I’ve been posting on the “10 commandments” of sound character development. Experience has taught me we need to embrace the principles embodied in these commandments to become psychologically well-adjusted. The “fifth commandment” addresses perhaps the single most important of those principles. It involves subjugating our hard-wired thirst for pleasure to the great cause of life itself. To be of good character, we must become master of our appetites and aversions, our likes and dislikes. We must become master of instead of slave to what has been commonly called the “pleasure principle.”
Two Driving Forces
We have two great drives within us: 1) the pleasure-seeking drive and 2) the drive to thrive (i.e., to live and prosper). From birth, we’re primarily aligned with the pleasure-seeking drive. And the vast majority of us remain aligned with this pleasure principle for most, if not all of our lives. When we leave the comfort of the womb and are thrust out into the cold, cruel world, we’re generally not too happy. So, we actually start out in fear of life itself. That is, of course, until we get our first taste of pleasure. But once we’ve grown accustomed to savoring life’s pleasures, we live in fear of death unless our pain becomes too great.
Although we’re innately aligned with the pleasure principle, we have the power to live on a higher plane. But to do that we have to subordinate our desire to please ourselves for the good of all and, hence, for the advancement of life itself. This is the fifth “commandment” of developing good character.
Living Beyond the Pleasure Principle
No one can serve two masters. We must always subordinate one of our two main drives to the other. Pursuing pleasure for its own sake and in an unbridled way (i.e. hedonism) always leads to psychological ill-health and spiritual death. One reason for that is that our appetites can never be fully and consistently satisfied. It always takes more the next time around to make us content. But we can rise above living life merely on the pleasure principle. And for most of us, that means being truly born again in spirit (not just the words of religious zealots!). We have to refashion our lives on a different operating principle. To cherish and advance life and to put that quest above what might or might not please us: that’s the mark of genuine character.
The Dilemma of the Character-Impaired
Over the years I’ve been impressed how debased and tragic a life can be when a person has become a slave to their desires. Some character-disturbed individuals are constantly “chasing highs.” They’re forever pursuing their next turn-on. And they also refuse to be burdened or suffer in any way, especially on another’s behalf. When they encounter hardship, pain, or loss they can become angry and bitter, empty, or even depressed. After all, they tend to expect (i.e. feel “entitled” to) so much more.
We live in an age of rampant hedonism, gluttony, instant gratification, and narcissism. Excess is the norm. And there’s also little tolerance for hardship. So, it’s harder than ever for people to recognize the value of controlling their appetites, let alone commit themselves to doing so. But making the choice to live life on a very different principle from that with which we are aligned from birth is the all-important first step toward an emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually healthy existence.
A Noble Calling
We’re all called to the noble cause of nurturing life. And we’re the only creatures who can answer this call freely and voluntarily. We’re meant to survive and prosper, not to be pampered or indulged. Our ability to experience pleasure and pain is meant to help guide us through life, not govern our lives. Taking pleasure for its own sake is almost always a pathway to destruction, just as is avoiding pain and hardship at all costs. To be of good character, we must avoid greed and excess. But we must also be willing to endure certain discomforts. Unfortunately, the disturbed characters among us have failed to learn these important lessons. So they don’t achieve healthy self-mastery. And in the coming weeks, I’ll be talking more about why and how this happens as well as the problems that often result.
Thanks to all of you who contacted me about my recent TV appearance. I had reservations about doing the interview because of the program’s underlying agenda. But I did my best to speak fairly about character issues and bring them to the fore.
I’ve added some new speaking dates and venues to the workshops page, so you might want to check them out.
Character Matters will be a live broadcast this Sunday at 7 pm EDT, so I can take your phone calls.
Look for my upcoming book with Dr. Kathy Armistead, The Ten Commandments of Character: How to Lead a Significant Life at summer’s end. And be sure to avail yourself of the hundreds of timely articles on this blog and at Psychology, Philosophy and Real Life.