Who Do I Want To Be?

Recently I read or heard that until the 1930’s, most self development dealt with the development desirable character traits such as honesty, friendliness, generosity, discipline and integrity. Then the tone of this literature changed from working on one’s self to working with other types of people to meet your ends, such as what we read in Dale Carnegie’s, “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. Later, new branches of psychology emerged dealing with reading people’s actions and noticing how they moved, perhaps their facial tics, to reveal what they are really thinking and feeling. This proved to be, as poker players already knew, a great insight into the human psyche as well as an excellent sales technique. Instead of achieving success and happiness by developing positive character traits, success could also come from learning what to say and how to say it in order to soar up the ladder of success.

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For many years, this became the dominant strategy of personal success. Books that dealt with how to dress, how to speak, how to manage people, and how to get people to like you, were popular. They dealt with being the person the other person wanted you to be; ‘looking good’ on the outside, and not worrying too much about the inside. The maxim ‘Know thyself’, became ‘Know the other guy’; one achieved success in life by figuring out the other person. Initially this strategy worked well because ‘being of good character’ was part of a person’s education and upbringing. However, the rise of the ‘individual’ and ‘egocentric thinking’ has resulted less emphasis on character traits and in some people using the new psychology to manipulate and abuse people. I can be a knave with no principles but do very well in life because I understand how to get people to do what I want them to do, and give them what they want.

And while these principles of success lead to money, real estate and big toys for some, for others, all the wealth, prestige and trappings of success that were generated were hollow; a circle of paper with a flashlight shining upon it is not the moon. Many saw that they had no substance.

The substance that they were lacking is character.

I believe that if something is to ‘look’ good, it must ‘be’ good as well. Here in earthquake country, you learn the difference between looking good and being good very quickly after a tremor. The building of a ‘good’ house requires reinforced construction and exact strengthening of all its systems for a house to stand up to Richter’s logarithmic scale. A poorly built home might look good but it will only stand up to one or two shakes. Eventually it will collapse. Character development is the unseen foundation, the re-bar, the cross bracing and the engineered trusses of a soundly constructed person.

From the age of 20, Benjamin Franklin carried a small notebook with him at all times. In it he had his list of thirteen character traits or ‘virtues’ that were part of his system of character development and at the end of the day he would evaluate just how well he had done with respect to each of these traits. He has always been regarded at a model of high moral character.

Franklin was unencumbered by cell phones and emails. The amount of information in the 18th century was a small percentage of what we have available to us at the speed of light in our pocket or purse. However, we can still choose to be ‘virtuous’ or of ‘good character’ today by building a solid foundation on these same principles. I can change from the person I am now into the person I want to be, or at least into the guy my dog thinks I am.

Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.” B. Franklin

I have picked out a dozen character traits that I would like to infuse into myself: self-responsibility, self-discipline, generosity, honesty, humility, integrity, courage, compassion, resilience, open-mindedness, spiritual awareness, and gratefulness. Your list will be different I am sure. And a periodic review of my own list will probably change as well as I review my progress in these areas.

Take for example self-responsibility. I am responsible for me; my parents and family, my friends, the community or the government should not have to take care of me. That’s my job. I am responsible for the state of my health and fitness, for my continuing education, for my career, for my finances, for my relationships, my emotions, and my decisions. I remember hearing years and years ago the saying: “If it is to be it’s up to me!” There will always be people, places and things that are outside of my control. However, I control my perspective. I control what I learn. I control who I let into my life. You get the picture? I must stop pointing the finger of blame around me. It’s up to me! It’s my responsibility! Me! Mine!

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What does this do for me? It gives me options. I am an active participant in my own life and the direction that it takes. I am active in my health, learning, finances, career, emotions, and relationships. The passive lifestyle tells me “there’s nothing ‘I‘ can do; ‘he‘ has to fix it.” The active one gives me choices for changing what I can.

I don’t have to become the person of high moral character today. Like Franklin, it is something that I aspire to and I know I will have setbacks along the way. Like the child that is learning to walk, falling on my ass the first few times is part of the process. It means that I wasn’t successful this time and I can learn from my errors and work at taking that first step again. It takes time to evaluate deeply who and how you want to be in life, but I believe the effort will result in greater happiness and contentment. The examined life will result in a strong character and that’s one of my aspirations.

Changing Perspectives

Any student of the philosophy of life will eventually come across a small book of quotes called, Meditations, by the second century CE Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius. He was a strict military general who was schooled in Stoic Philosophy and reluctantly took on the mantle of imperial power. I grew up with the idea that Stoic Philosophy was of the ‘stiff upper lip’ variety: take what you get and make the best of it. Sounds like a rather dull way of life and it is no wonder that the boisterous cult of Dionysius had a much greater following. However, the Stoics, much of which we know from the writings of Aurelius, had a very down-to-earth, self-sufficient approach to life. I am enjoying Meditations as well as works of others in this vein of philosophy.

Recently I was presented with the following quote:

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Each an every day we are faced with challenges. Sometimes they are somewhat trivial, such as what to wear or where to dine. Other times we must face far more critical moments, such as the decision I recently took to help my 17 year old dog cross over the rainbow bridge. The actual moment of decision is momentary. I pick this shirt, that restaurant and that veterinary. It’s the after effects of carrying through a decision that has the power to cause me pain or distress. I might question my judgement, or wonder about what might have happened had I taken another tack. All of my pain and distress at that moment is completely internal, ricocheting around in my mind. None of my mental vacillations will change an outcome or a decision. And yet I still allow myself to be haunted by them.

Aurelius’ quote reminds me that I don’t have to let these things bother me. I have the power to let the pain and distress go and move forward. I can make the decision to stop questioning myself. I can ‘revoke’ it because it is all in my head and nowhere else. I have the power to replace my thinking with another topic. I am reminded of the saying, ‘Someday we’ll laugh about this,’ when something in life goes terribly wrong. If there is a funny side to what happened, then I don’t have to cry about it: it is within my power to laugh about it now. It takes a change in perspective. I have that much control over my life.

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Sometimes things happen that we have no control over. For example, someone cuts me off in traffic. I might lean on the horn, flip a certain finger to the driver and proceed to get extremely angry about the whole incident. I can rant on about ignorant slobs on their phones, young drivers, old drivers or other charged slurs to whomever might or might not be listening. Again, all of the distress I feel is internal. I can change my perspective. In this instance, I can remember not to take this personally. The other driver probably didn’t see me for whatever reason. This was not an attack on me. It was not done to purposely startle me. I can remember that I too have been the person who cut off another driver in traffic. Only someone who has never been behind the steering wheel has a perfect driving record. I may not be able to stop the initial response. It’s a part of the ‘flight or fright’ autonomic nervous system. However, I do have the power within me to let it go, to ‘revoke’ the power of the distress I feel.

Perhaps there was a childhood trama or other injustice that occurred to you and that you had no control over. You may choose to mourn the loss of innocence and relive the incident in all of its shocking detail over and over in your mind. But the venom in your soul won’t affect the transgressor with the slightest indigestion. Or, you may begin the process of healing by no longer resisting what happened. Accept that it happened and realize that you can diminish the present pain by realizing that it is stopping you from moving forward and growing in life. Forgiveness of others is not pardoning them; it is accepting that mistakes, sometimes extremely grave ones, were made but that you will no longer allow those mistakes to affect and distress your life. You do not have to give the power over what you feel and think to an aggressor. Take it back. Move forward.

In his book, Man’s Search For Meaning, Viktor Frankl wrote very candidly about his interment in a Nazi concentration camp. He credited his survival to an attitude that his torturers might be able to take everything away from him, denigrate and abuse him in every way possible, but they could not take away his free will. He chose to keep a positive attitude and find meaning and understanding in his desperate situation. We do not have to suffer the indignities that Frankl did in order to make the decision to take control over our own destiny.

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This is your life. You own it. You have the power to create whatever you want with it. This is the ultimate gift of free will that we receive upon our birth. We all have the power to change our view, our perspective. Playing the role of victim and powerless pawn of others is a choice; so is being the captain of your own ship and charting your own course. If you have never done this before, deciding to revoke your distress will be strange, and challenging. Start small. It’s not recommended that you change everything at once. You have time. Trust the process of your life and where you wish to sail.

Ever Forward

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We have left a year behind where we were battered and bruised on many fronts only to find that the first three weeks of 2021 haven’t been the panacea that people had hoped would end our global run of bad luck. There is a continued assault on our health that just won’t diminish despite the roll out of several vaccines against Covid 19 along with social isolation. And then we witnessed a deadly assault on a great bastion of democracy of the world. We need the wisdom of Solomon to discern what is true, what is spin and what is an outright lie from what we see, read and hear. And here, at home, three beloved pets of our Casa Nelda family have passed away in the last ten days. No, it’s not a very auspicious start to a new year by any means.

And yet, I do not despair. I know that in the cycle of life there is always balance; a tip of the scale one way is matched by something on the other side. A pendulum always swings back. There are many cycles of life ever spinning, spiraling, drawing intricate patterns on the notebooks of our lives. When we feel out of balance, in the times that challenge us and our values, we can use this time to strengthen our resolve or shift our course in order to restore the equilibrium. I have spent the last ten months looking deeply at who I am and what I believe. I have read over thirty books, followed a dozen course programs, and listened to countless podcasts and YouTube videos to create a better version of myself. I have taken to heart and soul Socrates admonition that, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

Am I perfect? Of course not. Am I satisfied with the results? Yes, though that does not mean that I am finished with myself. I now have a list of character traits that I aspire to. I also have three core values that have helped me to find purpose in my life. I am examining many of my beliefs and philosophies, challenging some, revising a few. I’m also chucking some beliefs that I are either no longer valid or never were true to begin with. Most importantly in all of this, I have come to realize the most fundamental aspect of my life: I am responsible for me; this is my life and making the most of this life is up to me, no one else.

“Ninety percent of the world’s woe comes from people not knowing themselves,
their abilities, their frailties, and even their real virtues.
Most of us go almost all the way through life as complete strangers to ourselves.”
Sydney J. Harris

I could look at my life and list countless things that have happened ‘to me’. I could blame my past, my parents, my geography, my sexuality, my race, my teachers, my partners, and my religion for feeling that I have not excelled in life, that I am not happy. I can find many excuses in so many categories for the mistakes I have made in life, the bad decision and the poor choices. But ultimately, I am responsible. Sometimes I said yes because I thought that is what other wanted me to do. Other times I gave permission to be used by others. I didn’t look before I leapt into unknown risks. Now, I have to acknowledge that I made those mistakes. I was the one who screwed up royally. Me! No one else. I am responsible. Sometimes I didn’t know better, because I didn’t do the needed research. Other times I was just lazy and allowed myself to be carried along by the flow of people, places and things. Often I didn’t make an actual decision and let happen what happened without realizing that not making a decision is really a decision in itself. In all cases, when things took me to places that were not to my liking, resulting in feelings I didn’t like, I had only one person to blame: the guy who stares back at me from the mirror.

So now the same guy is the guy who is working daily to improve himself, become a better version of himself. Yes. I am putting into practice what I am learning. I am moving my life forward. I am applying what I am learning in the courses. Like the gym membership card that so many buy in January won’t automatically confer the dream body, neither will all the self-help books, courses and videos make one iota of difference unless their suggestions are actually applied to one’s life. If I don’t make a change in my behaviour, it is guaranteed that my life will not change. And if things stay the same, I am the one who is responsible for the stagnation. However, if I do the work, then I can enjoy the fruits of those changes in my life.

This year may not have begun with the huge turn around that many hoped would miraculously happen. Changes don’t often come quickly. They plod along, step by step, day by day. When you change your course by one degree every day, in three months you are heading in a completely different direction. I can’t control the world, I can’t control other people. I can only exercise control over what I am responsible for: ME. And I am expecting great things of myself in the next twelve months!