Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Lie of Character

The crazy old Soren Kierkegaard was on to something...

The cryptic Danish philosopher found many insights which psychoanalysts, such as Freud, later fleshed out with clinical research.

Among his many insights, was his idea that character was a sort of untruth, or a lie.

What we call our personality, or our character, is a scheme built-up since we were children to help us cope with anxieties of the world. In a sense, our personalities are a kind of armor against our existential dilemmas. They allow us to function in a world where he have no control and where the specter of death hangs over us always.

The problem is that many of us become so involved and dependent on that armor that we can no longer see past it. We live out our lives in automatic fashion, uncritical of societal pressures and markers for success and happiness. We become so immersed in the fictional games of the workaday world that we have trouble transcending those boundaries. We have trouble dealing with the idea that we will actually die... and we miss the liberating effect of accepting that truth (celebrating the meaningless of it all is, after all, our raison d'ĂȘtre.)

Kierkegaard gives us many examples and they are all familiar... The corporate types... the religious... the bureaucrats... Those bound by tradition... In other words, people everywhere who do not think for themselves and do what they do because others have done exactly the same thing before them, and because others expect them to do just those things...

Ernest Becker has a scathing line about this: "Man as confined by culture, a slave to it, who imagines that he has an identity if he pays his insurance premium, that he has control of his life if he guns his sports car or works his electric toothbrush." How many people find meaning and control in the silly trappings of modern society - in good-paying jobs, nice homes in the suburbs, cars, clothes, the praise of peers, paychecks, clean socks, church, fancy degrees, good hygiene, pets and the like?

Of course, no one is willing to admit that they are living these lies. Everyone believes they do things for good reasons. Everyone believes he or she is an individual - willful, unique, special. But the odds are you too live a lie. Very few, it seems to us, escape the lies of character. That is why so many people choose to live like so many other people.

We admit, even we do things we cannot really explain. We can only chalk it up to hard-wiring in the brain that is hard to escape.

Kierkegaard has another line which got us thinking:

"Devoid of imagination, as the Philistine always is, he lives in a certain trivial province of experience as to how things go, what is possible, what usually occurs... Philistinism tranquilizes itself in the trivial..."

How many people do what they do because it is comfortable? How many of us toe the mark of what is socially acceptable but no more?

We wonder...

Freedom is an enemy to the Philistine, because it is dangerous... because it is unpredictable.

We think the absurd man must - hard as it is to do always - to look beyond the lie of character. To really step outside of oneself and observe... To accept the unpredictable and not to limit ourselves to lines drawn arbitrarily by society. The absurd man is a free man, in many many ways...

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