Purpose and Shaping Character

Purpose and Shaping Character

Many years ago, a long-time AA member I knew introduced me to the Shit Fairy. The Shit Fairy is the little voice on my shoulder that fills my ear with shit–bullshit, horseshit, and chicken shit. If I listen to this long enough, it turns my life into shit. What I say is bullshit, what I do is horseshit, and I am a chicken shit–a coward to the bone. Everyone who knows me, knows about the piles of shit in my life. They tiptoe around them and don’t say anything, but they know they are there. I’m not going to live a shit-free life. But what I can do is turn this into fertilizer.

Encouraging mission is central to my own mission. One of my many drafts of my mission statement is “I create connection by encouraging others with my courage to do all that they can be and be all that they can do.”  When I repeat that statement to myself, I often—not always—feel that I am living with a compass that is pointing towards my own magnetic “pole.”  And when I actively encourage others to act according to their own purpose, I feel energized and complete.  All this sounds like I’m a candidate for sainthood, going to my second interview, all clean and prepared and wearing my best shirt.


Here I want to confess what is true for me—the Shit Fairy in my life that I struggle against—daily.  Hourly.  What my mission statement says about me–my ugly truth–is that at bottom I am a very selfish man. It’s all about me. I don’t give easily. I don’t give to charity, I walk by the homeless people on the street muttering a story to myself about how they are lazy addicts, and I don’t give my time away easily, even to my own kids. (That one hurts to admit). I am always keeping track of favors I give, waiting impatiently for others to pay them back. I am staunchly selfish, and I justify the selfishness easily through years of practice: I’ll do it later, I’ll give at the office, I’m already doing plenty, I can’t afford it, I’m too busy, etc. If I ever do give anything away, I expect a Nobel prize. I have shame when I speak this truth to you, that I’m basically focused just on me, and that I give up my life energy only when they pry it from my dead cold hands.

When I say my mission, I am lying. I believe that is true for every person. “I create a world of peace through giving.” Yeah, right. “I create a world of love by loving others and myself.” Yeah, sure you do. You can’t bullshit a bullshitter.

When I say my mission, I am also defining my life work. C. G. Jung, in talking about the work of psychotherapy, borrowed the alchemical phrase the opus contra naturam, the “work against nature.” My work in life is working against the given of who I am, working against my personality. I also believe that is true of every person—we must work against personality in order to develop character.

Personality is different from character, though the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. My personality is my primary emotional programming, my temperament. It is “what comes naturally.” It determines whether I tend to react to life with a pleasant smile, a sense of foreboding, a fatalistic shrug, or a defensive posture. Personality is something that is a given in a person’s life, the product of genes and environment. These are well-worn ways of understanding and responding to events. Personality seems ancient, natural, and automatic. It is a first-responder in every situation—quick and efficient. For instance, my first reaction may be to distance, or to get mad, or to empathize with others, or to tough it out alone. These first reactions seem to happen prior to thought or planning.

Character is a second responder. It is Plan B. It is not something I am born with, not something that develops naturally. It is something I must build, a moral achievement. It has a close relationship with personality or temperament, because personality is the earth from which character emerges. However, building character means that I work against my natural response to things, and choose a direction that matches my highest principles. Character is not built directly. If I set out to build character, I build ego. If I set out to build character, my primary concern is not what I do or what I am, but rather how I appear to others, or what I have to gain. I may achieve success and fame and admiration, but not character. Character is a by-product of the decisions I make in the world. It is the by-product of my battle against my personality, my primary programming.

Building character begins when my primary programming begins to run into problems. I may have detected some flaws in the primary programming long before, but generally I need to run aground, to crash and burn many times, before I really get it. Generally, the logic of a young man when Plan A has crashed and burned is this: It’s just bad luck, I’ll try it again and have better luck next time. Or: Just a small tweak in my plan will make it work. Or: If only he hadn’t gotten in my way and blocked my view, I could have made it. This blithe persistence is admirable and necessary in a young man. If I have a son, I want him to keep getting on the bike after he wrecks, to keep his chin up, to bounce back after he has lost the game, to take failure lightly. I want him to stay hopeful so that he can go beyond what he thought his limits were. But my deepest desire for him is that he learns what I may not be able to teach. I want him to learn to search within the wreckage of his life for what is really valuable, to fix what he has broken, to hear a voice within that can lead him to something richer, to start over again after he has lost what he believed he couldn’t live without. And I can’t teach him these things because I’m lost in these woods myself. And perhaps, no man can teach these things to another.

It takes several crashes of Plan A before the realization begins to form: Plan A is not working. The problem is not bad luck or other people. The problem is Plan A—my personality. The work of character-building begins on the other side of the failure, after I realize I have squandered my birthright, blown the inheritance, fucked everything up. It starts when the program has crashed, and I recognize that the flaws are not incidental, they are basic. It hits me that I must shape my life. I start to rebuild, to cobble something new together out of the ashes and debris. This is the humble, hard, day-to-day work of shaping myself as the man I want to become.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: