those qualities Americans like to use to define themselves because they help to define character. About the time of the industrial revolution, the definition of success morphed into an equivalency with money and thus the rise of the industrial giants Carnegie, Rockefeller -- the names we continue to associate with fantastic wealth and success. Not to stereotype, but add exploitation of labor, the loss of personal investment in work, and power, and the American ideas of character get more complex. As with Jay Gatsby, it became easier to judge the tree by its leaves, the book by its cover, the man by the lovely shirts he wears and the home he owns on West Egg.
I want to be quick to distinguish my study of character from the all-too popular self-esteem movement that may have mercifully run its course. I have taught classrooms full of students who were raised in the eternal comfort and falsity of this unearned right to character -- many of whom had far more self esteem than was warranted. And I have helped to raise a child who, had she not been raised with the irony that is often a part of our home-life, herself would be the product of it. It became an on-going joke in our house that at the slightest word of correction, Anna would remark that Steve or I had "lowered her self-esteem." Parents were implicated in the crime of not raising a child with not enough self-esteem and now the snake has bitten its tail in that one of the bits of advice for teachers regarding how to deal with this years batch of 18 year olds is to realize that they are children of the self-esteem generation and that we can expect them to have elevated opinions of their capabilities. I was, of course raised at an earlier time, before self-esteem was invented, by a mother who I can firmly attest, did not care one whit for my self-esteem. People whose foundation is on their self-esteem are to me just like Jay Gatsby when he slipped into the world of the ultra-rich -- somewhat taken in by their own disguise.
Character is a hard word to define and is perhaps best understood in its absence. I expect we all have candidates for this list. Carelessness. A refusal or inability to own-up. The absence of the crucial sense of right and wrong. Opportunism. In this room are people of tremendous character -- and no, I'm not going to go down the rows to name who you are. Some are wise beyond their years and some are wise according to their years, some are wise much earlier than their years would allow. When our ship of character hits a storm, these are the people to whom we turn for their sense of truth, an ability to see the horizon, a kind of northern star. What were their lessons of character building and maintenance? Truth would be one, I believe, and not just the 'cannot tell a lie,' kind of truth, but to be true as in plumb, level, squared up with the world. It is this quality that I think of first when I think of those here who are models of character and of those who have been models in my own life.
One popular truism regarding character is that adversity helps build it. Believing that certainlyhelps to make our adverse times more tolerable, but perhaps it is not true. Must we, like Greek heroes, go through tests to earn status and validate our wisdom to others? Certainly our tests are less monumentally heroic, and I am more prone to think that character may not be built by troubled times so much as tested by them. Keeping your own ship of sail on course when life besets you is about as heroic as it gets, I believe, and necessitates a kind of private and internal compass. One might ask if, because of the very private nature of this victory, only we can know where and when our toughest tests have come. Joan Didion warns us against what she calls our "marked cards" that we shuffle through on sleepless nights -- the kindness done for the wrong reason, the words we should have said and didnt, the betrayal of a friendship. Didion suggests that self-respect is the beginning of character, the ultimate test.
Still theres more to it than that, that private code of honor carries itself into one that is public and somewhat demonstrable. There must be a social and moral code that we are held to, one we want to uphold; it just is, and that is part of what character is in the world.
Rituals often serve as touch-stones for those things that we want to keep in touch with -- internal, symbolic, metaphoric. We dont eat our turkey at Thanksgiving because we love turkey, we gather to celebrate the gathering in of friends and family; we enact smaller rituals when we light candles, wish upon a star, send our dear ones on the way to a new life in the beyond. Thoreau offers an example from when he went to the woods for a short time to live deliberately and to get himself right with his world. During his stay, he took a dip in the pond early each morning, what he called a "religious exercise"; he said he did it to awaken himself, and it was that a state of mind he wanted to take with him when he returned to the hubbub of the world. His morning awakenings would, thereafter, become rituals in themselves, to remind himself of the clarity he found during his retreat.
We have our public ritualsthe lighting of the chalice, the moment of repose during silent meditationthat call us back to who we want to be as UUs. Private rituals to honor our character must perhaps by their nature be private ones and some may seem oddly trivial, yet they are tokens that call us back to who we intend to be. Let me suggest another, and its the perfect time of year for it. It connects us to this lovely October day, to our sense of settling in for the seasonal change and looking to the affairs of the home and family. One writer helps me define character by an image from autumn and I think it serves well as mental token of something to take away from todays talk. These words are from the writer Irene Nimerovsky: "[A] strong gust of wind reveals the true shape of the tree when it blows off all its leaves"; character is what remains. When the autumn leaves begin to rain down, there will be reminders all around, trees without their leaves, anchored, rooted, storing up strength for the seasons to come.
"A political victory, a rise of rents, the recovery of your sick, or the return of your absent friend, or some other favorable event raises your spirits, and you think good days are preparing for you. Do not believe it. Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of your principles."
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson
The Quincy Unitarian Church Home
The list of Selected Sermons.