The getting of wisdom is a three-stage process according to many Buddhists:
Before my Zen training I thought that rivers were rivers.
When I advanced in the training I came to see that rivers were not rivers.
Now that I have realised enlightenment, I see that rivers are rivers.
This picture of how insight develops is repeated in many wisdom traditions.
For years my friends and I were critical of any notion which claimed that "we should be good mainly because of the consequences." There were various reasons we thought this was wrong. The central one was our conviction that you should be good simply because goodness (along with truth) is a higher value. It is the most important and meaningful value that we have, and should not be subordinated to others such as for example prudence.
Another reason we were critical of such consequentialism, was our rejection of the idea that if you are a good person, then by some magic law good things will happen to you. We objected to that idea for a multitude of reasons, not least of which was the fact that, according to this belief, if bad things happen to you that is your fault. Any decent person can see the problem in that. Bad things happen to good people and it is wrong (it is terrible) to blame them for that. By way of rejecting this idea, my friends and I would insist that there are no consequences of good character, that instead it is a matter of chance whether your good actions bring good or bad consequences. We were wrong.
Of course, we were not simply wrong. Rather we had risen beyond the first error which believes that only good things happen to bad people, that God will only give them so much as they can handle, to quote the religious version of the idea. We could see that rivers are not rivers. But to remain there was also an error. An important one.
In a sense, my friends and I possessed a puritannical way of relating to value. Because we insisted on the value of goodness for its own sake, we made the mistake of thinking that goodness had no consequences. And also that this fact didn't matter.
However as I continue to experience life and reflect on it, I have come to reject that second stage as well. To illustrate what I mean, consider one of the most destructive things that people can do in ordinary life to one another: betrayal. If a person is betrayed by somebody they love, betrayed deeply enough, then their life is changed and they may never be the same again. But neither will be the person who betrayed them be the same. One way to think of this is according to the existentialist insight that you are the sum of your actions, that you create who you are through what you do. You cannot undo what you have done: this person has now been a traitor at some point, even if they do not continue to do so.
Another way of thinking about this is to say that, not only is there a physical reality which we must all contend with whether we like it or not - indeed whether we admit it or not - but there is also a human reality, whether we admit it or not. We are confronted by the complex and deep reality of what it is to be ourselves, to be human. Confronted from within as much as without. Subjectivity is nowhere near as free as we sometimes pretend (as anybody who has suffered knows). And it is here, as we make mistakes and learn, that we discover that all our actions have consequences. We resonate with all that we have done. We try to stretch reality and then it snaps back at us.
One of the most profound explorations of this idea is found in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The protagonist Raskolnikov tries to live out his nihilism - his denial of values - in order to be "authentic" according to some crude and mistaken philosophy. And so he murders a horrible old woman. If there is no such thing as human reality, include inward reality at the level of subjective experience, then perhaps we can merely narrate our lives as suits us. I can decide that I feel fine about murder. Do you and I not often hear others proclaim that everybody just sees things differently and that's all there is to it. Except that Raskolnikov finds this is not so. He becomes distraught to the point of confessional delirium. His action will not leave him alone. His experience reminds me of Freud’s observation that “When I set myself the task of bringing to light what human beings keep hidden within, I thought the task was a harder one than it really is. He that has eyes to see and ears to hear may convince himself that no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore." Raskolnikov the arrogant young intellectual thought that he knew everything and that his will was supreme within his life, but he was blind to the basics of his own being, to the human realities in which he is situated, which he cannot escape.
Like any reality, if you disregard it, you will suffer. You will discover that rocks are hard. And that conscience is painful. Or that shame is poisonous. And that the drowning of conscience and consciousness in order to avoid such things is a kind of death. Keep going and it becomes not only the death of your emotional life and sense of meaning, but also of your sanity. And at that point you can no longer see the cause of your affliction - or even that you are afflicted - so much have you blinded yourself to what you have brought upon yourself. Hence the self-righteous narcissist, who never sees the truth and who seems to walk away unscathed (much to our chagrin), pays a profound price. Behind the mask they are in hell. The bitter fruits of character indeed.
There are many reasons why people suffer. Many who suffer are innocent. But you have to look carefully and ask yourself some hard questions. Often when we suffer we are, at least in part, living out the fruits of our character, the consequences of our actions or choices about how to respond to life. These consequences are, at their deepest, immediate: your inner life changes when you betray somebody, or betray life, turning your back on goodness or truth. Conversely, a life lived in accordance with reality is not only a life that is likely to work well, it is also a state where joy and hope can exist. Other people are real. Deep values exist. There is meaning and connection on offer. It is okay to to die in the end. You experience life very differently.
To live in accordance with reality takes sacrifice, of course, and so a preparedness to struggle and even suffer. But voluntary suffering is very different to involuntary suffering. It is good to value character in terms of its fruits, because they are very real. And they can be very good. Then you will see that rivers are rivers, that material existence fits your hands, that life can work, that you can be a force for good in the lives of others, that somehow it was all worth it, and that maybe you can be deeply happy and loved. Instead of melancholia, joy; instead of fear, courage and hope; instead of resentment, gratitude and the strength of becoming your true self, able to look life, others, and yourself in the eye. The best of fruits.