In the present series of articles (see also: Building Character: The “10 Commandments” of Socialization, 10 Commandments of Character Development – Part 2, 10 Commandments of Character Development – Part 3, 10 Commandments of Character Development – Part 4, and The Power of Truth – Commandment of Character Number 4), we’ve been discussing the life lessons my years of experience as a therapist have shown me must be mastered for a person to forge a solid, healthy character. In my book, Character Disturbance, I refer to these essential tasks the “1o commandments” of character development. Adequately addressing week’s topic is particularly challenging. That’s because the “commandment” we’ll be discussing involves one of the most important yet difficult to explain psychological principles there is, and presenting it in a manner that is both sufficiently explanatory and easily understandable is no small undertaking. So let me beg the readers’ indulgence in advance for the necessary oversimplifications that follow.
Within us all are two great drives: the drive to thrive (i.e. to survive and prosper) and the desire for pleasure. And, our inescapable lot, from our earliest beginnings, to be more solidly aligned from the psychological standpoint with what Sigmund Freud called the “pleasure-principle” as opposed to the life-sustaining principle. Think about it for just a minute. While there are rare exceptions (as in the cases of fetal alcohol syndrome, abuse perpetrated upon a fetus in utero, etc.) we begin our lives in a Eden-like environment, where all our needs are met without concern. We’re also “one” with our intrauterine environment and quite “unaware” (i.e., consciousness has not yet fully emerged) of almost everything around us. Then suddenly, at the end of gestation, we’re thrust into this cold, cruel world, and our first real awareness of earthly life – cast away from the safety and security of the womb – is not at all to our liking. Most of us cry and sometimes pitch quite a fit, until. perhaps, we’re warmly wrapped or coddled or nursed for the first time. We then get our first “taste” of pleasure in the relief we get from our distress. So from a psychological standpoint, you could say that we’re all born in fear of life itself until we get our first taste of pleasure. And from our first experience of getting our needs satisfied (gratified), everything begins to change for us. Moreover, if we’re fortunate enough to get consistent love and nurturing (i.e. our needs are met and our episodic distress is tended to) we experience even more pleasure. That’s when we gradually begin to like this thing we call life. We become attached to it (what we really get attached to are all the pleasures we manage to experience) and once we’re attached enough, most of us live in a degree of fear of death unless we experience too much pain. Many folks who experience unrelenting pain – even pain of a psychological as opposed to a physical nature – entertain notions of death – preferring a release from pain as opposed to a life with pain (which for most of us, seems like no “life” at all). So, as you can see, from our earliest days the “pleasure principle” has us firmly in it’s grasp.
Coming to value life itself, and subordinating our pleasure-seeking drive is one of the greatest tasks in character development. As I say in Character Disturbance with “commandment” number 5 (p. 141) It’s all about appropriately disciplining and managing our appetites as well as our likes and dislikes – something impaired characters never learn to do very well. The lesson we have to learn is pretty simple, really, just very difficult: sometimes we simply have to do what we really dislike or what causes us pain or displeasure in order to thrive in the long run; and sometimes we must really deny ourselves something that feels really good or we believe will bring us pleasure in order to have the best shot at living a long, healthy life. Let’s just take one appetite, for example: our appetite for food. There’s an old saying: some people eat to live, while others live to eat. The saying sums up the grand dilemma many with food appetite control problems face. Some foods taste really good but they’re really bad for us. And, of course, most of us are aware that we can always have too much of even a good thing (the rates of Type II Diabetes, heart disease, etc. all testify to this). Developing character is largely about subordinating our desire for pleasure and our disdain for pain for the greater cause of sustaining life itself. Doing that well involves disciplining all of our appetites (our sexual appetites, and our appetites for power, money, prestige, etc.) and tempering all of our likes and dislikes.
In addition to the many other things they might be, the most seriously character disturbed folks among us are the consummate hedonists. They’re so firmly aligned with the pleasure principle that they won’t push themselves to do anything they find distasteful even when it would be life-enhancing for them and ultimately in their best interest to do so, and they also won’t deny themselves something they take a particular pleasure in even if it’s something taking them steadily down the road of personal destruction. Disturbed characters also want their appetites and desires satisfied immediately, just as they seek immediate escape from the uncomfortable. Psychologists call this a failure to learn how to “delay gratification” of their wants and needs. In Character Disturbance, I give several examples of the kinds of destructive behaviors that result from the disturbed character’s “hedonistic thinking” and mindset. In a way, many disturbed characters are like children who never cultivated the will to bear discomfort. And for years, when I was working primarily with younger persons diagnosed with all sorts of conditions from ADHD to Conduct Disorder, it became abundantly clear how crucial it was to help these youngsters increase their willingness to endure the “torture” of attending to the mundane and boring as opposed to just pumping them with medicine to help them focus.
Solidity and integrity of character in large measure arise out of a person’s willingness to value life above all else and to put the pleasure principle in it’s proper place as the humble servant of life. True, a life with no pleasure is not much of a life at all. But a life of indulgence – geared strictly toward the avoidance of all distasteful and the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake is a reliable recipe not only for an early physical death but for a certain death of spirit as well. It’s a matter of proper balance. And people of good character have necessarily become the masters of their likes and dislikes and effective managers of their appetites. They know when to say “no” to themselves when there’s something titillating that they should probably stay away from and when to push themselves to do something even when it’s painful because it serves the greater cause of life and in the long run is helpful to their overall well-being.
One hears a lot of talk these days about all the various “addictions” people have. And while I know that genuine addictions do exist, many folks whose lives are out of control are not so much suffering from an addiction as they are from a failure to learn the important lessons of self-management – lessons that must be taught from an early age and reinforced many times over the years. In next week’s post, we’ll delve into that topic a bit deeper before moving on to the next “commandment.”