Saturday, October 07, 2006

A Question of Character: Part I

I have a secret desire. Something is stirring in the depths - a sweet, urgent wish beginning in my centre, quietly insisting its way through layers of repression and denial, and rippling outwards through my whole being.

It is something that I have been meaning to write about for some time, that I have semi-mentioned only very indirectly. That I haven't posted about so far because I have been having difficulty finding even slightly satisfactory words.

But it is not what you might be thinking. My secret desire is this: I think that I would like to be a person of character.

Now, at some level, I think this is a bit ridiculous. Surely I know better to believe in that stale old hodge-podge of half-baked Christianity, recycled moralistic clichés, oppressive expectations about selfless women, and hang-ups about being a good girl that everyone approves of. I have been through all that, and I should be over it by now.

Plus, you know, I am already a carer to my chronically ill partner and therefore in a relationship characterised mainly by poverty and chastity (although not obedience!), a semi-exhausted mummy, a public servant battling against the odds to achieve something good for the public, a woman with fertility issues thinking about whether to have a second child, and I have enough trouble just trying to add in being an effective support to my closest friend. How much more sucky do I want my life to be?

Shouldn’t I actually be loosening up a little more? Even a lot? I just read Trueself’s latest post, and my first thoughts about the question on what we would like to change in our lives were that I would like to have more money, more sex and more all-round fun. I would like to be more slender, more sexy, more glamorous, more "together" (ie better organised) and more successful. I would like to be more of a bad girl and go out and get the things that I want.

And I do not believe that there is anything wrong with wanting any those things. Why punish yourself? Life is too short. Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die. I do believe, in some sense, in those last three sentences.

And yet, I find myself becoming more and more preoccupied with this question. This question of character. Of my character.

There are words and phrases popping up into my mind at odd moments: words like duty, hard work, commitment, fidelity and staying the course. Words that I instinctively dislike. Words that have an almost irresistible mental association for me with old movies about small towns made up of contented people with decent, old fashioned values, which have probably never existed, sermons with tortuous logic and clichéd examples, and dishonest “family values” campaigns by politicians who always seem to get caught fucking around. Words that, frankly, give me a definite impulse to run away screaming in the other direction. I want to have more fun, I think. I just want to be happy.

But I am also feeling a kind of attraction to those words. The kind of attraction I might feel if I found my grandmother’s wedding dress in the attic. Its a little yellow and cracked with age, remarkably dowdy, probably way too tight, clearly made for someone other than me, and yet there is something about it that draws me in. I know that I don’t really want to be a bride, even a pretend bride, and yet I have this strangely irresistible desire to put this dress on and see how it looks.

I find that I am believing more and more in things that I have read and agreed with in the past and yet somehow forgot, or decided were all very well in principle but too hard and too constraining in real life, and put aside for something more liberating. That life, while it is often joyful and fun, is also very difficult. That happiness, my happiness, does not lie in plotting my escape from the things that are hard and lonely.

My life is difficult. It is not the most difficult life I see around me, let alone as difficult as the lives I see on the news. I definitely see other people who suffer a lot more. And yet, the degree of difficulty in my life is not about how hard things are in an objective sense. It is about the gap between what is required of me and what I feel able to do. I may be experiencing only minor league suffering. The problem is that I am a complete rookie. And yet, I recognise that there are times when you have to step up to the plate and keep swinging, anyway.

My life, effortless as it might be for other, nobler people to live, is almost too much for me. And I am thinking that, when life is this difficult, requiring reserves of selflessness I definitely do not have, even love will not necessarily get me through it. I am going to need something that is summed up by the word character.

Now, this question of what I mean by character is tricky, and I am not sharing this secret desire of mine with anyone in the outside world, not even the Big Dude. For one thing, perhaps because of my religious background, I tend to associate it with obeying rules like no sex before marriage and no affairs afterwards, or more trivial forms of abstinence like not drinking alcohol. With meeting other people's expectations about things I won’t do. Things that I probably can’t live up to and don’t even believe in for myself. Character, along these lines, is mostly about what I don’t do. Its about meeting other people's rules.

And it tends to be about expecting these same things of other people. It is an unhappy fact that an increased effort at sticking to the rules myself tends to make me more judgemental of those who don't and also more hypocritical. I wish this wasn't true, but it is. I have often noticed that the first thing that happens when I go on a diet is suddenly noticing how fat other people are and all the disgusting things they are eating. I have been thinking about character, and the first and regrettable sign of this lately is making judgemental comments about other people.

So there is something fundamentally wrong with this approach. It is deadening, for myself and for other people. The letter of the law kills, but the spirit gives life.

But what if character is actually more about what I do than what I don’t do? About meeting my own expectations rather than other people's? About loving myself, not by indulging myself and my fears and whims, or even my moral judgements, but by becoming more like I would wish to be? A person more like the people I most respect? A person more able to do the things that I never wanted to do, but that the life that I have chosen now requires me to do?

I am having so many thoughts on this topic that it is going to have to be the subject of more than one post.

*Note to self: You have the most tortuous use of metaphors I have ever heard. And your posts are always way too long. Plus, how do you expect people to comment when you post practically every day? Stop doing that!


Blogger oldbear said...

Emily, if my dear Wife was not already my soulmate, I would say you might be mine. For you have summed up a dilemna which has haunted me since puberty.

On the one hand life should be fun, for all the reasons given. Yet it is also true we NEED to care for each other and WANT to be held in esteem by somebody. Be that somebody churchy people, or punk rockers, or soldiers, or loggers, or intellectuals, or just plain folks.

I my case I am the guy who reads addictively and prays often, yet has spent 1000 times more hours in social establishments than churches. I read everything but my textbooks obsessively so I just barely scraped thru college with a 2.5 GPA. I am the first to go help someone in need, but also the first to grab 2 or 3 pints of 9 percent beer to celebrate the resolution of my friends problem!

As I age I have slowly tried to lessen the so called bad things I do and up the good things. I think you are on to something when you see action as the key. One of the saints said "preach the gospel, if aabsolutely necessary use words"(sic).

A good book called "the way we never were" exposes the myths of this idyllic past for the lie it is. As a child of mixed race, with friends who are Lesbian, goth, greaser, and hillbilly my life would have been a mere portion of what it is had I not learned to understand and accept and embrace those whose hearts are kind and whose actions show respect and concern for others rather than respect and concern for other peoples rules for society.

As I get older I beleive more in the mystical unfathomable nature of the creator that I still believe in and respect, and less in the BS rules of organized humans callng themselves religions or fellowships or faith communities.

In the end all I have of value is my adherence to actions consistent with my earnest beliefs. But only those beliefs which have been examined carefully for their noble intention topwards others and this planet, and their utility for making things better for something bigger than just me.

"he must be a gentleman of refined manners, liberal education, punctilious courtesy, and the nicest sense of personal honor" John Paul Jones.


Everyone has got to believe in something. I believe I will have another beer.

But in the end If I had to oversimplify and put it in a couple of sentences: I have settled for the reward of a good buzz a few times a month, for acting with reolution in accord with the words to a hymn called "They will know we are christians by our love"

9:26 PM  
Anonymous Rosie said...

A person of character. I know that goal, and the falling short of it. But in all your strivings and struggles you’ve forgotten the highest christen command – the Golden Rule. One should “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” (I have no idea how this is phrased in the rewritten ‘modern’ versions; only know the phrasing of my childhood. IT would seem that someone who strives to live with this as their guide would be a person of character, with both selfless love and self love.

8:07 AM  
Blogger The Visitor said...

I wonder if you've seen Mr Pregunto's blog. He poses interesting questions and brings in quite a different perspective to the questions. Reading this post of yours reminded me of his style of questioning.
Do have a look at:
If you were to create your own religion, what would it be like?
Is it possible to renounce some undesired aspect of your identity? - This is kinda related to your current post

12:00 PM  
Blogger Rob said...

"My secret desire is this: I think that I would like to be a person of character."

Without going into all the various points that you make here, Emily, just the fact that you mention it and are trying to address it to me (anyway) already means that you are "a person of character".

Besides, what do such words mean anyway as they are very subjective and vary in a multitude of meaning, as judged by the individual who makes them. So I would say simply - if you are content with yourself, if you measure up to your own standards, to your own attempts to do what is right, then no worries lady for you are then "a person of character". All we can to do is but keep trying to be as such. Agree?

3:43 AM  
Blogger FTN said...

Isn't it too bad that so many people associate things like character, virtue, and values with something NEGATIVE? It seems like those should all be positive things to strive for, even if they are rather vague concepts in the real world.

Yeah, I suppose we can blame the politicans for that.

7:13 AM  
Blogger Desmond Jones said...

This is an amazingly deep post, Emily, and I've got to say, that I'm becoming accustomed to coming across deep things on your blog. Sorry if that comes across as mere flattery, but I honestly do appreciate the way you wrestle with deep questions.

And I also think you're absolutely on the right track by focusing on what 'character' means in a positive (ie, 'do this') sense rather than a negative ('don't do this') sense. And rosie's comment on the Golden Rule is absolutely on the mark.

And, you must be reading an awful lot of American blogs to use a metaphor like "step up to the plate and keep swinging". . . ;)

8:35 AM  
Blogger Emily said...

Thank you, all.

I agree that action, what we do rather than what we don't do, may be a key issue here.

And Desmond, not so much American blogs as American TV and American movies. I guess thats the way of superpowers. Even if they don't colonise our countries, they colonise our minds. The satellite states of the Roman Empire must have felt the same. We are all Americans now :-)

3:47 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home