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Growing Pains

by on August 1, 2019

Growing Pains

by Marco M. Pardi

We aim to develop physique, mentality, and character in our students; but because the first two are menaces without the third, the greatest of these is character.” Joseph Dana Allen, Headmaster. Fall 1989

This piece seeks to explore common beliefs about character and is therefore germane to all readers (no matter what other people may have said about you). A fundamental question will be whether character is necessarily “forged” through adverse circumstances. You will note there is a flavor of the old Nature vs. Nurture debate here, but I intend to minimize that. I sincerely hope readers will comment, and I will respond to each.

The definition of “Character” is often more reflective of the biases of the person doing the defining than it is an objective definition. However, the Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary offers a variety of definitions, notably “the complex of mental and ethical traits marking and often individualizing a person, group, or nation.” Of note here is the absence of any etiological reference. So I’m left with memories of Sister Margaret Mary beating my six year old buttocks with a ping pong paddle while telling me she is building my character. Thank you, Sister. Your efforts have been duly noted. Should I have told her I hid handkerchiefs in my underwear before the paddling? Nah. Her efforts at shaping my character resulted only in my efforts at better concealment of my ways, a lasting trait. And that trait developed long before I was put into that school.

In the late 1940’s genes were not part of the everyday lexicon and in my case, since my father was still in Italy and I was in the U.S. no one could say I was “just like my father.” That came much later. Also little known outside academia were the “Eastern” concepts of reincarnation. When I began learning of them in the early 1960’s I recoiled in horror for by that time I was determined to never endure childhood again. One might even say my character was more defined in reaction to externals than in acceptance of them, or in some existential epiphany. Instead of feeling I had identified some internal and ongoing reality about me I was more likely to feel a “because of” reason for my character, an “anything but them” raison d’etre.

I’ve written specifically and extensively on reincarnation so I will not give that rebirth here. I will restate that decades of experience, research and deep thought support my conclusion of the reality of non-corporeal existence, with absolutely no need or logical justification for some kind of god figure. Some Asian philosophies/religions, and the New Age claptrap that arose from poor and partial understanding of those systems, propose that reincarnation is necessary to balance traits and actions of past lives and to “round out the resume” which will one day enable promotion from the cycle of rebirth. While that is internally logical, it is externally indefensible. It implicitly assumes there is some external standard against which we are measured and we must check off all the boxes before we are acceptable. Who devised this standard? And who is keeping score?

So, however much Trump’s mannerisms and behavior suggest the rebirth of Mussolini and his policies edge closer by the day to Hitler’s, we can probably rule reincarnation out as a character contributor.

The first decades of the 21st century have seen exponential growth in our understanding of human genetics. In fact, the pace of these realizations is such that what I might write today may be over written by new information tomorrow. So suffice it to say the mapping of the human genome has opened new areas for discussion of what makes us us. It is still necessary, however, to remember that few complexities such as behavioral traits would arise from a single gene. Instead, we see gene clusters. And where we see those clusters we see variation. I recently finished reading Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind in which he identifies the genetic markers which predispose us to operating either on the basis of intuition or of reason. While it is strongly supportive of an almost Determinist view of human behavior, in my opinion it does not sufficiently account for experience.

So, while my relatives continue to marvel that I am “a clone” of my father in every possible physical and behavioral way – right down to the voice, I am not my father. I have no doubt he would agree.

My childhood and young adulthood years were not pleasant. But I have met people who survived their own such years through conditions I have wondered might have done me in. At times I have waited for them to crack, not quite understanding how they could be so “normal”. Did their strength of character come from those conditions, or did they survive those conditions because they had somehow already acquired that strength of character? I just don’t know.

I think we are sometimes too quick to adopt facile conclusions. Years ago I heard that children of alcoholics grew up to be alcoholics. Then many studies seemed to support that conclusion, especially when the children were raised away from the alcoholic parent. But I’ve personally known people who showed no tendencies to alcoholism yet, by family history, should have been well on their way. How often have we been told domestic violence passes down through generations? That’s certainly the first thing a defense attorney tries to establish in mitigating guilt for his client. But again, there are many for whom that will never be the case. As William James, “Father of American Psychology”, advised us when considering these facile conclusions, “All it takes is one white crow.”

In recent years we’ve seen endless television footage of children in war zones, many from birth to the present day. We are encouraged to consider the long term effects on these children, and I certainly do. But my brother (four years my senior) and I were born in Rome, Italy before and during WWII. Despite Rome’s status as an “open city” we experienced the nightly bombings of strategic targets nearby and we lived through some very close times. Should that have affected our adult views on the military? We each, voluntarily, served in conflict zones, taking on voluntary assignments far riskier than the average soldier. He stayed in the military, and I took my developing skills into federal government life. Were we demented, or were we unfortunate victims? Was it, Crazy Johnny went to war, or Johnny came home from war crazy? Or, neither one? But lots of people did that, and they had never heard the shriek of falling bombs or saw their mothers and grandmothers cower as the buildings shook. It’s easy to presume a person with a happy childhood and no traumas of note will develop into a rather well adjusted, if not bland adult. But is that so?

As a child I tried examining my body from all angles. Using a handheld mirror I stood in the bathroom with my back to the larger wall mirror and tried to see who I was. After several incomplete attempts, and some sore muscles, I decided it’s pretty tough to know who we are.

I’ve always been drawn to ethology, the study of animal behavior. Of course, you can’t ask a non-human animal how it feels or why it does what it does. Not that you would always get accurate answers from humans.

How about you, dear reader? How did you develop “ the complex of mental and ethical traits” that enable people to say, “I know that person”?

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2 Comments
  1. Let’s try this again: After much consideration, I have come to the conclusion that character comes in three varieties. People who are of good character are honest, loyal, and trustworthy. They may be counted on to always do their best in any situation. Unfortunately, these are the people most likely to be taken advantage of by other types.

    People who possess no character at all take care of themselves first. It’s not that they set out to use or hurt other people, it just seems to turn out that way. If called on their actions, they are quick to apologize, but they don’t really mean it; they just truly don’t see any other way to act, and genuinely find nothing wrong with it.

    Persons of bad character don’t care who they hurt, so long as they come out on top. Unfortunately, they are so lacking in morals that they usually do win, one way or another. I think we all know who these people are; most of us find it best to just get and stay out of their way.

    Some people are just plain Characters! I think we all know, or are, someone in that category; I know I am.

    I couldn’t venture an opinion on whether this is more nature or nurture, being of the opinion that it is probably a little of both. In the case of drunks and abusers, it’s often children living what they learn, but it isn’t always so. Both of my grandfathers were alcoholics, but neither of my parents fell into that pattern; they same may not be said of their siblings. I’ve seen these same patterns followed by other families within my acquaintance. Both are factors, but one may certainly be more dominate than the other. Perhaps it is strength of character which makes the final call.

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  2. Thank you, Rose. I agree with your classifications, but sense a bit of favoritism toward “character” as a positive trait. Even the most vile person we can think of has a character: it’s vile.

    Yes, the genetics link is there to a degree we do not fully understand. For that reason it has become too easy for people to say “I got it from my ________”. Years ago the V.A., constantly dealing with revolving door alcohol issues, accepted the condition as a genetic illness. Then, they classified post treatment returns as “Willful misbehavior”. That was an interesting step.

    As you and I have both seen, some characters, of whatever definition, are just plain mysteries.

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