We in the early 2010s live in an age of unprecedented wealth, safety, and ease. In a sense, we in the first world have it all. And yet a lot of people lack an adequate sense of purpose or meaning. They live in fear, or confusion, or boredom, or depression, or retreat into distractions or addictions. It seems that our cultural values are increasingly banal and narcissistic, a world of selfie-shots and materialism. This is the world your children will be shaped by. Many aspects of this problem are out of your control, but it is significant what you can do in your own life. In your case, things don't have to be this way - they can be much better, if you only take an active stance toward your life and grow and build yourself into the kind of person you want to be, living the kind of valuable life you want. Of course that's not always easy, given how powerfully we are shaped by our context.
So what can help us? Well, for thousands of years in Western society we have had an active tradition which has made us into better human beings, sustaining people through thick and think. Then, in the name of different kinds of progress, we threw it out, partly losing it to the hedonism of the me-generation in the 1960s, and their later “greed is good” ethos in the 1980s. This tradition is making a comeback, however, among younger generations who are starving for something truly meaningful. (And who, I suspect, will face an increasingly crisis-ridden world over the coming decades, out of which, if they are strong and wise enough, they may create a new, livable stability). What am I talking about?
The cultivation of character.
Character is not some stodgy notion, some sexless nun, stiff Englishman, or rosy-cheeked boy scout. Rather it is an age-old ideal. If you were to speak to an educated person in the 1940s they would know exactly what I am talking about, and would reference the same philosophers I refer to, such as Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics. This is philosophy at its practical best. The cultivation of character can be defined quite simply. It is:
Seeing what is best in us as human beings,
and best in you as a unique individual,
and bringing that forth and turning it into a habit, into your way of being.
Making your best potential real and definitive of you.
To understand how this happens, think about the nature of potential. If you are unfit and physically weak, then you may decide to exercise, knowing that you have fitness and strength within you as a potential. By exercising you turn your potentiality into actuality. This is how it is with character: there are greater levels of strength, wisdom, and compassion within you, as potential. A person of character develops these and other virtues as they walk through their daily life. They cultivate the virtues which their situation calls for, stepping up into their challenges. For as the ancient Greek warrior and poet Antilochus put it, "You do not rise to the occasion, rather you fall to the level of your training."
There are many benefits to cultivating your character. It gives your life more meaning: it overcomes much of that low-grade depression and anxiety which can come to permeate our lives. It gives you freedom and confidence, because you act with strength, rather than being driven by fear or addiction. It increases your self-esteem, because rather than loving yourself for who you are (which often fails), you respect yourself for what you have striven to become, and for the respect-worthy things you actually do. It also leads to flourishing, for you can now order your mind and actions and direct your life to where you want it. As psychological researchers have shown: conscientiousness is one of the leading predictors of success in life. Best of all, to possess a deep and rounded moral character means that you are a force for good in the world, a source of nourishment in the lives of those around you, regardless of what good or bad things come your way. That's a pretty wonderful thing to be.
At the core of character is love. Love of others. Love of life. And love for your own life as a gift. In some ways it is less about feeling love for others - most narcissists has such feelings in abundance - but rather enacting genuine love. This is about being, and having, and giving, the real thing, the genuine article, in a world full of falsity and appearances. Of course, let's not overstate the difference between action and feeling: character leads to a fundamental contentment.
In the West we have a profound 2500 year-old philosophical tradition which defines what character is and how to cultivate it. We can go back to Socrates and Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics, whose wisdom has sustained every generation up until the middle of the twentieth century, and which is being rediscovered at this time. Add to this the modern research and applied science of positive psychology, which studies character and flourishing through the lens of social science and shows how to cultivate it in evidence-based ways, and we have never been in a better position to develop this vital aspect of our lives. Cultivating one's character is coming into its own again. Living by deeper values - finding the grit and the heart to do so - is the new black. Perhaps this is the future. Perhaps it is the only future, if we want to survive as a species.
This notion of exercising what is best in you as a human being and as a unique individual is core to everything I do. This is why I talk so much about strengths and values in the context of creating direction and purpose. My counselling is not life-coaching for narcissists, it is help for well-intentioned people to become both happier people, and better people. There is a clear philosophy and science here to guide you if you want it, whether through professional guidance like mine, or by your own steam. Either way, to live this way, is to become the reason that people believe in the goodness of others. It is to experience contact with goodness and freedom in a world gone mad.