Character


the Basica




  One could break attitudes and behaviors into four simple categories in order to illuminate the matter of morality, calling them "depravity", "neutrality", "virtue", and "misstep". Using these names helps us not only to escape the usual societal judgments that spring to mind with the terms "good" and "evil" but also to see there is space in between them and to understand what that area is.

  More than one religious tradition tells a tale of depravity coming into existence for the first time with the rebellion of one spiritual entity against another. Initially, there is no friction between the two. The trouble begins when one comes to dislike the other for some reason, often (but not always) out of jealousy, resulting in a decision by the one to destroy the other. When the one cannot kill the other, the alternate course chosen is to attempt to thwart the other. The surface lesson taught by such a story is that human depravity is a weapon used by the one entity against the other. But let us look a bit more deeply.

  Only a slightly closer look is needed in order to realize that what we are to learn here is a definition of depravity itself: attacking another simply out of dislike for, discomfort with, or jealousy of that other. One could call it "live and cause to die". It consists of attitudes and behaviors intended to interfere with life, success, and happiness - not in self defense but as a needless offense with spurious justification. Taking a further step beyond this initial idea, also falling into this category is behavior that is based not so much on having anything in particular against another but on being entertained by that other's suffering. And a third variation is purposely and steadfastly refusing to be aware of, or at least concerned with, the suffering caused to another in one's pursuit of personal gain or pleasure.

  Neutrality covers a range of noninterference with any of a variety of emotions behind it, from a lackadaisical or even cold indifference to a cheerful nonjudgmentalism. It can be described as a generous attitude of "live and let live" at best and perhaps as a simple, self-focused "live and let whatever" at worst.

  And now we know what constitutes virtue. It begins with "live and help live" and can reach as far as "help live even if it means to die". To be virtuous, it is not enough to avoid inflicting injury, wrecking plans, obstructing achievement, and causing misery. Virtue is found in actively supporting and promoting the well-being, efforts, and happiness of others. And, while building good character tends to be intertwined with love, compassion, and courage, it also requires rising above one's feelings in cases of a lack of such sentiments. Virtue involves personal sacrifice, even if only in time and energy. It need not involve pity, unnecessary self-inflicted wounds, careless self-neglect, deliberate defenselessness, or martyrdom for its own sake. It can, however, involve staying out of the way when becoming involved would actually do more harm than good.

  This view of morality has nothing to do with vilifying any particular thoughts or feelings, in and of themselves, though it is good to be cautious about where they lead and to reign them in if they seem to be taking us in the wrong direction. It also has nothing to do with whether or not behavior is always perfect, though it clearly matters what kind of effort is being put forth both with regard to avoiding making mistakes in the first place and in handling them once they are already made. Being human, we cannot guarantee we will react to every situation in an ideal manner. And so we come to distinguish a fourth way of conduct. What we might call misstep can be caused by one's own simple carelessness, insensitivity, or selfishness - all of which a responsible and caring individual can make at least some effort to try to reduce. It can also result from misguidance, incorrect or insufficient information, wrong assumptions, misunderstandings, and confusion - things which the person making the misstep may or may not have been able to do anything about at any given point. And so a misstep may or may not be backed by good intentions, but it is not meant as a spiteful attack against others. Without the presence of malice, enjoyment of another's suffering, or at least deliberate and persistent ignorance of the suffering caused to others in pursuit of one's own personal benefit as motivating factors, this type of character cannot reasonably be categorized as depravity by the definition given here. Instead, it serves as a reminder of our limits, providing repeated opportunities for us to learn and grow.

  We need not be flawless in every way and at every moment in order for the spirit to develop and prosper. We need only learn as well as we are able and do all we can to cultivate the best of what it means to be spiritual beings living the human experience.

  Practice virtue. Avoid misstep whenever feasible, but learn from it as much as possible whenever it occurs. Stay in the friendly aspect of neutral in between.



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