Character not Identity

What do you wish for? Let me hazard a guess. You wish to be happy and for all beings to be happy. You wish to have peace in your soul and peace on Earth. Am I right? If not, I wouldn’t bother reading on.

So you wish to be happy. Not just fleeting happiness, but lasting happiness. Not just a temporary satisfaction of present desire but a permanent state of satisfaction. So what is that? Obviously not euphoria, ecstasy or bliss. That would be exhausting. Even if you lived in a perfectly orchestrated pleasure palace with perfectly timed breaks between pleasures, you wouldn’t necessarily be happy.

Maybe “happiness” is the wrong word then. It’s not so much about the highs of extreme positive emotion. It’s about feeling good at a more terrestrial level, feeling comfortable in your own skin, feeling that everything is alright with the world, feeling that just being alive is enough.

It might be easier to define happiness negatively rather than positively. If you are happy, you are free of negative emotions. You are free of greed, anger and fear. If you are happy, you are free of confusion. You see the world aright.

So lasting happiness depends on the state of your soul, or the content of your character.  As the saying goes, “wherever you go, there you are”. You cannot run away from yourself. If your character is sound and strong, you will be satisfied wherever you are. If not, even the most splendid palace will be cause for complaint.

The telos of human life, the aim, goal or meaning of life, is not really “happiness”, it’s “character”. Happiness is a by-product. The claim of Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and the Stoics (and almost all religious and philosophical schools throughout human history) is that the wiser you are, and the more virtuous and mature, the happier you are, in sickness or health, prosperity or adversity. Care of the soul is primary. Everything else is secondary.

“Character” is not “identity”. Identity is a poor substitute. You could say it is a displacement of character, an impostor, a simulacrum, a devious sleight of hand of the ego. The “Wheel of Samsara” describes six archetypal identities which are in fact the principal obstacles to the true development of character. They are the main obstacles to spiritual development.

You subconsciously or consciously identify yourself as a diva, for example. You are possessed by a “Diva Spirit” and express “Diva Nature”. You have Fame, Fortune, Power and Influence. You feel entitled to your superiority complex. But you don’t necessarily have a good character and you are not necessarily happy. You are possessed by Pride and Vanity.

If you identify as a muggle, you are either a Safe Muggle (Types 1 and 2) or an Ambitious Muggle (Types 3 and 4). You are either content to stay within the confines of family or societal expectations or else you aspire to divahood and work or hussle your way up the muggle pole. You need character in order to succeed of course, but your “Muggle Nature” will still be in defined by Ignorance and Spiritual Indolence. You will see nothing beyond worldly success.

If you identify as a muppet, you identify with a particular narrative and worldview. Type 1 and you are a scientific materialist atheist and vociferously believe that everything that exists can be reduced to material processes and that anyone who thinks otherwise is a superstitious fool. But if you’re an atheist simply because you haven’t really thought about, you’re a muggle not a muppet. It’s only the evangelical, militant atheists who qualify as muppets, because their atheism is really just another form of fundamentalist religion.

Type 2 and you are a postmodernist who believes that everything ultimately reduces to relativistic mush (either “Theory” or “New Age” mush). Type 3 and you are a political revolutionary activist and believe that the world is so corrupt that it needs to be razed to the ground. Type 4 and you are a religious fundamentalist who agrees, but who hopes that God will do the razing for you. Whichever brand you are called to identify with, you are basically “ideologically possessed”. Your Muppet Nature is chiefly characterised by the twin vices of delusion and dogmatism.

If you identify as a victim, you may find your sense of identity in collective solidarity with an oppressed group. If you have an ambiguous or fluid sexuality, you may find your sense of identity (and implicit victim status) in the LGBTQI+ “community”. If you are an ethnic minority and feel that this defines you negatively, you may find it in the BAME “community”. (I use scare quotes because I don’t think they are real communities). If you are a woman and feel that you are continually oppressed by the patriarchy, you will find confirmation and solidarity by identifying yourself as a feminist. These are Type 1, 2 and 3 victims.

Please don’t take this the wrong way. I am not dismissing or denigrating the value and importance of civil rights movements, whether women’s rights, gay rights or black rights. I am just pointing out how an over-emphasis on these issues to the point of basing your identity on them, can lead to psychological problems in the form of a deep sense of victimhood. Of course you can perfectly well be gay, black or a woman (or all three!) without being a victim. “Intersectionality” argues that you are “three times a victim” if you are a black lesbian, but that is a subjective, not an objective claim. There is a world of difference between believing you are a victim (which is a psychological condition) and actually being one (which is an existential fact).

You can fight against social injustice without necessarily adopting a victim mentality or subscribing to a victim narrative. It may be that there are simply some wrongs that need to be put right. This takes courage and character, not “identity”. The victim narrative is a vicious circle. The more you identify as a victim, the more powerless and oppressed you feel, which confirms your victim status, and prevents you from taking steps to strengthen your character.

The fourth victim type is the environmentalist who identifies with possibly the biggest victim of them all, Mother Earth. We are exploiting the Earth. We are abusing the Earth. We are destroying the Earth. We are raping our Mother. We are a cancer on the planet.

Again, care for the environment is obviously not a bad thing. In fact, it is absolutely essential. There are real challenges we need to face in order to keep the balance. We need to deal with the problems of species extinction, pollution and waste and climate change. We need to keep deforestation and over-fishing in check. All this is beyond doubt and beyond dispute.

But the victim narrative is not helpful. It is both psychologically damaging (many people are now suffering from “eco-anxiety”) and even potentially environmentally damaging, since it prevents people from seeing and addressing environmental problems realistically. Reacting (and over-reacting) to problems on the basis of emotional panic can have grave unintended consequences.

In sum, all four victim types are ruled by the debilitating and distorting vices of Fear and Dejection, which are again serious impediments to spiritual progress.

If you are an addict, you are either a substance addict or a behavioural addict. Types 1 and 2 are substance addicts: food and shopping in the case of Type 1’s and drugs and alcohol for Type 2’s. Types 3 and 4 are behavioural addicts: love and sex in the case of  Type 3’s and  entertainment and information for Type 4’s. If you are a demon, you are probably a tramp (Type 1), a criminal (Type 2), an abuser (Type 3) or a killer (Type 4).

I don’t mean to judge or pigeon hole. I am just pointing out how forming an identity around any of these types can divert our attention and energy away from the true telos of human life, which is the development of character.

The Wheel of Samsara describes the endless inter-play of stories and identities we attach to. The Orthodox Cross points to the development of true character. It begins with the Mystic, which is all about forgetting and unknowing. You forget your identity, your life script and your fixed belief systems and narratives and open up a space for your essential, unalloyed humanity to shine through.

The Mystic Shaman represents a shift from the left brain hemisphere to the right hemisphere. It represents the awakening of the mind and body in unmediated, global awareness, free from the identitarian bondage of the left hemisphere. From this place of freedom (firmly rooted in the right hemisphere) the Mystic Shaman can then employ the necessary functions and qualities of the left hemisphere to strengthen and develop an all-round, healthy, balanced character.

The Warrior Monk archetype facilitates the development of virtue and the Philosopher King the development of wisdom. Both virtue and wisdom are only possible through the harmonious collaboration of the left and right brain hemispheres, but with the right as the “master” and the left as the “emissary”.

Character is not about being this or that, left-wing, right-wing, gay, straight, white, brown or black. Forget your identity. If you really want to be happy and for others to be happy, you need to be virtuous, wise and not a little holy. It’s a life’s work, but it has the advantage of making life worth living.