"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, November 9, 2017

I Had To Do It–Life’s Givens And The Impossibility Of Reform

A young man whose indiscipline, selfishness, and inconsideration were well known to his fellow students of Williams Tower, said that his attitudes and actions were givens.  He had no choice in the matter. Whether by genetic selection, lack of parental influence, or poor socialization in the lower grades, he would now and forever be so. 

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He was right, and that many decades later he had changed little if any.  Although he had gone through a number of ‘epiphanies’, attempts to revoke his self-centeredness and become more caring and compassionate, none of them had lasted more than a few months if that.  He joined men’s confessional groups, practiced a severe form of ascetic yoga, and went on spiritual retreats, returned ‘a changed man’, so enthused about his transformation and the process that led him there that he became an annoying evangelist for self-awareness and ‘becoming’.

Yet after each and every period of analysis, commitment to ‘being a better person’, and a promise to friends and family that he had left his old self behind, it returned.

In his case the developmental maxim that personality and character are formed before a child ever reaches kindergarten and that these unique configurations remain in place until death was a perfect fit.  He had been a scrappy, selfish child, unbearable adolescent, and insufferable young adult.  Despite his increasing attempts to rejigger his emotional wiring (“I need to come to closure before the end”) in his later years, the results were always the same. 

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Not surprisingly the grace period between retreats and men’s groups and a return to self became shorter as he grew older. Patience had never been his long suit – impatience had been one of his givens – and now that he was closer to the end of his life than the beginning, very close indeed, he jumped from one lane to the next in hoping for a speedier ride.

The Tower classmate is not alone, of course.  Everyone has givens, and as much as they might like to think so, they are doggedly behind every step we take.  They are impossible to shake, hardwired, permanent, and intractable.

The self-help industry realized this long ago and has made billions off sincerely repentant people who are unhappy with the way they have turned out, are convinced that change is only a matter of attitude and effort, and are willing to pay thousands to be tutored in the process.  If AA and Smokers Anonymous can work, then programs to address egotism, selfishness, and emotional ignorance ought to have the same success.

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Of course they don’t.  Addressing the psycho-social factors contributing to addiction and encouraging specific behavioral changes to address them is simple compared to reforming the very character and personality that gives human definition and individual identity meaning.  How to excise selfishness, for example, a behavioral trait which governs sexual relationships, family responsibilities, job performance and advancement, social interactions, faith, table manners, and family budgets?
How to encourage compassion in someone who has been brought to believe that only cynicism, mistrust, self-protection, and self-interest are the only ways to survive a short, brutish life?

Victory is one of Joseph Conrad’s lesser-known works, but deals with the same questions of morality, isolation, and good an evil.  Alex Heyst has been raised by a cynical father who instills in his young son the same bitter cynicism which has ruled his life. There is no point in considering goodness or compassion for they amount to nothing.  Moreover letting down one’s guard in a vain attempt to be more sharing, kind, and understanding, is tantamount to disaster.

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Heyst at first never questions his father’s advice; but because he senses weakness and lack of resolve, decides to live in the most remote parts of the world where neither good nor evil exist and choices between compassion and cynicism are irrelevant.

Of course there is no such place; and Heyst comes to a predictably tragic end.  He concludes that compassion is a given in him that his father’s cynicism is but an overlay.  Alex is a good person, and caring and compassion are not only the best expressions of a higher morality, but they can be a force for good.

Precipitously because he has never acted out of consideration before, he befriends and helps Morrison, a man he barely knows; and not long after adopts Lena, a chorus girl with a questionable past and a depressing future. 

When Jones, Ricardo, and Pedro – Conrad’s triumvirate embodiment of evil – arrive on Heyst’s island, he is caught between his father’s warnings and his new-found openness and charity.  He fails to pick up the obvious signals that these men are dangerous, malevolent, and amoral, so convinced is he that morality begins with understanding – an a priori higher value.

Heyst’s compassion is a given, and he knows it.  His fugue away from human conflict and the evil his father has represented is exactly because he is afraid of what will happen if he, a compassionate man, comes into contact or worse in conflict with evil.

Conrad’s view of life is neither compassionate nor optimistic; and his characters – Lord Jim, Heyst, and Kurtz among others – all must confront ‘The horror…the horror…’ of human existence.  All of them are tragic because of their willingness to face savagery and amorality; but none of them survive.

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Axel Heyst’s given is compassion, and in Conrad’s world he will always be overmatched.  The world is a Hobbesian nightmare. Axel’s father was right, but his son could do nothing at all about it.  His father tried to warn him not so much about the existence of evil but about the impossibility of compassionate victory.

Compassion and selfishness of course are not the only givens in character and personality.  Shy people may partly overcome their social insecurities, but there is something in them which suspects and fears a loud, aggressive world.  While they may become more forthcoming, they may never lose their innate reticence.

Indifference – a natural, logical state of remove from conviction – is another given.  While there are those born with a highly attuned sense of justice, there are others who see the world as neither just nor unjust, simply conditioned by human nature and configured by chance and random selection.  There is no way to convert the indifferent man into a committed social activist.  His innate disassociation prevents it.

Modification, smoothing the sharp edges of given behavior, is of course possible.  Husbands and wives always give in a little to keep the peace, but it is always an uneasy peace.  A wife who is innately honest and principled will never full trust or accept a man who has a more flexible view of emotional contract; but she might soften her demands.  Her husband might become less dismissive and more attentive, but he will always bridle at having to do so.

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Givens which are truly antisocial and dangerous are monitored, contained, and punished.  A naturally abusive personality can never be rejiggered to become a caring, kind one; but it can be controlled.
The trick is to know which character and personality traits are indeed givens – hardwired, immutable, and permanent – and which are simply behavioral add-ons, picked up along the way, of no particular value but convenient, attractive, and worth keeping.

It would be far better had the Williams Tower classmate eventually accepted that he is, has been, and always will an unreformed egotist; and that every given has an up and down side.  Without his supreme self-confidence he would never have become the movie mogul and corporate financier that he became.   There is no point in focusing on those he cut down along the way, left on the curb, or simply ignored. 

Now much later in life, his Axel Heyst moral conflict is taking its toll.  He has convinced himself that he has not been a good person, has ignored important social causes that would better society, has been dismissive of well-meaning friends and colleagues, and most worrisome of all, has neglected any thought of his spiritual evolution and his coming death.

Ironically it is his very egotism – his irremediable given – which is worsening his moral crisis.  He has such an overweening belief in his ability to control, to drive, and to influence anything, that solving this end-of-life conundrum should be no problem whatsoever.


Unfortunately it is most certainly the one problem that he cannot and never will solve.

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