Saturday, July 4, 2020

The Character of Character

It’s a simple easy idea that there are good people and bad people. Bad people should be locked up. Bad people should not be allowed on the police force. Police should get tough on bad people. Good people should be trusted. Good people should have opportunities to improve their circumstances.

Perhaps it is the core idea of Buddhism that this notion of good people and bad people is dangerously simplistic. Certainly there is some validity to it. But the more one looks closely, the reality is not so simple. Buddhism is known as The Middle Way for a variety of reasons, but one reason is that it can encompass a simple idea along with an understanding of the limits of that idea, ways that an idea can blind us to important details. How can we be blinded by the idea that some people are good and other people are bad?

How somebody behaves is highly situational. A person whose children are starving and whose efforts to feed them by legitimate means have been constantly frustrated, such a person might be reduced to stealing to save the lives of their children. Another person might have a very active physiology and have a hard time sitting quietly for a long time. Put in a situation where they need to sit quietly, they may not be good at following the rules. In a different situation where constant movement is required, their behavior may well be very good.

Whether a particular behavior is good or bad can be strongly dependent on the perspective of the observer. Someone strongly defending one side of a divisive issue can appear good or bad depending on which side of the issue the observer leans toward.

The behavior of a person is generally very complex. In a day or a month or a year, even in an hour, a person can perform many actions, some of which may be very good and others not so good at all. A person experiences many different situations and also what’s going through their head is always shifting. One situation could make a person angry and they carry that anger into the next situation which can open the door to rather bad behavior. A person could be a hard worker on the factory floor but then go home and abuse their family, taking out their workplace resentments and frustrations.

People do change over time. Some of that is just from getting older and slowing down. Age can bring experience and understanding. But age can also bring bitterness and frustration. There is a feedback loop where a person’s behavior leads them into situations which can then steer their behavior. For example, prisons have a reputation for converting petty criminals into hardened criminals. The possibility for such a feedback loop to lead in a positive direction is equally present.

The most potent driver of change is a conscious intention. Parents, teachers, ministers, supervisors, therapists: each of these can work to guide a person to evolve in a more positive direction. It can certainly happen too that one person works to steer another person into some negative behavior pattern, to exploit that person one way or another. To help another person improve is one of the best behaviors possible; to lead another person astray is one of the worst.

To realize that one’s own pattern of response and behavior is malleable and within one’s own power to shape, this is the essence of the Buddhist path. None of us are fixed quantities. We are each a process of constant becoming. To cherish our own positive potential, and that of everyone we meet, is the seed that yields the fruit that nourishes most deeply.

The dangerously simplistic notion of good people and bad people, that seems to be at the foundation of much of our current political strife. Can we reform society effectively by putting all the bad people in prison? Can we reform the police effectively by firing all the bad police? Certainly we need to find ways to suppress bad behavior of all sorts. A good starting point would be to work to understand what sorts of situations promote bad behavior and to keep people out of those situations. Putting violent criminals in prison and firing abusive police officers, these are reasonable and necessary actions. But those are only superficial remedies.