Small things, repeated

Although I grouse regularly that most of what I read about character is brief and unspecific when it comes to the practice of character development, I also grant that this may be as good as it gets. Perhaps most of the practices are obvious—after all, I’ve figured out a lot of them on my own—and folks only write about the few non-obvious ones. Perhaps the practices are difficult or even impossible to put into words, like the ones that guide us into driving a car well. Or perhaps they are too specific, and can only be stated regarding a particular person in a particular situation. (As a well-known horse trainer once replied when asked how he goes about training a horse, “Which horse?”)

But I grouse because I suspect, at least for some people in some situations, a well-stated bit of wisdom can be of assistance. There are anecdotes and aphorisms I relate over and over again, because for me they encapsulate a bit of wisdom that not only opened my eyes wider but gave me a hand up in tackling a shortcoming I struggled with. So far they live mostly in my mind, but some made it into posts on this blog, and I plan to put more of them down in writing, refining them to a point where they might be a bit of help to someone else.

Here’s a fresh example, though not yet refined. Richard Beck has been sharing anecdotes about the prison Bible study he leads, and this morning he tells of one inmate who regularly performs a small service for the leaders which could also benefit the inmate—and yet the inmate deliberately refrains from taking the benefit. (Please click through to read the anecdote, it’s short and well written.)

This is the sort of practice I want to hear about, not because I expect to find myself in exactly the same situation, but because it shows how an opportunity to build character can be found in a small and mundane act—provided we look, and provided we approach it as such. The same act in the same situation could go wrong in many ways, e.g. it could be used to communicate moral superiority. But done right, it is one small step towards better character. And if that small step becomes the basis of a practice—well, as Seth Godin says, “A small thing, repeated, is not a small thing.”

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5 thoughts on “Small things, repeated

  1. Two random thoughts:

    a) yesterday when you were talking about Grandin’s vs your feeling about whether kids should be pushed into a meritocracy, I found myself thinking, probably depends on the kid. After years in the classroom, I was still having the same discussions with my teaching assistants about the extent to which certain kinds of comments or grades motivated students or not (because the most time consuming part of teaching is the individual response to the student, and it’s the thing we know least about the utility of), and a TA said to me, “ah, if only I know for which students exactly the C- grade and the page of handwritten comments would be motivational, and for whom it doesn’t matter, so I could use my time more wisely …” So true.

    b) perhaps in parallel — I think we have a really poor idea of what exactly is hard for someone, and thus what constitutes character (if we assume character is the capacity to act well under duress). If I were that inmate, I’d never do that task because I’d never be able to resist having a drink myself. It’s like my relationship to Doritos — I don’t buy them because that is the extent of my willpower. If I buy them, I eat them all immediately. I think we sometimes attribute good character to people who aren’t really struggling, because (as your previous post touched upon re: vainglory) we get caught up in appearances. I find it relatively easy to go shul, because I enjoy davening, and people say, oh, you’re so good, you go so regularly, and I think, yeah, because I’d rather be doing this than any of the alternatives. It’s not that I love the good, it’s that I get something emotional out of praying. But I can’t keep my paws out of an open package of Doritos. There’s been a lot of interesting research on willpower in the last five years, but in absence of having much of it, I try more to use my limited tools to stay out of the path of temptation than I do to really change my behaviors for the better. I may not be doing anything good but at least I am avoiding doing something bad. I read somewhere recently that self-control is merely empathy with your future self and I think that is really true for me. I’d drink more if I weren’t aware that I’d feel sluggish the next morning and hate feeling that way.

  2. Servetus,

    whether kids should be pushed into a meritocracy, I found myself thinking, probably depends on the kid.

    It may be wishful thinking on my part that gifts will take care of themselves, since I’ll never know which gifts might have manifested themselves more fully in our kids if we had just pushed a little harder. But I don’t regret the total focus on character development, since they are now well equipped to live the parts of life which aren’t gift dependent.

    “ah, if only I know for which students exactly the C- grade and the page of handwritten comments would be motivational, and for whom it doesn’t matter, so I could use my time more wisely …”.

    Thanks! I’ll file this one next to “Which horse?” and “50% (or whatever) of advertising works … unfortunately, no one knows which 50%.”

    If I were that inmate, I’d never do that task because I’d never be able to resist having a drink myself.

    I think you’ve zeroed in on why it is so hard to write specifically about character practices, namely a particular action can have very different effects given the person and the situation. I’m sure the inmate had no trouble resisting the drink and wasn’t fetching it as a way of building resistance.

    He also wasn’t struggling (at least in that time and place) with the temptation to glory in his good deed—perhaps he was past that temptation, or perhaps such a struggle lies down the road for him. He was building the habit of serving selflessly. It would mean less if he hated coffee/tea. And to practice serving selflessly there’s no need to choose an action that places an additional burden on you, like resisting something you find highly tempting.

    How to write about such examples in a way that brings out the deeper objective behind a particular practice, so as to encourage others to find a practice—perhaps very different—which meets the same objective for them? I obviously don’t know yet how to do that.

  3. I think a lot of people could say something along the lines of “pick something you don’t like to do, but know you should do, briefly explore the reasons you don’t like doing it, then make a plan to help you to learn how to do it.” But even then … the problems are so complex, and there’s never only one axis of “character sustaining / not character sustaining.”

    OK, so an example of this issue in my life would be the floors. I really resent having to clean floors — in part because when I lived by myself, I did them once and they stayed clean for a long time, because I hate cleaning floors. Now I’m living with my dad and he has never been considerate of floors (and my mother never forced him to be). So really, the floor needs to be cleaned probably every day to be up to bourgeois standard. Sometimes I’ll just be finished mopping and he’ll walk across it in dirty boots and all the effort will be wasted. One might argue that he should learn more consideration, but he’s 75 and he’s not going to change.

    Even more than the cleanliness problem, there’s the whole fact that that kind of behavior turns me into a shrew. He dirties a just-cleaned floor and I want to scream. I don’t want to descend to that, though, either in behavior or in feeling. So, if I’d got the character thing down, I would just sigh and mop the floor again, I suppose, or write it off to charity and do it … in any case, I’d do it and not feel resentful about it. (at least in the Christian world). If I were a monk, I’d reason that eventually doing the mopping would make me feel less angry about the floor and possibly even happy to serve (like the inmate in the example). What I got from Judaism was, you just have to mop the floor, it doesn’t matter how you feel about it. Which is helpful, except that I can’t eliminate the feelings, which I think are the source of my character flaw.

    My solution is that I’ve hired some household help for big cleaning so that I am only doing the immediate touchup stuff — because I didn’t want my anger over the floor to impact negatively my relationship with him and a behavior he won’t change. But that’s not really a character solution on my part, either. It’s just a way to avoid my feelings.

  4. Servetus,

    Thanks for the detailed example. It has given me a lot to think about … and since most of the thinking is about how hard it is to speak both generally and helpfully in this area, I’ve been slow to reply. All I have right now are a few minor observations.

    First, I need to get clearer (and then write more clearly) on the differences between what I think of as the stoic vs. mindful approaches to character work. The stoics don’t distinguish between one’s anger and one’s response to it, they just view it as an indivisible whole that needs to be accepted, toughed out, and conquered.

    Mindfulness says that while anger itself is real and inevitable, it is also fleeting—what persists is our response to the anger, when it is nurtured, spun into a new story, or used to feed an ongoing story. However, folks normally view anger and the response as a whole. It takes some work to see them as two separate things, and some more work to detach the two in one’s mind. And once they are detached, one is then in a position to decide how to respond.

    Second, I need to be clearer that everyone must choose what specific work they do, and when—in fact, choosing is a fundamental part of the work. There are many good resources that explain the nature of the work and its potential benefits. My gripe—which may simply be against the inherent nature of things, rather than contingent deficiencies in the resources—is that there are precious few suggestions in the literature as to exactly where one might begin, and (especially) what tentative steps might be helpful in giving one a feel for the work.

    Third, I need to acknowledge that it’s an open question whether such specific suggestions are generally helpful. It may be that for most people it’s 1% knowing where to start and 99% deciding to start—once the decision is truly taken, the specifics will naturally fall into place—as Jordan Peterson says, one need only take a quick look around one’s life to see work begging to be done. It’s true that in my reading I have stumbled across many suggestions that I’ve tried and found to be extremely helpful—but that may not be true enough for others to make it worth the work of making clear that the suggestions are strictly examples meant to inspire, not a program that guarantees success to those who follow it.

    Regarding your example:

    So, if I’d got the character thing down, I would just sigh and mop the floor again, I suppose, or write it off to charity and do it … in any case, I’d do it and not feel resentful about it. (at least in the Christian world).

    This sounds like the stoic approach to me, which may be better than nurturing resentment, but is still inferior (I think!) to the mindful approach, which would be to recognize the anger, detach from it, then decide what to do about it. Which very well could be to have it out with your father! Or to see the extra work of re-mopping for what it is, without wrapping it up in a story, and deciding the best way to handle that work—just do it, as a small discipline, or have it done by someone else, or leave it undone, or ….

    None of those are intended as “you should try this …” but “you might want to think about this ….”, in hopes of gaining new insights into how to think about your own situation. But that’s all. To me it’s vital that we each do our own thinking—the work doesn’t work without that.

    Fourth, and perhaps most important, it may be that mindfulness isn’t something that can be tentatively embraced without some basic experience of it. To me one key insight is (a) emotional responses can be separated into an irreducible core, e.g. anger, and a cluster of stories spun around the core, (b) the core is inevitable but also fleeting, and (c) we can detach the core from the cluster, and choose how to respond to the core rather than responding unthinkingly. But that insight may not resonate at all with folks who haven’t done at least some initial mindfulness work.

    So anyway, I will continue to explore possibilities for writing helpfully about this stuff, and I thank you for subjecting yourself to my as-yet-unskillful efforts.

  5. This is useful. Perhaps with one final distinction — that between seeing this as a problem in character development (my first choice, and my goto response to any situation: I was raised to believe that everything has a moral valence) or just an issue in household management (which is, I think, where I ended — deciding, perhaps, not to treat this as a character issue even though I absolutely believe that my dislike of cleaning and the reasons why I dislike it constitute one).

    I think the point about mindfulness is good (this is why, for instance, if you go to couples therapy, they will tell you that if you are fighting with your partner, even over an intractable problem, one should never say “you always mess up the floor” and only “I’m angry because the floor is dirty again.” Limit the terms of the conflict to avoid developing a story that leads to an attitude of contempt). I think the concrete problem — and this is my failing, as a trained historian — is that I’m only mopping in the first place because of the narrative that put me in the house, i.e., I’m committed to a story or at least an image of current circumstances that has me in the house in the first place and makes me committed to getting the floor clean. If I separated all the narratives from this particular incident, I would be living someplace else, doing someplace else. (I’ll leave my father’s associated narratives out of it.) And the solution I have, i.e., hiring household help for something I could do because we can afford it and because preserving our relationship is more important to me at this point than negotiating about the floor is also the endpoint of a particular narrative.

    re: is imitating the attitude possible if you have no experience of the attitude? This is a frequent problem in pedagogy; e.g., one gets better at job interviews after one has had at least a few successful ones. You know what to say better after you’ve stumbled on what to say accidentally (and getting the positive reward). I think most people I know personally who turn in the direction of mindfulness have some experience of a response / reaction off the charts that shocked them into thinking, I’ve got to deal with this differently. But that may just be people I know. But they have extra incentive. I think a lot of people (and this includes me) confront character problems only when there is no way around them, and some people never encounter character problems because they can always find a way around them.

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