Emotional Health

Is Character Destiny?

Openness:

This trait features such characteristics as imagination and insight, and those high in this trait also tend to have a broad range of interests. People who are high in this trait tend to be more adventurous and creative. People low in this trait are often much more traditional and may struggle with abstract thinking.

Some of these traits are visible almost from birth: studies have shown that babies have distinct differences in whether they prefer new or familiar stimuli. Later in life, such differences can be seen in political affiliations and even such subtle behavior as whether to go to an old, favorite restaurant or try a new, adventurous one.

Other traits tend to cluster together and sometimes overlap. For example, conscientiousness tends to cluster with agreeableness, though not always. This is a trait that one usually can’t measure in young children: they have to reach a certain level of development before they become aware of social norms, others’ needs, and their role in the family and society. On the other hand, it is rare to find someone who is high in neuroticism and also agreeableness.

Temperament is a concept that reached a peak of popularity in the 1950s but has been in decline. It’s had a resurgence lately as both candidates have used this word in the current political campaign. The dictionary shows two main definitions:

Temperament:

  1. a person’s or animal’s nature, especially as it permanently affects their behavior — example: “she had an artistic temperament;”
  2. the tendency to behave angrily or emotionally — example: “he had begun to show signs of temperament.”

When using this word in reference to each other, the candidates seem to be referring to two major traits: impulse control (conscientiousness) and quickness to anger (agreeableness). Though Clinton displayed more of the former and less of the latter during the debates, one could argue that Trump might score higher on extraversion than Clinton, but she might score lower on neuroticism.

Though the word “character” can be used as a synonym for personality, it has come to be associated with the realm of values and morals over time. Greek philosopher Heraclitus, (about 535 BC – 475 BC) said, “character is destiny,” meaning your inner character shapes your destiny, not “fate.” There is also an implication that moral fiber can be learned or at least shaped. Parents used to be very concerned about “instilling character” in children, and relied upon churches and schools to be extensions of the moral universe they provided at home.

Things have changed through the years. The role that religion plays in our daily lives, for example, has diminished, certainly in contrast to the early days of the republic, founded by those seeking more freedom to worship. Religious observance, something that used to be a fundamental part of social and community lives for almost all, provided constant reinforcement of shared values. Schools and teachers were also accorded greater respect: parents often sided with them in matters of grading and discipline. This was considered an essential arena for learning and reinforcing core values.

In many of today’s schools, ambition and drive have been elevated over moral education as admission to a good college has become more competitive. Parents want to help give their kids an “edge” by providing homework help and hiring tutors. Major disputes can erupt when they feel their children are not given a grade they expect or when they are caught breaking rules. One of the functions of school historically was teaching kids that cheaters don’t succeed and that cheating is wrong. Parents welcomed this lesson but now they fear that it’s a handicap to success. Some, though not all, collude with the children’s cheating. Others argue with the school over discipline for clear infractions.

Throughout the history of child rearing, parents have relied on fables, myths, and fairy tales to help children learn valuable moral truths. In the current election season, such classics as  “The Tortoise and the Hare,” “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” “The Midas Touch,” and the myths of Narcissus and Oedipus, have been reenacted before our eyes. What is the lesson we, as Americans, should be learning from this?

Cheating on Wall Street almost sunk the world economy not so long ago, and there has been very little in the way of consequences for the perpetrators. Anger over this and other ways in which Americans feel they are not getting a fair deal are part of what’s driving the mood of the electorate. It seems now that polls are showing that women may determine the election, and with the first female candidate on the ballot and her opponent having shown himself to have a questionable history with the opposite sex, perhaps that’s as it should be. Many of us have had the experience with a boyfriend who seems attractive at first but the more you get to know him, the more he reveals himself, the worse he looks. Though most of us are tired of the long, long process of selecting a president in the United States, perhaps it’s for the best. Just as we are advised not to jump into a marriage (“marry in haste, repent at leisure,” the saying goes), choosing someone for the job of the most powerful person on earth is not easy. It’s actually an awesome responsibility, and a privilege, and the person we select will determine everyone’s destiny.

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