In the current series of articles, I’ve been previewing my upcoming book with Dr. Kathy Armistead, tentatively titled: The Ten Commandments of Character: How to Build a Significant Life (see also: Nurturing Good Character: The “10 Commandments”). The book provides an in-depth examination of certain principles first advanced in my book Character Disturbance and featured in several articles (see the series of articles beginning with: Building Character: The 10 Commandments of Socialization). The “commandments” discussed in the book represent the essential life lessons that my experience has taught me must be taught, learned, embraced, mastered, and lived out for a person to forge a character of integrity.
While all the “commandments” are interrelated and work together to build character, there has to be a starting place. And in my experience it all starts with the realization while we may begin our lives thinking otherwise, it’s definitely not all about us. Here’s a (heavily edited) glimpse of what I have to say about this first commandment in our upcoming book:
The First Commandment: You Are Not the Center of the Universe – Be mindful of how you, your urges, your desires, and your behavior impact everyone and everything.
Freud was right about one thing: civilization is but a thin veneer over our baser instincts. You don’t have to scratch very deep to find the uncivilized aspects of human beings. No one is born civilized. Becoming a functional member of society is a process, one that begins well before we are even born (for more on this see the article: Socialization is a Process). And when we are born, we enter into a world that already has organized structures: families and other groups, language, ways of measuring time and space, institutions, and laws, to name a few. Our enculturation begins while we are still in the womb. Babies can hear and distinguish the sound (pitch and tenor) of their parents’ voices before they are born, and that the pitch and tonality of a newborn’s cry mimics the mother’s language. So even before we arrive on the scene, we’re already about the process of being socialized into a certain view, sound, and feel of reality. And we soon learn what behaviors are expected of us and with whom they are expected or desired. And we learn the benefits of meeting those expectations, despite our own urges and desires. As we grow, we also learn what is right and what is wrong. We learn that we shouldn’t tell lies, but that “white lies” are ok – even necessary sometimes. We learn how to talk, but that we shouldn’t say some words out loud. In short, we learn the rules of good social behavior. And the rules we learn are specific to the culture in which we are emersed.
The culture in which we’re raised shapes not only how we think but also our perceptions. And while cultures are different, they are the same in this regard: they want their children to grow up to have sound character, as they define it. And while the specific expectations and dimensions of how that may look may differ, there are commonalities—all cultures want and need respectful and responsible people. Across cultures, there are 10 general axioms that must be observed if one is to become a person of integrity and character. And the first axiom is to embrace the notion that you are not the center of the universe but rather part of something more vast, complex, and wondrous than you can even imagine. You inhabit space with other persons, creatures, and worlds, galaxies, and perhaps even other universes. Despite your innate tendency to think so, it’s definitely not all about you, so be mindful of how you impact everyone and everything else that exists. Learn to conduct yourself with both caution and concern for the impact your presence has on the rest of creation—your cosmic “foot print.”
Psychologists of various theoretical alignments have known for some time that self-centeredness (egocentrism) is an inherent characteristic of human beings from birth. Children naturally see themselves as the center of things and even view others as psychological extensions of themselves until they learn otherwise. Teaching the important lessons necessary to overcome this natural, inherent narcissism and making sure the environment supports and reinforces those lessons is a significant challenge, especially in a culture where people who glorify themselves get mounds of attention and are even held up as heroes.
I remember an incident with my grandson when he was but a toddler. He came up to me and gave me a big hug. Naturally, I melted. Within seconds, however, he also bit deeply into my arm. When he did, he just looked at me and smiled. Despite my initial shock and undoubted expression of pain, he had no real clue about the ramifications of what he had done. He knew and trusted in my love and care for him. And he meant me no harm. Nonetheless, he did bite me and it really hurt. He only meant to gratify an urge, and at the time he didn’t have a clue in the world why gratifying that urge in the way he did would not only injure others but also would be ultimately detrimental to his own social well-being. His “Papoo” (and others) would have to carefully and daily teach him that his grandfather is a person like he is and has feelings, concerns, and urges just like he does. This is the beginning of empathy (for more on nurturing empathy, see the article: Empathy and Character Disturbance – Pt 2: Nurturing Empathy). He would also have to learn that his grandfather is not just an extension of him or an “object” to simply “use” as he pleases for his own gratification (this is the beginning of mutual positive regard). Teaching these things and in the proper manner can be as difficult and challenging as learning them (especially in the case of children with certain taxing temperaments) but it’s what developing a sound conscience (the end-goal of socialization) is all about.
Sadly, the character-arrested among us never learned this important lesson, or if they were in fact taught it, they didn’t embrace it. For a long time traditional psychology paradigms insisted early childhood trauma was always at the root of a person’s later life misbehavior. The notion was: we’d all naturally turn out healthy and well-adjusted were it not for bad things happening to us and stunting our emotional growth. But while trauma can indeed negatively impact an individual’s development, some folks fail to acquire good character, simply because for one reason or another, they failed learn and internalize the crucial lessons about how to live in a social world—that is with other people. And learning to overcome our inherent egocentrism is rule number one. But it’s a complicated process. And it’s an especially challenging one at that in a social milieu in which individual worth is championed so highly that children have a hard time entertaining the notion that it’s not ultimately all about them and that other people don’t exist merely as objects of gratification to be used or even abused and possibly even discarded when they’re not longer viewed as a potential source of personal pleasure (this is precisely the phenomenon that plays out so often in troubled relationships and which I discuss at length in my latest book How Did We End Up Here?).
I’ll have more to say about the “first commandment” of sound character development in next week’s post.
This Sunday evening’s (7 pm EDT) Character Matters program will be a live broadcast, so I can take your phone calls.